Sunday, October 31, 2010

Life, Nanowrimo and Just Doing It

After all the gremlins and goblins, princesses and pirates go home tonight and the Halloween decorations and candies are put away, NaNoWriMo begins. For those of you who aren't familiar with NaNoWriMo , you agree to try to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. That sounds like a lot and the first time I tried it, I let my own insecurities psyche me out. About 10 days in, I decided there was no way I could do it. After all, it meant writing -- gasp -- a novel in just one month. What I didn't take into account is that the rules say 50,000 words, not 100,000 or more (which is what I write now without batting an eye). So, I became my own worst enemy.

Instead of focusing on the end number of 50,000, look at the daily average you have to write. 1,667 words, give or take. That looks more manageable, right? Now, that might mean you only write a few hundred words a day during the week and then pound out more on weekends. You -- and I because I am doing NaNoWriMo as well as taking up Sarah's challenge. Yes, I've lost my mind. But you already knew that -- simply have to do what works.

One of the biggest excuses I've heard -- and I've used this more often than I care to admit -- about taking part in NaNoWriMo is "I don't have time". It's an easy excuse and, yes, real life does happen. But, if we were to look at our lives with a critical eye, I'd lay odds each one of us could find a few minutes a day when we are doing something -- or nothing -- that doesn't have to be done. Some of us are gamers. Some of us are avid TV watchers or sports fans. Some of us don't get up until we absolutely have to. So, instead of spending an hour or more a day playing Halo 3 or watching Dancing with the Stars or the World Series (oops, strike that. The Rangers are in the Series so we'll say football) take half of the time you'd normally be gaming or watching TV and write. If you like to sleep in, start getting up half an hour or hour earlier. Give yourself time to write.

The issue really comes down to the question of "Are you a writer?". It's not, "Do you want to write?". There are a lot of people out there who want to write, some who even think they can, but who will never be a writer. A writer is, in my opinion, someone who has to write. That's right, HAS to write. I'm not talking about having to write to make a living or to please someone else. I mean you have to write because it is a part of you. It truly is something you have to do. For another author's take on this, check out John Scalzi's post here.

Another thing to beware of as you take up the challenge of NaNoWriMo or even Sarah's challenge from a week ago: distractions. It is so easy as we hit that part in the book that seems hard to write to start looking for other things to do. Some of us suddenly need to clean house. Others just have to get that yard work done. There are any number of distractions -- including, for me, deciding that it is the PERFECT time to learn something new. Sometimes a distraction is good. it lets your mind take a step back and, when you return to your writing project, you can look at it with fresh eyes. But these distractions are also insidious because they will keep you from writing if you let them. So, just as you set goals with your writing, you need to set limits on the distractions.

All this said, I'll admit I haven't written much this past week. But, after everyone left the house after the baseball game last night, I took time to write out the basic outline of a story that attacked me earlier. Then I finished the outline for another project I've been working on. Today, after a bit of work I have to do outside and which shouldn't take more than an hour and after I finish prepping Kate's prequel to Impaler, Born in Blood, to go up at Naked Reader Press, I'm spending the rest of the day writing. And, tomorrow, I'll start getting up half an hour earlier than usual to write. That is my commitment to both Sarah's challenge and nanowrimo. Now, the project for NaNoWriMo will not be complete at 50,000 words, but it will be halfway completed. That's a good start.

So, how many of you are doing NaNoWriMo? How do you find time to write and, if you're having trouble finding the time, is there anything you can do to carve out 30 minutes a day for it?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Guest Blog -- Amy Sterling Casil

Welcome to our guest blogger, Amy Sterling Casil. Amy's short fiction has appeared in a number of magazines and venues ranging from The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy to Zoetrope. You can find her longer fiction works, as well as her non-fiction books, here. For more information about Amy, you can visit her blog here. -- Amanda


Space Travel!

So where does space travel stand? Is Richard Branson the only person making travel to space a reality now, other than the Space Elevator student-scientist teams?

NASA's approved budget for FY 2010/11 (the current government fiscal year) includes $1.6 billion for development of commercial space opportunities - i.e. similar to Virgin Galactic.

Virgin_enterprise Just about three weeks ago, the Virgin team completed the first piloted flight of SpaceShipTwo, also known as Virgin Enterprise - the planned spaceflight vehicle, for which 340 tickets have already been sold!

This is out at the "international Spaceport" in Mojave, California - which believe it or not is in Los Angeles County. This is the high desert north of Palmdale and Lancaster, which are the towns near Edwards AFB, the west coast landing site for the Space Shuttle. I think this picture shows how gorgeous the "high desert," also known as the Mojave desert, can be. At its pretty times, it's big sky country, and spectacular.

I have a charming neighbor who works for a major aerospace contractor (Northrop Grumman) and a while back, he shared with me a few of the amazing technologies just this one, admittedly important, company is working on. Just one among the technologies is a lab-version of "beam me up, Scotty." That's right - a matter transporter. One of Northrop's teams working in Redondo Beach also just received Popular Mechanics' 2010 "Breakthrough Award" for its work in developing the LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) that was successfully launched last year. The award was given because the team developed commercial, affordable components that wouldn't just be used for the LCROSS, but could also be used in numerous other space operations. Total cost to build and launch the LCROSS? $57 million. As a point of comparison, the Space Shuttle Endeavor cost $1.7 billion to build, and $450 million per launch.

I'm hardly the expert, but I think space science and technology has undergone a genuine revolution in the past two decades. My impression of the former programs is that they were almost 100% government-sponsored, very hierarchical, and once begun, very difficult to adjust or alter in light of changing world- and technology conditions. Now, the diversity of those working on space-related science and technology is staggering. It isn't just different countries becoming fully-involved and engaged (Europe and Asia), it's nearly every university around the world with at least a few projects in experimental fields - including community colleges! NASA just selected community college students to begin to work in space/technology centers to work - for real - on many different forms of space technology.

So, the answer is "no, it's not just Richard Branson." Check out the agenda for the Space Manufacturing Conference taking place this weekend! This conference deals with real work currently being performed leading to asteroid mining and space settlement - moon or orbiting stations.

Why am I learning all about this? Book, of course . . .

Now, as to why many people don't hear more about these exciting technological developments occurring worldwide, is it that members of the media don't understand, or don't care? Or both?

Roll Call

I'm about to run out the door on my way to the local hardware store -- don't ask. It's the weekend. It's nice. It must mean repair-time for something, right?

Any way, it's been more than a week since Sarah issued her challenge to us all so time to report in on how we're doing. We'll cheer one another on, give a judicious kick in the rear where needed.

Also, if you have any questions or comments, let us know.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Don't Get Mad - Get Therapy


Just thinking lately about the things that drive my own writing, I have been wondering how much of my drive actually qualifies as some sort of dysfunction. OK, so you are nodding your heads wondering why it's taken me so long to figure this out for myself, and it's just par for the course. Still . . .

How much is enough? The answer, arising from the voice of dysfunction, is of course that no amount is ever enough. And what is the goal? Well, for me it is a complex mix of love of story, the need to bring that thing into creation, to experience that flow of words - and some other elements that are more in the way of demons. There is something under the hood that drives me to reach for some sense of connection to fill a personal void. Is that healthy? Is it like functional drug addiction? I don't know, who can judge it?

