Saturday, October 18, 2014

Considering Strategies to Proceed

Right now I'm at a point where I need to decide how best to allocate my writing time, especially now that I'm trying to maintain some level of forward motion on my book reviewing site, my jobhunting site
and my economic awareness site. I have a number of writing projects in various states of completion, and I need to decide how to prioritize them.

I have multiple novels jockeying for my attention. I've been serializing Holovideo at JukePop Serials, and I'm rapidly closing in on the ending. My original outline from the early 1990's called for 28 chapters, but I've just combined chapters 19 and 20, and I'm looking at the possibility that several other planned chapters should be combined because there just isn't enough material in them individually to make a solid chapter. That means I may well have no more than 25 chapters, and if I do the remaining ones on a weekly basis, I'll be done with the novel by the end of the year, leaving me with the question of what (if anything) I want to serialize next.

However, interest in Holovideo has really fallen off. I'd had some good interest in September, but since the beginning of October I've posted three chapters and haven't received a single +vote on any of them. This lack of interest may be partly the result of new-chapter notifications not getting to the people who've put it on their bookshelf (I have not received a single notification for it, and neither has a friend who has it bookmarked), but it's not exactly conducive to enthusiasm about getting Chapter 20 written.

Meanwhile, I've been wanting to try out KDP and some other e-book programs that some friends have been having good success with. Rather than try to write a complete new novel from scratch, I had decided to rewrite an old novel, The Steel Breeds True, on the theory that it would be easier to spiff up something that already had a complete text.

However, I've been rather surprised to find out just how bad the existing text looks after ten years. It's going to take more than just a little surface spiffing of the text to get it into shape. A lot of the chapters need to be broken up into shorter chapters for electronic reading, and there are places where scenes need to be presented in a different order, and a few scenes may well be eliminated altogether or reduced to a quick summary at the beginning or end of another chapter.

So it's going to take a lot more time than I'd anticipated to get it done, and with all the trouble I'm having with Holovideo, I'm not able to give The Steel Breeds True nearly as much time as I'd like. So what I thought would be a quick and easy polish has turned into a stalled major reconstruction job.

Not to mention Last Moondance on Farside, which I was making such good progress on back in 2013, but then stalled on me when I needed to take care of other projects, particularly a couple of short stories for invitation-only anthologies (both of which were subsequently rejected, and I've been shopping around in hopes of finding some home for them). Chelsea Ayles and her adventures among the community at Shepardsport keep tugging at the back of my mind, wanting to be finished, but I keep feeling that my first obligation needs to be to finishing Holovideo.

And speaking of short stories interrupting novel progress, I'm working on a short story for an anthology with a deadline at the end of this month. I've got a full outline for it, and I've got it moving, but it's still time I don't have for any of the novels. And there's another, related story I want to write for the Jim Baen Memorial Science Fiction Contest. That's not due until the beginning of February next year, but it just keeps tugging at the back of my mind, wanting to be told, to the point it's a distraction. So I'm wondering whether it'd be better to just give in and get it written, then hang onto it until closer to the actual deadline so I could look at it with fresh eyes and give it a really good polish.

So that's where I stand right now on my writing projects.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Bad Words

It's been said that learning to write publishable fiction is a matter of getting all the bad words out of you so the good words can take their place. But what did they mean by "bad words?"

I think most of us know what comes to mind when we think of "bad words." Swear words. Cusswords. The seven words you can't say on television, and all their variations. Words dealing with the deity, with supernatural punishment, and with those messy pelvic issues of elimination and reproduction.

And yes, there are good reasons to want to keep those kinds of bad words out of our fiction, for they tend to be empty venting of anger, no more meaningful than the barking of a dog or the quacking of a duck. JRR Tolkien suggested that his orcs were far more foul-mouthed than he ever portrayed, but that such detail would appeal only to "those to whom the sordid seems strong." Herman Wouk artfully suggested the crudity of sailors' speech in the first shipboard scene in The Caine Mutiny without dropping a single f-bomb (or even specified it as the word that became like a haze in the air, although one familiar with servicemen's slang would be confident in identifying it as such). But there can be places in which one cannot elide over one or another forbidden word without weakening the scene, especially if it somehow reflects the shock or horror of a situation in a way that nothing else will do.

