Tales of Tales ~ Part 1

To celebrate the release of my short story collection, To Unimagined Shores, I thought I’d do a series of blog posts about some of the stories in the collection. Where the inspiration for the story came from, or maybe something interesting that happened while I was writing it, or where it was published.

I’m starting with a little story called “The Big Freeze,” since it was one of the stories I read at last night’s launch. It’s also one of my favorites (although as writers, are we supposed to say things like that? I don’t know…but I guess I also don’t care!).

As I look through the table of contents for To Unimagined Shores, I realize that many of the stories I write have a common idea spark: a call for submissions for a themed anthology. I begin pondering ideas to fit the theme, and usually after much mental cogitation come up with a story idea. Now, I don’t always finish writing the story by the anthology deadline, so in many cases I end up sending the story elsewhere. But that’s all right, because the idea spark has served its purpose.

“The Big Freeze” is one of those stories. It was published in Australia’s Semaphore Magazine last year, but I initially wrote it years ago, in response to an anthology call. The idea of the anthology was that all of the stories should be based around a saying about “Hell”–going to Hell in a handbasket, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, etc. I started thinking about “when Hell freezes over”–what might cause such a thing to happen? How would the denizens of Hell react? And what would be the repercussions on Earth?

Here’s a little snippet from “The Big Freeze”:

“Is it getting…chilly in here?”

Beelzebub, the Devil, the Prince of Hell, (or Lord B., as he preferred his most intimate minions to call him) shifted uneasily on the polished red marble of his throne and stroked the tips of his horns. There was no doubt about it. They felt decidedly and unnaturally cool.

He’d been thinking it for some time, but now that he’d finally spoken the words, they hung hesitantly in the sulphurous air like lost souls unsure if they were in the right place. Imps ranged at humming computer terminals around the perennially smouldering room looked up, then glanced at each other. One rubbed his scaly hands together.

“You know,” he chittered slowly, “now that you mention it, my mouse hand’s gone a little cold.”

Another imp nodded. “And my tail. I thought I was getting a chill in my tail, and now I’m sure of it.”

“Right.” Lord B. straightened on his throne and bellowed, “Mr. Snizzle! Get in here!”

A slight, harried-looking demon entered the room at a trot. A pair of tortoiseshell spectacles perched on his nose, and he wore an unexpectedly conservative waistcoat tailored in tasteful ebony silk. “Yes, Lord B.?”

“Mr. Snizzle, run a diagnostic on the temperature controls. This room is falling below acceptable heat standards. Even the imps have noticed it.”

Mr. Snizzle, Lord B.’s administrative assistant, was well-versed in interpreting the subtleties of his employer’s speech. After several centuries in his current position without a vacation, that was hardly surprising. The relative politeness of the Devil’s request worried him. He nodded briskly and hurried back to his own computer to run the heat diagnostics…

As you might guess, “The Big Freeze” is meant to be a fun story—and it got some laughs at last night’s reading. I also read it for an audience in Second Life a while back.

If you missed the earlier blog post, I’m currently running a contest to win a copy of To Unimagined Shores. Click the link to get all the details, and take a moment to enter. Or if you can’t wait, you can buy a print or ebook copy (in multiple formats) from thirdpersonpress.com.

Peacemaking at the Barricades ~ 2011 style

Years ago (October 1999 to be exact), I read Bruce Holland Rogers‘ wonderful essay, “Peacemaking at the Barricades” in an issue of the long-gone-and-lamented Speculations. It was one of the first issues of Speculations I received–possibly the very first–and I shudder to think that I might have come *that* close to missing this piece. It made a very big impression on me and caused me to deliberately change the way I looked at other writers–particularly those who wrote things that, frankly, I didn’t appreciate, understand, or even simply “get.”

