Friday, September 30, 2011
My eldest child had to read a geography lesson for homework. He went straight to the computer. When I asked why, he answered: “To study.”
It’s hard for me to say “stop reading” in any format. One of my earliest photos was of me with a book in my hands. I taught myself to read before I entered school and have saved my favorite childhood books for my own kids to read. I love the feel of a book’s pages between my fingers, I love the weight of a book while I’m toting it around ready to read at any quiet moment, and I love what a shelf full of books symbolizes. No doubt, I love the physical book.
I also have the Kindle app on my iPhone.
I understand that Baby Boomers have embraced the e-readers and Generation X (my generation) enjoys all that the tablets and smart phones can provide. Today’s schoolchildren are learning their subjects on individual laptops. This week, Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet came out with much fanfare to compete with the Apple iPad. Having a book available electronically has several advantages: instant accessibility, convenience, and privacy are among the top. Also, the e-reader benefits for schoolchildren and others with little access to libraries, assistance for those with learning disabilities and the ability to easily retrieve global information are beyond debate. Plus, not using paper is good for the environment. E-readers are one of the products of a Star Trek imagination that has truly been realized.
However, an e-reader does change the way we read and in my opinion, how we process information and in essence, enjoy a good story. Writers want to share their stories, their ideas. They want their own imaginations to spark others’. I wonder if passive e-readers can go beyond the words on the screen and develop their deeper thoughts about the book.
Trust me, I love a good story and I know that people who want to write will do so, no matter the method. We’ve come a long way from papyrus. And there will always be readers, no matter the medium. Even William Wordsworth’s sister complained that he wasted his mind on newfangled newspapers. My editorial services company works with authors to make their manuscripts into an e-books. I embrace technology professionally and personally, even if I’m a half-step behind.
Nevertheless, I am a firm believer in how physical activity adds to the retention process. I believe that by writing information on a piece of paper or turning a page, your brain and body register the work therefore making that info more easily recalled. I have plenty of anecdotal evidence. Fortunately, experts support a connection between the physical and the brain. Dr. Amir Soas of Case Western Reserve University Medical School in Cleveland advises to do “anything that stimulates the brain to think.” He also recommends watching less television because “your brain goes into neutral.” Is there a difference in the way the brain absorbs information when it’s presented electronically?
In October 2009, the New York Times posited similar questions to a panel of teachers and doctors. The experts thought there was nothing terrible about the medium, yet they were unsure how e-readers worked on developing brains or if going from link to link added to a lack of attention to detail. E-Reading is not just decoding for information and entertainment. E-Readers must also fight distraction. Gloria Mark, a professor in the Department of Informatics at University of California, Irvine notes that people “switch simple activities an average of every three minutes (e.g. reading email or IM) and switch projects about every 10 and a half minutes.” Not a lot of room for deep thoughts.
To read, attention is needed. Can a reader of e-books acknowledge ideas beyond the text? Will the reader ever get to what Proust once said – the heart of reading – the ability to go beyond the author’s wisdom and enter one’s own? What does that mean for writers? Do their readers love their books for the same reasons whether presented electronically or physically?
People need time to process and absorb the written word. How often have I reread beautiful passages marked by dog-eared pages? How often have I looked at a cover to be sure I envision what the author described? How often have I reread difficult pages in order be sure I really understood what was being said? How often have I used the properties of the physical book to kick-start my thoughts?
I make my children read physical books because at school they are often using e-books. I insist we go to the library for the “stumble upon” effect – to find a book or spark an interest one wasn’t expecting. I know by the time they are in college, the kids will be downloading their schoolbooks onto their tablets but they will know how to grasp meaning and do research at a library in case of a power outage.
Maybe I’m just a book lover who knows e-readers will be with us until technology evolves. Fortunately, humans have ability to multitask and ignore the unnecessary; we get what we need from our books in whatever manner we read them. However, until we figure out how to ignore the easy distractions and learn to ponder the words on screen, maybe we should practice what we do with the physical book: take a pause every few pages to review and marvel over the words.
MHM Editorial Services, LLC
Thursday, September 29, 2011
Just when I was adapting to my second Kindle, Amazon has introduced yet another today.
Kindle Fire is described as "beautiful full color Kindle for movies, TV shows, music, books, magazines, apps, games, web browsing and more, for only $199."
I must admit that I am intrigued and will likely shell out the money to get the latest Kindle. I suppose, like many others out there, I subscribe to the old adage, "the biggest room in the world is the room for improvement."
And so, staying current, I will have to add Kindle Fire to the latest Nook and iPad, which I also have.
As an avid reader and music lover, I love these handy devices that make what used to be a chore now as easy as pie, costs aside.
No more hauling big books, thick newspapers, magazines, and a batch of CDs around. Now I just go the digital download route and enjoy.
That said, I still feel a little like being ripped off by those who continue to come out with these new and improved eReaders and other devices. Yet, these are signs of the times, so...
Also, as a writer, I fully embrace every advancement in digital technology, as it means more and more readers come aboard, including audio novel readers. Meaning more readers to discover my writings in eBook and audio formats.
Bottom line, is what's good for one is good for all, ultimately.
Which eReader do you use? Which one is the best?