Another type of bad words are the ones that have fallen out of fashion, especially those that have done so as a result of overuse and abuse. The most obvious of these are the -ly adverbs, which are often treated by critiquers, especially the amateur variety, as being The Work of the Devil. And to be honest, it is true that overused words have often had their power sapped by that overuse, such that they no longer have the power to conjure up imagery in the reader's mind. Yet they too have their place, especially to capture the flavor of a particular character's speech, but now and then because there simply is no single verb that can do the job without the qualification of an adverb.

Yet another possible candidate would be those words that have become more heat than light. You know what I mean -- the ones that have been co-opted for political purposes, to the point that daring to use them in any but the Approved Sense, with the Approved Attitudes, will bring down the shrieking hordes to tell you in great detail how Eeeeevil you are. Race. Culture. Prejudice. Even seemingly innocent words like "cure" have taken on a taint of Bad Words among certain disability activists (who seem to be advocating more for the disability than the people dealing with it). Just avoiding them altogether often seems to be the best way to avoid having your time and energy sapped by the sound and fury signifying nothing crew.

Yet it might be possible that we need to drill even deeper, especially in relation to the saying about the "million bad words" we need to get out of us before we can start writing really good stories, publishable stories that people actually want to read, and most importantly, to pay money to read. It can't be just the dirty words, the disfavored words, or the politically charged words we need to get out of us. Maybe it's not even specific words at all, and it's not a matter of purging them from our vocabularies.

Instead might it be ways of using words -- the sloppy, unthinking words that don't do anything. The colorless words that sap the life from a story. The bland words that, like small plans, lack the power to stir the soul. And getting rid of those is a lot harder, because there's no simple, easy way to identify them, or even to know how to replace them with good words. It's something that comes only from lots and lots of writing, and even then it's not guaranteed. Many would-be writers have simply kept churning out more and more bad words, thinking that they were making headway.

But there's one sure way to see if you have been making progress. Take out an old story, one you stopped working on a year ago, five years ago, ten years ago, and haven't touched since. Re-read it. Does it  make you wince? Do you want to grab a red pen and rewrite sentences and paragraphs, even cut whole scenes? Then you've been busily pushing out the bad words and replacing them with good ones.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Research

Writers are told again and again to write what you know, but taken too literally, that advice can be excessively constraining. Limited to our own personal experience, we'll soon run out of things to write about -- not to mention that it pretty well shuts out the possibilities of speculative fiction. Who among us has commanded a space fleet or led a conference of magic-users?

Obviously we can draw upon our knowledge of familiar things to understand by analogy. But there always will come a time when we need to extend our knowledge beyond personal experience.

That means doing research. Google, Wikipedia and other online sources can be excellent starting points, but often you need to go beyond them. There are numerous guides to doing library research, but depending on what libraries are available to you, they may not be adequate to provide the information you need. It may be necessary to contact and expert and request the information you need.

Cold-calling a stranger for help is a scary process. Might they consider your approach an affront? Might they brush you off or shut you down? The fear of being rejected in a humiliating manner can be paralyzing.

In fact, there's no reason to fear the process. If approached properly, most experts are happy to talk about their subject of expertise. After all, they often become experts because it's a subject they're genuinely interested in.

The key is, approached properly, which means presenting yourself professionally. And it's not just the old "a writer is an artist, and therefore suspect" canard. Since the rise of the Internet, there has been a growing problem of students at all levels in the education system writing to experts in various fields effectively trying to get their homework done for them.

As a result, you need to be careful not just to introduce yourself in a professional way, but also to make it clear that you've pulled your weight and have reached the end of the resources available to you. You probably don't want to disgorge a huge laundry list of books and websites you've used without success, but you probably want to mention the most critical sources.

