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>Criticism

>I have been very fortunate to have received criticism from some excellent writers who have improved my technique exponentially. A repeated comment from them to my expressions of gratitude is that I always listen to their suggestions and try to grasp how they can raise my skills. This has always struck me as an odd remark. I go to the doctor for medical advice. The final decision is always mine but I would be a fool to ignore his observations. Yet I have it on good authority that most wannabe writers flatly refuse to listen to professional advice. They explain why the professional is wrong in his opinion, why their masterpiece is perfect in every way and is unalterable and incapable of improvement. In short, they do not want criticism but praise.

To improve as a writer, one must be able to accept and digest constructive criticism. By that, I do not mean the drivel pumped out by critics. Most critics are not writers and simply promote their own prejudices. They would be writers if they were any good.

I mean criticism by people with a proven track record. People who have been there, done that, and have the holiday snaps to prove it. I guess one reason that I am open to advice is because I have spent most of my life as a professional academic. A science research paper is circulated to colleagues for criticism before it even leaves the Department. Only after it is edited in the light of their comments is it sent to a Journal. There an editor reads it and may bounce it straight back with an instruction to rewrite. Once it passes the editorial filter it is sent out to at least two referees who have track records in the field. They criticise the paper and make recommendation, which can include ‘Reject’. The Journal editor digests these and returns the whole lot to the author with an instruction to make changes, assuming it is not rejected. This loop may be repeated two or even three times.

All being well, publication follows.

So my advice to new writers is try to get professional criticism of your work, read the comments carefully, and then rewrite. Repeat as many times as is necessary.

>Technical trauma

>I attend the RWA National Conference every year, and every year I buy the mp3 CD set that contains all 250-odd hours of recorded program sessions.

This leaves me with a technical problem. My car is too old to have one of those little jack-holes you stick your iPod or your mp3 player jack into.

My car has a CD player, but again it’s too old to play mp3 discs. Just audio.

My car also has a tape deck, and for years I had one of those round mp3 players and a little plastic cassette tape that jacks between the car’s tape deck and the mp3 player. However, the mp3 players were nasty cheap things, and the interface even cheaper, so I had to keep replacing them. Then one day they stopped working at all, no matter how many new bits I bought.

So I bought an iPod, but then I had the same problem. How to get sound out of that little silver deely and into the car speakers? I became acquainted with the doohickey that plugs into your iPod, then magically broadcasts what’s on the iPod to your car radio via an FM frequency that nobody is using.

Well, I live in Chicago. We have almost no FM frequencies nobody is using. Plus, reception is wonky even when I find a “blank” station, so I have to keep moving the transmitter around on my dashboard, which should qualify as DUI of recalcitrant technology. Picture many bad words coming out of my mouth and floating in a balloon over my car.

So I’m asking for help here. Isn’t there something simple, a little boom-box or something, that I can plug my iPod into, that has its own speakers, and you plug it into the cigarette lighter? I’m getting gray hairs trying to interface this penguin.

>Vanity press

>The New York Times has an extensive article about self-publishing here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/28/books/28selfpub.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=self-publishing&st=cse

The most deceptive paragraph in the entire article is this one: Louise Burke, publisher of Pocket Books, said publishers now trawl for new material by looking at reader comments about self-published books sold online. Self-publishing, she said, is “no longer a dirty word.”

The most honest line is this: “For every thousand titles that get self-published, maybe there’s two that should have been published,” said Cathy Langer, lead buyer for the Tattered Cover bookstores in Denver, who said she had been inundated by requests from self-published authors to sell their books. “People think that just because they’ve written something, there’s a market for it. It’s not true.”

It all makes me very, very cranky. Not because self-publishing exists, but because the premise by which vanity presses draw their customers in is faulty at its core. Self-publishing a family memoir, a recipe book to raise money for your football team, or a book to share with friends is great. Expecting that, as some companies claim, they will “circulate” your book to film agents is simply a lie.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that some people don’t see the difference between vanity press and small press. The difference is enormous: small presses have editors. They have a filter in place.

It all comes down to quality, of course. It’s the same issue I have with the school that teaches “Write a lot, send it out, never revise.” My beloved son said it best: “Mom, do you want to write a lot of books, or books people remember?”

I will take a deep breath now, and try once again to explain to some of my students why a title with PublishAmerica will not count as a writing credit when they try to sell a book to an agent.

>Under the Weather

>Sarah is under the weather today. She’ll return to posting next week.

>Aurealis Awards

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Jack Dann and myself at the Awards.

Jack had just been given the Peter McNamara award for his contribution to the the speculative fiction genre. That’s why he looks a little stunned. Jack can talk under water and this is the first time I’ve seen him reaching for words.

Brisbane turned on the heat and humidity for the awards so all the people from down south (in Australia that’s closer to the Antarctic) were fanning themselves saying How can you bear this?

