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There Is No Glass Slipper

by Sarah Hoyt

Your life is not a story.

I mean, oh, of course, in a sense it is a story – of course it is – in the sense that things happen in chronological order, it has a beginning and one day it will have an ending.  You could also say it is divided in chapters.  In fact we often talk about “entering a new chapter” of life.

But there are differences.

I’ve told you – haven’t I? – that my final exam in Theory Of Literature, consisted of two questions.  The first was specific and required analysis of the use of commas by a Portuguese poet who wrote in blank verse.  The second was “Explain the difference between literature and life.  Give examples.”

Since I have a fraught relationship with punctuation I knew I’d get at best half the points on the technical question, so I had to get full points for the second.  So I spun from memory of my Philosophy classes a deal about Plato and the cave and how only through literature could we see life outside the cave.  I knew that would appeal to literature professors and, as most of you know, my morals are weak.  (If they weren’t would I lie for a living?  No?  What do you think fiction is?)  So… I passed.

However, my rather mendacious answer notwithstanding, or my wished-for answer which was “if I kill you in a book you’ll continue breathing.  If I kill you in real life not so much” the true answer is more complex than that, and more simple.

Life is not like literature because life doesn’t have to make sense.  (We’re reminded of this daily as we see what some of my colleagues post on facebook.)  More rarely we’re reminded of this as an impossible coincidence surfaces that makes us go “What?  That wasn’t laid out in the plot.”

But we forget that too.  We forget it very often, particularly those of us who are dedicated writers – or readers.  We forget it as we think as though life WERE a plot, as though it HAD to make sense.

I was reminded of this a couple of days ago while talking to a friend who is a beginning writer.  We were trying, somewhat ineffectively, to convince this person it’s best to go indie now, while this writer has no track record.  This writer was yelling back about wanting what I had.  (Apparently people HANKER after ten years of kicks in the teeth.) About how I was famous (Am too.  Right now I’m the most famous person at this desk.  Well, the cats have left in search of food.)  About how I was a real writer, and therefore I could now go indie with a clear conscience (I’m trying, okay?  I’m trying.  I need time, since I’m also still writing for traditional publishers.)

And then this writer explained that since childhood, the writer had dreamed of having books out “on shelves” and being able to tell friends to go and buy them at any bookstore.

Useless to tell this person that there was that year I had FIVE books come out with traditional publishers and you couldn’t find a single one on a single shelf in the whole state of Colorado.  In this person’s mind, that story from childhood, HAD to have a happy ending.

It’s conditioning.  As writers and readers, we are trained to pick up “promises” in the plot early on.  Some of you who have been following Witchfnder are unreally good at picking up on those promises.  I’ve had emails guessing at Nell’s origins, at the ultimate end of the book, etc, which are, at this point, GUESSES.  Have to be, since my cluing has been as hidden as possible.  And in one case the clue is not yet connected to anything.  And yet, people GOT it.

Unfortunately, we tend to reason about life that way, too.

This might be a case of chicken and egg.  I know that stories are what happens when we turn our mind lose on life and allow it to impose order on reality, whether that order is real or imaginary.  We tell ourselves stories.  And we tend to make stories out of our lives.  Perhaps that’s how we make sense of life.  Perhaps that’s how we remain what passes for sane.  Or perhaps not.

Perhaps life used to be more predictable, too.  I’m not betting on it.  I grew up in a small village, where people by and large, with minor innovations like electrical light and running water, lived the way they had for centuries, observed the same feast days, cultivated the same plot of land, kept the same farm animals as their ancestors world without end – in a place where Romeo and Juliet might have happened in the next village.  (I thought it had, the first time I heard someone talk about it.)  Looking back, life looked a lot more… well… ordered.  You knew the pool from which you’d choose your mate, more or less, you knew the places you’d see in your life, you knew where you’d be buried when you died.  You knew the kids who worked hard in childhood would probably make good, and you knew the class clown would probably have a checkered career, and the kid caught breaking into a neighbor’s house at ten would probably eventually come to a bad end.

But that’s from a distance.  If you increase the granularity and go life by life, person by person, you find it’s not like that.  That kid who worked hard in childhood, walking out his parents’ door one evening, gets run over by a car and spends the rest of his life as a paraplegic, having to be looked after.  The kid who was a bad lot?  Well, he gets drafted, goes overseas, becomes a hero, comes back and picks up a steady job, never has a hobble again… until he’s fifty when he embezzles his boss’s money, runs away and dies a millionaire in Brazil.

