Monday, August 31, 2009


Well from time-to-time on this site we've talked about e-publishing as an alternative channel to the present set up. So: because this is very important to me, and because this is typical monkey fashion - talk ain't enough, we need to start doing... go and have a look

Which is a Miller and Lee style e-publishing venture.

SAVE THE DRAGONS is my own first venture into alternate publishing via a desperate need to fund my beasties stay in quarantine on their way to join us in Australia. (They are a responsibility I take seriously. But the cost is astronomical, and even with us selling up here we just can't afford it. They were always part of our moving equation, but the exchange rate, low house prices and the huge cost of keeping them in quarantine is just crippling.) But, well, I love my animals and being me I must at least try. We don't know if we can raise - even with what we have - enough for the project (about R150 000 - for quarantine for 7 and flights for 7... and then a month in Australia). The move pretty much means starting again from nothing, and we may have to do this in stages if we can. But I'm not known for giving up easily. I'm not much good at straight begging so I am selling what I can for them. Please go and have a look, and if you have suggestions for how we could enhance this or do better I'd be grateful.

I'd be grateful too if you mentioned it on your blogs.

Of course I'd be delighted if you decided to buy into it.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

What I Wished I'd Known Before Writing My First Novel

I came across this topic Friday while reading some of the writing blogs I follow. What started as a single blog post seems to have become sort of a mini-MEME. It started over at the Creative Penn. Joanna Penn blogged about what she wishes she'd known before writing her first book. Then Alexis Grant, at Aspiring Author, picked up the theme and blogged about what she wished she'd known. Her post has a slightly different spin than Ms. Penn's because Ms. Grant is writing her memoirs instead of a novel. The next to take up the issue was J. Timothy King at be the story.

As I followed the links, I started me thinking -- Kate, quit snickering. I KNOW it's dangerous when I think. But what can I say? It happens sometimes. -- Anyway, I started thinking about what I wished I'd known before writing my first novel.

As a point of clarification, I don't mean any of those so-called books I've written that have been forever banished under my bed or in the far corner of my closet. Nor does it mean any of those that became the fodder for bonfires before Sarah started threatening to hurt me if I didn't quit playing with fire. I'm still not sure if she meant burning those pages I most certainly would not want someone finding and reading if anything ever happened to me or just telling her I'd done so. Hmmm. Maybe it's the latter and I can finish burning the rest of those pages....

Oh, sorry, back to the point. What I wished I'd known before writing my first novel, in this case, Nocturnal Origins:
  1. How important it is to have a core group of readers who will tell you the truth about your baby and be supportive at the same time. Critique groups are wonderful, as are first readers. But so often they tend to simply say the book is good or bad without specifics. I've been fortunate enough to have several people, writers all, who have taken the time to mentor me and help me through the process, pointing out where I needed to change or fix something, without ever making me feel like I was an idiot for wanting to be a writer.
  2. It can be as hard, sometimes even harder, to find an agent than it is a publisher. The corallary to this is that you don't have to have an agent to find a pubisher. It just takes more research and hard work.
  3. Research is not limited to what you need to make your novel believable. It also extends to where you are going to try to sell the book, marketing trends, etc. In other words, a writer has to be much more than a writer.
  4. Don't expect to hear from everyone you send a query/pages to. This is especially true with agents. More and more of them now say in their guidelines that they only respond if they are interested. I should probably understand that but, well, I don't. In this day and age of email, it doesn't take much to send a form rejection if you don't like something or if you feel it isn't right for your agency.
  5. How hard it is to turn loose of your baby and send it off. It's like sending your child off to that first day of school. You've lived with the novel for weeks or months -- or more -- and now you're sending it off into the world without you.
  6. You have to have a thick skin. No matter how much you prepare yourself for that first rejection -- or the tenth or the one hundredth -- it's never easy to hear that someone doesn't love your novel as much as you do. If you take the rejection too close to heart, it becomes harder and harder to write. Me, well, I think all those rejections make a nice conversation peice, especially when applied to the walls like wall paper ;-p
  7. Patience truly is a virtue in this business. It takes time to research for a book. Time to write it. Time to edit it and, most of all, time to hear back after you've sent it off.
So, to steal from Ms. Penn, as a writer, what do you wish you'd known before starting your first writing project?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Happy to be sad

I am English but I write primarily for Americans. This has various consequences but one is that there is a major difference in the attitude to fictional entertainment.

I first noticed it many years ago when we started to get American soaps such as Dallas and Dysentery. British soaps are about poor people and usually have a suite of hopeless characters leading fairly miserable lives. American soaps are filled with rich, glamorous characters who may not be any happier but are certainly dominant individuals of one sort or another. Another characteristic of British soaps is that the pathos often transforms into humour.

The latter observation also applies to comedy. American comedy tends to feature beautiful people living fulfilling lives. British comedy is only a whisker removed from tragedy. A comparison between ‘Friends’ and ‘Coupling’ is instructive. Superficially, these are similar. The story is about six friends, three men and three women, and how they end up as couples. However, the two series are completely different beneath the surface. Coupling is a single beginning and end story spread over less than fifty episodes. Coupling is about adult relationships and is often extremely raw. The episode about men and pornography is especially hilarious, winning awards. Coupling doesn’t end completely happily in that two of the couples end up together because they have been dumped and no one else will have them. Another example is ‘Men Behaving Badly’. This was bought by American TV, recast and re-scripted until it would have been better entitled ‘Pretty Boys Being a Little Bit Naughty’.

This brings me to a further point. Americans like their entertainment fiction to have a happy ending. The British like to wallow in a bit of angst where in the last chapter the heroine dies of consumption and the hero is killed by friendly fire.

I am not the first person to observe that an American glass is half full but a British one is half empty.

To quote an Englisg catphrase: it's being so cheerful 'as keeps us going.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Tense Moments

I'm no grammar expert. That sort of thing is instinctive for me, and I usually feel my way through a sentence. As for the grammar grey areas well . . .

I recently came across a bit of a tangle that was a little hard to resolve. A nice reader pointed out there were errors in tense in one section of my work. Try as I might, I could not see these. Then a friend of mine with a more literary background helped me out. His take was that the source of the comment was a certain sentence construction I sometimes use - specifically he said "-you tend to use a present tense verb modified by a prior past tense clause".

For example: Teag turned and galloped down the hill, issuing orders to his men as he went.

Now the source of confusion (if I have got this right) as that the second part of this sentence is in present progressive (present continuous) tense - events happening now - whereas the first part is in past tense.

So is the use of this sort of sentence valid or not? My smart literary friend says there is really nothing wrong with it, although other close friends trained in syntax and grammar maintain that this should be changed to either:

Teag turned and galloped down the hill, he issued orders to his men as he went. (Which kind of reads a little strange to me) or

Teag turned and galloped down the hill. He issued orders to his men as he went. (Which feels 'dead' compared to the original)

This is really getting into a grammar grey area (well at least for me).

Wondering over the source of this - it must have crept into my subconscious somewhere - I flicked through a few novels on my shelf and found this exact thing used reasonably frequently in text. Right. So somewhere its passed an editor. At least in those books.

Here are some quotes from David Gemmell's Dark Prince.

"For a moment only Philip's face softened, his arm rising as if to reach out to his son."

"Her fingers touched his face, stroking the skin"

Now there is also past continuous tense - or past progressive (imperfect) tense. Can past tense and past continuous be used together, if so do the '-ing' words above fall into the present continuous or past continuous category?

What do people think? Is there a problem leaving it as it is or should these be corrected every time?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Making the light bulb go on

And no, I don't mean the one Sarah shoved in Cthulhu's fundamental orifice - assuming Elder Gods actually have such mundane biology. Well, unless it went all the way up so his eyes light up. I guess then he'd really wave those tentacles.

What I'm really talking about is communication. When you strip it down to the barest of basics (no, not that kind, that's reserved for private showings with a very exclusive audience of one - since my husband doesn't run screaming from the sight) all writing is trying to communicate something. It might be a mood, an idea, some facts that someone thinks are interesting enough or important enough to write about, or it could be just about anything. For the likes of PTerry, it's often a whole bunch of them all at once.

