Writing About Writing

A guest post by Brent Nichols

(And if you think that’s hard, I had to write about writing about writing)

We write. It’s what we do. Fiction, mostly, and if we’re lucky we have readers. It’s when we don’t have readers, or we want more, that we sometimes have to resort to writing of a different sort.

Fiction comes more or less naturally to me. My head’s full to bursting with imaginary characters, and sometimes I let them out to play on the page. It hardly seems like work, most days. The sense of work comes when I’m doing the other kind of writing. You know, the tedious reality-based kind. Especially when I face the tricky problem of writing about my own writing. But every so often, if I’m lucky, even non-fiction writing – even thorny non-fiction writing about my own fiction – manages not to be work. It even manages to be fun.

bdbfullserialA couple of years ago some entrepreneurs approached me, wanting to feature some of my self-published steampunk fiction on a new website they were launching. I was happy to agree – until they told me they wanted a couple of blog posts to go with it.

Having already sweated through the ordeal of making blurbs for the stories in question, the last thing I wanted to do was write even more about my work. However, being a sucker for direct appeals to my ego (hence my appearance on Fictiorians), I reluctantly agreed.

But what could I tell the average web-browsing reader about my work that would make them keen on picking up my stories?

I decided to write about the reasons I wrote steampunk fiction. Now, there are many reasons I turned my mad keyboarding skills to that particular sub-genre. Laziness in high on the list. Steampunk offers the cool gadgets that make science fiction fun without the tiresome need in most science fiction to be sure your gadgets would actually work. It offers the entertaining trappings of the nineteenth century, but being an alternate history, it spares the efficiency-minded writer all that pesky research. In a world where Queen Victoria commands a flying navy, most anything goes.

Sloth on my part, however, hardly seemed like a selling point to my droves of potential fans. So I dug deeper. I wanted a blog post that came alive for the reader, and I found myself thinking back to a time when I felt that spark myself, that shiver of excitement that came along all unexpected and made me, suddenly and for the first time in years, excited again about writing.

I was floundering in the doldrums of discouragement, the dream of writing like a faded picture of something I could remember being keen about, when I decided to attend the first ever When Words Collide festival. That was where I encountered a call for submissions to Shanghai Steam, an anthology of steampunk/wuxia fiction.

Just like that, my perspective on writing changed. All the eager excitement of my teenage self came flooding back. That call for submissions had two things going for it: It was cool (I mean, come on! Kung Fu action and steampunk? Who can resist that?) and it was specific. There were exact requirements, down to word count and cultural influences. I could stop floundering around and tackle a sparkling world of possibilities with a clear framework to guide me.

This, I realized, was the essence of what I needed for my blog post. Why did I write steampunk? Because it’s so damn cool. And how would I communicate that thrill to my readers? By being specific.

After that, the blog post seemed to write itself. I wrote about nineteenth-century technology, the glory days when the most wonderful machine you could imagine was still accessible to a clever person, something you could take apart and tinker with in your basement. A time when the world was enormous and exotic and full of unmapped corners. And a genre that said, never mind exactly how it actually was. What if? What if, in addition to all the grubby bits, there were airships and walking robots and clockwork birds? What if we took an entire genre and said, never mind that it won’t quite pass a rigorous historical or scientific examination? It’s marginally plausible and it’s cool, and that’s justification enough.

We don’t have Barsoom anymore. We lost Tarzan, too. We know too much about Mars and Africa and the universe for those grand adventures to survive. But we have steampunk, and it’s awesome.

That’s how you write about your writing. You look past all the details you’ve been buried in. You dig deep and look for that buried gem of excitement that got you started on the story in the first place. If you can communicate your excitement, readers will be excited to read what you created.

I sent the blog post off, and then I forgot all about the blog and the website. I was too busy to give it another thought. Because the post had the same effect on me that I wanted it to have on every reader – it made me want to drop everything and go read some steampunk.

Brent Nichols is a science fiction and fantasy writer, book cover designer, andBrent Nichols man about town. He likes good beer, bad puns, high adventure, and low comedy. A native Calgarian, he is a member of the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association and is the author of the War of the Necromancer series of sword and sorcery novels (available at a fine ebook retailer near you). See his book cover designs at www.coolseriescovers.com or visit his website atwww.steampunch.com.

How Writing Non-Fiction Improves Your Fiction

20121014_134802This month we’ve been reading about story in non-fiction and how we can make money from it, and we’ve even got some tricks and tips to write non-fiction. So today, let’s do a something different.

Let’s apply a little of what we’ve learned so far.

