Tag Archives: writing

Interview with Edward Willett

13 Jan

A great bundle of science fiction books is currently being offered at https://storybundle.com/scifi, consisting of six titles from Bundoran Press and six by some great writers who have befriended the press over the years. As an added bonus, we will be running a series of interviews with the authors about their contribution to the Bundle.

Next up: Edward Willett

When did you first know you wanted to be a science fiction writer and why? How long after than did you have your first fiction sale?

I have two older brothers, both of whom read science fiction, so that was what was in the house when I reached book-reading age (which for me was pretty early: I taught myself to read in kindergarten after our teacher introduced us to phonics). The first science fiction novel I remember reading was Robert Silverberg’s young-adult book Revolt on Alpha C (his first published novel, written when he was nineteen), but it wasn’t long before I was devouring SF. Robert A. Heinlein was unquestionably my favorite, with Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton, Zenna Henderson, Arthur C. Clarke, and many others close behind. I read fantasy, too, and loved it as well.

The first complete short story I remember writing came about because a friend and I, when I was about eleven, needed something to do on a rainy day (this being pre-Internet), so we decided to write stories. I don’t know if he finished his, but I finished mine: “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot.” (One thing my reading had apparently convinced me of was that science fiction characters had to have weird names.) My mother, who was a secretary, typed it for me, and then I showed it to my Grade 8 English teacher at the Weyburn (Saskatchewan) Junior High School, Tony Tunbridge. He did me the honor of taking it seriously, critiquing it, not just patting me on the head for having written it, but asking why my character did what he did, what the aliens wanted, etc.

I kept writing stories after that, and I tried to make each one better. They got longer and longer, so that by high school, I was writing novels—three of them, one each in Grades 10, 11, and 12: The Golden Sword, Ship from the Unknown, and Slavers of Thok. I shared them with my classmates and discovered I could tell stories people really enjoyed reading, and it was somewhere along in there I decided what I really wanted to be was a science fiction/fantasy writer.

However, I also knew you couldn’t make a living as a writer, at least not right off the bat, so I went into journalism, figuring at least I’d be writing. I wrote newspaper stories during the day and fiction at night and sold my first short story when I was 23 years old—but it wasn’t science fiction: it has a little historical adventure piece about two kids caught in a blizzard in Saskatchewan around 1905, published by Western People, the magazine supplement of The Western Producer, an agricultural newspaper. (Side note: years later, I sold a short story called “Strange Harvest” to Western People, probably the only science-fiction story it ever published.)

My first science fiction sale came not too long after that. “The Minstrel” was published by the now defunct Canadian children’s magazine JAM. It’s a story about a boy on a backward planet who has mysteriously inherited a strange musical instrument that is able to make its listeners feel the player’s emotions. It turns out the instrument is an ancient alien artifact an unscrupulous man will stop at nothing to possess…

The story has a scene where the boy stands outside the fence surrounding the spaceport, staring at the glittering ships standing within, fiercely longing to leave his world and journey to the stars. It’s a longing I knew and know well: the longing that has always driven me to write science fiction and continues to drive me to write science fiction—the desire to explore unknown worlds, and to take my readers along for the ride.

What themes appear most strongly in your writing? What makes you particularly care about those ideas?

As I look back over some twenty novels, one theme stands out above all others: the importance of the individual—of individual rights, and of individual responsibility.

An individual may belong to several different groups, but he or she is not defined by those groups. Each person is a world unto him or herself, full of contradictions and surprises. Each person is living out his or her own story, of which he or she is the protagonist. Each must make his or her own decisions and live with the consequences of those decisions.

My protagonists are individuals who find themselves thrust into strange circumstances. They struggle to understand what is happening, to do the right thing, to make things better, to save themselves and others. They often make terrible mistakes along the way, and they may even fail in the end—but they don’t give up.

That, ultimately, is the best any of us can do in our lives.

Are you a plotter or a pantser or some combination of the two? Do prefer to writing or re-writing? Do you write every day or when the muse strikes you?

 I’m a combination plotter/pantser. I write fairly detailed synopses—say, five or six single-spaced pages—but I also discover much of the story along the way. In my novel Terra Insegura (published by DAW Books, the sequel to the Aurora Award-winning Marseguro), I introduced a minor viewpoing character primarily because I needed someone in orbit while my other viewpoint characters were down on Earth. But that character soon became central to the plot, to the point where I had to stop about three-quarters of the way through and replot everything to the end, my synopsis no longer being applicable. In my recent novel The Cityborn (also DAW Books), I was about two-thirds of the way through the writing before I finally realized what the book was really about—the theme, not the plot. The actual writing, the interaction of the characters, and the details of the world I’d created, much of it on the fly, came together to reveal something I hadn’t fully grasped when I began drafting the novel.

As host of the podcast The Worldshapers (www.theworldshapers.com), in which I interview other science fiction and fantasy authors about their creative processes, I ask this same question, more or less. Every author’s approach is different, with some doing little outlining and some doing such a detailed outline literally nothing is left to chance during the actual writing. I think the former would be too chaotic and the latter too confining for me, so I’m definitely somewhere in the middle.

