It’s A Small World After All: Audience & Reach In The E-book Age

by Brian on July 10, 2012

in Craft

[Cross-post with Storytellers Unplugged]

We forget the length of our reach sometimes.

We underestimate the universality of our experience — of the truth as we know and tell it — and the potential for others to tap into it.

And the more we remember the potential of stories to leap cultural chasms in a single bound, the closer we are to being writers not just for a region, for a particular demographic, for our country of residence or for the fellow native-born speakers of our tongue, but for the world.

It Came From Mumbai

I got an inquiry about optioning the film rights to one of my novels the other day. It happens sometimes. Never like this, though. Until now, the farthest afield these inquiries have ever come from is Canada. And Canada, to me, feels pretty much like the U.S., just with a lot more hockey and things with antlers.

This time the inquiry, about my crime novel Mad Dogs, came from a writer-director in the Indian film industry.

Not Indian as in Native American. Indian as in 12 time zones between Mumbai and the Rocky Mountains. Literally on the other side of the world.

One paragraph into the e-mail, my initial thought was that, okay, this is someone from a thriving foreign film industry — you’ve probably heard the term Bollywood — looking to expand into the U.S. market. Which I based on nothing other than intimate knowledge of the book in question:

Mad Dogs follows not quite two weeks in the life of a struggling actor who gets mistaken for the real-life fugitive he’s recently portrayed on an America’s Most Wanted-style TV show. A mistake like that isn’t going to hold up for long, but it sets into motion multiple chains of dominos that, once they’ve started falling, can’t be stopped. Including the actor and his situation suddenly becoming a Hollywood hot property, a status which is better served by his continuing to remain a fugitive in his own right. Then there’s the matter of the real criminal deciding that he has to meet this guy who’s just played him on TV…

It’s harsh and comic and violent and satirical, and, because I wrote the thing, I can state with 100% certainty that it was written as an allergic reaction to what I considered to be uniquely American cultural craziness.

But hardly uniquely American in the view of the man from Bollywood:

“I see great potential in it to be adapted into a ‘Hindi’ language film. Great characters and plot, very suitable to the Indian milieu and context, as the celebrity culture and the so-called associated subculture is just about bursting at its seams here.”

…And This Floored Me

I’ve never been to India. My image of it has been shaped by such personalities as Gandhi and Mother Teresa, and its longtime status as a destination for seekers of enlightenment. My closest direct contact with India has been the occasional customer service call routed to Bangalore, speaking with someone whose accent leads me to suspect he/she was not, at birth, named Suzy or Steve … so no, they’re not fooling me, but because they’re so polite, so unfailingly earnest and guileless, and so committed to a positive outcome, I excuse this tiny falsehood and want to believe them anyway.

Plus I really like the food.

Contrast this with the kind of can’t-be-bothered stateside help who, if you dare walk in and ask for assistance, look at you like you’ve just chundered on their shoes, and want nothing more than for you to leave so they can resume parsing the complexities of Jersey Shore.

So … India. I know they have nukes, and the long, ugly legacy of the caste system. It still didn’t seem like the kind of place where Mad Dogs could happen.

Now, if I hadn’t had the blinders screwed so tightly to my head, I’d’ve already recognized that modern Indian society has ample capacity to be every bit as epically vapid and shallow as ours can be.

Just a couple weeks ago, via BBC News, I saw an article on the Indian trend of vaginal bleaching. I wish I were making this up. If you believe the commercial — and when would a commercial ever lie? — beautiful Indian women are being shunned by their mates until they, quite literally, lighten up.

Whether or not men this thick-headed should even risk passing their genes down to the next generation is another matter, but there’s probably a cool story in that, too.

Think Globally, Act Locally

To boil it down: What we have here is a situation in which a writer-director in Mumbai downloads one of my novels in e-book format, reads it on his Kindle, and despite its thoroughly American DNA, feels it has a significant resonance in his own world. And feels strongly that there’s a large audience who will resonate along with it.

I have no idea, of course, where this will lead, if anywhere. But I do know it couldn’t have happened even 5 years ago, when Mad Dogs was first published in hardback. Not like this. Not with this kind of rapidity, nor this kind of fluidity, in which borders and distance mean nothing.

Yet there’s something timeless going on here, as well. It’s a testament to the power of story, its ability to transcend surface differences and cut deeper, to the heart of shared experience and the bridge of unexpected parallels.

With story in hand, your reach can be longer than you think.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to engineer a thing like this. It happens if and when it happens. But there are a few things to remember and apply when trying to extend the length of your own reach.

