The Art of the Invisible, the Beauty of the Complete

One of the ways in which I try to keep an active writing life is by meeting with other writers in the real world. We don’t spend much time writing when we meet, but it’s a nice way to remember that there are people behind those mysterious blog posts, short stories, poems and discussions that I get embroiled in online.

One of my friends is a guy who’s been working on fantasy stories. He’s very passionate about writing, and very dedicated to fantasy. But he despairs at his chance of publishing traditionally, because he perceives that he writes fantasy that’s too untraditional for the publishing world.

When I incredulously but politely inquired as to the thought behind his reasonings, he gave me a number of answers. Some were good, some were bad, and one stuck in my mind. “I don’t do world building,” he told me loftily. “I do action, and characters, and people.”

This statement intrigued me for a couple of reasons. First, this guy writes in a fantasy, otherworldly setting. So if his world is poorly constructed, it’s gonna show. Doesn’t he want his work to be the best it can? Secondly, revealing the world is kind of like revealing exposition. It should be done a little at a time, at points of relevance, so that by the end of the story we have a complete picture without any boring word dumps. Does he think that the people in his story have to bum around with someone like Tom Bombadil for fifty pages or so in order for a publisher to give him the green light?

Ah, Tom Bombadil. People either love you for the world you reveal, or hate you for impeding the story.

Of course, Tolkien is the Grand Maestro of worldbuilding. But we don’t have to be like him. We don’t have to invent loads of different languages, stories, races and religions that never show up in the completed work. Even George R.R. Martin didn’t do more than write key phrases of his languages. HBO hired a linguist to work the rest of them out.

In October 2012 I wrote another post on worldbuilding, detailing the sorts of things that we often forget but which make the world we write in so much richer. My friend is clearly of the opinion that the world doesn’t matter. How true is that?

My first reaction to his statement was that it was preposterous. Now that I’ve had a couple of days to think about it –

Yep. Still preposterous.

If you’re a fantasy author who writes about people in a world different to our own, then you’ve already started to build a world. The magical rules they follow imply a different kind of physics. The social rules they follow imply their traditions, their politics, and to some extent their history. Even using vague monetary denominations such as copper, silver and gold pieces implies mining practices and the social value of these metals.

As fantasy authors we ask readers to accept our new world rules. So we’d better know what they are ourselves. If it helps, we can think of our world as yet another character that needs development.

Whenever I come to an understanding of how something works in my world, I write it down. Let’s take the money example. Is it metal money? How do they get it? Do they make coins from it, or do they use pieces by weight (such as the anglo method of clipping pieces off an armband)? If people use paper or other kinds of money, how is it printed/made? How can they ensure that no one will counterfeit it?

How much of that information gets used in a piece? Almost none. But if you mention the mines down south, or the Grand Treasury, that’s all you need to hint that those procedures are in place and that you’ve thought about them. It enriches the world without shoving the worldbuilding aspect under a reader’s nose.

All authors look upon certain writing chores as unfavorable. Sometimes you just have to buck up and do it. Worldbuilding is one of those times.

Otherwise, urban fantasy could use a refit from all those sparkly vampires.

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Missed Opportunities

Today I was reminded of one of the benefits of self publishing – you do things on your own time and don’t have to feel like you missed an opportunity.

In this morning’s email sat a message from one of the publishers I follow, declaring that they were now accepting unsolicited manuscripts. I read the post two, three times, racking my brain for possible submissions and cursing myself for each one’s inadequacy.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to get myself out there and prove to myself that I didn’t have to be afraid to show others my work. It’s not that I think that the writing on my blog is a masterpiece or even necessarily publishable. But I did think I might get some feedback and encouragement. And at the same time I made a rookie mistake. I treated writing like it was a hobby, something casual to do when I had the time.

My hard drive is full of half-finished pieces, barely-started novels, outlines, character sketches and all the little things that mark the beginning of something. I don’t think I have anything that signifies the end – something that could be sent out as, say, an unsolicited manuscript.

It’s easy to say that I’ll finish it later, that I need more research, that I need to be in the right mood. But the reality is that writing is a test of fortitude. It’s easy to write the beginning of something, when the possibilities stretch out before you in all directions. It’s less easy to finish something. And then there’s the really hard part: going back and tweaking, untangling all the inconsistencies, turning it into something that a stranger could read an enjoy.