Me, I count myself lucky to get one or maybe two things across cleanly in a story.

On the fiction side of the fence, the main thing we're communicating is a story. Something that shows interesting stuff happening and people you can empathize with trying to deal with it and often making it worse before they can get hold of it and have their happily ever after. Words, no matter how much we love them (and hold them and pet them and...) are just tools.

If you don't use the tools right, or you don't use the right tools, you don't communicate at all, or what you communicate doesn't bear any resemblance to what you thought was happening. Not that this doesn't happen even with the best of us, especially when we let Mr Smug Bastard in the back of our subconscious take over and pour the words out, but then we have to go back and adjust, and tweak, and sometimes give Mr Smug Bastard a damn good smack because he's led us up the garden path and committed plot diversion in the begonias.

The short version? If people don't get it you did it wrong. Period. If most of the people who read it get it, you can mostly not worry about the ones who don't. You can't please everyone, and there are some people who'd complain no matter what.

I'm naturally a play-with-words type. I'm writing this with minimal revision, and my normal rather... ahem... colorful way of putting things is showing through. To get to the point where I could write good fiction, I had to strip that back to the bones and have nothing but the story. No description, no nothing. Then I had to learn what details I could put in. It wasn't easy. Normally I don't just mix my metaphors, I shove them in the blender and ramp the power up as high as it will go. We won't go into what I do to poor, unsuspecting similes (no, Dave, NOT simians!)

In the situation Sarah wrote about yesterday, Robert wasn't communicating with his classmates because he assumed they shared his knowledge base. They weren't communicating with him, because they had no idea where he is, figuratively speaking. This is something I'm terrified of, because that blank look that means whatever I was saying flew past without touching a single brain cell also means I failed.

I failed to use my tools - words - to put my message in a form the people who had to understand it could use.

I've had the rather painful experience of having to learn to recognize that "um... you left me behind after three words" look and backtrack and rephrase. It doesn't help that I make honking great intuitive leaps of logic that leave people who don't think in weird sideways lurches scratching their heads - and I can't explain how I got there. I just know it's right, and it's easy, really, because if it was difficult I couldn't possibly do that. (Yes, you can all stop laughing now. I know now I'm crazy enough to go in the nuthouse and just controlled enough to stay out of the grasp of the nice men waiting to fit me for one of those lovely jackets with the super-long sleeves.)

So, if the audience - the readers, the players, the classmates - give you that blank look, you backtrack and try something different. Or you back off and go with the majority (especially if it involves grades) because sometimes the communication lines aren't up to the job. You can't make jokes about the cloaca of Elder Gods to someone who's never heard of Cthulhu. They don't have the tools to understand you and by the time you've explained about squid-headed beings whose mere presence drives men mad, the joke is gone.

The flip side of this, of course, is seeing the lightbulb go on behind the eyes when your readers/listeners/classmates catch on. Even without speculating on how the lightbulb got there, I can safely say it's one of the most rewarding aspects of the craft.

What are some of your lightbulb moments? When you saw it go on, or when your very own lightbulb lit up? My favorite has to be when - and this happens in damn near every story I write - I finally catch on to what Mr Smug Bastard in my subconscious is up to.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Like Cthulhu's light bulb

Tying in with my own post last week and with Rowena’s this week – how complex is complex? When do you know you’ve left your intended audience miles behind?

My older son is starting college this year. The college has what can only be described as a "filler class" called "freshman seminar" destined to teach the kids study habits and to help them make friends. They push it pretty hard and it looked like I’d hold it against him if he didn’t take it, so he’s taking it – the modality on game design. (There are others on things like the Odyssey but he thought if he was going to pay for an extra class he wanted to do something he had some interest in and hadn't studied on his own -- as he did with the Odyssey.)

The class is all group work – the making friends thing – and his group was assigned to write a computer game involving Cthulhu, a light bulb and no shooting. Now, being the most low-brow in this family, I immediately suggested a game in which the player tries to shove a lightbulb up Cthulhu’s cloaca (really, do you know what supernatural encephalopods have? Neither do I.) When the player succeeds, Cthulhu goes "whooooo hoo hooo" and lights up, tentacles and all.

Robert looked at me like I was crazy. I realized he’d taken quite a different path – dragging his poor group mates with him – when I found him translating words into Cthulhu’s language on line and freaking out because he couldn’t find the word for electrician.

Last night he came home and described their game and his annoyance with his group. The game, in its final form... Well, to begin with, the player is Cthulhu. Cthulhu’s realm is being invaded by electricians installing lightbulbs. Cthulhu responds by throwing necronomicons on them. When he hits them it means they read it and become cultists, whom he can then direct to remove the lightbulbs. Robert’s group thought this project was "too ambitious." Robert said "But it wasn’t. It was compiling by the end of class." So I had to translate. "They mean it’s too complicated, Robert." "They mean they have no idea of the fictional underpinnings behind Cthulhu" (in fact only the teaching assistants who assigned it and Robert knew what Cthulhu was) "and that it makes no sense to them." Since the game is voted on by the class, this is a consideration.

I realized then Robert was a victim of the two things Rowena and I discussed. He was making it too complex for the audience, and he was a writer raised in a family of writers.

I confess that my poor, much tried agent’s favorite comment to the stuff of mine she thinks I need to change or shelve is "Too much." And ninety nine percent of the time, she’s right. I have a bad tendency to overthink it, throw in everything but the kitchen sink. You see, I’ve read this stuff since I was eight or so, and to me it seems natural. But unless the reader has the exact same background I have – and the exact same hangups – it won’t be to them.

Does anyone else struggle with this? Do you think the field, as a whole, suffers from it? (I confess I often see this in short stories.) How does one manage to have Cthulhu, his light bulb and the necronomicon – metaphorically speaking – without losing the intended audience?

Maybe there’s a reason the necronomicon is supposed to send cultists mad...

Monday, August 24, 2009

You know you're a writer, when ...

photo courtesy alexkerhead

Something happened the other day that made me think about writing and how integral it is to our lives.

You know you're a writer:

When you recall your childhood and adolescent by the books you were reading and the authors you discovered.

When life altering events happen and you catch yourself thinking, I must remember how this feels so I can capture it for my book.

When you read and can't switch off your internal editor unless it is a really good book.

When you go back and re-read that really good book to work out why you couldn't switch off your internal editor.

When you catch yourself rewriting the endings of books and movies.

When you toss a book aside because you think you can do better.

When you keep writing, even though the industry is crazy and perfectly good books get rejected.

When your children leave a note for you, not on the kitchen table but on your keyboard, because they know your life revolves around your computer and your latest manuscript.

That last one is what made me think how integral writing is to my life and how this affects my family. When my 6 children were younger and still at school, things would happen and the events would turn up later in one of my children's books with the names changed to protect the innocent and not so innocent. Now, when the kids tell me things, they say 'And you can use that in one of your books.'

When did you know you were a writer?

Sticky points

Kate, pick your mind back up out of the gutter! I meant points in the writing when you stick tighter than a plump gent superglued onto a toilet seat. The point at which writing at all seems futile, and what you've already done feels like a waste of effort. I have two or three of these every book, minimum.

So: how do I get away from it?

I can't afford to simply drop the book and write something else - until I reach the same point, yet again. (there are people out there who do this. Who have hard-drives full of great starts...)

It's usually my subconcious telling me that something is badly wrong. Of course sometimes my subconcious is talking a crock and should crawl back under its rock and stay there, but mostly it's saying 'something ain't right and ain't fair. According to the Goons - I was writing the left leg of Joe Louis ;-) -- but in practice for me it usually means motive is insufficient for prescribed course of action of the plot. I have 3 solutions - all working round that.

1)Go back. Elaborate on motive.

2) Add a new POV character - who will expand that motive

3) Jump ahead. Just leave it right there, and jump ahead - This is great when you really aren't yet sure what motives are -- they'll reveal themselves and you can backfill.

