Sunday, November 30, 2008

Dreaming Again



Almost ten years ago Jack Dann and Janeen Webb announced that they were going to compile an anthology of Australian Speculative Fiction, called Dreaming Down-Under. It was an invitation only anthology, but I figured I had nothing to lose so I approached them with a story, which was accepted. Dreaming Down-Under went on to be reprinted in two paperback volumes and win World Best Fantasy.


Last year Jack emailed those authors who had appeared in DDU to say that they were compiling a new anthology to be called Dreaming Again and asked us to submit. I'd been at a convention room party where we got into a discussion about religion and this triggered the idea for a story I called Purgatgory. The premise was that religious fervour was a viral infection which affected brain function and only about 10% of people were immune to it. This was the story accepted for Dreaming Again.

Jack said: When Janeen Webb and I edited Dreaming Down-Under, we had no idea that it would make such and impact, and it's been exciting doing the sequel Dreaming Again, after a lapse of ten years. It's been a joy to showcase the talent we have in Australia. The reviews of Dreaming Again have been (so far!) fabulous. Good news, Dreaming Again has gone into a second printing.


Purgatory was an 'idea' story. To make this kind of story work I needed strong characters. The narrator, a research scientist is motivated not by ambition or a craving for fame, but by love. Here are the first few paragraphs.


I loved long weekends. Not because I took time off, but because it meant the rest of my team left me alone to work without interruption. Not this long weekend. This time I was going to put my future on the line to prove our antiviral worked and I was going to break the Code of Research Ethics by administering it to my partner, Nathan.

I'd come in early Saturday morning to combine the antiviral with a primitive head-cold virus that I'd synthesized, modifying it to create the perfect carrying agent for my antiviral. The head-cold was designed to strike rapidly and be highly contagious. Dating from last century, I doubted anyone would have immunity.

And I was going to infect Nathan against his will. I felt only a twinge of guilt.




And from there it gets out of her control ...

Friday, November 28, 2008

Characterisation – 2




Now that I have made a near miraculous recovery from the dreaded man-flu, I feel able to totter to the keyboard. In my last blog, I promised to develop the discussion on how to create an interesting POV character. We have given our heroes some quirks and inconsistencies to make them rounded and interesting characters.

The next most important thing is that the audience need to identify and sympathise with the characters. They must demonstrate admirable traits that readers aspire to emulate. This does not mean that heroes have to be plaster-saints, Heaven forbid. Nobody is more boring than a saint. A hero may have, should have, faults but they must not be mean, petty or bullying.

For example, consider a classic fantasy hero such as Conan the Barbarian. In one story, Conan is betrayed by a beautiful but treacherous wench and thrown into a dungeon. Naturally he escapes and returns to the wench’s flat to seek revenge. On the stairs, he bumps into her new boyfriend. Both men go for their swords and Conan casually slays the boyfriend. Then he finds the wench and punishes her by dunking her in a cess pit.

Howard depicts Conan as strong, fearless, ruthless and deadly. He kills an armed man who stands in his way without a qualm. The woman is the one who betrayed him but he uses his superior strength to humiliate her, not hurt her. Conan is a thief and a killer but he will always step between a woman and mortal danger. The little boy in all men would like to be like Conan and the vamp in all women would like to seduce him. None of us are anything like Conan but we identify with him.

Heroes need a challenge that tests them to the limit. This can be a problem if you make your heroes too powerful. Devising a plot that challenges a superman is unbelievably difficult – kryptonite anyone?

Becoming a Writer

When people ask "How long have you been writing?" I'm stumped. There are too many answers.

It happened in stages, not all at once. I did not spring forth with "WRITER" stamped on my brow.

Some of the essential ingredients (in my case):

Imagination. There was never a time when I did not make up stories. It's how I got to sleep at night when my brain was too busy. I'd tell myself a story, act it out in my mind (sometimes playing all the parts) and somewhere I'd fall asleep. I still do that, though now it's usually part of something I'm writing.

Reading. I read voraciously from an early age, and learned most of what I know about grammar and sentence structure from reading fiction, from Jane Austen to Roger Zelazny. Lots of non-fiction, too. Curiosity is very helpful for someone who needs to make up whole worlds.

Decision. Dave mentioned this in his post on Monday. There is a moment of decision which for many writers happens when one reads a book and thinks, "I can write better than this." That happened for me. I don't remember the book I was reading (it wasn't memorable), but I do remember the moment and it was indeed a turning point for me.

Technical Tools. In high school I decided to write a Star Trek novel. It was Unspeakably Bad, but it was a gift to my future, because in the process I taught myself how to type. I improved on this skill in college when I got a part-time job typing technical stuff and thereby learned to use a word processor.

Other Writers. I moved in with a writer friend who needed a roommate. She talked me into joining her critique group. I wrote a story and showed it to them. It was Unspeakably Bad, but they were kind and encouraging to me, and I started writing more stuff. The writers in this group also introduced me to other professional writers in the area, great contacts for a fledgling career.

I've had good luck with critique groups, mostly. It's extremely helpful to have knowledgeable first readers, and it's also important stay connected with one's peers in the industry. They're the support group that every writer needs at the inevitable moment when the writer must be told, "No, you're not crazy."

Education. I learned about the publishing industry. The critique group pointed me in the right direction for submitting my work to professional markets. I read books and magazines about how to get published (not so much how to write). Later on I attended professional workshops, which also focused mainly on the industry and how it works. Invaluable.

Sales. After writing and mailing out a lot of short stories, some of which were Unspeakably Bad, I began to sell a few. One was bought by a magazine editor who later became my teacher and mentor in workshops for professional writers. Another was bought by an anthology editor who asked if I had anything else he could look at, and eventually bought a novel from me, my first book sale.

Mistakes. Oh, yes, the painful part. Everyone screws up some time or another, and I've made my share of boners. You learn from them, and go on. (Maybe that editor will someday forgive me for the late-night phone call...oops!)

The Most Crucial, Super-Secret Ingredient for Becoming a Successful Writer. Anticlimactic, I know, but in the final accounting the most essential part of writing is simply writing, as much and as often as possible. I've done that for as long as I've known how. Not always with the intention of becoming published—that came later on—but always telling stories. I do it every day. Here's a great post by Barbara Bretton about the importance of writing on a regular basis.

A writer is never finished practicing and honing her craft. There's always room for improvement, and always another story to tell.

