[Reblog] What I’ve Been Reading And How It Disproves Some Common Self-Pubbing Wisdom

I’ve commented on this quite a lot myself.
I don’t believe that a great many bits of “self-publishing wisdom” are anything but nonsense.

I’ll admit, I’ve a photographic memory, so I don’t have to hear of something multiple times to remember it.  And hearing about something multiple times doesn’t make me read it.  I’ve heard of Name of the Wind several times.  My wife has a copy and has informed me repeatedly that I really ought to read it.  I haven’t yet.  I intend to because aspects and quotes from it seem interesting, and I’ve found Pat Rothfuss to have a rather charming and engaging way with words that I hope translates into his fiction (not everyone’s does; I rather like John Scalzi‘s blogposts more than his fiction, for example).

I strongly suspect that, in reality, most people select a book because

A) Someone whose tastes in books they respect recommends it.  This is why I read about half of what my wife recommends to me: she has peculiar tastes that sometimes overlap mine.  I give her time to tell me enough about them first.  I don’t know why she so rarely reads what I recommend as she is wont to loving anything I finally convince her to.

B) They notice it because it’s interesting looking.  AKA: Browsing.  Neat cover art, catchy title, whatever.  It calls to them.  I suspect that, unless the person has disposable income to actually impulse by us$10+ that this works better in libraries, or bookstores conducive to sitting down and finding out if you like a book first (yay ebooks and the sample thing!!)

C) They saw the movie/tv series.  Hey, it’s why I read Game of Thrones.  Now, I need to get around to reading the second book … though it’s been a few years since I read the first or watched the first season … as in … did I ever watch series 4?  I know I haven’t 5 and 6 and what are they on now?  It was back then I read it.

D) They love the author.  I love Terry Pratchett and search for his books when I’m eager for something to read.  I have other authors with books I love that I approach with caution because they have books I do not love.  Spider Robinson, J R R Tolkien (I really don’t like LotR that much, except for Fellowship of the Ring), and others.

E) I forget.  I’ve been ill and my head aches so I’m going to just stop writing, format this, and go have some coffee.  Don’t forget to read Ms Haddock’s blogpost which inspired this, excerpt is below and there is linkage to the rest … which is about 3-5x the excerpt … no, seriously, it’s a little long.

What I’ve Been Reading And How It Disproves Some Common Self-Pubbing Wisdom

(Damn, am I good at short and pithy titles or what?)

Long story short, I live in a place that is not exactly conducive to either reading or writing. To somewhat mitigate the negative effect this has on my sanity, I’ve been spending a couple of afternoons a week at the library.

Now, was my OCD still completely out of control, I have no doubt what I’d be doing is working my way through my over 1400 book long “to read” list on Goodreads. Since my OCD is more-or-less managed right now though, instead I’ve been wandering pretty aimlessly through the library and reading whatever grabs my interest at the time.

So, here’s a list of books I’ve either read or at least read a significant portion of in the past few weeks (There’ve been others I’ve tossed aside after a chapter, usually non-fiction that was blatantly stupid or dry enough that the subject matter would have to be something I found very interesting for me to push past it to read the damned thing.) (Goodreads links included, in case any of my readers may wish to find out more about any of these.):

Source: What I’ve Been Reading And How It Disproves Some Common Self-Pubbing Wisdom

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Goodbye Sir Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett enjoying a Guinness at honorar...I honestly don’t know what to say about Terry Pratchett‘s death.  So much for he and Neil ever getting together and doing a Good Omens sequel.  No more Rincewind, no more Granny Weatherwax, Tiffany Aching.  The Luggage has moved on, and so many more.

Scott Lynch managed something articulate and good to say.  I’ll settle for reblogging that here:

I was surprised by my own mild reaction when I woke today and saw the first of many subtle tweets about Terry, though I guessed immediately what they meant. I was surprised by just how many of those tweets were also some flavor of subtle or mild or restrained. I didn’t see many all-caps primal screams or 140-character duets for Emoji and exclamation point.

Of course, I peer out at the universe through a knothole as tiny as anyone else’s and the plural of “Twitter stream anecdote” is surely not “data,” nor even a distant relation to data, nor even a part-time and barely convincing cosplay of data.

And yet I think there’s something natural and inevitable about this quiet reaction. It’s not merely that we’ve all known for some time that Terry had to be passing soon, that we’ve been forced to think about it, that he had the chance to say so much about it.

When some people die, they leave the rest of us with a sense that they’ve packed their words and warmth and hauled them along like luggage for the trip, that we can never hear from them again. Terry gave us so much of himself, though, so damned MUCH– seventy books, just for starters, and a world and its inhabitants that might as well be a religion for millions. A good religion, a useful religion. The sort where there’s always a little golden light flickering behind one of the church windows at any hour of the night, so you know there’s someone there to talk to you about anything, and they won’t have locked the doors. They won’t even have put locks on the doors. Some asshole suggested putting locks on the doors once, many years ago, and everyone else in the church carried that person out of town and threw them into a pond. That’s a Terry Pratchett sort of church. That’s a Terry Pratchett book. And he walled us in with them. He stacked them high all around us, and they’re all him, they’re all still here, and they’re going to be here so very long after you and I and everyone else reading this have gone off for a last walk WITH THE ONLY PERSON IN THE UNIVERSE WHO SPEAKS NATURALLY IN ALL CAPS AND WE DON’T REALLY MIND AT ALL, IT’S JUST THE WAY THINGS HAVE TO BE.

Terry Pratchett can die, and fuck everything for that sentence. Fuck those four words. I am feeling the cracks starting to appear in me now. I’ve lost the mildness and quiet I had this morning. But here’s the point. Terry Pratchett can die, but he can never go away. (Continued here)

News

Well, here we are, it’s December.  If I were to keep to the schedule for Love or Lust and Ready or Not I ought to be done writing Book 3 in a couple of months, and be ready to publish it this summer.

