Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I keep coming back to Creativity

Here is a small jeweller's crucible.

I keep coming back to the creative crucible because that is where we draw from. And when it runs dry we feel, or at least I feel, half alive.

Do creative people think differently from non-creative people?

This article looks into research on the topic. Researchers were studying the brain patterns of people who were asked to solve anagrams. They were looking for that Ah ha! moment.

Before they began the problem, their brain patterns were studied while they waited. Then their brain patterns were moitored while they worked on the anagrams, which could be solved by methodical unraveling of all the combinations, or by an intuitive leap. People were asked to report which method they used, then their brain patterns were studied. Guess what?

'the two groups displayed strikingly different patterns of brain activity during the resting period at the beginning of the experiment – before they knew they would have to solve problems or even knew what the study was about.'

Not surprising. If someone said to me wait here for fifteen minutes, I would be busy writing stories in my head. Never a dull moment!

The article goes on to say:

'One difference was that the creative solvers exhibited greater activity in several regions of the right hemisphere. Previous research has suggested that the right hemisphere of the brain plays a special role in solving problems with creative insight, likely due to right-hemisphere involvement in the processing of loose or “remote” associations between the elements of a problem, which is understood to be an important component of creative thought. The current study shows that greater right-hemisphere activity occurs even during a “resting” state in those with a tendency to solve problems by creative insight. This finding suggests that even the spontaneous thought of creative individuals, such as in their daydreams, contains more remote associations.'

Well, yes. If that is the way your mind is wired, that is the way you think all the time. It would be interesting to find out what percentage of the population are wired to think this way. I grew up in a non-creative family. But I can look back at the odd great aunt who was creative. So it could be a recessive gene.

Do you come from a creative family? Are all your friends creative types? What would you think about if you were told to wait somewhere for fifteen minutes?

Monday, August 30, 2010

So just where did that come from?

"Am I a plagiarist?"
It's a question which I think every honest author thinks somewhere down the line (the dishonest ones I assume know they are, and lie about it). I recall an unlikely Indian name in a 1970 sf novel. It stuck in my head. Years later I came across it another sf book (which bore no relation to the first book in content) I asked an Indian friend of mine - he said it was so implausible it had to be a made-up name. One British, one American Author - both people I respect, both people who would be shocked at the idea of idea-theft, let alone plagiarism. I think it was a name that stuck in your head, whereas the book was non-memorable to be honest, and was purely accidental (in both cases the character was a minor redshirt). But I think if we had to be truthful withour selves all our work (and I mean ALL of us) builds on the foundations of past sf/fantasy. The genre has its own conventions and shaping influences - it's why the work of some the 'literati' who pour scorn on sf and then write it, claiming that 'it's not science fiction' often read rather like 1930's fan-fic with literary pretentions. (Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood spring to mind - actually, Margaret, Squids in Space represent less than 0.0001% of the sf books I've read. Precisely 2 books, one of which, Mother of Demons, where the squids are not in space, is a better philosophical / sociological piece of sf than just about anything else written in the last 40 years) And - with the exception of sf-writers who have developed that terrible ailment Literaripretentitus themselves - only read and enjoyed by the sort of reader who would never lower themselves to sf. In other words, unsophisticated sf-readers without a background in the conventions of the genre, so they think these works good and original. I suppose this might imply that someone who came at this afresh from a non-sf background might produce something new and exciting. I've seen a few non-readers attempts over the years. (I used to be a fairly active member of Critters.) In most cases it is very easy to ID the movie/TV series that they were drawn from - or the youthful brush with HG Wells or Verne or a cheap pulp story. (You can't escape some form of sf. It is pervasive, often in the worst form.) Where I think there really are some exciting possibilities is where writers learn the conventions and foundation of the genre, but also cross-fertilise from others (yes, unlike Ms. Winterson and Atwood, I think one can learn and adapt a great deal from other genres, and one should read a fair selection from them, rather than sneer from ignorance. Each of them has value. Romance, Mystery, Horror, even modern literary novels. To believe otherwise is akin to xenophobia, which is fine for stupid bigots, but not really something to aspire to). Or where they draw a different cultural background into the mixture. We've seen a little Japanese and Chinese creeping into fantasy particularly, but I think the sleeping giant is probably India, where English is widely read and understood, and is often a first language, but the culture is as unique as European or Chinese or African - without the language wall.

Anyway - I've strayed from what got me onto this topic - I was working on a proposal for a fantasy story... and getting the cald grue. It all worked. It actually seemed to be fitting into a pre-ordained path. I knew precisely where the story was going.
It's an unusual aspect of a very well-known mythology- but we know it from its derivative or its medieval derivative of that derivative version, and the authors that went there went down one layer, not two (at least as far as I know). But I felt I was borrowing a narrative from something else I'd read. When Kate gets here, her even more extensive knowledge of fantasy than mine is in for a grilling. I've had this before - where I thought I had a great idea and story line and several people told me 'that's Stargate' - which I had not at that stage come across. What I had come across and been influenced by is what I suspect was at least one of the original seeds for that - ONE STEP FROM EARTH.

So: how do you stop yourself from doing this? I'm a mass of the imprints of several hundred thousand books inside that gurgling splurting grey goo I call my brain. They muddle and mix and churn. And, duh, sometimes I swear because of the influences you find yourself 'channeling' other writers (I wrote something - far less well - than Sir Terry Pratchett, that he published 10 years after I'd written it. No. He DID NOT STEAL MY IDEA. We just obviously had some of the same influences. I was pleased.) And do others of you channel yourselves deliberately down a style and voice by immersing in that author or authors? (ie for the WIZARD of KARRES - I read (surprise) nothing but James H Schmitz, for several weeks before and for the duration. For DRAGON'S RING, I 'coloured' myself with Scott Rohan, Zelazny, Beagle, Nix and DWJ, for SLOW TRAIN, Heinlein (duh, surprise) Clarke, Niven, Simak and Harry Harrison's CAPTIVE UNIVERSE)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

E-Books in the news -- again

This week has been an interesting one on the e-book front. Amazon released its latest version of the Kindle. The Kindle boards have been alive with anticipation -- and frustration -- as all those who ordered the first day waited on the UPS truck to come down the road. As I read some of the posts, all I could think of was that scene from The Music Man where a very young Ron Howard lisped his way through "Wells Fargo Wagon" as he and the rest of the town waited for the delivery of the band instruments. Of course, there were the subsequent posts about how wonderful the new Kindles are, about the ones that didn't live up to expectations and the wails of despair because their Kindle had yet to be delivered.

But the new Kindle wasn't the only bit of news surrounding e-books this week. There has been a lot of speculation the last few years about whether e-books are really here to stay or if they were just the latest flash in the pan. People have predicted the tipping point for e-books has been everything from just around the corner to years down the road. Well, my friends, I have a feeling it is closer than we think. Laura Lippman's new book, I'd Know You Anywhere, went on sale the 17th of this month. The sales figures for the first week show that the electronic version of the book outsold the hard copy version. And it wasn't by just a few copies. For that first week, 4,739 e-books were sold of the title as compared to 4,000 hard covers.

“This is the first book of ours of any consequence that has sold more e-books than hardcovers in the first week,” said Frank Albanese, a senior vice president at HarperCollins. “What we’re seeing now is that if a book gets a good review, it gets a faster lift on the digital side than it does on the physical side because people who have e-readers can buy and read it immediately.” The same article notes that e-books sales have risen to approximately 8% total revenue this year for the leading publishers as opposed to 3 - 5% for the same period last year. More importantly, by the end of 2012, these same publishers forecast that e-book sales will comprise 20 - 25% of their total revenue. Yeah, I think e-books are here to stay.

What struck me as truly interesting in the comment by Albanese above is the phrase "first book of ours of any consequence". Call me paranoid, but it sounds to me like this isn't a new development for HC. It's just the first time it's happened with one of their best sellers. And, because it has, they can no longer deny the existence of e-books. What will be interesting is to see how HC and the other major publishers react as this trend becomes more and more the norm.

WSJ had another article about e-books and e-readers, this time looking at reading habits. I'm sure you remember the uproar a few years ago when a couple of studies came out decrying the decline in reading in the U.S. Well, according to preliminary research, "[p]eople who buy e-readers tend to spend more time than ever with their nose in a book." The reason, with so many gadgets able to display e-books -- everything from dedicated e-book readers to smart phones to net books and so on -- people read in places they didn't before: check out lines at the market, etc.