Pati Nagle

Thursday, November 27, 2008

All is not lost, grammar-wise

I love this post from Andy Borowitz. Of the many blog pieces that have gone viral, I hope everyone who love language sees this. The Palin takeoff is priceless:


In the first two weeks since the election, President-elect Barack Obama has broken with a tradition established over the past eight years through his controversial use of complete sentences, political observers say.
Millions of Americans who watched Mr. Obama's appearance on CBS's 60 Minutes on Sunday witnessed the president-elect's unorthodox verbal tic, which had Mr. Obama employing grammatically correct sentences virtually every time he opened his mouth.
But Mr. Obama's decision to use complete sentences in his public pronouncements carries with it certain risks, since after the last eight years many Americans may find his odd speaking style jarring.
According to presidential historian Davis Logsdon of the University of Minnesota, some Americans might find it "alienating" to have a president who speaks English as if it were his first language.
"Every time Obama opens his mouth, his subjects and verbs are in agreement," says Mr. Logsdon. "If he keeps it up, he is running the risk of sounding like an elitist."
The historian said that if Mr. Obama insists on using complete sentences in his speeches, the public may find itself saying, "Okay, subject, predicate, subject predicate -- we get it, stop showing off."
The president-elect's stubborn insistence on using complete sentences has already attracted a rebuke from one of his harshest critics, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.
"Talking with complete sentences there and also too talking in a way that ordinary Americans like Joe the Plumber and Tito the Builder can't really do there, I think needing to do that isn't tapping into what Americans are needing also," she said.


Andy Borowitz is a comedian and writer whose work appears in The New Yorker and The New York Times, and at his award-winning humor site, BorowitzReport.com.

And now I shall go and write a few sentences complete with subject and predicate and, one hopes, a minimum of adverbs!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

When life is too much with us







Some years ago I had an email from someone who had just met me at a con. I don’t remember what they wanted to know, but it was something very minor and I answered immediately.
Some minutes later I got back an effusive answer thanking me for taking the time out of my busy writing life to answer this email. I don’t remember the exact words, either, but it was obvious that this fan pictured me siting there, typing away furiously while my secretary... I don’t know... also typed furiously. Or perhaps booked a cruise for me. Or something. (Never having had a secretary, I’m at a loss to imagine anything for him – this is MY fantasy! – to do other than wear tight pants and bring me tea.)
The truth was that the first message had arrived after I’d dropped the kids off at school and before I did the breakfast dishes and the cat boxes. In addition to writing – which I do every day whether it needs it or not. I was going to say except Christmas, but barring illness I write on Christmas too – my schedule that day included giving the kitchen floor a really good scrubbing and finding a winter coat for my younger son who had outgrown his.
It was an odd glimpse into how the writing life differs seen from outside and from inside. (Though I must confess to some trouble imagining Terry Pratchett doing Litter Box Duty. Just as I’m sure he spent years doing it, even if he might have household help now.)
Recently I was talking to a fan who told me that this was actually good, that it enriched the writer to have a real life. It is probably true. I know it has changed me – made me grow in some way – to have the experience of raising the boys, dirty diapers and all. (Not to imply people who don’t raise children aren’t adults, but it is one of those life-altering experiences. There are others, like marrying, or taking on a challenging career or even a serious illness, or a move across country.)
However, I must confess there are days when I wake up and I wish I had one of those lives where I don’t have anything to do but write. And perhaps I have a secretary to bring me tea or coffee.
But life being what it is, and life being too much with us, I’m trying to separate my writing time from my non-writing time. Which is very hard when I work at home – a place where I also have a myriad other duties, like laundry, breakfast dishes, and severely underpetted cats. (Just ask them.)
Of course, sometimes finding yourself in the kitchen rotating the cat means that you are scared of what you’re writing. Other times it means that the cat needed rotating. (I don’t know. One of ours needs SOMETHING. He’s got into pixie sticks. He has a secret stash of them somewhere – no, seriously. Perhaps he needs valium. Or kittie detox.)
It’s all too easy to get your writing time squeezed out by "life happens" even when you’re really, really, really trying to write. Your characters can scream loudly, but they scream only in your head. Your kids, on the other hand, or even your friends going through a crisis, or your pet being ill... all of those things impose upon your in a much more immediate way.
More creative authors than I have created concrete block buildings where they lock themselves to write. It’s not going to work for me. Kids and cats will get into untold mischief if I’m not around... (Havelock likely will progress from pixie sticks to chocolate.)
So – for this week – the experiment is to try to separate writing and non writing. I’m going to try to do my news-reading and other such computer-work at another machine.
I’ll let you know how it goes. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Writers on Show

One of the scariest things that happens when you first get published is ...

No, it's not the realization that your book will be out there on the bookshop shelves, all on its own, just waiting for someone to pick it up and buy it. Although that is scary enough.

It's having to promote your books and yourself. I don't know about you, but I'm happiest pottering around the house, hiding in the backroom huddled over the computer, writing glorious fantasy adventures in my trackie daks (for those who don't know Australian slang, trackie daks are track pants).

Put a keyboard in front of me and I'm eloquent, funny even. But put me on a panel and ask me to be spontaneously funny ... that must be one of the lower levels of hell.

When I sold my first fantasy trilogy nearly 10 years ago, I was confronted with the horrible discovery that my publishers were going to launch my book by flying me to Sydney to do radio interviews, panels workshops and visit bookstores.

In desperation I joined Toastmasters where they helped me overcome my initial fear of speaking in public. But nothing can prepare you for a live radio interview via the 'phone, where you can't see the interviewer's face to pick up clues. And nothing can prepare you for that first workshop where you have to guide creative novices, drawing ideas from them. Here's a tip for appearing on panels at writers festivals and conventions. If you jam up and can't think of an answer, turn to the writer next to you and say, 'What do you think?'

I've been doing this for 8 years now and I can go onto a panel cold and think on my feet but I have tripped over those feet on occasions. One time I was telling a joke to illustrate a point, when I forgot the punch line. I could see the punchline coming and knew I'd gone blank. It was horrible. Truly cringe worthy. Luckily, no one but me remembers. And that's what you have to keep in mind. You might recall every slip you've made in public but others won't.

As long as you are genuine you'll make a connection with your audience and that's what's important.

Cheers, Rowena

Monday, November 24, 2008

Where to now, dear Henery?


So what do I write?
An amazingly high proportion of writers started at this point: (book in hand, eyes raised to heaven.) "This is a best-seller? I could write better than this."
And thus we plunge forth. Most of us take -- instead of said piece of TBAR (throw book across room) Drekk that inspired us to do better -- as a model a book which we’ve loved and would desperately like to write like the author of.

And herein lies a grim lesson to think about. The piece of Drekk almost certainly got there for a reason. The reason could be that the author is married to the publisher. Or that the editor absolutely loved it, and has pushed the boat out. As has been repeatedly proved, you can promote anything once. Send the author on tours, wine and dine booksellers, go for a vast laydown, book dumps at the counter, advertising and coverage in the media... it will be a best-seller no matter how bad it is. If the book is not actual bum-fodder, the author -- having now established a name -- will enjoy some/great subsequent success too. Of course we all know opposite extremes too. Books we’ve read and thought: why is this person NOT a multi-million selling best-seller? And we’re not always wrong either, as the example of the great Terry Pratchett illustrates perfectly. He did find a small-press publisher at IIRC 17 and sold some quite brilliant books... and was ignored for many years. I’ve read some of his original works - CARPET PEOPLE, DARK SIDE OF THE SUN, STRATA. The sheer genius of the man shines through. I guess it took 20 years to penetrate publishing, by which time most of us would have given up and gone home. There is of course a third possibility... one man’s Drekk is another man’s diamonds.