Not all writers are striving the fill the inner void like some crazy Japanese Kitsune armed with a word processor. But for those of us who are, my question is: are there other ways to fill that same need? Wouldn't writing be a more enjoyable activity, wouldn't the success that comes (how little or how much), the criticism, all be that much easier to deal with if there was not a desperate need that underpinned all the striving?

Sometimes it is worth stepping back and looking at it all - yourself, your goals, what your expectations are. And maybe, just maybe some therapy might help.

So what do you think? Can artistic achievement fill the psychological void? What drives your passion for writing, and how much of that verges on obsession?

Alas, poor SF, it suffers from premature mourning

Yes, yet again SF is on its virtual deathbed, diagnosis terminal - and yet, the shambling corpse keeps staggering on. And on. And... well, you get the idea. This latest case is part of a broader treatise on the nature, life, and death of genres by Daniel Abraham . He's got some good ideas, although why he feels the need to wrap it all in academicese is something I'm not going to think about.

The basic argument this time is that modern life is so SFnal that there's no room for the kind of "gosh-wow" optimism that was all over Golden Age and pre-Golden Age SF. Cloning is mainstream lit, vampires are sparkly (speaking of which, just so you can share my nightmares, go take a look at Freefall for today ( until Friday, then it should be at, and SF is so dystopian 1984 starts to look positively chipper.

I disagree. Yes, there's a lot of modern life that looks a lot like SF, but there's still plenty of places imagination can take us, and they don't all look darker than the Pit of Despair. Oh, wait. That's just Fezzik blocking the light. Sorry.

We're right on the edge of self-replicating gadgetry - and affordable, too - that can make all sorts of useful stuff to spec. We're not that far from figuring out how to stop age from killing us, or failing that, slow it down even more (and let's face it, "old age" happens a lot later than it used to even 25 years ago). If we wanted, we probably could get a functional scientific base on the moon, although at current tech levels it wouldn't be all that comfortable - but it would be there, and be usable for research and as a jump-off point to bigger and better things.

What's missing? In my view the voices of PC have drowned out everything that doesn't fit their view - and many of the loudest voices boil down to "all things about humans that aren't straight from nature are evil". So, those of us who've put a lot more distance between us and our poop are much more evil than those of us who haven't. This, in the view of certain PC factions, is tied into skin color. Presumably distance from poop causes bleaching (ahem). Um. Sorry.

Anyway - what do you think? Where can SF go, why are people so keen to hold the funeral, and why did Westerns die and Romances get out of the back corner of the bookshop?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Spaces Between

So, in the very first week of throwing the gauntlet and promising to do a lot of writing, I didn’t do any.

I have tons of excuses – there was Mile Hi con which inexplicably tired me more than it should. Then again, it sounded like a consumptive ward, so perhaps there’s some bug going around. Then there was this trip, which I’m dreading because it involves – horrors – flying and I hate flying. Also, we haven’t been to World Fantasy Con in years, and as you know – or perhaps not – there is a “con cloud of acquaintance” (defined as the people you look forward to seeing at each particular con, also those you can count on to run interference for you, etc.) and in the years we’ve been absent, we probably don’t have our acquaintance comfort zone, anymore. So, it’s almost like a brand new con. (And yeah, hard as this is to believe, for those of you who only know me from cons, I’m not comfortable in public. I just put on a good show.)

But beyond the excuses there is something else. Oh, not on the shorts. I’ve been doing revisions on old ones of those, and it will take me a while to get back to the swing of things. At least two weeks. However, there is a reason nothing got written on the novel – I’m in one of my patches of silence. I hit these periodically. And yeah, sometimes it means I took a false step. But most of the time it just means it goes... silent.

Some of you know I can – and have – write a novel in two weeks. So, you ask, why don’t I write twenty novels a year? The answer is these patches of silence. I’ve fought them for years. It’s not that I don’t know what the next chapter is – I do. Or that the novels feels wrong – it doesn’t. It’s more like the next scene/chapter/whatever needs to ripen. Seems to be part of my process, as annoying as it is.

I expect to hit the ground running and after WFC, I want to finish two novels (both started) for NANOWRIMO (what? It surprises anyone I NANOWRIMO?) The Brave And The Free and A Fatal Stain.

Are you NANOWRIMOing? Have you done it before? How did it go? Are there periods of silence in your writing life? If so, what purpose do you think they serve?

For those who picked up the gauntlet and are having trouble coming up with ideas, here are a few suggestions.

1 – write a story with the following: character: gymnast; setting: a siege; problem: a feint

2- three words (feel free to discard one): brush, landmark, spoonful

3- start with: Being dead wasn’t the problem.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Maps and other things Fantastical

Here is the map I came up with for the King Rolen's Kin trilogy.

Making people look at the maps of your invented world is a bit like making them watch slides of your last holiday. Speaking of which, I once went to visit a friend of a friend who made us watch his collection of slides of steam trains. Only he put them in upside down and went through the whole lot, then turned them up the right way and made us sit through them again. My ... that was a night I won't forget in a hurry.

But back to maps. Over on the ROR blog MGC regular Chris Large has done the first part of a two part post on What does a Map bring to a Story. Part 2 will be up next Sunday. Thanks, Chris!

The map for King Rolen's Kin was inspired by two things. I'd been reading the history of Japan and I was intrigued by the way the string of mountainous islands with little arable land shaped the island's people. There was pressure to secure the arable land and hold it. And I also watched a documentary on volcanoes and what happens as they erode.

Being a writer, of course I saw how this would shape the people who lived there. And being an SF reader from way back, I thought why not have a planet with no moon, lots of stars, bright as a moon ( minimal tides due to planetary and solar gravitational pull)? Also, I set the islands on the equator so both north and south are cold, depending on where you are. Plus, I made the orbit elliptical, so they have intensely cold winters and hot summers.

All of which is embedded in the text, but I don't actually spell it out. It's enough for me to know. For a full explanation of the world building behind the KRK trilogy, see here.

So, tell me, do you like maps in fantasy books?
Do you ignore them until you get the narrative gets you lost and then you refer them to find out where things are?
Do you feel the map should be superfluous, that the narrative should carry enough information for you to make sense of it?
Are you like Chris, annoyed by illogical maps?

Confess now, do you have a map for your latest work-in-progress?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Steam Punk, and my thoughts on marketing

I thought I'd celebrate Sarah's drive to make me work harder with a first snippet of the Steam Punk thing I've been intermittantly working at - which is aimed at 11-14 year olds. Any submarine experts willing to offer me advice... I'd be very grateful.

The Coal-fired Submarine
Book One of the Drowning Empire
Dave Freer

Chapter 1

It was after midnight, and London's lights shimmered on the waters that had been her streets. Something dark moved down there in the depths of them. Bubbles of smoke belched up in its wake. No one was likely to notice. The still, warm air already reeked of coal smoke, and the rotting ooze overlying the drowned Landsdown Way bubbled anyway.

The dark shadow slipped onwards into Wandsworth canal, and down into Nine Elms and then through the rotting concrete teeth into the deep channel.

Like the rest of the crew, Tim Barnabas let out a sigh of relief. He knew all about the dangers of the Stockwell tube run -- dead trees, fallen masonry, and, of course, the chance of detection in relatively shallow waters that had once been London's streets.

"Up snuiver, Submariner," said Captain Malkis. "Let's breathe before we head down-channel."

Tim worked the brass-crank with a will, sending the breathing pipe to the surface of the Thames Estuary.

He swallowed hard to sort out the effect of the pressure change on his ears.

And then an explosion rocked the Cuttlefish. Rang the sub like a bell. Tim could hear nothing. But he could see Captain Malkis push the dive levers to full.

