Friday, September 28, 2007

And Published :)

It's up! [beam] Wow, that was fast! I just responded to the edits last night and it's up already. Thanks to my editor, Shawn, for being very cool and very speedy. Champagne and sparkling cider on me! :D

Learning to Love Yourself

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


I just got the edits on my story from Torquere. I've been feeling really excited and at the same time dreading it a bit -- sort of a combination of, "Come on, come on, next stage, let's go, wanna be published!" along with, "Omigod, what are they gonna do to it?!?!" [laugh]

Turns out they didn't do much, which pleases me to no end. It was just a handful of things, marked in Track Changes on the Word document. Which I've never used before -- I was wondering if I'd have to go hunting through the menus to find it but they're right there and very obvious, although I had to expand the window horizontally to see the notes. They look just like traditional proofreader's margin notes, though, which makes sense but was still sort of cool.

There were two misspellings [duck] and a bunch of very minor stylistic changes, most having to do with punctuation, some separating or pulling apart of sentences, a "dammit" changed to "damn it," that sort of thing. And they don't like compound ending punctuation. I tend to use ?! occasionally and there were one or two of those in this story, both of which got axed down to just ? instead. Nothing I couldn't easily live with.

One thing cracked me up, though -- I've been trying to cut down on my habit of putting a comma before a conjunction. I do it a lot and technically you're not supposed to, but sometimes I think it makes the sentence clearer. I can get a bit excessive, though, so I've been cutting down.

They put a bunch of them back, LOL! Ah, well. I'll have to keep that in mind when I next prep a story to submit to Torquere.

All in all, though, it was a much less painful process than I thought it'd be. There was literally nothing really significant, no major changes at all. I was half expecting to have to cut out the poem at the end, for example. It's really awful doggerel, and although it's supposed to be awful doggerel, I could see someone just wanting to X it out completely. They left it, though, which is cool. [hearts on her editor]

So, I replied to say that it looks fine and the next step is putting it on the schedule. Whee! Can't wait -- I'll definitely be plastering that all over the blogosphere when I get it. :D


Monday, September 24, 2007

Worldbuilding as an On-Going Process

Fantastical worldbuilding seems to be the topic of the day, with WrittenWyrdd and Charles Gramlich both talking about it. They both made some good points and it got me thinking about something I've noticed here and there, especially in science fiction stories.

WW made the point that things are changing pretty quickly, and that someone who was born ninety years ago has seen a huge amount of change in his lifetime. That's very true and the rate of change has been increasing. And yet how often do SF books set in the far future, whether the setting is a future Earth or a planet colonized long ago, where the culture changed only so far and then stopped? It's as though the writer needed Setting X for the story, so they explained how it came to be that things changed from what we have now to what they've got then, and then it all froze and has remained static ever since.

A ship full of religious zealots who believe it's sinful to read on Wednesdays and that long pants are an abomination unto their god leave Earth to build the perfectly moral society. They find a nice planet, build their colony and ban reading on Wednesdays and all pants longer than the knee. A thousand years later when the story takes place, they're still religious zealots, they still don't read on Wednesdays and they still toss the protagonist in prison for wearing long pants.

Seriously? What's the likelihood that any culture stays that static for that long? Even assuming a static environment, which in itself is pretty far-fetched, this would be unbelievable. But on a newly colonized planet, where the people have to deal with alien plants and animals and geology and weather and who knows what other conditions, where any food stock they brought with them has to be adapted, where completely unforeseen dangers and problems and challenges will force them to adapt their habits and values and priorities in order to survive in this strange and possibly deadly place -- a thousand years later they're still rabidly anti-long-pants? Ummm, right. Sure.

The guy WW knows who just turned ninety has seen not only great technological changes, but also huge changes in attitudes and morals and values and priorities. The expectation of what's "normal" has changed several times since 1917, and society has adapted each time. Your average American in 2007 has a much different world view from that of your average American in 1917, or even 1957.

And if there's anything we know about large groups, it's that they're going to disagree. More than two people can't agree on where to go for lunch, much less on what government policy should be. Heinlein once said that a committee is a creature with six or more legs and no brain, and snark aside, I think he was pretty much on it.

So how is it that our entire religious society is still monolithically anti-long-pants after a thousand years? We're supposed to believe that every single generation grew up in absolute accord with the beliefs of their elders? They somehow completely eliminated teenage rebellion, and the desire of the young to be new and different just because? They eliminated the tendency toward factional divisions, and the really useful technique for an opposition party of proposing something different from what the party in power espouses, just to be different? They completely forbade all scientific and technological innovation, and are still using the technology their ancestors brought to the planet, since significant technological change always brings social change with it? (And yeah, in too many stories they still are using the same exact technology their ancestors were. [sigh])

Things just don't change once and then stop. Or if they did, then that's a major issue and big enough to dominate a book all by itself, explaining why and how. Realistically, though, human societies continue to evolve. Sometimes it's slower and sometimes it's faster but they always do change, and they keep changing, and then they change again. Writers who are developing new worlds for science fiction need to keep this in mind.