I enjoy writing the first draft of books, but I also enjoy rewriting. As per my answer above, I discover things about the story during the drafting that I can then go back and insert or strengthen during the rewriting. Seeing where the characters end up often means changing their dialogue or reactions in the earlier parts of the book. Settings may be modified for the same reason. Sometimes I’ll need to insert new scenes.

All of this is fun, because, basically, I just enjoy writing. I even enjoy copy-editing. In My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle sings, “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words,” but I’m never sick of words. I love them.

And, yes, I do write every day (if you also count rewriting/editing), but I’m not necessarily writing fiction every day. As a full-time freelance writer, I write a lot of non-fiction as well, so what I’m writing from day to day depends on the current projects I’ve taken on and when their deadlines are.

I learned long ago not to depend on a muse: one thing being a newspaper reporter teaches you is that when you sit down at the keyboard, you have to produce, because the newspaper is going to come out no matter what, and you’d better have your story ready to go into it. It’s one reason I think print journalism isn’t a bad place for any wannabe writer to start: better, I honestly think, than a creative writing degree.

If you could give one piece of advice to a budding writer, what would it be?

First, read. You cannot write in this genre without reading in this genre (the same is true of any genre, of course). Read the classics, read the newest and hottest bestsellers, read the obscure and forgotten. Find what resonates with you and try to figure out why. Writing a story is a process of encountering and solving problems: establishing character, providing backstory, creating believable dialogue, crafting immersive settings, etc. Seeing how other writers have overcome (or failed to overcome) those problems will help you tackle them yourself.

At the same time, write, write, write. Writing skill is like any other skill—piano playing, figure skating, painting. Practice doesn’t make perfect (because no piece of writing is ever perfect, or at least, there is no piece of writing that is universally accepted to be perfect), but it does make better.

And finally, don’t give up. As many others have pointed out, quite often the biggest difference between those who failed at becoming a writer and those who succeeded is simply that those who succeeded never gave up, no matter how difficult the road.

I guess that’s actually three pieces of advice, but (to paraphrase Dr. McCoy), dammit, I’m a writer, not a mathematician.

 

To learn more about this great bundle of books, visit https://storybundle.com/scifi.

To connect with Bundoran Press, visit our web-site, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @BundoranPress

To learn more about Ed and his writing, visit: https://edwardwillett.com/

 

Bundled Up (Writing from Yellowknife)

8 Apr

You might think from my last couple of blogs that I know everyone in Canadian SF. While I have been kicking around the field for decades (I went to my first SF convention as a fan in Halifax in 1980) and sold my first SF short story in 1995 (after a few years as a playwright and ‘mainstream’ fiction writer) – there are still a lot of people active in the field I’ve never had the opportunity to meet.

Two of those are Sean Stewart and Karin Lowachee – though I do know them quite well through their work. Which is why I’m so happy to be sharing space with them in the Aurora Award Story Bundle. They are both great writers and these are great books.

Still, just because I haven’t met them doesn’t mean I don’t have a story to tell. The Canadian SF world is a small one – unlike most places we only need two degrees of separation to link us all up.

Karin was living in the Canadian North when she wrote Cagebird and while it’s not central to her story, the isolation and beauty of place leak into her work. As it turns out, I spent nine years in the North myself (though I’m not 100% sure we were there at the same time), but we never met. Even if we were there the same years, the North is, after all, a really, really big place but now that I’m sharing a Story Bundle with her, I sort of feel I can say: Congratulations, neighbour.

Cagebird Review

My connection to Sean may be even more ephemeral – all we really share is that we both won Aurora Awards. However, I did hear a great story about that. Apparently, Sean had to fly somewhere right after getting his trophy so he threw his trophy in his luggage and headed out. Anyone who has seen or touched an Aurora Award knows that wasn’t the wisest move; it’s not called the most dangerous award in SF for nothing. On arrival at his destination his shirts were in shreds. They say the packing instructions you now get with the trophy were written with that in mind.

Nobody's Son Review

So now you know these fine authors a little better – you should head over and buy the bundle. Great books at a great price.

Story Bundles

3 Apr

Aurora 004Winning or even being nominated for an award is a great thrill. I’ve now been nominated for the Prix Aurora Award (Canada’s fan-voted speculative fiction prize) 11 times and I’ve won three – most recently for the anthology Blood and Water, which I edited in 2012.

But the very best thing about awards is the company you get to keep. Virtually every significant writer of SF in Canada has either been nominated for or won an Aurora Award. I’m lucky enough to be able to count many of them as friends as well as colleagues.

Which was why I was happy to have Blood and Water included in a bundle of Aurora winning and nominated books now on sale at StoryBundle.com. It’s a great list of writers and books covering the gamut from fantasy to science fiction and includes novels, short stories and my anthology of Canadian writers.