A blast of water sprayed out of the snuiver outlet, soaking them all, before the cut-off valve took. The Cuttlefish settled onto the bottom of the dredged channel. No one moved or spoke. Tim's ears still rang, but he could hear sounds again, and saw the Captain signal to the Marconi-man The radio-operator worked his spooler, sent an aerial wire up to the surface. Tim watched the man's face in the dim glow of the battery-lights. His expression grew increasingly bleak. He flicked the dial expertly to another frequency. Then Sparky pulled the headphones off. "I got the Clapham Common sender first. Transmission cut out after an SOS. I picked up Parson's Green. They weren't even sending coded messages. Just reports that Stockwell's been blown, and Clapham had reported that they were under attack by men of the Royal Iniskilling Fusiliers, Captain, before they went off air. And I picked up a signal on the Royal Navy calling channel. The HMS Mornington and the HMS Torquay are ordered to start laying dropping mines in the Thames channel from Blackfriars point to Rotherhithe bay. The Captain of the Mornington was getting mighty shirty about the operation not running to according to orders and him still being below Plumstead shoal and not on station."


The subject of ebooks, self-publishing, new ebook publishers has come up rather a lot lately. So I thought I'd put my thoughts on this down in a coherent fashion. What do you mean, I'm never coherent? My therapist told me that and that I was obsessed with revenge. I told him we'd see about that in good time. Heh, only kidding, I might need a therapist but I believe they want stuff called money (of which I have heard) in exchange for their services. So as I am writer, you'll just have to hope that I confine my vengeance to merely drowning London and New York in text as above.

Let's assume that you, Joe, have written a novel, and like many tens of thousands of people have tried the trad. pubs, where, let's be honest, they knock out 90% of the total unreadables... at the cost of dumping many great books. And of course, they also take some total drekk, and, oddly enough some books which you may wonder however got through first pass, do well.
You've decided that your book is one of the good ones that get missed. After all, they turned down DUNE. Quality will truimph!
So: you go to Kindle Direct. You get 70% of the money. And 5 people read it and 3 of them are related to you.
Or you go to a new startup. They offer you 50% of cover price, which is a lot better than the 12.5% you might see from Trad. Pub
And, with the benefit of a better cover, and maybe a little editing and proof input... you sell 25 copies.
At which point it may dawn on you that trad pub (at the bottom end) is rather like vanity publishing is supposed to be (and isn't). You get to sell (if you're lucky) 5000 copies, earn 5000 dollars - and the process earns 40 000 dollars (of which they give you 5K) for other people. Now you can't take $40 000, print your book, and earn 5K 'profit'- because you don't have that access to physical retail space. If you want to do that, it's possible (and been done), but you'll need $400 000 or more.

However, if you were to take the same attitude to an ebook (where you can have the retail space) and spend the 40K wisely on a copy-editor, proof-reader, cover art, and the remaining $36 000 on a publicist and various marketing devices (the equivalent of your retail space for physical books), that you could sell 5000 copies - which might be enough to get word of mouth working for you (I think the real figure is probably higher - looking at trad pub - only really starting at 25K - if you can shift 100K, even if it is rubbish it'll find a market)
If you don't have (as I don't) 4K let alone 40K...
Should you just give up? Well, I've never been much good at giving up. So let's look at what I think I can do. YMMV. I've decided that a small Ebook publisher at least gives me a finished product and some less hassle, BTW.
1) I could just be lucky. That happens, you're in the right place at the right time. Some people have the breaks. The bottom line however remains that the more often you try the more chance you have of being that 1:1 000 000.
2)I could get a lift from someone who is well-connected. Not likely, I don't know Oprah and I don't get out a lot in Hollyweird. But at the same time, the more you network and link, the more possible this is.
3)You could build yourself a web-presence, a la John Scalzi or Charlie Stross. Now, this is possible and you should try. But 3 caveats. a)they were in the right place at the right time b)You have to have the personality for it, consistantly. c)Barring right place at right time... this is HARD WORK that goes on for many years. And even then, if you don't have (B) you won't get there. It means posting every day (or damn near, or at least on a regular schedule (I post every day on Flinders Family Freer and once a week here.) I have a good friend who read FFF and said 'I'm funnier than you, and our lives are weirder.' She's right. She also posts ad lib and months can go past. She has about 3 views a week. I'm less entertaining but I have 100 or so a day. And I accept I need to go on for years, that it builds slowly and saltationally and if I stop I'll lose my readers.
4)You can network on facebook. You can also make a pain-in-the-nether end of yourself by advertising yourself relentlessly. 2 minor authors I know have made damned sure I never buy their books. People may like to hear and be curious - if you are entertaining and work hard (like Sarah).
5)You can consider tangible bait. I'm seriously looking at free giveaways - tangible, solid ones - books, corkscrews... with the purchase. Yes, it'll cost me pretty much what I will earn.
6)You can look at intangible bait. Sample chapters, free stories. Not sure either work, but they're low cost.
7)You can try to hitch yourself to star. That's why I co-authored books. Because of name recognition.
8)You can come up with a crazy You-tube clip... working on this. "I said if they got me my author copies of dragon's Ring before it actually came out, I'd walk naked up Strzlecki with nothing else or take a swim with a giant ray with it..."

Ok - more ideas? And how did you like the steampunk?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Random Thoughts

First, let me start by apologizing for being late this morning. I didn't get the post written last night and, gasp, slept in some this morning.

Reading through the comments to yesterday's open thread post started me thinking. Yes, I know, this is a dangerous thing. But I'm not to blame. Really, I'm not. You guys are the ones who did it. ;-p

What I'd like to do is talk publishing through Amazon's DTP platform, Barnes & Noble's PubIt program or even Smashwords as an independent author. More than that, I'd like to focus on doing it as an independent author who doesn't have books already out through traditional routes.

The first things you need to remember is that not only do you have to read the book, but you have to make sure it is edited on a professional level. This isn't so much because the platforms for digital self-publication require it and will check for it but because your readers will. Amazon et al, doesn't offer editing services. However, they will yank an e-book if they receive enough complaints about the editing. (The same goes for formatting, but we'll discuss that in a moment.) Worse, if your book is poorly edited -- and this means copy edits as well as proofreading -- it will be discussed at length not only in reviews that will be posted on the e-book's sales page but in the various ebook fora where readers congregate to discuss their latest reads.

You also have to worry about layout and formatting. Working hand-in-hand with this is making sure you submit to each of these e-book outlets in the appropriate manner. Amazon DTP requires different files than B&N which requires slightly different from Apple's iBookstore which is different from Smashwords. Also, Smashwords requires certain language be included on the title page showing that your e-book is being distributed through them. After each of your e-book outlets have done their conversions, you need to check EACH PAGE of your book or short story to make sure everything looks right.

This is important because your formatting can and will change at least once. A chapter title that was centered may no longer be. That special character or accent is no longer there and, in it's place, is some strange mark. The spacing between paragraphs is missing and you don't have indentions so it now looks like you have one great big paragraph.

Oh, and you can't rely on their emulators to know how your e-book will look when opened on the appropriate e-book reader or pc version of their reader. You need to look at it on the reader or pc program. Again, more time.

And, again, if you have too many issues with formatting, the readers will complain in the fora and to the seller and the e-book may be pulled. Amazon, when they do this, will let you know so you can correct the problem.