Do you plan to buy the Kindle Fire?
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
The third book of the Caribbean Adventure Series is finally out. In many ways Trapped in Dunston's Cave (a.k.a. TIDC) has been the most difficult book in the series to produce. I started it while adjusting to life in Ghana and it is also the first book published under the CaribbeanReads Publishing label, a process during which I climbed a very steep learning curve.One of the significant challenges that I faced in writing TIDC is one that I believe is faced by many who choose to write a series of books about young children. (Some parents face a similar dilemma with their own children.)
As time passes, children's interests, issues and challenges change. An author writing a series with adult protagonists can write years and years worth of drama without coming across this issue. Television soap operas are a testimony to that fact. On the other hand, the writer of children's books has to decide whether to keep the children (miraculously) around the same age group or to have them grow out of the target age group of the series.
I have seen this addressed successfully in two different ways.
The first approach is to focus on an engaging plot where the protagonists are interesting but somewhat secondary. The characters in Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and the Magic Tree House series are examples of characters who changed and developed very little. The Magic Tree House Series is about the adventures of a pair of siblings, Jack and Annie. There are over 40 books in the series, however, apart from some maturing of the younger of the pair, they seem to remain the same age throughout. The plots get a bit more involved as the series progresses but children remain more or less the same age and character.
This approach lends itself to a younger audience. The advantage is that it allows the author to focus on the story line however, it becomes more difficult to create a multi-dimension character and as children get older they want to read about characters like themselves. As a result, readers grow out of these series fairly quickly and the author has to continuously attract new readers.
A second approach is to develop characters that are the center piece of the plot. We see this exemplified in series like Narnia and Harry Potter. Harry Potter and his friends mature each year and the author introduces romantic relationships and other issues children face as they mature. This approach limits the number of books that the author can produce before the characters grow beyond the bounds of a children's book but it means that the author has the freedom to create characters that are truly engaging. These authors keep their readership with each book, which means that marketing is less expensive and potentially more successful.
In Trapped in Dunston's Cave, I balanced a bit on the line between these two approaches, however, I will have to take a plunge in book 4.
Monday, September 26, 2011
I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and in those genres good description is absolutely necessary to the enjoyment of a story. If you’re introducing me to an alien race, or letting me explore an alien landscape, or taking me to an exotic fantasy world, you darn well better give me enough description to center me in the world you’re trying to create. If it’s something readers haven’t seen before, then the writer needs to do the “seeing” first and relay that information to the readers so they don’t get lost as the story moves along.
On the other hand, if you’re writing mystery or crime fiction, or mainstream fiction, then you don’t need to give the readers a detailed description of a hotel bar, or a shopping mall, or a contemporary dining room. The readers have seen these and need only the bare essentials to place themselves firmly in that scene.
Let me give a couple of examples. I was reading a fantasy novel back years ago and there were numerous references to people riding “horses.” Then, at about 80 pages in, I found a sentence that mentioned one of the “horses” as having fangs and claws. I was pretty put out. When you describe something as a “horse,” the reader is going to get a certain visual image that will not include fangs and claws. If the creature really is a horse the reader doesn’t need any more description that that, but if it’s something different than a horse the author better give us enough description to let us know. To do less is to cheat and disrespect the reader.
The second example I have comes from a contemporary thriller. The hero went into a business office and had to wait to see the boss. We then got a page and a half description of the waiting area, from the secretary’s desk, to the chairs, to some boxes piled up along one wall. Say what! I thought maybe the office had some important role to play later in the book, but that was not the case. The author just decided to describe in detail a scene that pretty much everyone has seen.
The fantasy novel had too little description; the thriller had too much.
I do find, however, that I can forgive too much description more easily than I can too little. I can always skip over useless description, but I can’t fill in what isn’t there in the first place. And many genres need that extra description. Historical stories, for example, need more than contemporary ones. I also find that I prefer descriptions of natural landscapes to those of human ones. I really don’t want to read a description of a mall, but I rather like descriptions of a desert range or a wild swamp.
Finally, the best kind of description, in any genre, is that which sets a mood in addition to giving the basic elements of setting. I see this particularly in horror fiction, where the author describes a common setting, like a mall, but does it in such a way as to create a sense of menace. Any story can benefit from this kind of thing, though.
Ultimately, as is often said of dialogue, if description can be made to serve more than one purpose, both the author and the reader win. I’m one reader who’ll certainly be happy.
Saturday, September 24, 2011
I began to examine authors who have successfully crossed genres. I’m not talking only about subcategories of the same general genre, but totally different genres. Quite a few of them use different pseudonyms. As the author I spoke to at the conference explained, if an author is known for a specific genre, there is a certain reader expectation. John Grisham, for example, is known for legal drama. He tried crossing genres several times in books like “A Painted House,” and “Skipping Christmas” among others. I can’t tell if the books sold well, because his name would sell books, but I found some of his “other” genres quite disappointing. Not that the books weren’t written well, but because I expected something of him that I didn’t get.
