Monday, February 28, 2011

Wild West of Publishing?

I went to a program Saturday about the "Wild West of Publishing" in which self-publishing, print-on-demand, custom/independent publishing, traditional publishing, and electronic publishing were compared. There are definitely more publishing avenues available for authors than ever before, each with their various pros and cons.

The primary differences seem to be the cost to the author. Self-publishing, print-on-demand, custom, and electronic publishing all require the author to pay some costs up front--although these differ widely, with electronic cheapest, and custom publishing costs going up to $18,000 or higher. Traditional publishing, of course, does not cost the author up front. A possible drawback to traditional publishing is the author sells away the rights to their work and it can be costly to get them back later.

There's another consideration, however, as only books produced by traditional publishers make the author elgible to join professional organizations such as Mystery Writers of America (MWA), Science Fiction/Fantasy Authors of America (SFWA), Horror Writers Assocation (HWA). (Romance Writers of America (RWA) is a little more lenient.) Thus, although there are a lot of new publishing opportunities, maybe things haven't really changed so much.

It will be interesting to see what the future brings. What will happen to the publishing world? Will the professional organizations change with the times? What do you think?

Friday, February 25, 2011

Support your nonlocal author

I've mentioned before writers are part of a community and as such we should support each other. One way I support authors is with an ezine I founded with some writer friends in 2006. We publish short speculative fiction quarterly from authors all over the world. We have a new issue coming out February 28, 2011 some highlights of which include:

  • "The Untold Story of an Executioner" by Dawn Lloyd--a chilling tale about maybe the worst job ever
  • "End User" by A.L. Sirois--a horrific story with a character that definitely does not follow Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics
  • "Birth of a New Day" by Fredrick Obermeyer--a unique fantasy in which daybreak requires a special kind of midwife
  • "What Eats You" by Sara Kate Ellis--a near-future adventure involving role-playing and political correctness taken to the extreme
  • "Touch of Poison" by Jaelithe Ingold--a traditional fantasy in which a power struggle has a very unexpected outcome

Cover art by Dave Migman.

Check out ElectricSpec! It's totally free for readers. :)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What's your paradigm?

I went to an interesting lecture last week by famous journalist Chris Mooney. One of the things he mentioned was C.P. Snow's influential 1959 lecture "The Two Cultures" and subsequent book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Snow claimed modern society has two different cultures, sciences versus humanities, and their lack of commonalities was a hindrance to solving the world's problems. One of Mooney's points was our society is still grappling with some of these same issues.

Unfortunately, as a writer, I also seem to be dealing with a kind of rationality versus creativity dichotomy. One of my professors said recently I was too rational and needed to be more personal in my writing. My kneejerk reaction was, how can you be too rational? And I've worked hard to train my brain to be rational. But upon reflection, I realize fiction is about people/emotions and not about data, so I may need to revisit my paradigm. Ugh.

How about you? Are you more of a rational scientist or a creative humanist?

Friday, February 18, 2011

writing goals

One of my professors, Lee McClain, led a discussion the other day about writing goals and how to meet them. One thing she said was you should have a variety of writing goals from huge to small. She said you should have giant goals (like winning a national writing award) and visualize them, to help you focus.

You should have big, but achievable goals, to work towards, and you should visualize completing them. You should also have smaller monthly, weekly, and/or daily goals and complete them. One way to meet goals is to break them down into smaller goals. And if they're still too big, break them down further. For example, say your goal is to write 5 pages a day. If you try and fail, don't beat yourself up, halve your goal: write 2.5 pages a day, etc.

The class as a whole had a lot of good ideas, too. Some people advocated writing 5 (or 10 or 15) minutes a day--no matter what. One person kept their laptop next to their bed and wrote every morning before she got out of bed. Generally, the consensus was writing, or at least thinking, about one's WIP every day was important.

How about you? What are your writing goals? How do you meet them?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What makes a great story?

I gave myself a little homework assignment over the holidays. I tried to find out what makes a short speculative fiction story great. I probably read over a hundred stories from those "Best of" anthologies. What did I conclude? Every great story is different, there are no hard and fast rules. Okay, in hindsight, this may be obvious. :) Another obvious thing: opinions about stories are subjective.

Here's what I took away from the exercise...