Sales numbers are rather like democracy -- a mess but better than all the alternatives available right now. Just don’t expect it to reflect reality and you won’t be disappointed. Unfortunately it is the mess that you as a new author have to deal with.

Now the standard bits of advice as to what you should write usually go "go with your heart." or "write about what you know about."

Muckin’ wonderful advice. I have a BIG wide heart, and actually I know a lot about a whole mountain of stuff. I’m sure I’m not alone.

So: dear Henery, where to from here...?
If I knew the answer, I’d use it myself. I have very strong ideas (which I am sure real stats --corrected for marketing, distribution cover etc. instead of raw figures -- would bear out.) about what readers want.

But publishers? What is going to make them buy, and what is going to make them put in money to promote the book?


A couple of things -- If you arrive with a large readership, or personal fame... and bizarrely look right and fit the profile, for certain parts of the industry...(look at literary writers).

You also have to consider what they have bought -even the book you thought was Drekk. And remember that in micro-trend sense this WAY behind the curve - about 3 years from when the idea was bought. So don’t slavishly follow the trend.

Finally here is a piece of advice I got from Misty Lackey. I paraphrase: "They always say they’re looking for something new. But what they really want is new old."
Think about it.
Dave Freer

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A snippet of WIP. Sunday is snippet day

Dave Freer posting.
Sunday is snippet day... come on all...
This is first draft, raw off the head....
_____


They walked through the enormous height of the vaulted hall as a trio of musicians played stoically above the noise, and out of a small far door. "Leads to the gaderobes," said Finn. "But there used to be a door here... Ah, just behind that planter. It’ll be locked, but I can deal with that."
He did, with a wiggle and a sharp cracking of wood. They stepped through into the passage beyond, closing the broken door behind them. The passage was a narrow one, and obviously not intened for the social butterflies out there. The one servant they met looked puzzled to see them there. Puzzled, but respectful. Certainly not about to raise a hue and cry, or even ask what they were doing here. Meb decided it must be the angle of Finn’s nose. It was enough to make her want to apologise for being there.
They walked out of the narrow passage and back onto more more plausible places for noble Alvar to be -- into a large gallery in which many portraits hung. "The rogues gallery," said Finn, with some amusement. "Look there, scrap. That is the current master of this pile. Prince Gwyndar."
Meb looked up at the cold Alvar face. "He looks like he had some bad fish for breakfast."
That Finn made laugh, as he led her off into a different passage. It was still the kind of passage that you might find nobles in -- if they were the sort of noble that actually worked in the royal establishment. It was high and well lit, but simply utilitarian. It led down. Down, down into the depth of palace. To a place that was important enough to be guarded.
"Halt!" said one of the guards.
Finn looked down the length of his nose. Meb just kept on juggling, adding a few double-throws because they were standing still.
"What is your purpose here, My lord?" asked the taller of the two guards, both of who still stood, watchfully, in front of the locked door.
"I’ve come to rob the royal treasury," said Finn, with a yawn. "What does it look like, sirrah?"
The guard blinked. "Er. No disrespect intended, my lord. But you need special permission to go into the treasury."
Finn drew a large key from a pocket. "Having the key would seem reasonable permission to me. Do you know who I am?"
The one guard stood hastily aside. But the other was made of sterner stuff. "I am sorry, my lord, I don’t."
"Well," said Finn, frostily, stepping forward and putting the key into the lock. "You’d better see that you do something about that." He waved his free hand at the guard who had stood aside. "March him off to see Commander Pencival, and ask him to explain who the new high magician is."
"Er. We can’t leave the place unguarded, Sir, " said the guard.
Finn nodded. "True. Very well. I should not be long. And I’ll need someone to carry things up to my chambers in the east tower. He can accompany me, and talk to the Commander." He jiggled the key slightly and the heavy metal-barred and studded door swung open. "Come little one," he said to Meb. "Let us go and loot the royal treasury," he said, with a toothy smile at the guards.
"We didn’t know, m’lord," said the one who had been doubtful at first. "No one ever tells us ordinary soldiers anything."
"Ah," said Finn, as he closed the door behind him. "You can’t say I didn’t. And most of it the absolute truth too. Unfortunately, people usually hear what they want hear. Come on, scrap. It’s not every day you get to loot an ancient Alvar treasure house. And I missed an important bit last time, because it wasn’t in here. But it is this time. I made sure. Now we just have to find it."

Dave Freer (from WIP -DRAGONS RING)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Apology

John has man-flu. He has taken to his bed with bottles of whisky and paracetomol to be fussed over by his womenfolk until he revives or dies. Judging by the strength of the piteous moans emanating from the bedroom, there is every chance of a recovery.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Book View Cafe

Hey, all, this is might be interesting to writers looking for new wrinkles on this crazy business.

BookViewCafe.com launched this week. Twenty-five authors are offering free or cheap online reads. There’s something new every single day at Book View Cafe.

If you have an iPhone, you can also get BookViewCafe reads free through the coming TextOnPhone function, including the full text of my sexy, funny paranormal novel, The Brass Bed.

Who’s in BookViewCafe?

Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff, Brenda Clough, Kate Daniel, Laura Anne Gilman, Christie Golden, Anne Harris, Sylvia Kelso, Ursula K. LeGuin, Rebecca Lickiss, Vonda N. McIntyre, Nancy Jane Moore, Pati Nagle, Darci Pattison, Irene Radford, Madeleine Robins, Amy Sterling, Jennifer Stevenson, Susan Wright, and Sarah Zettel.

We also blog!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Writing is rewriting

I'm addicted to rewriting. Like the great Connie Willis, who claims she rewrites grocery lists, I revise and revise and revise until the words on the page stop making sense. There's an old story about Japanese wood carvers that says they will continue to carve on a sculpture until someone takes it away from them; I've always thought deadlines serve that purpose for me.

I also read my work aloud. When a passage feels odd, or clunky, or tortured, I sit at my desk and read it out loud to myself. Usually this will expose whatever's not working--and it usually means some precious word has to go.

There's a wonderful little book by a clever man named Ken Rand, and published by Fairwood Press. It's called The 10% Solution, and it's the best handbook for rewriting I've ever found. Rand bases his system on his experience as a newspaperman, and its principles make great guidelines for self-editing.

I'm in the revision process now for my work-in-progress. Fortunately, my agent has set a deadline, because he's forcing me to be organized. Otherwise, I would be going over every page with a magnifying glass, finding that single word that's out of place, that metaphor that doesn't quite click, that simile that . . . well, you know. I'm just lucky someone will take this thing away from me before I polish it to nothing!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Milestones

I just recently turned forty six. For some reason this truly bothered me the way milestone birthdays don’t and for a while I wondered why.
I mean, I was left undisturbed by forty five, so why should forty six matter?
I think part of it is a milestone thing. Forty six sounds definitely on the downslope, the way forty five didn’t. One starts to sit down and take stock of what one has accomplished. In my case, I suspect the answer is very little.


Connie Willis once said in the dark of night, in the secret of your own soul, you know how good or how bad a writer you are. I very much hope she’s wrong, because in the dark of night – or even the light of day – what I’ve managed to do feels totally irrelevant and insignificant.