How did your society begin? What was the baseline? How and why did it change after that? What was the new baseline? Then what changed, and how and why? Then what changed? And then what changed? The farther in the future (or at least, the farther from your baseline) your story is set, the more change you need to work out, a whole series of changes which are all logical or at least believable. The readers might never see a lot of this info (but we're used to that, right? readers rarely see more than ten or twenty percent of our research and development no matter what genre we're writing in) but the writer needs to know it so that everything hangs together. And if the writer doesn't know how a civilization (or a character or an institution or whatever) got from point A to point Q, it'll show.

Charles talked about wanting to see the exotic in fiction, and the exotic is what makes SF -- and fantasy, and horror -- especially creative and memorable. But just as too many books don't show enough change, it's also too common to see what are presented as differences, as exotic and strange and weird, being just rehashes of our mainstream culture. If all a writer's familiar with is American culture, or Western Civilization, that's not a very large pool from which to draw, especially when you're looking for really basic characteristics of a society.

Take the economy. It's always just a given that there'll be some sort of even-exchange economy. Whether what's exchanged is money -- some sort of symbology representing work or production -- or whether the exchange is a direct bartering of goods and services for other services and goods, it's rare to find a future society, or even an alien society, which works any other way. And yet there are other ways of organizing things.

Families, for example, tend to run on true communism -- from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. If Mom is a programmer and makes $65K a year, then that's what she does and that's what she contributes to the family. If Dad is a wood carver and travels to craft fairs on weekends selling his nature carvings, and takes care of the house and looks after the kids during the week around time spent at his carving, then that's what he does. If Sam is fifteen and can cook dinner every night and do all the yard work and laundry for the family, then that's what he does. If Chrissy is five and puts away her toys and cleans the bathroom (sorta) once a week, then that's her contribution. No one expects Chrissy to eat less food or go without shoes just because she doesn't contribute much of anything to the upkeep of the family. No one expects Sam to grow up with crooked teeth just because braces are horribly expensive and his cooking and chores don't add up to "enough" to "repay" the family for that expenditure. This system works for just about all of us and yet hardly any future or alien societies use it.

But okay, that's communism and there's a knee-jerk negative response toward it in the US. There are other systems, though. The potlatch system awards status to people or families who give away a lot of stuff to others in the community. In that kind of society, the status and admiration is worth more than wealth, so people accumulate stuff just so they can give it away in exchange for status. And reciprocity is like barter but not so direct -- more a system where people do favors for each other, give things to people who need them and get things from other people. There's a general awareness of who's given you things or done favors but not the strict record keeping that a money economy has, or the right-now exchange of value for value that a barter system uses.

Most of these alternative systems work best for small groups, but SF writers are supposed to be imaginative and good at extrapolating. If a society got to, say, the classical period on a communistic or potlatch or reciprocal system of exchange (and the Roman Empire did have a bit of the potlatch about it, with the Senators spending a lot of their personal income on public works and facilities and celebrations, because it was expected of their class and they'd lose status and influence if they didn't) how could that be tinkered with to last through the Middle Ages? The Industrial Revolution? The Information Age?

What new systems -- economic, political, social -- might settlers on a new planet come up with? After all, they're starting fresh. They can do whatever they want. What new and different systems might they invent and try out? And then how might those systems change in a generation or three? A century or three? A millenium or three?

There are more options than are immediately obvious in the industrialized world. An anthropology class (or even a good text or two) is a great source for ideas and will give a writer some notion of just how many different ways people all over the planet have organized themselves. When writing aliens, or even human societies far enough away from ours, it pays to give them customs and institutions and social organizations different enough from ours that they actually feel alien, different, exotic. And once you've got that, keep in mind that the society will change over time. A society with a dynamic history behind it will always feel more realistic than one which has apparently been stuck in the same rut for the last fifty generations.

The exotic is all about change, though. Whether your society starts with "us" and then evolves away, or starts somewhere strange and different and then evolves to be even more strange and different, it's not an alien (or elven or nether plane) society if it sounds like it was lifted right out of Iowa.


Saturday, September 22, 2007

Writers and Readers and Creative Diversity

Wendy Crutcher posted this morning in Romancing the Blog about a favorite contemporary romance writer whose latest book was a paranormal romance, and expressed some dismay at a well-liked author moving to a subgenre she doesn't really care for. The point of her post was something else (and worth reading) but it made me think about the preference so many readers have for reading in their favorite little niche or two and their reluctance to try new things. I'm sure we've all heard of writers who've changed pen names when they changed genres, and the standing wisdom that it's better for marketing purposes to become a whole new person if your writing changes too much.