Even in the village, with its ordered cycle of life, people could surprise you, events could surprise you, things you counted on – like inheriting the family business – would turn out quite differently – when you found out the company was bankrupt, for instance.

After all, that small village produced me and – good or bad (and often bad) – you can’t say my trajectory was predictable.  When I was born to a rather traditional family in a traditional village and as a female (which in that culture means far less mobile) I can safely say that if some time traveler had told family, friends or extended acquaintances that not only would I survive (an iffy thing, since I was extremely premature, born at home, and not allowed access to an incubator) but I’d leave home and go live in the states on my own (no relatives, other than my husband) AND become a novelist in a language no one in the family spoke at the time (correction, my grandfather spoke it.  He didn’t write it.  But he had no one to speak it to) NO ONE would have believed it.

But even those of you who aren’t little vortexes of unstable fate can probably point out to events in your lives that were in no way “foreshadowed.”

However, it goes further than that.  MUCH further.  Right now, we are in a time of catastrophic change.  By that I don’t mean the intentional, phony and often strange change brought on by political moves.  I mean bone-deep technological change of the kind that leaves a mark.

Part of the reason that change is so difficult is that we are essentially two cultures.  One of them is  “the people who talk.”  (I’d call it “the people who think” but that is unwarranted flattery for most of them – for most humans, actually.)  These are the media, the academia, the people who tell stories whether fictional or fictionalized.  These people in general know nothing – or very little – about what the other culture is up to.  The other culture is “the people who fix”.  These are the people who know how things work, the people who can build and create.

For years now the people who talk have been ascendant.  We’ve been building a little reality of words, telling ourselves stories.  “This is the way things work” and “This is the way things will go.”  Actually, we haven’t been ascendant so much as we were the only ones saying these things, and the other people didn’t or couldn’t contradict us, so we thought we had it all.  Our story was undisputed.  Like the garrulous wife of a silent husband, we sat there for years making plans.  “And when we retire, we’re going to live in Miami.”  And because the poor sob across the table said nothing, we thought we could do as we pleased.

The silent people who fix and create things were, all along, quietly, often in an inarticulate way, pulling the rug out from under our feet.  While we were talking about our condo in Miami they were building an entire retirement community from discarded beer bottles, in the backyard of our house in Michigan.

So while we were creating our just so plots, the people who fix and create things changed the world on us (the bastages.)  While we were climbing the ordered ladder of publishing (such as it was) they were building ebooks, and even – gasp – places like Amazon to sell them.  They were creating the computer revolution which allows us to attend lectures from home (I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, education is next in line for that change.)

So, now there’s a choice of courses for us.  The world is changing.  It’s called catastrophic because it resembles Atlantis subsiding beneath the waves.  We can’t change it back.  We can make phony political changes that will make things go a different route, and possibly a worse route, or we can shout into the wind, but it’s not going to stop the change.

The metaphoric oceans are coming in.  You can choose to stand there going “I’m despondent.  My life is over.  I want my beach back.  When I was little I dreamed of a condo in Miami.”  Heaven knows I’ve done a bit of that myself and still have instances of it.  HOWEVER that is not a survival-enhancing behavior.  Those who will survive – and many who will thrive – are already running for the hills, scouting out the now-barren peaks that will be fertile islands when the change is done.

I know it hurts.  It hurts like heck.  We want our stories to make sense, and we want our life to be a story.

But you have to be aware that at some level it was always a lie.

To the extent that you need stories to survive, make this one be about the plucky author/educator/artist who survived catastrophic change – who got out ahead of the mess and the turmoil and came out much more successful than traditional routes allowed.  Make your prototype that of the mythological (but then so was Atlantis) sage who got in a boat ahead of the continent sinking and went to other lands to teach what he knew.  And who was treated as a god in the new land.

You’re not Cinderella.  There is no glass slipper.  BUT if you’re good and pro-active and if you stop lamenting and start looking to the future, there MIGHT be a fortune in canned pumpkin or trained mice.

First let go of the glass slipper dreams.  It was never very comfortable and it came off when you ran downstairs.  Then shake yourself, look around, and find new dreams.  You can do it.  Remember, the best stories change direction halfway through.  Why should your life be any different?

