Thursday, March 31, 2016

Social Capital

I attended a professional development workshop some time ago about culturally responsive teaching. One of the modules was on social capital. Social capital, by definition is the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively. During that module, the facilitator had us write the names of everyone we know, who they know, and what they know. It was an exercise to illustrate just how much social capital each of us had. After the workshop was finished I simply put my paper aside and never thought about it again until a few weeks ago.

A friend of mine who had read my latest novel contacted me and said she had another author friend from Grenada who was visiting the US and she wanted to do some kind of literary event in this area, preferably a joint author event. So I started looking into it and looking around for places to host the event. It had to be low budget, because as struggling authors, our budgets weren’t big. We knocked around all kinds of ideas and then we thought about the Grenadian Association in the area. That’s when I remembered that my husband’s cousin’s husband was from Grenada and was in some way connected to the Grenadian association. I called him. He put me in touch with some people, and to cut a long story short, The Grenadian Embassy hosted a night of literary conversation featuring two Grenadian authors and two Kittititian authors including myself. 

In the course of the planning someone reached out to The St. Kitts/Nevis Association and the event turned out into a wonderful Caribbean literary event with diplomats from Grenada, St. Kitts and Dominica and quite a few supporters. It was wonderful. I made new connections, I rekindled old connections and I sold books. Some of these new and rekindled connections have put me in touch with other people for planning other literary events.

One of the places I initially contacted when my friend first proposed the joint event was the Enoch Pratt Free library. But they couldn't plan an event on such short notice. However, they suggested doing a Literary Event during Caribbean American History Month (June) featuring local Caribbean authors. I agreed and so have several other authors from the Caribbean diaspora.

Now I reflect on the events of these past weeks, I realize that was social capital in its purest form. The friend who has little to do with writing, my husband’s cousin’s husband who knew people, the people I met who put me in contact with other people… you get the point. You don’t necessarily have to know people in high places, but knowing people who know people who are experts at other things that is social capital.

Come to think of it, this week marks the second year that we are doing the Journey into the Cell workshop as part of the STEM in Spring at Port Discovery Children’s Museum in Baltimore. This came about using social capital. A few years ago a co-worker introduce me to a children’s book author and researcher who introduced me to the people at Port Discovery, who invited me and my co-author Lynelle to do a workshop based on the Children’s novel “Zapped Danger in the Cell.” They invited us back again this year, quite an honor. So yes, I realize I do have a lot of social capital. And you do too, you just have to utilize it. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Writing or Wasting Time?

Kevin Killiany's column on August 19, "I Was Just Getting To That", touched on a sore issue for me: disrespect for writers' time. Except for the big guns—who I assume command respect based on their impressive royalties and resultant lush lifestyles—nonwriters regard your writing as a kind of sneaky self-indulgence at best, or an affectation at worst. The expression "I'm working on a novel" has somehow become synonymous with pie in the sky or dereliction of duty.

I tend to write late at night because that's when the house is cool and quiet and I can string two thoughts together without any kind of intentional or nonintentional interruption. My mother knocking on the door to ask for the five millionth time if I might have purloined her car keys or reading glasses just for the fun of it, and if not, whether I happened to see them anywhere unusual, falls under "intentional interruption". The man cutting the grass outside my window with what must be the loudest weed whacker on the planet falls under "unintentional interruption". But whether one or the other, these things interrupt the flow of my thoughts and sometimes it's hard to get back in there.

One of the problems with intentional interruptions—and part of the reason there's so much disrespect for writers' time—is that the writing process looks like wasting time or just chilling to others. Writing is hard work, but nonwriters think we're having them on when we say that. Case in point: back in December I achieved what I think is a personal record: I wrote roughly 8,000 words, the first draft of a short story, in one day. I was in the flow and I just kept going until I reached the end. I don't recommend these marathons although they sound impressive, and the reason is that I was completely fried: I spent the day after my marathon in bed, firing up the laptop for short stints to work on the edits for another project. To anyone who saw me in crash mode that day, I was just lying around doing nothing. They have no idea that I crashed because I did four days' writing work in one.

When I taught high school, no one visited or intruded on my work unless there was a real emergency. A call during school hours was rare—like that time my brother whacked off several of his toes while mowing the grass barefooted, or the day he was found alive after being lost at sea for three weeks. Now that I'm a home-based writer, however, everyone thinks I'm accessible all the time. It's really annoying.