So I am still as sick as a... why the hell horse? A hippopotamus with double pneumonia -- so I'll leave you to tell me what you find works to deal with the sticking points.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sunday Links and Observations

The last several weeks have seen us blogging about ebooks and e-publishing, e-socialization, promoting our work, and when to break the rules, among other things. So today I've pulled together some related links.

In case you haven't heard, Sony announced last month that they would support the ePub standard on its e-book readers. This opens up the number of books available to those with the Sony e-readers and means those who have a Sony e-reader are no longer limited to buying ebooks from the Sony store. That's the good news. This move, which is an attempt by Sony to position itself as a firm #2 behind Amazon and the Kindle, makes sense. What doesn't, at least in my opinion, is the fact that the ePub standard Sony will be using will still be "wrapped in copy protection". For more information, check out the Publishers Weekly article as well.

With regard to promotion, Market My Words has a great interview with Molly O'Neill, assistant editor for Katherine Tegen Books (Harper Collins). Just hitting the high points, she says every author:
  • needs a web presence,
  • needs to understand the tools he is using,
  • needs to understand that communication and relationships are the underlying root of every level of this business,
  • needs to realize that online networking is becoming more and more important,
  • should have a marketing plan for every book separate from the publisher's marketing plan,
  • and don't put all your efforts into one area.
She has more to say on the topic and there is a lot of food for thought there.

The agent Rachelle Gardner has a post on Social Networking in 15 Minutes a Day. She writes her blog posts for the week in one or two sittings and then schedules them for automatic postings. Facebook is generally reserved for friends and family. Twitter is not open when she's working and, when posting, she generally limits her time on to 2 minutes. There's more but, in short, she has a schedule that allows her to get her work done and not get lost in the time sink these various networks can quickly become. More than that, she's decided how best to use them so they help her.

Another agent, Jennifer Jackson comments in her weekly roundup about how important it is to follow the rules when submitting queries to agents. While she points out that she won't automatically toss out a query because it runs over the page limit. However, that doesn't mean when she says to send the first 5 pages that you can send the first 30 because, wow, she'll read more of your wonderful prose. I recommend her "Letters from the Query Wars", her weekly roundup of what's crossed her desk during the week, as well as Nathan Bransford's "This Week in Publishing". Ms. Jackson's LftQW help put into focus the query process and what to do and what not to do. Mr. Bransford's TWiP is a great mini-snapshot of what happened in the industry during the week, often giving insight into what publishers are looking for.

Now for the observation and I promise no soapboxes this week. (Sarah, quit looking like you don't believe me. I can do this without the soapbox. I promise.) The first author I met, had sign a book -- actually it was three books -- was Anne McCaffrey. She came to our small, very small neighborhood bookstore around 1978. This was a mom and pop store at the end of a strip mall in one of the small towns between Dallas and Fort Worth. Probably 25 - 30 folks showed up and Ms. McCaffrey was funny and gracious to every one of us. Two of those books still grace my bookshelf -- one, unfortunately, wandered off never to return.

That small bookstore had more signings and author appearances than any of the big box stores in our area now. Those signings were low key and enjoyable, not only for those of us there to meet the authors but for the authors themselves. They weren't "handled" by PR people and the fans were appreciative and supportive. You didn't have to worry so much about security and plenty of time was always scheduled for the signings. Afterwards, the author and bookstore owners, and any fans who wanted to tag along, went to dinner. It was great.

Don't get me wrong. There are still authors like that. But their opportunities to mingle with their fans during and after signings are growing more infrequent. There are fewer and fewer author tours these days. The independent bookstores are a dying breed. I miss them. How about you?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Human Nature

When I was a young man back in the seventies there was a consensus among the chattering classes that human behaviour was almost solely a product of 'society'. I recall wondering what society was a product of even as a callow schoolboy.

This was a comforting social paradigm because it meant that all problems could be solved simply by changing human behaviour, which was assumed to be as plastic as a lump of modelling clay. For example, if a sub-group of the human species is known by a name that has derogatory connotations then changing their name to something without such connotations would automatically improve their status. For example, blind people became visually challenged and the disabled became differently abled. Changing the label is easy but it does not remove the prejudice. That goal is far more difficult to achieve.

This is a form of sympathetic magic. It is based on the same principles as the voodoo doll. The idea is that you make a model of someone that is in a sense truly them so if you can cause them pain by damaging the model. All the evidence from tracking the terms used for the mentally sub-normal (sorry, I meant differently normal) in British English suggest that the reverse is true. Any term applied to a sub-group suffering prejudice may start as innocuous but it soon ends up used as a general term of abuse. When the office junior jams the photocopier he is now likely to be accused of being differently abled.

Perhaps the worst example of this type of thinking was the case of David Reimer. In 1966, his penis was burned off by surgeons who botched a circumcision. A highly fashionable psychologist called John Money was believed to be an expert in what was called ‘gender studies’. He persuaded Reimer’s parents that ‘gender’ was simply a matter of social conditioning so David was reconstructed as female. Money reported this case as a great success but it was actually an utter failure. When Reimer was 14 and old enough to control his own destiny he reverted to male. He later had male reconstructive surgery and married. Reimer had a ‘Y’ chromosome and that was that. All the bullshit in the world could not alter that.

The fallacy of gender choice is still with us today in different forms. Currently, religious fanatics are working on ‘curing’ homosexuality. The best of British luck chaps. I can’t imagine how one would go about curing me of heterosexuality but it would take a hell of a lot more than a bit of bible-bashing.

Complex organisms are a product of the interaction of their genetics with the exact environmental history that the individual organism has experienced. Generally speaking, behaviour that is exhibited across all human societies is likely to be tightly genetically pre-programmed. The converse is also likely to be true. Behaviour that is highly variable from society to society is likely to be learned. For example, all human beings use speech that obeys certain grammatical rules. However, the language used is entirely learned.

Behaviour that is deeply fundamental to the survival and reproduction of a species is likely to be highly rigid and genetically controlled. Writers should consider this blend between programmed and learned behaviour when inventing societies. People can have some pretty strange customs but some things are possible in a society and some are not. For example, the human norm is the male-female partnership but it is quite possible to have a stable society that has more women than men. This has happened naturally in past societies because of the higher survival rate of girls than boys. You get societies with multiple-wife marriages of one sort or another.

A society with more men than women, however, is unstable. Such transient societies do come about at frontiers and they do not lead to one woman-many men marriages. The men would kill each other. You get prostitution and much feral bad male behaviour.

A fantasy or SF society must obey the basic genetic rules of human behaviour to be believable or the writer must show what has changed human genetics. Of course, in the latter case your protagonists are not really human.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Grappling with e-Socialization

I am not the most internet savvy person in the world. My website is functional and basic, and since the host changed I have not been able to figure out how to upload changes (yes, must get onto that).

I am on Facebook, but am not even quite sure what Twitter is. I'm on a few email lists, but mainly as a lurker.

The main problem is time. As it stands I need to make a choice between spending the few precious hours either writing or reading. More often than not its the writing that wins - it has to. And that's balancing a laptop on the bus or squeezing in a few lunchtime hours at the cafe. Weekends are better, but still a tough compromise with family time and activities. I'm not alone here.

But for the few minutes I do manage to log onto Facebook, I find myself baffled by the loquacious multitude. I learn quickly about people's travels, about how they can't wait to see that band, about the coffee they had that morning, how they didn't get enough sleep. Meanwhile I sit staring at the little box for my comment wondering what to write. More often than not I don't end up writing anything. For a start I can't possibly think that anyone is going to be interested in the mundane trivia of my life. Then - when I do have something significant going on - I feel as though I can't share this with a bunch of cyberites, at least not without the expectation of some sort of meaningful response. I need a find a balance with that.

OK. This is just a naked plea for help. What the Hell are you supposed to write on Facebook?

And for those that have grappled with Twitter - is this worth the look?

In the mean time, here is something for those who enjoy Multicultural (and Catholic) humour. This one tickled my fancy . . .