 

Note, my short story The Counterfeit Gypsy is up for free today and tomorrow, hopefully to get the collection Five Dastardly Deaths and the sales on Death Of A Musketeer surging.  Anyway, it’s free, go get:  http://www.amazon.com/dp/B006SQQ3SI

Quack, quack, quack

by Amanda S. Green

No, that’s not me fondly imagining going to the duck pond and a warm Spring afternoon. That’s fun and brings back wonderful memories of when my son was little and we’d head out to the park to feed the ducks. No, the quack, quack, quack is the sound I hear in my mind whenever I read the latest diatribe against Amazon or when I read the rantings against Paypal, and by association Smashwords, right now.

Let’s start with Amazon. Once more, the slings and arrows are being aimed at Amazon. Why? Because it’s acting like a business. A week or so again, IPG (Independent Publishers Group) announced that Amazon had failed to accept its side of contract negotiations and had stopped selling IPG e-books. A round of outraged howls ran through the industry. How dare Amazon stop selling e-books it no longer had a contract in place for! How dare it not accept terms it, Amazon, didn’t think were favorable to the company! I even saw one newspaper headline out of Chicago that denounced Amazon for this.

Now, I’ll admit here and now that I don’t know what the terms for the new contract were. But I recognize the attempt to blackmail a company via the media when I see it. And don’t fool yourself. That is exactly what this happens to be.

I’ll admit that I find myself wondering why any publisher, large or small, uses a third party distributor for its e-books. The only exceptions are for those outlets that don’t accept direct submissions from small presses (Diesel e-books is one example) or iTunes/iBooks that require specific hardware to be able to upload your titles to their store. For retail outlets like Amazon and Barnes & Noble,  it is too easy to upload your books yourself and cut out the cost of a middleman. And that is exactly what IPG is–a middleman. From their website: Independent Publishers Group was founded in 1971, the first organization specifically created for the purpose of representing titles from independent presses to the book trade. So, middleman.

If you go to IPG’s website, the first thing you’ll see is their editorial, sorry explanation, for how much an e-book should cost. What strikes me as I read it is how closely it dovetails to the explanation we’ve seen from the legacy publishers. After already detailing the costs of publishing the hard copy version of a book, they go on to repeat the costs — in other words, double dip — for the digital version:

An e-book still needs all of the expensive editorial services noted above; and if it is going to sell, it has to be marketed, distributed, and publicized, just as a print edition must be. And the author royalty on an e-book sale is usually about the same as it is for a print book, even though the list price of the e edition is lower.

Needless to say, I have several issues with the above statement.  Assuming the e-book is question also has a print version, those editorial services IPG mentions — editing, cover design, layout, etc — have already been done. It’s the same book from the same manuscript and will have the same cover. So, FAIL on this argument.  As for the author royalty being the same on an e-book sale as it is for the hard copy version, well, not only NO but HELL NO. If an author continues to agree to terms such as these, he should have his head examined.

Here is a sure indicator of how so many still think in the industry: E-books, as they become more important in the book trade, will have to carry their full share of the editorial and marketing costs of producing them.

I agree — sort of — with the above comment. But only when there is editing going on and not the hand-wavium I’ve seen all too often from books coming out of legacy publishers. And shall we talk about marketing and promotion? What’s that? Is that the sound of Dave and Sarah having hysterics in the background? Yep, it is because, boys and girls, unless you are the newest best thing or one of a very few best sellers, there is no marketing and promotion. So why should readers pay for non-existent services and why should authors have their fair cut of monies made lessened?

This editorial by IPG goes on to say there are only two ways publishers can work with Amazon: the Agency Model and a wholesale model. The Agency Model, as you know, means the publisher sets the price and they get 70% in return. The wholesale model, in general, means the publisher — or, in this case, the distributor — gets 50%. IPG goes on to say, “Now Amazon is insisting on terms for both print books and e-books that are even less favorable for independent presses.” Then the question is asked about how publishers are to survive with this lesser revenue.

Now, let’s look at what IPG is saying. First, there is another way for small presses to work with Amazon. The KDP program was established to make it easier for small presses and authors who want to self-publish to put their titles up for sale on Amazon. You don’t have to go through a distributor or repackager. That means you don’t have to pay someone else to do something you can very easily do for yourself. There is no reason for a small press to cut into their profits by paying a third party to put its e-books up on Amazon or BN.com.

Notice also that IPG is quick to say what the two main models are and to decry that Amazon wants to cut into their profit margin with new contract terms. What it isn’t quick to say is just what those terms are. I might be a bit more sympathetic if they were a bit more forthcoming with the pertinent details.

