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Archive for June, 2016

Let me count the ways. Any two subjects that generate this much angst have to have a lot in common.
1) You’re going to have to make some choices, and someone will always think your choice is a disaster.
2) Your ultimate success will be subject to the opinions of a lot of people who don’t understand what you’ve done at all.
3) Anything you do will be subject to widespread comment on the internet. (Well, that applies to everything.)
4) The economic consequences of your project are entirely unforeseeable.
 5) You will find yourself beset by an ever-growing cast of characters, all of whom think the plot should feature them, and go wherever they want to go.
6) What seemed like a good idea in your head will sound horrible when it has been torn apart by millions of strangers.
7) You can’t always choose your fans.
8) The ultimate question is what to Leave out, and what to let Remain.
And of course…
9) When it comes time for the sequel, you will be absolutely clueless.
If you can come up with any more similarities between writing and the BREXIT, feel free to leave them in the comments.
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Every once in a while, if you’re going to write a blog about writing, you have to write about writing. Right? This is one of those times. If you’re not a writer or planning to be one, you can skip this one. (But you don’t have to…)  If you are a writer–why aren’t you writing? Oh, you’re just taking a break from the next Harry Potter? Then settle in. You need to know this stuff.

Writers are always concerned with how they’re going to get their message across to readers. Unless you’re planning to self-publish, that’s the wrong way to go about it. (And if you are planning to self-publish, there are some other blogs you should be reading.) What you want to do is get your message across to an editor. The editor buys your story from you. He gives it to the publisher. Readers buy their story from the publisher. If you don’t sell the editor, you don’t sell.

How do I sell an editor, you ask? Very good question. And a very big task. To begin with, there are as many ways to sell to an editor as there are editors. (Even so, selling to readers is a lot harder, because  there are a lot more of them than editors.) On the other hand, editors will tell you exactly what they are looking for. These are called “guidelines,” and if you follow them, while you still might not get the sale, you will develop a reputation for dependability, which can be almost as good. (For purposes of our discussion, we will limit ourselves to magazine editors.)

See, even though editors read hundreds of stories a month, they tend to see the same authors over and over, and they remember you. The first time an editor said such-and-such story was not as good as my other stories, I was over the moon. I never sold to him, but he knew my name. He found it worth remembering, and that’s huge.

If an editor is going to remember you, you want it to be for the right reasons. That means read the guidelines and follow them. You’d be surprised how many writers don’t.  On the other hand, sometimes guidelines aren’t as strict as they appear. An anthology’s theme might stretch to cover your story even if it doesn’t fit like a glove. And word limits may be flexible. If the guidelines say, “3000 – 5000 words, firm,” then respect them. But if they don’t, maybe they can be exceeded–but if you’re going to try that, ask first. You can query an editor to determine if exceptions are allowed, and the mere fact that you asked may get you the answer you want.

Well, you may get the answer you want concerning whether you can skirt the guidelines. Getting the answer you want about a sale, that’s going to take some more work. But when you sub that next story, having an editor who remembers you isn’t going to hurt…

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I saw Roland Emmerich being interviewed on TV, and he said, “Films are not finished. They are just abandoned.” And boy, is he right.

When they were building the pyramids, they could never stop because it would be in poor taste to say to the pharaoh, “Hey, most exalted dude, your tomb’s ready any time you want to, you know, head on in there.” Sounds like a good pitch for picked as the advance scout for that job; if he’s not ready to go, you don’t want to argue with him. It’s not quite the same with a writer, because we want to be finished–but you wouldn’t know it to watch us.

I don’t know that any written story, novel, short, screenplay, poem, whatever, is ever as good on paper as it was in your head. Of course, in many ways it’s a lot better, because you’ve been able to write and revise and rearrange the words, but the story never seems to come out like you imagined. It always has more impact in your head–which is understandable, when you’re only dealing with an audience of one.

And that’s why we have such a hard time letting go. There’s always something that can be improved. A sentence can be shortened to greater impact. A character can be expanded through the addition of a single comment. And does the ending express exactly what I want the reader to take away? Could it be clearer?

Yet on the other hand, if you don’t “finish,” you don’t publish. Now, there are stories that never get finished, and for good reason. Some stories don’t go the way you want; stories (especially novels) have a tendency to get away from you, and while they may know where they’re going, it might not be the best place for them. Usually this is early in your career, and all writers have efforts that will never see the light of day because they’re just not good. But sometimes a good idea simply goes awry. I was discussing one such with friends the other night. A neat idea, a fertile market, a “finished” novel, but somewhere it went off the tracks and I don’t know how to pull it back. So it’s in a box, and there it will likely remain.