But as Ms. Crutcher's comments, and those of any number of other people I've heard on the subject show, there are readers who don't even want to shift subgenres, much less genres. Ms. Crutcher bought the latest book of this writer she likes, but is hoping she'll move back to straight contemporary. And I know people who just won't shift their reading patterns, period, no matter how much they like a writer.

This is rather depressing because I'm the sort of writer who likes to try a lot of different things. Looking at my current backlog of completed stories, I have:

Humorous Romance 2
Humorous Erotica 2
Humorous Erotic Romance 2
Erotic Suspense 1
Erotic Paranormal Romantic Suspense 1
Erotic Suspense 1
Contemporary Erotica 2
Contemporary Romance 2
Romantic Adventure 1
Contemporary Romantic Erotic Suspense 1
Contemporary BDSM Erotica 2
Humorous BDSM Erotica 2
Contemporary Erotic Romance 2
SF Erotic Romance 1
Non-Romantic SF 1
Non-Romantic Fantasy 2
Contemporary Fantasy Erotica 1
Contemporary Fantasy/Horror 1
Urban Fantasy Romance 1
Urban Fantasy Humorous Romance 1
Comic Fantasy 1
Comic Contemporary Fantasy 1
Humorous Contemporary Fantasy Romance 1
Comic Fantasy Erotica 1

Wow, I didn't realize I'd written so much of the funny. [blinkblink] And actually, although I tried to distinguish between comedy (where the funny is an integral part of the story) and humorous (where there are significant funny bits but the story isn't necessarily funny), there are still others that have less significant funny bits. The Urban Fantasy Romance, for example, has funny bits but I could take them out without changing the main plotline. There's also some suspense, but it's just the last few chapters, so.... :P

But the point is, I like trying a lot of different kinds of stories. There are a few in there which aren't erotic or romantic (unusual for me) and there's even one which is technically het, since at least the main character (male) is fantasizing about a girl. I have lengths from three hundred words and change to just over 40K. Straight contemporary, urban fantasy, horror/fantasy, modern (but not urban) fantasy, SF....

I like writing different things -- different settings and lengths and moods, sexy and not, romantic and not, normal and fantastical, tense and light, plus anything else that pops into my head, and the thought of "branding" myself and sticking to one subgenre forever is dismaying. Any suggestion that I "should" stick to one thing for whatever reason makes me snarl. One of the things that makes creative work interesting and absorbing and creative is always learning and growing and pushing one's boundaries as an artist. If you can't do that, then why bother?

I don't even think everyone has to do it the way I do, everything all at once. If someone wants to write half a dozen historical romances, then eight contemporary romances, then five contemporary paranormal romances, then ten non-romantic urban fantasies, then whatever else, that's cool too. I can understand serial monogamy, even if I don't practice it, at least literarily. :)

But the thought of spending my life writing nothing but X, even if X is something I like.... No, that's not for me. If someone else is into that, and finds creative satisfaction in writing all in one subgenre forever, then good for them, honestly. I can't do that, though, and I know a lot of other writers who can't either.

So what do we do? Have a different pseudonym for every genre? Or even every subgenre? Completely re-market ourselves every time we do something new or different? Or see sales drop when we write something new under our old name and wonder whether it was marketed properly or whether it was just tossed into the same old chute, despite the fact that it doesn't fit? Here I'm thinking of Orson Scott Card and Alan Dean Foster, two well known SF and Fantasy writers who each wrote a straight historical novel at one point. Most bookstores shelved their straight historicals with the SF/Fantasy books, leaving SF/Fantasy fans annoyed at what looked like a bait-and-switch, and leaving fans of historical novels with no clue the books existed because they never showed up on "their" shelving unit in the bookstore. That serves neither the writers nor the existing fans of the genre the writers tried.

I certainly understand having preferences for some genres and not caring for others. But when it comes down to it, for me it's about the writer, not the genre. Personally, I'll follow a favorite writer (I call them my short-list writers) anywhere. I might not absolutely love everything they write, but I'll at least give them a shot no matter what they try or how their stories change. One of my very favorite historical romance writers switched to contemporary romance back in the eighties. I was dismayed but I tried her new book and it was good, so I kept buying her contemporaries. It wasn't a genre I liked but I liked her so I kept reading her books. One of my favorite fanfic writers has gotten me to read and enjoy a World War II story, fercripesake! Now that's skill. When I read the summary when the story began, my initial reaction was "Ack!" but I tried it and it was good. There you go -- that's what matters. And I hope at least a core of my readers will follow me, even if they're sort of iffy at first, because they like me and my writing, because I don't plan to dig myself into a rut just to make it easy on Marketing.