The whole thing was put together by Douglas Smith who has been nominated for the prized trophy even more than I have. Doug and I do way back – to before we even met. We both sold our first story to Tesseracts 6, edited by Robert J. Sawyer and Carolyn Clink. We didn’t meet until I moved to Ontario and started to attend Ad Astra, the Toronto SF convention. Since then we’ve maintained a mostly digital (though occasionally face-to-face) relationship. And I still recall the great dinner I had with Doug and his family when we were both nominated for Canada’s juried SF Award, the Sunburst Award. Neither of us won – but just like the story bundle, we were in great company. Doug’s book was a collection of short stories, Chimerascope, which was also nominated for the Aurora Award that year and is a key part of the bundle. Doug is a fabulous short story writer and his stories have been translated and published in over 25 countries.

Chimerascope Review

Robert J. Sawyer and I go back even farther; he likes to call me his writing student (which is true) but I was the one who hired him for his first teaching gig, out in Calgary. We’ve been great friends ever since (he was a guest at my wedding in 2003) and he’s one of my favorite writers. I have all of his books – most of them autographed – and I even appear as a minor character in his latest. Quantum Night. So, I’m obviously happy to be keeping him company in the Story Bundle. Starplex is a great hard SF story but it’s also a mystery which puts it right up my alley. It not only won the Aurora Award but was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula as well. Rob has been called the Dean of Canadian SF and rightly so; he has won 14 Auroras and been nominated another 30 times. I was fortunate enough to award him his lifetime achievement Aurora a few years ago – a nice trophy to go alongside his Hugo, Nebula and John Campbell Awards.

Starplex Review

In the coming days, I’ll highlight a couple of other old friends, as well as some newer ones – and two writers I only know through their work. In the meantime, why don’t you head over to StoryBundle.com and pick up your summer reading?

 

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Planning to wri…

19 Jun

Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing. ~E. L. Doctorow

 

Sadly though, it is the research — the learning about stuff — that is so much fun and so distracting. When I’m doing that, I sometimes forget the fun of putting one word after another. What about you?

Some Thoughts on Money

15 Jun

Hardly a day goes by without another debate between those who believe in self-publishing versus those who opt for traditional publishing. Despite the best efforts of some writers to shed light on the fiscal realities, information remains sparse and, mostly, anecdotal. Methodological pitfalls abound and, in the end, all the data points are idiosyncratic.

I can’t judge the current efforts to quantify the economic viability of any particular path to success (or, more usually, lack thereof) but I can comment on my own situation as a writer and publisher.

Before I do that I will make a few general observations about making money in the arts and, especially, in the literary arts.

Writers, like everyone else, are sometimes reluctant to say what they make. They are, after all, freelancers or, if you like, small businesspersons. Even the question of what constitutes income can be difficult for writers — gross income versus net income is often quite different because writing (full-time at least) is a ‘tax-deductible’ life.

Publically reveling one’s private income can have consequences, (attention one from the taxman, for example). If it happens to be high, it can draw requests from family, friends, even complete strangers. If it is low, there is the stigma attached to all activities that generate low incomes.

In any case, for some people income is a private matter. I used to do opinion surveys for a living and questions of income were always the last asked. Ask it first and a lot of respondents refuse to answer any questions at all.

Some people, for reasons of ego, even inflate their income. Given that most surveys of writers are non-mandatory, with respondents self-selecting, one might suspect that these ‘braggers’ will be over-represented.

The only real data we have is contained in the census and statistical analysis of tax data. What that shows is that both the gross and net income of all artists, including writers, is remarkably low. Visual artists do slightly better, dancers somewhat worse and writers are somewhere in the middle. But the average artist is better educated, works more hours and receives less pay than the average worker. That has certainly been my experience over the years as I’ve moved from public and private sector jobs to the arts and back again. More anecdotal data.

But it is a nice lifestyle.

Personally, I’m inclined to think the choice between self-publishing and traditional publishing is a lifestyle choice. If the reality is a relatively low rate of return for their efforts — it does come down to what you want to spend your time doing.

Some people want total control over the final product; others love the marketing process. But many writers want to be left alone to write or make the occasional public appearance or blog entry. The former are likely to be more attracted to self-publishing; the latter to the traditional route. Some people have gone the self publishing route because they had to and jump at the chance to have someone else do all the design and marketing work when the opportunity presented itself. Amanda Hocking comes to mind.

But what about all those people who make a fortune from self-publishing?

Think of it this way: there are well-over a million e-books on Amazon. The limited data we do have is that an average e-book will make about $500-1000 over its lifetime, many make much less. Still, if 1 book in a hundred makes $50,000, that means there are 10,000 happy writers, at least some whom are out there shouting about how easy it is to make a living from self-publishing.

Writing has an income curve similar to professional sports. There are a few people in every sport who make $5M or more a year; quite a few more who make a million. But for every one of them there are dozens perhaps hundreds making a lot less. Some are playing for $50 a game and a meal allowance. Why? Because they are doing what they love. Sound familiar.

