Thursday, March 19, 2015

Collaboration: generalizing from a limited sample.

If you want to learn about how a successful, established collaborative team works, read anything about writing by Dayton Ward. (After you've read this, of course.) He and writing partner Kevin Dilmore have written a dozen and a half Star Trek stories, eBooks, and novels, plus at least one 4400 novel. I, on the other hand, have had one good experience working with another writer, one not-good experience working with another writer, two experiences outlining and pitching Star Trek novels that didn't get picked up, and one "run away!" successful avoidance of working with another writer. Everything I know about collaborations would fit in a monthly column. Which, as it happens, is coincidentally fortuitous.

Note that collaborating with another writer is completely different from being on a writing team.
I have been part of the writing team for over a dozen campaign books, scenario books, players' guides (to equipment/character creation/NPCs/settings/etc.) and rule books for assorted role-playing games. I've been on the editorial team for nearly as many more. On one occasion I was the leader of the editorial and writing team – "herding cats" does not do the experience justice. In a team setting the degree of collective brainstorming and/or who's involved in the brainstorming varies during the development stage varies widely from project to project, but once the general structure is set, each writer is assigned sections to write and each editor is assigned writers to edit and from that point on everyone pretty much works independently.
In a collaboration the writers work together on every aspect of the project from brainstorming to final edit.

From my limited experience I think there is one criterion vital to a working collaboration. With this criterion in place it's possible to overcome any creative or stylistic differences. Without it, it's impossible to complete anything worthwhile no matter how well the skills and artistic vision of the writers involved might compliment and support each other. It's not a new revelation, or one you haven't heard applied in a dozen settings, but it's one that can be overlooked or taken for granted.
The indispensable foundation of an effective partnership is mutual respect. But not too much.

By "too much" I mean, way too much – which pretty much means it's not actually mutual. The writer who reached out to me with the collaboration offer from which I fled, positively gushed about my work. They'd had a couple of stories published to date and their question about collaboration included a high concept for a novel that was intriguing enough for me to ask to hear more. They sent a three-paragraph narrative summary that was fairly solid and showed clear thinking – but it was accompanied by three more paragraphs describing how honored and blown away they were by the fact I was even considering working with them and how much they hoped to learn from me and that, who knows?, we might develop into a lifetime writing team like Ellery Queen. There was no way the real me would ever measure up to the fantasy me this person had created. I told them that, regretfully, my schedule was to jammed to take on another project for at least a year and encouraged them to develop the novel on their own. It's been four years and I haven't heard from them.

In the collaboration that didn't work my partner and I worked out a detailed narrative summary and seemed to be in agreement as to what we were doing, and our skillsets seemed to be compatible. He was well versed in what we were writing about and lived in the area in which the story was set, but wrote in a wooden, passive, academic style ill suited to storytelling. I was almost but admittedly not quite as familiar with what we were writing about, had lived in the setting area in the 1970s but not visited for any length of time since (so everything I remembered was either no longer there or useless to our purpose), and wrote like a storyteller. Somehow this translated into each of us being under the impression that we were the more knowledgeable, more experienced, and more naturally the leader of the team. Worse, when it became apparent early on that we had different visions as to what the final product would look like, we both moved forward with the internal conviction that once the other person saw how it was going to be he'd come around to the correct view. Everything became a power struggle – or rather, everything became a teachable moment in which we each tried to enlighten the other. Not surprisingly, what we ended up with was not what we'd set out to do and was at best 33% as effective as it should have been.

The collaboration that worked began on a fiction site. A reviewer who'd given me glowing reviews of the sort that indicate some understanding of the craft (pointing out how skillfully I'd placed Chekov's gun in an opening scene, for example) mentioned he wanted to write and would be studying my work, along with that of a few others, to see how it was done. I said the encouraging things I usually say to new writers in response, directed him toward a couple of useful writers' blogs, and suggested he look around for serious writers' groups in his area. He told me he really appreciated my guidance, but that last would be difficult because he was in the Army and deployed in Iraq. At which point I realized the appreciation was flowing in the wrong direction and broke my rule about never entering into private conversations with fans. I did not offer to read or edit his work, but I did encourage him to write, offered a few tips and strategies, and browbeat him into submitting his stories. Which got published. And were good. And weren't anything like my stories. For all his saying he was copying me, he'd developed his own voice. We kept in touch, mostly about writing, via emails through his Afghanistan deployments and moves between bases in the US. We met only one time, when he and his wife drove down from Fayetteville for one of my few bookstore signings. Recently I was given the opportunity to pitch for a military science fiction project, and I had an idea for which I'd need help: the story of a battle – including the events leading up to it and the aftermath – told in two narratives from the trenches on both sides. He was game, we hammered out a high-concept pitch, the pitch was greenlighted, and we're now in the throes of actually writing the thing.