Nora Roberts has successfully written several different subgenres of romance using various pen names, even keeping the identities separate for a while. But not all authors who successfully cross genres use different pseudonyms. James Patterson, known most for the Alex Cross series of suspense, has successfully published other genres without using a different pseudonym. Among his bestsellers was the Maximum Ride series of science fiction. He has also dappled in romance with “Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas” one of the sweet romances that I found to be a really refreshing change of pace, and “Sam’s Letters to Jennifer.” He has even written children’s and young adult novels, “Santa Kid” and “Middle School, the worst years of my life” all using the same name.
So as I embark on this new venture of publishing in the “children’s science education adventure” genre, I wrestle with the decision of authorship. Would Jewel Amethyst, the romance author with the exotic name be seen as a credible author of children’s science education fiction, or would J. A. Daniel, PhD be more credible?
What do you think?
Friday, September 23, 2011
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
"Print on demand" does not mean a book is of lower quality or the publisher or writer is unsavory. In fact, many of the tiny presses that use POD are making books with better cover art, better interior design, and higher paper quality than traditional publishers. Others make a point of seeking out great writers who are not writing what is currently selling. Others are reprinting classics that are no longer in print with the original publisher. Some scholarly and university presses use POD.
POD simply means that a publisher prints a book only after an order has been received. Traditionally, publishers guessed at how many bookstores might stock the book and how many copies they might buy and then printed up copies.
I have run into the stigma against POD on several occasions. Bookstores have refused to stock my book or to let me sign simply because Like Mayflies in a Stream is a POD book. My book is available through wholesalers, just like books by the big boys, and my book's publisher (Hadley Rille Books) offers bookstores the same terms as the large publishers do, such as a standard discounted price and the ability to return unsold books.
Despite the stigma, I believe the small publishers using POD will grow faster and be more profitable because of the technology. I also believe POD is the wave of the future for all publishers, including the New York Gargantuas.
When all the copies of the book sell, publishers make more money by having printed up mass quantities of books rather than using POD. This extra profit comes about because mass production is currently cheaper than printing small quantities as needed through POD technology.
However, publishers quite often overestimate or underestimate the demand for a book. Most books do not sell out. An occasional book sells out quickly, leaving many unsatisfied people who wanted to buy it but couldn't. When such things happen, the only advantage of mass production is lost.
Problems with estimating demand happen in other industries too, and many have embraced "just-in-time" practices. For example, one of my brothers works for the Graphic Communications division of Kodak (http://graphics.kodak.com/US/en/default.htm), which makes custom specialty printers. He has given me a tour of his plant a couple of times and proudly pointed out the many efficiencies Kodak uses. One such efficiency is just-in-time ordering. Every single part, down to the tiniest washers and screws, is counted and computer monitored. The division always knows exactly how many of each part it has and how many of each part it needs that week. Orders for new parts are placed only when needed.
Imagine how much money Kodak saves on parts and storage buildings with this practice! Then imagine the consequences if all publishers used just-in-time printing (POD):
- The price of POD technology would fall.
- The price of POD technology would eventually fall enough that bookstores could own printing apparatus and stock only one copy of each book, printing out copies for customers as needed.
- Bookstores could carry more books in less space, and independent bookstores would have an easier time surviving.
- Readers could possibly customize their books by choosing their favorite of two or three covers or having their names imprinted on the book.
- There would be fewer returns from bookstores, benefiting publishers and writers alike.
- Publishers would make a profit on more books than they currently do.
- Publishers could charge less for books and could pay authors higher royalty rates. (Whether they would do so is another question.)
- Small presses could compete on an even playing field, with lower prices comparable to big publishers and without booksellers turning up their noses at their books.
- Paper books, with their wonderful smells of paper and ink and the lovely feel of different covers and papers, could continue to exist side-by-side with e-books.
Old-Guard publishers are struggling now mainly because they have not kept up with the times. Accounting systems haven't been updated to track e-book sales or to pay royalties quickly and accurately. Ridiculously low e-book royalties drive some authors to smaller presses or to self-publishing. Books are printed in large batches by guestimate.
POD alone won't save the big publishers. They need to modernize in many ways. But POD technology would be a big step into the future and help bookstores, writers, and publishers.
What do you think? Do you agree almost all publishers will switch to POD production and that it will benefit everyone in the publishing industry?
I'll be posting again at Novel Spaces on October 6. Happy Autumn!
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
I find that most book club members have loved reading since they were very young. Some are professional, very well educated, have families and young children, look forward to their meetings with pride, and all share a passion for reading, finding that book clubs bring them the camaraderie, friendship, and enjoyment that they deeply cherish in their lives. They often become extended family members to one another. Some could be reviewers they read so much, and some are even writers themselves.
I never really thought about what it takes to start and maintain a book club until I began writing. I'd always enjoyed reading but never considered joining a club. But I now know that for book club members, being part of a group of people with a common bond is priceless. Whether the meeting is at a fellow member's home, at a restaurant over a meal, or someplace else, it is a coming together of sisterhood and/or brotherhood that is memorable and purposeful.