And then there’s the quack, quack, quack of all those who were quick to jump on the bandwagon to condemn Amazon for, gasp, removing titles it no longer had a contract to sell. Now, before the little duckies say it could have kept them up and the contract negotiations could have continued, they could have. But why? Amazon is a business with shareholders who expect it to make money. Look, I doubt most of us would expect our local grocery store to continue stocking items from a manufacturer it no longer had a contract with. Nor would we expect that concrete company to keep pouring concrete on a project it no longer had a contract for.

Do I feel for the authors who have been impacted by this? Sure. But I also think they need to be talking to their publishers, those same publishers who contract with IPG for distribution services, about not using a third party to distribute their e-books to venues as easy to get into as Amazon and BN.com. Common sense should tell them that they’d all make more money without the middle man.

For more on this, check out Dear Author has to say.

The issue with Paypal comes because of notice it has sent to Smashwords and other sites that sell erotica. The basic gist of the notice from Paypal was that it would no longer do business with sites that sold books (erotica) that dealt with the themes of rape, bestiality, incest. This included pseudo-rape and pseudo-incest. Oh the howls that went up, few of those doing it ever asking “Why?”

The result of this notice from Paypal was that sites like Smashwords and AllRomance sent emails to their authors/publishers asking them to take down any titles that fall into these categories. Now, before everyone gets upset, Paypal isn’t saying you can’t have a rape scene in your book. What it is saying is it can’t be there for titillation’s sake. What I’m reminded of is Justice Potter Stewart’s comment about pornography: I know it when I see it.

Now, I can think of any number of reasons why Paypal sent this notice. Their Terms of Service do prohibit products that violate the law, encourage others to violate the law, etc.  I’m not saying any of the titles involved are illegal. Nor am I saying they encourage others to violate the law. However, we’ve all seen the rash of lawsuits against gun manufacturers, for example, after someone goes on a shooting spree. Just the existence of the gun was enough for someone to bring suit. Also, it is important to remember that sites like Smashwords sell outside of the U.S. where these titles might actually be in violation of some law and Paypal may have received a cease and desist order that we don’t know about.

I’ve also seen speculation that Paypal is merely bending to pressure from credit card issuers that they either pay a higher percentage of the sales price per title to the credit card company because of the high number of charge backs for these sorts of title or not be able to accept payments using those credit cards. Whatever the reason, it was handled badly.

No, it was handled very badly.  I was handled so badly that people have leveled charges of censorship against Paypal. That may be the underlying reason but I doubt it. Not when it is easy to guess that porn makes a lot of money online and Paypal is a company after a profit. So why would it cut off a lucrative income path?

The problem is that Paypal gave very short notice, without real explanation, to those sites using it and presented only an ultimatum. Either take down the possibly offending titles or lose the ability to use our services. That meant these sites reacted quickly, sending out notices to their authors and publishers and, yes, there were knee-jerk reactions. Heck, I had an initial knee-jerk reaction even though I neither write those sorts of books nor does Naked Reader Press publish them. But then I quit listening to the quack, quack, quack and started looking and asking questions.

The general reaction to both the Amazon/IPG controversy as well as the Paypal issue has been exactly that — knee-jerk. Then comes the pile on by the lemmings who don’t stop to read and think for themselves. Instead, they just repeat what they’ve seen or heard. Quack, quack, quack.

Am I saying Amazon and Paypal are in the right in these two situations? No. Nor am I saying they are in the wrong. What I am saying is that we don’t have enough information. I’m saying that when we don’t have enough information it is our responsibility to do our research before jumping onto the bandwagon. Quack, quack, quack.

Maybe I’m beating my head against the wall here. I don’t know. Maybe it would be better to let the lemmings all jump off the legacy publishing cliff. In the meantime, the only quacking I want to hear is from the real ducks at the pond, not from those on two legs who ought to know better but who are either incapable of independent thought and research or are afraid of it.