Each Friday night after work, Santa Singh would fire up his outdoor grill and cook a tandoori chicken and some meat kebabs. But, all of his neighbors were strict Catholics...and since it was Lent, they were forbidden from eating chicken and meat on a Friday.
The delicious aroma from the grilled meats was causing such a problem for the Catholic faithful that they finally talked to their Priest.
The Priest came to visit Santa, and suggested that he become a Catholic. After several classes and much study, Santa attended Mass... and as the priest sprinkled holy water over him, he said, “You were born a Sikh, and raised a Sikh, but now, you are a Catholic."
Santa’s neighbors were greatly relieved, until Friday night arrived.
The wonderful aroma of tandoori chicken and meat kebabs filled the neighborhood. The Priest was called immediately by the neighbors and, as he rushed into Santa's backyard, clutching a rosary and prepared to scold him, he stopped and watched in amazement.
There stood Santa, holding a small bottle of holy water which he carefully sprinkled over the grilling meats and chanted: "Oye, you waz born a chicken, and you waz born a lamb, you waz raised a chicken, and you waz raised a lamb but now yara, you are a potato and tomato"!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Empty Room Versus The Filigreed Flourishes

Sarah talked yesterday about a tendency to genericise, to reduce the details of our imagined worlds to the bare bones and let readers put their own filigree and flourishes into the story.

There is a certain amount of validity to this, since the world inside our heads is always much richer than anything on paper. But at the same time, if we strip down too far, we run the risk of talking heads in empty rooms (guilty, yeronner).

Heinlein was a master of putting in just enough to make the scene spring to life - and choosing the perfect detail to do it, usually something that implied a whole bunch more and built the world in our heads for us. Pratchett does the same in his fantasies, building on the more or less common heritage of fairytales to layer the details in a way that the more you know about history in general, mythology and the just plain weird, the richer his books become. As a quickie example, in Making Money, the parrot's squawk of "Twelve and a half percent!" has at least four layers of meaning that I've identified. There are probably more.

Who do you think gets it just right? If you feel like some examples where the author's gone too spare and left you with the talking heads, or too lush and given you way too much description instead of plot, feel free to mention those as well.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Failure of The Imagination

In the dark of night a carriage comes trundling through a narrow medieval street.

How many times have we read that scene? I have written it at least five times.

In my mind I tend to see – at least if I don’t think about it – a narrowish street and a serviceable dark wood carriage. Which, of course, is fine if it’s a secret meeting – I wrote that once. But what about when your character is about to be taken up onto the lap of luxury and the refined haunts of nobility?

I confess I’ve once or twice made reference to gilded carriages and left it at that. It took a visit last week to the museum of carriages in Lisbon to make me realize how even I – who grew up, as my older son put it in a country surrounded by (and chained to and weighted down by) the past – often failed in imagination, and how it might fail to convey the sheer weirdness of a setting to readers.

And the setting is not just historical, either. There is no reason to believe the current fetish for form following function will endure. We could well end up with spaceships that look somewhat like this, inside or even out. (Given innovative materials.)

In the absence of clues from the writer that something is not as-in-present the reader tends to default to bare-bones past (assuming always the past was simpler, particularly for US readers) or to Star-Trek future. I try very hard to at least cue other possibilities, but I’m not sure how successful I am. The past – and the future – are truly different countries and sometimes imagination lags behind them.

Which authors do this sort of thing well? Are you even aware when it is lacking? Do you prefer barest of bare bones and let you fill-in the environment yourself? Do you feel more comfortable with a future or a past that are somewhat like the present? Do you want more “authenticity?” Is anything – narrative – served by more authenticity?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Secret Life of Writers

As you can see from Dave's last post, writers are being asked to do more to promote their books. And, if you are anything like me, you're finding it is all a bit overwhelming. By the time you've twittered, written your prerequisite blogs, answered all the emails on your different email lists, attended conventions and writers festivals, supported friends at their book launches, helped out the writing community by judging competitions for free and kept on top of your private life, there's not a lot of time left for writing.

So today, I thought I'd write about the Secret Life of Writers, the time we spend inside our heads, that magical creative time.

We writers need quiet time. When you saw us pottering around in the garden or doing the ironing, we weren't really there. We were off on a space station battling aliens, down a dark alley dicing with vampires or galloping across a misty moor looking for dragon eggs as we sorted out plot problems. We need that quiet, reflective time to mull over the intricacies of character, plot and world building so that the gems can percolate up to the surface.

We need input. Writers tend to be solitary people, much happier observing life and the crazy things people do, then standing in the lime light. Everything from the evening news, to something overheard on the train, can trigger a 'what if' moment. I catch a lot of trains and, for some reason, people talk to me. You would be amazed the things people have told me, heartrending stories of loss, stories about the triumph of the human spirit. I find people fascinating, maybe because my 'inner writer' is always trying to understand what makes us tick.

And we need time to write. Because it takes time to wrestle a story out of the ether. Sometimes we need to write the first three chapters before we realise we've started the book in the wrong place. Sometimes we have to drag the story out kicking and screaming. And then there are the days when it flows so fast we can't type quickly enough.

I was sitting in the hallway at the gym today, waiting for yoga to start and one of the gym instructors asked if I was OK. I was. I was miles away, on the Shallow Sea, with one of my characters, trying to solve a plot glitch.

If it was easy to be creative everyone would be an inventor, writer, artist or musician. Here's some tips on how to tap into your inner creativity from New Scientist.

When do you do your best creative thinking? Late a night when it is quiet? First thing in the morning before the family gets up? Or can you day dream in the midst of chaos?

Monday, August 17, 2009

The long body

We've all heard of the 'Long Tail' concept, and what that means for writers (something trip over while you blunder from keyboard to coffee, right? A new breed of uplifted elephant shrew in a sequel to the Rats books...?) Well... a book that goes on selling. And selling. And selling as the word of mouth slowly keeps it spreading. Of course that's ideal for the author, and actually pretty good for the publisher too, as the origination costs are covered long ago, and it's just a nice little dividend - except they have pay warehousing and the dreaded Thor Powertools ruling led to the tax on stock. Of course to retail it makes no real difference, and (especially those who practice 'churn') they mitigate very hard against it with once-off orders and shorter and shorter shelf exposure. Web bookstores have been a boon in that sense.

But the point is the tail - outside of web-bookstores (and e-books) has been getting shorter steadily for newbies and midlisters. Bookstores either don't carry the book (oh it didn't sell - he must be an unpopular author) or they put 1 or 2 copies on the shelf -- and don't reorder, even if they sell out in a day (Oh he's not very popular, only sold 2 copies, Fred Promoted-and-re-ordered sold 10!) or given a bit of delay in unboxing and haste in stripping have a book on the shelf for a few weeks, not enough time with zero promotion for it to gather any momentum, be it ever so good. It's hard to fight back and never a week passes without the latest 'work of genius' coming out of large box retail (BUY INDEPENDENTS!) which makes things worse for anyone who is not a bestseller or wanting to only read bestsellers. It's a game ruled by name recognition - and that is very hard to achieve when your exposure is brief, in small numbers, spine out and with negligible promo.

Unless you have either a private fortune to spend on promotion, or have an exceptional talent for self-promotion, or are one the few authors that a publisher decides to throw the entire gravy boat over (You're a newbie and got an advance of more than 50K? relax. You're one of them... otherwise...) the answer is the strategy I call the long body. Two things here: the publishing process is generally a SLOW thing. From selling a proposal to the book coming out can be years. It's never going to be less than a year unless there is a rush-rush reason. And secondly the long body requires that in that lag phase you get as much into the system as possible. And the bad news is if you stop feeding that system -YOU DISAPPEAR. At least from the shelves for months or years at a time, which makes name recognition near impossible.

At the moment for eg, I have a good long body going if you count the shorts

I had a story in WITCH WAY TO THE MALL - May

I've got another in STRIP MAULED - September

Then DRAGON'S RING in October


Then the paperback SLOWTRAIN TO ARCTURUS in March

And another short in a collection probably somewhere in between.

