CAN NOVEL RESEARCH AFFECT YOUR DIET?

Writers don’t just make up everything we write out of thin air. Even most fantasy writers do research, I’m sure. Whether it’s historical facts, geographical details, social context, fashion, scientific principles, or the average velocity of a sneeze…we like to get stuff right when we include it in a story.

The internet is an absolute godsend when it comes to doing research, but it can take you to weird places. And I’m not talking about the category of sites that start with P and end with –orn. I just mean that, well, research can end up affecting your life.

A case in point: a lot of the novel I’m currently writing is set in New York City. I don’t live there, and have never yet been there, but thanks to Google Maps and Streetview I can go virtually anywhere in the city, describe the trees, the buildings, the view in the distance. I can watch videos of people who’ve gone skydiving on Long Island and have my characters do that. And when the people in the book feel the need to grab a bite, I can find a good restaurant for them and check out the menu to see what they’d like (I don’t even have to leave a tip!) The characters in this novel are vegetarian, so that poses an extra challenge but certainly not a difficult one.

The other day I had the need to place a dinner scene. The characters were on the east side of Midtown Manhattan. Walking, not driving. Vegetarian. One was also Asian. After scrutiny of a few menus of real restaurants (by me, not them) they wound up at a Korean place. It happens that I like Korean food. One ordered Bibimbap. My mouth started to water. The next thing I knew I was looking up recipes and phoning my wife to bring home the ingredients we didn’t have on hand. Bibimbap was not only on the menu in my story but also in my kitchen that night. The picture above is our actual result. What’s more, it lived up to my expectations. I can’t always say that about my literary output for the day.

I hope I never have to eat my words. But if I occasionally get a dinner idea from one of my characters, I say bring it on.

Now if I can just resist looking up flights to New York.

THE FUTURE OF THE WRITTEN WORD IS HARD TO CALL

Predicting the future with any accuracy is hard. Predicting the future of the written word…I hardly want to venture a guess. Maybe that’s because it’s too close to my heart.

I attended a conference of the Canadian Authors Association this past weekend. It was richly enjoyable and inspiring, as always. You’d expect writers to attend conferences to learn how to perfect our craft, and that’s certainly true. Yet these days there are just as many presentations about how to get published, how to get an agent, and how to market our books. In other words, the business side of writing. We’re writers—business stuff isn’t our strong suit. But if our writing can’t support us financially, we have to find other employment and either give up writing entirely, or only bring out a new book every five or ten years while we earn a living some other way. Combine a full-time job plus all of the business aspects of writing these days, and we’re lucky to get a book out to an audience of readers at all.

The advent of ebooks has turned the publishing industry on its ear, and it’s also messing up the money thing. An ebook doesn’t require cutting down trees, slapping on ink and glue, and trucking the end result to the corners of the continent, so obviously an ebook shouldn’t cost anything close to the price of a printed one. Right? Well, those thousands of words take just as many months or years to cobble together whether they get to the reader in the form of symbols on a page or pixels on a screen. The same goes for any editorial work required, cover art, or marketing to let potential fans know the book exists. But the more people get used to paying $2.99 for an ebook, the less money will enter the system to pay for all of those things. At the same time, publishers are becoming less and less willing to risk their money on any but their stable of bestselling authors, a state of affairs that unavoidably takes its toll on variety and originality.

Whether you read from a page or a screen, there are some truths about the written word that seem self-evident to me:

  • When writers can turn their full attention to writing they can produce better books and more of them.
  • The more writing a writer does, the better they get.
  • The way to get more of the books we most enjoy is to enable writers to devote more of their time to what they do best.

What can you do as a reader? Be willing to pay a reasonable price for something that brings you hours of enjoyment, and maybe even some real insight that can last you a lifetime. Rely on your taste for good writing instead of your taste for a bargain. Support the writers you like by buying their books.

I don’t know if, a hundred years from now, we’ll be reading from screens, or holographic letters in the air, or flashes of light on the insides of our eyelids. I do know that if we don’t support the best of our storytellers, the physical format of the stories won’t much matter.