The question Kevin raised about whether the writing or your family is more important should not even arise. It's unfair, a straw-man argument that has no correlation. No one ever suggested I should abandon my students back in the day to run errands, do laundry or clean the house. I did what I could manage around my workdays, and what I could not do had to be postponed. The hours the job required were inviolate. Not so a writer's hours.

I don't expect that nonwriters—and especially the families of writers—are going to develop respect for what writers do anytime soon. It's therefore up to us, the writers, to respect our own writing time, to growl, bark and bite when we need to so that we get the point across: writing is a job and trying to do it around the edges of other people's expectations of us and demands on our time won't cut it. Be strong. Be firm. And eschew the guilt.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Game is not Collaboration (writing for RPGs)

A few days ago Dayton wrote a column about years of writing in collaboration with some other guy named Kevin. As I commented then, I’ve never successfully collaborated on novel the way Dayton and the younger, better looking, and more talented Kevin do. Though I did come close a few times.

When writing novels in the MechWarrior series I did remain in constant contact with other writers. Each of us kept the others informed about plot elements that may affect their novels and made sure events in ours didn’t screw up events in someone else’s – but none of us was directly involved in anyone else’s work. Writing for the Starfleet Corps of Engineers series was much the same, though communication between writers was not as direct. Both cases were more about situational awareness than actual collaboration. Last year fellow BattleTech writer Jason Hansa and I completed a tandem story project that was almost but not quite a collaboration. Together we worked out the general shape and flow of a series of clashes between opposing forces, then he wrote a story of the conflict from one side without any input from me and I wrote one from the opposite perspective with no input from him. Each story stood on its own – and sold to the publisher as a stand-alone —but the two together formed a deeper and more textured narrative. (Jason and I are in currently in the midst of the “working out the general shape and flow” stage for a similar project.)

I’m excited about the fact a project I really enjoyed working on has just been released. Transcendent’s Edge (TE) is a campaign book for the Valiant Universe Roleplaying Game
(VURPG). [I tried three times to explain the universe of Valiant Entertainment in less than 1000 words and failed. I’ll post a link to their website at the end of this column.] An RPG campaign book of this type relies on artists, game designers/developers, and writers. It’s the role of writers that I want to focus on today. There were six writers on the TE project who between them wrote about 76,000 words (about 17,000 of which were mine). Even though we were all working together, what we were not doing was collaborating.
I know 97.3% of our readers are prose or graphic novelists and writers of short fiction. I also know others – like me – are still figuring out what they’re doing as writers. (2.7% have mistaken us for a DIY remodeling site.) So I thought I’d spend a few hundred words explaining what goes into writing for a game and being part of a writing team.

The first a writer hears of a project like this (officially, not through the rumor net) is a general invitation to pitch from the publisher. These invitations are sent to all writers who have written for or expressed an interest in writing for the publisher and/or game and have signed a non-disclosure agreement. In the case of TE the invitation specified an evil "black site" facility buried deep beneath Alcatraz Island that is consistent with all present-day Valiant Entertainment characters (Which range from a laser-eyed goat to the spirit of the earth to an immortal poet to a sentient suit of armor to... well. The trick is having hard science, psychic powers, living mythology, and ersatz Vodun running side-by-side without contradicting each other.) The Facility had to be deadly, able to change shape, and 99% impregnable. Required were descriptions of the facility from the viewpoint of each Valiant character, a history of the facility, an overview of the “real” world in the Valiant Universe, write ups of the major characters and factions, thumbnails of minor characters, traps and obstacles within the Facility, and event briefs (short, quick-play scenarios that didn’t require a full campaign) for each Valiant storyline. The campaign book would open with a short (3,000-word) story to launch the campaign.

Writers interested have two weeks to pitch – i.e., send the game developer their ideas on how they would handle each part of the project they would like to work on. A few weeks later writers whose pitches resonated get their assignments – which, if the developer liked their thinking but not their specific idea, may have nothing to do with what they pitched. [I, for example, got a faction and character set for whom I’d never written.] I also got the history of the Bay Area and several districts of San Francisco (which, I was surprised to learn, has gone through some subtle changes since I left in 1978), the various real and imaginary branches of the military, and ten of the forty deadly “trap” rooms within the Facility.
(Proud dad moment: The final design of the Facility incorporates almost everything my son Anson suggested.) I also landed the coveted opening fiction gig.

Once the sections have been assigned, the writers have a six weeks (on average) deadline for getting their stories, write-ups, event briefs, scenarios, etc., in to the editor. A few weeks later we get any rewrite notes and a deadline (usually two weeks) for final revisions.