Book club members will pick a book of the month and each purchase the titles, and they meet to discuss the book, sometimes giving their thumbs up and sometimes a thumbs down, yet and still, they come together and give open and honest feedback, (sometimes deeply heated, some tearful, some hilarious) and then they also tell others about the books they've read. We as authors know this all adds to the "word of mouth" momentum that is so very important. Some read a book in one day. Wow! Most members have bookshelves at home (even if they also read ebooks), some have had rooms built just for their books, and most are careful not to fray a page or scuff a cover, trying to keep their prized possessions in as new a state as possible - all for the love of it. (and most won't lend their books even if you paid them)
Book clubs will invite authors to join them in person or via conference call (or Skype), plan themed events around a book, and plan large events of their own, honoring books and authors and readers, giving away awards and prizes.
So, this post is a salute to you, the book club members - thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Without you, the readers, there would obviously be no writers. And though you often give us the glory for entertaining you with our words, we give you the glory for supporting us with your time and money.
I could shout out many clubs by name, (some of my good friends I've met while attending book club meetings) but I'll simply say to you all, "You are appreciated!"
If you have any special book club moments, please share. :)
Sunday, September 18, 2011
Because that "establishing an online presence" is the key factor here. The right kind of presence in the world-wide village will be vital to the success of my venture; and I say this at a time when Kvaad Press doesn't even have an active website. (The only place you can find me is Smashwords: Kvaad Press.) I've been doing a lot of research into online marketing and creating an online presence. I've attended Lon Safko's webinars (and am working my way through his Social Media Bible), pored over sites dedicated to helping independent publishers market their wares and brand, and studied the sites of other writers to see what they're doing, searching constantly for a consensus on how best to go about it. I found one point everyone agreed on, one evidently universal truth: Be yourself; be genuine. But beyond that, very little common ground.
For example: Review other writers so you'll get reviewed. OR Don't review other writers because if you're honest sooner or later you'll have to write a negative review and they – or more likely their fans – will start a negative buzz about you. (I've reviewed two stories on Smashwords by writers I don't know. One wrote a review of one of my stories. The other didn't. Don't consider this a representative sample.)
Spend an hour or two each day reading other writers' blogs and making comments to establish your credibility and trustworthiness. OR Don't spend too much time on other writers' blogs because this will create the impression you're trying to push yourself onto their fanbase. (Who has an hour or two every day to read other people's blogs? I do read some and I do occasionally comment. My habit is to fly by the blogs of people I know every week or so and skim a few posts w/o commenting. Sort of a drive-by lurker, I guess. I may try this commenting everywhere strategy in the future – once Kvaad Press or Kevin Killiany have a blog. More on that in a minute.)
Become heavily involved in Second Life and similar online social networks; large corporations and successful individuals have substantial presence there and it's the best way to meet and network with people from around the world. OR Stay away from virtual worlds like Second Life. Using virtual worlds for self promotion may benefit corporations that can pay public relations and marketing professionals to represent them, but for individual business people such as writers, the return is miniscule not worth the tremendous investment in time and energy required to make even a few contacts. (I spent way too long as a boat hanging from a dirigible in Second Life, staring at blank screens as I wandered offset while I puzzled through navigation. None of the default avatars looked like me and I was not going to spend the real-world money through Paypal to customize my appearance, so I opted for a guy with a ponytail similar to mine in the 70s. After wandering through several virtual bars, cruise ships, beaches, coffee shops during which no one tried to interact with me or looked interesting enough to interact with, I left.)
Blog about your life, your experiences, things that matter to you. This will make you more real and accessible to readers and potential readers, making them more likely to buy your books. OR Do not blog about your life unless all you want is a few dozen already loyal readers to know how your dentist appointment went or where you had lunch. Do blog about things related to your work that are of interest or potentially useful to a lot of people. Be sure to use words and phrases that will attract search engines to your blog (aka Search Engine Optimization, or SEO.) This will establish you as a voice worth listening to, perhaps even an authority in a given field. (I've shut down my LiveJournal, which was mostly daily vignettes and/or memes. I'm not sure what form my blogs will take. Plural because I'm envisioning one for Kvaad Press and one for Kevin Killiany. I'll probably SEO as much as possible while keeping my voice in either case.)
The camps on being active in communities such as Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, Red Room, Goodreads, and Linked In tend to mirror those for blogging. It's generally agreed these venues can increase name recognition which can in turn potentially lead to increased sales and job offers, but pundits are divided on whether you should be folksy or strictly business. The advantages the first three offer over blogging is brevity: allowing from 140 to 500 characters, they force you to be brief and focused and thus more likely to be read. (My Facebook is folksy, my Linked In is more businesslike but still casual, and my Twitter is sparse – maybe one tweet a day; I currently have a dozen followers. I'm just not much of a twit, I guess. I'm part of Goodreads, Red Room and I vaguely remember long ago getting a toehold in something called Dreamwidth, but have done next to nothing in any of those communities. Haven't tumbled yet. So far I can link none of these venues to either name recognition or sales.)
How about you? What's your opinion on authors' web presence? What has or has not worked for you?
(Speaking of self-promotion, here's a give away: Visit my Smashwords page linked above. If you see a story you'd like to read – ignore the pen names, they're all me – let me know and I'll send you a coupon code for a free copy.)