Another factor to take into account is the fact that after you upload a file to any of these e-book sellers, it take time before it appears on their site. You need to generally allow a week from upload time to appearing in the catalog. Sometimes it will be less and sometimes it will be longer. It all depends on how many other e-books are in the queue ahead of you and how many "problems" their automated programs spot in your submission.

Other things you need to do that publishers would do for you -- secure an isbn for your work. Not all retailers require this, but a number of them do. Cover art and the more professional it looks the more seriously your book will be taken. Most e-tailers do require covers for any e-book submitted to them. Accounting. This is a biggie. You need to keep track of who is selling your e-book for what. Remember, you set the 'cover' price, but they can price it below that at whim. And that may impact your royalties. You also need to make sure their payouts meet what your dashboard says you've sold and your returns. And yes, there are returns on e-books and they are charged back against you.

Finally, there is the elephant in the room that can't be ignored. There are hundreds of thousands of for pay e-books out there (probably many more if you look at all the different outlets). Add to that the public domain e-books that are also being offered. You are in competition with all of them. Ask any author who has published through the traditional route about how their need to self-promote has changed over the years. Now, multiply that by 100 fold and you might be where you need to be as an indie e-book author. You don't have a publisher's name to bring readers to you. You don't have a name yourself -- unless you've been in the field for awhile and are releasing your back list now. So you are in the middle of the scrum with all the other writers trying to get readers' attention. That means promotion. Lots and lots of promotion and that takes time and creativity.

One more qualifier to consider. Bookscan will soon begin tracking e-books. That groan you just heard came from every author who has lived in fear of Bookscan numbers for their print books. Bookscan is Nielson's program a number of editors use to determine if an authors' numbers are high enough to justify buying another book from them. It's not perfect -- far from it because it doesn't track sales from Amazon (at least that's my understanding at the moment) and a number of independents, etc. So how they will track e-books is something that will be interesting to see. It may also change how they track hard copy books. But, it means the numbers from your self-published e-books will also be available to these editors and will be something they can and will refer to when considering publishing you later down the road.

All this said, I'm not trying to discourage you. But I do want you to go into this with your eyes open. It really is a lot harder to put our a quality product than it first appears and there is a lot more to being successful at it than just putting the book up on Amazon or B&N or elsewhere and waiting for the readers to come.

So, how would you promote your new e-book? Are you already building your "platform"? Do you have any questions you want to throw out there for the hive mind?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Open Thread

Today, we're throwing the blog open. This is your chance to tell us what's on your mind, to ask any questions or to continue discussions begun in other entries this week. So, what's on your mind?

While you're here, check out this post by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Any thoughts?

The floor is now yours!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Pack Up the Kit Bag?

Has Elvis left the building? Is it time to pack up and go home? Is SF dead?

Not that I want to pack up, but a recent article in LOCUS really got me thinking.

I was reading the interview with Barry N. Malzberg in the recent October issue. He was talking about how science fiction has changed over the last century. His comment was "Science fiction has so infiltrated the culture that you don't need it any more. If you look at it as a familiarization of science and engineering for the larger culture - which is exactly what Hugo Gernsback said he wanted - it succeeded beyond any limit of his ability to envision."

That really made me sit back. Part of the appeal of these funky little stories in the old pulp magazines was that they were describing a foreign culture. SF was a weird sub-group. Most people had no conception of the inner workings of science and technology, and were completely inexperienced in projecting this into the realm of possibility. Now it's everywhere. It's in the local paper, it's on the cable channels: popular science documentaries, science shows.

We used to play this game: Ask someone if they like speculative fiction (usually they say no). Then ask them to list their favourite top ten movies. Invariably they end up listing something that has quite significant speculative fiction elements. The point is that it is so familiar that it has become invisible.

SF - and what becomes noteworthy in the eyes of reviewers (or editors) - becomes highly experimental work that is actually a high-art interpretation of the genre itself. Being part of the 'scene' goes hand in hand with encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, because a good SF story is just not enough anymore. It needs to somehow redefine something that is actually dwindling to non-existence.

Then there is the issue of form. Reading that same LOCUS issue, which was discussing some of the history of pulp, it really struck me that at one point this was the new thing. Has this form of fiction completely lost its relevance in this new world?

My wife recently flew back to Brisbane from Adelaide. The flight had maybe 400 people on-board. Blocked by the trolley, she had to walk through almost the entire length of the flight to find an available toilet. On the way she scanned the people to see what they were up to. In every single row there was at least one laptop and at least one person playing games on an iPhone. These are forms of entertainment that simply did not exist when pulp made its appearance. Of all those people she passed, two were reading a book. Two!

OK. Here is my provocation. Is SF - and the form of fiction in general - dead? What do you think? Do we all need to apply our imagination to neat little iPhone games instead?

Doing battle with demons

Much as I would like this to be about writing actual warfare with demonic entities, it is alas rather more metaphorical. The demons in question are things that I live with on a day to day basis.

Everyone has their personal demons. For some it's all things alcoholic, for others their health. Life - or perhaps Someone - appears to have gifted creative people with a disproportionate share of personal demons. There's certainly no shortage of musicians, artists or authors with tragic life stories and the kind of self-destructive behavior that usually goes with losing to one's demons.

Mine have been... loud lately. It happens. I can go months, even years, with the medication cocktail keeping everything under control. Then something shifts, shakes my balance a bit, and they're back, whispering their perverse little notions into my mind and trying to convince me that the world would be a better place without me in it.

It's not that bad yet. I've gotten better at recognizing the early warning signs and doing something about it. One of the somethings is - surprise! - splatting to everyone I consider half-way friendly about what's going on, on the grounds that the more I talk it out, the more chance there is something someone says will be the right trigger to chase them off. This time.

I even know what's causing this outbreak - I'm mentally and emotionally worn out. Unfortunately, I'm also not getting any kind of time away until Christmas, when a much-delayed cleanup of the house has to happen. Since the layoffs were announced at the start of the year, there's been no letup in the constant grind of too much to do, not enough time to do it, and everything is more critical than everything else. Add in project scope blowout and a whole bunch of other work stress factories, big and little, and a bunch of family-related stress, and I've run out of me.

The real problem with this, at least as far as the Mad Genius Club is concerned, is that it plays havoc with my writing when this sort of thing hits. I can go weeks without writing anything when an episode hits - or worse, everything I write turns darker-than-dark.

How do you get past these crashes? What - if anything - helps you to dig out of the hole and get back on the level again?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

It’s Human, But Is It Art

On Friday Chris touched on something very important: the perception of the writing craft as something people do just as a by-the-way, with no effort. I meet at least three people a year who tell me “When I retire I’ll write a novel” or “I always wanted to write a novel, I just need some time I can sit down.” It sort of reminds me of the line in Pride and Prejudice when Mr. Darcy says “Any savage can dance.” Which was indubitably true, and very much what he should say to depress his interlocutor’s pretensions, but was emphatically not true of the elaborate dances of the Regency.

I think the reason for this disparagement of writing as a craft/art is that storytelling is two fold. One is external – story telling is such an elementary function of being alive. In its elementary form, most of us were doing it by the time we could put sentences together. (I swear the dog drew on the wall, mom, honest!) And if you’re going “but most of us WERE drawing on the wall as toddlers, so why doesn’t art suffer from the same issue?” Well... Because most of us can tell, at first glance a stick figure from Leonardo da Vinci, but also because of the second part of the reason – as people who write to entertain others, we try to make it seem easy from the other end. We want the reader to appreciate the story, not to be jolted out of it to admire our neat trick of description or how handily we slipped in that bit of world building.