I’m trying to establish a writing regimen so that I actually get things done. I want to re-flesh some of the old skeletons buried in my hard drive, and turn them into submissions. Where I’d submit them, I have no idea, but even if I change my mind and take steps toward self-publishing, well, that would be an opportunity I created for myself.

My fellow writers, I salute you! Be steadfast, and good luck with your submissions, if that’s the kind of writing you go for.

The Experiment: Chapter One

A couple of weeks ago, I was about to dip my toe into the strange, self-publishing experiment Leanpub. The motto of Leanpub is, “publish early, publish often,” and the basic idea is that you publish a book as you write it, and people who buy the book can influence it in terms of what happens next and what changes you need to make to the existing manuscript.

I’m not going to recap my doubts and fears regarding this kind of assembly-line publishing. But I am going to discuss my thoughts regarding leanpub now that I have published the first chapter of Predestination.

1. User Friendly? What’s that? Leanpub seems built more for people who want to buy books than those who want to sell them. The site doesn’t have obvious tabs from which I can access my work in progress. If I go to the dashboard I can see my earnings, the books I’ve bought, and the books I’ve sold, among other things. At the moment, that means nothing to me – I haven’t even published my first chapter yet! Every time I’ve tried to access my work in progress, I’ve had to go through a maze of other tabs until I have finally stumbled upon the tab I want. In short, the website’s design is poorly thought out. It’s true, I’m slightly technologically illiterate, but let’s be honest: web sites should be made with the knowledge that idiots like me will be trying to navigate them.

2. All those text editors you’ve got? RUBBISH. Leanpub has put all its chips behind the text editing program Markdown. They claim that all other editors are insufficient. I have to say, I don’t think it’s very clever to back only one horse, and a horse that doesn’t seem too popular, at that. As far as I understand it, Markdown is intended to be a platform that helps people publish e-books in a way that means they don’t have to spend as much time formatting and messing around. Which brings us to the next point:

3. Our auto-formatting is AWESOME! No, wait…It’s not. After following the instructions on the leanpub page regarding the publishing of my first chapter, I previewed it. I ended up with three superfluous sections that I hadn’t asked for in my book. After tweaking it, I ended up with the content I wanted, but under the general heading ‘contents’ and an extra page that said, “CONTENTS” and nothing more. I finally got it to do what I wanted by copying my manuscript into Markdown – though of course, it didn’t format correctly and I had to go through it again to make paragraph changes.

4. Fiction is Fiction, Right? I was more than a little surprised to see that there are no subgenres of fiction. No romance, fantasy, sci-fi, comedy, thriller…As a reader, this seems like a really bad idea to me. It’s like handing someone a basket full of books and saying, ‘see what you want to pay for.’ If leanpub wants to cater to a large market, then they need to sort their fiction section so that we can look for what we want. It’s also annoying that they don’t list prices.

So far, to say that I am unimpressed is rather an understatement. I put Predestination up on Wattpad and it took me ten seconds. My suspicion is that leanpub, which sells a lot of books on navigating various computer languages, is striving for an audience that it doesn’t fully understand. If the company is going to make it with this novelty publishing method, then they’re going to have to make things easier on us. Otherwise, their writership will never grow.

Of course, I will love you forever if you go check it out – this is an experiment, after all. Or if you prefer, you can find it on wattpad.

Writer’s Syndrome

I hope you all had a happy bunny day, as my professor used to say to us.

I went to a writer’s conference this weekend. It was a relatively small and cozy affair, with talks and project discussions and lots of people meeting friends they hadn’t seen since last year, and so on.

One distinguishing feature of this conference is the hollywood-esque ‘awards ceremony’ on the last day. Every participant has the option to submit work, and at the end some are shortlisted for a prize, like the Oscars, and the final choice is announced during the ceremony. Prizes include best presentation, best characters, best mechanic, and of course, best piece overall.

This ceremony is intended to inspire people to submit good work, and to encourage people with talent to aspire to even greater heights. Unfortunately, it seems that some people take things waaaay too seriously.

Let’s take the example of my friend Tyler. Tyler wrote something for this conference last year, which was received very well by its audiences and, though the judges didn’t quite know what to do with it, they gave him two awards. Good work, Tyler.