That's good eh? Well, no it isn't entirely. For one, shorts are not stocked under your name. And for a second of course most of mine are collaborations, and although in reality I am the principal author, they don't file them under who did most of the work ;-). It's a lot better than a kick in the head, but I'm still lucky to get straight unadulterated 'Dave Freer' on shelf once a year. But if I didn't keep feeding into the sausage machine with proposals and writing there won't be much the next year and the year after.
There is no resting your laurels, or even going on trying to sell the same old story. You have to do that, but you have to work at writing more and feeding the machine for 2-3 years into the future. It's a treadmill down here in the trenches. Add to that doing the art for JBU, trying to emigrate, trying to sell our house, trying to have a family life, stay fit, organise the Furry Freer rescue project, and um, occasionally sleep. And then they want you to promote yourself as well ;-)

Well, here is my inept go at it - helped by some far better writers than myself:

Now you can make me feel better about it by telling me it looks great and telling a few friends! Or you can have fun telling me what a slack bludger I am and how you envy my life of Riley ;-).

Sunday, August 16, 2009

To Promote or not to Promote

This past week has been one where real life interfered to the point where there was little time to focus on writing. Even so, I managed to send out a short story -- fingers crossed -- and a handful of queries -- fingers and toes crossed. As I filled in the on-line submission forms for agents and publishers, and as I read the blogs and Baen's Bar, one theme seemed to jump out at me: promotion. Hence, this blog entry.

I've long known that, more and more, the promotion of a book is falling to the author. Publishers don't put a lot of time or money into promoting mid-list or first time authors any more. The size of the book review section in any major newspaper has shrunk to, unfortunately, non-existence in too many cases. The New York Times Book Review is no longer large enough to use as a doorstop. Of the two major papers in my area, the Fort Worth Star Telegram rarely has more than a page of reviews on Sunday, including large graphics and the best sellers lists. The Dallas Morning News is better, usually offering 4 pages or so on Sundays. Still, it is a far cry from what it used to be. In other words, one of the long-standing means of book promotion is dying.

So I wasn't really surprised when, reading the submission guidelines for certain publishers, it was recommended that I include marketing ideas for my book in my query. Nor was I particularly surprised when it was also recommended that I tell the publisher just how much I'd be willing to do on my own (read, at my own cost) to promote my book. What did surprise me, however, were the number of agents who asked as part of their on-line submission forms for the marketing plans I'd already devised for my book.

Then something happened on Baen's Bar. Someone new to the Bar plastered what could only be called ads for his book in a number of conferences. Mind you, it was a book he'd just submitted into the slush pile. His hubris in doing so earned him more than a few knocks, as well as a number of suggestions on how to submit it where most of those on the Bar could read it and give him feedback. When asked why he took this particular tact, he said he felt that it was a good way to create word of mouth and push his manuscript up the slush pile quicker -- whether it works or not, I can't say and won't speculate. Nor will I comment on his submission in the Bar slush forum for the simple reason that I haven't read it.

All of this brings to mind the question of what are the best ways to promote your book. How effective are on-line sites such as Facebook , LiveJournal or MySpace? How about author blogs? Drive by signings? On the flip side, what keeps you going back to an author's website or blog/FB/MySpace/LJ? And, for the agents out there, how important is it to you that a perspective client presents a marketing plan at the same time they submit their initial query?



I have just realised that I have missed my posting spot.

Many apologies - normal servive will be resumed next week when I get my act together.


Friday, August 14, 2009

The Psychopath we Had to Have

I've been thinking about villains lately and the fact that my own bad guys (when they are human that is) tend to pretty much fall into the category of psychopaths. Not that they aren't complex, just that their emotions revolve around their own gratification and aggrandizement, with a self image that borders on the megalomaniac. I'm talking more about the top bad guys here, not the various spectrums of henchpeople.

I used to love the way David Gemmell would get into his villains heads. The way he used to present their thinking processes, and how they thought of themselves as sensible and reasonable, and how anyone would do what they had done in the same position - if they were as smart as they were.

Its interesting to note that a lot of the protagonists found in speculative fiction, thinking more toward the interstellar James Bond types characters, could also be considered as verging on psychopathic, or at least sociopathic. They launch nukes without a qualm, admiring the multi-faceted spectra of explosions while millions die. Feel no fear when challenged by twenty knife wielding assassins, confident in their own supreme abilities, and treat sexual encounters as fascinating meal breaks.

But all villains don't have to be lacking in normal emotional reactions. For true vindictive spite you need someone with intense emotion, combined with some really severe hangs ups - social isolation, emotional deprivation and an unrelenting drive to 'show them' mixed in with a good measure of entitlement. Hitler was supposed to be an emotional and intuitive type. He was also a non-smoking vegetarian (and a writer - if you count Mein Kampf).

So just to throw a few villains out there -- Darth Vader? Sauron? Dr Octavius? Psychopath or twisted fiend?

Split the head of your favorite fiend. What's inside?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

It ain't necessarily so

It's what you know that ain't so that bites you. There is a rather sad example of this on Baen's Bar right now, but rather than embarrass the culprit I'm going to tell a few tales against myself instead. I figure after I subbed for Sarah yesterday, she being somewhere in Portugal right now, you didn't need pointless pontification from the pulpit (actually it's a soapbox, and I'm sure it escaped from Terry Pratchett because it has lots of little legs and it just keeps ambushing me).

Anyway, writers need to keep an open mind because what we write gets to all kinds of people, and a lot of them get upset when we make a mistake with something they're very familiar with. This is where that big time-sink known as research comes in. There's just one problem. You know to research things you know nothing, or very little about. But how do you find the things where you think you know it but you really don't?

Google is your friend. So is listening to and reading just about everything - and being willing to re-evaluate what you think at any time. Take me (actually, don't. My husband would be a little unhappy about that). One of my more interesting exploits was a 1500 mile drive with a broken right ankle. How did I manage that?

To start with, I didn't realize it was broken. After all, you can't walk if you've broken anything more serious than a toe, right?

Yes, you can. The position of the foot has to be exactly right, and it certainly doesn't work for every broken limb, but there are times when you can actually put weight on a broken ankle, and walk. Well, hobble. And yes, drive.

It does hurt. Rather a lot, I might add. And that's another one I thought I knew and it weren't so - extreme pain does not necessarily cause screaming. In my cause it mostly caused whimpering, but I could still function, more or less. Towards the end of the drive - it was a 2.5 day trip - I was pretty much mono-focused and on a double-dose of painkiller to stay more or less functional, but I was still on my feet. Yes, including the broken one, which by this stage had reached something more than twice the usual size, attained a truly spectacular range of color in the blue, black, and purple range, and was blistering the skin.

When the pain stopped - thank you IV painkillers - I went to sleep, which was another what I knew what ain't so. I hadn't realized until then just how exhausting prolonged pain can be, and how the first reaction when it stops is to pass out because up until then you hurt too much for that. Of course by this time I had Emergency Room nurses telling me they'd personally come and kill me if I put any weight on that foot before an orthopedic surgeon said I could (something like that, anyway. I was a bit hazy, for some reason).

When I was doing research on trauma injury for a work in progress and stumbled across this site, I read through all two thousand plus on-topic posts half in horrified fascination, and half because I expected to see my broken ankle there. I recommend it for anyone who's interested in the many and bizarre ways people injure themselves, and what they do afterwards. Fair warning: sometimes it's spray worthy, and others kind of gross. It's very educational. If the experiences of American city ER staff are any guide, the most dangerous occupation in urban USA is "standing on the corner, minding my own business". And watch out for "some guy" or "that dude". They're trouble. Reading your Bible increases the risk factor.

The point here, of course, is that if you don't go looking even for the things you think you know, you might get smacked with them later. Hopefully not in quite such a vivid and painful way as I learned about walking on a broken ankle, but usually the experience isn't fun. There's nothing quite so deflating as the person two rows back loudly telling everyone that he's a professional horseman and what you describe on page X is physically impossible because horse's legs don't bend that way. (No, this hasn't happened to me. Yet. I'm hoping to avoid this fate).