First, read a piece of non-fiction. This can be a newspaper or magazine article on a subject or a news story, the blurb on a book’s back jacket, or an advertising article. Now, answer the following questions:

  • Do the first lines draw me in?
  • Is the article boring or interesting? What makes it so?
  • What is my emotional response to the article – happy, sad, excited, bored out of my skull, interested (want to read more)?
  • Is the conclusion satisfying?
  • Do the accompanying artwork and photographs enhance or detract the piece? How?
  • Is the title captivating? Informative? Does it have too much detail or not enough? Is it too long?

smokeyEvery article or story must capture the reader’s attention by creating interest. The title and first lines are critical as are any photographs or art work. This is no different in fiction. Title, first lines and book jacket artwork are what intrigues a potential reader to buy your book.

The hook, the ability to draw the reader in emotionally, whether to solve a problem, or tell a story as with news reporting, is what sells newspapers and magazines, gets people subscribe to blogs, read and reading information based advertising.

All the things we’ve talked about, the hook, the title, telling a good story, emotional impact – are story elements that are told without a strongly embellished plot, sometimes without a plot, sometimes without a protagonist (unless it’s an interview, memoir, or article about a specific person), without dialogue, without world building – without many things we use to create fiction, yet good non-fiction can captivate and move us just as much.

So now that we understand how the tactics of fiction and non-fiction writing are similar, let’s answer the question the title asked: How does non-fiction writing improve my fiction stories?

untitledNon-fiction can improve our fiction writing because through it we learn to tell a story about elements we normally take for granted in our world building. It increases our observational skills, our ability to impart aspects of life we may normally consider mundane in a way that is interesting. Making the ordinary interesting, finding the story in the non-fiction aspects of our worlds, all of this adds depth to our story and enhances our characters interactions with their world. Non-fiction also teaches us to write to our target audience and to express that information in an informative yet entertaining way.

So read non-fiction, even try your hand at writing it, and watch your fiction blossom.

Batman, Boldness and Book Reviews

A guest post by Jeff Campbell.

Snap quiz: What bit of non-fiction writing inspires both fear and joy in practitioners of the fictional arts?

Book reviews.

Full disclosure: Writing book reviews takes a special kind of boldness, a strain of courage I no longer possess myself. I blame Batman. Back when I was a pre-schooler Batman (’66) was my favorite television show. It had everything: a Batmobile, Robin, Batman, what else could you want, right? In those long ago days of polyester and groovy-ness people couldn’t just watch their favorite shows. You had to wait for your show to ‘come on’. Yet love knows no limits, so after years of waiting and at the grand old age of twelve, I was thrilled when my mother told me Batman (’66) was returning to the airwaves. When the bat-time arrived, I tuned to the bat-channel and watched my favorite show.

I mentioned love has no limits but I should’ve also mentioned how it mucks up your judgment. Tragically, something had changed during those off-air years. Like many pre-schoolers, I had lacked a sense of ‘camp’, a peculiar brand of humor from which the producers of Batman(’66) had drunk deeply. In a state of horrible youngness, I had not understood that Batman was meant to be funny. Kneeling in a rainy alley, looking over the lifeless corpses of my favorite show, I vowed never to write book reviews. Boldness, a necessary tool for any book reviewer, had been torn from me.

But that’s me, not you. You read books. You have opinions. Why not combine these interests? Why not indeed! But beware, bold purveyor of literature, for there are traps into which the unwary oft fall. How clever of you to have found this article! Although I myself do not write book reviews, I am willing to offer advice unbiased by practical experience. As a reader and fan of book reviews, I have seen things that tarnish the genre. This being the internet, allow me to present them in a useful and familiar form: 8 tips for book reviewers (you won’t believe #7!).

#1: Be yourself… I read a lot of reviews where the writer isn’t content to be a mere book reviewer, instead wishing to be acknowledged as a God of Literature! Judgment, swift, terrible, unquestionable, flows from their pens as the divide supplicant books into piles of classics or garbage. I’m not saying don’t be bold, I’m just saying that not everyone will always agree with you. That doesn’t make their opinions wrong or worthy or attack.

#2: …unless you are really snide, then be someone nicer. All reviewers will write reviews for a books they loathe. It’s part of the job. You rarely read reviews where praise upon praise is heaped on a book but many reviews read like an extended and continuous curb-stomping. It’s perfectly fine to write a negative review, just be honest. Some books deserves scorn but if you’re writing to see how many cheap shots you can fit in each paragraph, well, it’s no more interesting than fawning praise.

#3: Be a reviewer, not a teacher. Look, I get it – you belong to a writing group or went to a really great class. Good for you! Remember though, it’s neither helpful nor interesting to explain how a writer should have written a published book. That moment is gone.

#4: Batman. Just a word to the wise: Your opinions will change over time. Be bold and fearless but, yeah, if you can avoid making your future self cringe when they dust off that review and read it again, that would great.

#5: Have an opinion. There’s this one reviewer I keep coming back to because (a) he’s amazing and (b) he drives me nuts. He’s insanely well-read, fantastically organized and focused like a laser. His reviews are full of interesting anecdotes and trivia and – here’s the horrible part – he will not commit to liking or disliking anything. A book review needs an opinion!

