Cathartic Writing

This isn’t the blog post I set out to write. We aspire to be a blog for writers dealing with the business and/or process of writing. Sometimes though, writing is about more than the characters and the plot. Sometimes, it can be about real life, even when everyone in the story is wearing armor and carrying swords.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I’ve spent a fair amount of time the past few days watching documentaries about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. To the majority of Americans – indeed even a great number of world citizens – it is the single most historically significant event to take place within the span of our lives.

We can all remember where we were when we first heard the news. We’ve all seen the haunting images of the senseless violence. It was impossible to not be affected in some way emotionally by the events of that day.

Is it no wonder those emotions would find their way into my writing?

In the days and weeks directly after the attacks, I was surprised to see just how affected my writing became. I was in grad school for screenwriting at the time. Like many people I knew, I was angry, and the scripts I wrote during that period reflected that. Loss and vengeance appeared frequently.

But, what became apparent while revisiting the footage these past few days, is how certain images and themes found their way into my fantasy years later. The story I’m currently working on takes place partly in a desert city. The desert itself is comprised of fine, gray dust and littered with teetering towers of obsidian. When I was worldbuilding, I didn’t consciously draw upon images from 9/11, and yet this is just one of many that has manifested in my writing.

It seems only natural.

To write is to express emotion. Just because we write speculative fiction doesn’t mean that, in some way, we’re not using it to look at relevant issues of our own time. To dissect them. To find out what motivates some people to do unspeakable things. Perhaps, on some level, to find reasons to sympathize with those people, to understand them. Or perhaps to live vicariously through the hero, thwarting the enemy’s plan in the eleventh hour and saving the day.

Sometimes, however, we write simply to cope.

Conning the Budget

A good question raised about going to conventions, workshops, and seminars asked how in the world does someone budget for these things. They can get unbelievably expensive. And it’s not just the event itself; there’s transportation there and back, food while you’re gone, and lodging. I don’t have all the answers, but here are some ways that have helped me.

First off, no matter how well you budget, there’s going to be a price tag. I consider the cost of cons and workshops to be my tuition or continuing education so I fit it into the budget. Maybe I’m only justifying using up my family’s money, but really, if I went back to school to get a masters or Ph.D. I’d spend even more without a much better guarantee I’d garner a return. Still, there are a few things you can do to cut costs.

For transportation, sign up with a rewards program to eventually, I hope, help with the cost of airfare. I wish I’d given myself this advice two years ago. I just barely signed up and it’s going to take a while to earn any rewards. Or…carpool. You might be surprised at how many people are driving from or through your area to attend an interesting convention.

Share the room. By getting a roommate you’ve cut one of the major expenses in half. I’m sharing for FantasyCon with a fellow writer met at Superstars Seminar. We’re not coming and going at exactly the same time, but it’s still costing us less than it would otherwise.
Booking a room close to the event, but not as expensive as the sponsoring hotel can help with lodging costs as well. Two years ago I stayed with a sister-in-law who lived around the corner from where World FantasyCon was taking place. I also stayed with family in order to attend Conduit last year. Usually it’s more fun and a good idea to stay in the main hotel, but sometimes it’s just not worth the cost. I couldn’t have attended otherwise.

If you do stay in a different hotel, get one with a refrigerator and a microwave. I’ve been known to do what I call “camp con” where I eat the offered breakfast at the cheap hotel, nuke up lunch or dinner in the microwave, then go out with fellow attendees for the other meal. This worked great at one of Dave Farland’s workshops because he always has them in reasonably priced hotels which have refrigerators and microwaves.

Now you might say, but I don’t know people I can do this with. You have to make it happen. Usually, there’s a way to connect with other attendees before the event. Either the person or group hosting will have a list of attendees, you can contact people through facebook, or you can request something be set up so attendees can communicate with each other. By staying active in a local writing group you can often find others who want to attend the same event. As your networking grows, your own fb page may be enough to get the word out. Just post something like, “I’m going to WorldFantasy Con in October. Does anyone know someone who would be willing to carpool?”

Of course, make sure you get to know someone before you do something like this. And make sure you feel safe. There are crazies out there; different crazy than just sf/f nuts. You have to always be careful, but as you get out you’ll get to know people. Go to those writing groups in your area, go to smaller cons in your area, and find out who’s going where. The more we network, the more we can help each other. But that’s a whole other post, and I think I’ve said more than enough this week.
Anyone with other ideas or experiences? I’d love to hear more.

An Experiment in Marketing

The undeniable truth is that writers are ultimately responsible for marketing their books themselves. Nobody questions this state of affairs in the realm of self-publishing, of course, where the author is responsible for every aspect of his or her book. But even writers with big contracts from major publishers will tell you that a great deal (okay, the lion’s share) of the publicity work ends up landing on their plate.Having recently secured a publishing deal with a small press in Canada (where I’m from), I now find myself in the position of having to execute a marketing plan for my own book. Marketing is not my strength. In fact, as a purely creative type who wants to spend all his time living in his own make-believe worlds (I know, I sound like a fun person to spend a Saturday night with, right?), taking on the burden of building a fanbase is an unsavory business I would much rather avoid-or at least leave to the professionals.