YOU ARE WHAT YOU READ

When we writers create a work of fiction we want it to have an impact. We want readers to identify with the characters, and in most cases we have an important theme or message we want to get across that, we hope, will stay with the reader for years to come.

I decided some time ago that fiction really all comes down to character. Novels that are heavy on plot but light on character might be entertaining reads while they last (Dan Brown’s books come to mind), but probably won’t stick with you. If the characters are really minimal, the book will flop—the reader can’t identify with the protagonist so they won’t much care what happens to them.

A recent study claims that fictional characters can change our lives.

Researchers Geoff Kaufman of Dartmouth College and Lisa Libby of Ohio State University believed that novel readers vicariously experience what the character in a good novel goes through. So much so, that we may begin to behave more like the character. They mention the example of Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. If you strongly bonded with Atticus while reading the book, you might focus more on ethical behavior in your own life (unfortunately, the reverse could be true if you’re deeply immersed in a book about a charismatic serial killer!) Kaufman and Libby ran test subjects through a number of creative scenarios that showed this kind of behavior alteration, but they don’t know how long the effect lasts (you can read more about their research here. Still, they believe that books we love enough to read and re-read will likely make a lasting impact on our lives.

One other interesting note: Kaufman says this phenomenon only applies to written works because when we’re watching a movie or TV show we’re positioned as spectators. It’s only while reading that we truly imagine ourselves as the character and therefore act accordingly.

For my fellow writers this is both a responsibility and an opportunity. Let’s make the most of it!

THINGS I LEARNED: PART TWO

Just spending time with other authors you can learn a lot, especially the ways other writers do things (which will almost always give you ideas about your own work). But here are a few more tips I picked up from the scheduled presentations at this year’s Canadian Authors Association conference.

These days, you need to develop an online presence in every way you can, but before you do, make sure you understand your personal brand: who you are, what you do, and what makes you unique. Then stamp that brand everywhere you can on the web. (Thanks to Dawn Boshcoff.)

Read and follow a publisher’s submission guidelines to the letter, every time. Otherwise you’re asking to be rejected—they’re too busy to bend their own rules. Along with your publishing credits, publishers do want to know that you belong to professional organizations (like the C.A.A.) and smaller writing circles—it shows you work at your craft and take it seriously. (Thanks to Anne Judd.)

When trying to create fresh, original, and authentic dialogue don’t use filler words like well, oh, like, or you know. But maybe do try the “Law & Order” dialogue style: when the L & O cops are interviewing witnesses, the witnesses carry on with what they’re doing, sometimes even with other conversations. That’s realistic and automatically prevents long speeches. Just don’t overdo it. (Thanks to Matt Bin.)

You don’t have to sell your poetry for $10 a crack, or even give it away. With some creative thought, you can find nearly endless ways to market it in the form of everything from bookmarks to fridge magnets to framed decorative photos. (Thanks to Jean Kay.)

When doing a public reading of your work, or giving a presentation, relaxation and vocal exercises beforehand can make a world of difference. And don’t be concerned about a case of the “butterflies”—they don’t represent stage fright, but excitement, and that adrenaline can be channeled to make for a vibrant and compelling performance. (Thanks to Ben Nuttall-Smith.)

And last of all (for now) every serious writer acknowledges that, above all, you need to put your butt in the chair and keep it there. Eliminate all distractions and do the work. That’s the way, the only way, to succeed in this crazy business.



A FEW THINGS I LEARNED AT THE CONFERENCE

In my last post I talked about writers conferences being valuable for what you can learn, so I thought I’d pass along a small (and pretty random) sampling of some of the tips I picked up at the recent annual conference of the Canadian Authors Association.

More than one presenter pointed out that writers need to read and write. This seems like the most obvious and unnecessary advice, but so many writers still don’t get it. If you aren’t reading everything you can get your hands on in your chosen genre, you can’t know what’s already been done (so you don’t repeat it and come a poor second), nor what publishers are looking for. You need to read good writing and bad writing—often you can learn more from the bad, because it’s too hard to see the method behind good writing. It looks like magic. And you can’t get away with only writing when the muse inspires you. Writing is a craft—you have to write every day to keep your skills sharp, in the same way that professional musicians and athletes need to practice every day. When they don’t, their performance suffers. Why would writing be any different?

