Sunday, May 31, 2009

Strawberry Patch in the Clarity of Night

Sorry I haven't posted lately. This one is worth the wait, if you haven't ever been there before.

There's a yummy little blog that I browse occasionally, called The Clarity of Night. Author Jason Evans takes pictures and writes brief stories based upon some aspect of them.

Here's a mystery about a "Strawberry Patch".


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Zombies, Canadians, and other surreal things

I'm not sure precisely what to make of Kelly Link, but it's certainly entertaining to try to make something sensible of her. Here's a link to "The Hortlak" online, one of the surreal short stories in her Magic for Beginners book, now available for free download from the same page.

The zombies were like Canadians, in that they looked enough like real people at first, to fool you. But when you looked closer, you saw they were from some other place, where things were different: where even the same things, the things that went on everywhere, were just a little bit different.


Maybe his friend Dave had been telling the truth and there was a
country down there that you could visit, just like Canada. Maybe when the zombies got all the way to the bottom, they got into zippy zombie cars and drove off to their zombie jobs, or back home again, to their sexy zombie wives, or maybe they went off to the zombie bank to make their deposits of stones, leaves, linty, birdsnesty tangles, all the other debris real people didn’t know the value of.

Go visit, see if you might like her stuff. Enough people did to give her short stories three Nebulas, a Hugo, and a World Fantasy Award.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Professional Authors and Gateway Standards

Randy Ingermanson has some interesting things to say about writers. He divides pre-published writers -- most of us at NTSFW -- into peer groups like a high school: Freshman, Sophomores, Juniors and Seniors.

Seniors are people who
A) regularly write luminous prose,
B) have developed many contacts in the industry,
C) continually write and send excellent queries and/or book proposals,
D) regularly are requested for sample pages,
E) often get encouraging rejection letters from agents and editors,
and so on.

They are operating on all cylinders as a near-pro writer, but are still unpublished. Seniors are also frustrated beyond belief.

For Juniors, the above adjectives and adverbs become less superlative, and for Sophomores, they become pretty spotty. Let's not talk about Freshmen.

Honestly applying the above standard criteria, I believe that most of us in NTSFW are Sophomores and Juniors. Despite now getting paid for ghost writing, and having a novel under contract, I consider myself a Junior who is concentrating on becoming a Senior.

The standard of work for a Senior to graduate to professionally published author is higher than the standard of work for a professional author to continue publishing. This is a gateway standard, not really a double standard, because you only have to meet it once. It may seem painful when you are on this side of it, but you'll be quite glad for it once you have earned your way through the gate.

* * *

Why does the gateway exist? At least three practical reasons.

First, your first published novel has no time requirement. You literally have no deadline, so you can make it as perfect as your ability allows. Everything you write after that will have deadlines, and will have to be just good enough.

Second, there's the obvious matter of name recognition-- to be a good risk for publication, a novel by a nobody has to be better than a novel by a known person, who a certain number of prior readers will buy on the strength of the prior book. (Actually, psychology shows that on average they will actually *enjoy* the book more when it is by an author that they already enjoy than if the same work were written by an unknown. One of the various psychological "priming" effects.)

Third, closely related to the second-- as you gain a track record, you will have more leverage to keep the "darlings" that you really should have killed, if you had possessed enough sense to take the excellent advice of your agent and editor. Your work will not be improved as much in the editing process. Do you suppose anyone says "no" to Stephen King?

So, there are a number of reasons that professionals might be able to publish a product that a first-time novelist cannot. And all of them make sense, no matter how painful they are to first-timers like us.

* * *

But there's another major factor involved. Perceptual bias on the part of the writer-reader. Writers are the harshest critics, especially those of us who are learning to write, and trying to develop a particular set of workable rules for our own writing.

We are so busy training ourselves to not make certain so-called "mistakes" of writing, that we diminish our enjoyment of alternative forms. In essence, we judge a work by the "mode" that we are attempting to learn to write, rather than evaluating it on its own terms.

Take a painting as a metaphor. Looking at a French Impressionist masterpiece, we could evaluate it as a incompetent piece from the POV of classical photorealism, horrible from the POV of cubism, and/or pedestrian from the POV of surrealism. And it is.