Fortunately, I have a writing partner on the project so I don’t have to go it alone.

First, we set to the task of brainstorming some ways to get the word out about our coming book. Before too long, an obvious target for our efforts emerged: social media.

On my own, I would hardly consider myself a social media guru. I check Facebook almost every day, but I post updates infrequently (no more than a couple of times per month). I don’t have a Twitter account, and don’t even get me started on this Google+ nonsense. Frankly, it seems entirely too time-consuming, as though I could spend all my time promoting myself and never find the time to actually write. I guess some people are wired for it more than others.

Like my writing partner, for example. Thank heavens for small miracles.

Just over two weeks ago, we started our campaign by opening a Facebook account for one of the main characters in the novel. Just as it’s important to keep a blog active in order to see eventual success, we knew this would only have a shot at working if the account stayed active and busy, and built up a significant number of followers very quickly.

We met our initial goal (we have north of 500 Facebook friends now), so we expanded our effort by cross-posting all our updates to Twitter. We aim for three or four new updates or links everyday, to make sure we don’t disappear from people’s home pages. The effort does seem to be succeeding, as the activity on the page is significantly greater than any buzz I’ve ever managed to build or maintain on my own behalf.

The next step, which just kicked in earlier this week, was the formation of a blog for the same fictional character. We’re just beginning to get hits on it, and several people have already subscribed. At first, I’ve written blog posts that function as a teaser trailer of sorts for the book itself, introducing one of the novel’s central mysteries. As time goes on, we plan to tackle subjects and research that hint at possible sequels.

I have no idea whether these efforts will be successful in the long-run, but so far they seem to be exceeding our modest expectations. I have reason to be optimistic.

These are, of course, just a handful of ideas. There must be lots of others. What sorts of marketing efforts have other people tried? By all means, chime in and maybe we can do some brainstorming.

Sloshing through the Slush Pile ““ Beginner Concerns

You wrote a story and submitted it. Good for you! Pat on the back! It takes courage to not only write but to submit! But, your story wasn’t chosen? That makes me sad, especially after all that effort. So, how do you get your story through the first reading also known as the slush pile? It’s no great mystery. I’ve been a slush pile reader and have judged the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association (IFWA) short story contest and I’m here to share some of the common writing mistakes made by beginning writers.

Actions speak louder than words
There is the saying that actions speak louder than words. For the writer the saying should be reworded to: a character’s actions and reactions, based on his value system, are more revealing than a mere listing of movements and setting. Feelings, actions and reactions, what’s worth fighting for, our successes and failures in that fight and how they affect us – those are the things which move your reader and create your story.

Damn, I hate lectures …
Information dumps are bad any time – back story, setting, telling me what the character is thinking. When I hear the “professor’ lecturing me on what it’s like in space when I want to know how the character will solve a problem, I’m gone ……. and please, stay away from omniscient musings on the human condition!

The sleep inducing setting
Starting a story with a list of items the character sees isn’t exciting. Not even in real life do we note all the details in a room when we enter it. But we do notice things which affect how we feel or cause us to react like a dead body on the floor or the missing captain and the view screen showing the planet’s surface growing larger.

Setting not only sets the time and place for your story but more importantly is used to stimulate the senses; to evoke a feeling for the situation and to provide a context in which your character will react. Yes, some novels start with awesome descriptions of setting. So what makes that work? Setting is used as a character – it evokes a feeling. It’s no mistake that in Twilight, for example, the climate is cold, rainy and generally depressing. Similar, is it not, to how Belle feels about herself?

Writing in first person
Many a good idea was killed by this Point of View. Writing in first person doesn’t mean it’s a free license to explore your grey cells to produce copious ponderings. Writing in first person is difficult because there is only one point of view through which to reveal a world, create drama and to incorporate a story line which is interesting. It can be done. The trick is not to tell, but to show the person actively assessing and responding to his situation. Through his eyes and actions, he must reveal information about the people he interacts with, his surroundings and how he feels. First person can be a great way to get deeply into someone’s psyche, the trick is not to get bogged down in the thinking process. All the rules for a good story arc still apply.

Stories need to be dynamic
Whether they’re dynamic emotionally or action oriented, I don’t care. Have some tension, carry it through to the climax and ending. Actions need reaction. Reactions produce more actions. Show, don’t tell. Don’t list events, or actions, or use empty words like “pondered “which evoke nothing except that the writer didn’t really know how the character felt or how he should react. A story needs a plot and increasing tension with a climax. Writing a descriptive scene isn’t a story.

Proof reading and feedback
Truly, most of us cannot be a good judge of what we write, certainly not in the beginning of our careers. The act of writing is a solitary event insofar as we need to write our story. After that, it’s a collaborative process requiring feedback and revisions. Your manuscript is easily rejected because of poor grammar, spelling and punctuation, clunky dialogue or extensive monologues. Plot problems or character concerns such as inconsistency or believability are things proofreaders can catch.

Keep on writing!