Now, before you point out the study that came out earlier this year about people reading slower on e-book devices, I'll say I agree with the WSJ article that part of the reason may be the technology of turning an e-page. But there is another reason, at least for me. It is a lot easier with a physical book to skim pages, skipping over those massive infodumps to get to the juicy action, than it is with an e-book. You simply thumb through the pages, scanning for the return to action. It is a familiar action for almost all of us. It is something we have to learn how to do with an e-book -- at least in my case. And, to be honest, I hope it's one I don't learn because I'm enjoying reading every word an author wrote -- usually.

So, what do you think? Are we reaching the tipping point with e-books? Did you find the "books of consequence" language by Frank Albanese as interesting as I did? And what about your reading habits/purchasing habits? Have they changed over the years and, if you are the owner of an e-book reader or a device that lets you read e-books, has that changed your habits? Inquiring minds want to know.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Happy Birthday Dave!!!!!!!!!!!!

May you write much and live long. May your cares be few, your books many (this is utterly selfish of me) and your descendants countless and all good sorts. And may you always wake up excited about the new day.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Legs of Passion

I've been doing a little brainstorming lately thinking about the things that all contribute to my own passion for writing. Humans are complex organisms and there are many elements.

Not to say you could not break this down any way you choose, but these are the categories that I came up with. I broke it down into the six 'legs' of the writing table.

The first leg was love of story. Ideas really propel me, but it often takes a bit of inspiration to drive them: interesting non-fiction, good books, films, other weird ideas or what ifs. Character is another driver. I don't think most of the MGC writers need help to get their characters to come out to play, but often mine do get a stale kind of feel. To try and reconnect I often let myself go a little left of field and explore their backstory a little more extensively - it's amazing how often this helps to solve plot problems.

Putting more humour into your story or dialogue is another fun thing to do. Depending on your inclination, plotting out maps and drawing the street plans of cities, or painting characters and settings is also a good way to get enthused. Look for movies or books or art that inspire you for the piece you are writing.

My second leg was the excitement of a potential market. Where are you thinking of sending your work? What publishers are doing great things in your genre? I find having a potential market in mind - a deadline is even better! - to be really motivating. I love writing with some destination in mind, like a themed anthology for example. Hunt for books at the local bookshop or library. Find something that excites you then research the publisher. Think of this as a potential market.

The third leg was health and energy. Yes, we are human animals. Health is often neglected by writers, but has a huge impact energy levels. Sleep. Strangely most people need it. The quality of your food, the amount of rest you get. What do you do for stress reduction? That's important as well. How about exercise? Small amounts of low impact activity have been well demonstrated to have large positive effects. Walk the dog.

The fourth leg is support. Share your dreams with the people you love, reach out to other writers. Go out to crit groups even if its just for coffee and a bitch. Open as much communication as you can. Go to cons. Meet other writers. This is important, and also neglected, often by new writers. That's why the impact of your first convention as a writer can be overwhelming and a revelation at the same time.

The fifth leg is belief. Dream. Don't be afraid. Create your future in your mind. Look at your stories critically, examine their strengths and their weaknesses. When you send out your work, know it well enough to believe in it - if you know it well you will be able to immediately rebut unfair critique or review. Stay positive. One thing is for certain, if you don't have your work out there you will not publish.

And lastly, the sixth leg, celebrate! Many writers are perfectionists with impossibly high standards. When you do achieve a success milk it for all it's worth! Take the family out for dinner. Go to the cafe and have that piece of cake. Take 10mins and just look wistfully into space. Take the time to recharge. Have a break and rest - knowing that you have taken one more step on the path.

OK. Well there is my brain dump for this week:)

Have I forgotten any legs? Remember - leave off one leg and the writing table falls over! And I'm not coming over to clean up the mess!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Stop the world I want to get off

We've all heard something like that plenty of times, and most of us have felt that way at least once (In my case, that's once a day, but I'm 'special'). But is it really a good idea to step out of the chaos and become an onlooker?

When you watch, you can see things you'd miss if you were in the middle of the action - but you don't get to feel it. Sometimes that's a hell of a lot easier.

So, right now, I'd like to get off the whirlwind tour of "things in life that suck boulders through coffee stirrers", but - me being a mad writer - there's a part of me that's still observing the emotional roller-coaster ride and taking notes for future writing. But I still want to get off. I'm heading to Australia in a bit less than a week, and I'm exhausted. I need time to step back a little and absorb it all.

Yes, I'm whining. I've had a hell of a time lately, and while I'm sure it's a very valuable experience to know how it feels to hear that your mother has had a stroke, and I'm sure that sensation of my stomach burrowing through the soles of my feet will find its way into my writing somewhere, right now I just want it all to stop.

Meantime - how many of you have wanted to step away from everything for a while? Do you think it's a good thing? A bad thing? Or am I just in meltdown and need to be kicked in the butt and told to get on with it?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Wake UP!

What should it be permissible to think? What can we allow people to believe? What should never be whispered, even in the dark? How can we shut down people who think incorrect thoughts?

If you are giving serious thought to those questions, congratulations. You are an authoritarian and the only thing distinguishing you from Stalin is that you lack the power to enforce your wishes.

So, why do I start the blog with those questions? Because (yes, that again) I’ve been Heinlein blogging and it made me think of heresy and the price of being an heretic and what I always thought was the whole point of science fiction and fantasy.

The first Science Fiction book I ever read was Have Space Suit Will Travel, but that’s not important right now. The workings of the family in it were so “natural” to what my real family was like (no, not the same, but on a continuum) that it never occurred to me there was anything fantastic about it. Oh, the space thing was cool, but it wasn’t that far off. We’d gone to the moon, right?

The next sf/f (turns out fantasy, though the spine said Science Fiction) book I read was Out Of Their Minds by Clifford Simak. And that was the one that captured me into reading the genre, partly because it shocked me to the core.

Picture a child raised in a religiously conformist society who is all of a sudden faced with the idea that the devil might be created or at least shaped by human minds. I didn’t know the phrase but “blew my mind” would be appropriate. And then I went in search of more books like that. I wanted to see what other heretical thoughts people had. I wanted to know what avenues of reasoning I’d missed.

Over the next few years I must have read hundreds of science fiction books, many of them the inevitable load of nonsense, but all of them interesting and different, because if they weren’t I’d set them down and go find one that was. My being young and of a romantic disposition I was inevitably attracted to those ideas whose appeal seems to be baked in to the human race: a superior civilization before ours; aliens who can guide us; universal peace. But the truly irresistible books – to me – were the ones that turned those thoughts on their heads: A Canticle For Leibowitz, with its hint of circular time; Childhood’s End, with the aliens that “guide” us; City where the universal peace exists only in the absence of humanity.

I might reject the thesis utterly, but I enjoyed thinking in unusual directions. On my own, I came up with the thesis that Heinlein proposed at Denvention: the purpose of science fiction, in so far as it had a purpose, was to limber up minds. This was needed because humans are creatures of dogma and tradition (shush. We’ll get to that) who take a long time – as a species – to change direction, and because the pace of human technological discovery is changing life faster than normal human society can adapt. Our social behavior is being required to race faster than evolution prepared us to do. Science Fiction -- I thought, after observing the behavior of friends who read sf/f and those who didn’t -- made the mind more adaptable, so we could better deal with challenges.

But it is not like that now. Part of it is because – see above – the human animal is one of dogma and “fitting in”. You can see how this would be important in our evolutionary history. The hominid band where there were more opinions than members would be at a great disadvantage when facing a cohesive one. (This by the way is why I think everyone tends to romanticize the idea of a “great leader”. It’s built into us. But that’s a side avenue we won’t explore right now.)

Given time and the ability to ossify, the establishment absorbs the young Turks. Either they subdue or the young Turks become the establishment and their mad, wild ideas become the new enforced and enforceable conformity. Think of it as the oyster laying down a barrier between itself and the irritant inside the shell. (If you think the results aren’t as pretty as a pearl, you haven’t paid much attention to award banquets. The sparkly dresses, alone...)

The other part of it is that the young Turks, as they age, want recognition. If I hear one more SF person telling us that their goal is to be taken seriously by the literary establishment, I’m going to hurl. (I have a degree in literature. The literary establishment are those people who have so successfully made their books boring that they need to be assigned for anyone to read them.)

And the other part is something more basic and human, the need to enforce “conformity” and “right thinking”.

If you’re shaking your head and saying this is not true and you can write about whatever you want to – WHICH world have you come from, and do they have an easy immigration application?

Sure, you can write about whatever you want to. By law no one can stop you. Humans don’t need the law to stop other humans thinking saying or doing things. Look at smoking. Perfectly legal, after 21 (!) but not nearly as many people do it as in the fifties. Science? Bah. The normal person doesn’t give a hang about science. Indoctrination and conformity.