But a lot of readers won't, and will whine and gripe and swear when their very favorite writers "abandon" or "betray" them. [eyeroll] Wow, entitled much...? That's what's out there, though, and we need to at least think about it. :/


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

OK, This Is Just Freaky

Check out this article in Wikipedia. It's about a particular linguistic oddity....

"Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo" is a grammatically correct sentence used as an example of how homonyms and homophones can be used to create complicated constructs.

I had to keep reading and squint for a while before I got what it's saying, but yeah, it does work. That doesn't make it any less freaky, though, LOL!

I love stuff like this. :)


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Conflict, Plot and Structure

So I'm reading this novel online. It's being posted a chapter at a time, as it's written. The writer's not bad -- her mechanics are decent, I care about the characters, the setting is unusual and interesting, the flow is mostly smooth. Her dialogue doesn't clunk and she makes me laugh at times and some of the passages and scenes are quite beautiful. But I've found it hard to keep reading for the last six or ten chapters.

That's because, about that long ago (and that's as close as I can come without searching back for the exact point) the main conflict wrapped up. The characters had been running for their lives from an agent of an overwhelming authority and the entire first chunk of the novel had been about that flight, that struggle to escape from unjust persecution. The characters were clever and brave and had just enough good luck and they succeeded, yay! There were some less important plot holes left and I would've been interested in a sequel, but the Main Conflict was resolved and the story was over.

Except it wasn't. It just kept going. Another chapter went up, and another, and not a whole lot was happening. There was some character and relationship development, and the characters did some, "So, what do we do next?" type of pondering (which reflected my own thoughts and I'm sort of wondering whether it didn't also reflect the writer's flailing around as she tried to regain her grip on the story which had slid out from under her). A couple more chapters down the line the characters had another problem to solve, although it wasn't really a novel-weight problem. They solved that one and fell into another short-term problem, promptly this time. And just a scant handful of chapters ago, they solved that second not-really-heavy-enough problem and (promptly again -- she's getting better at this) found another one.

Now they have another longer-term goal and it looks like they're set for a while. But I still have to sort of make myself read each time a new chapter goes up, because my inner reader knows that the main problem was solved like eight or so chapters back and the story was supposed to end and it didn't and my inner reader is still a bit pissy about that. Maybe it's that I don't trust her anymore to be in control of this story she's writing. Once I start reading each new chapter, I enjoy it (which is why I bother nudging myself each time) but that reluctance is still there.

So what happened? It could be a few things, and without interviewing the writer about it (since I don't know her anywhere near well enough to have the, "So, exactly what mistakes are you making with this story...?" discussion [wry smile]) I have some guesses.

First, it might be that she didn't have a clear idea of exactly what the main plotline would be when she started. She might be a seat-of-the-pants sort of writer, who starts with some characters and a situation and just writes wherever they take her. This works for some people but not for others, and if this is how she works then in this case it hasn't served her very well. Even when writing seat-of-the-pants, you still need to be aware of how conflict, plot and story relate and she doesn't seem to.

Second, she might've had a clear idea of what her main conflict was all about when she started, but when she got to the end she saw that there were more unanswered questions or more interesting things for the characters to do, so she just kept writing until she came across another major conflict. If this is the case, then she might have a decent grasp of plotting but not know much about structure. That is, it's possible she can identify a major conflict and how it relates to a plotline, but she's not quite clear about how conflict and plot relate to story structure, or specifically to where a story begins and ends.

Or third, she might have started out with some clear ideas of what she wanted her characters to do over the course of the story, including the parts she hasn't written yet, but didn't know how the events of the story relate to conflict, plot and structure. Some beginning-level writers think that writing a story is just "telling what happened" and have no notion of the structure behind it all.

Whatever the problem is, one of those or something I haven't thought of, the bottom line is she's not in control of her story and it's suffering for it. Which is unfortunate because like I said at the top, it's basically a good story, interesting, well-written at the mechanics level, with good characters and all. It's the larger structure she's not getting.

Pick a protagonist. Who wants something and can't have it? Who's about to fall into a flaming pit and wants to escape it? Whose action to achieve some goal is going to drive the story? You can have multiple main characters, although they're trickier to keep organized and their goals need to be pretty closely related, even if the reader doesn't see how until the end of the story.

What does your protagonist want? [Goal] Why can't he have it? [Obstacle] What does he do to try to get it anyway? There -- that bit right there is your plot. It's depressing how many writers can't define "plot" at that basic level.

There can be multiple subplots (in a novel length story there had better be) but the main plot should be introduced first so the reader knows what the story as a whole is about. If your story opens with your protag griping to her best friend about how much she hates her job, how pointless her life seems, and how she has all these dreams and goals of owning her own business and making a difference in the lives of many people, then that's what the story's about. There's your protag's goal and that's what the readers will assume she's going to work to achieve over the course of the story. Introducing some gorgeous guy in chapter five and turning it into a romance novel doesn't work -- the readers will feel cheated and misled no matter how well-written the romantic storyline is.

