Sunday, May 1, 2016

Learning on the job

This month is a themed month on Novelspaces where each novelnaught blogs about a common topic. Blogging on the first of the month means I set the tone. So when Liane presented me the list of topics I tried to steer her away from the topic that I knew everyone would like, “favorite books on writing.” I even suggested another topic that I thought would woo the other voting members away, but to no avail. Favorite books on writing won hands down.

So why was I running away from blogging about books on writing? You’ll probably think this is an oxymoron, but I don’t read books on writing. I can see your faces right now all distorted with disbelief. A writer who doesn’t read books on writing? How does she improve her craft? That’s a fair question, to which I respond, “I learn on the job.”

“Huh?!” you ask. I can see the blank looks on your face. Let me give you an example. I had been writing poetry and short stories for many years. When I entered graduate school I was faced with the task of writing my research for publication. Of course having written fiction I delved into long flowery prose. My professor looked at me and asked, “What the hell is this, a mystery novel?” He then said, “Cut out everything five prime of the verb.” (He was a geneticist so in laymen’s term, remove every clause in front of the verb.)  As we proceeded with the editing he advised me to “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and tell what you told them.” From that I learned that technical writing is very different from fiction. It is succinct, to the point and information driven rather than prose driven. In fiction we build suspense and steer the reader in a certain direction, in technical writing we just tell you the facts and how we perceive them; you can interpret them how you want.

In writing fiction, I was just loosely aware of POV and the importance of telling the story from a particular point of view. I would write like I was the omniscient God knowing what every character is thinking, feeling, and doing at all times. When my first book got accepted for publication I was assigned a wonderful editor: Monica Harris. In her first edits I would see little notes saying, “pov”. So I called her up, and we spent a few hours on the phone, both her and my kids screaming in the background, discussing points of view and the importance of not switching pov in the middle of a story. I again learned some important lessons on writing and I learned them on the job.

After years of writing romance I decided to dabble in children’s literature. Was I in for a surprise! As great as I thought my writing was, when I gave the manuscript to a focus group of kids to read, they could not get through it. So it was back to the drawing board, editing it to death. Children’s book author and publisher and former novelnaught, Carol Mitchell helped me make it readable for kids. And of course my co-author and a child herself, Lynelle Martin, ripped it apart and made me take out every big word, rephrase every rigorous sentence, and remove everything too “sciencey” for kids to understand. Several things I learned about writing fiction for children include letting the protagonists be slightly older than the target age of the readers and making sure that they solve their own dilemmas. Again I learned on the job.

I haven’t read any books on writing recently, yet I am constantly working on developing my craft through practice, through suggestions from editors, through reading blogs, articles and of course other novels by various authors. So my favorite book on writing isn’t a book after all. It is experience, and that you can only get by leaning on the job.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Researching and Writing Historical Characters

by Velda Brotherton

If we aren't careful when we write historical fiction, the characters come off stiff and boring. What's the solution? Set them squarely down in the center of something that really happened. Study the way people acted and reacted in that day and time, give the characters some background problems and a goal that applies to the times and you're off.

In addition to that, I like to walk real characters through the action so they can all get acquainted. I've mingled outlaws like Jesse and Frank James, and the notorious gentleman outlaw Clay Allison into my fictional story letting my hero and heroine get to know them,. I actually shoved them together into the story line so that the real characters affected the  plot.

This calls for a lot of research concerning these true-to-life characters, which I enjoy thoroughly. For instance, I never read anywhere that Frank James was fond of quoting Shakespeare until I began to dig into his life story. I also learned that Jesse loved to have his photo taken. This fit right in with my book, Images in Scarlet, about a young woman photographer working her way from Missouri to Santa Fe by taking photos after the Civil War. At that time Frank and Jessie were roaming Missouri and had a hideout there.

When Jesse and Frank kidnap her, she fears the worst, until she learns they only want her to take some photos. Jake, who is traveling with her, which is another story, thinks the worst when she disappears and tracks her to the outlaw hideout. It made for a slightly funny, slightly scary scene and I really enjoyed writing it. My readers let me know they enjoyed reading it too.

It's always important when using these real characters that the writer makes sure they could have been in the vicinity during the time period the story takes place. Fiction only extends so far in your historical storytelling. You can't make up outrageous things about well-known historical figures, though you can allow them to romp through your story if you remain true to their lives and let them do what they would have done in such a situation.

In Dream Walker, the story begins in Fayetteville, Arkansas in 1849 where the Cherokee and white businessmen have formed a wagon train to go west to California to look for gold and come back rich. The plan is to blaze a new trail west avoiding the desert and some of the well-grazed land around the Oregon Trail. This will open up a new route so the cattle drives crossing Arkansas can follow with better results.