In sf/f what stops most of us from writing truly heretical works is knowing it will never get published. (Look, they’re called gatekeepers for a reason.) And no, it is not because the heretical wouldn’t sell. Rumor in the field has it that John Norman’s Gor books were still bringing in the cash, but he stopped being published because they were in bad taste. (Disgusting? Of course they were. And that’s just the grammar. The ideas... are ridiculous. But don’t go claiming any higher purpose in suppressing them. Most men I know who read them were not going to be influenced by the things. They provided a pressure valve, maybe, but if these men ever got a woman to look at them, they’d treat her like a queen.)

This was brought to the fore by listening, in passing, to a comment yesterday about Pirates of the Caribbean asking if the new Hollywood screen writer contracts require women to rescue themselves. Someone said, “no, they don’t, but–” But the conformity is there, the stultifying conformity, without which you’ll get nowhere. (Mind you, my women tend to rescue themselves, but that’s because it’s boring otherwise. However chickie in P of C couldn’t rescue her way out of a paper bag – as proven by her abandoning the trunk she’d be told to guard to go try to stop the men fighting [spit] )

We all censure ourselves before it gets to the gatekeepers, of course. Some of it is simply because we think we’ll reach more people that way. But some of the self-censuring is ridiculous and would surprise our would be readers, if they knew what gatekeepers turn books back for. I’ve heard of books rejected because: the character isn’t a lesbian (no, it wasn’t a specialty line); communism is described as an evil system in them; a character grieves “too much” over her murdered fiancé (not that this paralyzes her, but she, you know, gives a damn the man she was going to marry is dead.)

Don’t even get me started on “scientific” conformity. Suppose you want to write a novel in which statistics are a dog’s breakfast and the human population world wide has already started to fall. Will it get accepted? Does it have a chance of seeing the light of day? Don’t make me laugh. “Everyone knows” about the “population bomb”. (And no one knows how statistics are produced in third world countries. Well, no one in a publisher’s office.)

How about truly heretical notions, even if you support them in the text: mankind came from the stars; there are aliens among us, controlling our every thought; women are naturally inferior to men (for a fun experiment guess how fast a book will get published that proposes the opposite!); religion was programmed into mankind by the creator.

There are successful, classical novels for all of those. Heck, there are multiples for all of those. From back in the time when science fiction was vibrant and, what was that word? – oh, yeah, READ.

But now, no one would dare publish those. Pity the gatekeepers. They’d be afraid of being shouted down and called racist, sexist, anti-science and possibly uncouth. Which is why 99% percent of sf (and much of the fantasy) published today is pap for restless infants who want to be lulled to sleep – yet again – with the same old story. When a book is called “daring” for positing that all races are equally capable (yes, I had this for my third published book) you have to wonder how far the rot goes. Daring? Because what? All those people who believe in one race’s supremacy will shut me out of jobs and housing? Daring would be to write that in the thirties. Less so, given the avant-guard nature of the then literary establishment, but still notable in the fifties, sixties and seventies. After that, it’s just mouthing the same old platitudes. (And no, that wasn’t the point of the book. Just a critic’s notion.) Which is why SF is bleeding readers. There is only one unforgivable sin in writing – to bore the reader. It’s time we got past the little tin-pot Stalins and dared read (and write) stuff that shocks and thrills and interests people again.

For heretical ideas, I recommend: Simak’s Cosmic Engineers; Arthur C. Clark’s Childhood’s End; Walter Miller Jr A Canticle For Leibowitz; Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment (yes, I know, but you have to dig for the ideas. Stealthing they are); Heinlein’s Glory Road; Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.

What are your favorite heresies? And what are the ideas that make you recoil at the thought that someone, somewhere is thinking them? Let’s discuss and explore this. It is in those ideas that the powder keg lies that can wake up those who fell asleep reading us.

Add on to World Con post.

While I think of it. I'm doing a KoffeeKlatche on Friday at 10 am. Would someone PLEASE turn up?
You can book here.

Also I see Dave is doing a Reading at 1pm on Friday. How about we turn up for the reading to cheer him on, then retire to the coffeeshop or the bar afterwards for chat? Who would like to do that?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

World SF Convention

Most of the time we writers view the world through our little window, while we tap away on our keyboards.

Once a year, if we're lucky we escape to an SF convention, once every 10 years, if you live in Australia, you can escape to a World SF Con!

Aussiecon 4 is being held in Melbourne, September 2nd to 6th, 2010.

I went to the last Aussiecon in 99 and the one before in 85 and I just missed the one in 75. I arrived in Melbourne at the tender age of 18 in 76, and thought nothing of moving halfway across Australia and branching out on my own (with Paul Collins).

So I've I've been a member of Fandom attending conventions for almost 35 years. And I'm still having fun!

Here's the link to the Worldcon program

Dave, Kate and Chris and I will be there. If you are in Australia or are planning to come to Australia for the World SF Con and would like to catch up in person, leave a comment and we'll try to organise a time and place!

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Weird Aunt theory

It's Monday, I'm working on proposals, and I am seriously tired and and underslept... so a philosophical post. My sympathies.

One of the advantages of being a self-confessed monkey and idiot, is that makes it so difficult for people to come up with insults for me that I don't eagerly agree with. So I get to pontificate on bizarre and uncomfortable things things that upset people because I brachiate and happily engage in social grooming. Most of the human race part of the population of the planet find this demeaning and degrading and never invite me to dinner, because I will point out that in evolutionary terms they're pretty close to monkeys, especially in terms of social behavior.

Now, baboon troops - I've spent a fair amount of time watching and being fascinated by - have complex heirarchies... but basically to translate into layers of wanna-be-top. Imitation and brown-nosing the top is pretty slavish, with the Beta males trying to be just like the alpha, but clearly lesser so they don't threaten Alpha (despite the fact that this is what they dream of doing, or possibly starting a troop of their own as a plan B) Beneath them you have yet another tier who cling to each of the Betas (unless of course the Alpha turns on the Beta.). If the Alpha as much as wonders who will rid him of this turbulent priest, a few Betas will do it. If a Beta decided he dislikes a young pre-fertile female - well, she'd better find shelter with another Beta, or the Beta's camp-followers will kill her, usually in a mob and cruelly, rather like a Pogrom-behavior pattern. Which is an intrinsically conservative situation, which tends to focus on keeping the current status quo, both in heirarchy and what the troop does. And of course the bottom of the pyramid just keeps its head down and tries to stay alive. And the troop continues. Every now and again the Alpha gets too old... and it all starts all over again. Except of course there is a purge of the blood kin and those who supported the old Alpha. Nothing the old Alpha did or favored is possibly good, even though in actual fact nothing changes except the leadership.

But there are one other group in the troop who are mostly un-noticed but actually shape the destiny of that troop. Often in baboon circles they're post-reproductive females, but not always. I call them the Weird Aunts. You have the male equivalent too, sometimes, but they don't mind if you call them Weird Aunts too. I asked. The Weird Aunts do a lot in the troop, often child-care (which is pretty important allowing lactating mothers to feed), or have other skills. Finding termites, or tubers that others just don't. They don't fit neatly into the layers of heirarchy. They do different things because they can, and because they're different. They're the agents of change and social evolution. They're to a large extent outside the heirachy. But they walk a thin line between being useful and tolerated, and pissing off the Powers-that-Be. They're not usually, as genes go, terribly successful at passing on theirs (and that's a key measure of success in troop, rather like money in humans), but, because troops are interelated, and troops don't have them, fail, Weird Aunts crop up, again and again. They undoubtably irritate the Alpha. But he's a little hamstrung because many of the troop would turn on him if he got too shirty with the Weird Aunts (or uncles). Besides that the Weird Aunts are capable of a nasty bite. Occassionally he'll try the turbulent priest technique to get rid of them. It's a risky strategy, though.

It's quite a metaphor for human societies too - whether you're talking about countries or scientists or businesses or knitting-circles. You've got the Alpha's the Beta's and the Beta's camp followers and then the rest(okay oversimplified. This is a post not a thesis). While the Alpha may change or may superficially be different - call it Mein Kampf or Das Kapital, Daily Kos or Fox News - it's still the same heirarchy. The same dissing of the others and the predecessor. The same turbulent priest techniques. And the same Weird Aunts.