Our narrative voices are distinctly different – which in this case supports our premise. Our writing methodologies are diametrically opposed. I work mostly in my head – occasionally blurting bits of dialog at the dinner table or mowing the flowerbed as I build bridges between plot points. I may have little more than notes on graph paper in hand when I sit at the keyboard, but I already know the story I'm telling. He makes detailed plans and maps things out. (Literally – he's drawn maps of the major events of the battle that will be in both narratives so the choreography and rhythm mesh; I had to download a pdf of NATO military symbols to read them.) We sometimes seem to speak completely different languages when discussing the project. But. Each of us respects the other as a writer and, more importantly, as a person. And that makes working together possible.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Old Habits Die Hard

Last year, I babbled a bit in this space about the challenges of finding the time to write while balancing life, family, a regular job, and various other demands on the precious few hours to be found in any given day. Over the course of several years and fueled more than anything else by necessity, I found that I was at my most productive and creative late in the day, after everyone else had gone to bed and it’s just me and one or both family pets hanging out in my home office. 11pm to 1 or 2am was my prime word-pushing time, by golly.

Since writing that article, my personal circumstances have changed. For those of you joining our programming already in progress, I made the leap last summer to writing full time. Now, instead of having to scrounge for a few hours after a long day of work, shuttling kids to and from school or after-school activities, yard work, and so on, writing now has the opportunity to occupy my prime working time.

My current weekday schedule typically is bracketed by my kids’ bus times to and from school. I normally have a plan of what I want to accomplish, which usually consists of a daily word count for one or two writing projects, any blogging I want to do, and various “administrative tasks” such as reviewing contracts or manuscripts or editor’s notes. My goal is to finish my daily “Writing To Do List” before my kids get home from school. I still might work on something after dinner, depending on the evening’s schedule, the proximity of a looming deadline, or if I just feel like “tinkering.”

Yet, more often than not, I’m still working that 11pm-2am shift. You’d think I’d be diving head first into my bed to enjoy some of that...what do they call it?

Oh, yeah: SLEEP.

Nope, not me. That'd make too much sense.

Heck, I wrote this blog post right smack in the middle of that window. Why? Because that’s when the mood struck to write the thing.

I’m still getting that burst of energy after everyone else has gone to bed, and I end up just riding the wave for as far as it will take me. The key difference these days is that it usually ends up being “bonus” writing time, rather than my only or primary opportunity to make my day’s writing goals. Even though I’m still hit by the need to be “productive” during this time, I’m not feeling stressed about it. I’m therefore having more fun with the entire process, rather than having to treat it as the work it was required to be at this point last year.

So, as I said with the title: “Old habits die hard.”

How about you? Have you had a reason to try shifting the time you do the bulk of your writing? How’s that working for you? Have you embraced the new paradigm, or do you find yourself falling back into old routines?

Saturday, March 7, 2015

What is an author anymore anyway?

As times change, and publishing itself continually mutates, there is a not-so-great-debate which flares up now and then about what constitutes a professional Author these days.The title itself is under scrutiny as more writers self publish and Indie presses crop up more and more.

Some point out that calling everyone who publishes something an author,  devalues the title of author. Well, maybe a new title needs to be created. Maybe "author" or even "professional author" doesn't mean what it used to. Maybe we are clinging to something that existed for a while, but is no longer relevant or valid. Take the title of Doctor. That is a title with weight, accompanied by years of schooling and given out by universities.

What are the qualifications for author?
Do you have to go to school for it? 
Do you have to have a degree?
Is there a National Board of Real Authors overseeing the use of the title Author to make sure that there aren't fake authors operating?

Maybe "Author" is a social/media construct created in a now gone era when authors meant more and earned more. The working author, someone who can spend eight hours a day at the keyboard is something of a luxury now. They still exist, but many more also have day jobs, full-time or part-time. So their full income is not earned through writing alone. 

On the flip-side of that is the writer. Which is anyone who writes. And particularly someone who has not earned the title author with a $3000 advance (or the equivalent in sales of their indie/self-published book). The label writer seems a thin line from author and in a way it's become a bit shaming.  