It was a great evening. The nice thing was that no one was told if they’d won so everyone was genuinely surprised. Richard Harland told me he was 99% sure his book wouldn’t win the Picture Book section, but just in case he and Laura Peterson (the illustrator) sent me a speech. I was concentrating on my bit as the presenter of the fantasy awards, when I heard Richard’s name. I madly scrambled to find the speech in my bag, in the dark and darted out there to accept the award for them. Honestly, the whole event is so glitzy and professional with the big screen up the back, that if I hadn’t grown up with the awards, I’d feel intimidated getting up to speak.

Here’s Trent Jamieson and I. His story ‘Crack’ won the YA short story section. It’s a real buzz to see Trent win. This is the second time he’s won an Aurealis for a short story. Trent’s been part of the VISION writing group almost since it started and part of the ROR writing group. I’ve read his latest manuscript and it’s so inventive, it’s sure to sell. So he’ll be making the jump from published in short stories to published in novels, soon. My fingers are crossed for Trent.

As you can see, I had my hair straightened for the night, not counting on nearly 100% humidity. It’s very hard to be glamorous with blonde ringlets, let alone taken seriously!

Well, the Aurealis Awards are all over for another year. Back to the real world of meeting deadlines and trying to steal time to write in between driving children to school and part time jobs.

Cheers, Rowena

>A crisis of conference

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Some writers (call them group one) follow the normal reader-to-fan-to-writer pathway and have probably been inoculated in Sf/fantasy conferences at the local con, met some authors, been to how to write panels and workshops, got some shorts into various low/non-paying mags and worked their way up. Then there are the ones (call them group 2) whose careers blossomed from nothing to celeb instantly — the incredibly rare, lucky or well-connected few that most people seem to imagine we all are. And then there are all the rest (group 3) — who have blundered into the field without a clue-bat along the way, and now find themselves with a book (or even six) coming out and no idea what a SMOF is or just what they need to do. Often we (because I was one) have deluded ideas about your publisher will do about guiding you through the life of a professional author.
The answer: unless you happen to be one of the rare group of blessed individuals (Let’s be real here, a few of those few are far more brilliant and valuable than you are. And the rest are indistinguishable or worse. Life is just deals unequal hands, and you have to make the best of them.) your publisher is going to do exactly what mine did: Publish your book. Let sink or swim.
Now I was brought up on staunchly egalitarian meritocratic principles. The above would have sounded absolutely fair and right to me. Of course it isn’t. Sales are a lottery of cover, blurb and distribution, even before you get to publicity, not measure of the skill of the writer. And sales are what will determine whether you have a career or not. We all know of authors who’ve written dream books… who vanished. And we all know bloody awful rubbish, that we all wonder how got published let alone onto best-seller lists, and keeps on being published.
Which leaves the average group 3 author wishing he had a better hand for the gamble. It is very hard to fail when your publisher has you sent on a meet the booksellers tour of the English speaking world, and spends a lot of money on getting your book onto displays on the counters or ends of sf/fantasy racks. That’s called push and if you can get it, you’re made. If not, that leaves you with nothing… or the alternative: Pull. It’s maybe 1/20 as effective as push, but it can make that key difference – You see for that first book the line between average and success (to be bought) is…. about 3000 books. And there are various ways of making quite a dent in that. Group 1 authors already have some ideas on this and therefore are the most likely to succeed. Therefore if you’re still at that stage, become a group 1 author.
If it is too late for that… (it was for me) here is what you need to start doing, today. NETWORK. Yes it is going to chew 2 hours out of your writing time every day. You need to join forums (Baen’s Bar for eg) and manage not to be the person everyone regards as a PITA troll. And yes it will chew up most of your advance, because you’re off to conferences, and you’re going to be a nice guy — not a salesman pushing your book, but a name people remember. And you will do your best to get involved and to make and maintain contacts.
Because if you can’t do this — you probably don’t relate to people well enough to write anyway. If you can scare up 1000 pre-orders from people who know your name – and that is enough to push your book up the ordering hierarchy at retail book-chains. Nothing like push would have done, but enough to give you another 500 sales. And if your book was any good those extra 1500 will tell enough friends to get you another 300… and next thing you know – you may be negotiating a contract.
Or at least have a lot of extra friends.
See you at Lunacon 2009.

posted by Dave Freer

>Random Musings

>The most successful authors that I know tend to sit down and write a book from start to finish, writing every day. This is undoubtedly a winning strategy but sits uneasily on the shoulders of people with personalities like mine. I am mildly maniac depressive. When I am up, I am flying and capable of enormous energy. But when I’m down I find it impossible to concentrate. OK, I admit it; I am a binge worker.