Which is where this comes back to writing. You see some writers are Weird Aunts - somewhat outside the rules and brown-nosing, writing outside current trends and fashions. Others are Alphas, or Betas or Beta camp followers. When it gets really interesting is when a Weird Aunt is (or becomes) an Alpha (this doesn't happen that often. Weird Aunts don't care enough about status to persue it, and it needs to be persued. Weird Aunts already know they are valuable... RAH was my idea of a 'Weird Aunt' who ended up as an Alpha. (which is why some of the current Alphas are whispering to their Betas about how bad he was, and Betas are whipping their camp followers into the fray). Jack Vance, and Sir Terry Pratchett (although he may become a postumous Alpha, when he's not around to kick the idea into touch. He is one of the great satirists of the last 100 years) are my idea of Weird Aunts. As Kate pointed out, they make readers think for themselves, and do not push pre-digested current alpha-pap down their throats (I might point out though, that having travelled the world and speaking 13 languages can still leave you a Beta camp-follower, and living out your days in Kansas might make you a free-thinking great weird aunt though. Or a Weird Great Aunt). That pap can be tasty, possibly nourishing and if you're Beta or Beta camp-follower you will tell us it's delicious and try to produce the same.
At the bottom of pyramid you get whatever they're handing out, or go without. Or get something odd from the Weird Aunts.

It's my ambition to be a Weird Aunt. No, I'll never be RAH or TP. Or Jack Vance... I told you I am a monkey and an idiot to boot. But I do wonder how one stays useful enough to be immune from Alpha rage, and of course what makes a good writer Weird Aunt? I think writing things which require reader input helps for the latter, as does questioning everything (which are things I do), but I am blowed if I know how to evade the former. I must admit to no vast desire to be one, if that helps. I'd just like to write and make a living.

Do you think I'd look good with a violet rinse? Pearls? twinset? Tea in little bone-china cups? or am I kind of weird Aunt who wears a stained painting smock, Doc Martins, festoons of beads from Marrakesh and smokes small cigars?

What do you want to be?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

We are not all the same.

The problems surrounding Barnes & Noble, and so many other bookstores around the country, started me thinking. Yes, that's dangerous. You never know what will happen when my brain strains and begins trying to work. If you wan, you can blame Chris K because his comment to yesterday's post is what started me down this track. Still, you guys can come out of your bunkers. You're safe -- at least as long as you aren't buyers for the big box bookstores or the corporate suits that run them.

Let me start by saying I love bookstores. I grew up with a wonderful locally owned bookstore that took much more of my money as a teen and twenty-something than any other store in the area. This bookstore, sandwiched into a small store front next to a grocery store, still managed to have just about any book you could want. Why? Because the owners listened to their customers and ordered to meet demands. There were magazines of local interest. Non-fiction books of all sorts. Fiction was well represented and, miracle of miracle, there was a wonderful selection of science fiction and fantasy that highlighted not only the "masters" but the up-and-coming authors of the 70's and 80's as well. There was no coffee bar. If you wanted to sit, you found a place on the floor. But no one minded. This was a place to come and find a book, maybe spend a few minutes to talk with the owners. It was also a place to meet authors because the owners knew how important it was to build relationships between the readers and the authors they liked. In short, the owners knew their client base and knew how to market to them.

Fast forward now 2o some years. National news carried the story of the largest independent bookstore to open in years. That store, located in Dallas, came in with great plans and did wonderful promotions. But, unfortunately, it didn't last. The downswing in the economy didn't help. Neither did a location that didn't bring in the foot traffic a bookstore needs. Fortunately, the owners aren't giving up. They will be reopening under a new name and in a much better location after the first of the year. Why? Because there is a demand for a bookstore that pays attention to what local readers want.

So what makes these stores different from the big box stores? That's easy, really. It's the same thing that makes locally run libraries different from those that have been outsourced (Yes, there are libraries that have been outsourced. It is something we faced the potential of in my hometown. The selling point -- it would be just like Walmart). Now, don't get me wrong. I have nothing against Walmart. The issue really is that bookstores, like libraries, should reflect the community they are in. That becomes a problem when you have purchases controlled from a central office. That problem only increases when that same office tells you to pull books from the shelves if they aren't selling well enough across the country. It doesn't matter if they are still selling well in your store.

I remember when the first Barnes & Noble opened in my area. Like so many others, I was thrilled. Why? Because of the sheer number of books offered. Yeah, I liked the idea of having a coffee shop there. But then, if I'm addicted to anything, it's coffee and books. So there was finally a place where I could fee both my habits. Back then, there weren't big box stores on every corner. The next closest B&N or Borders was almost 20 miles away. Yes, there were B. Dalton and Waldenbooks stores in the malls. But those never really counted -- at least not as "local" bookstores.

So, what's changed? Well, the market has been saturated, at least down here, between B&N and Borders. Every mall -- and, man, do we have malls -- has one or the other major bookseller in them. Then there are others, located in shopping centers throughout the metroplex. There are 20 B&N stores in a 50 mile radius of my home. There are 25 Borders. As a reader, that should thrill me. But it doesn't. Why? Because I won't find any major difference between any of them. The books will be the same. Oh, one store might have more copies of one book than another, but there won't be any major stock differences. Worse -- and this is especially true of Borders -- the amount of stock (books) has been drastically decreased over the last year or so. There are toys and gifts and all sorts of gee gaws. But books? Not so much. And certainly not if you're looking for something that isn't a best seller.

They'd have us believe people aren't reading as much as before. If that was the case, the circulation numbers of libraries would be going down. I don't know about the rest of the country but here, numbers are increasing with every year that passes. When you ask library patrons why they are using the library, they often say it's because they can't afford to pay the price of books these days. So they borrow that new hard cover from the library to see if they like it. If they do, they might, MIGHT, go out to buy it. More than likely, if they do, they order it from Amazon for a discount, or buy it at a used bookstore, or -- gasp -- buy it from a used bookstore.

What's the solution? I'm not sure, but it has to happen industry-wide. Publishers have to find a happy medium between the outrageous prices for hard covers they want and what the pubic is willing to pay. Bookstores have to go back to their roots. In this case, the readers. They need to go to regional purchasing so they can take the greatest advantage of their customer base. They need to downsize -- both in the size of their stores and in the numbers. When you saturate a market and there is no competition in pricing between you and "that other chain", people will look for other alternatives -- Amazon, the local library, used bookstores. Most of all, as readers, and as purchasers, we need to vote with our wallets. That is the only language the corporate suits seem to understand, and that not always well.

What do you see as the issues facing these stores today? Any thoughts on how they might survive? And how do we, as writers, survive the fall-out in the meantime?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Saturday on the Links

Calm down, Chris K. I'm not talking about playing golf. It's too hot for that. No, I'm talking internet links. Here for your reading pleasure and, hopefully, to stimulate conversation, are some links to what's been happening in the publishing world this week.

In case you've been away from all forms of media, Barnes & Noble is rumored to be putting itself up for sale. The company founder and, iirc, chairman of the board, Leonard Riggio is in a battle with Ron Burke for control of the company. This article from Reuters notes that the fall-out from lower than expected earnings and in-fighting may have detrimental effects on the potential sale of the big box chain.

Jodi Picoult has taken on the NYT, claiming it is biased toward male writers. According to this post, Picoult tweeted the following: NYT raved about Franzen's new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren't white male literary darlings. It is possible this is a case of sour grapes after receiving a fairly scathing review from NYT. Still, is this something an author should be doing? More to the point, would a mid-list or new author be able to do something like this and get away with it?

Censorship also reared its ugly head again. If you haven't heard already, author Ellen Hopkins was un-invited to the Teen Lit Fest in Humble, TX. This is after she's made other appearances there -- without incident. I'll let Hopkins' own words explain what happened:

Apparently, a middle school librarian saw my name on the roster and decided my presence would somehow negatively affect her students. I’m not sure how that is possible. Maybe she thinks I sweat “edgy and dark.” (Are those things catching?) Anyway, she went to a couple of parents with her concerns. I’m guessing she knew the exact ones who would raise a stink, and they did. They went to the school board, and the superintendent, Guy Sconzo, decided to uninvite me. (He says I was never invited, but I was!)

You know, I’m kind of getting used to this, and I had just about decided not to make a big deal about it. But then another Texas librarian, who is a great supporter, e-mailed Mr. Sconzo. His reply was arrogant and condescending and really made me mad, on two fronts. First, he admitted he “relied on his head librarian’s research” in regard to my books or me or both. Meaning he never bothered to read them himself. (Censors rarely do!) Never bothered to contact me with his concerns. Didn’t listen to the other librarians who lobbied heavily to keep me on the speaker roster, or ask other teen book festival organizers about their experiences with me.