There is some debate as to whether you should name the specific institutions where you've done your research, especially if they would indicate your location. Some people have a vastly different idea of what constitutes a reasonable travel distance, especially if your circumstances are constrained by responsibilities or finances. I still remember writing to a departmental library at a major university and getting a snippy answer that I could "just hop onto (road) and drive over to visit in person" because I'd mentioned our local public library by name. At the time I did not have a vehicle of sufficient reliability that I'd want to make a three-hour drive (each way, not round trip) alone, and my husband was working full time and not available to travel with me unless he used up a vacation day.

While it may be acceptable to shade the truth a little, soft-pedaling some facts and emphasizing others to enhance your appearance of a professional researcher who has exhausted local resources and is not able to travel, don't outright lie about your credentials or your situation. Don't claim degrees or institutional affiliations that you don't have. Don't give a big sob story about nonexistent misfortunes that  make it impossible to travel even a short distance. People in a field generally know enough other people in it that lies will catch up to you, and while you may get results once or twice, eventually you'll get a bad reputation that will make it impossible to get anybody to help you.

Presenting yourself as a professional is only the first part of the proper approach. The second is presenting your question in the proper way so that the recipient will welcome it, rather than feel it is an imposition and become annoyed. Typically the student trying to get out of doing homework will present an overly broad "tell me everything you know about X" type of question. As a result, you want to be as specific as possible in formulating your question. Again, show you've done your homework by using the correct terminology -- but avoid name-dropping or using big words just to impress.

The best questions are the ones that are closed-ended, requesting a very specific but obscure piece of information. For instance, recently I was writing a story with a scene in a building at a university I once attended. However, I couldn't remember where the department's main office had been located, and when I went to the university's website, I discovered that the department had moved to a building that had been built since my last visit. Unable to locate any historical information on something so specific, I wrote to the university library and asked for the room number -- a very specific bit of information that could be easily researched in older directories and catalogs that they would have on hand but were not available to me.

Finally, be sure to communicate your gratitude for the expert's assistance. Close your initial contact letter or e-mail with a thank-you, and when they answer, make sure to thank them again. There's some question about whether that final thank-you note needs to be handwritten and posted, even in the case of a contact that was initially made by e-mail. I'd say it's a generational thing. If your informant is older, you may well want to post a longhand thank-you note, especially if this person has given you extensive help. Younger people who've spent their entire lives communicating electronically will probably consider an e-mail thank-you note more than adequate, and might even find a snail-mailed note vaguely stalkerish, since it means you found out their physical location to send the note.

Monday, October 06, 2014

The Gnawing Porcupine of Self-Doubt

In the beginning of The Steel Breeds True, Amanda Lordsley-Starcastle is struggling with her internal editor, who has taken to carping criticism and faultfinding instead of anything useful. He alternates between two forms, sometimes appearing as a tiny Nikolai Yezhov and at other times as a literal hedgehog.

Since there are no native hedgehogs in North America, mine takes the form of a porcupine. And unlike the insectivorous hedgehog with its generalist teeth, the porcupine is a rodent, with specialized gnawing teeth. And oh gods, but does mine ever gnaw at everything. Sometimes just getting words on paper is an uphill struggle as he gnaws away at every word, every phrase, every image.

And now that I'm beginning to prepare The Steel Breeds True for indie publication, it's getting even worse. Not just is my writing good at the word and sentence level, but is the story any good? What if the whole thing is so stupid that people will laugh and point?

It's the problem of finding the balance between being relentlessly self-critical in order to attain our best and being able to believe in ourselves when nobody else does. I wish I could offer a nice pat answer for everybody out there who's struggling with the same problem, whether in the form of an unending stream of say-nothing form rejections or a serialized novel posted to a reception of such utter indifference that one is left almost wishing for a blistering review because it would mean that someone actually cared. But all I can offer right now is fellow-feel, the knowledge that you are not alone in your uphill struggles, and at least now you do have options beside struggling to fit through the narrow door that is so carefully guarded by the gatekeepers of traditional publishing.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Putting the Pieces Back Together

The last several months have been difficult for me. At the beginning of June, I was trying to get serious about my writing and promoting it. I'd had some moderate success with my serialization of A Separate War, and I wanted to make my new serialized novel, Holovideo an even bigger success. In addition to keeping up with a regular posting schedule, I wanted to get to blogging regularly on the several blogs I maintain.