You already have a home field advantage. If you’re reading this, odds are that you write in English. This is a huge advantage. English is the world’s dominant language, the language of international business, finance, and technology. And it’s only going to continue to spread, through all levels of global society.

Write as deeply from the heart as you can. Beyond the words, even, emotion is the true universal language. Content and context may differ, but our joys, sorrows, and yearnings … everybody speaks these. Very often, the things that seem most personal end up being the most widely relatable. Bullets and black comedy aside, Mad Dogs was as heartfelt as anything I’ve ever written, replete with overarching themes of brotherhood, betrayal, family strife, and the hunger for success.

Study Joseph Campbell and his legacy. If you don’t know Campbell’s work, suffice to say he spent a lifetime immersed in world mythology and identifying the core elements that universally connect to the human psyche. For a look at how this feeds into modern storytelling, check out The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler. This book takes Campbell’s classic, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, extracts the core elements that underlie countless myths and fables from around the world and throughout the human timeline, and shows how they work together to form a kind of master storyteller’s template that nevertheless remains endlessly malleable.

Study Shakespeare. If ever there was a writer for all time, William Shakespeare has to be the one. There’s a good reason his plays can so readily be adapted to and reimagined for periods and places far beyond their origins: The depth and breadth of his understanding of the human heart is unsurpassed.

With story in hand, your reach is longer than you think.

And so, it must follow, is your grasp.

[Photo by dullhunk]

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

David Lee Ingersoll July 10, 2012 at 9:53 am

I can see Mad Dogs working really well as a Bollywood film. Even with the inevitable musical numbers. Maybe, especially with the musical numbers.

What I find impressive is that this gentlemen actually contacted you about optioning the book. I’ve heard so many stories about producers who just steal the stories and hope nobody notices.

Good luck. I’d watch the movie. Even without subtitles.

Brian July 10, 2012 at 10:11 am

Yeah, that erupting-into-song thing has made me imagine some awfully comical scenarios. Like, would the musical numbers go better before the shoot-outs and sword mayhem, or after? Or during?

Lee Thompson July 10, 2012 at 2:04 pm

Best of luck with wherever it goes, Brian!
I read The Power of Mytho several times. My buddy said there was a long show on PBS that I forgot about and now want to watch (though I think the book I had was basically that shows transcript.)

Brian July 10, 2012 at 5:14 pm

That’s right. The PBS show was a 6-hour or so condensation of 20-odd hours of filming between Campbell and Bill Moyers in the mid-1980s, not long before Campbell’s death. The book was a transcription that followed the show’s format whenever possible.

Anne O'Connell (@annethewriter) July 11, 2012 at 7:54 am

Hi Brian,
What a terrific sentiment. Let’s all unscrew the blinders and have a 360 look around. Love it! I thought I had already purchased Mad Dogs but a quick review of my Kindle library shows I haven’t. Off to get it now so I can say to my friends from India, “I read that book,” when the movie comes out.
Happy writing,

Tahlia Newland July 11, 2012 at 4:21 pm

I love this news. Bollywood is such a phenomena. It’s amazing how these changes in technology affect the way we think too. With my Ya book ‘You Can’t Shatter Me,’ I know I have people in France and the UK who want to buy it, as well as a large internet following in the US and then there are the people here in Australia who will want it too, so I have to be careful to get a publisher who will or can publish it in all areas. Since it’s too short & different for the big publishers to consider, it was one of the reasons why I decided to go Indie with this one, with the POD distribution via Lightening Source, I could be sure that it will be available worldwide.

Brian July 12, 2012 at 8:37 am

@Anne: Unfortunately, we Yanks have a notorious reputation for not looking very far past our coasts and borders, or even thinking that much lies beyond them. But I try. And soooo glad to hear that you corrected that grievous oversight on your Kindle. ;-)

@Tahlia: Yeah, I too like the possibilities of formal digital distribution. In the past, sometimes, I’d have people from someplace like, say, Eastern Europe e-mail and ask, “Where can I get X-title? Where can I find Y-title?” About all I could do was export a Word doc as a PDF and e-mail it to them. “How much do you want for it?” “Oh, just PayPal me whatever you feel like.”

As for India, I just consulted on option particulars with a friend in L.A. She’s done some producing and really knows contracts. After the niggly bits, her summation: “India is EXPLODING with film right now. There is A TON OF MONEY there so it would be good for you.” OK, I wouldn’t mind getting in the way of some of that…

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