The essay begins:

You can’t stroll very far in the City of Literature without coming to an intersection where writers stand at opposing barricades. From behind toppled desks and stacks of books, the two sides hurl erasers and slogans at one another…

The opposing sides Rogers talks about in the original essay spring from debates over such issues as Popular fiction versus Literary fiction, Authenticity versus Money, Process versus Product, and Writing to Inspire versus Writing to Entertain; in short, how we as writers choose what to write and how we define personal success. However, fast-forward to 2011, and I think we have to add another set of barricades: traditional publishing versus self-publishing.

Which is interesting in itself because that is a debate that has been had before, and has been ongoing ever since I first set foot in the City of Literature. But it has been more of a back-alley squabble, a simmering pot on the stove. The last year or so of sea-change in the publishing world has brought the pot to a full rolling boil, and the squabblers front and center at the main intersection barricades. The old debate is new again, dressed in new clothing mainly due to the advent of ebooks.

There’s a lot of…let’s be kind and call it “discussion”…these days about the future of publishing, the future of writing, and the choices and decisions writers should be making. Everyone seems to have an opinion on these matters, and it’s very, very easy of course, in our Internet-centric world, for writers to…let’s be kind again and say “share their opinions.”

Okay, that should be a good thing, right? Because sharing knowledge, experience, and advice with other and newer writers is something that the writing community as a whole is very generous with. Unlike some other professions, where insight and understanding are hoarded like precious secrets from “the competition,” writers in general like to help other writers succeed. And because we’re used to doing that, we want to share our knowledge, experience, and advice on the whole future-of-publishing issue.

However, I think it’s time to take a step back and make sure that what we are doing really is sharing knowledge, experience, and advice, and not trying to re-define other writers’ definitions of personal success. Because when we do that, that’s when the barricades go up and the spitballs come out and suddenly we’re choosing sides and throwing erasers again.

So how do we do that: offer opinions and advice without causing the barricades to go up? In his essay, Rogers offers three bits of advice, which I’ll paraphrase (I would love to be able to point you to the whole essay, but I haven’t been able to find it anywhere online).

  • First, respect the feelings of other writers and don’t make “sweeping, self-justifying pronouncements about what success is.” You can offer your advice and expertise without disparaging those who hold differing opinions.
  • Second, when you want to lash out in the debate, stop and think about why you care so much. As Rogers says, “you wouldn’t rise to the bait if the bait didn’t appeal to you.” Make sure you understand why you want to argue your points so strongly.
  • Third, think about what the other side might actually be able to teach you. Don’t just knee-jerk into defense when they hit a sore spot. Think of it like getting a story critique. Sometimes it’s hard to hear, but maybe there is something you can learn from it.

In this current Great Debate, you may think the “other side” (whichever it is for you) is desperate, ignorant, foolish, selling out, just plain wrong, or fill-in-your-favorite-epithet-here. Whatever you think, of course you should feel free to share your knowledge, experience, and advice. But there’s no need to indulge in any of these epithets to do that, and when we do, we undermine the very advice we are trying to proffer. The more…let’s say strident…we get in making our case, the less likely it becomes that anyone is going to put credence in what we say, let alone be swayed by it.

We are all making our own way through the City of Literature as best we can, and we can’t really choose anyone else’s path for them. We can show them signposts and point out obstacles that we’ve encountered, but each writer is following his or her own map–and we have to let them do that.

Rogers sums it up better than I can:

The longer we stand at the barricades, flinging erasers and recounting the myths of how doomed and deluded the other side is, the harder it becomes to cross the street and find out what those other successful writers know that we don’t.

And that’s a shame

Photo credit: ricohman
Thanks to @ChuckWendig over at terribleminds.com for making me think about things in this context.

How Writing is Like Packing School Lunches

Writing, and packing school lunches. I realize the connection might not be immediately obvious. It wasn’t to me, either, until this morning, when I was going about the weekday business of–you guessed it–packing school lunches.

And I suddenly realized that this job (although I don’t consider it one of my more enjoyable tasks) is no longer the huge, pain-in-the-butt undertaking that I once considered it. It takes less time now, and the results are better.