But that's not the end of the story. Other authors who had been invited to the Teen Lit Fest, upon hearing what happened, have pulled out to show their support of Hopkinsl. From the Publishers Weekly blog: In the last few days, four authors who were also scheduled to appear at the festival—Pete Hautman, Melissa de la Cruz, Matt de la Peña, and Tera Lynn Childs—announced in quick succession that they were also withdrawing. “What is important is that a handful of people – the superintendent, the one (one!) librarian, and “several” (three? five?) parents – took it upon themselves to overrule the vast majority of teachers and librarians and students who had chosen one of the most popular YA authors in America to be their headliner,” wrote Hautman in a blog post. “That is a form of censorship as damaging and inexcusable as setting fire to a library.” And on her blog, de la Cruz wrote, “I believe that as a writer, we have to stick up for each other, and against censorship, and against people who want to tell everyone else what to think, what to read, what to watch.”

Finally, for the gadget geeks and gawkers out there, news of two new tablets coming to your hot little hands soon. The first is a Chrome OS tablet from Google, scheduled for the end of November. The second comes from HP. It is due out the beginning of next year. Look out, Apple. It looks like there might be some real alternatives to the iPad soon.

So, any thoughts about any of these links? Do you have other publishing related news you want to discuss? The floor is now yours.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Wonderful Land of Uwritopia! (Why do you Write?)

OK. Here is a hypothetical for you. You live in the land Uwritopia. In this land, people with ideas are praised above all others. The storytellers in this land produce their work through a magical process.

The storyteller, once having arrived at their idea, muses on it while servants massage their feet and they sip cocktails with little umbrellas. Once the story is fully formed, the storyteller taps their temple twice, and crooks their little finger in a special (secret) gesture. Immediately that glorious conception - a masterwork - springs to life on the editor's desk - fully formed - and complete in every way. None of this scratching for years to get something that comes half way!

The storyteller's bank account is immediately credited with a generous percentage of the country's GDP (I'm thinking 1% should be fine) - creativity having been recognised as the most vital attribute of Uwritopian society.

Breathing a sigh of replete satisfaction, the writer settles back down to their banana lounge and signals the adoring serving staff for another cocktail.

Does this sound appealing? If it doesn't, then why not? Would you immediately book your ticket to Uwritopia, or would you shudder and grab hold of the nearest heavy object to prevent the smiling ambassadors of Uwritopia (who have been stalking you), getting their manicured clutches on you?

If, like me, you find this image somehow disturbing, what exactly is it that is missing from the picture? Is the experience of writing, the crafting, the striving - is that what you find yourself longing for when confronted by this scenario?

The Prophet Gets No Respect

Sarah's been blogging up a storm over on Tor.com for the new Heinlein biography, along with a bunch of - no surprise here - Tor authors. It shouldn't surprise anyone who reads here that the discussion has been a tad... shall we say contentious? There seems to be a Rule (one of those rules no-one ever talks about but applies all the time) that any discussion about Heinlein will inevitably degenerate into name-calling and snarky implications that those who like Heinlein are racist, sexist, and quite possibly eat babies for breakfast (Please. Babies for breakfast is so passe).

It's actually rather amusing to watch the frothing at the mouth that starts up any time someone dares mention Heinlein in a favorable light without the cop out backhand "man of his time" excuse. See, that particular argument is horribly misused most of the time. It's used to dismiss the visionary aspects of someone's achievements because they - duh - had some of the blind spots of their era. Instead, it should be a recognition of how extraordinary the achievements are in view of the time when they occurred.

Of course, that's not what causes the frothing. It's that Heinlein forces you to think. My experience is that very few people willingly examine their assumptions about how the world works. The folks here at MGC are something of an exception for a number of reasons, not least of which is that of the six of us, half of us have uprooted and moved to another country. Another reason is even simpler - much of the debate about Heinlein, genre fiction - and even Western culture - is US-centered. Amanda is the only regular MGC poster who is 'Merkin by birth. Sarah and I adopted the place, Dave is South African recently relocated to Australia, and Rowena and Chris are Aussies. Even Amanda isn't 'typical' 'Merkin - she's traveled to parts of the world most USians couldn't find on a map, and even learned other languages. Our readers are a mixed bunch, too - which we appreciate.

Why do I mention this? Because someone who's moved country, or who does a lot of work with people from a different country, is in a situation where their assumptions about how the world operates get questioned or they get smacked in the face with evidence to the contrary.

This is of course a staple of fiction, forcing a character to question and change their world view, but it's an uncomfortable thing when it happens to you. Most people get very aggressive-defensive when their basic ideas are challenged - and funnily enough that's the exact tone of the anti-Heinlein frothing.

And that, dear reader, is the reason why there is a proverb to the effect that the prophet is without honor in his own country. He's - pretty much by definition - challenging people to confront their deepest assumptions. If people can't just dismiss him, they get aggressive and try to belittle him by any means available.

Heinlein - obviously - is one of SF and fantasy's prophets. Pratchett is another. Who would you nominate?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Blessing Of The Vile Metal

Hello, my name is Sarah A. Hoyt and I’m a writer. I suspect I was born a writer and I hope some time in the future they find gene therapy to prevent such disastrous birth defects.

I’m always either writing or thinking about writing. Characters drop into my head, at times, to make my life miserable by simultaneously demanding I write them and not telling me things I need to know.

I am also a vile capitalist – card carrying – and I write for money. Despite all the various schemes that various enlightened people have come with to ensure a society where no one would need to ever work, I think I’m a better writer because I write for money.

I can see a bunch of you quirking your eyebrows. I wish you wouldn’t do it. What would your mother say if your forehead froze like that?

Toni Weisskopf told me once to never tell anyone I would write for free. I hope she forgives me, because I must tell you that I would. In that utopian world (just remember utopia means nowhere) where every tear shall be wiped away and everyone gets everything they need for free from the machines or the humunculus or whatever, I’d probably keep a schedule pretty similar to now. Only if I could get the machines or the magic or whatever to cook, clean, iron and do litter boxes, I could write MORE. Everyone else would be lazing about, and I’d be in front of the computer, having the time of my life. (Yes, even when this is expressed by hitting my head on the desk and groaning. It’s part of the er... process.) I realized how bad I wanted it when I was daydreaming about winning the lottery and I thought "wow. I'd have so much more time to write, then."

However, what I wrote would likely come out very... odd. Look, I’m as apt as the next fellow to get lost in my own head, captive of my own fantasy. And the next fellow in this case is probably John Norman. (Note I wouldn’t get captive of his fantasy because EW.)

These musings are the direct result of my reading Robert A. Heinlein’s biography – the first volume, Learning Curve. I noted that he wrote For Us The Living out of love and conviction. But then market realities intervened, and he started writing to sell and that shaped his stories and them... well, first readable and eventually and in the beginning with Campbell's help (THIS IS JUST MY OPINION AND I’M NOT GOING TO ARGUE IT. NOT THAT I’M TOUCHY OR ANYTHING) brilliant.

Why is this important? Because we’re living in a world where you can become published and even “sell enough to fit your ambition” without ever getting an editor who reminds you of market realities. This combined with the fact that say, short stories no longer pay enough to support anyone and that breaking into novels requires both , might create the conditions in which any future Heinlein would get stuck in the For Us The Living phase. This prospect keeps me awake at night.

Left to my own devices, I would still be writing books so profoundly unpublishable that even I don’t want to re-read them.

Instead, I wrote eight books. The first... six... were in a fantasy world people exclusively by an hermaphrodite humanoid species and run on high magic but really science fiction principles. It took me six books and a sharp rejection from – if I never say this again, everyone remember this – Ginjer Buchanan, for which I will forever be grateful to her, for me to snap into focus and realize that I’d gone so far out on a limb with this world building (Well – she says sulkily – it was supposed to say something about the equality of the sexes) that not only was it unlikely and vaguely repulsive but also – to anyone not as immersed as I was – insane. Not in a good way. The last book in this world had forty eight chapters each one by a completely different person. It had a cast of thousands. It... was unreadable. To make things worse – well better, really imagine otherwise – my treatment of sex in this “series” was at my most Victorian. To me the sex didn’t matter, it was the CONCEPT. But of course, the only thing that MIGHT have sold it was if I’d put sex in.

So I pulled back and wrote Big Bright Shiny Machines. It’s a space opera, set roughly in Athena’s world – it will eventually get rewritten. Then I wrote Mirrorplay, a fantasy set in a pre-Cretan world. This was a trilogy crammed into 100k words. This too will eventually get rewritten. The story is good, the crafter, however, was an idiot.