That’s not looking so likely.

It’s not impossible, but to be honest I’m not making a lot of progress in it right now.  The story itself is fine, and it’ll flow and finish pretty easily, I think, but I’m having issues getting any work done on it; Life keeps getting in the way.

What about life?  What could be in the way now that wasn’t for the last two books?  Aspects of my job itself, the fact that I’m now forced to concentrate on finding a new job as I’ve been laid off (I’ve considered an online tip jar type service to see if my fans are interested in putting forward enough money to let writing be my day job, but I’ve not clear idea how, with whom, and maybe I’m being too humble, but I just don’t think that’d work out), various factors relating to the very real chronic depression I have an on again off again issue with …

Excuses?  Some, yes, perhaps, but authors are not machines and some things make writing entirely too difficult to concentrate on.  I’m sure, if I tried, I could get a few hundred to a couple thousand words onto a page every day.  That’s nothing difficult.  If word count were ever my goal, I could do that easily enough in a matter of seconds with a Lorem Ipsum generator and the computer’s clipboard function.  I want content, words worth keeping.  I’ve none in me right now.  I will again, I can promise that.  I still hold to my only promise regarding the release of the books:  I will finish them.  I can’t control disaster, I mean if Ragnarok takes place tomorrow then I can’t keep my promise – but in my own defense, I can’t exactly plan for that so probably shouldn’t be held accountable.

The search for a new job is, so far, seeming to go well.  So hopefully I’ll have that much less stress very soon.  That doesn’t let me off the hook for everything, but it’s a start.  Many of the more promising jobs are for more money, so there’s other stresses gone.  I sincerely believe that Book 3 will be finished this year and, depending when this year I finish it, published this year as well.

I understand there are people who get so upset with the likes of Patrick Rothfuss, George R R Martin, and others for long delays between books.  I could never understand that.  I mean, sure, I’m anxious enough to know what happens next in a series, but if I enjoyed it, it’s worth the wait for the author to make sure that what happens next is something I’ll continue to love.  I found out, recently, though, that there are actually people who won’t read another author until they’ve read everything by the author they’re currently reading, and if there’s an incomplete series, they don’t read anything else while they wait for that series to wrap up.  I hope that was an exaggeration, but it doesn’t seem to be!  That’s an obsessive disorder, like P-OCD, you might want to seek therapy if you’re like that.  Really, I’m terribly sorry that Book 3 will, by all probability, not come out this summer, but no worries:  lots of other great stories out there you can read in the mean time.

Personally?  I do recommend Game of Thrones, and my wife highly recommends Name of the Wind.  Sir Terry Pratchett‘s books are phenomenal.  Dennis McKeirnan is another good one.  A little story called Black Trillium is worthwhile.  For more of the sort of stuff I write uhm … I wouldn’t know, actually, I don’t read much romance, but you might stop by the RWA and see if they’ve any suggestions, or you could check out the various places my books are sold to peruse the “customer also bought” or “related titles” listings.  Please, enjoy someone else’s work while I get things sorted out enough to give you more of mine – it’s not a competition, I would feel rather better if you liked other people’s books too :).

Mind leakage

Calvin (Calvin and Hobbes)

Calvin (Calvin and Hobbes) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, very recently I posted this which contemplated the ‘obligation’ of those of us who have a voice in the public ear to be out about … ourselves, really.

After much thought and discussion I’ve decide that I agree with myself.  I’ve no obligation whatsoever to say if I’m straight or gay, bi- or pansexual.  If I’m married, single, dating, taken a vow of chastity (though in all sincerity I share Sally’s view of that) that’s my own business.  Hell the only validity to saying if I’m male or female is because English has gendered pronouns; what anatomy I currently posses or have previously possessed is certainly no business to anyone except one who intends to make any use of that anatomy.

Hobbes (Calvin and Hobbes)

Hobbes (Calvin and Hobbes) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It can be argued that, were I gay or were I trans, or were I a particularly gifted gibbon that I ought to say so in order to show other gay writers, other trans writers, other gibbons that they too can be a published author.  No.  I can see a certain validity in that for things like acting or other things that truly put you in the public eye.  Writing is nothing at all like that.  I cite as my reference and infallible proof:  Bill Watterson.  This is a man who wrote a comic beloved by millions (billions?) through a number of years (decades?) and who some believe to be mythical as there is exactly one photograph that most anyone has ever seen and it’s been joked/rumoured that even his agent has no idea where he lives or what his phone number is.  He could be a she under a pen name.  We certainly know nothing about him – does he like men?  Women?  Sheep?  Does he speak Welsh, Russian, or Portugese?  Does he have testicles?  No one knows … and few have any reason to care.

What Bill teaches us is that, when we are invisible creators, us writers, we are as much or more inspirational than when we are visible.  Visible I’m clearly a 6′ tall transsexual lesbian gibbon with a unicorn horn and seven breasts.  Invisible I’m whatever and whoever I need to be to make you feel better.  I prefer semi-visible.  I mean, we learn a little of Bill from his incomparable Calvin and Hobbes comics (if you have been under a rock and know not of what I speak I suggest you hie thee to the nearest place of obtainment and remedy this unspeakable deficiency with all available alacrity); just as we learn a little of any author by taking her collected works as a whole.  I’ll talk about whole work versus single character/works later.  We learn a little from his name and that one photograph.  And we learn one more thing from his reclusiveness:  clearly he is a shy or at least not terribly egotistical man.

Lucy Pevensie

Lucy Pevensie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These little clues tell us some things.  Okay, he’s probably not a woman, he’s not a self-centred loudmouth, etc. and his characters tell us he’s probably a pretty swell and thoughtful person with a keen and well-read wit.  Does this help you decide if a cisgender llamaphilic lesbian nanny goat can make it big in the comics world?  Sort of, yes, actually – as I said, he proves that we’re anonymous behind our pages.  People see us as our creations on the page, not as the people our families look at during dinner.  Stephen King is a slightly known geekish face, a few people know he writes from his nightmares, and some know about his alcoholism – most people know him as a byline that scares the living shit out of them.

Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's T...

Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to authors who’ve discussed it, yes, in the publishing industry there are agents, editors, publishing overlords, etc. who will take one sex or another more seriously than the opposite.  SF tends to be dismissive of women is the biggest complaint, but men are sometimes given a little less attention in the romance universe, and people get funny ideas in mysteries and … stuff.  But look around.  There’re published women in SF (Elaine Cunningham, Andre Norton, etc.), men published under romance (Nicholas Sparks, lots of pseudonyms, etc.), Mary Shelly anyone?  Lord Byron?  No, in the end, the publishing world is wide open.  For one thing, if you must, just do it yourself.  Your work is what should matter.

My work shows that I’m sympathetic – be I an ally or member – of the LGBTQ community.  My blogposts affirm this.  I am colourblind (not in the disability sense, but in the racial sense) – to me a human is a human, their skin colour is nothing but melanin, I even spent formative years of my life somewhere that it was white people who were not the racial powerhouses and, in fact, were discriminated against and bullied – the people of Hawai’i haven’t forgot the whole annexed at gunpoint and the very dubious circumstances of the vote for statehood things.  My name is in the feminine form.

People can make of that data, as they can with what they know of Bill Watterson, what they will.  No, I’m not going to make an evangelical Christian fundamentalist with very strong anti-LGBT philosophies feel much of a connection with me or my characters, not unless they’re inclined to changing their minds or at least have an open mind for lesbian characters despite their Views against their ‘lifestyle choices’.

J. R. R. Tolkien, 1916

J. R. R. Tolkien, 1916 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those looking for a rolemodel … in writing your role model should be the text on the page.  I’ve next to nothing whatsoever in common with Professor J R R Tolkien, the great man who brought us The Hobbit; I’ve little in common with C S Lewis, little in common with A A Milne or Ed Greenwood.  Spider Robinson, Arthur C Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Terry Pratchett, Lawrence Block, or William Shatner.  All of those are authors whose works I’ve enjoyed, authors who – along with many more – taught me to write by having themselves written and by my having read them and learned from those pages.  I do not know them, I do not feel I know them, I do not feel I must know them.  I do know Granny Weatherwax, Bilbo Baggins, Winnie the Pooh, Storm Silverhand, Lady Sally, HAL 9000, Bernie Rhodenbarr, Jake Cardigan, and Lucy Pevensiethey are the ones I met and the ones whose adventures I shared and share again & again.  They are the ones who taught me what is possible and how to dream and hope.  Those characters told me that it doesn’t matter that I’m a woman; they told me it doesn’t matter one way or the other who I love – just that I should love, and well; they taught me wonder, they taught me many things.

I think in most ways public figures only matter in what they do, not what they are.  Exceptions – always exceptions – would be those who rely on others to see their dreams through, like actors.  If, after coming out, Neil Patric Harris was never seen nor heard from again in Hollywood … well, that’s a pretty strong message.  Thing is, yeah, it makes sense that he should be out, and his career being so strong is inspirational – despite being a married gay father he is a beloved STAR, but actors have directors and producers who can decide to never give them a part because “I just can’t work with someone with green eyes, oh God no!  They’re really Satan come to Earth in disguise” and, necessarily, artistic pursuit is left open to some discrimination (hey, I’m sorry, if you’re not tall enough nor leggy enough you just can’t be a Radio City Rockette … the routines won’t work for it, learn ’em and start a competing group of shorter folk, might work though) so stupid discrimination gets by far too often; sad but true.

But as writers we’re not selling ourselves – recently popular advice to the contrary exists, but it’s bull as the good Mr Watterson so fabulously illustrates (uhm … no pun intended).  We do not inspire with our selves, we inspire with our creations.  Writer is a, largely, crappy job – pay sucks, it’s sometimes (for some, rather often) thankless, it’s lonely … it’s a lot of things, none of them glamorous.  It is those who populate our pages they are our contributions to societal change and philosophical debate.  Professor Tolkien may have been a force to be reckoned with in the world of academia, but that inspired people studying philology and myths; Bilbo Baggins inspired people, lots of them.  Suddenly it didn’t matter how small or inexperienced you were, you could out riddle a voice in the dark, escape goblins, face down dragons, ride the skies with the eagles, meet elves, and live through the war of five armies – not bad for a timid little hobbit from The Shire.  Classics have few (no?) LGBTQ characters … at one time, including them would have actually got the authors worse than just shunned and boycotted, so give ’em breaks.  Today … today we have Lauren & Sally, we have Dumbledore (I’m sorry, but I was not surprised when Ms Rowling said he’s gay).   We’re lacking, admittedly, in trans* representation.  I’ve only got Sally’s cousin Joe, and he’s pretty minor.  I’m sorry, I’ve just not met any trans characters in my head with a story to tell, just a few who exist as … decoration.  Maybe that’ll change one day, I certainly hope so, it’d be interesting to see what stories they tell.  I’m no expert, but I think it’s not unheard of in manga, for what it’s worth.

That doesn’t matter, though, today you write your story.  You tell of the heroism of your pansexual Japanese trans woman, then you put it out there.  The more who do this the more it becomes visible.  Sooner or later someone else has to rise to the ranks of Pratchett and Rowling, King and Meyer … sooner or later no one will notice that a character in a story is a lesbian because it won’t be that important a detail, or that he’s transgender, or that she’s black, or that he’s Asian or … already that’s starting to happen, and it’s a Good Thing.  The key isn’t to make the books about being black, or about being Asian, or about being a sentient dolphin – not that those books aren’t helpful too, but they’re not necessarily as generally accessible as books not about those things – it’s to make books about fighting dragons, about saving the princess, about climbing Everest, about life but with characters who aren’t status quo.  Few, if any, who read The Hobbit were, themselves, hobbits … and it wasn’t exactly about him being a hobbit, it was about him being on an adventure despite all the things that define a hobbit, and proving that Gandalf was right in suggesting that one, this one in particular, be brought along; and who has never, not once in their lives, had something they had to be overcome, especially something that was no handicap whatsoever but rather only perceived as so by the short-sighted?