To put it in context, it’s only the past few years that I’ve been packing lunches for both my kids every morning. For the first years of school they came home to lunch every day, but as schools and lunch hours changed, we eventually got around to the point where it made more sense for them both to take lunch with them. And I had to learn the necessary skills for making that happen.

I didn’t take to it very well at first. If you’ve ever packed school lunches, you might understand some of the variables that must be considered. Such as, what can I expect this child to eat (likes and dislikes)? The answers generate a list of possibilities, long or sadly short if your child is a so-called “picky” eater. Scratch off this list any foods verboten at School X, such as peanut butter, eggs, etc. The list is shorter. Scratch off foods that don’t meet microwaving criteria like times or days at School X. Shorter again. Eventually you will probably scratch off foods that the child has grown tired of. With the current brevity of the list, everything might fall into that category at some point. And if you have more than one child, it’s quite unlikely that their final lists are going to contain anything in common. Sigh, and hie yourself off to the grocery store.

So I remember a blur of many, many mornings of repeatedly opening and closing the refrigerator and cupboards, hoping to notice something that I’d missed when I looked ten seconds ago, trying to cobble together lunches while supervising wake-up calls, wardrobe calamities, homework emergencies, and any number of other morning trials.

The epiphany I had this morning was simple: it’s not like that anymore (most mornings, anyway). I’ve somehow become better at packing lunches. And I realize that this is not due as much to broadening palettes or relaxed school restrictions as it is to the plain fact of practice. I’m better at many of the elements of lunch-packing. I prepare better, making sure I have enough lunch supplies on hand at the beginning of the week. I monitor likes and dislikes better. I’m more organized in simply gathering everything up and doling it out. I’ve grown better at dealing with or pre-emptively avoiding morning emergencies.

And finally, here’s where I tie this whole strange musing into writing. Writing, too, is all about the practice, and getting better at all the myriad, interrelated skills one needs to become a better writer. Better planning, whether it’s outlining or cogitating or whatever method you use to work out the story idea rattling around in your head. Better time management, both in making time to write and juggling planning, research, and actual writing. Better execution, because the mere act of writing more words over and over improves the end result. Better troubleshooting, in noticing plot or character problems early and dealing with them before they run your whole story off the rails. And finally, better editing and revising, yielding a more polished, professional final draft.

So just as there’s more to packing school lunches than just sticking things in a lunch bag, there’s more to writing than just putting words on paper. Both tasks require several interrelated skills, and becoming proficient in all of them leads to both an easier process and a better end result. Like just about everything else, practice makes…if not perfect, than an enormous improvement.

And now I’m off to make myself a sandwich, feeling thankful that in my job, I don’t have to pack it…

Photo credit: anissat

Site Maintenance Mondays

Not nearly as interesting nor exciting as Submission Mondays, I’ve designated every other Monday (the ones on which I am not reviewing submissions) as Site Maintenance Mondays.

With luck, that will mean only a quick jog around this site, The Scriptorium, my LJ blog, Third Person Press, and SF Canada to make sure that everything is operating within normal parameters. If so, then I will devote some of this block of time to upgrades, improvements, etc. Of course, anything acute will still have to be dealt with as it arises, but I thought by designating a particular day for maintenance, some problems might, in the long run, be avoided, and all the sites will look and function better for it.

Interestingly, in the course of a weekend workshop, a friend characterized me as an organized type of person. I do strive for that. Maybe–just maybe–I’m getting closer.

Social Media Thoughts for Writers (or anyone, really)

I was reading an excellent post the other day titled “Which Social Media Websites Work Best For Writers?“, by Conor P. Dempsey. (He forgot Goodreads, but overall it was a good list.) However, I don’t want to rehash his thoughts here. I mention his post because I like the assumption inherent in his title: writers need social media sites, it’s just a matter of choosing what’s the best use of one’s time.