Not everyone can make the major leagues. There isn’t enough room at the top.

So do what you love; do it as well as you can and hope that the combination of talent, persistence and luck eventually pays off. Because you need all three if you’re going to make good living or even a modest one in the arts.

The final thing I’m going to say on the subject of money is about the amazing profitability of publishing — especially small press publishing. Now I have your attention, there’s this bridge I’d like to sell you. It’s located on prime real estate in a Florida swamp.

There are, of course, the big five. They do make money — more in fact than they ever have. This is not because of an explosion in the popularity of reading. Rather it is a direct result of corporate consolidation. When there were more publishers and the difference between big and small was less pronounced, a Return on Investment (ROI) in publishing of 8 to 9% was acceptable. With the increasing involvement of big capital, ROIs had to rise—by head office fiat—to 12% or more. This was accomplished by cutting marketing and other budgets and by cutting loose any authors whose books didn’t sell well enough. It was viewed as a far better risk to publish five new writers — who couldn’t command high advances— than to continue to publish mid-list authors with known sales limitations. Which is why so many writers now have two book careers.

Some of the displaced authors wound up in mid-level houses — thus displacing their mid-list writers— and so on down the line.

After 2008, big publishers claimed the recession was killing them (not clear that it was) and asked even their A-list writers to take less cash. They were surprised when they agreed. Since then advances have remained low and big publishers have become more and more attracted to sure things, such as successful self-published authors. Sometimes loving your work too much is not a good financial decision.

Meanwhile, mid-level houses were facing ever more difficult times. With fewer physical outlets to sell their books and Amazon always trying new ways to squeeze their margins, they too had to reduce publishing plans, cut back on advances and make ever more use of eager young interns, working for little or no pay. If Hachette— one of the big five— can barely stand up to Amazon, you can imagine what clout a mid-sized publisher has in a fight with Amazon or for that matter the few remaining bookstore chains.

So where does that leave the small press publisher. Pretty much the same place as everyone in the low end of the arts: living on hope and the day job. Some of us make money from year to year; others subsidize the company from their owners’ bank accounts, hoping that one of their books will be a breakout publication to let you move both into the black and up to the next level of business operations. It is again a labour of love and, as my wife says, cheaper that a blond and red convertible.

In the meantime, we all seek solutions to endemic cash-flow problems, trying to cut non-fixed costs and discover effective marketing tools that don’t cost more than they deliver in the way of sales.

Many of us rely on arts grants from government agencies or private foundations and, increasingly, on crowd-source funding activities like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Patreon.

Bundoran Press didn’t get a Canada Council grant this year (not that we got one before despite 3 applications but one always hopes) and our sales aren’t substantive enough yet to qualify for Ontario Arts Council grants Our recent Indiegogo campaign didn’t reach its target. Because it was a ‘fixed’ campaign, we will receive none of the generous contributions people made (it all gets returned to them). I’ll blog about that later —after the bruises heal.

Which is all to say that, while our August book, Javenny by Al Onia, will come out as scheduled, the two books that were scheduled for November 2014 will now be pushed back to next March. The anthology, Second Contacts will proceed but will pay semi-pro rates and be published a few months later than originally planned.

We carry on but at a more modest pace. It would be nice to go faster but the only way to do that is to sell a few more books. Check out our catalogue on our web-site. You can buy them direct from us or from your favorite on-line or physical retailer.

OMG, it’s Literature (and other random thoughts)

23 Mar

Literature – it’s a real thing!

Could it be that all the kerfuffle that has rocked SFWA over the last year has nothing to do with politics? Could the fight between racist misogynist neo-Nazis and pin-headed liberal elitist fem-Nazis have nothing to do with politics and everything to do with art?

Well, maybe not everything. Politics comes into everything and, in America (and increasingly in the rest of the western world), everything seems polarized between left and right. Conversations — especially on-line — soon degenerate into shouting matches and name calling.

Mostly there aren’t any conversations as social media algorithms make sure we only see ourselves reflected back to us. And, of course, conspiracy theories abound about how one group or another is dominating awards programs or controlling publishing to the exclusion of the other group(s). I’m reminded a bit of the old Proclaimers’ song, What Do you Do? The rotation of Pareto’s Foxes and Lions also comes to mind. A First World Problem.

Be that as it may, I was struck recently by a tweet wherein it was reported that an Amazon reviewer had criticized a book by saying, essentially, ‘we don’t need no stinkin’ literature — we want galactic empires.’

So there you have it. The real enemy is Literature. We don’t want human feelings, realism, social criticism, cultural cross-breeding — we want Big Ideas that mess with our heads and more fun (usually defined in ways only some people find fun).

Don’t get me wrong. I, too, have often railed against the insertion of MFA lessons into my fiction. (Or as Danny Kaye put it so brilliantly, choreography into my dance routines.) I want good stories more than anything else. But good literature is always about good stories. And fun and big ideas can go hand in hand with emotional richness and character development.