  • an excellent story engages the reader's emotions. Note, too, serious emotions such as poignancy, sorrow, or joy are more effective than humor.
  • an excellent story really tortures (figuratively, not necessarily literally) the protagonist. Often the protagonist is an underdog, starting the story behind the 8-ball (or whatever metaphor you prefer).
  • many great stories have empathetic, and even sympathetic, protagonists. Interestingly, this is one of Donald Maass' instructions in Writing the Breakout Novel.
  • many very good stories have unique voices
  • most excellent spec fic stories have fully fleshed-out worlds. The reader feels like they are actually in another place and/or time
  • most excellent stories follow the standard plot arc: the protag has a problem and acts to solve it
  • most great/excellent stories are about more than one thing and these things are interrelated. Often this involves an external and internal plot arc.
  • most great stories involve some kind of originality--a new twist on an old idea, or ideally, a totally new idea

I will continue to study the issue...

Anyone out there have any insights? What do you think makes a story great?

Monday, February 14, 2011

support your local author

I highly recommend supporting your local authors and going to their book signings. All writers are part of a community and we need to support that community to help it flourish. And don't you want your writer friends to come to your future signings? Plus, they're fun and informative.

This weekend I had the pleasure of going to Carol Berg's signing for her new fantasy novel Soul Mirror. She did an intro, a reading, answered questions, and then signed books. Ooh, and she gave away chocolate! :)

Of particular interest: she had a lot to say about writing fantasy. She says fantasy encompasses every other kind of literature and is a great canvas upon which any story can be written. Fantasy enables writers to address big questions like: What is the nature of heroism? Carol also revealed the novels in this trilogy all have titles and themes related to seeing things in different ways. She also addresses the theme that people are never what they seem; all her major characters have dual identities.

Interesting! I look forward to reading the novel.

How about you? Have you been to, or held, any good book signings lately?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Deadlines rock!

Right now, I'm staring down a serious deadline for school. Many chapters of my WIP are due tomorrow! (So, of course, that calls for a blog post. :) ) As I scramble furiously to meet the deadline, it occurs to me, there's no way I would be working this hard if I didn't have to. Therefore, I can only conclude, deadlines rock! Especially for a work-avoider like me, they are invaluable.

Clever people utilize time management and prioritize and organize their work to avoid last minute scrambles and panic, as outlined in Meeting Deadlines. My biggest distraction when I'm supposed to be writing is the internet, i.e. email, googling things, blogging. So, when I really have to get things done, I have to ignore these.

How about you? What do you think of deadlines? What distracts you?

I better get back to work. :)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Book Buzzzz

A writer friend of mine blogged about Writing on Reading: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and said it was "a good read" but "could have been better". This got me thinking about book buzz...

I'm going to look at the beginnings of three of the most buzzzed about books of recent memory and see if I can glean anything from them.

In my opinion, Larsson's book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has a lot to recommend it, but starts a bit slow: It happened every year, was almost a ritual. And this was his eighty-second birthday. When, as usual, the flower was delivered, he took off the wrtapping paper and then picked up the telephone to call Detective Superintendent Morell who, when he retird, had moved to Lake Siljan in Dalarna. This central mystery is actually very interesting, but initially it's not described in the most dramatic way. When the book switches to Blomkvist and his magazine, things slow down.

J.K. Rowling's book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone begins like a fairy tale: THE BOY WHO LIVED.
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.
IMHO, this is charming. Kids all over the world see to agree.

Stephanie Meyer's Twilight begins with: My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. I was wearing my favorite shirt - sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. The data shows teenaged and tween girls loved this.

What did you think of these wildly successful novels? ;)

As far as I can tell these books have nothing in common in terms of subject, writing ability, or anything else. They also probably have very little overlap in demographic. So, why all the buzz? I can only deduce when a book gets to a certain level of buzz something else kicks in, i.e. crowd psychology. When a book gets sufficiently buzzy, the collective crowd gives it communal reinforcement. This social phenomenon asserts that such novels are worthy of purchase/consumption. People seem helpless to resist the communal reinforcement when it gets to these extreme levels of buzz.

What do you think?

And as writers, how can we tap into this?

Monday, February 7, 2011

subconscious writing?

I'm hip-deep in revisions for my WIP. I thought I resolved some problems (such as the protags never eating or sleeping), so I did a quick reread. And, of course, I found another glaring problem, namely, a large dramatic event happens early in the book and no explanation is ever given. Nor do the characters ever wonder 'Why/how did this event occur?'. Ugh. So, I rolled up my sleeves, put on my thinking cap, mixed some metaphors and ...couldn't think of anything plausible to explain why/how. Double-ugh. I pondered and pondered and still nothing.