This means if we do it well our artifice is invisible to the reading public and they think we’re just “telling the story” as it occurred to us.

Now, as annoying as other people’s perceptions of our work are – and they are! – they are not the biggest problem of this perception of writing as a natural thing to do that takes no training and no effort. The worst toll this perception takes is on the writer him/herself.

What am I talking about? Well... Even though I was always aware that there was an apprenticeship period involved and also was keenly aware of – say – the difference between my short stories and those I read monthly in Analog and Asimov’s, it took me years of concerted effort to be able to be conscious of what I was showing the reader. Look, think of it as of those pictures where if you look at it one way you see a beautiful young woman, another way and you an old crone. Artists are very conscious of this and very careful to “frame” their composition in a way the eye effortlessly perceives what they want it to perceive. As an aspiring artist I can tell you a composition of any complexity, particularly with objects (we’re built to see faces. Which is why if you stare at a stain long enough you start seeing some form of face in it) and you can get the young beauty/old crone effect a hundred times magnified: you can see what the artist is showing or you can see... soup. A new and unskilled artist will fail to highlight what he wants you to see, and you’ll have to work to figure out what he’s drawing – even if it’s well done. It’s all light and shadows and how they’re arranged, plus a careful placement of negative spaces. (A professional artist told me the first (HC) cover for Draw One In The Dark wasn’t badly drawn, just badly lighted/highlighted. I’m still unsure whether I believe him.)

It’s harder to see it in writing – of course – but a similar effect takes place. You aren’t just “telling a story,” you are building a picture in your reader’s mind, step by step. A picture of a world, a character, a plot. You need to make sure what you create in their minds is what you want to. More importantly, because of the tools of writing as an art is playing on people’s emotions and there is very little fiction that can be considered “satisfactory” if it doesn’t touch our emotions one way or another, you need to hit your reader with the right jolts of emotion at the right time.

This is again more difficult than it may seem because of course it is perfectly clear in your head and therefore you sometimes don’t realize where you’re adding in extraneous detail that muddies the picture or nullifies the reader’s involvement in the story. In this you should rejoice, because artists face much the same issue – of course – because the picture is clear in their heads.

In fact this is part of the reason I oppose new writers' writing either what they know (in the sense of something they lived through – autobiographical stories, even with minor enhancements) or about the one world they’ve had in their heads since they were five. While for a more experienced writer the personal touch/knowledge adds a layer of interest and depth, for a beginner it just means you throw in everything but the kitchen sink and make the book unreadable.

I’ve talked about writers groups (apparently there are artists’ groups as well. Part of the reason I’ve stalled in my art is that I don’t have the energy to look for one) as a way to help you see your art through other eyes. We won’t touch that now.

There is a more important effect of this “but it’s natural” certainty. Most writers – particularly in the long apprenticeship years – think it is natural, too. And even those – like me – who are aware it’s a craft, fail to see HOW to get to the pro state and how to be really conscious of what they’re putting on paper. As a result there are any number of writers who either think their very first effort is the best thing ever (and a lot who fall for traps like Publish America, convince themselves they’re now published and stop developing) and others who have in fact put in effort and are “almost there” but give up because they don’t see the final step.

You see, you have to be trained to see the lines of the story and the techniques you need to convey it with minimal effort. And, as with writing, a lot of it has to be learning by doing.

So, what am I bringing you, besides doom and gloom? I’m going to quote Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith again (it’s getting to be an habit.) When I was young in writing (yeah, yesterday. No. Really, really young – about twelve years ago.) I attended Oregon Writers Workshop. Now, they do it differently these days, but my class was the first. Imagine this – I land from a flight, we drive a few hours, and suddenly I’m this room with a man who is telling me about bathtubs. It took a while to focus and realize what he was saying and it took much longer – and experience – to realize he was right.

What he was talking about was the bathtub of publishing. Picture a bathtub and an open faucet, pouring water into it. There is a line halfway up the bathtub (so, the bathtub in this house when we moved in!) The water is running with some force, and every time it hits the bathtub/other water, it splashes. At first those splashes all fall under the line, but as the tub fills, more and more hits above that line. Below the line is unpublishable. Above the line is publishable. The water level is where your writing is.

If the water pours forth with sufficient force – i.e. if the subject touches you emotionally and all your subconscious ducks line up in a row – it is possible to hit above the publishing line as an almost raw beginner. My short story Thirst was written in 91. I refuse to show the other stuff I was writing at the time. It took me another seven years to catch up with that story (and then I had to force the growth, as I’ll explain.) However, it’s hit or miss and accident, and, okay, some measure of natural talent (I’m very suspicious of unquantifiables like “talent”) and not something you can replicate at will.
However, your hits will become more frequent and more controlled as you accumulate more water in the tub.

So, what’s the water, you ask – you really need to have more patience with metaphors! The water is what you’ve written so far. Writing like other crafts and arts benefits from practice. Just the process of doing it over and over again – particularly combined with good exterior critique – will help you grow. And the more turned on that faucet is – the more water that pours out every second – the faster you’ll learn.

Yeah, I can see you frowning, out there and getting ready to tell me writing takes time, writing takes thought, doing it faster doesn’t help. To which I say poppycock. At any rate, what I’m talking about is not “faster” per se, but constantly. Leonardo Da Vinci didn’t get to paint like that because he was kissed by genius from above. He might have been, but in my humble opinion the “genius hypothesis” is over played to explain magnificent art and craft. Leonardo, and other boys of his time who aspired to be artists, were probably apprenticed as pre-teens and spent years mixing paint, doing sketches, eventually – when they were very good – working on bits of the masters’ canvas. Another thing they did was do a lot of work that wasn’t even meant to be shown – painting on practice canvas they just painted over later. And if you think they were golden youth, coddled and well rested and thinking each canvas carefully through, you’re far off. They were overworked wretches, used more or less as household servants, who were made to learn their art in the intervals of making the master’s life easier.

I’ve often thought that writers should have a similar system, and not just because my house becomes covered in cat hair at an amazing pace, but because it removes the soft illusions that art happens in moments of pure genius/inspiration.

When I was a beginner but no longer raw – in between that workshop and say, the publication of my third book – I believed the thing about the bathtub of publishing on faith. I couldn’t see how writing a lot, blindly, would help. I thought it would be better on read about writing and study and write fewer stories. However, Dean had told the story so convincingly that my friend Rebecca Lickiss and I went home and proclaimed new rules for our joint writers group. “From now on, we write a short story a week.”

Now, most of the group had full time jobs. Those who didn’t had toddlers. And almost all of us had a novel in progress (something we didn’t bring to the meeting every week, because critiquing novels doesn’t work like that but which was, unfortunately unenforceable.) Oh, the crying, the gnashing of teeth, the death threats – wait, that was us to them! If you’re thinking “I’d walk” about a third of the group did. The ones who stayed did the stories, though, and within a couple of years we were all published in some manner.

Mind you, I always thought it was partly potluck – i.e., write a lot and some stories will hit the market at just the right time. I won’t even deny there was an element of that – there are stories I simply do not list in my home page for good and sufficient reason.

BUT yesterday I saw – like an epiphany – that Dean had been absolutely right about the “force” method teaching you faster too and perhaps forcing you to reach a level you never would have reached otherwise. Look, I’d written A LOT before that workshop (eight novels, for one) but at a slow pace, and it was one step forward two back five sideways. It’s not just that you have to write however many words of crap. There is something to writing as fast as you can. To straining that limit, even. When you have to produce fast, you simplify the task. You learn to see clearer, almost in self defense.