Especially with a novel, the more thoroughly you outline the plot and characters, the easier the writing process will be. Barbara Kyle spends six months outlining her novels! The benefit is that the actual writing might only take her four months. And since she plans every major scene, she can not only see if a change in the order of the scenes would improve the story, but also make those changes much more easily than can be done with a written manuscript. There are lots of other benefits, too.

If inspiration is a problem, try doing completely new things that are out of your comfort zone, like studying an exotic language, or learning ballroom dancing. Our brains make connections in strange ways sometimes.

To clarify your writing (and other) goals, try writing your own obituary, and then work backward from there to make it come true. Only make sure that it’s true to your own life and circumstances—write your obituary, not Stephen King’s. (Both of the above tips thanks to Lynne M. Smelser.)

To keep this in digestible portion size, I’ll save some tasty morsels of advice for next time.



THE CASE FOR CONFERENCES

Lots of writers are members of writing groups or larger organizations. Based on my own experience, relatively few attend annual conferences, retreats, and extended workshops. After all, once you factor in the registration fees, accommodation, food, and travel costs, they can be expensive. And they may require you to take time off from your ‘day job’. All good excuses to beg off and stay at home. So why should you go to a writers conference?

This past weekend, I took in the Canadian Authors Association’s annual CanWrite conference in Grand Bend, Ontario. Although I wasn’t there for the full retreat (a new element this year), the participants benefitted from the wisdom of award-winning short-story writer Sandi Plewis and highly-successful novelist Barbara Kyle in half-day workshops, plus shorter seminars from the likes of New Media specialist Dawn Boshcoff, writer/trainer Lynne M. Smelser, and freelance editor Jodie Renner. They heard the perspective of small press publisher Anne Judd, and independent bookstore owner Mary Brown. They picked up tips from fellow CAA members like Ben Nuttall-Smith, Jean Kay, Robert W. Mackay, Bernice Lever, Anthony Dalton, and Matthew Bin. And that’s just the organized presentations. So obviously one reason to attend conferences is the number and variety of educational opportunities they offer. Every writer wants to improve their craft. I don’t plan to stop learning until the day I die (in fact, hopefully the next level of existence will be really interesting, too!)

But equally important and valuable is the companionship conferences offer. I think every writer needs to regularly spend time surrounded by other writers, if only to keep our sanity. No-one else has a clue about the writing experience: the heartaches and the joys, the madness and the inspiration. Not friends; not family. Only other writers can really give you the encouragement and support you need to continue in such a daunting path—and it’s just plain enjoyable to be around them.

A third reason is to support organizations (like the CAA) that support you and your career, with information and a broad range of services. They also give a strong voice to the writing community, something that certainly becomes important when big issues come up (like the Copyright Bill C-32).

Let’s not forget that most writers have other jobs and hectic lives, and a retreat or conference can kick-start your creative juices again—think of it as life-giving medicine for your career, ignored at your peril. But a getaway like that can also be a reward, and you deserve it. Writing is a lonely and difficult pursuit. In the case of this weekend’s conference, Grand Bend is a beautiful spot, and the people at the Pine Dale Motor Inn were terrific hosts, highly recommended.

Start out small, if you have to—find a conference or retreat or multi-day workshop close to home and try it out. Your career will thank you. You might even be able to say goodbye to your shrink.

 



SHOULD WRITERS WORK FOR FREE?

If you’re a writer, you know how much time it requires if you’re serious about it, and want to produce something of quality. Ray Bradbury said that his work schedule was to write a story on Monday, then write fresh drafts of it each day following until it was (hopefully) ready to mail out for consideration by a publisher on Friday. So, a week’s work—full-time—for a good short story. Are writers the only ones who know this?

