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Archive for September, 2015

It’s been a long time coming, but I’m finally getting to the point where I’m not embarrassed to call myself “a writer” in the right circumstances. Trust me, it’s taken years. It’s one of those unsung hard parts about being a writer, taking yourself seriously. Another is finding time to write. It’s not the hardest part, but it’s tough. Talk to any writer and he/she will tell you it’s never easy. There are a lot of reasons for this…

For example, I’ve just crossed the 50,000-word mark on my work-in-progress (WIP), a novel I’ve been working on a over 18 months. Now, even for me, this is slow. (And it’s gruesome death when you’re self-publishing. But that’s another topic.) In my own defense, however, I had some personal issues last year that sucked my will (and time) to write for many months. And after that, I faced the Demon of Writer’s Block. (Some writers don’t believe in writer’s block. They probably don’t believe in Santa Claus, either.)

I’ve gotten past the DWB recently, and started working with a new energy. (Then I got side-tracked by another project, but at least it was a writing project. And it might actually bring in money in the foreseeable future, as opposed to a book which isn’t even finished and based on its history, may not be during the current Administration.) But while renewed energy is great, maybe crucial, there’s still that problem of finding time to write.

Now, the conventional wisdom is to set up a standard time and sit down to write every day at that time. Terrific idea. In theory. In practice, Life gets in the way. I don’t have kids, and I have trouble simply attending to household duties and spending time with my wife. How writers with children manage to finish anything at all has always been a mystery to me, and I hold them in high esteem.

Yes, conventional wisdom says, but you have to treat writing like a job: Do it every day even when you don’t want to. And there, I believe, is the problem.

You see, a lot of people don’t like their jobs. They spend much of their working time devising schemes on how not to work, or how to minimize work. If you tell them writing is another job, it’s liable to suffer from the same maladies. I know that I like to set a minimum daily word count, but I don’t beat myself up if I don’t meet it, because if I work just to get to that limit, then I stop when I get there. Because it’s work, and I’d rather be reading or surfing the net.

There’s also the fact that if this is work, you want to get paid a lot more for it. So in order not to quit as soon as possible, and not to worry about pay rates, some writers tell themselves it’s only a hobby. Hobbies are extra activities you take on in your spare time. Hobbies are fun. Wouldn’t you like writing to be fun? Well, yeah, but hobbies are also things you do when you have time. And if you wait to write until you have time, then you spend 18 months writing 50,000 words.

So what is writing, work or hobby? Seems to me it should be something in between. Something you spend a regular, meaningful amount of time on, but not drudgery, not something you scheme to escape as soon as possible, even if it’s only for a long lunch. Writing isn’t one thing or the other; it’s kind of the “brunch” of careers.

I guess you could call writing a “wobby,” but I don’t think it’s going to catch on. We need someone who’s good with words to work on that.

#SFWApro

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I am pleased to announce that “Dead Guy Walking,” an exploration of life after what may or may not be death, is going to be the subject of a live reading courtesy of The Pulp Stage in Portland, Oregon. The story will be translated to a script, which will then be read to a live audience in a club or restaurant setting. Unfortunately, the performance will not take place until at least 2016; on the other hand, it gives me a chance to save enough money to go to Portland to see it! (If you can’t wait until then, you can listen to it here.)

Once the details have been revealed to me (hey, I’m just the author), I will publish them on this page. If you’re in the neighborhood, come on by!

#SFWApro

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They Won’t Bite

There’s a blog post on the SFWA blog that I just read that gives writers advice on how to ask for book blurbs. Being as interested in having a high-powered author ruin his career consent to give me a boost as the next guy, I read it. It was interesting, informative–and mostly consisted of common-sense advice about how not to be a jerk to someone when asking him (or her) for a favor.