And then I wrote Ill Met By Moonlight. (Well, technically I wrote Darkship Thieves before it, but it wasn’t published till this year. Also, I heavily edited it, before it WAS published.)

The point is, if I had direct access to “publishing” and had gathered even a couple hundred fans – and there are fans for everything, which is kind of a corolary for rule 34, that if you name a form of exoteric porn, fifteen sites spring into being. In the same way if you wrote stories about elves who roam the Earth looking for one-eyed goats, or murder mysteries in which everyone is killed with a paper clip, a fandom for these would immediately spring into being – I would still be writing the early stuff and probably convinced only the worst of bad luck hadn’t allowed me to make it to the big time.

Instead, I spent ten years in the desert, writing novel after novel and emerged, I think, if not with the commandments, at least better for it.

Writing for money forced a certain discipline on me – beyond “I have to stop fooling with this now, deadline was three months ago.” It forces me to try to figure out when I’ve gone too far out on a limb.

Do you ever feel that sort of market pressure? If not, why not? And how do you think it affects your writing? For better or for worse? And what mechanism do you think – and please tell me one because I want to believe there IS one – will keep young writers striving for more, when they can get a couple hundred fans for any drivel they produce?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Wants versus Needs

WARNING: Inception Spoiler

Today in class I was talking about Needs versus Wants in characters and their character arcs, and about how ironic it is when a character achieves what they think they want, only to discover it isn't what they want at all.

In the Lord of the Rings movie, Frodo actually says that he wants an adventure like Bilbo. He is first presented sitting in a field reading a book, daydreaming about adventure.

By the end of the movie he has had his adventure and 'saved the world' and returned home, but he can't remain in the Shire because of what's happened to him (the wound he took on Weathertop still hurts). He has to leave the Shire and ends up going into the West with the Elves.

So he gets his adventure like Bilbo and, like Bilbo, he has to leave Middle Earth, when he would really rather live a normal life. He sails off into legend, into the dream that he longed for, only now he no longer wants it.

I was also thinking about how characters lie to themselves, or don't really know themselves and how this influences what they do. In the movie Inception, when you first see Cobb speak to his children, it is after he spins the top and it falls over. (The top is the totem, if it falls over it means this isn't a dream). So int he real world, he can't be with his children, but it is the thing he wants above all else. At the end of the movie, he spins the top, but doesn't wait to see if it stops spinning, and goes out to be with his children. By the end of the movie, it is more important to him, for him to be with his children, than to be sure this is not a dream. If you accept that the final reality is another dream then his need for his children over-rode his need for reality.

You have to ask yourself, would you have waited to see if the top stopped spinning?

I like irony in character arcs. I enjoy going on a journey with a character and discovering things about them, as they discover things about themselves. The more a character suffers, the more interesting they become for me. And I can forgive them a lot of they are motivated by pure (if misguided) sentiment.

Is the journey that the character takes important for you? Are there certain authors who deliver, whose characters linger in your mind after you've finished the book?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Do you know who I am!?

Self-important author goes to the check-in and demands a business class seat on the plane.
The young lady dealing with repetitive idiot-work for a living puts on her best regretful expression and says: "Sorry, Business class is full, but there is space in cattle class..."
Mr Bumptious (NYT bestselling Bumptious) leans over the counter and says: "Do you know who I am?"
The check-in lass smiles brightly at him, and says: "Oh, I am so sorry, I didn't realise. Hang on a moment and I'll see what I can do to help."
Bumptious leans back on his heels with a self-satisfied smile on his lips, as she picks up the microphone for the PA system and announces: "We have a gentleman here at check-in who doesn't know who he is. Can anyone help him?"

Yeah well. While some of us may be vain enough to delude ourselves that all and sundry will recognise us - possibly from the mugshot - perp 245345 common assualt on the English Language - on the book cover (ha. Most of these relate to someone a lot younger and thinner for some reason. Must be that posing for studio cover pics has a terrible aging and plumpifying* effect on us.) And maybe in some other better organised world business-class would be something we could afford (I probably wouldn't spend the money anyway, because of ingrained Scots Calvinist waste-not, want-not genes) but it does bring me to my topic for today. Sooner or later you will have to tell people who you are. Probably repetitively because as they say: 'once is never enough with a girl you.' I don't think that was orginal sentiment of the song, but it seems to apply to me, because I think I've written about 50 bios by now. Heh. Am I that instantly forgettable? Should I change my name to 'Watchamacallit Thingamagig... You-with-the-skew-nose-and-hairy-knees', just so people can get it right?

Seriously - biographical inserts are something you will have to do, and, because of the nature of publishing you will have to do in a major hurry, although the book has been in prep for 7 months and with 20 minutes in hand before the cover absolutely has to be in (or the text for the short stories need to be at the printer) they have suddenly discovered they don't have it. This is normal. If it doesn't happen prepare for some other even more awful disaster. Trust me on this. So: wisdom has any writer at least thinking about the subject before it is flung at your head, because when it is done on the spur your bio tends to be short, factual and boringly instantly forgettable.

And you cannot afford this.

Like it or not, the reality is NAMES sell books and stories. Part of your job is (no matter how self-effacing and humble you are) is to make readers remember your name. Your name is your trademark, your potentially most valuable property. And your bio is your one brief chance at doing something for yourself, not the publisher, distributor, retailer, or any of the other normal major beneficiaries. Grab it.

Almost all short stories will require a bio from you. Typically they will give you a word-count (often 200 words IIRC). You do not have to write all 200. You do not get paid per word of the bio. You just have to be remembered. If you have some other work out, it pays to advertise. But otherwise I try to tie it to the story, and make the reader smile if not laugh. And I never use the same one twice. Here are a few examples:

For PIRATES OF THE SUARA SEA: Freer grew up as a fisherman's brat, spending his time in trouble on the boat and in the harbour (sometimes the wet part of it) or diving for spiny lobster with other reprobates. He went on to become an Ichthyologist, ending up as the Chief Scientist for the Commercial Shark Fishery in Western Cape, South Africa. This actually meant he spent a lot of his time at sea with people just one step from pirates. (Not sure if it was a step up or down). He drifted into writing because he heard the spelling requirements were easier. They lied. Since then he's authored or co-authored more than twenty works of shorter fiction in various anthologies and leading magazines, and written nine novels some with Eric Flint or Mercedes Lackey, with the tenth, SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS coming out in October. You can find more on www.davefreer.com

For SOOT (about a cat): Dave Freer is a former Ichthyologist/Fisheries Scientist turned sf/fantasy writer. He now has ten books in print, a number of which are co-authored with Mercedes Lackey and/or Eric Flint. He is also the author of about twenty other short stories, and a teens novel. He lives in Zululand, South Africa, where he is permitted to serve four cats. They say he wastes entirely too much time on other things like the writing, cooking, cuddling his fellow cat-slave Barbara, and of course we will not even mention the dogs. Yes, cats do talk.

For the Poet Gnawreate and the Taxman:

Dave Freer: "Hello, my name is Dave and I'm a poet."
"Don't be ashamed Dave. Here at Poets Anonymous you're among friends. And with the sonnet programme and accepting that you were in the grip of a muse greater than yourself, you can free yourself."
"Um. Okay. I used to write meaningful epic poetry during class at school and inflict it onto my unfortunate girlfriends. Yes, friends, there really are such sick people at large out there. But I'm reformed now and with 10 sf/fantasy novels in print which I have either written or co-authored with Eric Flint, or Eric and Mercedes Lackey. I also accept moral responsibility for an increasing number of short stories. All of the above I blame on my cats. Or even in extremis the Old English Sheepdog. I would blame my sons, but they're taller than I am now. What about rock climbing as an excuse? Or having been a Fisheries biologist? Perhaps I can claim it was the influence of the African sun that I live under?"
"Part of freeing yourself of the grip of poetry is accepting responsibility for your own actions."
"Really? Well. I... I like writing. I love amusing and entertaining readers. And writing about the living dead was just perfect for me. They say you should write about what you know about, and until the third cup of coffee I am a zombie."

Anyway, I don't know if those are good or bad examples (I am a wonderful bad example. It is my purpose in life. Every night I can go to bed, satified, knowing that somewhere out there a mother just said to her obnoxious offspring: "If you don't eat your delicious boiled brussel-sprouts you'll turn out like Dave Freer." An awful threat that is followed by frantic gobbling and gagging noises.) I've always hated talking about myself, but the reality is 1)it has to be done. 2)if you want to sell books, people want to know about you. Some of your privacy just left the minute you put that story in the mail.

So: what do you want to see in a bio? Do you read them?
What are the best ways to get your readers to remember you, and uh, to care who you are?