Only now, Tyler thinks he’s the god of Writing.

This year, Tyler wrote a gender-bending piece about love. It was nicely done, it had good mechanics, and in general it was well received. But Tyler didn’t care about this.

Tyler was incensed that it was nominated for only ONE award. And he figured it wouldn’t win. So what did he do? He left the conference early, went home, and wrote an angry blog post about how nobody appreciated him. Sounds like someone has a case of Writer’s Syndrome.

Writer’s Syndrome is a term I came up with a few years ago, after reflecting on some of my own writing behavior and observing disturbingly similar behavior in others. To use myself as a case study: back in high school, I was accepted into a very competitive writing program. I won one of 10 slots, beating 130 other applicants for my space. As it was proven to me that I was good enough to get this competitive slot, it became apparent to me that I was so good that I could dole out advice like some great, benevolent writing fairy and the advice that I so lovingly sprinkled over the work of others ought to be taken with gratitude, because I was so great, right?

Basically, I was told I had a small amount of talent, and I became an arrogant little —- about it. The reality of my ability – that I’m good, but nowhere near perfect, that I have some advice to give but also a lot to get – didn’t come until five years later, when I witnessed a rather harsh – and well deserved – takedown of a story I had submitted anonymously to the university magazine.

Writer’s Syndrome is something I have observed in a number of would-be writers, particularly those who have been told by a higher power that they are talented. Tyler is one good example. Another is a girl I knew during my undergraduate days. When she didn’t think something was well written and I disagreed, her reasoning was, “well, I’m a Creative Writing major.”

This is, I think, what makes it most important for us to have a pool of peers willing to critique us. Of course we need a bit of self confidence, and we deserve to be told when our writing is good. But we need the flip side as well. Some of the writers I know are the most arrogant people on the face of the earth. I used to be among them. I hope to maintain the part where I’m a writer. But I’m trying to ditch the arrogance post-haste. And of course, a lot of writers experience the opposite of Writer’s Syndrome – crippling self-doubt.

Do you guys have experience with arrogant writers? Or maybe just ideas for critiquing someone without making them blow their tops (ahem, Tyler)?

Sorry for the rant. What did you do with your bunny day?

A Self-Publishing Assembly Line

I am really, really bad at sticking to a schedule. When I first started writing this blog, I made it my goal to publish on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

It was also going to be a fiction-only blog. Oh well.

But I have to put this out for discussion, because I read an article about it that kind of blew my mind.

This article, which was featured in the New Yorker’s Book Bench, outlined the idea put forth by the man who runs an online publishing company called Leanpub, and equates publishing in this day and age to a startup business.

The idea behind Leanpub is that while you’re in the process of writing your book, others can read it and influence the process. They presumably make constructive criticisms and suggestions which act as the ‘editorial’ phase and at the end of the day, the argument here is that you’ve got an entertaining book that you know people want to read because hey, you already tested it with a bunch of readers.

When I first saw this, I thought, “Assembly-Line Publishing. NO.”

Just think. You’re a fantasy author. You’ve got a great idea for an urban fantasy revolving around witches. You put up your first chapter and the comments roll in: “There should be vampires! They should SPARKLE. The two main characters should be in love but they can’t be together because he’s a werewolf or a warlock or blah blah blah…”

I’m using Twilight as the exemplary trend here, but you can take any book craze – Harry Potter, the Da Vinci Code, even Sweet Valley High (ugh). My immediate gut reaction to this publishing process was that people are going to start reading a book not with the interest in seeing how it finishes, but with an interest in manipulating the story themselves.

My second issue is that it supposedly makes the post of editor redundant. Um, what? As someone who’s been reading from age 5 and writing from age 6, I can tell you that while I can critique a piece, I am not qualified to edit it. It’s a skill set that I could have learned but never acquired, and I would argue that for many other writers, it’s the same. Just because you get 35 people to read your novel doesn’t mean that you don’t need an editor at the end of the day.

This experiment, however, is intriguing to me. I want to see how well it works and what it’s like. So I have decided to take the plunge. I’m going to try it.

I’m going to use one of the Nanowrimo ideas that I didn’t work with this year – Predestination, in case you’re interested. It’s an idea that I like but don’t love, and this provides me with the opportunity to improve my writing without really risking anything but a bit of wasted time.