Now, this is valuable intel, because I don’t know of a thornier question in all of writerdom than how to approach someone you don’t know, or may know only slightly (or even someone you know well, who has probably been dreading this moment for years) to ask him or her not only to read your book, not only to say something nice about your book, but to do it in public and put his name on it. In short, to tell his fans that they should read your book. But at the same time, there wasn’t anything that you shouldn’t know on your own: ask politely, don’t be a pest, do take no for an answer, that kind of thing.

That could be a handy intro to a rant on the decline of manners, but that’s too easy, and besides, no one who reads my blog needs that kind of lecture. So what’s our takeaway here?

It’s that writers are people. Treat them right and they’ll return the favor (if they can). Maybe a blurb is a lot to ask for, but most people aren’t looking for one. You’re a lot more likely to ask for an autograph. Unlike actors, most authors will sign autographs for anyone who asks, and they don’t charge for the privilege. Just be polite in asking. If it’s a formal signing, just a smile will do. If you meet an author at a con, don’t intrude on her conversation, wait for her to be free, and she’ll gladly sign your book.

That’s not to say that every author is Santa Claus, or has been waiting all his life for you to ask him to sign your book (although if he’s new enough, he really has), or even that he’ll be nice to you. On the other hand, if you exercise a little judgment, and don’t sit down next to him while he’s having breakfast, you’ll probably find that your favorite author is just like you. You work in an office, he works at home.

The difference is that, hour for hour, you probably get paid better.

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I recently wandered by one of those photo booths at the mall, and I wondered out loud why anyone still used them when selfies were so prevalent. A friend told me that people still liked to pile into them and take picture. I opined that people were becoming real narcissists, and my friend asked: “What, you just noticed?”

(Allow me to take the high ground here and say that I do not take selfies. Allow me to be honest and say the reason is that I don’t have a phone that can take selfies. But since the ends justify the means, I’m  still the guy who doesn’t take selfies.)

It reminded me, in a very roundabout way, of the Hugo controversy. According to the complaints of the Sad Puppies, the Hugos have become an award more concerned with the form of the story, rather than the story. Or worse, they believe that the artist has taken precedence over the art, that it’s more about who (or what) you are than what you’ve done.

Let’s look at it another way. It seems the thing now (besides selfies) is tattoos. (Yeah, I’m too old for tattoos. Get over it.) You choose it, you commission it, it says something. But here’s my question. Because  you chose the thing that represents you, your message, and had it put on your body, does that make you an artist? Or does it make you art?

Are other people looking at the Michael Jackson tat on your shoulder and thinking, “Gee, that hot girl is really into Michael Jackson,” or are they thinking, “Gee, that’s a great drawing of Michael Jackson”? Are you the message or the medium?

Selfies. Facebook tags. Is it better for people see you, or to hear you? Do you get a tattoo to make a statement, or to be one? Do you want to write a great story, or be called a great writer? Which is better? Is there a right answer?

I don’t know. You don’t know. I’m not sure there is a right answer. You might as well ask, “What is Art?” You’d likely create less controversy.

Let’s get back to SF. The Sad Puppies would say that SF needs to keep pushing outward, breaking through the new barriers out there that keep us from realizing our species’ full potential. They say the story is all and it doesn’t matter who writes them. Others would say that SF needs to push inward, to break through the old barriers inside us that keep us from realizing our full human potential. They say that new, different voices are necessary because they bring new viewpoints. And yet others would claim that neither one matters, because self-promotion is the greatest goal and how you achieve it is irrelevant. In this world, if you don’t make a name for yourself, nobody’s going to do it for you.

I guess as long as you keep pushing yourself, that’s progress. How you define “progress” is up to you.

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There has been a lot (yes, way too much) time and energy spent the last several months on the Hugo awards, and what’s supposedly wrong with them, and the ancillary (pun intended) issues that have arisen since, like the latest nonsense about suing the Worldcon over a supposedly invalid ballot. As has been reiterated many times, and specifically (if incidentally) pointed by the latest “legal” kerfuffle, these things are really a tempest in a very small teapot. Honestly, as much as we’d all love to have one, who wins the Hugos matters to very few people. (Mostly, the people who win one, or don’t.) The same goes for whether the ballot was fairly drawn, or voted on, or if the system can be reformed.