Friday, September 16, 2011
What’s the deal? I learned that Film Score Monthly, which for more than twenty years has been a driving force in bringing to collectors quality soundtracks for new and classic movies, will “close their doors” next spring after completing and offering for sale their 250th album. Why does this make me feel more than a little sad? Well, I’m a huge nerd for film music, and FSM has been just one of the dealers supporting my habit for lo these many years. That I’m going to miss them is something that really only hit home this morning as I pondered my music collection and realized that a bunch of it was obtained through them or one of their partners in crime.
As I wrote for an entry on my own blog: I’ve been a fan of film scores for as long as I can remember listening to music. In the days before home video, I could play an LP album on my record player, close my eyes and relive the excitement of a favorite film. How many nights did I lay awake, pineapple-sized headphones covering my ears, and listen to the music of John Williams while recalling Superman in flight, the Millennium Falcon escaping the Death Star, or Indiana Jones chasing after the Nazis in order to steal back the lost ark?
Nowadays, I listen to a variety of different film and television scores when I write. I need some kind of background noise when I’m working, whether it’s the CD player in my home office or my mp3 player when I’m at the library. When I’m writing, the music usually can’t be anything with lyrics, but that still leaves me with a rather sizable selection from which to choose. In fact, as I’m writing this, I’m listening to a recent acquisition: the soundtrack to the new Captain America movie. Great stuff, particularly if you’re a fan of the big epic westerns and war movies of the 50s and 60s (which I am) with music by great composers like Elmer Bernstein or Ennio Morricone.
(Don’t worry: I do also listen to other things. I love classical music and jazz, as well as good old-fashioned “turn it up and stomp on the gas” rock and roll. And, of course, I kneel before the greatness of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart. Those I save for when the writing’s done...though the idea of writing a science fiction themed rock concept album has its definite appeal. Too bad the only musical skill I possess involves pressing “Play.”)
Since I write a lot of science fiction, I tend to prefer appropriate music from film or television. Scores from films such as Outland or the Star Wars trilogies or the recent Battlestar Galactica TV series are frequently called into service. When I’m writing Star Trek (which, you may have heard, I do on occasion), I’ve been known to load up all the Trek movie scores and let them run in sequence. I’ve also managed to acquire just about every piece of music scored for the original series, which never fails to put me in the proper mindset when writing stories set in that era.
For action scenes, music from the Indiana Jones films or something like Gladiator or Sahara or Black Hawk Down comes in handy. For a change of pace or if I’m looking for some “atmosphere,” I might throw in something like Dances with Wolves, Alien, Crimson Tide or even the original 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still. I’ve even got music from NFL Films along with the bits that accompany the game highlights on ESPN’s NFL Primetime simply because I once wrote a story about football. My music cache is nothing if not eclectic, and it’s as much a part of my writer’s toolbox as my laptop.
What about you? Do you prefer quiet while you write, or do you use music to get the juices flowing? If it’s the latter, what do you use to coax your muse out of hiding? Do you wonder if it ever dances around in its underwear when it thinks no one’s looking?
Wait, that’s just my muse? Okay, then. Moving on....
Thursday, September 15, 2011
The new Hadley Rille e-mail newsletter features free flash fiction and short articles, guest articles by authors and editors, announcements and events. To sign up, go here.
Several authors I've worked with and I recently had a long conversation that could have been titled: "What is speculative fiction?" We were focusing on what might be called the fringe of speculative fiction, that gray area where fiction strays close to the borders of mainstream.
What about stories that don't have any of the tropes of speculative fiction? Science fiction author James Gunn's definition of science fiction includes stories that deal with the human condition, and how humans interact with nature. Such stories might include castles and spaceships, but many stories may not be recognizable at all as speculative fiction.
At Hadley Rille Books, where I serve as editor/publisher, we publish a series archaeology-correct novels about common people who lived during ancient times. These are being written by archaeologists and anthropologists. So while we love the non-mundane, we have found a place for the mundane as well, which we think fits within the speculative fiction genre. The exploration of the ancient world is full of drama, discovery, and excitement, and involves the exploration of other worlds, worlds vastly different from what most of us experience today.
Take for example K.L. Townsend's Song of the Swallow (which we will release in December of 2011), a book set during the collapse of the Southern Song Dynasty in China during the 1200s CE. The story follows the struggles of a young woman who is taken from her home to serve as a concubine in the Emperor's palace. She has a horrible life there, but during that time she manages to befriend another woman, form a sisterhood, and grow as a person. She is subjected to a way of life that should never be experienced by anyone, but as a human being manages to explore ways to overcome and perhaps escape her predicament. Townsend explores many aspects of the human condition and her knowledge as an anthropologist allows her to speculate about human life during that time.
Another example is anthropologist Shauna Roberts’s Like Mayflies in a Stream, which although it’s based on the fantastic account, The Epic of Gilgamesh, it speculates (also based on current archaeological and historical knowledge) how people lived in ancient Mesopotamia. She took care to show us what their daily lives were like, how they performed ceremonies, how their society treated women, and what kinds of conflicts they had. She shows us the most accurate portrayal of daily life in Mesopotamia as it may have been over 4000 years ago.
In classicist Jenny Blackford’s The Priestess and the Slave, we follow the lives and deaths of common people who endured the Plague of Athens nearly 2500 years ago in ancient Greece. We learned how they cooked, how they mourned their losses, what their dwellings were like, what they believed in and how those beliefs drove their actions for coping during bad times. Again, Blackford worked from her extensive knowledge and study of that culture and from her efforts, we get to follow a very real and riveting drama of the people who lived through those times.