That is the obligation of a writer, I think, if we wish to be inspiring and to Change The World – we need to all have more Bilbo Bagginses.  We all need more Tiggers, and more Aslans, more Prince Thorks, and more Tee Tuckers.  It’s them who spread the message.  If your book preaches to the choir, you do a service and your book is important – it tells those who may feel excluded and alone that they are not alone; please by all means do still write and keep on writing them.  But if you don’t want to write a book about someone being gay, but you want to have a gay character … well … that’s a damned fine idea too – that‘s leading by example.

I think I’ve wandered and meandered long enough.  I’m going to stop here and hit publish.  I’m tired and almost afraid to actually spellcheck or proofread this.

What’s so great about Hemmingway?

Ed Greenwood

Ed Greenwood (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not just Hemmingway, but Jane Austin, Steinbeck, Stephen King

I’m not saying they’re awful, though I can’t stand three sentences in a row by a single one of them. I simply ask why are they sainted in the annals of recent fiction and literature? Certainly why do so many blogs and forums dispensing cheap writing advice swear by them as such deities of the written word?

Why is not the advice to first ask who the person likes to read the best and say, “Read that carefully and think about the things the author does that you do and don’t like. After, try to borrow and unashamedly steal those techniques you love and consider how you might do differently those which you loathed.”

How boring would the world be if all writers were determined to be the next of only a small pool if very similar writers?! (Rather dry ones, in my opinion) Would the world read even less than already it tends to do?

I do believe some works do deserve their deification. The Discworld series by Pratchett is undeniably brilliant and holds the attentions and imaginations of scholars and huddled masses alike; The Hobbit, Alice in Wonderland, and Wizard of Oz too are inarguably timeless classics, along with the adventures of our good bear who “lives under the name ‘Sanders’.”

Still I would not presume to tell anyone they ought to write more like Tolkien, Milne, or Carroll. For one they’re ill suited to a suspense-horror.

I suppose it’s the idea that King is a famous best selling author so must know something … please note, so is Seanan McGuire, J K Rowling, and Stephanie Meyer. Rowling, outsold and outsells the others in that list combined, yet you’re supposed to not write like her … so I’ve no idea how King is a god.

The others are all classified Literary Fiction, which is somehow superior to all other sorts (Literature majors who try to write the stuff say so, and they’re experts and should know, right?) despite being that dry boring stuff we’re made to read in Literature classes which probably turned rather a lot of people off reading altogether.

To each her own personal gods of the pen, be it Mercedes Lackey or Lawrence Block, Ed Greenwood or Danielle Steel, Dean Koontz or Louisa Mae Alcott … when you write study the master who you so loved you wanted to write, carry on that writer’s legacy. The acclaimed saints of writing need no undue worship unless you happen to favour their styles.

P.S. Is it me, or is the list of people you’re supposed to strive to write like nearly always Americans, primarily from around the Depression?  Never minding the rather selective era, but … why are we excluding other English speaking authors … or non-English (they don’t say English or American lit, just lit — I’m fair certain a Frenchman would have something to say about the superiority of, say, Voltaire to any six Americans you care to pick.

“The door irised open”

Today I’m going to talk, more as a reader than a writer — though I’ll probably be unable to resist putting my author voice in here somewhere.

I love to read speculative fiction.  Fantastic genre.  I’ve said this again and again.  Princess of MarsTriplanetaryStranger in a Strange LandTime Enough for Love2001: A Space Odyssey, Callahan’s Crosstime SaloonThe Hobbit, Dragondoom, A Song of Ice and Fire, Black TrilliumForgotten Realms, and so very many more!  To stretch things further:  the adventures of young Ms Alice in the strange world of Wonderland, or of Dorothy and her friends in the great fairy land of Oz.

Lately, though, I’ve been rather disappointed in new SF.  Once the genre(s) came to life in vivid and exciting worlds and adventures, not I feel as though I’m reading a textbook.

I think it harkens back to some of that discussion about show and tell in writing — you want to show things, and sometimes you tell things, and there ought to be a careful balance.

Today it gets far too carried away trying to show the world-building.  Today it is not enough to, as the immortal Robert Heinlein so eloquently penned “the door irised open”.  Today … I’m going to stick with the door, though it had something to do with how the ship’s engines worked or something to that effect in the book I’m drawing from here; today it would be something on this line:

The door irised open as they approached, then irised closed shortly after they’d passed through.  Hank stared at it thoughtfully as they walked through and finally said, “You know … I’ve always wondered, why do our doors open like that?  Didn’t they used to swing open and closed on the old wet navy ships?”

Ginny stared at him, “Well, if you’d ever paid attention in History class …”

I believe the exact quote was something to the effect of “well, as you learned in school” or similar, and as I said, they were discussing something esoteric about the ship.  But regardless there then ensued a multipage explanation in dialogue.  I’ve found others that spend, I wish I were lying, giving you a 100+ page history lesson on the setting before you necessarily meet the characters, and even if you’ve met the characters, it’s after the dissertation when you get to meet our good friend The Plot.

Sure, as Sturgeon said:

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud.[1]

Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.