Is writing to the needs and nature of an existing intellectual property, one owned by others, constraining? If you find the rhyme and meter of a sonnet unduly constraining to your poetry, yes. If, on the other hand, you find adapting to and incorporating the structure of the sonnet challenging, no. It’s not for everyone. But if you like the idea that on any given evening thousands of role players are creating their own adventures using characters and settings and challenges you’ve given them, game writing offers satisfactions unlike any other field.

(As promised: link to Valiant Entertainment.)

Friday, March 18, 2016

Still Collaborating After All These Years.

2016 marks a couple of personal milestones for me. First, the big one: I celebrated my 25th wedding anniversary on March 16th. It certainly doesn’t feel like that many years have passed, but you know what they say about time flying when you’re having fun. Well, we’re still cruising full-throttle at Ward Manor. If my wife asks any of you, then of course it’s the most important date of observation for the entire year. You’ve got my back on this, right?

I also have a writing milestone worthy of recognition: February marked the 15th anniversary of my first published fiction collaboration with my best friend and frequent co-writer, Kevin Dilmore. Fifteen years, twenty novels and novellas, a handful of short stories, and a basket of magazine articles later and neither of us has yet attempted to murder the other in our sleep. We’re even still friends. How’d that happen? How’s it work? Do we fight? Is there blood loss?

I wrote about our collaborative process way, waaaaay back when, as a guest post here at Novel Spaces. Well, it’s :: mumble mumble :: years later, and we’re still here.

Is it easy? Oh, hell no.

It helps that Kevin and I were friends before we were writing partners. Because of that, when we decided to try our hands at collaboration, we established a single ground rule: Equal work. Equal credit. Equal blame. It’s simple and blunt, and has served us well over the years.

Collaboration can be a challenge when facing any task, particularly a creative endeavor and most assuredly when we’re talking about writing. After all, writing often includes long periods of solitude spent staring at a blank piece of paper or a computer monitor with that cursor just blinking and judging you while it waits for you to type something. How do you take such an activity and essentially split it in half so that you can work with another writer?

There are the usual sorts of foibles and drama that are often present when dealing with writers: rampant insecurity, delusions of success and grandeur, and the occasional bout with insufferable egomania. A lot of that is mitigated by the fact that we tend to have similar opinions about what we think makes for a good story. We also just get a kick out of our sometimes extended brainstorming sessions, which have gone on as long as nine hours during a drive between Kansas City and Denver.

No two projects are ever really the same, so the division of labor from story to story tends to take on many forms. However, years of practice and a long history of writing for the same sets of characters makes this process pretty painless. We each have our favorite characters, for example, so dividing plots and subplots based on “who’s doing what” becomes a simple matter. Therefore, integrating our pieces of a particular story puzzle as it all comes together has always been a fairly straightforward task.

There’s definitely a degree of adaptability when it comes to collaborating with another writer. One of you may spend hours contemplating the precise placement of every word on a single page, while your partner is like one of those old-school pulp writers churning out scenes and chapters while taking scotch intravenously and smoking like a chimney. Maybe you’re creating sheer poetry with every page, whereas your collaborator seems to have lost the ability to process anything beyond a caveman’s string of grunts and belches. Those can definitely be some trying times, and I’ve seen more than one partnership engulfed in flames because of one or both contributors being unable or unwilling to adapt when things get rocky.

Sure, Kevin and I have had some rough patches, but we always find our way back to the “true path.” I’m certain our friendship is responsible for that, along with our trust of one another and our joint desire to always do what’s best for the project—and, ultimately, our readers. If only every writer seeking a collaborator could team up with someone as awesome as either of us. Can I get an, "Amen?"

So, here’s to me and Kevin, and our 15th “manniversary” as writers joined at the brain. Been fun, dude. Hopefully we can continue to cause trouble in the years to come.

Just to end things on a funny note, here’s a link to a story about collaboration and what happens when the colleagues aren’t on the same page. Enjoy!

This Is What Happens When A Teacher’s Homework Assignment Gets Out of Hand....

Anyone else have any anecdotes about collaborating? Uplifting stories or tales of horror? Come on. Let’s see what you’ve got.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

12 Myths Writers Believe

The other night I went to dinner and met someone for the first time. I was introduced as “a published author.” This young woman, looking way too impressed, gushed “How exciting!”

“Not really.”

It wasn’t the response she was looking for. She thought she’d given me a compliment. I gave her an honest reply.

I’m over it. All the shiny newness of being a published writer has worn off. I can’t maintain the façade anymore. The pedestal has crumbled, my feet are firmly on the ground. Maybe in the mud. Sometimes it feels like quicksand. I’m beginning to understand why Salinger went into hiding, Hemingway killed himself and Hammett became an alcoholic.