Taken individually or taken as a whole, novels such as these accomplish many goals of speculative fiction. The very word “speculative” is the basis of stories like these, speculation based on knowledge and discovery about different snapshots of the human past. What we find is that people are alike all over whether geographic or temporal.
To a casual browser in a bookstore, these books won’t strike him or her as speculative fiction. But when a story explores the bounds of human endurance and enters the realm of the distant past (which is a different world), it may be seen as mainstream. But we really know it’s a speculative fiction story. And it seems that speculative fiction has a much bigger audience than many of us realize.
Monday, September 12, 2011
As I sit here in my office, I cannot help but think about how much has changed over the past decade since 9/11; as well as how much remains the same.
On 9/9/01, I flew out of Detroit with my wife after attending a writer conference and visiting family. Just a routine flight, easy access to the airport, and life seemed merry with so much to look forward to.
Two days later, all hell broke loose and life as we know it in the United States changed forever.
Now when I fly, the routine is quite different than it was then. The shoes come off automatically as I pass through security, pat downs and hard stares now come with the territory, and images of planes plowing into skyscrapers never quite go away.
Like most people, I thought that the 9/11 attack was only the beginning of regular terrorist attacks on our soil, much like experienced in some other countries. But strong counterterrorism measures by law enforcement has managed to keep us safe, thus far, to go about our daily lives.
As with those who lived through Pearl Harbor attack, 9/11 will remain forever etched in our minds. Along with a sense of vulnerability that makes one want to appreciate and live each and every day to the fullest.
Over the last ten years life has pretty much drifted back to normal for a very busy writer as I contemplate deadlines, new projects, promotion, the changing literary landscape, and finding time to smell the roses.
After the shattering of our collective calm and sense of security a decade ago, I wouldn't have it any other way. As that old adage goes: "The only thing to fear is fear itself."
How wonderful that we have not allowed fear to keep us from living our lives and making the most of.
Terrorism can never take away the true spirit of America and the freedoms we take for granted. We will not allow it.
What are your thoughts ten years later? Or better yet, looking ahead to the next ten years?
Now back to a typical day in the life of a novelist...
Saturday, September 10, 2011
First, let me describe the endings to a couple of books I’ve read in the past few years:
Book 1: The hero is cornered at the end by the villain in a dank storm drain. The villain has a gun, and the drop. She’s a bit over the top as a character, but we know she’s vicious and ready to kill. The hero is a bit more bumbling but has shown amazing resourcefulness throughout. As the two face off, a wild animal attacks the villain from behind and kills her. The hero is saved.
Book 2: The hero and his friends are pursued by a savage and powerful witch. To show how evil she is, she’s even killed and "eaten" a child. She’s capable of transforming into an eagle or a dragon, and can take on many different human forms. She can possess human souls and force them to do her bidding. And then she faces the hero. He steps toward her, and with a single blow of his sword cuts off her head. The end.
If you’re like me, neither of these endings seems very satisfying. But why? I think it’s because the authors forgot two simple rules for endings. The writer of book 1 forgot that heroes must resolve conflicts themselves and cannot be “rescued” by fate. The author of book 2 forgot that defeating the villain must be difficult for the hero. Readers expect heroes to win, but they expect them to have to work for their victories.
The characters of any story have to earn their endings. With one exception, they cannot be given anything. The exception? Whatever they are given has to be either taken away again, or turn out to be a curse. The more easily a character wins, the less the reader cares.
Friday, September 9, 2011
You’d think that being from the Caribbean, the hurricane hub of the Atlantic, I would have experienced quite a few hurricanes. The truth is, in the years that I lived on the island of St. Kitts I only experienced one real hurricane. That was hurricane Hugo in 1989. Of course I’d lived through quite a few tropical storms, but was totally unprepared for the fury of a category four hurricane.
I wasn’t the only one unprepared. Most of the island was. You see, it had been decades since the island had experienced a really devastating hurricane. I remember going to the store to pick up kerosene oil and hearing the shopkeepers scoff at the hurricane threat. I remember people were excited wanting to experience a hurricane (myself included). But not my mother. She was prepared with flashlights and batteries, kerosene lamps, coals for the coal pot and lots of non-perishable foods. I remember she filled lots of buckets with water for drinking (that was before bottled water became a fad on the island), and several basins and wash tubs with water for bathing.
I recall the calm before the storm: the full moon on the shore with nary a wave, sparkling ever so gently. I also recalled the boredom as I waited for the hurricane’s arrival. By the time the winds picked up, I was fast asleep. Then early the morning, as the winds tore at our house and the large guinip tree leaned precariously on to the roof, we made the tough decision seek shelter by my sister who lived two blocks away. The problem was, we did not have a vehicle. I was elected to run a few houses away to call on a neighbor with a taxi.
As I ran, I saw the trees bent at the middle, the lamp post leaning as if they were about to be snapped and the electric wires dangling from downed lines. That was when the danger hit me. Well I did make it to the neighbor and he did take us to our sister, where we rode out the storm in peace and safety… and boredom.