Sadly, however, this is no longer an isolated eccentricity of some authors.  This is becoming the expectation of … well, I will admit, among science fiction readership it seems to be the desire of the fans to read something that is rather more like a textbook than a novel; but it’s leaking terribly badly into the writing advice.  Of course, as always with writing advice, in remarkably contradictory fashion:  “Don’t info dump” and … I really can’t recall the short and snappy way of saying it, but “explain everything“.

Personally?  I find Heinlein’s approach great, or Sir Terry Pratchett best.  In the former you are given a quick adjective to give flavour to the setting and the scene; it’s as taken for granted by these people that a door should iris as we take for granted it should swing (or, for those in more east Asian countries, perhaps I ought to say ‘slide’?).  In the latter we might, or might not, depending how funny he can make it, a quick little footnote (or not so quick … but always funny) explaining it — Bloody Stupid Johnson was likely involved, I’d suspect.

Betimes we do need to explain things in our stories that, possibly, the characters know and take for granted that we in our world and time do not.  The opening of The Hobbit is a glorious example of this (I hope Tolkien estates will pardon my excerpt):

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats – the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill – The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it – and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.

This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained-well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.

The mother of our particular hobbit… what is a hobbit? I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off. They are inclined to be at in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly); have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it). Now you know enough to go on with. As I was saying, the mother of this hobbit – of Bilbo Baggins, that is – was the fabulous Belladonna Took, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took, head of the hobbits who lived across The Water, the small river that ran at the foot of The Hill. It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife. That was, of course, absurd, but certainly there was still something not entirely hobbit-like about them, – and once in a while members of the Took-clan would go and have adventures. They discreetly disappeared, and the family hushed it up; but the fact remained that the Tooks were not as respectable as the Bagginses, though they were undoubtedly richer. Not that Belladonna Took ever had any adventures after she became Mrs. Bungo Baggins. Bungo, that was Bilbo’s father, built the most luxurious hobbit-hole for her (and partly with her money) that was to be found either under The Hill or over The Hill or across The Water, and there they remained to the end of their days. Still it is probable that Bilbo, her only son, although he looked and behaved exactly like a second edition of his solid and comfortable father, got something a bit queer in his makeup from the Took side, something that only waited for a chance to come out. The chance never arrived, until Bilbo Baggins was grown up, being about fifty years old or so, and living in the beautiful hobbit-hole built by his father, which I have just described for you, until he had in fact apparently settled down immovably.

Now, it is worth noting that this seems to contradict what I said.  But it’s this:  in Tolkien’s case the narrator is speaking to you and I, the character telling the tale needs you to understand a creature that has become scarce and little known to the likes of us — could he have explained hobbits through the course of the narrative?  Of course he could — he could have described Mr Baggins of Bag End as short and plump with his curly hair and jolly clothes, and gone on from there throughout the book.  Or could he?  Maybe by getting it out of the way upfront he does something in the tone of the story; now the meeting with Gandalf the Grey could go on in a manner a bit less puzzling to the audience.

It’s not wrong for your narrative to explain that which is normal in the time and place of the setting — but the explanation shouldn’t interrupt the story!  Pratchett achieves this with footnotes; Heinlein and Tolkien achieve this by keeping it quite important, relevant to the bit of narrative at hand, and — above all — relatively short and sweet.

Now, to return to our door … okay, this one’s stretching it a little since it’s a door, how important is that?!  Still, work with me.

The door irised open as they approached, and irised closed again after they’d gone through.  Henry looked back to be sure it’d closed.  In his youth, he’d been on a very ancient ship which still had swinging doors and a hull breach had yanked a hatch open killing several of his friends.  These modern doors would have to be severely damaged — or fail to close — for that to ever happen again; the sight of his friends being blown into the abyss of space, though, left him a little paranoid.

See?  I’m stretching.  Still, if it really was important why a door would iris instead of swing, we’ve just told you; it’s safer (I am not interested in a physics argument, I was making that up as I went along).

It’s this idea that you need to clearly establish your setting.  Yes, you do, but as a reader, you can give it to me in bites, pieces, and you can keep it relevant.  I don’t really care how the war between the Klothorian Empire and the Numbanji Consortium started, not if the story isn’t about that.  It’s enough to know that this band of shipwrecked Klothorians who washed up on a Numbanji shore are none too welcome.

Context.  Always always context.  An explanation is okay here, but terrible there.  And, as always, keep it short or keep it … interesting.  Heinlein’s old juvies would sometimes insert brief science lessons into things.  It was done in a mix of the adult explaining things to the kids who were joining in the adventure on a rocket ship, and a bit of narrative explaining esoteric bits of what they were doing and why; but he kept it fairly succinct, and the most science lessony bits were to make the young reader feel a bit of a part of the preparations for this trip into space so that it seems less dull.

If it’s important, or really neat, how the engines work — couldn’t you have just made it part of, say, a paragraph description when the drive activated?  It’s a time honoured SF trope to do so.

I don’t mind irrelevant and unimportant detail tossed in.  It helps set the scene and to characterise the people involved.  It serves nothing to tell me the door iris instead of swing — except now I’m further immersed in the realisation “this place is wholly unlike here and now”.  I don’t want to read textbooks, I want to read a novel.

This is why this isn’t in my author mode, just my reader.  If you want to write a novel length work by inserting several short textbooks interspersed inside a short story or novella, fine, do so.  Clearly some readers will love that, and if you and they are happy, I’m happy.  I’m just sad that it’s so terribly hard to find anything that isn’t that, and rather sick of writing advice everywhere that tries to turn the new, burgeoning writers into such authors; or the discussions that seem to be turning readers into such people.  The classics are fine, and nice, and there’s ample supply of them I can still discover … but they are finite.  I’m sad that even the 10% allowed for by Sturgeon’s Law feels like I’ve then got to dig to find MY 10% from within that.  I’m not sure, but I think 10% of 10% is 1% — slim pickings.

Chapters

Well, another topic that interested me turned up.  So, here we go.

Chapters.  How long should they be?