I don’t know about other writers out there. I hear that in Hollywood you’re only as good as your last project and I know in writing it is the same. But at least inside this writers’ head it’s far worse than that. You see the difference between what’s in your head and what comes out on the page, and you start wondering "Why can’t I get the big vision out that’s in my head?"

And I guess that’s the other half of what made me depressed. I have so many stories in my head, so many books struggling to come out and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to translate them into reality.
However, today is a work day, and I’ll sit down and put the words down as I must. And perhaps today I’ll manage to spin straw into gold, or at least to bring the gold in the head down into the page.
I have actually thought of several things I can do to make it easier. Changes in my work habits, changes in how I conceive of and work the books. I will go into those in other posts.
And now because life springs eternal, I shall grab some coffee and work. (Ah, the glamourous life of the writer. :) )




Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Life gets in the way of writing


Do you find life gets in the way of your writing?

It's not enough that I have six kids, shooting off in all directions to school, part time jobs and Uni but they bring home kittens. This is the latest addition to the menagerie, called Niblets. Mum's a softie. Sigh. At least kittens are fun.

I'd much rather be writing than doing the shopping, cooking or cleaning. It never stops. At least if I mow the yard, it stays mowed for a couple of weeks!

When my fantasy series came out, people used to ask me where I found the time to write. It's simple really. I love writing. Getting back to my current story, is my reward for all the cooking cleaning and kitty litter!

So much of my time is spent driving children to the train station for school or to part time jobs, that I hate driving. But, on the way back, when I'm all alone, my mind goes over story ideas, knotty plot problems and characterization flaws. If I read a newspaper, catch a glimpse of something obscure and interesting on TV, watch a movie or see something in real life, it will trigger an idea.

I was shopping one day, when someone stole something, was chased by security, ran outside into the car park, panicked and climbed a tree. I know. Bizarre. But it got me thinking. I ended up writing a story for 10-12 year olds about two boys doing dares. The trouble maker leads the younger one on, until the older one makes a fool of himself by getting caught shop lifting and climbing a tree. The younger boy realises he doesn't want to hero worship the trouble maker any more.

That was a short contemporary children's story, which took very little time to write. A fantasy book can take a year to write and run to over 100,000 words. And, when life constantly interrupts your writing, it is hard to maintain concentration on the first draft. Rewrites are easier because the scaffolding is there and you are just refining details.

To help me through first draft I set myself goals. There's the large goal of completing the book. I plan to have my latest book, 'Adrift on the Shallow Sea', ready for my critique group, ROR, to give feedback on in March of next year. And then there are the short term goals, this week I'll finish a chapter, this day I'll write a 1000 words. That's only 4 pages. No matter how many interruptions I get, I can write 4 pages. Then I have my good days when I can't write fast enough to get the story down . Those days make it all worthwhile.

So kittens aside, don't let life get in the way of doing something you love!

Cheers, Rowena

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Braes o' Killiekrankie


"If ye hae been whar I hae been..."
(The Braes of Killiekrankie. Trad. Scots song, arr. Corries)
What you are, what you have done, and of course your imagination (a part of what you are) shape your writing. Yeah. Much of writing is derivative from other writing you’ve read but... well we’re all shaped by experiences, both in the content and way we approach it. I started rock-climbing when I was eight, and it has probably colored my writing and indeed my life more than anything else. And it has many odd parallels to writing. (I daresay you could do this with a martial art or music...)

For a start - anyone CAN climb. (We’re not that far from our simian ancestors. Yours truly just less far than most of the rest of you. It’s all right. I try not to look down on you, even if I think leaving the trees was a mistake.) Physically we’re just about all of us capable of it. And that -- if you’re capable of reading -- holds true for writing.

Yet... very very few people climb cliffs, and even fewer get anywhere near the top of the sport. Actually, for a lot it stays a sport they try and move on from. Once again the parallels are clear. The reason in both cases is quite simple: If you’re going to do it well... It’s hard. Hard rock has the highest calorie-burn of any sport. At the lower edge, when you’re being top-belayed it’s moderately exciting (or terrifying) but not really challenging. But if you’re going to get anywhere it is going to take training, practice, commitment, falling, getting hurt. And at the top edge it’s more addictive than heroin. You can’t get to the top of the sport without constant work. The very top edge takes innate skill and a training regimen. At the middle to upper-middle layer you can get by on enormous natural ability or one hell of a lot of hard work. And this is true of writing too. Oh, and those who think they have innate talent and don’t have to work... are usually wrong.
So: if we all can climb (or write)... why do some people who really want to, fail? Well in both cases there are factors beyond your control. Don’t worry too much about them. If you can’t do anything about them, is there a point in fretting? Of the other obstacles... Most of those are in your mind. That doesn’t make them any less real or difficult to deal with. I’ve known a fair number of people who do brilliantly on indoor walls... And simply fail to translate that onto the exposure and unpredictability of natural rock. Part of this both with writing and climbing is a failure to focus on the proximal. Concentrate on doing the moves (writing the next page) and you can do it. At the same time you do need to look ahead (unless you are following an established line - route finding - looking from the bottom of a cliff and knowing what will go and which line to follow is very like writing). But don’t spend your time looking back.

Every climber gets asked ‘why do you do this’ (because, honestly, it is like hitting yourself in the face sometimes. So nice when you stop) and explaining it to someone who doesn’t do it is very difficult. The rewards are often intangible. (And accept this is so true of writing!) Damn few people make a living out of rock-climbing, but a lot of climbers make a life out of it.

It is dangerous and you can get hurt (or killed). You can take precautions against this... up to a point. You can stick to solid, pre-bolted routes (well worn but popular tropes?), have good gear that you know how use (grammar and a spell checker) wear a helmet (don’t read Amazon crits) and have a reliable belayer (writer friends who will catch you). But if there is a loose rock (lousy editor, bad distribution, poor cover) that decided today was the day to fall... nothing you can do will stop that. But realistically those at the top venture out of the safety zone -- not un-practised, ill-equipped and unknowing (those are idiots) -- but as a carefully calculated risk, using their skill at route finding to open new lines. It’s far more dangerous... with a far higher rate of simply failing to get off the ground, but it is there the greatest excitement and glory lie. Perhaps 5% of all climbers go into this successfully, and perhaps 1% of those gather 95% of the new routes. And if you can’t see the parallels here - you shouldn’t be writing. Occasionally fools blunder in and open something spectacular. Occasionally a climber (or writer) will come from nowhere and explode on the scene... but usually when do a closer look you find that isn’t the case, yes they ventured on new territory, but actually they did a lot of practising first, on a local crag (or mag), quietly.

Finally, climbing is a solo-team sport. It is deeply solitary and the decisions that will keep you from failure or death or injury are yours. You’re on your own up there (just as the writer is on his own) and you need to balance self-confidence, determination, and prudence. If you can’t cope with little day-to-day things, you probably won’t cope with climbing - or writing (but learning to do it can help you to cope with those day-to-day things). It is psychologically very hard, and you need to be prepared to be that. But it is also very dependent on your second - your belayer who is anchored and holds your rope to catch you. Your life is in their hands and you need to have hands you can trust, and preferably ones that have the experience to say ‘go left’ or ‘come down!’. The same is true among writers.