Then we got an unexpected call that upended everything -- a medical emergency that turned into a death in the family, and all the emotional fallout that flows from that. On the top of that, our book and t-shirt business had several major events which took an enormous amount of my time.

Now that things are calming down again, I'm wanting to get back on track again. I have gotten some fresh chapters written and posted on Holovideo, and I'm getting some more +votes, but I want to reach more readers. So I'm wanting to get back to blogging, both here and on some other blogs I run.

Which means that I need to figure out how to keep everything moving forward and not have forward motion on one thing come at the expense of everything else grinding to a halt. So that's my new challenge.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Pushing Through

Anyone who's been writing for any length of time knows the ups and downs. Sometimes the words just seem to flow from your fingers to the page, every one glistening with perfection. Sometimes each word has to be pried loose and dragged kicking and screaming onto the page.

And then there are the times when Life gets in the way. It's one thing to force yourself through a daily set time period or word count when the words all seem dull and lifeless, when you've become convinced that your story is the most boring thing ever written and everyone who reads it will yawn their way through a page or two before wandering off, that your alpha reader is just being polite to drag through it. It's quite another when it feels like the world is crashing down around your ears.

Recently I had to deal with a death in the family, and another family member who needed a listening ear for their grief and uncertainty about the future. I'd gotten a good momentum together with Holovideo, and it was more than a little frustrating to barely have a chance to write a sentence or two now and then. But at the same time, I just couldn't shut this person down and sit there writing while they needed someone to listen to the anguish that they were feeling.

And looking back, I don't regret the two-week hiatus. Sometimes we do have to put the writing on pause for a while when genuine emergencies intrude. So don't beat yourself up when something major like sickness or injury, of yourself or a family member you're responsible for, puts the writing on the back burner. Think about your stories when you can, and when the situation passes and you can write again, re-read your existing text and you'll be surprised at how quickly and easily you'll be able to pick things back up.

In fact, your biggest problem may actually be having too many projects all demanding to be written Right Now. With so many worlds, so many characters tugging at your sleeve, how can you get any of them done?

In that case, the best thing is often to choose one project and concentrate on it until you've re-established your rhythm. Perhaps something relatively short and closed-ended, so that you can feel a sense of accomplishment when you finish it, and move on to the next project or projects with renewed energy.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Say What?

Every now and then somebody says something outrageous that you just blink in astonishment. Did they really say what you just heard coming out of their mouth?

Just recently The Guardian, which used to be one of the respectable British newspapers, published Self-publishing is not revolutionary -- it's reactionary , which tries to claim that the rising trend of independent publishing is in fact a step backward which helps neither writers nor readers.

When I first started getting serious about writing, you had basically two choices -- traditional publishing, or vanity publishing. And the latter term pretty much speaks for itself -- if you were to turn to one of these presses, paying them for the privilege of seeing your book in print, you were obviously doing it solely to tickle your vanity. You thought so highly of yourself that either you couldn't bear to lower yourself to submitting it to a publisher and accepting their judgment of your work, or that you couldn't accept their determination that you weren't as good as you thought you were. In either case, your book and you as author would bear the ugly stigma of Loser, and quite possibly of Poseur.

Truth be told, by the latter decades of the twentieth century, there was a very good reason to place a heavy stigma on subsidy publishing, and not just on the grounds that it represented a failure of proper humility on the part of the author. Although there had been a time when it was perfectly respectable for an author to pay to have a book published, and many gentleman hobbyist writers of the Victorian Era and Gilded Age got their works in print in this way, during the twentieth century a large number of unscrupulous actors entered the industry, preying on the hopes and dreams of unsuspecting writers. These predators would acquire large numbers of books with little or no editorial oversight and do the minimum legally required to be able to fulfill their contracts. Often the quality of the books were grossly inferior to industry standard. Sometimes the wouldn't even bind all the books the author paid for unless additional fees were paid. There was no effort on the part of the publisher to actually market the book, and the author generally ended up with a basement full of books and had to hand-sell them -- which generally meant bugging friends and families or haunting flea markets with a pile of unwanted books.