It’s true that wasn’t what the good old days focused on — but then the good old days weren’t good for everyone. The world has changed — but the good news is, you don’t have to change with it! You can stay mired in your own particular enclave of galactic empires and wooden dialogue. Or whatever.

So here’s what I suggest. Read the things you like and don’t read the things you don’t. There’s plenty of variety to go around. But quit whining that the stuff you like isn’t dominating the publishing or awards scene. Cause, as the Proclaimers said, sometimes ‘minority means you.’ And all the bellyaching and vicious attacks in the world aren’t going to change that.

It’s all about the Dopamine

I’ve been working hard to try to figure out social media. I’m sure we all have. When does it work and why? The biggest mistake people make, I suspect, is that they focus on the media and not on the social. Twitter becomes like broadcast advertising — ‘Buy my book!’ or more recently, ‘This person here thinks you should Buy My Book!’ or, if you’re really sophisticated, “I’m interested in astronomy — see this neat link — and my book has astronomy in it so you should Buy My Book!”

This message, I increasingly think, fails. I mean, who buys things because a random stranger calls you on the phone and asks you to buy something. Actually about 4-6% of the population will do that at any given time — that’s why telemarketing exists. The other 95% of us have to put up with the noise. So tweeting Bye My Book! is nothing but noise to 95% of your followers.

Which, of course, is why people are desperate to have a 100K followers. 5% of that gets you 5000 people who might Buy your Book. And 95000 who simply ignore the noise.

But maybe it would be a lot more effective if we focused on the social and ignored the media (or, I would argue, the medium). My friend, Robert J. Sawyer, advised that you should never sit on a panel at an SF convention with your book propped in front of you. It gets between you and your audience and, what’s more, tells people that you aren’t interested in them; you only want them to ‘Buy Your Book!” The key is to build a personal relationship — be ‘social’ — and if people find you interesting and pleasant, they might well DECIDE to buy your book. This article explains it pretty well — it’s all about the social process of self-reward.

Places and People and other self-promotion

Speaking of Robert J. Sawyer, we will be appearing together this June at the NorthWords Festival in Yellowknife (along with another of Bundoran’s partners, Elizabeth Westbrook-Trenholm). We will be wearing our writing hats more than our publishing ones.

Even sooner you can see all three of us, as well as our third partner, Mike Rimar, at Ad Astra in Toronto where we will be launching Breakpoint:Nereis by Alison Sinclair and Strange Bedfellows edited by Hayden Trenholm. I’ve provided links so you can “Buy My Book!”

A bit of non-Bundoran writing news, the French translation of my book ‘A Circle of Birds’ from Anvil Press was reviewed in Le Devoir.

Finally another great article from Kristine Katherine Rusch that sounds an awful lot like my life at Bundoran Press.

 

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“I write to fin…

27 Feb

“I write to find strength.
I write to become the person that hides inside me.
I write to light the way through the darkness for others.
I write to be seen and heard.
I write to be near those I love.
I write by accident, promptings, purposefully and anywhere there is paper.
I write because my heart speaks a different language that someone needs to hear.
I write past the embarrassment of exposure.
I write because hypocrisy doesn’t need answers, rather it needs questions to heal.
I write myself out of nightmares.
I write because I am nostalgic, romantic and demand happy endings.
I write to remember.
I write knowing conversations don’t always take place.
I write because speaking can’t be reread.
I write to sooth a mind that races.
I write because you can play on the page like a child left alone in the sand.
I write because my emotions belong to the moon; high tide, low tide.
I write knowing I will fall on my words, but no one will say it was for very long.
I write because I want to paint the world the way I see love should be.
I write to provide a legacy.
I write to make sense out of senselessness.
I write knowing I will be killed by my own words, stabbed by critics, crucified by both misunderstanding and understanding.
I write for the haters, the lovers, the lonely, the brokenhearted and the dreamers.
I write because one day someone will tell me that my emotions were not a waste of time.
I write because God loves stories.
I write because one day I will be gone, but what I believed and felt will live on.”
― Shannon L. Alder

 

Why do you write?

Becoming Zen in a World in Upheaval

23 Feb

After two weeks of exaltation, heartbreak, struggle, pain and triumph, the Olympics come to a close today. Russia emerged victorious — though Canada got double gold in the only sport that seems to matter to them. Sport has been buried in metaphor.

In nearby Ukraine, the central square of Kiev rests in an uneasy peace as the dead are buried and the wounded are treated in nearby hospitals. Civil war still lurks as the country wavers between East and West.

Syria continues to boil; the G20 argues over restraint and recovery; the rich continue to blame the poor for their problems (WTF?).

Meanwhile, in more important developments, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) snaps and snarls over petitions submitted about things that apparently never happened and flame wars burn through the Interwebs over who makes more money: self-published authors or ones who go the traditional publishing route.

Really?