Oh my, oh honey, no.  That would be one of those silly “writing rules” that are such a terrible travesty of the creative process.  Forget should.

Now, that said, I’m going to tell you how long a chapter should be:  as long as it needs to be.

I say that a lot, don’t I?  Should a character be gay?  If they’re gay, yes.  Should I write in English or French?  Which do you prefer?

The only rule of writing is:

a) write
b) use proper grammar, punctuation, spelling, and so forth except when you need not to.  Never ignore them out of laziness or ignorance.
c) openly, deliberately, and consciously violate the laws of reality.  Doing so out of ignorance won’t do.  That’s not to say you should become a master locksmith to make up a lock for your burglar series, but rather that you should realise you know nothing of locks and thus deliberately make it up.  Know thyself whenst thou writeth.

What does this have to do with how long to make a chapter?  That’s the point.  How long a chapter is is only as relevant as it needs to be, as with most aspects of writing.

Really, just ask the lovely gentlemen of Oxford:

noun

  • 1a main division of a book, typically with a number or title:we will deal with this in chapter eleven
  •  an Act of Parliament numbered as part of a session’s proceedings.
  •  a section of a treaty:a majority voted for the inclusion of the social chapter in the treaty
  • 2a distinctive period in history or in a person’s life:the people are about to begin a new chapter in their history
  •  a series or sequence:the latest episode in a chapter of problems
  • 3the governing body of a religious community or knightly order:land granted by the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral

See?  No defined length.  

There’s nothing even dictating one must have chapters.  Look at the fantastic Sir Terry Pratchett.  True, his YA Discworld books have chapters, but that’s at the behest of his YA publisher.  He’d not have them otherwise and has said so.

Oh, but Jaye, you’re one to talk your own chapters are absurdly long!  Well, okay, yes they are.  I have my methods.  I seriously considered not using chapters, but I decided that they made the story more manageable for both writing and reading if it had chapters and I agonised, at times, over where to break them.  I hope that, by and large, I’ve done well on that point.

Still, as with any aspect of storytelling, the length of a chapter should be natural.  Don’t put parameters of word count or page count to it or you’ll find yourself breaking your parameters often in order not to break in awkward places — or, worse, following them too rigidly indeed and breaking in those terribly awkward places.  A chapter break goes where a chapter break goes to you — where you feel is a good place to close this, oh look a cliché (actually an idiom, but too many authors and readers alike are fuzzy on the distinction), chapter of the plot (expression seem familiar?  “This chapter of my life” help?).  When in doubt, ask yourself where, in a movie, there would be a nice dissolve, or in TV where a commercial break would fit comfortably and you’ll be on a fair track.

Another November, another NaNoWriMo

Well, it’s November and time for NaNoWriMo to begin again in earnest.

This year, and for the foreseeable future I shan’t be participating – it did my writing more harm than good, but for some it is the incentive and push needed to actually get their story written. For those people, good luck.

Still, the forums can be amusing, interesting, fun, frustrating, and many other things. So I’ve got this notion to take topics of interest and provide my more in-depth, blogpost length vs forum reply length thoughts on the matter. How often? Don’t know. Daily seems overly ambitious and too likely to end up driving me mad. I’ll aim for weekly and see if I can’t do a bit more than that.

Well, most recent to catch my attention was more than one thread on the subject of writing characters different from yourself. Men writing women, heterosexuals writing homosexuals, black writing white, etc.

This harkens back to my favourite Gore Vidal quote, not to mention various other things and wholes posts of my own wording.

“Write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all. Write what you think, what you imagine, what you suspect!”
~~ Gore Vidal

Humans are humans. Whether we have a penis, vagina, more or less melanin, freckles, red hair, blue eyes, big nose or little we’re still humans. Write the character who fits the story, or write the character the story fits – whichever way around you feel works best. Men are no mystery, nor are women.

Stereotypes help, they communicate certain societal expectations. At a loss for something about a Western culture male? Either he does or doesn’t like sport is a good place; and if he doesn’t, then you can pick and choose from geek social norms for some inspirations. But never mind stereotypes, if you want a rugged all American boy whose as broad at the shoulder as he is tall, with neck and waist of the same circumference as each other, etc. Just because he’s blonde, blue eyed, built like John Carter, Warlord of Mars doesn’t mean he has to be a football or track star. He can be a ballet dancer, or he could be a champion chess player, he could be gayer than a tree full of monkeys on nitrous oxide, he can be a genius or idiot … it doesn’t matter! In the end it’s up to only yourself and your narrative.

If we stress over much about “Well, how do I write a convincing …” we end up with a cookie-cutter template. We wind up with something unimaginative, unalive, and flat. We get characters who are caricatures. Unless you’ve lived under a rock, hidden deep within the Russian steppes, in a convent or monastery, or otherwise lived an incredibly sheltered and isolated life you will have met other races, other creeds, other colours, other genders, other sexes; you’ll have seen TV shows or movies, read books, and so on with them. Women may not have a penis, men may not have a uterus, but we can draw from our life experiences.

You’ll never please everyone. Heinlein is cricised frequently – sadly by those proclaiming themselves feminists or in support of the feminist cause – of having unbelievable female women who are too competent, and capable (especially given that they want to actually be mothers at some point in their lives! ~gasp~ what a horror!) to be real. He based his female characters on, first and foremost his wives, and to a lesser extent his female friends. Virginia Heinlein and … I can’t seem to recall nor find the names of his prior wives were, by all accounts I’ve ever encountered, brilliant and capable women. It was Ginny and Robert’s greatest sorry, according to many of their friends, that they seemed unable to have children. So, a very real human being is unbelievable? And worse, despite being strong and educated, capable and competent, she is anti-feminist for wishing to be a mother.