#6: Your word count should match your opinion. Hey, I don’t like the four stars out of five rating system either but some reviewers fall into the unfortunate pitfall of writing reviews starting with ‘I loved this book but …’ and spending the rest of their word count on that one thing they hated. Naturally, readers believe the reviewer didn’t like the book. Reviewer gets snippy, he loved the book! He said so, with four words in a thousand word review.

#7: Pick the books you review. I once read a national newspaper review of a seventh book in a series by a reviewer who had not read any of the first six books. She didn’t like it, found it hard to get into, too many characters. Do not be this person.

#8: Anthologies. When reading a multi-author short story collection, it is not necessary to say you liked some stories better than others. How could it be otherwise? As a reviewer, your task is to evaluate the book as a whole. Does it deserve to sit on your shelf or not?

jrc J.R. Campbell is an anthologist and writer living in Calgary. If you want to review some of his stuff, go for it. He’s not afraid. His latest anthology is Professor Challenger: New Worlds, Lost Places, co-edited with his friend Charles Prepolec. Take your best shot. If you look around, maybe you can find some of their Gaslight Sherlock Holmes anthologies (Gaslight Grimoire: Fantastic Tales of Sherlock Holmes; and Gaslight Grotesque: Nightmare Tales of Sherlock Holmes) too. Take a look. Write a review. Tear him a new one. He may lack boldness but he’s no fraidy-cat. Take your best shot.

The Mercenary Writer

A guest post by Tereasa Maillie.

That overly quoted English tome, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, defines mercenary as “one that serves merely for wages; especially: a soldier hired into foreign service”. I’m not a soldier, although my forthrightness and commanding voice usually gets me the title of “El Generalissimo” or at least “Sir”.

I am a mercenary writer. I write ‘merely’ for wages. I have and continue to take contracts purely based on pay. I don’t really care if it’s on the fish industry, crocheting with your feet, or how to get stains out of your cat. Those are some of the ‘foreign’ topics I could write about without prior expertise. I write or edit in cold efficiency. I have very little emotion towards the subject or the writer I’m editing for. I parachute in, do my job, and get out. Is there a pay cheque involved? Will you pay me fast? These are the questions a mercenary asks.

That does not mean I don’t research the snot out of the topic I’m writing about. That’s part of the deal. As a mercenary I will know the topic inside and out to get it right. One contract I just finished was editing a MA thesis on Public Transportation in Israel. Three days in and out and a ton of cash at the end. I suddenly had to grasp and understand the topic. There was blood (red pen ink) and tears (the writer who thought all words are sacred), but the result was a defendable paper. They will receive their degree.

Mercenary writer does not equal freelance writer. I do have some freelance writing gigs. Freelance has a soft, kind consultation. I’ll work with you to make your copy beautiful. I’ll give you tea and cookies and a snuggy while we look at your first novel about your grandma during the war. But don’t mistake me for the cute and cuddly type when I have a deadline on copy ad to be delivered in 5 hours, and you’ve hired me to edit your software specs in one week.

Mercenary writing came out of a necessity to eat and a need for personal freedom. In 2009, I had just finished my time in purgatory working on my MA in history. It was soul crushing as the whole university system and my own advisor were neglectful or abusive. Who can be creative in that environment? My research contract job then turn the same worm: a stressful and meaningless existence with little creativity. This job was all about legal matters and projects that never ended. In a fit of misery, I quit my contract job and started working at a library, but all I could get was part time work. I needed work that was going to fit into my library schedule but help pay bills. Thank toast I had been writing short stories, essays and plays for years, which got my foot in the door to prove to myself and to the clients that I could write.

Can you trust a mercenary? I was at a full-time writing job, and one company point-blank stated that they did not want any freelancers, as they wanted you to be loyal to them only. I was angry: I can be loyal. I am loyal to each project and client as I have to bring all my talents and professionalism. This is the cost of being a mercenary in any field. You are a hired gun, for money. Your loyalty lasts as long as the cheque comes in. That means next week you could work for their competitor. That does not sit well with everyone.

The paid work can take over your life. Mercenaries always are looking for the next gig, the next cheque. That cuts into your personal writing time. It cuts into your creative energy. I have not finished one play since I started. I have been able to focus enough passion on my short story work that a few are done and making the rounds. However, because I’ve taken so many tours as a mercenary, my finances are stable. I can now make plans to take all of this month off just to write my novel. That is the payoff.

But maybe my heart is a little colder than it used to be.

TereasaTereasa Maillie is a writer and researcher. She also has a very un-secret life as a producer and playwright. Her work has appeared in various poetry and short story anthologies, most recently in the Found Poetry Review and Beyond Imagination. She has a background in historical research, having attended the MA program at the University of Alberta. Her previous work includes the history of oil and gas in Alberta, Chinese medicine, First Nations and Métis history. Currently, she is a lead researcher on the Governor General Award nominated Calgary Gay History Project, focusing on the history of Calgary’s LGTBQ community.