Category Archives: Non-fiction writing

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.

An Interview on Interviewing

An interview with Celeste A. Peters.

Interviews can be entertaining, informative or a disaster. There are three types of interview styles: personal audio/visual (podcast, television, radio); written (email communications); and personal converted to written. It isn’t the type of interview that makes it good – it’s the ability to conduct the interview, to transform what you’ve learned into an appealing story. To learn more about how to conduct a successful interview, I asked Celeste A. Peters about interviewing tricks and techniques. She’s interviewed a broad spectrum of people including politicians, scientists, farmers and medical patients.

You’ve interviewed an array of people from different professions and in different walks of life. How do you handle your nerves when you’re interviewing someone you admire, someone who in your mind has great status or authority? Is there a difference in how you approach that person versus someone else?
I’ve found that conducting an interview with respect and an air of confidence garners the best results, regardless of the status of the person being interviewed. Sure, it can take time to develop your confidence, though. To do so, conduct all of your interviews as though the person you’re interviewing is a head of state. Just don’t tackle an actual high-level interview your very first time out.

You’ve done your prep, you’ve got your notes and your questions, yet the interviewee takes you off on a tangent. What do you do?
If the tangent seems littered with material that’s relevant to your other questions, it might be worthwhile to let the person ramble for a while. Sometimes they provide valuable material you never thought of asking about. On the other hand, if you’ve got limited time for the interview, you might interrupt and say something like, “That sounds so interesting, but I’m afraid we’ll run out of time if we go there right now. We were talking about X…” The interviewee usually gets the hint.

How do you prepare your questions? And how do you ask them? I mean, is it a good idea to ask personal questions first to become comfortable, a mix of light hearted questions and pointed questions, or do you just get to the heart of the interview, the nitty-gritty?
Before the interview, determine why you need it; is it to collect information, obtain someone’s opinion on a topic, or a mix of both? Also define your target market for the resulting written piece. This will determine the depth of the questions you prepare. Next, research what material is already easily available on the topic or individual. What unique angle can you bring? If you’re doing an on-spec piece, this will be critical. If you’re writing on assignment, the nature of your questions might be determined by your employer. Then prioritize your list of questions: know what information you absolutely must not come away without. And, finally, arrange the order of your questions. Lead with one or two easy, perhaps light-hearted questions, followed by the meat of your interview, then any questions you deem a ‘bonus’ if answered. And be certain to arrange with your interviewee beforehand—preferably when you book the interview—how much time is available. If it’s less than you expected, you’ll need to pare down your list.

What is the most challenging interview you’ve conducted and how did you handle it?
No single interview stands out as ‘most challenging’. I have had to interview what I’d call ‘reluctant’ interviewees, though. I once was hired to write the big, glossy PR book for the Canadian branch of a multinational company. Some of the department heads only granted an interview because they were ordered to. I eventually got all the information I needed by remaining serious in demeanor and strictly professional in approach, and by asking for the name and number of someone else in their department who could flesh out material they decided they didn’t have the time or inclination to cover.

Time has run out and there are still unanswered questions. What’s the best way to handle that situation?
If you don’t finish the interview within the specified time, you might want to estimate how much more time is needed and request the interview keep going if convenient or request another meeting. Neither of these moves is optimal though; this is where prioritizing your questions beforehand comes in handy. Are the ones still unanswered just your bonus questions or do they include one or more of your critical questions?

What are your thoughts on an interviewee wanting to see the final product before it’s released?
If you’re writing a piece of journalism, politely, but firmly, decline. Period. Some employers even forbid it outright. The interviewee has said what they said—you should have a voice recording or, at very least, detailed notes to prove it. How you incorporate it into your work is up to you. If you have any doubt whatsoever you’ve understood what they were saying, ask them to verify the quote or clarify the piece of information you are planning to use—and nothing more. If you’re writing something other than a work of journalism, use your judgment. For example, on my first book I worked closely with a leading researcher in the field of Seasonal Affective Disorder; his feedback on my first draft was essential.

Is any question ever too big or too small?
Depends on the scope of what you plan to write as a result of the interview. For example, you don’t want to ask someone to summarize their entire life if what you plan to write will focus on a single incident.

Is there anything I didn’t ask that you want readers to know?
Check your ego at the door. No matter how much you personally know about a topic, ask questions from your least educated reader’s point of view. This means you will need to ask questions that might make you look ridiculously uninformed in the eyes of your interviewee, but this way you get the answer in their words, from their point of view, not yours. Sometimes, I’ve even found my preconception of what their answer would be was way off track. Those were humbling learning moments.

Now for the big question: What style of interview did I use to interview Celeste? Was it personal audio/visual (podcast, television, radio), written (emails), or personal converted to written?

For this blog, Celeste A. Peters called on several decades’ experience in journalism,Celeste Xmas 2014 Big public relations, and non-fiction book writing—-now all in her past. Today she focuses on developing her skills in the wonderful world of fiction. Successes have included publication of short-stories in the Aurora Award-nominated Urban Green Man anthology, the Amok: Anthology of Asian-Pacific Speculative Fiction, the inaugural issue of Enigma Front anthology and in the chapbooks of winning entries for the 2011 and 2015 Robin Herrington Memorial Short Story Contest. Celeste is Senior Editor for Enigma Front’s upcoming second issue and she can be found at www.celestepeters.com.

My Best Sale

Isotropic Fiction cover
Isotropic Fiction: “Watchboy”

I’ve sold a number of short stories. Most of them have gone through a few rejections before getting picked up by a magazine or anthology. Some have even become the cover story. I used to hear others talk about writing non-fiction and thought, “But how boring.” A few months ago, I learned better.

In a desire to improve my writing skills and branch into something new, I googled “call for nonfiction submissions.” This site showed up and so I looked it over: http://www.newpages.com/classifieds/calls-for-submissions. I found an educational magazine, focused on homeschooling, with a call that sounded interesting to me. As Ace Jordyn said in her previous article, How to Write Non-Fiction Books for Profit, when you find something you love to talk about then your enthusiasm can be contagious. I’ve done some homeschooling and I’ve had experience with many schools and different teaching programs. So I went to work and gave my take on education with the article Essay Overload. I didn’t expect anything to come of it.

THSR: "Essay Overload"
THSR: “Essay Overload”

However, just like an article I wrote in high school in my very first creative writing class, my essay submission sold almost immediately. It published this month. (Click on the picture to the right and go to page 27 to see the article.) The magazine’s rates were at least three times higher than ANY fiction short story I had ever sold up to that point. I was amazed, ecstatic, and a bit dumbfounded. Say what? But this is just the fact of fiction. The best part, I was able to use that money to pay for my flight home from the 2016 Superstars Seminar. So, my non-fiction is helping me pay for my fiction endeavors.

On a side note, I also think writing non-fiction helps our ability to write in other areas. I’ve noticed that some of the best writers do both worlds very well. And, in fact, I sold a fiction short story very soon after the non-fiction for almost as much money. My first professional short story sale.

Lesson learned. Writing non-fiction is a good way to write fiction. May not make sense to you, but in my book, the numbers add up just fine.

Colette Black Bio:
Author PicColette Black lives in the far outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona with her family, 2 dogs, a mischievous cat and the occasional unwanted scorpion. She loves learning new things, vacations, and the color purple. She writes New Adult and Young Adult sci-fi and fantasy novels with kick-butt characters, lots of action, and always a touch of romance. Find her at www.coletteblack.net