I ask the rhetorical question because, when I search the short story market listings, I find an amazing number of magazines (some online, some print) that pay nothing for the stories they publish. Zero. Most will provide a contributor’s copy or two of the issue in which your story appears. That’s it.

Not a lot to show for a week’s work.

There are dozens of markets that pay $5 - $10 per story, others a maximum of one cent a word: $50 for a 5,000 word story.

Before publishers come down on my head, I know the many explanations: even the top professional SF and fantasy magazines have seen their subscription levels drop faster than Enron stock; many if not most, online magazines are free, and have only minimal income; lower and middle tier magazines may have volunteer staff and can’t afford to give contributors much. It’s not the publishers’ fault if people don’t read much anymore, and aren’t willing to pay for the privilege. And the fact of the matter is, offering no payment or token payment doesn’t prevent these magazines from getting lots of submissions, some of them very high quality. A lot of writers are doing good writing, and just giving it away.

Should we?

Maybe writing’s a hobby and you don’t need the money; you’re just eager to see your work in print (or online) no matter what; or you’re trying to build up publishing credits to interest agents and publishers in your full-length work.

But, like it or not, our society evaluates things according to the money that changes hands to buy them. If you can get something for next to nothing, that’s the worth you place on it, too. And every product like it is assessed with the same value.

I guess, in years to come, it will go one of three ways:

- it will never change.

- there will come a time when creative artists will have to pay to have the fruits of their labours displayed to an audience.

- there will come a time (maybe only once everything is made by machine) that people will begin to truly value that which is created by the mind and the hand.

Which one would you like to see?



DISASTERS: WHY ARE THEY SO POPULAR IN SF?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Japan. Maybe even more than most North Americans, because I have a wonderful Japanese daughter-in-law, I’ve visited the country, and I have a great affection and admiration for the people. The earthquake, tsunami, and the ongoing nuclear threat have tested Japan and its people in many ways.

Of course, this isn’t the only major disaster in recent years: a serious earthquake in New Zealand just last month, unimaginable flooding in Australia, the devastating earthquake in Haiti last year, even the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia are all vivid in our memories. And that’s a very short list, not including any manmade disasters.

It occurred to me that disaster stories have always been a mainstay of speculative fiction. My own story “Tartarus Rising” was recently published in the anthology Doomology: The Dawning Of Disasters, a collection of twenty-three examples of the form, all very different. I’ve also written a story called “The Cleansing” about a future consequence of genetic modification of crops. But why the fascination with disasters?

Apart from the fact that they’re naturally compelling, they also offer lots of narrative and dramatic potential. The moment a disaster strikes, any number of conflicts arise: man against nature, man against man, man against self, and nearly endless subcategories. There are always elements of a trial, ordeal, or quest—classic themes of fiction. Manmade, and even many natural disasters, provide the opportunity for the perennial SF strengths: allegory and cautionary prescience. But, perhaps most of all, disasters are the perfect means to reveal character.

I’ve heard it said that fiction isn’t about stories, it’s about the people the stories happen to. And a disaster scenario is guaranteed to reveal the best and the worst in a person, whether real or fictional.

In the media, much has been made of what the recent disasters have revealed about the character of the Japanese people. But these events, and even more so disasters like the earthquake in Haiti, reveal just as much about the character of the rest of the world community. Good and bad.

Maybe that’s why they’re so compelling—they teach us about ourselves as well as those with whom we share the planet. I think that’s reason to conclude that disaster stories in SF won’t be going out of fashion anytime soon.

On a completely different note, I was glad to see the newest issue of On Spec hit the stands. It includes my story "The Wind Man" about a born storyteller with a very unusual curse. I hope you'll get your hands on a copy. The whole issue is very good.

 



E-PUBLISHING: MORE TEMPTING THAN EVER

A few years ago I discovered the internet presence of a guy named J.A. Konrath, and specifically his “A Newbie’s Guide To Publishing”, both a blog and a book. Konrath is a thriller writer in Chicago, but he’s always had some very wise things to say about the business, and is very generous with what he’s learned over the years. In the past few years Konrath has become one of the most prominent figures in the campaign for independent e-publishing by authors.