Because you aren’t a climber until you fall. And you will fall.
And you aren’t a writer until you’ve been rejected. And that too will happen.
(the picture BTW is my son Paddy on a sea-cliff route I opened 20 years ago)
Dave Freer

Saturday, November 15, 2008











How do you make your POV characters interesting?

One school, popular in Space Opera, does not even try. You know, huge sprawling stories set over ten volumes with seventy-three POV characters, all of whom start to blur so you have to put a glossary of who’s who at the front. These sell really well so they are a viable commercial proposition if that’s what you want to do.

But suppose that you want to focus on a couple of characters and bring them alive? OK, the easy answer is that you give them personalities. The difficulty is in the execution. One tip is that real people, the interesting ones anyway, are a mass of illogical contradictions and so are interesting fictional characters.

Take some fictional detectives. Inspector Morse likes real ales and classical music. Sherlock Holmes, the man of logic, is a dope fiend and violinist. Miss Marple is a dotty, little old lady with a ruthlessly logical criminal mind while Hercule Poirot has too many idiosyncrasies to count. Caroline Graham, who wrote the Midsomer Murders, hit upon the wonderful idea of turning all this on its head. She made the detective boringly normal – middle-aged, sane, married to same woman’s institute wife all his life, one ordinary daughter – and thus unusual in a genre of tortured policeman with bad social lives - but gave the criminals wonderful and weird eccentricities.


In short, be original.

I shall have more to say on this subject in my next blog. See you on Saturday.


John

Friday, November 14, 2008

Struggling through a literary prize winner

Yesterday our book club met to discuss our latest selection, The Gathering, which was a Man Booker Prize Winner. For the first time, the entire club hated the book, and so the discussion centered on why such a work wins awards.

Having sat on an award jury (the P.K. Dick Award), I know that sometimes the winner is a default choice. If there are five books on the short list, and half the jury loves books 2 & 3 while the other half loves books 1 & 4, Book 5 will end up being the winner. Still, in the case of this novel, that's hardly enough explanation.

I usually avoid being negative in public (as on this blog) about other authors' work, but this book confounds me. I don't think, in the speculative fiction genre, that the author would have gotten away with it. The narrative is so tortured, and the story and setting so unrelentingly dark and vicious, that there needed to be a big, big inciting incident to make it all come together. And in the end, it turned out to be just another Irish dysfunctional family story, with a case of sexual abuse at its center. The book felt like one giant cliche.

So what are the judges for literary awards looking for? Character development, check. Setting, check (I guess). Plot, no check. Inner meaning, no check. Theme? You got me. I have no idea.

Maybe I should try harder to remember that readers have diverse tastes just as listeners to music do. My husband loves progressive jazz, while I like classical music. His jazz actually grates on my nerves, and makes me want to go into another room. So I suppose there are readers out there for whom The Gathering is just their cup of tea (to use another cliche). But I suspect that more copies of this book are sold because it won the Booker than because of a buzz among readers about what a great read it is!

I need to go read some Connie Willis to cleanse my literary palate!

Nano Who?

I have an ancestor, a famous Irish nun, who was named Nano Nagle. Consequently whenever I see something about NaNoWriMo I do a double-take.

This annual writing challenge is celebrating its tenth year in 2008. My first novel came out before it started happening (oops—maybe I shouldn't admit that), so it sort of passed me by. I note that none of my fellow mad geniuses is talking about participating, and perhaps that's because they were all solidly in the professional writing routine before NaNo began. I believe they're all more experienced than me.

That's not to say that NaNo isn't worth doing. Lots, LOTS of people do it every year, and I assume most of them find it valuable.

So who does NaNo? Writers who are learning their craft, or who want to learn to write fast, or who have to write around day jobs or family and want a month of intense work, or who love the energy of attacking a goal along with hundreds (thousands!) of other writers. And, in many cases, people who've always dreamed of writing a novel, and have decided to give it a try.

Cruising the NaNo website, I found some fun stats:

- First year (1999): 21 participants, 6 "winners" (verified 50,000 words written)
- Last year (2007): 101,510 participants, 15,333 winners

Twenty-five NaNo novels have been published, and one became a NYT #1 best-seller. Not bad for a fun little challenge.

From the figures above, it looks like last year about 15% of those who set out to write 50k words in a month achieved that goal. But the other 85% are not losers. They've all written something, probably a lot. They've all made an effort to focus on writing for a month, and that's an accomplishment. They've all learned something about themselves and their abilities, and they've all had the courage to tackle what to most of them is probably a daunting goal.

I applaud the NaNo folks. I've participated in goal-oriented group writing challenges myself—with good results. It strengthened my writing and my confidence. In one type of challenge, the reward for meeting the goal was a physical trophy, a beautiful glass float (paid for in part by me, and in part by a generous mentor who sponsored the challenge). I've got a row of those beauties, and though I earned them a while ago, they still inspire me.

Why am I not doing NaNo? Well, I sort of do it all the time. I learned the lessons in other classrooms, but they're basically the same lessons.

Rule #1 is write. I have a daily minimum wordcount that I write no matter what. (This technique works for me, but not necessarily for everyone—there are sprinters out there, too.) I try not to go back and fiddle with the old stuff too much, but instead focus on writing new material until the manuscript is done. I generally have a deadline, either contractual or self-imposed, for finishing a novel.

A quote that came out of a workshop I attended, and that one of my classmates made into a sign, is "Don't think, just write." Appropriate for this kind of attack writing.

What NaNo is doing, in a way, is simulating the demands that are often made on a professional novelist. Finish this much work by this date, period. Succeed, and you get rewards, the best of which is a sense of accomplishment and knowing that you can, indeed, write 50,000 words in a month.

There's a well-known truism that anyone can write a novel. In fact, while everyone has enough command of language to enable them, theoretically, to write a novel (sigh, OK—not everyone, but a lot of people—heaven help our education system), not everyone has the determination to actually do it. Inspiration is fine and wonderful, but it's willpower that gets you to the bottom of that last page where you get to type "THE END."

So, let's see. It's about half-time for the NaNo folks. What are you all doing surfing blogs? Go write!


Pati Nagle

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Chewing Through The Restraints – Sarah A. Hoyt

There is a t-shirt I have often admired but never bought. It says "Some days, it’s hardly worth it chewing through the restraints." I have no idea what sort of market it’s aimed at – it’s in a funny t-shirt site – which is why I never bought it. (The last time I bought a t-shirt with a saying that made perfect sense for me – I do exactly what the voices in my head tell me to do – I found out that very few people who saw me in it interpreted it in the writing sense. Also, lots of them crossed the street to avoid me.)

I have, however, sent the t-shirt site to various writing friends, acquaintances and mentees, and I know for writers it has the exact same meaning it has to me – it evokes a sort of half-frightened laugh of self-recognition.