What are some of the ways what you thought you knew has smacked you in the face? Feel free to conceal names to protect the guilty.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

When Good Shortcuts Go Bad

Hands up everyone who knows what a redneck is. Rather a lot of hands there, I see. Hooray for cultural imperialism (for those who are wondering, yes, that is sarcasm). How about an ocker? Yeah, that's what I thought, thanks Rowena and Chris. A bushie? Same two hands. Hmm... I think I see a little problem here.

I've got an interesting view from where I sit, because I'm not 'Merkin, but I live in the USA. It's very easy for 'Merkins to forget that not everyone has the same cultural references as 'Merkins. Yes, a lot of USian stuff gets exported, enough that most of the rest of the English speaking world has a fair idea of what the main US idioms actually mean.

It's not that the USA is necessarily more insular than anywhere else, either. It's just so flipping big that by the time you get through the USA stuff there's no room for the rest, kind of like the way it gets inside a large university.

Add to that the human norm is to assume you are normal and anything that isn't like you is not, and you've got a recipe for some serious confusion.

Say you want to write about the Australian equivalent of rednecks. No, I'm not asking why. I don't want to know. I'm just assuming it's something some crazy person might want to do at some point. You go do some research, and you find that lo! 'bushie' seems to fit the bill.

Only you're going to have the Aussies pissing themselves laughing at your masterwork, because you won't find a bushie with a truck up on blocks living in a trailer. He's in a tent, or a tin shed, or camping in the back of his ute, and he knows how to live off the bush. He likes beer, but that's normal.

Maybe ocker, then? They are kind of working class-ish, and tend to have that sort of feel... Except you get them everywhere. And there are some very wealthy ockers out there (Paul Hogan comes to mind. He made millions out of Crocodile Dundee by being himself. Hell he made himself plenty by being himself on the Naked Vicar Show (Yes, that was a real TV show, and yes, it was shown in Australia in prime time), himself being a smart-arse painter on the Sydney Harbour Bridge crew. The old footage if you ever find it, he's in grotty old shorts and a flannie shirt with the sleeves pulled out.). But wait! There's a catch. There's a bit of ocker in most Aussies, because ockers are usually also battlers. Oh, and ockers aren't inbred. Or dumb.

You go looking further, and come across the yobbo. This is a peculiar subspecies of ocker found mostly at sporting events, usually with six-pack (beer, not abs) and thongs (footwear, absolutely NOT underwear. If these guys wear undies - and quite a few don't, which leads to the unfortunates who get an eyeful of what's under the shorts developing a phobia of guys with beer guts and short short shorts - it's usually the jockstrap or Y front variety). Not right at all...

Which is the thing. The redneck is very much a USian phenomenon. Now the redback... Oh, never mind. You'll find out about that on your first visit to an old-style Oz dunny (outhouse, and yes, they're still around). Redbacks are spiders. They like nice dark, moist places and have no sense of smell. I think you get the idea. But I digress.

The point of this ramble is that every culture has its unique subgroups and stereotypes. You can write a redneck in anything US-based, and be fairly sure most of your readers will be know what you mean. There are others where that's not the case. Calling someone a liberal as an insult in the US has damn near the opposite meaning in Australia, where the Liberals are the conservative side of government.

So what are some of the groups you've seen dropped into books with the assumption that you'll know exactly what sort of person this is because he, she, or it is a 'redneck'? Or a 'yobbo'. Or a 'Tory'. Or... whatever.

p.s. For those who are wondering, you can get a start on some of the unexplained Aussieisms here.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Comfort Reads

After Dave's wonderfully clever post about getting it right in books. I thought I'd blog about something a little lighter.

Why do we keep coming back to our favourite authors and TV shows?

For the same reason we love love LOL cats. They are make us smile in a scary world.

One of the reasons the Harry Potter books did so well, was because they were familiar. We've all grownup reading boarding school books, mysterys and fantasy books. JK Rowling combined all these elements.

When I'm too sick to read, I watch the 1960s TV series Bewitched. As a child I wanted to grow up to be Samantha. If I need a change of pace, I turn to the first Lord of the Rings movie. The early scenes set in the shire are so soothing. I could retire there.

When I want a comfort read I turn to Georgette Heyer. Yes, the Queen of Regencies. I have my favourites, and I am gradually replacing the books that have fallen apart with new editions. She writes so effortlessly, knows her period so well and has such insight into human nature.

Another comfort read for me is Terry Pratchett. He can make me laugh aloud. I have to admire his insight and the way he satirizes our world.

What are your Comfort Reads and why?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Are you for real?

When the false Dhamma arises, he makes the true Dhamma to disappear.

Samyutta-nikaya (11,224) (via Lord of Light)

The biggest trick in writing is not to break that reader trance - the voluntary suspension of disbelief that the happy reader puts himself into while devouring your prose like a Labrador puppy in the jar of cookies you're trying to keep him out of.

Now as a general rule when the reader has his head deep in the book-cookie jar you're going to have to really do something horrendously wrong to get him to back out. The trick is not to break that trance while its fragile (at the beginning) or when it is something that means a great deal to him. And percieved wisdom is that guns and horses are the two areas you don't screw up in fantasy because there enough readers who know a lot about both. I'm never a great acceptor of perceived wisdom (gee, now there is a surprise!) but hell, I can buy into this. And add sail-boats, martial arts, food and kids. Here is an excellent blog-piece on the reality of horse-travel...

Except... is this real wisdom? It's true, but is it wise? Lets get real here. We live in a world where for 90% of readers... Hollywood's version of history is reality. Where maybe 25% know something of firearms and maybe 5% ride regularly. Even my add-ons are things a lot of readers (and a lot of writers) have never experienced in real life. How many people who read fantasy know enough about sail-boats or diving to spot an error? And to many of these people the errors of popular writers and especially movies are RIGHT. The truth may be that you can run through a grass-fire in African veldt, with no worse than losing a bit of hair, if you choose your time and place. That's reality. But if I wrote it, I'd have to explain it at length and very convincingly, because Joe-reader from Chicago knows you'd die. The same applies to horse as an automobile. 60 miles is CLOSE in the minds of 90% of readers. Not potentially a whole country that could take you three days to cross. 60 miles through rough country was more or less what Dick King did in a day on his epic ride from Durban to Grahamstown. 600 miles in 10 days...., which was considered incredibly fast, or 10 hours drive, now. So you poor writer-sap, you're screwed. You're as likely to jar them out of the reader trance by being right as by being wrong .

And then of course there is "that might be reality but that's not why I'm reading this..." Life for 99.9% of the populace in the medieval times was nasty, short and brutish. But, you can trust me on this one, few fantasy readers want that reality. And a man hears just what he wants to hear... Hollywood would never lie to you would they... and we find ourselves having to fit in to a mould of unreal illusions.

Ah well. Anyone got any juicy reader-trance shattered egs for me?

Ouch. yuck. Not eggs!


Sunday, August 9, 2009

To Critique or Not to Critique . . . .

A lot of people look at writing as a solitary profession and, in a way, it is. Unless you are working with a co-author, you tend to research and write on your own. If you're like me, it's difficult to write if there are too many distractions. I don't mean if there's too much noise, etc., but too many demands on me by family members and friends. The phone calls during the "business" day when I'm trying to write. The "requests" that something be done around the house. Because of that, I tend to pack up the Eee, my notes and my iPod and run off to one f the lcoal coffee shops or the library for a couple of hours to write.

That said, for me, there is one aspect of writing where it is no longer a solitary profession. That's when it comes to critiques. I don't know about the rest of you, but I much prefer an in-person critique group. There is something about the face-to-face interaction during a critique session that I need. It's part social, part getting immediate feedback on my stories without the possible misunderstandings that come from email.