In Questionable Taste

Hello. It’s me again. Yes, just when you thought it was safe to come out of the water…

I have bad news for you. I am IN the water. (you remember those little ‘sea-monkeys’ adverts?). Anyway, it’s always been my charmingly annoying habit to ask awkward questions, in my books and in real life. I’m always amazed at the range of talent (verging on pure brilliance) exhibited in ignoring these. If we could only synchronize those la la la’s we could probably vibrate the earth into a new orbit. I’ve been stunned for years at the fact that I could suggest all sorts of anathema and get away with it (beyond the occasional sub-Harriet Klausner standard review from Publisher’s Weekly about bringing nothing new to space opera. That was kinda gifted for a book that 1) wasn’t space opera, 2)proposed an entirely different way of looking at plausible slower that light travel, 3)proposed the first workable bio-system in slower than light interstellar travel for large passenger groups that I’ve yet seen, 4)questioned the basic accepted premises of sexual politics, 5)asked awkward questions about that big bad no-no colonialism, 5) Asked exactly where a nanny state and group-think were taking us… and those just a few of them). I’ve just re-read Crawlspace and wondered why I’ve never had the utter outrage department attack me for asking – by example – why we always assume that victims (in this case of slavery) are good. The concept that victims are human and therefore both good and bad, and that this may have nothing to do with their being a victim is… well, not one I’ve seen elsewhere.

But then I read the outrage (particularly from comments) that Smashwords conceded to bad Paypal about incest, bestiality and rape. My favorite comment has to be this one (by L.K. Rigel , which I quote the latter part of so you can be aware of the terrible danger the writer lives in fear of – ‘The decision is only palatable because they’re cutting off stuff people mostly find abhorrent. What if they next decide they won’t allow stuff that glorifies liberal politics to be sold, or atheists to have accounts?’ I guess this is one of those delightful examples — like the outcry from traditional publishers about piracy, which proves (by their selling of e-books to which they do not hold the rights) that we expect our own moral standards of others (as these are two groups who have of late been very active in the censorship of anything we don’t agree with field). The cyclic nature of human mores is fascinating if you can look it dispassionately from the outside, as a smelly monkey like me can. It seems to be more about the dynamics of power than the ideology. Dominance breeds intolerance, perhaps? Or perhaps, more accurately, it is weak dominance? (more anathema – the _less_ powerful a dominant group is, the nastier it has to be. See Syria.)

The fact of the matter is that there are limits. Society’s mirror does still shine harshly on certain behaviors. You can argue (and I have) about the justice or logic of these mores. They will and do change. But the reality is they exist, and, as an author who often walks the line between humor and offense, and believes in the power of satire and true things said in jest, and, possibly more importantly, the entertainment value of that jest (see Terry Pratchett) I need to know where those lines are… (so I can cross them, of course. But hopefully cleverly, balancing things).

Of course those lines are individual as well as shaped by cultures and regions, age groups, sexes and whether you have a seagull on your head. But as a furriner (you know, with nasty un-American personal habits, the kind you’re allowed to sneer at, because I’m Western, male, heterosexual, and get sunburned and don’t belong to any officially sanctioned victim group. And I eat raw garlic and meat) who writes principally for an American audience, I try to work out what goes on the American head (because, let’s be honest it’s a shed-load more tolerant and friendly than the closed shops in many other ‘closer’ markets. I accept there are problems in the US, but it’s still way more accepting than the UK for example. Yes, I know, that could get me blackballed in both countries. Awkward stuff, truth.)

We are divided by a common language, but fortunately the US is 1)big 2)not monolithic. For years they said Sir Terry Pratchett wasn’t going to appeal to Americans. And I know some of his humor just flies straight past some Americans. But there are a lot of serious fans there too. It still makes guessing – from the outside – shall we say, interesting.

So today I was going to ask where those lines are? My experience suggests that Americans take quite seriously matters relating to the bathroom (the term itself is funny to us furrin types, on account of the bathroom being where… you bath.) You don’t make jokes about women’s frilly bits, or men’s dangly bits and priapism or that their shirt collars will not go stiff. Those sort of jokes and ones about sheep are for vulgar colonials. But you may seriously (and respectfully) refer to vaginas (even if you mean vulva) and penises (a word which most English colonials would blench from unless talking to their doctor) and BDSM is not just OK, it’s obligatory if you want literary merit. It’s all terribly confusing really… would this book be unclean if it used a different word? And should it win the the weirdest title of the year award?

A Vaunt! (more silly games with language)

‘A vaunt! I tells yer, A vaunt,’ quoth the Monkey (AKA Dave Freer, author, philosopher, polymath – he can add parrots, man of letters (rejection letters)).

To which the traditional reply from the assembled multitude* was, naturally: ‘Vot iss it dat you vaunt?**’

At which point the monkey rolled his eyes, and, as you should never do this while swinging from branch to branch (a common pastime of monkeys, I can highly recommend it) missed the next branch and hit the tree with a sickening crunch. This meant some delay (locating glasses and tail, picking up teeth) before he could get back onto a treetop perch and beat his simianly chest and shout “A vaunt!”