There is a poem by Reiner Kunze that I remember reading – in German! – sometime in the mid eighties. I can’t remember it properly and my German is something very much of the past, so I won’t try to quote it, but the gist of it was his explaining to his daughter what he was doing in the garage, in the middle of his work time. The end line was something like "Because of the distances between one word and the next."

I’m not a poet – at least not anymore – and words normally come easy to me. I’m not one of those writers who struggles for the right word every other sentence. Which is good. However, sometimes for me too the words acquire this unfathomable distance between them, and I find myself struggling to write the next word, the next sentence, the next page. In my case – I don’t know about other writers – what stops me is the terrible feeling that I’ve got it wrong and that I’m not doing the story justice. "Do I have to much dialogue?" "Do I have too much internal dialogue?" "Is it too heavy?" "Is it too light?" "Too much history?" "Not enough world building?" And every sentence that comes out must be scrutinized under the magnifying glass of self-doubt.

At its worst this feels like being immured in solid concrete walls and having to pass my words out into the world through a chinch between two concrete blocks that allows no more than a strip of paper such as would fit in a fortune cookie. At other times – and this is by no means one of those worst times – it is as though I have to write page after page, very fast, before I catch up with myself.

Better writers than I have come up with cunning means of slipping around the restraints so they can write. When I started writing, back in the stone age of typewriters, writing books often advised you to do things like write your first draft on colored paper, because then you know it’s not the "real" one. Others advised leaving a page, started, on the typewriter so that you didn’t face the empty paper in the morning.

Better writers than I have succumbed to blunter and more harmful methods – alcohol. Drugs – and methods that would never do anything for me, because I’m not put together that way – transcendental meditation. Hypnosis.

So why am I thinking of this now? Because it’s one of those weird times where, through synchronicity, both I and two of the people I mentor are involved in projects that scare us. They’re all completely different, mind you, but they’re all things I’ve never tried before.
It’s funny, because looking at their work, I can tell that they’re both doing some of the best stuff I’ve seen them do. It’s clear, it flows, it has a very strong voice. And then I look at my project and... It’s fluff. It’s such fluffy fluff I’m not sure there’s a "there" there. Characters engage in endless dialogue over stupid things.

Yeah, in a way it’s what I signed up to do. But I’m used to my novels being more controlled and layered. Perhaps that’s a mistake, who knows?

Of course I got sick in the middle of this project. I’m not the sort that believes you bring every one of your physical illnesses upon yourself, but I’m starting to suspect that getting sick is my way of stopping myself cold when I get too terrified. Who knows? The restraints are cunning enough for that.

Which I suppose means I must be more cunning – I must now get back to work and hope it will be worth it chewing through the restraints.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Changing Face of Children's Publishing


Rowena here.

My first book published was a children's book, selected from the slush pile by an editor from Scholastic. At that point I didn't even know there was a difference between Trade and Educational children's books.

This is the cover of my latest book, the third in The Lost Shimmaron series. About 4 years ago my writing group, ROR, was at a retreat (hiding out from our families, critiquing our manuscripts), when I suggested we come up with a shared world series.

Over a bottle of wine, in front of an open fire, we devised a great premise for the series. One that gave us plenty of freedom to write in the genres of horror, science fiction and fantasy. And one that had an over-reaching story arc that would be satisfying for the reader, while having closure in each book. A pretty tall order.

In between these two books I've had nearly 3o children's books published, mostly Educational, meaning, they were nice little stories, often genre. One of my top sellers was a humorous fantasy story about a baby-sitter who discovers the four children she has to mind are witches. (How do you discipline a naughty little withchling?) These were the kind of stories that went into the class room in in boxed sets and the children read their way through them as their reading skills improved. I can remember the sort of stories I had to read as a child. Very worthy and not much fun. I'd like to think I made some kids happy to read.

I like writing for children. Having 6 kids of my own I'm always seeing funny things that would make a good story. I used to get about 3 letters or emails from the Educational Publishers each year, asking for submissions. They'd let me know the target age group, word length and range of topics. One story was about involuntary muscle reactions, a bully and a clever girl who gets the best of him. It was fun writing kids' stories, knowing I might submit several and was pretty sure to sell one.

But in the last few years things have changed. I hardly ever hear from the Educational Publishers now. My theory is that the proliferation of free resources on the internet has made it tougher for Educational Publishers to survive, which in makes it harder for us Educational writers.

Luckily, I also write for adults, although I hesitate to say I write adult books!

Cheers, Rowena.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Inspiration: from a spark to a damp squid


Dave Freer posting: For some of us ideas come easy. Execution is hard (especially for the executee).

For the less brilliant of us, it’s all bloody hard. Look, if you’re all inspiration and no follow-through you’re never going to write anything. But all the hard work in the world can end up as turgid and meaningless as yet another crank-the-handle book without those moments of ‘gotcha’ WOW sparkly lights and YES!!!

I wish I knew how to turn that on at will. Because it has to happen... at least once a book for me. When I simply can’t get the words out fast enough, when the pieces of the puzzle FIT, when the words are just right.
But when I stick... I stick. I have various tricks for unsticking like jumping ahead, reading back. But sometimes that’s futile. It’s my mind telling me the story needs that ‘whoopee’ moment. And unless I find that, it won’t work. You see... I am a synthesist (or a lumper). I have this sort of anti-computer in my head that takes apparently unrelated pieces of apparent garbage... and for no logical reason sticks bits together, making them fit -- possibly making them into real garbage rather than just apparent garbage.
And every now and again it says ‘does not fit. Out of cheese error.’ Occasionally ‘redo from start’

I’ve learned to listen, because the end result otherwise is pointless meaningless crap. Moreover, it’s crap that I hate.
Redo from start requires little explanation.
Does not fit... usually means I need more background. Need to remix. I have the SOME of the stimulus pinned down (in a display case. Odd name for a butterfly, but that is scientists for you. Naming odd butterflies that flap their wings and cause hurricanes of ideas... and get long pins stuck through them) to make it happen for me. Firstly I need read up my background sources, and then to clear the decks and focus hard (desk stripped of books to the wood) . E-mail and Internet disconnected. Distractions (bills) and emotional upsets need to be dealt with. Take a brisk walk. Climb something. Catch a fish. And I need to do no other writing (or reading). Not jump ahead or work on something else. I’ll swear there is something alcoholic about books because I seem to need good ingredients (albeit sometimes unlikely ones) to ferment a bit.
It can be terrifying when you hit these, especially with deadline looming.
So far the spark has always lit up a Loligo vulgaris for me. Maybe one day I’ll get a Archituethis dux or even a Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni...
Now... I’m selling calamari. If only I could find more people who liked it.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

I've got writer's block

I really could not imagine what I would right about today. I am exhausted, fresh out of ideas, brain dead, utterly Palined. Then I remembered the best advice David Drake ever gave me about writing. If you want to be a writer then write. No really. Get something down on paper (or I should say hard drive these days. Write! You may think your words are drivel but get it down. Then edit and improve. I have heard so many people say that they have an idea, that they have a book in them. Ideas are cheap. Ideas are worthless. You have nothing until you sit down and write. Then suddenly you have a blog!