We could move on to other examples like Teddy Roosevelt and Jack Churchill, but I think I’ve made my point: Your character is real to those willing to believe, so long as you believe in them yourself. If this weren’t true Fantasy, as a genre, would have died long before the birth of Professor Tolkien’s great-great grandfathers.

The key, as I say again and again, to writing any character is to believe in them. If they are real to you, they’ll be read to someone else. Everyone? Probably not. Even as wildly popular as Terry Pratchett, J R R Tolkien, and J K Rowling are, there are still those who can’t take their characters. No matter how well acted and written the roles of Richard Gere and Julia Roberts … people believe what they’re willing to believe and you’ll never get them to change their minds – but believe me, someone will feel the same spark you feel, the same attachment and bond to the characters, etc. For them the story will come alive. It’s for them you’re writing, well they and yourself, so enjoy their wonder and belief, and don’t stress too much about those who elect to listen to a different voice and refuse to hear yours.

Chekhov’s gun

Anyone who’s ever come across writing advice has probably found various things referring to 3 or 5 act structure, and something that sounds like a reference to a Star Trek character’s firearms.

This is a curious phenomena that truly boggles me.  Those elements have to do with playwriting and not with narrative, yet they’re rather vocally advocated by fiction writers.  I’ll grant, JMS’s love of Chekhov’s Gun is excusable — he is, after all, a script writer for TV and film.  But why should a novelist care if Chekhov has a gun, a sword, or a herring?

Personally, I don’t think we ought to.

For anyone not familiar with it, I shall enlighten you:  There’re various versions of the quote from various sources, but our good Sir Chekhov essentially says “If there’s a gun in the first act/chapter by the second or third it should be fired, else it shouldn’t be there.”

I can, honestly, understand this for script writing, so long as it’s used sensibly.  Prop department puts a gun, fishing pole, tuna fish, or moose head over a mantle it doesn’t have to be anything but scenery.  The thing is, though, if some importance is placed upon this thing over the mantle (such as a dramatic, momentary zoom of the camera to it) or some scene of minor characters doing something mysterious and secretive with it before scurrying off stage left while the protagonists enter stage right … oh, sure, to do nothing with the gun after this is going to confuse and probably annoy the viewer.  In writing, though we have far more freedom.

The study was quiet, lit only by the fire crackling in the hearth casting dancing shadows over everything.  Jack sat in the well-worn plush chair by the warm fire and looked around the room hardly seeing the thick bearskin rug, or his grandfather’s ancient rifle resting below the large oil painting of the man.  He took a sip of the bourbon and tried to work up the nerve for what he knew he must do.

Sighing heavily he slipped the small vial of deadly poison from his coat pocket and walked over to the cabinet with its beautiful crystal decanters.  He hated to do this to such a fine, well aged cognac, but the man had to be stopped.  He upended the vial into the cognac and placed it back in the cabinet.  Knowing his father’s habits, in a few hours Lord Percival deWinter would be dead, and by his only son’s own hand.

In that, the gun isn’t important.  Its presence is neither foreshadowing, nor pertinent, or is it?  It’s scenery, clearly, nothing more than a prop.  But it sets a tone, sets an expectation.  It tells something of Jack deWinter’s family, his grandfather, apparently, hunted or perhaps was fond of antique weapons.  Given its juxtaposition to a bearskin rug we can safely guess hunting.  Was Grandfather deWinter a good man or evil?  Clearly either his son or his grandson is, depending on why it is that Jack felt such an urgent need to poison his father with no more remorse than the ruination of a fine spirit.

In narrative there is this notion that one must adhere to various rules of structure.  That items should only be referenced which are going to prove critical or useful later, or that are symbolic of something.  That the flow and pacing of the story should fit a specific pattern (3 or 5 act, again or perhaps The Hero’s Journey).  I think not.

Poetry, of course, has structure.  By definition, a poem must — else it isn’t a poem, it’s just words placed on a paper in odd fashion.  Meter, scansion, rhyme and rhythm all or some must be present.  A poem is its structure.  Hence, once upon a time, prose was a wretched thing, only any good for the uneducated masses and not worthy of attention by those more learned and intelligent.  Let the peasants have their prose.

Prose, however, opened doors and those doors were flung wide and unignorable by things such as Don Quixote, or Les Trois Mousquetaires.  Others, too, I’m more than certain, but give me a break — my tastes lean to the ancient Greek and then skip to Lewis Carroll.  A few in between exceptions exist, but emphasis on ‘a few’.  We threw off the bonds of poetry, and could tell any story almost any way that suited us.  And with that came the chance to prove to the naysayers that prose could be intellectual, brilliant, and all that other stuff too.

Of course we’re still confined to the rules of grammar, and some conventions of grammar exist almost exclusively for the purpose of writing narrative, but that’s as it should be — one must still be able to convey one’s ideas to the audience in a meaningful way.  But now we’re free in the telling.

In this freedom we have the following facts:  Our audience is not captive.  Unlike a script we don’t have to hurry.  We can take the time to smell roses, and contemplate bees.  If the reader needs to pee, they can take the book with them or simply put it down.  Our audience can put us down.  We can tell a story that takes 57 hours to enjoy — that’s fine.  The audience may put us down at the end of this chapter and go to sleep and pick us up where she left off.  We may be enjoyed in the park, in the sun, in candlelight, in the bath, in bed, in the car, on a plane or train, we can be enjoyed with a fox, we can be enjoyed in a box (I couldn’t resist, sorry).  We need not make a fuss.

Now, there’s limits.  A reader has his patience.  Either Lawrence Block or Terry Pratchett said (I’m sorry — I can’t recall, and searching for the quote got me sites giving resumé advice) “The purpose of page one is to get you to read page two.”  Pacing is important, but pacing isn’t the alpha and omega of keeping a reader’s attention.  Keeping their interest does too.