“I wish you would,” said a passing pissant… or micturating passant, as she walked past. “Avaunt then. Get lost.”

The monkey, much deflated at the failure of his feeble efforts to call attention to himself, muttered. ‘A vaunt. A boast. Not a banishment.”

“Well, those who boast should be banished,” said the pissant. “Anyway, what has a manky old monkey got to boast about? Bad taste? Depraved humor?”

“Well, yes, those naturally. But I consider them a gift.”

“Is that why you try to inflict them on us?” asked the Multitude, who had come along to pelt the monkey with small soft objects of the date-expired nature. Fortunately monkeys have no particular objection to this and tend to catch them and throw them back.

The monkey shrugged. “It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. But actually I was talking about my Novella CRAWLSPACE. It’s a work of genius ***, and right now it’s available for a brief period only, as a FREE download on Amazon. I thought if I vaunted it, maybe few more than the bare handful *# who have done so might go and give it a go, chase it up the rankings, and make suitable derogatory comments on Amazon. It’s not like I was expecting rogatory comments or something. Ah well. I shall sink back into obscurity.

“I always suspected you were an obscurantist, said the pissant, going off to spend good money downloading yet another pleasant (to her) turgid tome of literary socialist political maunderings from the latest publishing PC-brigade pet, without working out that… this is now obscurantist.

Monkey, who had worked this out, sniggered at her back, by far her most attractive feature, and said: “Niggardly knave. Here I offered you gifts of prose typed with my very own feet, which might have stirred that porridge you have for a brain and made you laugh to boot, and you go off and comfort yourself in the blatherings of that old-fashioned ilk.”

The pissant turned around and shook her fist the monkey. “I heard you. Two N words in one sentence. I’m… I’m going to TELL on you. And you’ll be SORRY.”

“Too late,” said the Monkey who was sorry, but for entirely the wrong reasons.

In the meanwhile the Multitude, having run out of squishy fruit, and having their curiosity tickled (it’s under the armpits of the average multitude, meaning you have to really want to do this) said “So what’s this Crawlspace Novella about then? plumbing? Nasty things living under houses?”

The monkey managed to avoid rolling his eyes again. “No, space, as in ‘lots and lots of nothing’. It’s science fiction, see. About space. And an asteroid full of mining tunnels, left by some alien species, who were shorter than most humans. And it’s a murder mystery with uplifted elephant shrews and uplifted genetically modified bats.’

“Do they-a-vaunt want to trink your blud?” said the Multitude showing some enthusiasm. The Multitude liked sparkly vampires.

“Not normally, but for you I am sure that they could make an exception, said the Monkey, thinking that obscurity (a shire of Flinders Island, Tasmania, Australia, where he lives) has much to commend it after all.

And so: it’s there. Go get it free. It may make you laugh and it might make you think. It’s not going to appeal to the taste of Ms Pissant. But it ought to entertain.

*there was only one multitude. Sorry, it takes a long time to assemble them. They come in kit form.

** And this, if you needed it, is a good reason to avoid summonsing any Germanic accented demons.

*** Genius is a relative term. When it is applied to my relatives there is usually something of a sarcastic tone attached.

*# Monkey has big hands. 250 so far – which is a long way short of his 10 K target.

Please Give A Friendly Mad Genius Club Welcome to Lars Walker

The other night I watched one of my favorite old movies, the 1938 film, “Algiers,” with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr. I remember it showing up on TV pretty often when I was a kid, and it never appealed to me back then. But when I caught it again a couple years ago, as an adult, it went straight through my heart like Charles Boyer’s last look at Hedy in the final scene.

And it occurred to me to wonder why. Why does this somewhat corny old movie (memorably parodied in the Warner Brothers cartoon character Pepe Le Pew) move me so much?

And I realized the answer was Metaphor. I respond to “Algiers” as a metaphor.

It’s the story of Pepe Le Moko (Boyer), a famous Parisian jewel thief hiding from the police in the Casbah, the old citadel of Algiers, a warren of narrow streets and rooftop terraces where the police dare not follow him. As long as he stays in the Casbah, Pepe is safe, and he rules there like a king. But he’s tired of the place, tired of the heat, of his uncouth companions, of his devoted mistress. He yearns for Paris and his old life.

This yearning becomes unbearable when he meets Gaby (Lamarr), the fiancée of a rich Frenchman, who comes slumming to the Casbah. When he learns she’s sailing home again, he takes the risk of pursuing her outside his kingdom, with tragic consequences.