Don’t think about writing – WRITE!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Small World by Laura Resnick


Welcome to our newest additions to the Mad Genius Club (Writers Division): Pati Nagle and Jennifer Stevenson! Jennifer will be blogging on alternate Sundays. (And I gather that on the other Sundays, we'll have naked dancing boys. Or possibly just guest-bloggers if we can't book the dancers.)

And Pati and I will be sharing this slot, i.e. each of us will blog alternate Fridays from now on. It took me only two Fridays in a row as a Mad Genius to realize I couldn't possibly do this every Friday.

I owe books to three publishers, I owe short stories, I owe a monthly opinion column, I owe a master's thesis, I have my own website, I blog monthly on Ninc.com's blog (which blog Pati and I helped create), I'm still president of Novelists, Inc., I travel a few times a year to do public speaking, and—oh, yeah, I almost forgot--I actually have a personal life, too (which also includes traveling).
So I can't also blog weekly here. I'm not Super Woman. (I'm not even Adequate Woman. I am Befuddled And Overwhelmed Woman.) But rather than drop out, I asked Sarah Hoyt a.k.a. She Who Must Be Obeyed, if I could share my Fridays with someone who also can't participate every week. Enter, La Nagle!

I know Jennifer Stevenson from an sf/f e-list that I founded a few years back, and which she joined. I subsequently turned over ownership of the e-list to someone else and left, after belatedly remembering that I can't stand writers. Jennifer and I finally met in person when we were both at the same mass-signing for authors at an RWA National conference in Dallas. I don't really remember anything, though, after Jennifer told me that there was a margarita in her travel mug. I instantly became obsessed with also getting a margarita and don't recall anything else we discussed that day.
I think that the same sf/f writers e-list may also be where I originally know Pati from... but I know Pati from so many places that memory fades. I also know Pati because we were signed with the same publishing house for a while, and working with the same editor for a while. Pati's former literary agent represents a friend of mine, and I've known Jennifer's former literary agent (which agents are not the same agent) for years. I myself am way ahead of these two writers, as I have four former literary agents. (As much as I can't stand writers, it turns out I can stand agents even less.) But I digress. I know Jennifer's current editor, and Jennifer and Pati are currently at the same house, though I can't remember if they have the same editor. One of my current editors at another house used to work at the house where Pati and Jennifer currently are, and my dad was under contract at that house for a while (where his editor was the ex-spouse of an editor who acquired some of my old reprints for another house).

I also know Pati and Jennifer from Novelists, Inc. (Ninc), which I'll blog about next time. I'm the 2008 president of Ninc. Pati Nagle is co-chair of the website committee and therefore in co-command of Ninc.com, the organization's website (which we have recently launched after a massive redesign, restructure, and update of the old site, so go check it out). Jennifer is a member of Ninc, though I don't think I've yet got around to roping her into any volunteer duties there. (But, again, memory fades. I've wrestled so many people to the ground in Ninc, their names and faces have become a blur by now.)


Sarah a.k.a. Queen Of The Mad Genius Club is also a member of Novelists, Inc. But that's not where I know her from. I think I originally know Sarah from another sf/f writer e-list, which was founded years ago by Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. But I know Sarah from sooooo many places, I'm not really sure. I also know Sarah from the sf/f writers e-list which I founded and then abandoned. I know Sarah's former agents and her current one. I know several of her editors. She and I have a number of mutual friends (and probably a number of mutual enemies). I know her from Colorado Springs, where I've spoken a couple of times (and where I am returning to speak again, in April/09), and where she and her esteemed spouse have taken me site-seeing. I know her from the short fiction anthology she edited and was kind enough to invite me into, Something Magic This Way Comes. I've also been in a couple of anthologies that her talented and handsome husband, whose taste and judgment are above reproach, invited me into: Fate Fantastic and Better Off Undead. And I know her from the various late-night emails we exchange.


Writing is kind of a small world, as you may have gathered.


And now, thanks to Sarah, I've also made contact with the other Mad Genius clubbers: Dave Freer, Louise Marley, Rowena Cory Daniells, and John Lambshead!
Laura Resnick www.LauraResnick.com

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Choosing a direction

I have always been, for better or worse, a writer in diverse genres. My first trilogy was science fantasy. My next four books were social science fiction (my first choice, somewhat out of favor with the buying public these days). Next came a young adult science fantasy in the world of my first trilogy. My next three books were pure fantasy, the Toby Bishop Horsemistress Saga. My story collection, Absalom's Mother, followed. Now I've turned in what I suppose could be called a dark historical. And I have to decide what's next.

This variety of genres might seem like a good thing, but it has its problems. The biggest issue, of course, is marketing. Will readers follow me as I tread these various paths? Some do. But readers, and book buyers, famously want "more of the same". My first trilogy, The Singers of Nevya, had a solid following among people who like musical fantasy. They were delighted when Singer in the Snow appeared. My tragedy, The Terrorists of Irustan, had a following, too, and made a nice ripple in the publishing pond when it came out. But it's a unique story, and can't be followed by anything similar.

So here I am with this checkered publishing past, and I don't know . . . fantasy? SF? (No. Not selling today.) Another musical, historical book? Oh, I do hope so. But as a working writer, this decision has to be made with practical considerations in mind. I do need to get paid!

All input properly appreciated and processed, my friends!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Wednesday Update

Sarah is still fighting the creeping crud, so she won't be posting today. But she said to tell everyone she'll be back with another blog entry next week.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Tropical Fantasy Vs Medieval Fantasy


Rowena here.

Actually, this is where I am, on a sandy beach under a summer sky.

I'm writing a fantasy called 'Adrift on the Shallow Sea'. And this is one of the desk-tops I'm using on my computer to inspire me.

The book is a step away from the usual medieval fantasy. Mind you, I grew up in sub-tropical Australia which is a long way from England and its history.

I saw snow once, when I was 11. It was cold and wet and I didn't like it.

I grew up swimming in the surf, going out on our boat, fishing, wandering over sand-dune islands and chasing soldier crabs across pristine beaches as the sun came up. I have no trouble imagining what it is like to dive for food, or fight the current to get to shore. I know what it feels like to get dumped by a wave and stung by a blue-bottle (jelly fish).

So I've set my new fantasy series on the back of a giant turtle (nod to Terry Pratchett). The turtle is roughly the size of Australia and it swims in a figure eight from one pole to the other, across the equator. This is what gives the inhabitants of the Shallow Sea their seasons. It may sound idyllic but the Shallow Sea is a cruel place. There are very few islands so the people fight for a toe-hold, boat-nomads raid floating trade-isles, and the sea is filled with wondrous beasties. The world and its privations shape the people and their society.

I've been coming back to the Shallow Sea for several years, selling short stories set on it. So the world and its societies have grown organically.

Will people want to read a fantasy about a world where Sea-monkeys raid floating gardens and Penitents travel on paddle steamers to venerate Lord Turtle, where spring storm surges flood palaces and Denizens live on boats, never to set foot on dry land? I don't know.