With respect to the former, I have no dog in the hunt (or any other clichéd relationship to the organization either) but I do know some members, most of whom seem inclined to agree with what Jim Kelly had to say about it on Facebook. I’m not sure how to link to that so I’ll take the liberty of copying it at the end of this blog.

As for the issue of money — the vast majority of people who get published, whatever the format, make very little money. Anyone who makes a lot is an outlier. I have looked at Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings and I did read the critiques of its contents. Having spent most of my career as a policy analyst, trying to figure out what can be concluded from incomplete data, I tend to agree that the methodology sucks and most of the conclusions can’t legitimately be made. Ultimately only one group of people can really say how much money writers are making and that’s the IRS (the CRA, in Canada) and even they probably would have difficulty sorting out exactly what the source of that income is: self-publishing, traditional publishing, teaching or other related work.

Anecdotally, it is almost certain that some people are making a lot of money from self-publishing (Howey himself, for example) and lots are making boatloads from traditional publishing (let’s pick James Patterson). Some do well from both streams (you do the research). Each and every one of them are outliers — part of the 1% or 10% who do well in the entertainment industry. Studies done by Statistics Canada (back when we still had a long form census) consistently showed that artists (including writers) had higher than average educational levels, worked more hours per week and had some of the lowest incomes in the country — even when you counted in all the really successful ones.

It’s a bit like arguing which is the best route to the major leagues in baseball — college or minor league ball. The fact is, whichever route you choose, the chances are, you won’t make it.

And if your only measure of success is how much money you make — you’re probably in for a miserable life no matter how it turns out. Though, if you do make a lot of money, your suffering may be ameliorated.

For the last fourteen months, I’ve been buried in the publishing business. I’ve worked hard (over-worked, according to my wife) and spent pretty much every waking hour strategizing how to do this job as best I could, how to make this business succeed. I will undoubtedly continue to pour my efforts (and money) into that task.

But…

In the process of planning for the future, of promoting my brand, of proselytizing for the value and potential of small presses, of working, working, working, I forgot one of my basic life rules.

Enjoy the day.

This past week, I’ve written every day. For thirty minutes, an hour, three. I’ve almost finished a story — my first new work in nearly a year. It feels good. The writing is a symbol of something bigger, is part of something bigger. I’m enjoying the day.

A friend of mine who is in his seventies and has faced a number of health problems over the last half decade, told me last summer that he had stopped thinking about the future, or, at least, the far future. Each Sunday as he fills his pill box with the week’s medication, he asks himself, what am I going to do this week that will make me happy? If he finds there is nothing on his list — he deletes things he doesn’t really want to do and adds things that will achieve his primary goal. As for the past, it is dead and gone — try not to dwell on the things that hurt; focus on the memories that give you pleasure.

I’ve decided that it isn’t a bad way to live your life.

Of course, there are always unpleasant tasks to be done (I need to clean the kitchen later today) and duties to be fulfilled (my year-end bookkeeping looms) and one needs to be responsible about all that.

But if there is no joy in the entire week — what is the point of living it? Life ticks on and, whether you are twenty or eighty, there are only so many weeks in front of you. You need to work — work in itself can be a joy — but you need also to be.

Peace out, man!

Jim Kelly’s comments:

“Maybe there has been too much written about the current SFWA wildfires. Every time you think it is sputtering out, a new conflagration starts to rage. I have kept silent in public in part because I have served on the committee looking into how the Bulletin might be improved which makes my opinion suspect in some quarters, and in part because I have writing to do. But even as the various sub-issues have been debated (to death), the real issue has come increasingly clear. A generational change is going on. And here is what I have to say about that: Although some members of my generation are resisting change, I do not stand with them. And there are lots of 50-60-70somethings who feel the same way. Others have pointed out the irony of writers who spent careers imagining the future complaining about the future we actually got. There are problems to address in our world in general and in our genre in particular, but there are many of my generation who believe that SFWA’s policy of inclusivity is not one of them. 

One of the best of our traditions is that established writers welcome new and aspiring writers to our genre. Amazing writers who I read as a teenager helped me find my place in science fiction when I started submitting. I honor what they did for me by doing for others when I can. Where is the profit for tomorrow’s science fiction and fantasy by excluding new writers or driving them off by endorsing hurtful speech in our official publications? 

I feel sad when I read on the internets of writers who plan to leave SFWA because of the current controversies. But then I read of many more writers who are announcing that they are planning to rejoin or join for the first time to show solidarity with those who seek to bring our organization into the Twenty-first Century. Maybe this latter group isn’t getting the attention that the former is getting, but to them I (and many, many of my friends of a Certain Age) say, “Welcome!” and “Welcome back!” 

We need you.”

News of the Week:

One less nook for e-books

Turning movies into books?

Writer’s Block

16 Feb

Umm.

Well.

Yes.

Every writer has had those moments when the words simply won’t come. Sometimes it lasts an hour; sometimes a day. In the case of Henry Roth it lasted for sixty years.

