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>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:

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

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


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.