It's been a long time since I've been part of a "live" critique group. There are several in my area and my reasons for not joining them are myriad. Then the local library decided to start a critique group and asked me to head it up. This is a new role for me and one I take seriously, especially when it comes to the actual critique part of the group. And that sent me to the internet looking for a how-to guide on critiquing.

One of the best, not only because it follows my own philosophy but because it is SHORT comes from a guest blog at Nathan Bransford's blog. Rick Daley sums up the art of giving and taking a critique very nicely. When giving a critique, you should follow what he calls the "sandwich technique": start with a positive note, give your honest opinion about the work and then close on a positive and encouraging note. One of the best things he says, in my opinion, is to be careful when rewriting part of the work you're critiquing. Changing a word or phrase is one thing, but rewriting whole passages is more than critiquing, it's changing the voice and that is not what you want to do.

So what should you not do when critiquing:
  • don't be too apologetic because it undermines what you're trying to say,
  • don't hunt for something to crit. Sometimes the work really is good.
  • don't limit your critique to just saying good things if you see something that needs to be worked on just because you are afraid of hurting their feeligns. You don't help your critique partner that way,
  • on the opposite side of the coin, don't be a jerk about the critique either. Your critique partner will get much more out of your critique if you don't go into attack mode.
I'll add something else to this list: don't get personal with your critique. If you don't normally read or like the particular genre of story/book you're critiquing, let the author know. And don't start out with something along the lines of, "I really hated this story...." It does nothing but put the author on the defensive and undermines anything you might have to say in your critique.

When you are the one receiving the critique, what should you do?
  • don't pout if you don't like what you hear,
  • wait until you get all the feedback before considering changes
  • seriously contemplate your changes. Take your time and think them through.
  • look for common threads in the feedback and start from there
  • if someone provides a rewrite as part of their critique, consider it and try to figure out what they were getting at, but don't just copy it. To do so may change the "voice" of that particular passage,
  • ask for clarification if you don't understand something said in a critique,
  • thank the people who took time to read and then offer a critique of your work.
I'll add one more to that list: don't argue with those giving you a critique. I know it's hard to hear that the book or story you've been writing might not be the next best seller, but you asked for the critique and they might actually see something you don't.

There are some other sites offering suggestions on how to critique:
So, what rules do your critique groups follow? Do you prefer an in-person group or on-line, or do you do both? Most important of all, what do you expect to get out of a critique group? I appreciate your help with these questions because I really do want to help make the library's group a success.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Paying for internet news

Media Baron Rupert Murdoch’s News International has recently made a net loss of £2Billion. In response Mr Murdoch has announced that he is to charge for access to his news internet sites such as The Times, The Sun and the News of the World (and Sky News?).

The Guardian quotes him as follows:

"Quality journalism is not cheap," said Murdoch. "The digital revolution has opened many new and inexpensive distribution channels but it has not made content free. We intend to charge for all our news websites."

This has raised eyebrows in the UK, partly because no one has ever successfully charged for the news and partly because of News International’s history.

This company changed the way newspapers were printed in London in the Battle of Wapping, the second great strike of the Thatcher era that sought the Unions brought to heel. Briefly, News International moved printing out of Fleet Street, where obsolete hot metal presses were wildly overmanned by ludicrously overpaid and underworked print workers, to Wapping (now Docklands,), where modern computer technology was employed. This opened the floodgates and within a few years all the major papers followed.

Mr Murdoch had some interesting comments that are reported (in an edited version) here:

The paragraphs that I find interesting are:

“Today the pace of technological change is quickening, while the direction of change remains unpredictable. Technology is unpredictable partly because it depends upon the act of invention, and partly because even inventors cannot accurately imagine the place which their inventions will find in our lives. When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, he imagined that voice recordings would be sent through the mail to replace written letters. The classic recent example is the fax machine. Many experts saw no place for it because they thought transmitting information by modem was more efficient. The funny thing is, they were right; modems are more efficient, but they are apparently not as effective, given the way we are organized right now. The history of invention is riddled with such tales.
The only thing we can be sure of is that, while technology adapts quickly, governments do not, which is why government policy is so dangerous in this field. Placing one’s faith in the thousands of voluntary decisions that together constitute a free market is not easy. One finds that faith only in highly developed societies, and even then it is a fragile late-season blossom, easily dashed by war or other crises. The decision to rely on market forces is the essence of modernization. Yet technological change often provokes atavistic, authoritarian responses. The real danger of the present technological revolution is that we may be panicked by future shock into regressive schemes of regulation.”

He was wrong about emails, fax was a very short lived technology, but is he right about the plan to charge for internet news content? Will anyone pay to read stories free elsewhere? Is News International riding the new technological wave into the future or are they responding with an “atavistic, authoritarian response”, to use his own words?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Breaking the Rules

I've recently been reading some of Fred Saberhagen's older novels. I find I really get sucked into them, particularly the Book of the Gods series, but I can't help but simultaneous reflect that he seems to be breaking the rules - or at least flying in the face of what most people would now tell you is 'good' writing or storytelling.

For a start his writing weaves between omniscient view point and first person, rather than staying in one PoV. And there is a lot of telling going on. A lot. I feel little direct connection with the character. For example In the Arms of Hercules, I find it hard to get into Hercules' skin at all (no pun intended - he is invulnerable to sharp-edged weapons). There is a vaguely stated aim of trying to talk to his father (Zeus), and when his family is killed there is a very good explanation of how it devastated him, yet I don't really *feel* it.

Despite all this, I just keep reading. Even though its insulated by a layer of passive storytelling, the witty banter and razor-sharp insight into human nature that comes across keeps me going.

Hercules lurches from one adventure to another without any real overall purpose at all, and yet I find its a page-turner for me. I can't seem to put my finger on why.

David Eddings wrote about his approach to writing in the forward of a book giving various snippets of background material on the Belgariad. Not that I'm that into David Eddings, but I am fascinated by these sorts of autobiographical insights -- its one of the things I love about Locus magazine and their regular features on authors. In the book Eddings talks about the '100 page ramble' that starts off his books. 'It takes me that long just to clear my throat'. Yet later he says that if you make it through the first 100 pages 'I've got you!' He puts this down to his use of mythic elements. Now I'm not sure that I buy this, since I don't get hooked into David Eddings -- too long winded and with not enough sense of character imperative for me. But is Saberhagen using this 'mythic element' approach?

What Saberhagen does convey well is the sense that its a story. His voice is very much the sort of voice of someone talking across the fire at night. Rambling a bit, maybe putting into their own reflections and insights into the story every now and then as asides.

It makes me wonder what really makes a page turner. JK Whatzername seems to break plenty of rules as well. At first glance you'd think any editor reading the series - particularly the later books - would send them straight back with a plea for intensive editing.

Anyone got any insights to share?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Care and Feeding of Plots

The last few posts have sent me cycling back to thinking about plots (as opposed to plotting, which involves ultra-secret societies and if I told you I'd have to... Oh, sorry. Wrong kind of plot): where they come from, how they grow, and of course, the question that makes every writer cringe, "Where do you get your ideas?"

Me, I get ideas and plots everywhere. The problem is keeping the beggars from metastasizing, not finding them. It helps that I read widely, all over the spectrum. One of my recent idea-fodder scores is Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku - who is a theoretical physicist and one of the founders of string theory. In this book, a whole range of science fictional staples including force-fields, teleportation, FTL travel and the like get the "Okay, so how would we do this?" treatment.

It turns out that everything needed to make a force field has been manufactured in some form. Some of the components are still very much experimental manufacture, while others are mature, but they all exist. As such, it's feasible that somewhere within 100 years you could be able go to the store and buy yourself a force field.

Levitation (yes, I want my flying car, damn it!) is in the same range.

Now, watch those neurons fizz at the thought of flying cars equipped with force fields to prevent collisions. Add a hot guy, preferably partially clothed, and we're in... ahem.

Leaving aside fond lewd imaginings, I take a whole bunch of ideas like this, mix and match to get some idea what my world looks like and what it's like to live there, and figure out the overarching motivations of all the major players in that world as they relate to my setting. I don't usually go for complex, intertwining skullduggery for the simple reason that my plots have a tendency to do that to me anyway while I'm working out what's going on.