And what do I call myself? Technically I'm "just"a writer. It's been some eight years since anything I wrote earned an advance and even back then it was from a comics publisher, not a Big 5 publisher. So my professional organization of choice, the SFWA wouldn't recognize my status. And now,  with my indie published book Carmine Rojas which is nowhere near earning the income required by the SFWA, I am still technically a lowly writer and not an author.  

The feeling is that if I call myself an author I'm an impostor, unworthy of the title. But how true is that anymore? Is income the objective leveler it once was? Are Indie authors qualified to call themselves authors? Is it time the entire title of author either dies out, or is replaced by something else?

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Best Times to Post on Social Media

While nothing is set in stone and there are variables, I have found that during certain days and times, some of my social media posts receive more activity than others. Of course it also depends upon the content of the post, but if you've ever wondered what times might be best to post a particular book related topic, event, question, etc., it could help to know when the social media pages receive the most clicks.

My Internet research, based upon reading various articles (one in particular that tracked the habits of 14 million social media users), seems to indicate that it's best to post content on Facebook and Twitter in the daytime. Users are more consistently sharing between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. EST, and clicking between 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. EST.

Yes, it showed that most users share on Facebook and Twitter in the morning when at work, and clicking can happen more often in the afternoon, until people get off work. In both cases, traffic is heavier during employee break times. I do believe it's true that more people are on social media while at work than we think, but employees also log on once they get home, some catching up on what they've missed, and some who cannot use their cell phones during work hours, or because they just don't have the time when at work.

As far as peak days of the week, Thursdays are busier on Facebook, and Fridays are busier on Twitter, still at the same times, mornings and afternoons.

Personally, I find that evenings, Monday through Thursday, are good times. Surprisingly, users are engaging during the times when people are also watching popular TV shows, like Scandal and Empire, because so many people are online chatting about it. Friday evenings and weekends are slower, with the exception of maybe Sunday nights.

So, it's really a two-sided coin. Whatever works for you is what you should stick to, but being that visibility in this business is so important, and so much revolves around the Internet and our social pages, I feel this would be a cool thing to think about if you're promoting a new book release or sharing a blog page, or just staying in touch with your social media friends.

The more engaging you are and the more popular your page is, Facebook, in particular, is more likely to see to it that your post spreads among your network. It's all part of the Facebook algorithm, and newer users, or less active users, are less likely to have their posts shared to other feeds. If a post receives a lot of likes, shares, and/or comments, it will bubble up to the surface of other people's feeds.

With Facebook, you obviously want your posts to show up often in the stream or news feed. A new post will do that, but also, an older post will as well if you share it later, plus it moves up to the top of your page. If you post while fewer people are on the site, the chances of people seeing it are obviously slimmer, but also, when someone likes your post, shares it, comments, etc., your post appears in various places of your friends' news feeds. Even likes will allow the post to reappear. Have you ever noticed that as soon as someone likes an older post of yours, others begin to like at and comment as well?

Much of this is not rocket science, but it is social media science, and it's food for marketing thought.