Konrath did have a traditional publishing career, but then made the transition into indie e-publishing and now sells upwards of 10,000 copies of his books per month in e-format (Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords primarily). That’s pretty impressive sales, and although e-books are priced much lower than hard copy books, the author’s share of the revenue (when sold through Amazon’s Kindle store, for example) can be 70%, compared to 10%-30% in traditional publishing.

The current superstar of e-publishing is a 26-year-old woman who writes paranormal romance fiction named Amanda Hocking.  You can also read about her here. According to Amanda’s blog, she’s written 19 books, but published 8 novels and one novella, beginning with two e-books in April 2010. Since then, she has sold more than 900,000 copies of her work, mostly since October. Most have been e-books, but after their success she began making paperback versions available, and has sold thousands of them, too. Sure, some of the books are sold for 99 cents each. But even at a 35% royalty rate for those, that’s still one spectacular amount of money (not to mention that one of her trilogies has been optioned for a movie). She has never had a traditional publishing career.

Tempted yet? Well, before you completely abandon the traditional route, you should know a few things. For one thing, as Amanda says herself, she is definitely still the exception rather than the rule. Also, print publishing still accounts for 80% of the book market, e-publishing only 20%. That number will grow, no doubt, but you’d still be giving up a huge market if you give up on print. Another thing: success in e-publishing is heavily tied to genre (check out the pie charts at Derek J. Canyon’s blog with romance and paranormal in the lead, followed by mystery and thriller fiction. And by far the biggest sales figures are for authors who have three or more titles available. Sales really don’t seem to take off until you have at least that many books available, and preferably six or more, especially if they’re in the same series. So unless you’re a genre writer who writes series books, and a lot of them, you probably won’t see spectacular sales like these.

Any way you look at it, the e-publishing arena can no longer be ignored. If you’re interested, I suggest you keep a faithful eye on J.A. Konrath’s blog. He’s sure to have his finger on the pulse of the industry. The man is a writing machine.



THE CREATIVE PROCESS OF A SUCCESSFUL PLAYWRIGHT

This past weekend I had a chance to participate in a chat session with comedy playwright Norm Foster and talk with him in person. Having written nearly forty plays, and with an average of about 150 productions of his work taking place every year across Canada, he’s the country’s most often produced playwright. Yet he didn’t begin writing plays until middle age—he hadn’t even seen a stage play until, on a lark, he got the lead acting role in an amateur production of “Harvey”. He had a twenty-five-year career in radio before becoming a full-time playwright, which tells me it’s never too late to pursue the dream of being a writer.

What does a writer of stage comedies have to do with writing science fiction? Clearly all writers can benefit from any insight into the creative process, especially from someone so successful in his field.

As a former radio morning show host (something I know a little about) Foster still gets up most days soon after 5:00 am and usually finishes his writing by noon. On a slow day he completes two or three pages, while a good day might produce seven, so he can complete a ninety-page script in two or three months. He claims the best advice he was ever given was to write every day. If he’s not working on a specific play, he’ll write character monologues for practice. Foster also sometimes works on two projects at the same time, because if he gets stuck on one he can switch to the other, although he admits that he rarely gets writer’s block. He also agrees with Hemingway’s advice that you should stop work for the day knowing exactly how you’ll pick it up again the next day.

Foster doesn’t begin the actual writing until he’s got the play planned out in his head, so he at least knows where it starts, where it’s going to go, and how it will end. He doesn’t picture specific actors as he writes, but he does have pictures of the characters in his head. He produces a few drafts, then ‘workshops’ the script (because he’s almost always writing for a given theatre, the cast will get together and read the script out loud). Another rewrite follows that, and once the play is finally produced, he’ll watch several performances to see what works and what doesn’t with a live audience. That leads him to one final revision, and then he never touches the play again. According to Norm Foster, one of the most important things a writer needs to know is when to stop. So with that in mind, I’ll close by saying, Norm Foster isn’t just a very funny writer and actor, he’s also an inspiration.