Creative people are notoriously prone to depression, maniac depressive cycles right up to extreme bipolarism, and even outright paranoia. Paranoid schizophrenia could be seen as a form of extreme creativity. The sufferer hears ‘voices’ in his head. Well, we all do that, writers more than most, but we normally retain the ability to distinguish reality from the worlds inside our heads.

I reckon I have got off mostly pretty lightly with my mild depression cycles. There seems to be a strong correlation between creativity and various levels of mental instability, and it ‘runs’ in families. All this suggests a strong genetic component and the correlation would explain why these genes have not been eliminated by natural selection. Having a small percentage of creatives in a human population is beneficial but don’t expect them to be easy going, reliable team players.

The problem with binge working is that it takes time to get back up to speed after you have put a work down for more than a day or two. I compromise by switching from writing to editing. I find that a useful mechanical activity to do when I am convinced that my work is worthless, my life is worthless and that we are all doomed in a general sort of way. It does keep me in touch with the work for when the next upswing starts and I start feverishly hammering the keyboard.

However, I try to put a story to one side for a while when I think that it is finished. A month is about right. When I return to the file, I can see that the story is full of typos, clumsy phrasing and passive sentences, the latter being the curse of a scientific education.

Talking of typos, I was particularly amused by the critique of one of my stories published in Baen’s Universe by an American reviewer who dislikes the Baen style, whatever that is. I doubt that anyone confuses my style with David Weber . Sigh! I should be so lucky. Anyway, I digress. This reviewer damned me with faint praise and then drew attention to the many small errors in my writing. Did I not have a spellchecker on my word processor? Well of course I do and it’s set to British English (what Microsoft likes to quaintly call ‘International English’) because I am, um, English, a citizen of the United Kingdom and a subject of her Britannic Majesty. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to pop out to the pavement and retrieve my trainer’s from my motor’s boot – Oh all right, go out to the sidewalk and get my sneakers from my automobile’s trunk.

>Promo Comes in Unexpectedly Handy

>Recently I had one of those rare and glorious days when a check comes in from the publisher. After enjoying the glow, I dashed off to the bank to deposit it.

Since writers receive checks rarely, and in my case the checks are usually (alas) larger than the bank account balance, bankers look askance at such deposits. They like to place holds on the funds, just in case you were making it up or something. What, you getting a big check from Major Publisher, Inc.? A likely story!

Therefore I wasn’t surprised when the teller started yakking at me about the check. Since I couldn’t hear her over the drive-up speaker, I went inside, and in the spirit of self-promotion (and because I still have some to give away), I took a couple of my Ælven calendars in with me.

As I’d suspected, she was concerned about the check from Major Publisher. Had I written a book for them or something?

“Why, yes!” quoth I, and handed her the calendars. “This book.”

Suddenly all was well, my check was deposited, my funds unrestrained. My investment in promotional materials justified.

Maybe she’ll even think about buying the book.

>The writer’s environment, or, Confessions of a neatnik

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This weekend I’m flying to San Francisco, in my Toby Bishop guise, to visit Borderlands Books and sign copies of this book and the earlier ones in the trilogy. I’ll be on two airplanes and spend two nights in a hotel . . . which means I’ll get lots of writing done.
I’m a compulsive person. A compulsive writer, exerciser, reader, golfer . . . everything that’s important to me compels me. This includes, unfortunately, a neat and orderly environment.

You probably think that’s a good thing. Who doesn’t want someone around who constantly cleans, dusts, picks up, organizes? I’d love to have someone like that around. Unfortunately, that someone is me. And it’s the ultimate distraction!

I envy those writers who can work amid clutter. They can have music playing, piles of laundry waiting, dust bunnies piffling in corners. But me, no. I just can’t think if there are chores waiting to be done, or if my desk is piled with unpaid bills or messages I need to answer. It’s one reason I love writing in airplanes and hotel rooms and coffee shops, and why I sometimes hie myself to Tully’s Coffee, where any mess is not my responsibility, to write. I can put my feet up beside the fireplace and let the white noise swirl around me. (White noise is featureless to me. I know it seems contradictory, but if music is playing, I have to listen to it. The better the music, the more distracting it is.)

My house is really, really tidy. Not always clean, of course, but painfully neat. Beloved husband and beloved son have learned, the hard way, not to drop anything where I might “clean” it, which often means “disappear” it. I’ve had to make a disciplined effort to leave them their own messy spaces, but those spaces do nag at me. Does this sound like fun to you?

In early March I’ll be attending the Rainforest Village Writers’ Retreat on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. It’s expanded from three days to five, which means my output should be prodigious (well, for me, the slow writer). I’ll be in a rustic inn overlooking a lake, with no housework and only a small amount of cooking. It’s the perfect writer’s environment.