Write on and post on!!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

STEM to Kids - an excellent opportunity for authors

You might be wondering what’s up with that little gofundme widget in the upper right corner of this Novelspaces page.  Let me fill you in.  
My co-author, Lynelle Martin and I are raising funds for a project based on our children's novel "Zapped! Danger in the Cell" at Port Discovery Children’s Museum in Baltimore that would expose children to Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
How did this come about?
When Lynelle and I published our children’s novel last year, I sent it to a colleague of mine for review.  That colleague just happens to be a Senior Advisor at the Brain Science Institute and Science of Learning Institute at Johns Hopkins University and the Creator of Curiosityville.   She is also a children’s book author.  Not only did she give a glowing review, she introduced us to the people at Port Discovery Children’s Museum.  They saw the value of the book as an excellent learning and teaching tool and invited us to participate in the “STEM in Spring 2015.   During Maryland schools spring break, the STEM in Spring exposes thousands of children to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics by workshops, activities, and exhibits in a hands-on interactive manner.
Why Port Discovery?
Port Discovery Children’s Museum  is ranked among the top five children's museums in the country and is one of the leading non-traditional educational resources of the Mid-Atlantic region serving hundreds of thousands of children per year with educational and fun activities.  They focus on child development and learning through interactive play.  We were delighted for this opportunity to partner with Port Discovery, because the museum normally partners with large institutions who sponsor programs, workshops and exhibits as well as community outreach programs.
What is the workshop about?
Since “Zapped” is about children who are shrunk and zapped into a biological cell for an exciting adventure, we proposed a workshop where we recreate the journey of the main characters of the books through the cell.  The purpose of this is to familiarize children with the biological cell and the structure and functions of the parts of the cell while they are having fun.  We decided to convert an 18’x34’ space into a cell – a really exciting and fun project that requires lots of child-safe materials.  The only set back is we have to fund the project ourselves.  No problem if you’re a large institution with access to a lot of funds.  Daunting if you’re two struggling authors. 
Why gofundme?
We started looking at ways to fund this project.  We first reached out to the college where I worked, but of course with all the bureaucracy that will take more time than we have.  So we turned to, a secure crowd funding website that allows us to raise funds online.  Gofundme is really nice in that it automatically posts to your websites, emails, Facebook etc.  There is no administrative cost to donors, and unlike some other crowd funding websites, we get to keep the donations even if we don’t reach our goal.  We calculated that if each of my 800 Facebook friends could give as little as $5, we would be well on our way to making that workshop a reality.  While we’ve had some wonderful donations, we are quite far from our goal of bringing STEM to the kids at Port Discovery Children’s museum.
What can you do?
-    You can help us achieve our goal by clicking on this widget and donating.  It needs not be much as every little helps.
-    You can re-post or share it to your Facebook page, Twitter or other social media sites asking others to support our cause.
The STEM in Spring program runs from first week of April to April 12th.  We will be conducting the workshop on March 31st, April 2nd, April 7th and April 9th.
If you have questions, ideas or suggestions, you may use the comments or you may email me directly.  Thanks for your support in this venture.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Guest author P.I. Barrington: HEROINES: Girls and Guilt

PI Barrington
After a decade-long detour through the entertainment industry, P.I. Barrington has returned to authoring fiction. Among her experience are journalism, radio air talent and the music industry. She lives in Southern California and many times co-authors with her sister, Loni Emmert who also works in the music industry. You can find her on Twitter (@PIBARRINGTON), Goodreads, Facebook, or at home on her blog.

If you're a serious author, you have a serious editor/muse sitting on your shoulder tapping your temple whenever you start to stale. There are a lot of places in writing fiction to get stale: plot, prose, style and technique. We're not going to talk about any of those however.

Nope, we're going to talk about heroines. In case you're wondering that falls under the category of characterization. I have a beta reader, a live one not a muse, who is great at predicting what story is potentially great but also honest enough to tell me when I'm getting repetitive. When I hear the "r" word, I freak. Usually she is referring to my "style" so I can calm down a little since mine is a bit on the different side.

Still I have that other girl, the muse girl, sitting on the right or left shoulder, her choice, tugging on my earrings to make me step back and look at my main female characters. I dread the thought of using a mental cookie cutter to create them and so I'm constantly on the lookout for anything repetitive. And so is she.

How do you create heroines that differ from one other? Well, first and most simply, the physical description. I've had a character tall and powerful and brunette as well as two petite ones with black and blonde hair. That's the easy way out. But it's also the opportunity to layer that character a little too. Do their physical attributes affect their view of life? For my work, that's most of the time. My tall and strong heroine, Khai Zafara, from Inamorata Crossing, never thinks about it. She's a dedicated soldier at least at the start and takes her physicality for granted; for her it's a positive attribute.

Payce Halligan and Isadora DayStar are both small and petite; one blonde, the other black haired. One ignores her size until it becomes a problem and then she responds with feistiness. The other sees herself as a tiny person in her universe, her worth even less than her size. But that's the superficial layer.

It's the deeper layers that truly differentiate characters. How they respond to themselves and their conflicts is the key here. Anger, revenge, fear are some of the conflicts characters have to and should be dealing with in their stories. But there's one other conflict that many authors don't include. I've said this before, a bazillion times: guilt is a powerful motivator. Not only that but it's a fairly common motivator for readers as well. In other words, guilt is also a fairly universal experience. I give my characters a ten foot duffle bag of it to drag around.

How each character deals with it is the conflict. It's the major differentiation between female characters. To give you an example let's look at Payce and Isadora again. Both Payce and Isadora have major guilt over almost the same thing but on different scales. Payce deals with it by withdrawal and obsessive target practice as if reliving the trauma over and over and attempting to recreate it with the right outcome each time. Yes, I know that sounds like the recipe for insanity, but it isn't. She isn't so obsessive that she can't function—she uses target practice also as a form of self-therapy—to make sure she doesn't make the same mistake again.