I know that not all writers (particularly, but not limited to, non-genre writers) see any point in using social media at all. It is often largely described by these writers as a waste of time and a waste of brain power. “I don’t have time”, “I don’t have anything to say”, and “I don’t care about the silly things people talk about on social media sites” are the three main complaints I hear, so Conor’s article got me thinking about them. (Note, too, that these complaints come not just from writers, but from others who are hesitant or downright intolerant of social media.)

Whether or not you believe in the “ebook revolution,” it’s been clear for a number of years that traditional publishing is a) walking a financial tightrope and b) choosing very carefully where to spend advertising and promotional dollars. Mid-list authors have lamented being left out in the cold, new authors have lamented being dropped after one book fails to make the sales grade. This predates the real take-off of ebooks, so it’s not entirely tied into those sea changes, although I think its impact has probably been accelerated.

What writers who don’t “do” social media seem to overlook is that even before the e-valanche of ebooks, there was one thing needed to sell books–readers have to find them. Books have to be accessible, available, find-able. You have to let readers know they’re out there, unless you’re going to depend on the odd reader here or there who finds your book by accident among the myriad covers stacked on bookstore shelves. Publishers used to look after that for you, so you could get on with writing your next book. Except in the case of that handful of authors who don’t even really need it, publishers’ efforts in this case have been severely curtailed. There’s no sense in blaming the publishers–they are making business decisions.

But the upshot is–you’d better do everything you can on your own, to promote your book. To do that, you have to let people know it’s out there.

Now, I live in the back of beyond as far as the book-buying public is concerned, but even if you live smack-dab in the middle of NYC, your personal circle of book-buying readers is limited in scope. If publishers are not going to be out there hawking your book or footing the bill for you to go gallivanting around hawking your book, how are you going to let people know about it?

Social media is a great answer. No ifs, ands, or buts. Unless and until the Internet collapses under the weight of its own information overload, it’s the best tool you have for connecting with your readers.

Does it take time? Yes, it takes some. It needn’t be great gobs of your time, sucked into the black hole of your monitor while you struggle to stay at the edge of the event horizon. But look, you’re a writer. You can’t write a 500-word blog post a few times a week? You can’t share the interesting things you find on that selfsame Internet, or a few random thoughts and updates through Twitter? I think you can. I think you just don’t believe you have to.

Don’t have anything to say? I hardly think so. You’re continually writing stories about fascinating characters (or trying to) and yet in your own life you do nothing of interest? No hobbies, no interests, no travelling, no reading, no movies? You never find anything of interest on the Internet? You never want to talk a bit about your writing process, the story you’re working on right now, or the way your cat/dog/kid/gerbil/spouse did that really cool thing the other day? No? Then I have no idea where you’re getting your stories.

And finally, you can’t be bothered listening to/reading about other people and the silly, pointless things they’re doing or talking about? Well, in the first place, you don’t have to. You only need to learn to control the way you use social media (which sounds like a topic for a future blog post). If you are going to let it control you then, yes, maybe that’s a problem. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Social media has all sorts of tools and tricks you can use to make sure that your incoming stream is not full of garbage. Sure, you might annoy a few followers if you shut them out, but if you’re connecting with hundreds, if not thousands, of potential readers, that’s not a worry.

In the second place, people talking about the silly, pointless things they’re doing can offer great insight into characters and the way they think. It can be like a whole laboratory full of specimens for you to study at will. (insert evil laugh here)

And third, people talk about a lot of things via social media that are neither silly nor pointless. Social media can highlight the most important issue of the day. It can show you how others feel about it. It can point you to information about it. It can inform you how you can act to be a part of it. If you think social media is filled with people talking only about how drunk they were last night or the flavour of chips they’ve just eaten, think again. That’s out there, sure. But there’s a whole lot more that’s important, current, and relevant. And you can have a voice in it.

Readers tend to like that.

Lowering the Scalpel

The past number of weeks I’ve been busy with revisions to a novel manuscript. A publisher requested them, and I have a deadline, and it’s been an interesting and challenging task. My first thought when I got the email requesting them, of course, was, I don’t know how to do this!