>The Family That Writes Together

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Today some friends called my attention to a blog review for my husband’s anthology, which mistakenly assumed Robert was my husband and wasn’t quite sure what Dan’s relationship to both of us was. An understandable mistake, of course.
(The review is here http://otter.covblogs.com/archives/2008/11/book-review-better-off-undead-edited-by-martin-h-greenberg-and-daniel-m-hoyt.html and it’s really a very good one, not because it’s complimentary but because it is very perceptive.)
This combined with something we’ve gone through recently in semi-social circumstances, where someone expressed surprise at the fact that we don’t have much of a local social life; and with a recent ill-healed remark by someone who used to be a member of our long-dissolved local writers’ group, who said I didn’t have much time for anyone who didn’t help my career.
The later is ill-healed because it hurt. Not because it’s true, but because I still care enough for that person’s opinion to feel bad I gave her that impression. The very unfortunate truth is that I also don’t have a lot of time for people who CAN help my career and have probably alienated any number of friends who are ahead of me on the road by seeming to snub them.
At any rate the three comments taken together did cause me think. The first thing was to wonder if we are really that unusual – or at least unusual for writers in this day and age. After all, we are a dual-career couple with teenage children. That each of us has – at least – dual careers all by ourselves – Dan having a day job and writing and me, I think, living at least three writing lives at once – is another, unexpected complication. It seems to me that those other writers I know – unless they are very secure bestsellers – have about as much time as I have. Even those whose children have moved out.
And our life has been unusually busy as far as the “teen sons” too. For one, homeschooling a kid for a year not only ate my life for that time, but set me back on a bunch of routine tasks which are now, slowly, getting caught up and, in turn, affecting writing. (Though for those of you who know what the last school year was like for me, I’m nowhere near at that level of tiredness. I’ve got ill this year, too, granted, but not those complete “flattening” illnesses. And there have been periods of health between illnesses.) But that, as I said, is slowly returning to “normal hassled” not “insane running around.” I can see eventually, maybe, if we’re lucky having time for a social life again.
The other side of this, of course, is that I have a rich social life, just not in town. In some ways – and my friend Kevin J. Anderson, whom we see about twice a year when both of us can make time tells me it is exactly so – I feel that writers gravitate to other writers because, to quote Kevin, “Only other writers understand our crazy obsessions and the way this insane business works.”
This is not so much a matter of who “can help of my career” – some of my writer friends are unpublished. Some, in fact, are just starting out. Others are far more successful than I am, but that doesn’t mean they can “help” or at least not materially, but only to the extent of advice – but who understands what I’m going through.
Like people in other arcane and difficult professions, ruled by gods of uncertain chance, we tend to cling to one another. In the age of the internet, this is very easy. My best writing friends are strewn across the US and across the globe. Being writers we keep weird hours, anyway. We meet on Skype at the middle of the night for one or the other of us. We groan about covers, contracts and whatever the newest marketing fad is. We exchange heartfelt condolences over the behavior of certain characters who refuse to shut up and follow the plot at all. And we’re not so alone anymore.
The thing is, I don’t think that’s all that unusual for writers, even historically. I’ve read enough bios of our people to find out that they tended to have world-girding friendships even when they had to depend on the good offices of international mails.
How is this related to my family having three – or to be honest, once the youngest one stops denying it – four writers in it?
Well, the truth is that we probably make less time for our local writing friends than we would if we had no writers in the family. Online friendships are wonderful and have kept me sane for years, but sometimes you just need to watch someone’s face as you tell them your brand spanking new idea for a novel.
It’s just that in this house, that means wandering downstairs, with a vaguely glazed look, getting a cup of coffee, then turning to your son and your husband who are sitting at the kitchen table and saying, “You know, I had this idea for an apocalyptic-feeling novel that…”
Dan and I have plotted entire novels while driving to Denver (actually, long-distance driving is very good for this.) We have written anthology proposals on airplane trips. We have shocked waitresses by discussing where one could hide a body so that only fragments would ever surface, if that. We have gone out for a romantic dinner and forgotten all about romance when one of us leans across the table and goes, “You know the Samson story? It’s very powerful. I wonder how to do that in space. And how he could survive to make it a series.”
Robert plotted his novel aloud, while talking to me, all the way from concept to chapter-by-chapter while we built a porch together. The other day over dinner, with no warning, Eric started day dreaming about the Odyssey as a space opera with a female “Ulysses” including whether Circe should still be female.
In many ways it is like having your very own writers workshop right at home. And it makes it easy not to reach beyond home for that writer face-to-face socialization.
Should it be different? Perhaps. But then our time is short and the kids – such is life – will be leaving the house soon enough. We have maybe two, three years more of a resident writers’ workshop. After that, I suppose we’ll start attending more cons or organize a critique group again or something. But until then, we’ll enjoy our good fortune.
And if people think we’re strange… well, we’re writers. I guess we can live with that.