*Of course it's a real word. You just read it didn't you? You aren't a submeson quark only reading unreal words are you?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Reader's Playground

Sorry for being a bit late getting this up, but I'm a bit late getting started. For the first time in ages, I slept in. The explanation is simple: the last few days have been spent in a reader's playground, a very HOT reader's playground, and they've taken their toll. Not that I'm complaining because, hot as it has been, it has been very worthwhile.

You see, this is the annual book sale hosted by the Friends of our local library. This is our major fundraiser each year. This year, it's taken on an even more important role because, come February, we'll be moving into a new building -- one we desperately need. As a result of the upcoming move, our wonderful librarians have been culling through the stacks and gave us a huge number of books to sell. Between that and the donations we've received throughout the year, our best guess is that we have somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 books, videos and cds for sale -- much, too much to set up in the meeting rooms at the library as we've done in the past. Fortunately, a local church has let us set up in their gym. The only downside -- the gym doesn't have air conditioning.

As I helped set up, and as I helped some of those who came in looking for a bargain buy on their favorite books, I came across several books from years ago that sparked special memories or that helped spark my love of reading. There was Cat in the Hat and Are You My Mother?, two of my sons favorite books when he was little. There were a number of books by Taylor Caldwell, one of my father's favorite authors. In fact, I checked several books just to make sure they hadn't somehow managed to teleport from my library at home to the gym. There were a number of the old Ace science fiction paperbacks -- and I'm still kicking myself for not hiding them away for myself.

Last year, the science fiction books didn't sell. This year, that section has been one of the most popular. So the four or five "classics" I had my eye on, went quickly. To give you an idea of how many books we started with in this section and how many had sold by yesterday, the science fiction/fantasy section was located on two of the long cafeteria tables as well as a large round table. The books were three across and standing spine up. Under the table, it was the same setup, except they were also stacked three high. By the time I left last night, almost everything under the tables had been sold or moved to the top of the tables. My best guess is that we've sold somewhere close to 500 or more individual sf/f books so far. And the sale continues this afternoon. That is very promising for someone like me who writes in these genres.

What was surprising was that these older books, the ones that are supposedly no longer in fashion, were the ones that showed the most wear and they are the ones that have been read more often than the new "best sellers". Most surprising of all was who was buying these books -- teens and college students, not people my age who grew up reading the "Masters". When I asked one of them why he was grabbing up all the Simaks and Heinleins he could find, the answer surprised me and shouldn't have. He said the stories are more well-crafted and more entertaining and, in many ways, more believable than what's on the market today. His girlfriend, who had just grabbed up all the Horatio Hornblower books she could find and was moving on to the five David Weber books still available nodded in agreement before adding that she liked Weber because he writes a great stories with characters she could believe in. Then she grinned and added that there also wasn't a sparkly vampire to be found in his books.

So, what do you think? Are the sf/f stories of the past better than what we have today? Why? Also, what current writers in the genre would you say are reflective of what the "Masters" did as storytellers and craftsmen?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Most Sane Madman in the Maddest Madhouse

*Ladies and Gentlemen, Dragons and Wolverines, give a warm mad genius club welcome to a budding writer (I don't care what he says, you judge!) making almost his debut appearance: my son, Marshall Hoyt. (And sorry this is so late. He and I had a miscommunication about where this was).*

If you’ve never heard of me, or are unaware of my existence, I can clear that right up for you. Sarah A. Hoyt will often make references to family members, including the cats…
Unfortunately, the cats are the ones that get called by their actual names. My brother and I, instead, are referred to as the infamous #1 son and #2 son (Respectively).Now, you’ve undoubtedly heard something from #1 son (Or, Robert, as the mentally stable like to call him), but probably have never read anything of mine unless you stalk Mike Kabongo and remember who won his little “Letter to the Editor” contest two years ago. If this is the case, you’re creepier than the guy I portrayed in that letter.

Now despite my mother’s many objections to this point, I am actually not that good of a writer. I either hit upon a very funny style, or an analytical, serious tone in my work. I have tried this “Write from the heart, express your emotions, snort rainbows and kiss unicorns” method that they often insist we use in school (Except in Chemistry, they don’t like it. If you’re getting emotional about the Periodic Table and start crying whenever you hear the name of certain elements they get you put away), but it just doesn’t suit me well and I often go overboard and make it sound like I sacrif iced a goat to the book they assigned us.

Despite this, at the request of my mother, I am your guest this morning… Or afternoon. It really depends on when you people read this, I have yet to observe the migration patterns of writers – one of the deadliest species on earth – so you’re all still such a mystery to me.

Let me just say this right now before any confusion arises: I AM NOT A WRITER. Yes, I am perfectly aware that the other three members of my family are happily in their rooms beating their characters over the head with a stick and writing them into novels and short stories, but I do not do such things with my time.

I refuse to write; mainly because I do not have the aforementioned “Talent” my mother believes I have. Instead spend my time doing things other than writing… like telling my parents I’m not a writer.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that I am NOT a writer, and the only one in my family who is not, I do get invaded by characters from time to time, and they bug the crap out of me, especially considering a lot of them are my family’s left-over characters. I have no clue what story most of these characters belong in, some of them are so strange and unearthly they couldn’t possibly be put into any logical story, which is probably why they were discarded.

Some of them, it’s easier to tell where they were meant to be, and which family member cast that character in my way, such as the shape shifting, time travelling musketeers (I’ll give a prize to whoever can correctly guess which family member(s) created them, and how the idea came to be in the first place).

My characters, the few that I have, are easier to place, such as the man who attempts to break the infamous “Time Loop” that supposedly can physically never be broken. But despite all this, I usually keep these characters under control and locked away in my closet (Fear not S.O.C.P., Society Of Characters’ Protection, they are well fed), and move on with my day.

Now, although I’m the sanest of my family (Quite obviously, since I’m the one that’s not a writer), I have scared many people who’ve only met me when I tell them that I am in fact the most sane one in my family.

“Why?” you may ask. Because in all truthfulness I am utterly insane, as is. Im like a monkey who believes he’s a human double agent needing to pretend he’s cat in order to properly protect the earth from the attack of space cats.

I do not take pride in the fact that I’m insane, last time I did that I was sent to the school phsycologist. Instead I let my family show by example how truly insane a person can get, so that I look greatly sane in comparison.

Now, I do love my family dearly, but they are the oddest bunch in the world, and I imagine that anyone else in my position would have jumped out the window long ago. I have a certain amount of tolerance, and I can stand my brother’s characters tripping me and laughing, and my mother’s characters getting into constant fights, and even my own characters poking me relentlessly. But this makes family dinners slightly unpleasant, and family outings a long trip with everyone (And their characters) in the car… But despite all this it is quite fun to watch the characters duke it out every five minutes, and it creates for a wonderful afternoon.

When I started writing this, I expected to write something interesting, perhaps something explaining why, as much I love “Back to the Future” and its two sequels, their logic is overly flawed and leaves several timelines without a Marty. But I suppose I ended up writing completely random and unimportant drivel. And if you’ve managed to read up to this point without having walked away in boredom, than I congratulate you, and insist you seek help.

If I am ever forced to write here again, I’ll be sure to have one of my family members put up a one day’s notice so you can avoid my post at all costs, and have a pleasant, not-so-boring day. Till then, here are your morning selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors and coffee, now go enjoy yourself you wild thang’.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Psychological Structure

One of my true 'Wow' moments in senior English class was when my teacher Reg Allen broke down the psychological structure of one of the books we were reading for the semester. It was like a light just went on. It opened the door to my ability to see the structure in story. Nothing was the same again. I still remember him pacing back and forward in front of the class, running his hands down his wiry black beard as he lectured. That guy was so intense. I was terrified of him, and yet loved him at the same time. His passion inspired me.

Lately I have been observing this kind of structure in books that I have been reading. If anyone has read my posts for a while, you would have gathered I am a huge David Gemmell fan. I have read all of his thirty odd books numerous times - all except White Knight, Black Swan, a contemporary thriller he wrote under the name of Ross Harding. It only had a limited print run, and without the Gemmell name behind it, did not take off. That book is kind of like the white stag to the hunter - the Holy Grail for David Gemmell fans. One of these days I am going to get my hands on a copy. Because I loved him so much, and because he died tragically so young (57), I almost don't want to find it. So there is always one more book coming from him.