John woke at exactly 0700 and stood, stretching.  He padded thirty-two steps to his closet where he pulled out a dark blue navy suit, and a ivory coloured pressed and starched dress shirt.  He decided on a narrow, midnight blue tie …

Pretty dull, awful lot of detail and most of it pretty unimportant in that it isn’t interesting.  Thing is, context is important.  If it’s just that excerpt, then it’s just a bad bit of narrative.  You could trim lots of it out because it’s the kind of not important that bogs things down.  On the other hand, perhaps this is very important as it could be part of something illustrating what a monumentally dull person this is.  In that instant this boggy, mind-numbing bit of narrative could be fairly attention holding.

I also criticise other bits of fiction structure Gospel — act structure and Hero’s Journey, and others I can’t think the names of right now.  I’m not saying a story shouldnt/can’t have these.  It just shouldn’t be the intent.  Hero’s Journey being a grey area — though, I’m sure you could just as easily write a Quest story that accidently follows the Hero’s Journey as doing so on purpose.  If a story, after the fact, plots out to some named structure (and odds are pretty good it will to some degree) that’s all well and good, but why constrain yourself to this from the beginning?

To those who need it or can do it and well, that’s fine too.  We all have to tell our own stories our own ways.  I’m just referring to the plethora of advice that says Must.  As if there is some rule to writing besides the rules of spelling, punctuation, and grammar — all of which might be violated in a pinch to tell the story better (e.g. Mark Twain’s fondness for writing in vernacular).

My writing advice?  My contribution to this great big mess of How to Tell a Story and What Makes Fiction or whatever?  Write.  Tell your story. That’s all.  Let the rest take care of itself.  It generally will.

If you’re such a rigidly organised person you can’t write without a solid framework to build upon then yes, look into concepts like the act structure or the various other Formulae of Fiction; maybe in the educational journey of writing you’ll start to morph and modify that framework to fit your own needs.  For the rest of us … tell your story, end done full stop.

Decisions, decisions …

So the final editing of Love or Lust is well under way.  It probably won’t be done by Valentine’s Day, but it still might.  It is moving at a fair clip, but that doesn’t change that there’s about 140k words and 400-ish pages to get  through.  Too, I have to make a final read through just to make sure that the final buff and polish is done, so that date will likely be missed and was never a very resounding likelihood anyway.

That’s got me to thinking about a few things.

First off, section separators:  Also known as fleurons (and an hundred other things), they do give a certain flair to the page.  They’re also a bloody wretch to figure out how to do.  With Dingbats type fonts they’re a breeze in the PDF, but they start to become an unholy nightmare in the universe of the ePUB and Kindle editions.  Not impossible, mind, but nightmare.  An alternative is to just use a little graphic.  Dear God save me from things that ought to be black on transparent alpha layer but instead are scans complete with random not exactly white artefacts in the white bits!!  Photoshop and I had a lovely row about that.  I did make one.  It was kind of pretty.  Well, that is, until I tried to put it on the page.  That didn’t go too well. Still … I’d appreciate feedback on that.

If you click on the word fleurons above it’ll take you to an example image.  The alternative is good old fashioned asterisks.

The second bit of thinking was just a bit of fun inspired by how another author did a little pre-release promotion.  Seanan McGuire did a Discount Armageddon ABCs thing that seemed kind of cute.  The more I think about it the less I want to do it.  So I probably won’t.  But just in case I do lose my mind and decide to go with this little touch of lunacy … well … you’ve been warned.

Solidly decided things:

  • Publishing, I don’t care if you use a publisher or do it yourself, is a good way to go completely mad with indecision, anxiety, self-doubt, and several other things that suddenly have escaped my vocabulary and are lost in the woods some place.
  • I love my cover art.  I’m, torn between ideas regarding it though.  I’m very much thinking to keep that layout and just change the colour scheme for each book, and then (naturally) the image.  The question is, do I keep finding girl/girl cover art (something I can absolutely do for Ready or Not but is giving me a touch of trouble for later books), or just keep finding pretty images (e.g. the 4th book maybe having a ballet slipper on it or some such).  Ah well, I’m not even done with the second book yet and feel like it needs heavy editing so I’ve plenty of time to consider and reconsider this.
  • The print edition will be somewhere in the neighbourhood of us$10.  Sadly, this is due entirely to length.  It costs more than the retail price of a novel half this size just to print the bloody things.  Which gives me a new found respect for some of the newest Terry Pratchett novels I’ve picked up being about us$10, but doesn’t explain some places charging that much for things like Light Fantastic or Wyrd Sisters!  The eBook, though, will likely be closer to us$4 or us$5.  Compelling enough arguments could see it as low as us$3 (just use the comments or the contact link), but current ‘wisdom’ says the higher price will attract more sales.  We’ll see.

Page numbers.   I’ve just realised I’ve no idea how I should like to do the page numbers.  Centered and unadorned at the bottom of the page?  Unadorned at the bottom corner of the page (obviously this thought is for the print edition only)?  Unadorned at the top?  If decorated, with tildes or a fleuron/dingbat?  Well, don’t ever let anyone tell you self-publishing is easy, or that it’s the lazy way out or any other such nonsense.  That said, going through a publisher is just as bad or worse — you may not have to decide a lot of this stuff, but then you have to worry that your first edition might have covers in “50 shades of mud” and “kept them out of the shops“, among too many other less amusing anecdotes by far too many other authors to mention.

I’ll always argue with someone who says writing is ‘hard work’ — I take issue with the work part.  The hard … that depends on perspective, writing is challenging in terms of telling a good story well and not losing your mind in the process.  Work it is not.  Publishing, on the other hand, I will doubt the sanity of anyone who claims is anything but work and be suspicious of anyone who claims it to be easy.

In other news Puppy Bowl is tomorrow!!  I’ll, alas, be missing it because a) I’ll be at work and b) I don’t actually have any TV service that doesn’t come via my DVD player.