Then came the real danger of the hurricane: the aftermath. The power outages. The downed trees. The flies. No potable water on the island for days. When a tap (a single stand pipe at the sugar factory) was finally opened, lines of vehicles with people waiting to fill buckets of water extended almost five miles.
Fast forward to last week, 22 years after Hurricane Hugo. As I sat down to write my hurricane scene, I reflected on my one experience with a hurricane. I realized the problem. Back then I experienced Hurricane Hugo through the eyes of an excited youngster. I didn’t remember the sounds, the smells, the fear, the oppressive heat, and all the discomforts at that time. I saw the excitement of people coming together to clear the rubble with an almost party like atmosphere.
So for a few days I got nowhere on my WIP. Then Hurricane Irene struck the East Coast. And there I was to experience it: the desperation to obtain generators and D batteries; the stores that were cleared of bread and milk; the fervor of the news casters and the dire warnings of the governors and mayors to evacuate; the watchful waiting for the winds to pick up; the howling of the winds; the rain beating down in torrents; and the fear in my daughter’s eyes. It all came back to me then. The sights, the smells, the sounds, the emotions associated with the hurricane. And then the aftermath….
So I was able to write that hurricane scene, with lots of changes. Instead of focusing on the hurricane itself as dramatic as it is, the focus became the aftermath.
Sometimes, you just have to experience it, to write it.
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Right now is an especially good time to look for gifts for writers because office supply stores, craft stores, and drugstores are having deep discounts on many basic office necessities—wire-ring notebooks, binders, pens, Sharpies, USB drives, wireless mice, colored pencils...the list goes on. Without venturing to more than a nearby store or two this week, you can take care of holiday or birthday gifts for the writers on your list with such things as:
- Gift basket for making collages (for a writer who starts each book that way) containing such things as posterboard, tape, glue, pushpins, colored markers or pencils, or a bunch of old magazines you haven't gotten around to throwing away yet. Depending on what genre your friend writes in, you could toss in a subscription to a fashion magazine, People, Smithsonian, National Geographic, or other publication full of pictures of people and places.
- Gift basket for the person who still likes to take notes, develop plots or characters, or draw diagrams on paper: ringed notebooks of various colors and sizes, some four-color pens, a Dr. Grip or other ergonomic pen and several refills for it, colorful binders, zippered binder pockets, and a box of their favorite kind of pencil.
Or, if you prefer to keep your shopping short, most writers would be happy to receive an expensive essential such as:
- A box of printer paper
- A toner cartridge
- Ink cartridges
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a writing-related luxury item for a very special writer is worth considering:
- A beautiful pen to use at autograph signings (Some well-stocked pen stores with pens in all price ranges include JOON and Fahrney's Pens. Or, if you live in or plan a trip to New Orleans soon, the French Market usually has some beautiful pens at cheap prices.)
- A leather or leatherette portfolio with a pad of paper, a pen, and pockets for business cards and handouts—perfect for taking to a conference as well as to a meeting with an agent or editor
- The Oxford English Dictionary (either a subscription to the online version or the two-volume-with-magnifying-glass set, which you can find at most online-used book stores)
If you're still drawing a blank on what to get for your favorite writers, here are some useful things they may not think of getting for themselves:
- A set of CDs of the sessions from a recent RWA conference (available from Bill Stephens Productions)
- Complete set of National Geographics through 2010 on CD
- iPad stand (Many iPad stands work well for holding Kindles and Nooks as well.)
- Special-use pens; I recently treated myself to an erasable pen, very-fine-point pens perfect for taking notes in the margins of research books and for squeezing in comments while copyediting or critiquing on hardcopy, and a brush pen meant for writing Japanese characters or drawing, all from JetPens, which also carries pencil cases, journals, and penguin-shaped paperclips, and other cool stuff.
Or consider something you make yourself at home or design yourself and order from Cafe Press, Vistaprint, or a similar online store that specializes in small-volume custom items:
- Bookbag with photos of the writer's books (Crafts stores have special fabric and paper that you can use to transfer a design or photo from your computer to a bookbag, teeshirt, or other item)
- A mug or mousepad with the writer's favorite inspirational saying on it
- Customized journal that can be carried in a purse, briefcase, or bookbag
- Customized Post-It notes
Happy shopping! Hope to see you again on September 21, when I'll be blogging again at NovelSpaces.
Sunday, September 4, 2011
Once I have some idea of who the characters are (because it can change as they surprise even me once I start writing) I plot it out by writing an outline (by plotting I mean the selection and arrangement of events in the story). Some of my outlines have been six pages and some have been eighteen. I didn't always write outlines, but since I've experienced submitting titles to publishers based upon three-chapters and full outlines, I've used those outlines as roadmaps and have found outlines to be invaluable tools.
In the outline itself I determine the setup that leads to introducing characters, I expose their issues and wants, thrusting them into stumbling blocks of action or as I call it, fiction friction, building tension, then moving to the height of the climax, then the falling climax, and then finally the resolution, which doesn't necessarily mean all issues are resolved or that all characters grow.