Now, ironically, all the hoopla and hollering has not failed to engage and entertain a lot of people. Or maybe “enrage and entertain” would be a better description. (And I will be the first to admit I am among that number. Of course, my interest has been wholly academic, particularly in the latest skirmish, since I am a legal professional.) But why?

Why is it, that we, the SF community, self-charged to be the farseers, the chosen few who at least try to predict the future (however poorly), are so caught up with present-day minutiae? Come to think of it, why is the world so caught up in present-day minutiae? Obsession with movie stars, for example, is nothing new; when my great-grandmother’s closets were cleaned out years ago, we found stacks movie tabloids dating back to the 1950s. (And yes, I wish I had been allowed to save them.) But now, we have television channels devoted to this kind of thing, and we make stars out of people who’ve never been in movies. (And then we put them in movies, with predictable results.)

Sure, this is all for fun, and everybody’s entitled, but there are issues out there that we should be paying attention to: climate change, record refugee migrations, wealth distribution, a presidential election season being run by reality stars. (Somebody has probably actually predicted this somewhere along the line.) Why should we care if No Award got the Hugo for Best Short Story when right outside the auditorium record forest fires, fueled by unprecedented drought, made the air seem less like Spokane than Beijing?

And why isn’t anyone blogging about that?

I have a simple theory: It’s too big. We can’t handle this stuff. This is the sort of thing we elected those guys in Washington to solve for us. See how well that’s worked out.

But you know what? We’re Science Fiction. We think about the big issues, the future. Up until now, instead of the guys in Washington, we’ve let the guys in SFWA do the heavy lifting, so we can concentrate on nominating patterns and voting blocs. Except now the guys in SFWA are right down there with us. We’re letting a thousand ant-like problems distract us from the elephants in the room. Because it’s easier.

I’m not going to sit here at my computer and claim I have the way out. I’m not to claim that I’m any better than anyone else, that I’ve been fighting the good fight while everyone else sat at their bivouac. I don’t, and I haven’t. I’ve fed the monster of small concerns like a lot of others.

But it’s time to stop. It’s time for us in science fiction to stop squabbling about petty matters and get back to bigger things. The kind of looming apocalypses that we can imagine, because we’re not afraid to. The kind of doomsday scenarios that used to be science fiction.

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I like to focus on the positive aspects of writing and publishing here, not on the negative (despite my earlier protestations that only the insane and soon-to-be want to become writers; that was merely a public service), but occasionally I see something that just cries out for attention, and, well, writers gonna write. So here it is.

I was recently made aware, by paths both lengthy and arcane, of an Amazon review of a certain anthology of space opera stories by women. (For reasons which will become obvious, I’m not linking to the review.) I haven’t read this anthology, so I can’t speak to the quality of its contents, nor of the validity of any particular criticism this review might wish to levy. I can, however, speak to the general tenor and tone of the review, and boy, does it need to be spoken to. Forcefully.

This is how it starts: “I’m sorry to offend fifty percent of the population but it has to be said that when it comes to writing Science Fiction, it still remains a purely male domain.” And this is how it ends: “I applaud the ladies for giving it a try, but I would suggest they forget going any further. Leave the genre to those of us who know how to write scifi, being well versed in it’s many nuances…”

And then he compounds his error, not only by signing the review, but by including the tagline, “Author of [his book].”

In order to keep this post in the arena in which I like to play, i.e., writing and publishing, I will leave it to others to address the blatant sexism, condescension, and plainly wrongness of his sentiments. (If women can’t write space opera, then Andre Norton should’ve been a plumber. Or a plumber’s wife. And let’s just ignore that Bujold person, and C.L. Moore, who invented some of those “tropes” of yours. And do I even need to mention Leigh Brackett? You want to talk space opera? When she died, she was working on the script for a little movie called The Empire Strikes Back.) I shall confine myself to how he has flubbed his marketing opportunity and possibly short-circuited his entire career. To paraphrase, “How have I screwed myself? Let me count the ways.”