There was a sort of third path of genuine self-publishing, in which the author did all the layout and design and contracted the production of the actual books with a print shop. However, that required skills that most authors didn't possess, and it still required the author to do all his or her own marketing. So it was really only a viable option for a book that had a clear niche market, such as how-to books or histories of very small organizations (frex, veterans writing up the history of their unit). For fiction your only real choice was still to struggle through the endless rounds of rejections and probably end up with a huge pile of trunk stories that had worn out their welcome everywhere. After a few rounds of that it becomes harder and harder to convince your family that your writing is anything but a hobby for your spare time, as opposed to something that should be taken seriously and given time. Lots of promising writers became discouraged and wrote only for their own amusement or gave up on writing altogether.

By the turn of the millennium, the growth of the World Wide Web made it possible for ordinary people to create webpages that could be accessed by anyone, anywhere that had Internet connectivity. The old barriers that made it almost impossible to market your work without a publisher's access to distribution channels began to crumble. But the old stigma remained -- if you were sticking your writing up on a website, you were obviously doing it because it wasn't good enough to make the big time, and therefore you were a loser. Aspiring writers were warned not to kill their careers before they began by marking themselves out in this way.

And then something happened. A lot of the midlist writers who'd once been publishing houses' small-but-solid sellers but were squeezed out as the industry moved to a "bestsellers only" model discovered that used copies of their books were selling quite briskly on Amazon and ABEbooks. Obviously there was still a market for their writing, if they could just re-tap it, but the big publishers didn't want to reprint anything that wouldn't sell millions. So these authors began bringing their books out on their own, either through various small presses and co-operatives or entirely independently.  Some made electronic editions, and others used xerographic-based print-on-demand systems such as LightningSource to create hardcopy editions. And since these were books that had already gone through the editorial vetting process but had just fallen out of print, a crack appeared in the wall of stigma against self-publishing.

That crack widened when established authors began releasing new books through these channels. Some of these authors had been squeezed out altogether by the publishers because their sales numbers, while decent, just weren't growing fast enough to keep the bean-counters happy. However, some were authors that were still enjoying success in traditional publishing, but couldn't get this particular book to sell. Editors would tell them that the book was wonderful, but nobody in marketing knew how to sell it, because it didn't fit neatly in any of the established genre slots.

And guess what -- the books didn't sink like a stone on the marketplace. In fact, some of them quickly rose on Amazon's best-seller lists and became rousing successes. It became obvious that no, self-publishing a work of fiction was no longer the kiss of death, the admission that you were a Loser who simply couldn't hack it in the real world of publishing and had to pay someone to publish your lousy, boring tripe.

At the same time, I can sort of understand the sour-grapes sentiments that underlie these attacks on the new dawning of independent publishing. I've spent the last several decades struggling and straining to get my novels and stories accepted through the traditional publishing system, and now, just as I'm beginning to see a glimmering of success, the brass ring for which I've spent so much time and energy striving seems to have been rendered worthless.

And then I remind myself of the days when I wished there were some way to use the Internet to reach readers directly instead of having to jump through the gatekeeper hoops of getting published, and being told that it might be possible Someday, but that would be a long time down the road and right now I needed to buckle down and focus on doing the things that were necessary to make my works acceptable to the gatekeepers, even when it hurt.

And now Someday is here, and quite honestly, the crumbling of the stigma and the growing success of self-published writers took me by surprise because I was still operating in circles that assumed you had to have that imprimatur of a publisher's acceptance to be any good. So it's frustrating to have so much catching up to do, to shift gears from shopping stuff around in hopes of finding someone, somewhere who'd like it to getting stuff out there in front of readers in this brand new marketplace and trying to get it on their radar so they'll Find It, Like It and Buy It.

It's a whole different ballgame, and I've just barely begun to get into it with A Separate War and Holovideo. There's a whole lot more I still need to do -- and I'm feeling like I'm torn a dozen ways with all the projects that I've had lying around in various states of completion while chasing the ever-shifting editorial whims of publishers.