Recently, for various reasons, I’ve been going through my folders of “never submitted” stories. Some were never submitted because I knew they were bad, some because I thought that there was something wrong there. And some of them I never submitted because I forgot they existed (yeah, I know. I had toddlers.)

I started reading about the time I went to the workshop, and read the next two years of forgotten stories – and you know what? The growth was crystal clear. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the bathtub!

When I went to the workshop I knew a lot (I should hope so. I’d been writing for thirteen years) but the problem was, through all the theory and the bits of craft, I didn’t know how to CUE things or how to... well, play with the reader’s mind. That’s something that for me at least, had to be learned at an almost subconscious level, before I could codify it. So most of the early stories are technically correct. They just happen to be the world’s biggest fails. How? Well, take this angel urban fantasy story I didn’t remember writing – the tone and voice in the beginning made me wonder if it was a synopsis. Or the other one, where I drop you in the middle of the subplot and it takes a while to get to the main point (like most of the story.) And then, slowly – what was in real life almost imperceptibly – I progressed. By the end of that period, I can see – can’t we all – things I’d do better now, but it’s undeniable most of these stories are publishable. (I told you I forgot to send them out, right? Yeah.)

By the way I noticed a similar effect when I did six novels in a year (while home schooling the boy genius and taking art lessons, and becoming a ninja – okay, I’m joking about the ninja.) The difference in the novels and “ease of voice” between the first and the last is startling.

Now, I also learned there is a limit (hey! No one told me I was human!) The first novel of the next year needs serious revision if it’s ever re-released. It reads like I was writing in a fog. Partly because I was. I THINK I could have managed the six novels easily if it weren’t for kids, house, housekeeping, homeschooling. (The art actually helps me rest. Long story.)

So there is a natural limit to the body and mind, but if you push yourself to it – or beyond – you will learn a lot of the techniques you’ve read about but not interiorized. You know, the ones you’re doing consciously and clumsily and which will flow if you practice it till your fingers bleed.

No, I don’t want to hear excuses. I know the dog ate your practice time. But painters practice. Ballet dancers practice. Musicians practice. Everyone practices but writers, who think story telling is natural and therefore should come effortlessly.

What? You thought you were special? Get moving. You have a bathtub to fill.

UPDATE: I just realized I've been an utter slacker the last two years. Needed, perhaps because I was tired onto near-breakdown. But No More Slacking. I'm throwing down the glove. For the next six months I'll try to do a short story a week and a novel (in addition to the three I HAVE to deliver and the almost finished one.) I'll report on my progress on the end of each weekly post. (You always miss some weeks, so the result might be three shorts a month, but I'm aiming for four.) Who's with me?
UPDATE Update: Anyone picking up the gauntlet and at least making an effort to follow up, no matter how imperfectly, will be elligible for a "rubber ducky" pin (with a picture fo a rubber ducky swimming in ink.) Be the first at your con. Amaze your friends and neighbors. Have them give you weird looks! Spend all your con explaining "no, it has nothing to do with bathing." DO not miss this once in a lifetime opportunity.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Genre whose name will not be mentioned ...

Romance - there, I've said it. It is now more acceptable to admit to being gay, than it is to admit to reading romance. (Note - this is a broad generalisation, made for fun and not to be taken seriously).

Could it be the titles? The Billionaire's Virgin Bride's Secret Baby? Could it be the covers, which are often lushly sensual? (They can be the sort of thing you hide behind brown paper so you can read on the train).

For a smile, drop by here to see the cover with the three armed woman. The author, Christine Dodd, doesn't mind.

Here is a post by someone who attended the Australian Romance Readers Conference. There is a section on a panel of academics discussing romance.

But seriously folks, romance makes up around 65% of the fiction market (depending on your sources) and there is a major overlap with speculative fiction: fantasy-romance, paranormal-romance and futuristic-romance. Although you will probably have noticed the Dark Urban Fantasy on the shelves as this sub-genre, along with its cousin paranormal-romance, has been going strong for several years, so strong in fact that it seems to have almost consumed fantasy-romance and futuristic-romance.

The difference between a paranormal-romance and a Dark Urban Fantasy is in the 'endings'. Both are set in our world where the paranormal exists alongside the mundane world, either acknowledged or in secret. Both have a strong female heroine who fights evil. The difference is that in a DUF the heroine may (probably) will sleep with the guy, but she won't end up with him. She'll go on for further adventures. In the paranormal-romance you'll get a HEA - Happily Ever After ending.

NY Best Selling, author Nalini Singh is a good example of a writer who sets related stories in an invented world but gives the reader a HEA (in her Changeling-Psi books) and an open ending in her Guild Hunter novels.

Now what is the difference between a DUF like Keri Arthur's books (another NY Best Selling author) and a DUF like Trent Jamieson's Death Most Definite? Both are set in our world with a paranormal twist. Both have a protagonist who falls in love with someone.

The difference is in tone. Trent's book has a male protagonist and has more in common with Simon R Green's Nightside series.

While a DUF will have blood, swords and/or guns but it will also have a lush sensuality. Imagine one book as a three course meal and the other as a similar meal with lashing of sauce to titillate the taste buds.

The romance writer sets out to create a heightened sensual experience. They set out to connect the reader with the character so the reader can vicariously enjoy this experience. If you're interested in how they do this, then take a look at the paranormal-romances that are short listed for the RITA. (This is the RWAmerica's peer award).

I am going to come out of the closet and admit that I've read all of Nalini's Changeling -Psi series and enjoyed them. I've read every Regency that Georgette Heyer ever wrote. I've read some of Keri Arthur's books and enjoyed them. She delivers on both pacing and sensuality.

I've also read Simon R Green, China Meiville, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ian McDonald and Jeff VanderMeer.

Is anyone else brave enough to come out of the closet?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dum... da da da dum

Dum... Da da da dum...
Something wicked this way comes. Probably bouncing through the quivering forest.

I've warned you.
I've told you.
Do you think anyone of you were listening?
You call me a troublemaker. You babble-on, Babylon. Go on with your dream projects, running ever faster.
Building up. Building up and up.
There's a shadow in the doorway. It's not just one of my pranks.
And you're still all talking busily. Flying by the seat of your pants... or building by them. Which means you'll never see disaster coming your way.
Pansters! Huh.
Wake up and smell the scent of decay wafting up through the lower stories. You need to monkey about with it.
Because otherwise the next page will not be quite what your audience expected.
And it should be.
But only in retrospect.
Or it will fall...

I've talked about apeing other genres before. I've also talked about expectations and managing them. I've been writing these pieces for a while and so I've even probably talked about the mechanics of humor (just what is it that makes people laugh). Now I want to talk about something that draws on all three of those: the art of foreshadowing.

It's is probably the core skill required to write good murder-mysteries, and plays quite well in suspense of any kind. It can of course lift your fantasy or sf beyond the ordinary. It's far from easy to do well, and often requires a fair degree of sleight of hand. The key to having done it well, is that the reader DOESN'T see it coming. He sees something coming (IE. his expectations are being managed). However, when the incident happens... a head-palm-slap moment, as the reader says "OF COURSE! Why on earth didn't I see _that_ coming? Of course he was the villain / hero / lost heir, etc."