First, if you’re going to start a review with, “I’m sorry to offend fifty percent of the population…,” how about you don’t? I am 100% behind honest reviews and the freedom to give them, but there are ways to express an opinion that won’t alienate (in your own words) half the population of the planet. (In fact, it’s more than half, but I doubt that would have made a difference.) Yes, maybe you think women won’t buy your book anyway, but self-selecting your readership is a dumb marketing strategy. Your publisher sure won’t appreciate it.

Second, the Internet was made for anonymous commenting. I don’t favor it, but maybe you should (if you’re knowingly going to offend four billion people) use a name that can’t be traced to you. Oh, you meant it as a chance to push your own book? Yeah, you did that, all right. More like shoved it.

Finally, if you’re going to criticize people based on “nuances,” make sure of your own. When you use “its” as a possessive, there is no apostrophe. I mean, even if you intend to upset people, don’t show them you’re a bad writer, too.

Here’s the upshot: If you want to express an unpopular opinion, you’re free to do so, but consider the consequences, and maybe tone down your message. You seek to be a public figure. When you’re famous and established, go ahead and be a jerk. There are lots of famous jerks out there. But if you want to reach that point, you’ve got to watch yourself a little in the meantime. It’s isn’t fair, but that’s business.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject, try reading some SF by the women I listed above. I hear each of them writes pretty well. You know, for a girl.

#sfwapro

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It has always been a dream of mine that I might someday, when I amass enough credibility, be able to teach basic creative writing. Not in a formal setting, but one of those extension-type courses, or maybe a small informal group of young hopefuls. it’s not so far-fetched, really; I’ve only been selling for about fifteen years, but I’ve been knocking around this business for a lot longer, and I did specialize in creative writing at college, so I supposedly have some of the training. And let’s face it, there’s only so much you can teach about writing. Learning writing is all about homework. Piles and reams and hours and days and years of homework.

Still, I don’t have to wait until I’m a teacher (or mentor or even a panelist at a convention) to dispense a little of the wisdom I’ve absorbed over the decades. So I thought I’d pick a few subjects and lay down a few words thereon on occasion, starting today…

Actually, I touched on this recently when I talked about the writer’s toolbox. That was about as basic as it gets: If you can’t use words properly, and if you can’t spell, nobody is going to take you seriously. Today’s lesson is about choosing what stories you want to tell.

Point no. 1: If you don’t want to tell that story, nobody will want to read it. In other words, tell the stories you would want to read. If it doesn’t interest you, it won’t interest anyone else.

Point no. 2: A lot of writers conceive of stories like they play checkers: One move leads to the next and the next. Checkers is an obvious game; you have to jump the other player’s pieces, and to do that you have to get right up next to him. There’s some subtlety involved, but usually it’s just brute force. A “checkers” story idea is something along the lines of: “What if aliens invaded and one girl was the only person who could stop them?” A classic theme, but limited. And common. Everybody writes that story; unless yours is Shakespeare, it gets lost in the slush.

Now let’s consider chess: There are a hundred variations of every move. You have to plan ahead. That’s what you want to do with your story ideas: plan ahead and move in unexpected ways. This starts with the same concept. “What if aliens invaded and only one girl could stop them?” But then you execute the second half of your strategy: “What happens to her after she stops them?” Now you’ve got a hundred ways to go, and likely your answer will be different from anyone else’s. Now you’re telling a story that only you can tell. Now you’re rising above the slush.

These two points are connected: Together they say, “Tell your own story. Don’t try to be someone else. If you’ve read it, so have a thousand other people who read the same stuff you do.” So take that inspiration and improve on it.

And work on your chess game.

#sfwapro

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