So what?

Honestly, I tried to reread Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn last year, and couldn't get a dozen pages due to the excessive use of misspellings to represent dialect. This is a book I absolutely loved as a boy, and can't bring myself to read now.

Likewise, I only managed to get about halfway through Susanna Clarke's Johnathan Strange and Mr Norell, which won the 2005 Hugo award. There was a plot there, and a fascinating universe, but I kept waiting for the *story* to begin. Because of my training as a writer, I wanted to connect to some particular character, rather than bouncing around the universe observing things occurring to a range of people, from a distance. The novel's style was modeled after a Regency (Jane Austin-type), but with scholarly footnotes that led ever deeper into the lore of Clarke's world. Readers and Hugo voters loved it. Someday, I might untrain myself so I can love it too. But not today.

How does this apply to us as "junior" and "senior" writers?

Remember that the rules we are taught have limited applicability. (Although we may not be aware of the exact limits.) They describe one particular mode of writing.

Remember that the vast majority of all things written and published do *not* belong to that particular mode which is being vaunted.

Remember that awards are won by those who create their own mode, not by those deciding to slavishly adhere to a mode designed by others.

Remember to read widely, especially among acclaimed books, to diversify your repetoir, to stretch your abilities, and to find new things that are fun for you.

Remember to read as a reader first, to experience the effect of a work, THEN go back and read as a writer to find out how that effect was achieved. Don't dissect the dog until you're done playing "fetch".

Pay attention to how all the parts work together. What did the writer gain by violating your standard rules? What did she lose? What other adaptations was she forced to make, and how did they work together?

And above all...

Feel free to abandon a work if you are not enjoying it, even if it IS famous. Life's too short to read bad books.

Wonderful Interviews on Vision

Are you a Pantser or a Plotter?

Vision magazine has a series of interviews with various authors about how they build their stories.

Fun reading.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

New Review up : Hell Week by Rosemary Clement-Moore

It just occurred to me that I didn't cross-link here my April 18 review of Rosemary Clement-Moore's Hell Week.


Pull Quote:

In Hell Week, the second installment of Rosemary Clement-Moore's Girl Vs Evil series, aspiring girl reporter Maggie Quinn begins attending the local college in Avalon. Her sixth sense, barely acknowledged by Maggie in the wonderful Prom Dates from Hell, is now giving her strong warnings that all is not well in Avalon's Greek Row. (As if it took witchcraft to know that there was something scary there.)

Read it all here.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

New Review Up: Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

I just posted a new review for the book Peter and the Starcatchers over at Abandoned Towers.

It's the first in a series of books by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson that build an unauthorized prequel to J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan and Wendy, the 1911 source for Disney's 1952 Peter Pan character.

Here's the lede:

Orphaned kids, Pirate ships with huge brassieres for sails, near escapes, giant flying crocodiles, shipwrecks, mermaids with sharp teeth, massive storms, belch humor, talking porpoises, and bashing the bad guys with coconuts.

What more could you ask?

And don't forget --

"Pirates. It's a good thing they're idjits."

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Wings is out!!!

Aprilynne Pike's debut novel Wings is now available on aisle three.

I've only read the first bits of it, so I can't do a review yet, but you can sample it yourself on HarperCollins' "Browse Inside" feature.

I'm looking forward to my own copy.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Want to Smell Something?

I don't normally talk about my personal life on this blog, but I thought I'd share this moment:

"Want to smell something really good?" asked my 9-year-old son, Alexander, as we were waiting in line at Sonic this morning.

"Sure." I thought it was going to be some food or candy or nuts... this week he's started packing his own lunch because his parents apparently don't know how.

Alexander fiddled with his backpack for a moment and then pulled out his brand new copy of Charlotte's Web, which they're reading in class. He fanned the pages under his nose and inhaled -- "Mmmmmmmmmmmm" -- then passed it to me.

I smelled it. Mmmmmmmmm. Gentle smell of cheap pulp paper and cheap ink. Not exactly like a fresh copy of F&SF when I was twelve, but close. Very close.

There's a saying: The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Such are the moments of being a parent.