Isadora on the other hand, tries to bury her past to the point of desperate addiction to kill her memories and her guilt and any emotions attached to them. To that end she debases herself completely and horrifyingly for the drug, thereby confirming, consciously and subconsciously, that she has no real worth whatsoever. Her guilt overwhelms her and just surviving becomes a suicidal struggle.

There are plenty of other ways female characters can differ too, including maturity levels, age, ethnicity, and most definitely personality type! Elektra Tate, my heroine of The Brede Chronicles, Book 1, is pale in coloring, eyes and hair and different from the majority of people around her. Though she's little tall, she's thin due to living as an orphan on the streets. Elektra though doesn't come with built-in guilt like the others. She gains guilt via a decision to save the man she loves or herself. When she chooses, that's when she learns realizes her mistake and realizes that she must then sacrifice herself to rectify it. That's when she changes from an immature scamp to a grown-up woman who understands what real love is and what it demands of her. 

Each of these settings and plots can influence and many times cause behavior that might not normally be performed otherwise. Teenage angst can cause a whole slew of reactions to guilt, fear, revenge or even boredom. A middle-aged character will behave much differently from a teenager or even a woman slightly younger due to her life experiences. A female character can range in attitude and personality from slightly morose to refuse-to-give-up cheerful to cynical and sarcastic and anywhere in between. The possibilities can be endless. Chuck that cookie cutter right back into the pantry where it belongs and start shaping your characters into what you (and your muse) want them to be! And don't feel a bit guilty over that cookie cutter in the trash bin!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Guest Author: Joanne Hillhouse: Second Acts

 Joanne C. Hillhouse is the Antiguan and Barbudan author of several books, including, in the past year, Musical Youth, 2nd placed for the inaugural Burt Award for Young Adult Caribbean fiction, and the 10th anniversary edition of her second book Dancing Nude in the Moonlight.

Shortly after landing a publishing deal for my first book, The Boy from Willow Bend, I landed a deal for the second, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight. My chapter as a published writer had begun.
A few years later, on the heels of a blunt letter from the publisher, both books were technically out of print; remainders sold off, though, thankfully, not pulped thanks to local bookstore Best of Books buying up all the remainders.
Talk about Murphy loving to kick the stool from under a writer just when she’s taking a step up; I was just back from a promotional event, my first in the U.S., was in the midst of discussions with a high profile regional publication re a possible review, was feeling like maybe I was finally getting some traction, when the crash came.
To say that this was one of the darker chapters in my journey as a writer would be an understatement. Years of knocking on that closed door certain that everything I wanted was on the other side of it; finally squeezing through only to discover that nothing really is ever as you dream it; adjusting the dream to the reality; and then that feeling that, that’s it you had your shot, the dream is dead.
The human spirit, of course, doesn't know how to stay down, so I eventually dug myself out of the dark, tried to figure out not only what to do next but what I could have done differently. I kept writing, tried to understand my legal position (re reversion of rights), and researched and reached for opportunities (such as the one that reinvigorated my writing dreams, one that wouldn't have been possible had I not been published by a well-established publisher, so thanks for that). As I worked on and submitted new material, I explored how to reposition both books in the marketplace. Most importantly, I tried to shake off my feelings of failure, tried to stay positive, and tried not to feel the cruel irony of readers telling me, to this day, how much they loved a book that the publisher had lost faith in.
That said, I was able to draw on their affirmations, and this is the power of reader reviews. Sure sometimes you have to endure detailed breakdowns (read: takedowns) of your storytelling deficiencies; but when they love something they also don’t pull any punches. And this book was loved by those who had read it enough to either tell me to my face or post their impressions online, it had even had a drink, Moonlight Samba, created in its honour, giving leverage to my efforts to pitch it as a fan favourite with untapped marketability. Even so, it took some time. And I was on a break from actively figuring out my next move when I picked it up and read it one Sunday afternoon; my first time reading it since the painstaking pre-publication editing process, nearly 10 years earlier. Maybe I needed to be reminded of why I had been drawn to these characters enough to write them in the first place because, after reading it, I fell in love with Dancing again and hit on the idea of pitching a 10th anniversary edition which would be part Dancing and part other writings, new and previously published shorts. I floated this hope to another writer who had been encouraging me to do a short story collection for some time.  She introduced me to one of her publishing contacts (via email) and I made my pitch. That was 2013.
Somewhere on the borderline between 2014 and 2015, the book debuted, quietly, its existence a testimony to the possibility of second acts. And I am again reminded that nothing is ever as you dream it but you keep dreaming anyway. Let the uncertainty, the fact that nothing, including the nature of dream fulfillment, is set in stone, fuel you.