But even that novel was shopped around before I trunked it, because the simple fact that I think it derailed doesn’t mean the Market will think so. (Unfortunately, the Market agreed with me.) Still, it is a tenet of our faith (in ourselves) that one does not “self-reject.” We are poor judges of our own work. I have sent stories to markets that I thought were a bad fit, but they conformed to the market’s requirements so I sent them. And they sold. You can never tell.

Unless of course you adopt the ancient practice of never finishing because you’re afraid of the reception you’ll get. But I can tell you the reception you’ll get: Complete silence. A watched pot never boils, and an “unfinished” story never sells. Not even a pharaoh would argue with that.

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To those who believe with the fiery passion of a thousand suns that “Stairway to Heaven” is the greatest rock-n-roll song ever written, the current lawsuit over its opening notes is akin of blasphemy of the highest order, an attack of the Temple of Music itself, a barbaric assault on the foundations of late-Baby Boomer culture.

To those of us who simply believe that “Stairway to Heaven” was the greatest song of the rock-n-roll era because, well, we just do, we’re not happy either.

But is our wrath/tepid disapproval misplaced? Was the song lifted (consciously or unconsciously) from Spirit’s “Taurus”?

I haven’t the faintest idea. And fortunately, I’m not on that committee, er, jury.

But the question does arise (and too frequently now): What constitutes plagiarism? The standards, as I understand them, differ from music to fiction, but the question is the same. Recently, Sherrilyn Kenyon sued Cassandra Clare over the “Mortal Instruments” franchise. How that will end remains to be seen. Still, we are all operating from a common folkloric heritage which hardly varies even among disparate cultures. In other words, there’s nothing new under the sun. So what qualifies as “original”?

Spider Robinson won a Hugo for his short story, “Melancholy Elephants,” in which the government is contemplating extending copyrights in perpetuity. The story questions the consequences thereof. Hardly SF, really, but it won anyway.* I voted for it.

It seems, however, that we have enough unintended consequences already, with copyright “only” extending 75 years past the author’s death. (Which is silly enough. I mean, to 99% of authors, it’s beyond meaningless.) And the “Stairway” lawsuit is only about the opening chords of the song. Not the whole song, not the lyrics. Just the opening. The defense argues that both songs are based on old folk music, which may well be true. But even if it’s not, how much do you have to copy to violate copyright? I mean, notes are notes, right? Even if it’s all in how you put them together, there are still only a finite number of ways to do that, and if you break songs into their parts, pretty soon nobody will be able to write anything unless he can prove he never listened to music (or read a book) before putting pen to paper.

To put it in fiction terms, can you sue someone for using the sentence, “The man walked to the store,” just because you used it first? If Godzilla stomped Tokyo, does that mean no other kaiju can ever “stomp” a city? And what about all the resurgence in interest in “Golden Age Science Fiction”? Are we even allowed to write that stuff, or will we violate a copyright for a story written before we were born and never reprinted?

Most of us won’t have to worry, of course, because no one sues over a work that doesn’t make a truckload of money. But it’s the principle of the thing. We–

–wait, what? “Truckload of money” is copyright-protected? Then I guess I’m done. Just let me write “The End,” and… no, don’t tell me…

 

*Oddly enough, there was no “Social justice warriors are ruining SF!” outcry in 1982. Let’s hope the Sad Puppies don’t have access to a time machine.

 

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Difficult as it may be to believe, not all writers are in it for the money. (If you’re a writer, this is not difficult to believe at all.) Some are in it because they want to be read, to make a mark on the world. When we watch our TVs and we see the daily parade of misery, when we witness a mass shooting like yesterday’s, we want to do something. As writers, we want to write a story that will shake some sense into the world. And we could, we know we could, if only we could find the right words. Sadly, the truth is that as a writer, you have more chance of making money than of making the world a better place.

Yes, you can argue that you make the world a marginally better place by providing entertainment, by brightening up someone’s existence for a few hours, and you would be perfectly correct. But if you want to make the world a better place, well, then, there’s a book you should read, Don Quixote, because you are that character.

It’s not hopeless, of course. Upton Sinclair changed America with The Jungle. J.K. Rowling has inspired people the world over to join in The Harry Potter Alliance. If you write for TV or movies, you could create Star Trek, whose inspiration of a generation of scientists is well-documented, or Star Wars, with its 501st Legion.

But those are four examples from a hundred years of books and TV/movies. Your (or my) chances of joining that elite rank are vanishingly small.

The odds of being published alone are perhaps 1 in 1,000. You can self-publish, sure–you and 100,000 others every year. The odds of having a real success are small–and the odds of “making a difference” to more than a few fans are infinitesimal.So why do it? Why bother?