The climax of the story comes when the protag either gets what he wants, or comes to realize and/or accept that he can't have it no matter what he does. Everything after that -- and it should be as short as possible -- is just wrap-up, weaving in loose ends. If there are loose ends which will take another chapter or more of weaving, then either they should've been taken care of before the main plotline wrapped, or they should be left for a sequel.

The story I mentioned at the top ended when the main conflict was resolved. The characters' main goal, as presented, was to escape the unjust persecution of the government and specifically of the government agent who'd been after them. Once that was achieved, the story was over.

The characters still had more to do, yes -- they weren't kicking back on a beach sipping umbrella drinks once they slipped the net and went zooming off unpursued -- but the main plotline of that story was finished and the story should've ended. Their next major goal, the one they're currently working on, should've been the driver for the main plotline of a sequel. (And I estimate she's over 150K words, while barely into the second main plotline -- it's not like breaking this up would leave her with two scrawny stories.)

The two intervening minor bits could've been worked in or worked around; personally I can think of one I would've dropped (neither of the two main stories would've been affected at all) and the other I'd have tied into the second main plotline. The one that could be dropped without hurting either of the larger stories could even have been written up as a short story, taking place between the two novel-length stories. It's not like these are printed books which have to fit neatly on a Borders shelf; each story can be whatever length it needs to be.

Instead it's all mashed together, the edges stuck onto each other with duct tape, and the story feels random and disconnected. It doesn't feel like "A Story," and that makes me as a reader back off a little, emotionally. It feels like the writer's just sort of wandering and I no longer fully trust her not to lead me off a cliff somewhere. Which is a bummer because she is a good writer; she just needs to learn what a story is so she knows when to begin and end.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Would You Want to Know?

Oh, man.... I just downloaded an e-book tonight, a sequel to another book I enjoyed. When I got the first one, I Googled for the writer's blog and went over to say hi and how much I enjoyed it, etc., and RSSed her blog so I'd hear about future books.

So far so good except I started reading this new one, which just came out today, and there's this huge glitch right on page one. Well, it's not a massive file hash or anything but it's a mistake and it's huge to me. I have no idea how it got missed but there it is. [facepalm]

I'm thinking that maybe not too many people have downloaded it yet and maybe there's time to fix it. Can something be fixed in an electronic book after it's been posted? Easily fixed or is it a big hassle?

I went back to the writer's blog but there's no e-mail address anywhere obvious, and I didn't want to post about it right there on her release announcement 'cause that'd be kind of tacky. I went to the publisher's page and there's no way to contact the writer through them. They have a Customer Service e-mail address, but they list major problems like corrupted files and what-not and I don't want them to think I'm hinting to get my money back or anything like that, or even making a huge deal out of it because it's really not. I'm just really feeling for this writer who's all excited about her new book and here's this thing right there on page one. :( I know if it were me (and heck, it might be soon) I'd definitely want to know about it.

I'm used to being able to e-mail a writer if I see something really awful in an online story. But then, I'm used to a system where the writer can dash in and fix something like this in thirty seconds, too. If it were your book, would you want to know? Or rather, would it accomplish anything at all positive to have a reader point it out?

Angie, wincing

Where I Was

Nancy over on Writerly Stuff made a post for the anniversary of 9/11. She asked where people were that day. My answer got a little long so I decided to put it here.

I was at home asleep that morning, but my husband woke me up. He'd heard about the attack on the radio while getting dressed for work and we turned on the TV to watch the news. After he left, I got on the phone and called my mother. She answered and I said, "Are you watching TV?"

She said she was and we spent the next fifteen minutes or so watching together, exclaiming and wondering and expressing our disbelief and sheer bogglement at what was going on.

Then somewhere in there I realized I wasn't talking to my mother. I'd misdialed and ended up talking to some random woman in a different area code. I hadn't bothered with a, "Hi, Mom, how's it going?" at the beginning of the conversation, so we'd just dived right into all the "OMG I don't believe this!!"

After figuring out that we were complete strangers, we kept watching the news and talking for a few more minutes, then wished each other well and hung up. I called my actual mother (more carefully this time). We got a bit of a laugh out of my story of having talked to the wrong "Mom" for a while, which probably helped some. Or maybe there was a thread of hysteria in it.

But only on a day like that would having a stranger call up and introduce herself with, "Are you watching TV?" be a welcome event. That stranger and I both needed someone -- anyone -- to talk to that morning, someone with whom we could share our tangled feelings and reactions while watching what happened on TV get worse and worse.