It was something I tried to do with Cap in THE FORLORN. He was a major character. Their leader. And they were undoubtedly a heroic group. Only I slowly tried to build up that Cap was a self-centered (cough)... and a few other little hints. So: hopefully when the denouement happend... it seemed plausible. In plain sight, given a slightly different interpretation of the story shown.

That's a major example woven into the full length of a novel, which I basically had to know from page 1. It's something I use almost constantly, however, at greater or lesser level, so that we change circumstances without there being a feeling of ‘oh this was getting boring so I decided to make the roof fall in.' That, sadly, is something which is all to common in pantser writing. Now, there are some great pantser writers. Some of them even do short-term foreshadow. And there are even those who long-term foreshadow. That means either their trousers have co-operated and led them instinctively to a great WHY DIDN'T I SEE THAT COMING or that they've edited their work and realized that the finale needed foreshadowing and gone back and systematically done the lead in to it (or that the ‘pantser' part merely applied to detail, and they knew where they were going throughout - ergo they had broad plot, not a detailed one).

I am of course always a plotter, although I sometimes end up as the last example of pantser too. I frequently end up going back and titivating my foreshadowing. To titillate without betraying, if you keep abreast of my reasoning. It's a ticklish thing to do -- because, like humor, it involves getting the reader to see both things but expect the wrong one. (Laughter is actually something of a reaction to shock, it turns out.) The classic example of how it works is Charlie Chaplin walking along the road. There is an open manhole cover, in a littered street. The hole gapes. Gets bigger in every frame. Naturally so does the street and the litter. We see the detail of it, the junk, the cigarette butts, the banana peels, the empty bottles - and the hole. The hole getting bigger and more obviously in the way of the oblivious walker. We see the walker, the hole (and its surrounds, but it is the hole we focus on ) and....

He steps over the hole.

And onto the banana peel (which has been in plain view in every frame).

It's been said that foreshadowing works best if repeated 3 times.
This is good advice... if you are not your average sledge-hammer wielding writer. Remember the banana peel was in frame... but not the center of attention. Peripheral, but large enough and clear enough to be remembered. One way to do this is to make it memorable... for the wrong reason.

For instance here (from A MANKIND WITCH)

"The poor girl. I feel so sorry for her. She's stunted, you know. They say..." and the honeyed voice of Signy's stepmother dropped, but not so low that it couldn't be heard clearly through the thin wooden wall. "It's the dokkalfar blood on her mother's side... The woman died in bearing the girl. That's a sure sign of the ill-fortune that goes with meddling in seid-magic. And only the one scrawny girl-child, Jarl. Anyway, it is not important. She is of the royal line even if she probably will never bear children. She's far too small. She spoils her complexion with sunlight. And she has no womanly skills. I mean, look at her embroidery! It's appalling. No, your master would be wise to look elsewhere."
Signy's nails dug into her palms. She dropped the frame of crooked stitchery that confirmed the truth about her skills with a needle. She knew perfectly well that she had been supposed to hear every word. That it was meant to wound. That didn't stop it hurting. The Dowager Queen Albruna seldom missed the opportunity to try and belittle her... And seldom failed to do so. It wasn't hard. Signy knew that she was no one's idea of a shield-maiden. She was too small, too wiry, and as gifted with 'womanly' skills of fine weaving and stitchery as a boar-pig. She couldn't even see her threads in linen-work, let alone do it. But, by Freya's paps, she'd sooner die than let the queen-mother see any sign of how her barbs stung.


There are several piece of foreshadowing there -- but the spite about the embroidery is key to the entire story -- because Signy is long-sighted. And this is the foundation on which the story rests.

Other ways to hide things are in other senses. I'm too lazy to go and look up the examples, but I did this several times with my alien hero in SLOW TRAIN. What he was smelling - or hearing was plot-relevant. The reader (I hope) was taken by the vividness of the imagery from an alien viewpoint, without realizing I was cueing them in.

And it doesn't always have to be important. You can thread your re-enforcing of foreshadowing into scenery, or into the speech tags.


"Can't I stop and rest for a while, Prince Vlad?" whined the Boyar.
"We'll rest when we're there," said Vlad, wishing for the tenth time, at least, that he hadn't agreed to take the man along. The rest of this troop were his best men. Yes, some were poachers, ex-bandits and rogues. They were his forward scouts. The rest were good shots and the steadiest men he had. He'd had Emil and Mirko pick them out, and then let his feeling govern the selected ones. He was getting better at trusting those feelings.
"Where are we going?"
It was not a question Vlad wanted to answer. Not after his experiences in Gara. "A little ambush," was all that he said.
"We're a long way out of the high mountains," said the Boyar, who seemed to assume he was at liberty to interrupt Vlad's thoughts at will, and speak to him without the respect Vlad had come to take for granted. He tried to make his volunteer armies more comfortable, confident enough to address their Prince... until of course he found someone like this who took it all too far.

There is more information contained in the speech tags and Vlad's thoughts - and attitudes - than there is in the dialogue.

And thus, we build up. We re-enforce our paper (or electron)tower and mason over all those cracks of confusion. And we can still assault heaven, or at least the heights of our profession, because Hanuman told us to use steel rods and brickforce so the edifice can stand. (And who saw this bit coming?)
The demons hate him. Of course you all know who the demons are, don't you?;-)
Ok - your thoughts on foreshadowing?
Many of you are self-confessed pantsers. How do you do it?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Routines, Links and a Wow!

Let's start with the "Wow!" first. When I pulled up the MGC site, I noticed that we have added another follower, our 100th. We've watched our traffic grow, but it's really cool to see the number of official "followers" increase as well. Thanks to everyone for reading us and commenting.

My morning routine isn't complicated but it is least if I want to function properly the rest of the day. After doing the essentials like letting the dog out before he kills me dancing around my legs and starting the coffeemaker, I boot up the computer. Email, checking MGC and The Naked Truth (the blog for Naked Reader Press) for comments, scanning the headlines for one of the local papers, checking the kindle boards for free book announcements and then the blogs. Somewhere in there is the first mug of coffee. Maybe, just maybe by the time I've done all this and have finished my second cup of coffee, I'm nearing something close to human.

This routine sets the tone for my day. That doesn't mean if I read something I don't like, I'm in a lousy mood all day. No, it's my jump-start -- and often inspiration for either something I decide I need to do for NR or for one of the blogs or for my writing. It's amazing the ideas that can come from headlines. More than that, if I miss one of these steps, I'm "off" for the rest of the day. Silly, I know, but there it is. Routine done, I can have breakfast, take my shower and begin the day without feeling like I'm out of step with the rest of the world. Well, no more out of step than usual. How about you? Is there a routine you have to follow for the day to seem "right"?