In the story I placed the real leaders and several of the characters who were on that first wagon train west. After my half-Cherokee, half-white heroine, Rachel Keye (Winter Dawn) stows away on one of the wagons, the real characters interact with her and ex-soldier Daniel Wolfe (the fictional hero) throughout the trip. One of Arkansas' folk heroes was Peter Mankins, and he was known to be a charming man who liked the ladies. He had a big part in the book when Rachel continued to get in trouble.  Because I've written a lot of historical articles for several local newspapers over many years, I knew these people quite well, having researched them as well as interviewing people whose families were well acquainted with them.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Papyrus, Paper, Pixels...and Life

I had planned to write a sober assessment of the paper versus digital publishing situation, and the ramifications for traditionally published, indie and hybrid authors. I was planning to write about the way Amazon's Kindle Unlimited subscription programme all but killed my sales on the Zon since its launch last year. After reading several depressing essays on the issues in sources such as The Economist (The Future of the Book) and Smashwords (2016 Book Publishing Industry Predictions--a must read for anyone in the indie publishing business), I decided to give it a rest.

Since my first novel was published in 2008 there has been nothing but turmoil and upheaval in the industry. I'm tired to the bone of it all. I've come full circle and I'm back to the basics: my love of reading and my love of writing. Reading has been the mainstay of my life, my escape, my therapy, my delight, my muse, my great teacher. And writing? I no longer fuss about what I 'should' be doing. I do what I want, zipping back and forth between genres, between novel and novella and short story, between editing and formatting my own work and doing the same for other writers.

Late last year I discovered the pleasure of writing in a totally new, fun historical niche (new to me as a writer, not a reader) when a short story turned into a novel which I serialized and which now outsells my twenty-something other indie titles. I'm now reading up on the history because I'm about to start another series set in the same period. Plus, I'm back at school and one year into a graduate programme. The taught courses are behind me (or will be when I turn in the last paper on Friday) and then the real work begins for the vivas and thesis that will absorb much of the next two years. I see a lot of juggling in my immediate future: school-related research and writing, fiction writing and publishing, editing jobs.... I've also been invited by one of my lecturers to tutor her UG courses. I have to make time to enjoy my two awesome grandkids...and to do this every now and then:

Me just chilling on Maracas Beach, Dec. 2015
So, let the publishing battles rage. Let the players--the giants like Amazon and the ocean of tiny authors trying to eke some cash out of making up stuff--duke it out. Let others sweat and swear and worry. Me? I'll be busy doing...other things.

~Liane Spicer

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Passing the Baton...After A Fashion

This past week, the winners of Pocket Books’ all-new, rebooted Star Trek: Strange New Worlds writing contest were announced. The contest was open to “non-professional” writers—those who hadn’t sold more than two stories to qualifying markets at paid professional rates—hoping for the chance to sell their Star Trek tales for an all-new anthology to be published later this year.

After sifting through who knows how many submissions, the editors at Pocket Books selected ten stories to be published in the forthcoming anthology. As fate would have it, I knew two of the winners. They’d each won berths in previous editions of the anthology, but hadn’t rendered themselves ineligible to enter this new version of the contest.

It was exciting to see the contest revived, and to see a new crop of winners announced. When the first version of the contest was originally was conceived back in 1997, there was nothing else like Strange New Worlds. It was the only writing contest for a licensed property where the entrants had an opportunity to be make a professional short story sale. That version of the contest ran for ten years, granting the wishes of dozens of hopeful Star Trek fans and even launching several writing careers.

One of those beneficiaries is the guy whose blog entry you’re reading right now. I sold stories to Pocket Books for each of the competition’s first three years, after which I was no longer eligible to enter future contests. Now I write Star Trek novels on a pretty regular basis, so all those teachers who mocked me for reading Star Trek novels during my free time in school? Nyah, nyah, nyah.

That didn’t mean I stopped paying attention, though. I followed along each year as the anthology’s editor, veteran writer Dean Wesley Smith, offered updates. I was one of the program’s biggest cheerleaders, encouraging people to send in their own Star Trek stories, and I celebrated along with everyone else when each year’s new group of winners was announced. I made several friends thanks to the contest, and we keep in touch to this day.

Everything I’ve accomplished as a professional writer links back to that first contest sale. When it was announced that there would be no more contests, I was as sad as anyone to see it go. Strange New Worlds was a wonderful way for fans to get in on the fun of playing in the Star Trek sandbox, so I was thrilled when I heard last fall that the contest was being revived just in time for Star Trek’s 50th anniversary in 2016.

So, here we are, nearly two decades since that first competition, and I feel a little like Father Time watching as Baby New Year takes the stage. The contest is back, and we have a “next generation” of Strange New Worlds winners. Are any of the ten people who sold a story taking their first steps toward their own writing career? Could be. Maybe one or two of them will even sell a Star Trek novel to Pocket, one day. Weirder things have happened, you know.

(You can’t see me, but right now I’m pointing my thumbs at myself.)