Here’s why “Algiers” is a metaphor for me. I suffer from a personality disorder, a shyness disorder. Living this way feels very much like having one safe place in a dangerous world, a place you’re afraid to leave because you know that if you leave it something bad will happen to you.

It’s the metaphor that grabs me, that makes the story, in some sense, my own, and it worked at a visceral level even before I figured out the mechanism.

I suspect (can’t prove it) that if you examine any great story, any story that people genuinely love and return to again and again, you’ll find one or more great metaphors there. People loved the movie “Titanic” because the idea of a ship sailing inexorably toward disaster, whose passengers have to grab what life and love they can get before the collision, feels like life itself. People love the story because they’re saying, “Yes, that’s just how I feel. That’s what it’s like.”

Who among us hasn’t said goodbye to someone we’d fallen in love with, at some time in our lives? The film “Casablanca” gives us a way to think about that memory. It makes it more bearable, by being a  more mythic and universal version of our own stories (even if we’re flattering ourselves a little). “The Maltese Falcon” works just as well, in a negative way.

J. R. R. Tolkien famously hated allegory (the rather rigid literary form where characters represent specific abstract concepts), but The Lord of the Rings is chock-full of metaphor. So much that (as we probably all know from experience) the meanings one person sees  in it are often entirely different from the meanings another sees. Both sides are right. There is no right or wrong in metaphor; all that matters is how it works on our hearts.

How do you build a metaphor? It’s right-brain thing. When you’re thinking of a plot or a setting for a story, think about problems you know, your own or those of people close to you. Don’t ask yourself, “What is this situation like?” Ask yourself, “What does this situation feel like? If you were trying to express the emotional effect to someone, what kind of story would you tell?”

It’s the difference between looking in the windows of a house and walking inside.

(That’s a metaphor, by the way.)

 

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Editing – How Much is Enough?

by Chris McMahon

So you have completed your first draft. Fresh from the rush of getting the story all down in one place and having typed those magical words “THE END” you start – what is  for most writers –  the most time-consuming part of the business.

Editing your manuscript.

I have heard this element of the process described as  “creative bookkeeping”. That sounds a little clinical to me. I find this part takes a lot less creative energy than first drafting (which has become increasing harder). Everyone is different.

The general idea is simple – get rid of what you don’t need, what does not serve the story. The unnerving thing is that so much of the writing process is instinctive, how can you really know what you’re turfing out isn’t crucial on some level you cannot perceive?

Some things are straightforward, like streamlining sentences and paragraphs. Some scenes can be cut without too much of a qualm. Beyond that you are down to collapsing characters into each other, or losing some completely. This is the sort of thing that gives me the shivers. Have I gone too far? Was that character the oddball quirk that could make this noticeable to an editor?

I came to grips with this when I was editing my manuscript, Warriors of the Blessed Realms. As is typical for me, the thing had bloated up 10,000 words from the earlier edits – up to a shocking 160,000 words. That word total is like some sort of lodestone for me unfortunately. My challenge was to get this down to 120,000 words or less. Ouch. I did manage it – but it was tough.

It was surprising how much I managed to remove by just trimming and condensing the text – at least a good 10,000 words – which is sort of embarrassing. Do I really write that sloppily? I guess it’s part of the process. At the time I hoped that maybe the writing gods have seen fit to increase my skills since I did the first draft.

I got the total down to 131,00o words doing the usual sorts of streamlining and scene-cutting. That in itself seemed  like something of a miracle. I had not been able to do this without removing a few incidental characters and some other scenes which I guess weren’t that important to the story. It still hurt losing them! The thing that concerned at the time as I cut and cut and cut was –  am I losing some essential essence from the story? This thought haunted me even more as I ground the total down even further to 120,000, losing even more scenes and another whole character.

What do people think? Can you chop too far? Make the story too spare? Too mechanical? Or is all-out war on the adjective and metaphor and storyline justified?

Extreme Pantser’s Guide – What Editing is and is not

I seem to be suffering from premature conclusions again: I thought I was done with the Extreme Pantser’s Guide, then a discussion over at Sarah’s blog made it clear that there was one more installment, namely this one.

Here’s the problem – there are a lot of different functions that get called “editing”. Only one of them is what authors usually mean when they talk about editing without any qualifiers. This causes people to get confused about what editing actually is, leading someone who’s doing typo and grammar checks or manuscript preparation to think he, she, or in extreme cases it, is an editor.