Writer’s block can come in many forms and arise from many causes. Hemingway struggled with words for the last few years of his life. Five concussions, electro shock therapy, alcohol and depression may have been involved.

His friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald frequently found himself unable to write — his struggles with alcohol and his wife Zelda may have been a factor. Leo Tolstoy often went months or even years when he wrote not a word (though War and Peace pretty made up for those gaps). J.K. Rowling was less afflicted but had a creative gap of five weeks while she was writing the second Harry Potter novel. Interestingly it was the success of the first book that paralyzed her.

Despite these examples, most professional writers don’t believe in writer’s block. Harlan Ellison once joked that he had had writer’s block once — it was the worst ten minutes of his life. Phillip Pullman relegates writer’s block to the trash heap of amateurism, right along with inspiration. For him, writing is a job and a damn hard one at that. Professional writers no more suffer from ‘blocks’ than plumbers do. (Though it strikes me plumbers do have blocks; it is what they spend most of their lives trying to fix).

Of course, many of these same professionals offer plenty of advice on how to overcome these blocks, so perhaps they doth protest too much. And not everyone is a ‘professional’ in the sense they entirely make their living from writing fiction. That doesn’t make them amateurs, either.

It is worth considering what may be happening when you feel you don’t want to or can’t make yourself write. You may want to write but can’t do it; you may find writing easy but have no desire to do it. The problem may be getting started or it may arise when you are part way through. Devastating for full-time writers of course, but no less frightening for us part-timers. So what to do?

First not all gaps in writing are because of writer’s block. Between 2001 and 2003, I wrote almost no fiction. However, it wasn’t a matter of being blocked. I was in a relatively new relationship and had a busy, stressful job. In January 2002, I moved from Calgary to Ottawa and no longer was surrounded by fellow writers, egging me on. I had a new job with considerable demands on my time and energy. I was learning all about a new city. I quite literally lost any interest in creative writing — whatever it gave me I was getting somewhere else.

I eventually came back and have written steadily ever since, that is, until I became over whelmed with being an editor and publisher. This time the hiatus was shorter — but for six months, I just didn’t have the time to write, though I occasionally had the inclination. I have started up again in case you were wondering.

So the first thing I would say to those of you who find they no longer are writing as much as they did or they want, examine your life. Do you have a new job or has your existing one become busier or more interesting. New relationship? New baby in the house? New city to learn? You probably have enough on your plate without beating yourself up about not writing. So quit it. Enjoy the other creative aspects of living and come back to writing when you are ready. Just don’t wait as long as Henry Roth.

A friend of mine recently complained that his output has dropped dramatically in recent years. Whereas he used to pump out 2000 or 3000 words a day, now he finds 300 words in a sitting to be tough. He finds himself constantly re-writing even as he struggles to compose. I know my own writing has slowed over the years — but for me it is quite simply a physical limitation: I can’t sit at a keyboard for long stretches of time the way I once did. I don’t think it is the same for him — he’s fitter than I’ve ever been and still young (in writer’s years).

I’ve always made liberal use of the backspace key while I write and will often skip back a paragraph or two to fix something that has created a problem later on. It is quite possible that my friend’s editorial chops have increased over time so that he can no longer leave bad writing on the screen. He claims no – he needs to edit later as much as he ever did — but sometimes writers are the worst judges of how much their writing has improved.

Of course, over editing can fall into the trap of perfectionism — which has been identified as one cause of real writer’s block. Needing to have the absolute right word, the perfect turn of phrase, the ideal degree of clarity and mystery can all hamper writers. The flip side of perfectionism — the feeling that every paragraph is a load of shite and that any bozo could write a better story than me is equally devastating if you let it be.

There are no perfect works of literature. No-body can write your story better than you can. Keeping those two ideas front and centre might help liberate the words you want, ideally, to flow from you like a clean clear stream.

Freeing yourself from your internal editor is worth the effort. Nothing gets done if you constantly second-guess yourself while writing. Editing is for after you finish the first draft. If you don’t finish the story you have nothing to edit. (Which, if you hate re-writing as much as I do, is yet another incentive never to finish.) Learning to turn your editor off is critical both while you are composing, but also after you finish. Lots of writers find their productivity fall as they attempt to polish a draft until they can see their faces in it. I even know a few writers who want to make changes even after their work is published. You don’t have to be crazy to be an artist, but apparently it helps.

What if the words you want won’t come? Write other words until they do. A friend of my, playwright Gordon Pengilly, helped me by telling how he coped with that experience. He would simply start two characters talking, along the lines of this:

One: What are you working on?

Two: Nothing. I can’t think of anything.

One: Me neither. Why do you think that is?

After a while, sometimes five lines, sometimes twenty five, an idea would occur that was worth pursuing. Sometimes, he said, he got bored with the sheer inanity and would have one of them say something crazy. Bingo, he was off at a gallop.