Thus, imagine my surprise the other day when I woke up with a great solution to the problem. Apparently, my subconscious had been working on the problem. Hurray, subconscious! If I could feed it some chocolate, I would. :)

The creative subconscious isn't a new idea. In Dr. Richard W. Hamming's classic seminar You and Your Research, he says,
If you are deeply immersed and committed to a topic, day after day after day, your subconscious has nothing to do but work on your problem. And so you wake up one morning, or on some afternoon, and there's the answer.

More specifically, for writing, Joel Fagin says in his writing tutorial The Subconscious,
[S]ubconscious knowledge.. can add depth and flaws to characters, become themes for a story and also covers the premises for a bunch of useful story concepts ... In a way, this is also pure character development. Those key moments when a character in a story changes from what he was and into what he will be are very often based on this.

And The subconscious works in the background and drops feelings, instincts and impressions into the conscious mind. ...The subconscious also does a massive amount of background processing in support of the conscious mind and is incredibly powerful. ...And the more you do [a] task ... the more refined the program becomes.

So there you have it, subconscious writing! I think I'll go take a nap, er, do some creative writing/thinking. :)

Has this ever worked for you?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Unreliable Narrators

Today, I'm pleased to present a guest blog entry by Suspense/Mystery/F/SF author Rebecca Bates:

The unreliable narrator is a fascinating character. As a writer I'm drawn to them because of their complexities and also because they fit well with one of my favorite themes: what is reality?

Using the unreliable narrator in fiction is one of the many tools in the writer's toolbox that Stephen King (among others) describes in On Writing.

What does this mean? Googling "unreliable narrator," you will find countless entries from sources ranging from Wikipedia to the Guardian. I have my own ideas, though, and an example from my work.

First off, the narrator is the character telling the story in his or her own voice. This character is not necessarily the protagonist. We readers want to believe what that character says and thinks. Why? John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction that it's because of a "fundamental contract...that the writer will deal honestly and responsibly with the reader." After all, it's the narrator's story. But what if that character has an agenda that works counter to his or her world, the world of our story? This is the unreliable narrator.

I used this tool in my short story, "The Seventh Sleeve of Tombaugh" in the anthology Alien Aberrations, currently released from Grand Mal Press. The reader knows from the beginning that the narrator--Noah--has come to Pluto because he wants to escape the burgeoning spread of population. Humanity's hope lies with the stars, and this dream of potential achievement is skewed through the misanthrope's eyes. And then things go horribly wrong. Noah fixes the problem as he sees it. His solution creates another layer of implied but untold story, which the reader sees but Noah does not. Because the narrator is blind to the "real" problem, there is added impact for the reader.

Noah isn't necessarily an unlikable character. He has his own worldview. He doesn't think of himself as a bad person, even though others may think ill of him. He's just a tool who shows the reader that reality may not be what we think it is. Using an unreliable narrator can be a useful technique for any kind of writer, across all levels of genre writing.

Thanks, Rebecca!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

genre respect?

Academic and Horror Author Michael A. Arnzen was discussing the public's perception of various types of genre fiction last month. He claimed that erotica, romance, and horror are the least respected genres because they are the most closely related to the body/emotions. Thus, according to Arnzen, Thrillers, Mysteries, and Science Fiction are the most respected genres because they are the most closely related to the brain/intellect. Certainly, there is a puritanical aspect to American culture, but...

What do you think? :)

Considering the origins of Science Fiction in the pulps in the 1930s-1950s, I'm finding hard to agree with his hypothesis. However, a little more digging on my part revealed many (all?) literary genres originated in pulp magazines, from detectives/mysteries in publications like Dime Detective, to horror/occult in publications like Weird Tales. So, perhaps the origins of genre fiction don't matter. What does all this mean for the future of genre fiction?

Personally, I think genre fiction is here to stay. Even a cursory survey of recent best-selling novels reveals a plethora of genre fiction.

Ross Douthat had an interesting opinion piece in The New York Times last summer Why Genre Fiction Flourishes. Among other things, Douthat says,

And it’s not at all surprising that contemporary novelists would turn to what’s often dismissed as “genre” fiction — not only historical novels but fantasy and sci-fi, and hybrids thereof like “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” — in order to find stakes high enough to approximate the kind of suspense that a Tolstoy or a Thomas Hardy could generate, almost effortlessly, by simply thrusting a character into an unhappy marriage.

As someone who really enjoys reading (and writing!) genre fiction I can only say, "Hurray!"