Some definitions first:

Copyedit – this is your basic typo-hunt, grammar check, did you change your main character’s name somewhere and forget to fix it? It can also include adjusting spelling and grammar to house standards (including things like changing UK-standard spellings to US-standard). Mind you, a really good copyeditor is worth their weight in gold and then some, but it’s not the same thing as editing editing.

Continuity edit – a little more advanced than the copyedit, this is still a basic check but focusing more on things like whether you’ve just run your characters through a 48 hour day, or your main has his coat in one hand, a weapon in the other, and he’s scratching his head with the third hand he shouldn’t have. Also such things as a lunar cycle where it’s full for 3 weeks, new one day later, and spends the next six months stuck half-way. Oddly enough a little historical knowledge, science, and google-fu helps a lot here.

Page proof/layout – this is being called editing more often with the growth of self-publishing and micro presses. It’s actually not: it’s the preparation of a manuscript for publication. This is where manuscripts are formatted to house standards, stripped of extraneous internal coding for conversion to ebook formats, and actually converted.

Editing – without any kind of qualifications, this is the kind of plot tightening and focusing that’s what writers mean when they talk about editing – particularly when they talk wistfully about the absence of real editing.

So… someone who primarily finds grammar or spelling problems and maybe prepares your manuscript for publication electronic or otherwise is not an editor. Neither is the person who catches every last continuity glitch in the piece. These people are usually given titles like copyeditor, proof reader, or printer, and they’re valuable – especially if you stink on ice at any of those particular skills. Unfortunately a lot of them are calling themselves editors (there is a prize example in the comments on the post I linked to up above).

Here are some of the signs you have a real editor:

  • There’s a serious effort to keep your voice intact. Every author has one: it’s a combination of the way they use words, how they fit parts of a story together, all the way up to the kinds of books they write.
  • They don’t try to write the book they want: they try to make the book you wrote as good as it can be.
  • They look at how you’re cuing your characters – is the love interest introduced in a way that sets up the right expectations for readers? Are you giving your hero the kind of traits that tend to be associated with villains without any kind of balancing traits?
  • They suggest ways to tighten the pace of the piece so there aren’t any sections where a reader is likely to yawn and put the book down, without turning it into a breathless rush (unless of course it’s the kind of book that demands a breathless rush as its pace).
  • They look at character actions that don’t fit the overall impression of who that character is, and suggest ways to either correct the impression or make the actions fit.
  • They find places where the phrasing is awkward and smooth it over without altering either the meaning or the subtext of the prose. I personally experienced this from Dave Freer – when he was working with me on His Father’s Son, one of his suggestions was that one specific word gave the wrong impression. Changing that word had an immediate effect on the impact of the entire story (this usually only happens with short stories, although it can hit in a novel with a particularly critical section – especially the opening or the ending).
  • They make sure the opening of the piece sets the right tone and expectations for readers. You don’t want a historical novel or heroic fantasy reading like a modern thriller, and you don’t want hard science fiction reading like a regency romance. Well, not unless you’re writing satirically. This, incidentally, is why the tone of urban fantasy tends to sardonic with a strong overlay of kick-ass. The sardonic offsets the inherent oddness of having classic fantasy critters in modern-day settings, while the kick-ass cues readers to expect a whole lot of action.
  • They make sure the first page has enough information that readers are not going to feel like they’ve been on the wrong end of a bait-and-switch operation. What this translates to is that your piece needs to signal its genre and preferably subgenre early.
  • They do the kind of clean up changes that leave your piece infinitely better but still distinctly yours. A really good editor can take something that feels a bit awkward, and turn it into something you can’t put down – but you’ve got to do a line-by-line comparison of the text to work out what they did to make it that way.

This particular skill set is incredibly rare, and authors that do have it usually can’t put enough distance between themselves and their works to edit their own work. This is what authors mean when they say never to edit yourself. Anyone can typo check, although some are better than others. Ditto grammar (never, ever use software grammar checks. They’re designed to turn the tortured phrasing of non-writers into something readable. Good authors not only know what the rules are, they know when to break them.). Even continuity is something you can do for yourself, and as Amanda’s excellent publishing series has demonstrated, anyone can do that, too.

But actual honest-to-dog editing of the sort that the publishing houses have abandoned? That’s a much rarer beastie.

If you find a friend who can do this, bribe them with anything they ask for to edit your work. It’s worth it.