Getting rejected can spur people to try harder or, conversely, it can contribute to a desire to quit. Like it or not, we all respond to reward and punishment. Continuous rejection as a writer (especially if you are experiencing success in other areas of life) may eventually make you realize you should find another creative outlet. And maybe you’ll be right. Amazingly, for most of us, even the promise of a reward can drive us forward. Like rats, the occasional appearance of a pellet of praise (often in the form of a minuscule cheque), is almost more effective at keeping us going than a regular diet of success.

Yes, perversely enough, success can also lead to writer’s block. J.K. Rowling’s brief period of creative paralysis was caused by exactly that. It was the sudden, growing success of her first book that made her fear she couldn’t do as well the second time around. Sudden early success — followed by difficulty in following up — can be a tremendous jolt and can create a ‘Cinderella’ complex — the feeling that you are not really who you pretend to be. Living a lie leads to anxiety; anxiety can easily block the process. Overcoming that can be difficult — my suggestion is that you have to accept early success as proof positive that you can in fact do what you are attempting. Hard work and determination (as well as publishing deadlines) can often pull you through to the end.

Occasionally, you need to go back to the beginning and remember what it was like to write without a goal in mind. Staring at a photograph or painting or listening to a piece of complex or evocative music and then simply writing what you feel can lead to fascinating explorations of sense, setting, character or even story. If that isn’t your cup of tea, try some writing exercises. What If? Is a great place to start.

Finally, writer’s block can be a good thing. Creative processes often engage our entire brain and may not follow the linear path demanded by our cerebral cortex. Getting your thoughts, emotions, and instincts in line may require a period of inner reflection. What appears as a block may simply be your brain saying: Not Yet! Learning to recognize that internal process may be as simple as being open to the possibility that the story isn’t ready to be written. One way to cope with these sudden halts might be to have two or three projects on the go at once — so you can flip from one to the other as the need and desire arise.

If you do feel blocked, I hope this blog will give you a bit of perspective to move on to the next thing. If not, there is plenty of good advice out there that might help. Try some of these tricks or consult Sherry Peter’s book, Silencing Your Inner Saboteur.

Keep writing (unless you don’t want to).

News of the Week

Only 4 days left in our Goodreads giveaways and this one too.

Censorship controversy

Hugh Howey on author earnings

 

 

Stories Come From Everywhere

9 Feb

This blog might as well be titled ‘Stories Come From Nowhere.’ Either is as good an answer to “Where do you get your ideas?”

Though I sometimes shrug and say: I buy them by the case lot at CostCo.

Writers have an odd view of the world, or more precisely, they view the world as odd. Everything seems slightly out of kilter, in need of explaining, or, simply, difficult to cope with. Everything seems like a question waiting to be answered.

Sometimes, the oddness of the world comes from within ourselves. We feel out of kilter; we struggle to cope. We need to explain. It, perhaps, accounts for why so many writers wrestle with self-doubt, with alcohol, with relationships, with the sheer unending oppression (and boredom) of everyday life. Story is a natural — if not easy — outlet.

Not every writer is a basket case (in fact few are, writing is too damn hard for people — other than Proust — who can’t get out of bed to face the day). I know plenty who are happy, well-adjusted, optimistic and stable, if such a description truly fits anyone. They look at the world and question why it’s not a better place or at least a different place. Despite their own inner peace, they have a heightened sense of outrage at the inequities of the world. They are aggrieved — if not about their own lives than about the lives of those around them. Not do-gooders, exactly, but think-gooders.

 This is not about being liberal or conservative — it is about moral complexity.

Regardless of type, I think writers all possess an intense curiosity. They want to know why. Why is that person on the park bench crying (too shy to ask, they instead confabulate a story)? Why are some types of people treated better than others? Why did that person die; why did that other one risk her life; why is the sky blue and the grass green? And why leads to what if or if only. How did things come to be this way and how might they change?

The best writers have also, as Hemingway put it, developed a built-in bullshit detector. It has to be built-in, of course, because the first place you will find bullshit is within your own thinking. Finding emotional truth is the first step in making a story truer than if it had actually happened.

There is no shortage of crap in the external world either and writers, once they learn to stop lying to themselves (about their feelings, their desires, their weaknesses, their fears, their abilities) can shine Diogenes’ lamp on other things: the embedded lies of society, the duplicity of lovers, the falseness of easy answers to hard questions.

This questioning restless curiosity, this insistence on honesty does not make for a comfortable life. It is uncomfortable for writers and for those who surround them. It can break relationships. Sometimes it is too hard. Sometimes you simply want to turn it off; sometimes you can.

It is not a trait confined to writers, of course; artists of all kinds, scientists, politicians — all are driven by this curiosity about the world and by this sense of wrongness that pervades their moral sense. What distinguishes writers is their chosen method of figuring it all out: story.

So when writers say they have to write what they are really saying is they are in a fight with the world and their only weapons are words.

Hope I didn’t trigger any bullshit detectors.

News of the Week

E-book prices may fall 20% in wake of Competition Bureau settlement

Bundoran writers coming to Ottawa and Toronto