All of this leads up to my links for the day. The first is from agent Jennifer Jackson. In one of her Letters from the Query Wars posts, she listed some of the things in query letters that struck her as ironic. I won't list them all. Just click on the link to read them. However, there are a couple worth mentioning if only to remind you NOT to do them:
  • Letters with no name in either the sender field or any of the text but wanting a personal reply. (So I'm stuck with Dear ihatekittens at yourISP dot com)
  • Queries complaining about how mercenary and awful agents are while soliciting representation for new novel. Similarly, queries offering to pay fees or higher commission rates.
  • A terse follow-up about how it's been 3 weeks since a query was sent but there has not been the courtesy of a reply... when the listed response time for the agent is 4 weeks.
The next two links come from Lucienne Diver's blog -- and if you haven't read Lucienne's guest blog yesterday, do so. It's really great. The first is a guest post by Faith Hunter discussing the Six Best Reasons Why Writers Write. I'll leave you to read the entire entry, but do want to list Ms. Hunter's reasons why writers write.
  • The characters in their heads won't shut up.
  • The story keeps screaming to be told.
  • They go a little crazy if they don't write. (Get mean if they don't write, whatever.)
  • They neeeeeed to write. It's a sickness, a craving similar to what an alcoholic feels for his alcohol.
  • They need the income than an established career has provided them.
  • It's better than working for a living. (Said facetiously because, believe me, writing is hard, stressful, deadline-based work.)
How many of these are the reasons you write? For me, all but 5 fits because I'm still working on establishing that career. Are there other reasons you write?

The next link also comes from a guest blog for Lucienne. Diana Pharaoh Francis discussed the 12 Steps to Exciting Torture Program. Because I think these are so good -- and so entertaining -- I'm going to list them all. But please, go read the entire post and the comments that follow. Oh, and tell me what your first thought was when you read #11.

  1. Know your characters. Know what will make them feel the most pain—emotional stuff? Physical stuff? Mental? I know that thinking about someone messing with my eyes makes me cringe. What makes yours cringe? Find their soft spot, their weakness, and drill into it. If they have more than one, do more than one.
  2. 2. Get a villain who is willing to go the distance if you’re going to have someone doing the torture. You’re reader needs to believe that the torturer will in fact try to squeeze all the pain out of your character that can possibly be managed.
  3. 3. If it’s not a villain, better make the scene believable. Did mother nature take a sudden dislike to your character and dump her down in a ravine with a billion snakes and spiders? Are they crawling and squirming all over her, sliding into her ears and creeping through her hair? Are they puncturing her skin in delicate little burning bites that putrefy and swell? Are delicately dancing over her eyes and up her pant legs? Does she start to pant with the pain and find them invading her mouth?
  4. 4. If it’s not a villain, is it a situation? Is he suffering mentally watching something happen that he can never be part of? Is the love of his life going at it with another man in front of him? Is his mother publically saying she wishes he was never born? Is his sister killing herself with drugs and begging for money? Did his sister break into his house and kill his wife and sons because she was desperate for money? Is he going to have to hunt down and kill his own sister in return? (Ah, the sweet smell of torture—ain’t it grand?)
  5. 5. Make it last. Torture is no fun if it’s over with quickly. I mean, anybody can take pain for a short while. It’s the long drawn out pain that really hurts.
  6. 6. If you can, dovetail the emotional with the physical. It hurts a lot more when you are getting into their minds as well as their bodies.
  7. 7. Don’t go the easy route. Yeah, you can do the pull off the fingernails thing, yanking the teeth, or the cattleprod to the balls, but those are so cliché and easy. Same with rape. Those are too easy to fall back on, unoriginal, and they usually backfire with your reader. Especially rape.
  8. 8. Another form of torture is to attack what the character loves most. Dogs, cats, children, lovers . . . though if you have a pet/child torturer, you damned well better kill him with a lot of pain and violence. Such people, even fictional ones, deserve it. So sayeth I.
  9. 9. Make it worth the torture. I mean, you can’t be gratuitous. The torture scene has to have point in the story. Your reader has to care what happens to your characters and fear for them. So you’ll have to learn to beat up on the character you love the most.
  10. 10. Be careful of asking friends/family/acquaintances about how best to perform torturous activities. It makes them nervous. Really really nervous and you’ll encounter reactions like them backing toward a door, faces pale as they ask, “Um, why do you want to know how to pop someone’s eyeball out without smooshing it?” (hey, read my books. You’ll see why. Path of Honor).
  11. 11. Make your torture really real. Get the sounds, smells, tastes, textures and images right. I mean, did you know that when you’re eye pops out it itches horribly? Details like that lend realism that makes the scene truly come alive. (Oh, and when the guy doing it to you has bad breath, it’s all the worse for the poor victim. Just saying.).
  12. 12. Just when things look their bleakest, Make Them Worse.
The floor is now yours. What's your routine? Why do you write? And what did you think when you first read #11 above?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Creative Control by Lucienne Diver

Today's guest blogger is agent extraordinaire, Lucienne Diver. Lucienne is also the author of Vamped and its recently released sequel, ReVamped.

Creative Control

The word creative conjures up thoughts of imagination given free reign—no rules, no conventional wisdom, no catering to categories or expectations. Absolute freedom. Ah, heaven! If you’re writing just to please yourself, that might be the be all and end all of things.

However, if you’re writing for publication, there’s also the matter of control…controlling your writing schedule to hit deadlines, the storyline to keep it on track and proceeding apace, your characters so that they won’t hijack your story. (Those imaginary characters have no sense of control but all the creativity that comes with the lack of any consequences in the “real” world. Yes, I talk about characters as if they’re more fact than fiction, with thoughts and motives of their own. That’s because when writers are truly immersed, they often feel as though they’re channeling the story as they hear it in the character’s voice rather than really guiding things along. Just like a raging river sometimes needs to be redirected….)

Anyway, if you’re a writer, you’ve clearly got creative down pat. Here are a few suggestions to help you with your control issues:

1- Set a schedule: a consistent time and place for writing. Just as they say that you should study under consistent conditions to aid in memorization, setting a regular schedule will precondition your brain for the proper mindset so that when you sit down to write you’ll be better able to launch right in.

2- Eliminate distractions: For some this means writing on a computer without Internet access or having a dedicated writing room or office where the day-to-day is shut out. For me, it’s freehanding everything out first in a notebook. I’ve even tricked myself into upping my word count at each sitting by using college-lined paper rather than wide-ruled. I find that I still write two pages front and back per day, but, of course, I have more to show for them when I transfer my words to type.

3- Make sure those around you know that writing time is sacred. If you don’t treat it as such, though, neither will others, so stick to your schedule. Don’t give yourself permission to do anything but stare at the page or screen or whatever for the allotted time. It’s amazing how incredible a motivator sheer boredom can be. Chances are you’ll find yourself writing away rather than facing the void.

4- Do not compare yourself to others! Some people write amazingly fast, some don’t. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t work on improving your output (as I did with changing the rule of my notebook paper), but don’t force yourself to become a book a month writer if it normally takes you nine month. Chances are the quality will suffer. That said, if it takes you more than a year per book, career momentum will be difficult to develop and maintain, so set yourself goals and challenges, make yourself accountable to a critique partner or group for a certain number of pages per week or month to help you pick up the pace.

5- No time? No such thing. I’m always amazed by writers who work eighty hours a week, have four kids and still manage to put out wonderful books. Their trick is efficiency, and, often, creating more hours in the day by waking up early and using time they wouldn’t normally have to write.

One of my authors told me recently that the best thing she’d ever heard in a workshop, the question that most resonated with her was: “What would you sacrifice to achieve your dreams?” Yes, dedication might mean that you miss drinks dates with friends or that extra hour of sleep, but it will all be worth it in the end.

The long and short of it is that creativity is only part of the equation that gets you from point A (idea inception) to point B (publication). Because publishing is a business, there are production schedules and all kinds of things external to the muse that you’ll have to heed. Training your muse to come when you call is an important skill for long-term success.


For more from Lucienne, check out these sites:

Her blog: Authorial, agently and personal ramblings

Her website:

Agency site:

And don't forget to check out Lucienne's books at the links at the top of this entry.