I’ll be periodically blogging about the experience as I go. At the moment I’ve just signed up, so I don’t know much about the inner workings.

If you’re interested in taking a look at Leanpub to decide for yourself, you can always click here.

Nanowrimo: How about editing that novel?

One of the big criticisms that I heard about Nanowrimo last year was that it encouraged people to do mediocre work, which many sent on to agents and editors without the benefit of revision. As someone who greatly enjoys Nanowrimo, I’ll be the first to say that it’s not the program’s fault if some people don’t think before they click ‘send.’

But I have to say, I was always a fan of National Novel Edition Month (Nanoedmo) because it is the natural accompaniment to National Novel Writing month. In fact, we should have three or four Nanoedmos every year, right?

It’s natural that it’s not going to be as popular a program as Nanowrimo. First of all, a lot of the people who write a book in November (myself included) don’t think it’s worth editing by the time they’ve finished it. Second, it’s just not as fun. Instead of spontaneity and a race to reach a word goal, you have to be calculating, harshly critical, and unbiased. But it’s just as important as (or more important than) Nanowrimo.

It makes me kind of disappointed, then, that OLL is opening numerous Camp Nanowrimo programs, which again focus on the writing (this time with a set-it-yourself word goal for less stress). It’s not that the Camp Nano features aren’t cool, or that Camp Nano won’t be fun. In fact, it will probably be nearly as great as Nanowrimo. But all this emphasis to get people excited for Camp Nano is keeping Nanoedmo in obscurity. In fact, OLL doesn’t host or sponsor Nanoedmo. That event is hosted by an outside group of authors who understand that a work of quality is written and rewritten.

The creative process is the place where it all starts, so of course it gets most of the glory. But is it just me, or are the sponsors of Nanowrimo missing out on an important part of their job? All aspects of the process should be made explicit, so that we can stop propagating the myth that a first draft is all you need.

Information on National Novel Editing month can be found here.

What are we entitled to?

I want to start off this post with a disclaimer: there are many, MANY reasons to choose self-publishing over industry publishing, and a lot of authors go to great lengths to make sure that a self-published product has been revised, edited, re-edited, and polished to present a professional work.

Unfortunately, self-publishing still has a strong stigma attached. At this point I have only published short stories and poems, and have done so in literary magazines and e-zines. I’m working on a number of novels and, when I have finally written one that is good enough to be seen by a wide audience, the time will come for me to decide whether I want to start sending letters to agents, or to hire an editor and try to self publish. And whenever I speak to other writers (also unpublished) about the possibility of self-publishing, they wrinkle their noses and their eyes dart nervously from side to side.

They all have different ways of expressing their opinions, but at the end it comes down to ‘well, people who self-publish are the people who can’t sell their novel to a publishing house.’

This is untrue and grossly unfair (see the disclaimer above). This label might apply to some people who, upon getting a couple of rejection slips, decided to skip the process and publish their novels themselves. But it will never apply to everyone, and in pondering a way to make self-publishing a bit more acceptable to the wider eye, I started wondering what would happen were some kind of standard imposed – some kind of proof of editing, of care prior to obtaining an ISBN.

Firstly, I don’t know how plausible that would be. Probably completely impossible to enforce.

Secondly, it led me to think: are people entitled to publish their books? Is it something we all deserve to do, whether we can write or not?

One could superficially argue that the publishing industry says No. But it has become evident recently that publishing houses have to balance their books and an editor is as likely to choose something that is good as he or she is to choose something that is a more probable bestseller. Thus we have genre ripoffs (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, you name it) as well as good, original work.

At this point, the setup of the self-publishing industry implies that yes, everyone is entitled to publish. While writers who are serious about the craft and concerned for their reputations will do everything possible to make sure that their books are well-crafted and indistinguishable in quality from traditionally published books, I could theoretically put all of my blog posts into one manuscript, sans editing, and turn it into a ‘book.’

I would argue that everyone is entitled to write, if they want. Just like I’m entitled to sing in the shower, and to buy a little canvas and a set of paint brushes. But to what extent are we entitled to publish? If there is no quality control on self-publishing, isn’t there a danger that readers will lose the ability to distinguish bad from good? Will we perpetuate a downward spiral? And worst of all, will we use generalization to blacken the names of people who don’t deserve it?

Thoughts are always welcome.