There’s no fooling myself anymore. They say fiction writers tell lies for fun and profit. Can writers handle hard truths? Here goes:

1.    Writing is a gift. No, it’s a curse. It’s rejection. There are easier ways to make a living.

2.    We are born with natural talent. Doubtful. “Talent” takes years of reading and absorbing. It takes time in the classroom. It takes studying spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and craft. It takes trial and error.

3.    It’s a labor of love. No, just labor. Below minimum wage. The payoff is we don’t get Alzheimers as often. We keep the brain cells firing.

4.    We have to write. No, we don’t. Nobody is twisting our arm. Nobody holds a gun to our head. Readers aren’t waiting with open arms for our golden words. What we have to do is eat, keep a roof overhead, pay taxes. 

5.    There’s a “writer’s high.” Maybe a rush when the right words hit the page, a sentence that sings, a perfect paragraph. Want a high? Take drugs.

6.    Writing a book is like giving birth. Really? While you may bloat from eating crap for 9 months I seriously doubt there is as much pain unless the pages are expelled via your vagina. Men excluded.

7.    These are my children. Oh, do your manuscripts need to be fed and clothed? True, it sucks the life out of you. Yet, when it’s time to leave the nest and go to a publisher, you cling and hold back.

8.    Writer’s block? More like laziness. Excuses. Fear. Will I be able to finish the book? Will it be as great as I hear it in my head? Do I have talent? The mantra repeats until we have to block it out.

9.    You have to open a vein and bleed all over the page. That’s suicide and you’d be dead. Maybe you’ll become published posthumously. Probably not.

10. We live glamorous lives. Seriously? Is perpetually living in pajamas and slippers with endless cups of coffee, tea, diet soda (or booze) a lifestyle to aspire toward? Things go unattended like grooming, housework, bills, yardwork. We have insomnia with thoughts rumbling through our heads. In the wee hours plots and doubts decide to show up.

11. We make lots of money. Only if your name is Rowling, Crais, Evanovich, Patterson, Steel or any one of the 1%. The rest of us barely scratch out enough to keep us in printer paper and ink cartridges.

12. We make important contributions to the world. Then why hasn’t society caught on? Oh wait—they are too busy living productive lives. They have little time for our insights. They are Philistines who would rather watch Dr. Phil. 

What we do have is a community to commiserate with us. We recognize our kind, seek them out at conferences and online. We can tell the clueless beginners with stars in their eyes to jaded veterans who’ve had too many empty book signings. We’ve heard unrealistic expectations and Hollywood dreams and wait for reality to set in. We’ve finally admitted we are nothing special, just people who choose to be miserable.
But, we keep all that a secret. Instead, we smile at readers and try to charm them into being fans. We nod when friends tell us we’ll get on the best seller list someday. We tolerate disappointment from family members who think we should do something practical. Like make money.

We continue to ignore the odds, the pitfalls, the walls thrown up to stop us. We put one word behind another and fingers crossed it all makes sense. We continue to hope when it feels hopeless. Even if you agree with the above, chances are you’ll ignore the advice. After all, I write fiction.     

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Iguana Hunting

"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. But she is experienced and 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."  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 that 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 that while practice may not make perfect, it will make things better.

James R. Callan

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Writing Retreat

For the first time ever I attended a writing retreat. This was an entirely new experience and something I think I'll be reflecting on for a long time.

The retreat began March 2 although most of that day was spent driving up to Washington state. It ended on March 6th, another day spent mostly driving. But in between I wrote. I wrote like I haven't written in a long time, if ever.

My word count for the many days of work wasn't impressive. Only about 4880 words- which is my best estimate. It's actually an average, I hand write so I won't know for sure until it actually gets typed. But for me, that was a big number. For a long time now I've been declining in productivity. At least it seems that way. And maybe I shouldn't be too hard on myself. It's been a year and a half of upheaval and sadness, beginning with the death of my dear pet lovebird Igor, and finally ending when I moved to Oregon in January. (And no the house is not entirely unpacked!)

Doubt has been getting to me. After my Middle Grade novel The Bird Fairies received 98 rejections and never netted me an agent, I have been wondering if I REALLY can be a writer. If I really can succeed. If I can write at all.

But I came home energized. I CAN write. I can put butt in chair and stare down my story for longer than fifteen minutes a day. I can move forward. I can even, if need be, just write crap until something better happens. And of course, I came home writing.