Because like the hero of Don Quixote, we don’t know when we’re beaten. Who else can find his career choice rejected 500 times and still keep going? Who else could look at the odds of success and still want to do this thing? Don’t think I have a chance of making a difference? Just throw your statistic on the pile and I’ll pay attention when I have time. Which is never. Because if I did, if I rationally considered what I was doing, I’d quit and go to law school.

But I don’t. And I won’t. Because I’m a writer, and the written word has power. Ask Thomas Jefferson. Ask Thomas Paine. Ask Sinclair or Rowling. Ask the guys who wrote the Bible.

Even if we don’t achieve great fame or readership, writers are like teachers. Maybe we reach only 40 people a year. But we can do it over and over. Forty becomes 80, becomes 120, and maybe some of 120 those reach out, too, and spread the message. And maybe it grows really slowly, but we’re writers, we’re used to that. Maybe someday, somebody who was reached by somebody who was reached by one of us has the chance to blow that message up to where everyone can see it. Wouldn’t that be cool?

And perhaps all we’ll ever do is earn a couple of bucks by making one person’s rainy afternoon a little sunnier. That would be good, too.

#SFWApro

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I’ve finished that short story I was asking people about a while back. It wasn’t as much work as I’d feared, once I got on the right track. (I had an idea I was excited about, but it turned out to be too much like someone else’s story. I had a bad couple of days before I came up with another idea.) I think it came out pretty well; it’s with beta readers now, and the response has been encouraging. So all in all, a successful detour from my large novel project.

Which I am now trying to get back to. As I feared, returning to a bigger task is not easy. A short story is nimbler, quicker, easier to navigate and to pilot. The novel… I have a lot of notes (for me), and a reasonably detailed idea of how to write it, but putting more words on paper after a break feels more like the high bar of beginning a novel. I expect this will fade as I reread my last few pages and return to that world, but it’s not as easy as that. In my mind, I have that BLANK PAGE feeling.

Short stories versus novels. There are advantages to both: On the one hand there’s speed, the ability to work on several sequential projects in a shorter span; the greater likelihood of publication. On the other hand, there’s money. And recognition, from both colleagues and the reading public.

These are obvious factors, save perhaps the last. But there is no getting around that if you want to be known for your writing, you have to write novels. Unless you’re one of the two or three really fine short story artists out there, they will not get you a seat at the bar. And even then, it takes years (awards only come around so often), whereas even one middling novel will get you credibility with your peers. (I’m talking about SFF, now. Other fields may be different, although I’m pretty sure it’s the same with mysteries.)

So here I am, facing the–let’s face it–fear that is the BLANK PAGE. Even writing a blog post is closer to writing a short story and offers many of the same advantages. But maybe writing this column is a way to ease back into what I should be doing, which is finishing The Cosmic City.

Or maybe it’s not. Maybe you’ll get another post tomorrow…

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I was visiting with family over the weekend, and one of the questions authors are often asked was, in fact, asked. After the obligatory, “Are you still writing?” (which in this case was warranted because we had not met in quite some time), I was asked: “How do you write a book? I couldn’t do that.” And the remarkable thing was not that I said, “Beats me, it just sort of happens,” but that answering the question, in some detail, was not that hard. It came to me much as a plot does, although thankfully much more quickly.

To give a complete answer, I did have to cover the “Where do you get your ideas?” question, but I was able to borrow from experience. I told how I had had one odd thought one day and written it down. Then I had another thought that seemed to follow the first, and I wrote that down, too. When the thoughts kept coming, I said, and suddenly they were forming plot points, I knew my subconscious was onto something and I decided I ought to follow and see where it led.

I then explained (and this was a shorter conversation than it takes to write down) how once the book is started, I often find that my characters will say something, or I will write down a piece of exposition, that I had absolutely no idea the character was going to say or I was going to write before it hit the paper (or screen), and that it shows that my subconscious is a deep well where all of my real thinking goes on. (Far deeper than my conscious mind, as any of my friends will happily relate to you at a dingy corner table if you’re buying the pizza.)

And the ironic thing was, I had absolutely no idea that I thought of writing this way before I had this conversation. I had formulated all the pieces, naturally, over time, but I had never had cause to string them together in this way before that moment. It was like I was writing a very short (and completely plotless) novel in my head. Or maybe a short story.

And like every good story, I learned something that day. (Well, yes, I learned that family visits can be fun, but besides that.) I learned that I had learned something. After all these years as a writer, I can explain my process to an unsuspecting audience, and explain it in such a way that it makes sense. Like I’m doing right now. I told you a story, and while it lacked characterization, conflict, and all but the ghost of a setting, it did have a theme.

Which I guess makes me a writer. Huh. And they said it was hard…

#SFWApro

 

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