But I soon found out that, also of course, I did. It turned out to be a pretty logical process, once I took a few minutes to think about it. Re-read the manuscript, because it had been some time since I’d actually looked at it. Make copious notes about what to change and how to change it and how best to address the concerns. And then—do it.

The reading and note-making took the bulk of the time, because I wanted to be thorough. It’s also sometimes a precarious undertaking, to start tinkering with the innards of a novel manuscript, because if you’ve done it right, it all stands up, nicely stacked and interdependent like a house of cards. Switching out and adding in new cards after the fact can cause the entire thing to come tumbling down, so it takes a lot of care and a steady hand.

I got to a point eventually, though, where I knew it was time to turn on the change-tracking feature and start making those changes. Beginning that part of the process was something I had to push myself into a bit. To switch analogies from cards to medicine, starting to mark up the manuscript felt like the start of a surgical procedure. The scalpel is in hand, you know it’s time, but you haven’t cut into the skin yet, and there’s a moment of hesitation. You have a plan, but you don’t really know how much blood there’s going to be once you start to cut. Any number of things could go wrong. Once you make that initial incision, there’s no going back—you’re committed to seeing the whole thing through to the end.

However, the surgery is the only treatment option, and you know it. And I knew it. So I pushed past that moment of hesitation, and so far the surgery is going well. It has a ways to go yet, but I think the patient is going to survive, and emerge stronger than ever. I’ll report on the prognosis as it becomes available.

Photo credit: chrisgan

Secret Project

So, I’ve added a new secret project to the long list of things I’m working on. It’s one of those things that you think you’re just going to work on in tiny bits, and then you look up and realize you’ve put the last five hours on it without noticing.

You’re wondering what it is, I know. Well, I can’t tell just now because, you know…it’s a secret. It’s still in the initial stages, so I don’t want to jinx it by saying too much. But so far, it’s going well.

I promise, when I have more to tell, you’ll be the first to know.

The Writing Room

Yesterday I happened upon this video, wherein writer Laurie Halse Anderson chronicles the building of her writing cottage. Wow, it’s beautiful. And she quotes Viriginia Woolf, who said:

“…a woman must have…a room of her own to write fiction.”

Note that I don’t think it’s only women who need a dedicated writing space. I think all writers deserve that spot where they can go and feel that they are in “writing mode”. It needn’t be a room, if space constraints don’t allow it–but it should be a place where you can get away from distractions and know that it’s time to write. (If you Google “writing room” and choose images you’ll find some lovely inspirational rooms to look at.)

I’m lucky enough to have had a “writing room” since we moved into our house fifteen years ago…it was a different room at first than it is now, but I’ve always had the space. I’m grateful for that.

But as I look around it now, I’m not sure that I’m being the best caretaker of that space. It’s pretty cluttered and messy and probably dirtier in the nooks and crannies than I would like to think about. So I’ve decided to overhaul it, clean it up and make some changes that I’ve wanted to make for a while.

Now, this decision makes me nervous, because I know my brain. I have a lot of writing and writing-related projects on the go, and my brain often chooses these times to cunningly push me into some big project that isn’t writing, because it doesn’t want to work that hard. So rest assured, I am not going to drop everything and start my office overhaul. I’m going to use it as a reward motivator instead. For every hour spent on writing, I will spend half an hour on the office. It will take longer to get it done, but I think it’s the only smart way to do it.

So now I’m going to go and take some pictures of it in its current pathetic state. These “before” pictures will not be revealed until I have the “after” pictures to go with them. By that time, you’ll all have forgotten about this project, I’m sure. But don’t worry, I’ll remind you.

The Waiting Game

old typewriter keysRome wasn’t built in a day.

Good things come to those who wait.

A watched pot never boils.

These are the things we tell ourselves as we wait for our manuscripts to be read, evaluated, and (we hope) accepted by editors and publishers. One of my novel manuscripts has made another jump up the ladder, an email today informs me.

{happy dance, happy dance, happy dance}

Okay, back to the waiting game. I’ll try to put it out of my mind again for another little while.