But it doesn't matter because I'm having fun writing it. The people, their problems and their world fascinate me. I'm hoping readers will find it fascinating too.

Back to the Shallow Sea for me. :->

Cheers, Rowena

Stealthed Elephants

Dave Freer posting: I am really good at bad timing. I have a absolute gift for it. There’s a fortune to made there somewhere. Want a sunshiny wedding? Get me to desperately need rain. Want to make sure money out of currency speculation? I can arrange things -Just let me need to pay a bill offshore and the currency will weaken, or get paid and have to bring money in and it will strengthen. The universe in its perverse desire to put me in my place organised the financial crisis (and the immediate tightening of belts) on the day that SLOW TRAIN came out. It’s a sort of gift I suppose, otherwise I’d have to admit what a loser I was. It was purely up to me to cause US Elections and no-one reading the blog too.

This is a 'no politics' zone -- but considering the proximity of US elections and the heated passions it has stirred, I’m going semi-break the rule and talk about what effect politics has on publishing and writing here in South Africa. If you choose to see parallels to your local situation... that’s what I do. Make you think and let you make up your own mind.

South African Publishing was once a real thing, trying to sell books locals wanted to read. It was a small but reasonably successful beastie back in the pre-1960 era, and only peripherally political, publishing local books that interested the available audience (whom, owing to history and politics, were largely from the white middle class) local farming/frontier/historical oddities - naturally (as they had to make a living) designed to appeal to that audience. There were of course occasional books that pushed the boundary - but 99% of volume and 85% of titles fitted the market. It was quite a diverse little market, but if a book was sold it was intended to make money by attracting readers.

Along came apartheid and the politicisation of everything - including publishing. Publishing became as divided as the country. The establishment press made good money off school texts. Hence they could not afford to offend the political masters, and the fiction they brought out by-in-large reflected this. It meant fiction - especially in English (which was more liberal than Afrikaans, the language of the ruling party) - had to please two masters (the public and government) and as the latter was more important, it sold less and less fiction. On the other hand, the ‘struggle’ press got offshore-funding to publish anti-apartheid slanted books, which were frequently banned and they never sold school texts (making them even more reliant those funders and the appropriate books.) The market was very small, but it was not that important to actually sell books.

By the time 1994 rolled in and the end of apartheid arrived with more of a whimper than a crash, the sales of non-texts were in a bad state. Non-fiction glossies and reference still sold but the rest was toast. So was the funding for ‘struggle’ publishing. To survive it was school text books or die. As you can imagine the establishment press lost no time at all trying to ingratiate itself with the new paymaster, to employ people with the right credentials . The struggle press used its ‘cred’ but was often just too inept or small. Fiction (or anything else not intended as a school text - a biography) had to be pleasing to the new political masters. Unfortunately there was just one problem there. We have roughly the same population as the UK... but owing to our historical political legacy few readers - about 55% of those are English speaking middle class... and mostly white. Another 40% are Afrikaans middle class... and mostly white. Not the core constituency of the now ruling political party, whom it was essential to please.
After 14 years of a steadily collapsing education system, the READING section of population has largely just aged, with the two main groups losing a few percent to the new black middle class which has I am glad to say, grown a lot. Sadly their reading hasn’t much, and mostly it is in English. Local publishing is still heavily influenced by the need to show they’re in line with the political powers that be. Local fiction is almost inevitably anti-apartheid themed and rotten with angst and misery about the evil whiteys (the ones who started the equal rights movement and supported it are, like, invisible). There’s usually more political diatribe than story. It goes down really well with its potential local audience, nearly as well as say a German novel sold in Germany in 1955, telling Germans what evil Jew-murdering SOBS they all are, how their way of life is rotten, their culture stinks and how miserable they should all be about this, would have gone down. You can argue about the truth and rightness of the message: but the point is that most of the audience weren’t buying a message. They were buying entertainment. The segment of the audience that bought message _bought_, of course. Praised the books to the skies. Courageous, deep, meaningful, etc etc. And... surprise, surprise: Sales were amazingly crap. 5000 copies was runaway best-seller.

That was the status quo. That was accepted and the way it would stay.

Then, a couple of years ago, along came a roman รก clef about one of our local private schools. The book was not without its political correctness, and was not exactly a tour de force of writing. It was readable, quite funny and touching in spots. But... it was not centrally themed about the evils of apartheid. Angst was minimal and setting and characters was such that the middle class English speaking white South African (still the largest group of readers in SA) liked and identified with. It sold IIRC 70 000 copies here.

The publishers called the writer a literary phenomenon, etc. etc. I believe it didn’t exactly shatter the international market. The concept that they and local writers need to pander to readers perceptions seems to be a bridge too far... And it appears we're back to buying courageous, deep, meaningful message. Right now we've a new political party starting out, which will (given the history of African Liberation politics) probably take power after a nasty, bitter struggle. The supporters of the current rulers will by then have benefited by patronage, be the middle class and buying books... and their tastes and interests will be considered unclean by publishers trying to assure the new overlords that really, now they're loyal, and hastily employing new cred... Politics is like that, no matter how permanent you may wish it to be.
Despite the desputable sense of humor, I am a very intense guy, with a deep rooted sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, and of course, elephants. I spend a disproportionate amount of my time furious about what I perceive as the wrongs of certain situations (not to mention the elephants). I get really passionate about some of these issues. Obviously that creeps into my writing. But I put an enormous amount of effort into making sure that readers get what they principally bought the book for... which wasn’t message. I don’t believe the proportion of buyers who buy for message is any larger in the US... or Australia, or the UK or Uzbekistan, than it is in South Africa. If you want to sell a lot of books... maybe you have stealth that ‘message’ with a great story.


Hell, maybe if you want a lot of people to READ the message, you’d better stealth it too.

And the elephants.

You want know what a stealthed elephant looks like?

Look around.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Basic writing tools

Many years ago, I was fond of the work of a highly successful fantasy author. He was successful not just because he told a good story but because he wrote supremely well. However, he once ventured an opinion that knowledge of grammar and spelling was irrelevant to the writer’s craft. If memory serves, he offered the metaphor that one didn’t need to be an engineer to drive a car. The metaphor is true enough as a stand –alone statement but is it apt?

The idea that grammar is for fuddy-duddies has taken root at all levels in society. I used to supervise science PhD students with first class honours degrees from elite universities. Some of them were illiterate. Recently, an English academic professed the view that he was fed up correcting his student’s English and drew the conclusion that we should ignore bad grammar and spelling even in ‘arts’ degrees, such as English literature.

But is it true? Can an illiterate write stories?

Actually, the car metaphor was quite apt but close examination shows that we should interpret it differently. You don’t need an engineering degree to drive a car and you don’t need to be especially literate yourself to read and enjoy a book but you had better have access to some decent engineers if you want to design and manufacture a car.

I bought a forty pound SF book recently. The graphics were stunning but the accompanying text was so appalling that I could not bear to read it. You have to have some nodding acquaintance with the tools before you can master any craft. Writing is no different in my opinion.

John