Often all these ideas (did you know that the founders of the USA wanted to set a fixed-value currency that could never inflate or deflate? Imagine a world where someone did that...) don't go anywhere (Oh, and did you know that relativity is implicit in Thomas Young's equations related to light - and if he hadn't died at 55 it's possible the Theory of Relativity could have been proposed before 1850? Nuclear steampunk!), at least not at first. So I keep reading all sorts of stuff, fiction and non-fiction, and strange and occasionally wonderful things emerge.

After all, the seed of a plot is an idea, and good plots usually have several ideas lurking in the background fraternizing and mixing things up - and breeding - strong characters to drive them (often the disguised spawn of yet another idea), and lots of fertilization to make them grow. Yes, this does mean I throw a whole lot of crap at it and hope something works.

How do you feed your plots? What are your idea seeds, how widely do you cross-breed and how much control do you try to exert over them as they grow?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What's the Best Balance in Conveying a Foreign Setting?

With Sarah still traipsing around Portugal, we've got another guest blogger today. Sean Kinsell thinks of himself as a newbie in fiction writing, not realizing just how good he really is. Sarah, Kate and I are currently aiming our steel-toed boots at him as a means of encouragement for him to finish his first novel. This blog stems, I think, from one of the questions he's asking himself right now as he writes. -- Amanda


One of the first things you're hit over the head with when you study Japanese literature is how hard it is to translate. That's partially for easily explicable reasons: Japanese and English are structured very differently, and ambiguities and associations are possible in each that are not possible in the other.

But of course with Japanese it goes much further than that. Even more than the rest of East Asia, Japan has a reputation for mystery and paradox that, one is frequently given to understand, the Western mind doesn't have the tools to grasp. That the Japanese have equal difficulty understanding us, despite our reputed forthrightness and literal-mindedness, somehow gets less play. Users of any language (such as writers) rely on shared cultural assumptions that may not obtain for the audience of a translation, and there are times when that barrier is impossible to get around. The problem with a lot of authors who deal with Japanese is that they tend to assume that that barrier is a feature, not a bug. Lots of translations of Japanese literature have a resolutely flat quality; it's supposed, I think, to suggest a placid surface with a lot actually stirring underneath, but it often just comes off affectless.

And the problem doesn't just come up with translations; literature written in English about Japan often has the same kind of flaws--sing-song prose and would-be profound paradoxes on every page. An example that really stuck in my craw was Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, which opened like this:

Suppose that you and I were sitting in a quiet room overlooking a garden, chatting and sipping at our cups of green tea while we talked about something that had happened a long while ago, and I said to you, “That afternoon when I met so-and-so…was the very best afternoon of my life, and also the very worst afternoon.” I expect you might put down your teacup and say, “Well, now, which was it? Was it the best or the worst? Because it can’t possibly have been both!”

Well, of course it can have been both, dear lady. What are you going on about? The conflict between opposing but equally strong forces--moral duties, affections, predilections, desires--animates much of the world's greatest literature. For a novelist to put into the mouth of a narrator the idea that it's only natural not to believe one could hold two opposite feelings simultaneously is a shocking display of bad faith. (And Golden's novel gets far, far worse from there.) But he was writing about Japan, don't you know, so Sayuri's patronizingly patient explanation of why such a thing is possible was considered charming, if not profound. Objecting would be spoiling the Zen.

So my question is…what's the best balance when trying to convey a foreign setting? What authors are good at realizing an exotic setting without being smug about how esoteric it all is? When is it good to sprinkle in foreign words, and when does it become show-offy and jar the reader out of the world of the story?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Brand Names and World Building

I write book length fantasy and near future SF in short story length, so I build worlds. It will sound nerdy but I love it. I love reading about history and sociology. The study of linguistics for instance and how language can not only define your place in the world, but how you see the world fascinates me.

Because I write science fiction and fantasy, I don't write much that is set in our contemporary world. But recently I've been reading books from the incredibly popular Dark Urban Fantasy genre (DUF). These have been fun and easy to read, with good pacing and likable characters.

Coming fresh to the DUF genre, one of the things I noticed was the use of brand names in the narrative. In theory it is like writing in short hand. The author doesn't need to explain what the car/watch looks like, they just give the brand. This brand name will tell the reader the character's social status and wealth or lack of it.

As long as the reader knows the brands. I don't.

I found some of the books so heavy on brand name usage that it was like reading an SF book, where the author introduces a lot of invented nouns. At least in an SF book the author will plant clues in the narrative to explain the meaning of the invented nouns. With brand names the author assumes you know all the associations.

Brand names in contemporary narratives. What do you think of this?

Monday, August 3, 2009

A fighter by his trade...

"In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down or cut him
til he cried out in his anger and his shame
I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains
Simon and Garfunkel - the boxer

The different strands of the Anglophone world have slightly different takes on what they see in society’s mirror -- you know, the thing Adam Smith wrote about shaping our behaviour and society in THE THEORY OF MORAL SENTIMENTS. No, he didn’t say ‘greed is good’ (pretty stupid), actually, more like ‘enlightened self-interest works’ (very wise) and that was in a different book. In this one was saying more or less that it is the desire to be perceived in a certain way by our society that shapes our morals - in other words the desire to look good in the mirror of your society. I half agree with him, because I like to imagine I am more concerned about looking good in the mirror of myself as seen by myself, which is a lot harder to fool than society... but he has a point particularly when it comes to writing. If your hero doesn’t look good in the relative mirror of your society -- the book won’t be popular. Fortunately, it’s a big broad mirror with lots of distortions. But A MANKIND WITCH is never going to be too popular, for example, in a society that holds dogs to be unclean. And I think it goes deeper than that. The US is a country that loves winners. Places them at the apogee of a society. Australians, and South Africans are pretty hot on winning too... But, least for some of us -- and, I think, unfashionable though it may be, some Americans too (particularly those who are closer to a frontier life), there is a slightly higher pinnacle.
The battler.

I think it’s a virtue which civilized parts or stratified societies don’t like much because it doesn’t put the heir to the family fortune or the golden boy to whom it came easy at the top (which is where the trust fund would like them to be, naturally). Maybe because SA and Australia are very cyclically drought prone (3-7 years here, so you couldn’t even second-guess it, just knew it would come), not to mention pests, raiders, fires and whatever else the world could toss your way randomly, and more of us are still very close to our pioneer-frontier farming roots, we’re a bit more geared to the fact that even the fellow who has ‘winner’ written all over him is going to see his butt every now and again. It’s not whether he can win that counts. It’s whether he can get up, with his life in tatters, and start all over again. And do it again. And again. And again and again, until you bury the dumb bastard... with great respect, because he was a battler. Maybe he’ll die a winner, or not, but he cannot avoid dying a battler. A battler who wins really is the happy ending... and we like that. But we’ll still enjoy the tale of someone who just wouldn’t let it stop him, even if he never did win in the end.

And so, how does this tie into writing? Well, Dick Francis made himself a best-seller with books that, even if you liked nothing else, always had a battler at their center. It makes for a better story than the golden-boy banker or soldier who simply could do no wrong and wins. But the way it really ties in is that wannabe authors need to take cognizance of one over-riding thing: unless you’re a lottery winner (if you are lucky you do get a free/cheap ride to success) you probably HAVE to be a battler in this game. There are going to be times, many of them, when the droughts, plagues, pestilences, raiders and straight bad luck of the world of publishing will knock the cr*p out of you, for no fault of your own. If you’re not one of the lucky few, you’ll have to either quit or get up again and try again... and again. If you keep doing it you may -- like yrs. monkily -- merely be proving that you’re bloody stupid and bloody obstinate. But for what it’s worth, you’ve proved your worth in mirror of a section of society. Stand tall.
And at the end of the day they may say of us that we couldn’t write, but not that we didn’t.

Now you can disagree violently.

Or not.