Thinking about it, it's the sort of event that would sound hokey if used in a story. Sure, she just happened to get someone who sounded enough like her mom that she didn't notice for all that time. Sure, she just happened to call up someone who was watching the same news program and felt like talking to some whacked-out stranger who phoned them out of the blue and didn't even give a name. It's the sort of thing that I'd eyeroll over, even if just a little, if I read it in a book.

That's the kind of day it was, though. And at the time, it didn't feel hokey at all.


Monday, September 10, 2007

My First Contract

That sounds like the title of a picture book or something, heh. But the contract from Torquere arrived and I'm really jazzed. It's pretty straightforward, no gotchas or weirdnesses. I'll get it back in the mail tomorrow so the wheels can keep turning.

Although there is one funny -- I get a free contributor's copy, LOL! Gotta love electronic publishing. :D


Saturday, September 8, 2007

Collecting Opinions

December/Stacia posted an interesting question yesterday, talking about a discussion on another blog centered around whether a woman who offered sex to a depressed man was "taking advantage" of him. Apparently most of the folks over at the original discussion thought she should've offered him ice cream instead, or something like that, and saved the sexual advances for when he was feeling better. [blinkblink]

Wow, and I thought it was just those of us who write gay romances who have to worry about slipping into the "chicks with dicks" problem. :P

I think it's pretty obvious where my opinion lies on this topic, but there's a larger issue here. Apparently a writer who was worrying about how one of her sex scenes would come across to readers posted the original question, hoping to get some data. This sounds like a good idea but unfortunately one can't necessarily rely on even a large group on the internet to be representative of general thinking, even within a subgroup such as Romance Readers. Any group larger than one has occasional disagreements and the larger the group the more likely disagreements are. Larger groups are also more likely to fracture themselves into smaller subgroups who all feel approximately the same way about some issue.

So you've got a question and you want to know if "everyone else" in your group thinks A or B. You post to a blog or forum where many members of your interest group hang out and 95% of the people there are very clear that they think A, and that in fact B is such a distant second that only a brainless moron would choose that option. I can guarantee you, though, that somewhere else online there's another blog or forum full of people from the same interest group who will very loudly and strongly think B, and who will assert that only drooling psychos would choose A. And somewhere else there's another blog or forum where the group would come up with C, defend it just as strongly as the preferred option, and spork you to virtual death for even suggesting that A or B might be worth considering.

So what's agreement worth, really?

It can still be useful for a writer to know what people think. I remember a workshop where a critiquer dinged a writer for having her long-haired character comb her hair while it was still wet. That should never be done, she said, because it damages the hair. You should wait for it to dry and then comb it. Other people popped up to say no, that's wrong -- you should comb it while it's wet because if it dries first, the tangles set and you're more likely to damage it when combing them out. There were two approximately equal groups of women arguing opposite sides, all insisting their mothers had taught them The Right Way.

In a case like this, it was good news for the writer. What it meant is that there are women being taught both ways and that therefore she could have her character do whatever she wanted and it was perfectly believable that the character's mother taught her that way of doing it.

[It also proved that some women will become absolutely rabid about hair care. :D ]

But just because the blog or forum in which someone chooses to post their question doesn't demonstrate a divided opinion, doesn't mean opinion isn't divided among a larger population. A writer who's feeling hesitant about some issue might find strong agreement in one place but still have other people write angry letters once the book is published. Or they might find strong disagreement from the group they chose to ask, when a larger audience might've enjoyed it and appreciated how the issue was handled.

If a nervous writer just needs some reassurance that whatever-it-is doesn't completely suck, or that they're not totally off base with something, and they can find that reassurance and go back to their writing feeling more confident, then that's cool. But unless someone's waving a check at you, their opinion is only data and I'd hate to see a writer discard or radically change what could've been a really interesting and possibly edgy story because twelve people on a blog somewhere told them that doing X was sick and disgusting. And I'd hate just as much to see a writer use duct tape to stick more sex and violence and radical whatever into a sweetly mellow book, because a different twelve people on some other forum told them their story was blah and boring and too twee for words.

I get the desire to collect opinions and I certainly enjoy discussing whatever might come up online. But at the same time when the issue is how a story should go or how a character should behave, a writer needs to start out with a strong sense of confidence in their own point of view, in the story they're telling and the way they're telling it. If the group -- any group -- is advising changes which would take the story significantly away from the writer's original vision because of a difference in taste or world view, then the writer needs to toughen their hide and learn to take opinions as only data and stick with the basic story they're telling, unless someone comes up with a convincing argument with reasons for changing beyond a bare "I prefer it this way."

Ideally the reasons would include, "I'll give you a contract and an advance for XXXX amount if you make [this] change."


Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Time Management

All right, so I've been procrastinating -- I'll cop to that. [duck] But I was wandering around on a blog I don't visit very often and found a good series of articles on time management.