Personally, I’m rooting for all ten of them.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Save the Cozies

   Well, Big Publishing did it again. With the merge of Penguin and Random House, the powers- that- be decided there were too many cozy mysteries on the market. Now it’s slash & burn time as authors find their series discontinued.
   I’m having déjà vu. In the 90’s, as I was finishing my first Christy Bristol mystery, the bottom fell out of the mystery genre. All the houses were cutting out one mystery line and retaining only the top selling authors. Midlist authors were abandoned.
   People stepped up to the plate and created independent houses. With print-on-demand technology and computers, anyone could be a publisher. Amazon gave validity to ebooks and self-published authors.
   I have felt the cozy market was saturated. Every hobby has a mystery, everyone is an amateur detective with a law enforcement boyfriend or ex. Authors were even assigned subject matter. The main readers are women. Perhaps this is an effort to give hard-boiled mysteries a stronger market. Men who write them already make more money.
   If you love mysteries, there are things you can do: follow authors you love on their Facebook page, webpages, blogs and twitter. Subscribe to their newsletters. Pre-order your books—first week sales are important. And complain! Let Random House know how you feel. Here’s the link:

Monday, April 11, 2016

Hunting Iguanas

"We're going iguana hunting."

When my wife, Earlene, said this to one of the security people, he was horrified.

"You can't do that."

"Of course we can," she replied.

He smoldered for a minute. "It's against the law. What are you going to do? Eat it?"

"Don't be ridiculous. We're just going to go looking for them. Take a few pictures. We're not going to catch them."

And so we were off. This is actually a frequent journey for Earlene. She wanders along the River Caule trying to see how many of the illusive creatures she can spot. This particular day, we were lucky. We found five iguanas on the ground. Even I can spot those. But in the trees, it is a much more difficult task. They have natural camouflage, except for their long - often striped - tail.

My eyesight is as good as Earlene's. Still, she will spot iguanas much faster and more often than I will. I'm best at picking them out when she points to them.

To some extent, particularly if you have a writer's mindset, hunting iguanas is much like proofreading your manuscript. The out and out mistakes are like the large, orange iguanas - reasonably easy to spot. Oh, you can miss the big, bright iguanas, and you can miss the misspellings, the incorrect grammar, the missing quotation mark. But these are easier to spot.

Many of the young iguanas are green and others are brown. I can look at the tree, the natural habitat for iguanas, and not find a single one. Earlene can walk up and within minutes point out four iguanas. Once she does, I see them also. These are like the more crafty error in a manuscript. The untrained eye will look right at these subtle mistakes and not see them. Once an error is pointed out, it seems obvious. "Of course that's an iguana," I say. "There's his long, striped tail lying along the branch." Or, "Okay, I see it. That is a POV switch."

An author not trained in proofreading will overlook many errors that, once they are pointed out to him, are obvious. "How could I have missed that," he yells.

After many iguana hunts with Earlene, I now can find those shy iguanas. I may pick them out before Earlene sees them. My eyes have been conditioned, trained to pick iguanas out of the foliage. And the writer can learn to be a better proofreader, particularly if he has some guidance, or he studies the comments an experienced proofer leaves for him. It takes practice, work, concentration, and freedom from distractions. But those devious errors, or weak spots, will become as easily identifiable as the sly iguana.

Go on an error hunt, and take a guide along if you can. And understand while practice may not make perfect, it will make things better.

James R. Callan

Thursday, April 7, 2016

52 Short Stories in a year

Ray Bradbury once said  “Write a short story every week. It's not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” His words have become a challenge for writers everywhere. I had never heard of it until I attended the Rainforest Writer's Retreat last month. Author James Van Pelt gave a presentation on how he undertook the challenge last year. He talked about what he learned and the process of writing that much.

I was amazed that anyone could accomplish so much. Not only that he managed to sell quite a few of those stories. At the writer's retreat I undertook another Middle Grade novel that I hope to submit to agents. So I kept thinking, "I don't have time to write that many short stories. I don't have that many ideas for short stories." And so on. But I couldn't shake the idea of the challenge. I kept thinking of different ways to integrate the challenge with my other writing. I thought maybe I'll just write a story a month. Or take two weeks to finish them.

Finally I arrived at an idea I thought would work for me. I decided I WOULD write one short story a week for a year. BUT I wouldn't try to submit them anywhere. I would just write them down and move on and not worry about the short story finding a publishing home. Other people wouldn't even see them. I could use them to explore ideas, or just write a single scene and call it a story. 

And it's been working! I am writing short story #5 this week. I'm exploring a book idea by writing a little sort of prologue that probably will never appear in the book. I've found a freedom to write whatever, and the freedom to fail. Story #2 was the worst thing I've written since college! So while Ray Bradbury may be right, that it's impossible to write 52 bad stories, I can tell you, it's possible to write at least one terrible story!

I hope to keep up the challenge and I'll post on my progress periodically. Even though I've just started on this challenge I would recommend to anyone! And