Now here's the part of my process that really moves me along in writing a book: I break down the outline into thirty (30) scenes (you can use 40, 50, 60, whatever works for you), and each scene becomes a chapter. I immediately format my Word document with thirty chapter headings, i.e. Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc., and under each chapter heading I type one or two sentences of what that scene is about.
I print out that "word-map" as I call it, and then I can start at the beginning of the book, or the middle, or the end (I prefer to start at the beginning and go chronologically but that doesn't always happen). I can write what moves me that day, or what I'm in the mood for. I may not be in the mood for the party scene in Chapter 12, so I'll write the courtroom scene in Chapter 22, or the church scene in Chapter 6, etc. And even if I'm not feeling some scenes, I still take it on and it eventually flows. Those turn out to be some of the best ones. And when I'm done, my story may have deviated away from my original outline, so I make adjustments accordingly, but it rarely deviates from my original one paragraph synopsis.
Most of my books these days are approximately thirty chapters, some more, some less, and each chapter can be seven to ten pages, some more, some less.
This process works for me. I don't always have a prologue, but I usually have an epilogue.
I also use a calendar that's taped to my office wall - I have to see it, not on an electronic device but in my face, to schedule the production and determine how long it will take me to sit down and complete the first draft. Depending upon my timing and availability, I can write a chapter per week, or a chapter a day, or more. I've written as much as five chapters in one day (all day). That's when my muse is with me. If I fall short or do more than I've scheduled, I'll adjust my calendar so that I'm not as . . . okay, I'll keep it real, so that I'm not as stressed by looming deadlines (looking like the girl in the photo above).
So, there you have it. Folks have asked me and I'd never taken the time to write it out. Please share what tips work for you. I'd love to hear it! I hope this was helpful.
And yes, I am called the Diva Writer, Diva in a good way!
Write on :)
Saturday, September 3, 2011
I had written a couple of thousand words on the topic of culture and race and the rights and responsibilities of the writer. Had a few links, which you'll find as a postscript at the bottom of this post. What you won't find is the 2000 words. Not because I was suddenly struck with common sense -- I've proven immune to that malady far too long to succumb this late in life -- but because the world conspired to convince me one more essay on the topic wasn't really needed. Not here.
For one thing, racism as it's practiced in the USofA is a peculiarly American institution, and the discussion would be irrelevant to many if not most of our members and readers.
More importantly, no way on earth I could legitimately follow Lynn's excellent essay and add anything meaningful to the conversation.
Third, Arielle Loren hit most of the notes I was going for in 2k words in less than thirty ten days ago when she wrote: "Stockett is a white woman, she can only write fantasies of black women’s truth. She owes us nothing. She’s a writer, and she can write as she sees fit." (She went on to discuss the futility of wasting energy on criticism that would be better invested in empowerment in her article 10 Black Women Making Moves in Film over at Clutch.) (That same article also led to me becoming a fan of Issa Rae's The Mis-Adventures of an Awkward Black Girl. Except for the cursing, of course, I am a fossilized prude after all.)
And finally, my spirit was lifted by a story that illustrates my take on the artist, her craft, and her obligation to herself and her world on NPR's All Things Considered. There's a new album that's taking country music fans and radio stations by, well, surprise: Reggae Goes Country. As one artist explained it to NPR, in Jamaica music is divided into "local" and "foreign" -- meaning they don't differentiate between rock, blues, folk, or country. The underlying assumption of Jamaican musicians is that all foreign music is white, no matter what color the artist, and that all music, regardless of origin, is legitimate grist for the the musician/singer/songwriter's mill. (I've been hunting cuts from that album -- a phrase that certainly dates me -- and highly recommend Tessanne Chin singing "Don't it Make My Brown Eyes Blue?," Busy Signal's "The Gambler," Freddy McGregor's "King of the Road," and a group called L.U.S.T. having a lot of fun with "Flowers on the Wall." Gonna have to buy the album. Or 8-track. Or tape. Or whatever it is these kids put music on today.)
Going back to the third conspirator, I'm going to disagree with Ms. Loren on one point. She says that as a writer, Kathryn Stockett doesn't owe us anything (yes, I know she meant people of color when she said 'us,' I'm wittingly spreading the umbrella; bear with me). It is my fundamental tenet that we as writers, whether writing humor or horror or romance or mystery or fantasy or any genre or any nongenre, owe ourselves and our readers our best. It's our obligation to wield our craft to the best of our ability, to write honestly and with integrity the stories that are within us. This is our authenticity. Even though we know going in that often we're going to fail ourselves or the story we're trying to tell, because getting to where we want to be in our craft is a trail and error process. And it's a given that every piece we write will in some way fail at least one of our readers. But we're going to keep writing, keep telling stories, because we have no choice.
And, frankly, because we love it.
[As promised, a postscript of links cited in my now vaporized treatise:
Samuel R. Delaney's article on racism in science fiction written in 1998 resonates today as it did thirteen years ago.
Mary Ann Mohanraj's guest articles on John Scalzi's blog 18 months ago: Part One and
Part Two. Pretty strong medicine. While I disagree with the philosophies expressed in a couple of the sites she links to, I think her words are 99 & 44/100s% pure wisdom.]
Thursday, September 1, 2011
(Music video so adjust your speakers)