Colleen Doran is a comic artist/writer who's had more excitement in her professional life so far than anyone deserves, and in fact had more excitement in her pro life before she was twenty than anyone deserves. The work she's best known for is a comic called A Distant Soil and if you like SF/Fantasy blends with excellent writing, gorgeous art and beautifully drawn men (OK, she does really nice women too) it's well worth checking out.

But recently in her blog she reposted a series of five articles she wrote on time management for an online magazine a few years ago, now with updates and additional commentary. The article series is here (the link goes to the post with parts four and five; links to the first three parts are at the top) and I recommend it highly. Note that although they were written for an audience in the comics industry, she refers to creative workers in general and I found most of what she said quite relevant to writing alone.

Some bits which particularly struck me:

Writer’s Block is nothing but a creator’s special brand of procrastination.

Umm, yeah. I'm a great procrastinator; it's one of my more finely honed skills. :/

Lose only one hour of time per day to disorganization (and that is a conservative, average estimate most time management gurus agree on) and you’ve lost 365 hours of work per year.

I don't have all that much paperwork to organize yet, but once I have contracts and tax forms and royalty statements to keep track of, I can see this happening. I already lose books, articles and web bookmarks, some of which relate to story ideas, contests, or other writing opportunities. Thinking about how to get better organized now is probably a good idea.

On time is NEVER good enough. ... Schedule every project as if you have days and, if possible, weeks less time than you actually have. ... You could have a family emergency or financial crises that will distract you. Pages could get lost. The cat could drop a hairball on your script. You never know. Last month I was bitten by a brown recluse spider on my drawing arm. There was no way to prepare for that!

Again, I'm an expert procrastinator. Writing for fiction fests and exchanges has made me a lot better at working to deadline but I have a feeling it's going to be a while before I learn to habitually shoot for early. I know she's right, though, about things coming up. Last time I missed a deadline was when my mother got sick and I went to take care of her for about a week past the deadline, then when I got home from that I got on another plane the very next day to go to the World Science Fiction Convention with my husband. I very often [cough] get stories in at the stroke of deadline and it usually works but when something goes sproing, you're hosed. :/ Definitely have to work on building some padding into the schedule.

If you want to be a part time creator, you will likely get part time results.

I stared at this one for a bit. I'm sure it's true but I don't know that I'm able to commit to forty hours a week of working on fiction (or anything else, either.) Even factoring in research and plot development and babbling my way through dead ends and searching out markets and getting things formatted properly and sent out, and learning to write synopses when I get back to novels, I don't know if I can do that for forty hours a week. Which sounds really lame but there you go, I'm trying to be realistic. If I could make a forty hour/week committment I'd have a regular job, so.... I think I'll have to keep this flexible, while keeping my goals in mind.

When it comes to managing your time, your best friends can be your worst enemies. Establish boundaries. Set strict limits for who, what, where and when will enter your studio and take up your time.

This one actually made me feel sort of happy to be a hermit. [rueful smile] I have only one friend in southern California and if I see him once a year that's a lot. My next nearest close friends are about four hundred miles away, so I don't have to worry about people dropping in. I never thought of this as a positive sort of thing before but I guess it is. I can go weeks without ever walking through the front door and I guess that's a feature rather than a bug when it comes to having time to get things done.

I am, however, very glad I don't have any friends like this one woman Colleen talks about. It'd make me rip the phone out of the wall. :/

Boundaries don’t make you a bad friend. Violating them does.


Consider ANY OTHER JOB IN THE WORLD where buddies would be encouraged to just drop in and hang out. There isn’t one. But few respect the boundaries creators set on their time, because they don’t think that we have real jobs.

As I said, I don't have this problem myself, but I can see this happening for folks who are (any) more gregarious than I am. It does, however, strike me as a pretty decent conflict for a story. [ponder]

Clutter is a kind of visual noise. It is distracting and demoralizing. It will impede your ability to work. An inability to find important documents or file effectively will eat into your work time. Think of that seven hours a week that you are probably wasting struggling with your clutter right now.

Ummm, yeah. :/ I don't struggle all that much with my clutter; I mostly submit to it. I want that book but it's one of the 3/4 of our library that isn't on shelves because we don't have enough shelves nor room to put up more. It's in a pile somewhere or maybe in a box, so I'll find it later. I know I had a magazine with an article on how the human body reacts in sub-freezing water and I've got this story idea, but I have no idea where the mag is and just the thought of hunting for it feels exhausting, so I don't. That sort of thing. That's bad, I know, and shovelling the place out would make it much easier to get things done, as well as just making the place more pleasant to live in. :(

Because I still have more books than I can reasonably store, my simple rule is ten books must go out for every book I take in.

Oh, man, I don't have anywhere near that kind of discipline! :D Neither does my husband. We're both packrats and books are the one biggest weakness both of us have. Any de-cluttering scheme I came up with would have to involve keeping all our books, less the twenty or so which are duplicates I mean to get rid of anyway.