Anyway - back to structure. One of Gemmell's favourite tricks is to 'nest' backstory. His work has great pace and clarity. One of his characters will be moving along, then all of sudden we are one 'layer' back. With Gemmell the backstory is never lame though - the second 'layer' is also great action. The thing is he has the ability to get you lost in it. When you come back to the 'present' its like you are the character waking up from a reverie. I have been re-reading White Wolf, one of the Skilgannon books. Remembrances continue throughout the book, gradually revealing key history and making sense of the main mystery. In this case the remembrances are linear - as they appear they are also going forward in time, or nearer to the 'current' timeline.

But for that classic example that my teacher Reg Allen expounded on, the reminiscences of the poor guy trapped in the jail cell started in the recent past, then went deeper into his past and his heart - revealing more of his character and bringing a real poignancy to the tale.

What is your favourite psychological structure for characters in your work? Do you use this consciously in your storytelling?

It's the Economy, Stupid!

No, this is not a diversion into current politics. You don't want that: I can get rather... um... feral on that topic.

It's about economy of words. Good writing is economic. Words are not wasted.They matter. Even 'the' and 'a'. This is especially true of the start of novels and the whole of shorter works, but really good writers carry the principle through an entire novel. It's hard to find waste wordage in any Pratchett novel, for instance.

So what is waste wordage, and what is economic word use? Waste wordage doesn't advance the story, illustrate the characters, or do anything much beyond padding the word count. Economic wordage serves multiple levels of function, often without being obvious about it.

Of course, it's never really that simple. Think back to Amanda's post last Sunday, and the assorted 3 paragraph (or less) offerings that were sent in. Most of them managed to perform one task: usually cuing in the protagonist's anger. A few got a couple of things going: setting and protagonist motive. I tried to multi-purpose my offering - I was aiming to establish a sense of the character's nature, their motive, setting, hook, voice, and set up questions about what was going on, all in two paragraphs. I don't think I got all of those, but I came close enough that I'm satisfied with what I did.

The way this can be done is through secondary associations with word meanings - synonyms might mean the same thing, but they can have positive or negative connotations, they can associate with imagery, they can have entire layers of subtext that a reader might not consciously notice but which set mood and expectations. Take for instance "tired" and "weary". The general meaning is the same, but "weary" feels heavier, weighed down by some immense load. "Sadness", or "sorrow" - "sorrow" is more evocative of grieving, where "sadness" is blander. One might feel sadness, but sorrow, despite meaning the same thing, evokes more regret and possibly even tears.

You can run this exercise with any set of words a half-decent thesaurus produces. Each synonym has its own feel and its own level of specific meaning. The best craft and art of the writer is to find and use the words that are most evocative of the atmosphere they wish to create.

Of course, words don't exist in vacuum (except in my house, where Bugger shreds any paper he can get at, so mangled words often find their way into the vacuum). They need sentences to give them context and aim readers where the writer wants them to look.

Okay, so I wasn't exactly accurate about the politics: if you take a look at what the media produces, you'll find a lot of persuasive writing there, masquerading as fact. The cue lies in the descriptors. Words that have negative connotations get used to describe something the writer dislikes. That's useful for us to learn, not just so we can try to tease out what's really going on from the writer's slant, but so that we can use those techniques ourselves.

We have a few other advantages, too. A little knowledge of Latin and Greek word roots helps a great deal: 'Mal' or 'Mor' are very common in the names of evil characters for good reason: even made up words derived from those word bases sound sinister. Why? 'Mal' means 'bad', and 'Mor' is the base for 'death'. Someone named 'Voldemort' probably isn't going to be nice. Name a country 'Malistar' and your readers will look for bad things to come from there without you saying anything else. Some other goodies: 'Saur' - lizard. 'Tyran' - tyrant, which in modern terms implies cruelty and a whole raft of associated horrors. 'Lachryma' - tears/grief.

Now for the examples: I'm going to offer up two sample sentences, with one made up word for a character's name and each meaning the same thing. You'll see the difference.

"Elysia stood at the balcony, her gaze intent on the battered young warriors marching through the outer bailey."

"Mordana stood at the Imperial Balcony, glaring down at the defeated soldiers straggling through the Great Courtyard."

(Yeah, okay, neither of them is much good. That's not the point).

The basic meaning of both sentences is the same - there's a woman on a castle or palace balcony watching the guys who are coming back from some war or other. By using specific titles, it's a good guess that the woman in the second sentence is royalty. Her side lost, and she's not happy about it. And her name suggests she's not a nice lady.

The first woman, you'd be surprised if she wasn't the heroine or the love interest of the hero, probably sweet and gentle, and the implication is that she's looking to see if her husband or boyfriend survived - and that she doesn't really care if they won or lost, so long as her man made it. A few more cues in there would set up a lost love and kick off a plot.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write a first paragraph (not too long, either, thank you) that implies plot, setting, voice, and the nature of the POV character. Anything else you can get in there is a bonus. Oh, and you're not allowed to tell anything. Once you've posted it, everyone can say what they get out of it, then you can add in what you meant to get across.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Pop Goes The Writer!

I’ve been reading the biography of Robert A. Heinlein by William Patterson – whom I met at a worldcon years ago and who is a very nice man and a FINE writer – in order to blog the book for Tor.com.

The volume I’ve just finished is Learning Curve, the early years, till the marriage with Ginny.

I don’t intend to go into my impressions of the book here. I’m saving that for Tor.com, of course. I will say, in passing, that Patterson treats his subject exhaustively, unsparingly and surprisingly gently, for all that.

I am going to say, though, that one of the things that struck me about Heinlein’s early years (and probably his later years, but maybe not) is how much like me he was in how he handled the inevitable tension of a writing career: badly!

Like me, he seemed to direct his tension into illness and came – physically – crashing down so often he might have been a bungee jumper.

This surprised me, because, of course, he was ... well... good. No. Wonderful. How could he have that much tension? Didn’t he know his stuff would eventually sell and sell well?

Of course, as soon as I thought that I realized I was an idiot. (Which, you know, I’ve always been, so it shouldn’t have taken that much thought.) I mean, children, hindsight is twenty twenty. To us – to me – it’s obvious he would sell and become an icon. But it might have been obvious to someone – poor thing – out there that I would eventually sell. To me, it was navigating blind in a pea soup fog. As for “sell well” I’m still here, stuck in the darkness. If anyone sees ahead, they’re better than I.

As Dave has pointed out there are factors way beyond our control as authors that determine if our work sells, how it sells, who gets to read us. Factors we can’t guess much less control. This means we send our darlings out. And we wait. And wait. And wonder.

My dentist says that his free-lance-writers clients are the greatest sleep-teeth-grinders. I could see why. What I can’t see and don’t know, is how the h*ll I can manage tension without making myself ill with raging eczema and/or pneumonia.

I have a book out at several publishers. Haven’t heard a word. And I’m NOT obsessing on it. In fact, I’m making a point of not obsessing on it. Days go by I don’t think about it. Well... not consciously. But my arms are raw with eczema and my voice keeps disappearing which it ONLY does in times of extreme stress. (I used to go through the first week of school mute.) And I don’t know what in heck to do. I walk. A lot. I’m within ten pounds of the weight I can start distance running again. Only between the time I did marathons and now I tore my ACL, (falling down a flight of stairs with a box, while moving, twelve years ago) so this might not be possible. Ever. I seem to remember it helped. I’ve considered a punching bag, but we don’t know where to put it. It would have to be the basement, but we’ll have to try to clear space. And since I’ve never used it, I don’t know how it will work.

So, we’re back to – How do I control stress when I don’t even know I’m stressed? No pills, please. The oddest things turn off the writing.

Other than that, does anyone have ANY suggestions? All suggestions welcome.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Non Linear Story Telling

I went to see the movie Inception and really enjoyed it. (The set design and lighting were beautiful). I liked it that the main character's driving motivation was to return to his children.

For any one who hasn't seen the movie I will say only that is about dreams within dreams. It reminded me a little of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in that it was playing with reality. It also reminded me a little of Momento, in that it made you ask what what is real and can I trust the main character's perception of reality.

There are many SF stories that ask what is reality but there seems to be more non-linear story lines in movies than in books.

Linda Cowgill says:

‘Nonlinear film deconstructs a character, complicated event, situation, or a combination of these elements by reordering the time sequence and creating a new arrangement of time for dramatic, and thematic, purposes. This rearrangement makes the telling of a story more compelling than if we left the scene progression in chronological order.’ (See full article Non-linear narrative: the Ultimate in Time Travel).

Think of the Firefly episode 'Out of Gas'. That was a complicated time line, but ultimately a very satisfying episode.

You see the occasional flashback in books. But I'm having trouble thinking of examples of more complicated non-linear story telling. Can you think of any? Were they done well? Why do movies use this device more than books?