My other big weakness is craft supplies, although that comes and goes in waves, and I haven't had a wave hit in quite a while. [crossed fingers] I do a lot of different kinds of needlework, though, and I can go several years without particularly wanting to, say, work on my needle lace, or do any beadwork, or knit, or work on that free-form cross stitch piece. But when I want to, I really want to, and it's good when everything I need is right there waiting for me patiently. Assuming I can find it, of course. :P

I suppose procrastination is different for everyone, but for me, procrastination is more about performance anxiety than anything else.

Humm. That's part of it, yes. [ponder] I was just talking with WrittenWyrdd over at her blog about how I'm much more likely to get into a flailing logjam on projects I feel very strongly about than on projects which feel more like something casual and just sort of fun to do. That's exactly what it feels like -- I start worrying that I won't do proper justice to this project which means so much to me and my brain clogs up. :/ And when a project -- anything, not just writing -- goes past a certain point of discomfort I start avoiding it, not even wanting to think about it. This is where I developed my talent for pounding out decent copy, whether fiction or a paper for school or whatever, at the last minute. It works beautifully, except when it doesn't. (To be fair to myself, it works beautifully about eighty percent of the time. I've gotten As on term papers and take-home essay exams which were done in the twenty or so hours before the time they were due, and great comments on stories which were similarly banged out at the last minute. My subconscious does wonderful work for me, most of the time. It's that other twenty percent that's the problem.) One more thing to work on; I'll group that in with building padding into my schedule.

Colleen has a couple of interesting exercises for dealing with performance anxiety-induced procrastination. I'm not sure the first one would work for me (I don't even own a typewriter anymore) but the second has some possibilities, especially if I sat at the computer and wrote it out while thinking, instead of just imagining it. Check them out and see if they'd work for you.

Learn to turn tasks over to others. If you’re a control freak like me, even letting someone else vacuum your floor is a major issue. If you’re not, this advice will not be any problem for you.

Had to laugh here -- anyone who wants to come vacuum my rugs is more than welcome. I'll have a key made for you. :D

Anyway, this is a really good set of articles and they translate very well to writing. Definitely a lot of advice worth considering there.


Monday, September 3, 2007

Maintaining a Conversation

One of the things I like about blogging is having conversations with people. You know, someone says something, I comment, they comment back to me, I comment back to them, someone else comments to them too and I comment to the third person and so does the original poster, who also comments back to me.... Like people talking. It's fun and interesting and can be pretty informative as people share ideas and compare views and occasionally hash out differences in the back-and-forthing of conversation.

LiveJournal (and the other systems based on LJ's engine) has a couple of ways in which it facilitates this process. First, you can tell it you want to get an e-mail notification whenever someone replies to you. This applies to both original posts you make in your journal and to comments you make on someone else's journal. So if I comment on Mary's journal and she responds to me, I get an e-mail with my comment and Mary's reply, and a convenient link that'll take me back to that conversation if I want to go and add to it.

The automatic e-mail notification only works to comments directly under mine, though, so if Jane comments to Mary's comment to my comment, I won't get a notification with Jane's comment, although it might be of interest to me. For that, LJ has a special button (which looks like a pushpin) to tell the system I want notifications of all comments under the level which was pushpinned. So I can pushpin my comment on Mary's journal and get all the comments under mine, whether they respond directly to one of my comments or not. That way, I'll get to see that interesting comment thread Mary and Jane get going between them. Or I could just pushpin Mary's original post, and I'd get notification of all the comments made to it, no matter who made them.

I love the pushpin. It lets you follow long, multi-thread discussions between dozens of people.

At this point, though, I'd be really happy if Blogger (and other common blogging systems used out here) just had a system to let me know when someone's commented to one of my comments.

A couple of times I've seen a check-box with a label like, "Notify me of followup comments via e-mail." Whenever I've commented to a post where that option was present, I always checked the box. I've never gotten anything in e-mail from those posts, although going back and manually checking has shown that there were later comments.

Manual checking -- a couple of times a day, for a couple of days (or longer if we had a bit of a conversation going) -- was mildly annoying but not a major pain back when I only visited a couple of non-LJ blogs. Now that I have quite a list, though, it's getting frustrating. What does everyone else do? There has to be some trick to it. Is there a way to get e-mail notifications, something I just haven't found to click or check or sign up for?

If not, and if you're going back and checking for replies manually, do you have a system for that? How do you remember which posts in which blogs you've commented to and when? Do you write them all down? I've thought of that, but it seems to be rather a stone-knives-and-bear-skins solution to the problem. :/

Maybe this is why I see so few long-thread conversations on regular blogs? Any thoughts? Advice? Tricks or mechanisms I've missed...?