Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category
Last week, I attended an event at my public library (where I am employed, but that’s not relevant to this post), featuring Betsy Warland, writer, poet, editor and author of Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing. She began with a performance poem, a gesture of casting a net which drew the audience into an intensely personal view of writing in the area of memoir. Ms. Warland spoke of family dynamics, the death of her mother and the necessity of challenging the taken-for-granted assumptions about one’s life which she calls the “coma story.” She also introduced “Oscar,” an interactive online salon on her website built around her work-in-progress, Oscar of Between. Ms. Warland invited other writers and artists to engage in this conversation.
Ms. Warland’s talk was followed by a conversation initiated by representatives of the Community Arts Council and library staff on the theme of resources for writers — including self-published ones. This was truly refreshing. Self-published authors have grown accustomed to exclusion, and here were community institutions reaching out, requesting our suggestions. Needless to say, suggestions burst forth, jostling against one another, combining and amplifying. It was a most rewarding evening.
I was happy to set this positive experience against the dreary slog of comments in another forum — discussions on LinkedIn’s Fiction Writers’ Guild. There, the argument on the theme of “Is Self-Publishing Evil?” went on and on, with at least one vocal individual saying over and over again that 99% of self-published material is “crap,” generated by self-indulgent slobs too lazy to learn the craft and earn the privilege of being published by a Real Publisher.
Returning to the presentation at the library, which reminded me that writing is a bigger field than the arena of TP versus SP. Publishing is a subset of writing, and the sharing of creative efforts through the internet cannot be labelled with the scornful term “not good enough to be traditionally published.” People write for many different reasons and define success in many different ways. While it’s true that writers aspiring to make a lot of money by selling their novels have to create a particular type of written product, that is by no means the only way to achieve success in the art of the written word. No longer are “traditional,” “vanity” or “none” the only available publication options. Technology has opened avenues for writers and many are racing down them.
A few final thoughts — publishers and editors are made, not born. Many publishing companies were started by groups of writers who wanted to get their stuff out. Editors begin as readers and writers. Writers are people who write, not exalted members of an anointed elite.
I learned a lot about ancient Greece from Mary Renault and quite a bit about the French Revolution from Hilary Mantel. Reading Mary Stewart’s novels about Merlin and Arthur made me want to learn more about the facts behind the legends. I knew nothing about the business of making and selling fine china and porcelain until I read Richard Adams’ The Girl in a Swing (which also has an unexpected mini-travelogue of central Florida).
All of these books are works of fiction, but with the bonus of facts, or at least gateways to facts. Fiction is fiction, however, so it’s unfair to expect hard factual information there. Or is it?
Some would say that if a writer decides to use a historical period as the setting for their work, they must learn all about it and be true to the facts. If a novel contains information about a profession or craft, the author is obligated to find out all about it and not guess or extrapolate. Others would argue that unless the plot of the novel directly involves historical events or technical processes, it’s all right for the author to blur things a bit. After all, how many readers are going to bother checking whether a battle was fought on a Tuesday or a Sunday, or what the exact temperature is for firing porcelain? And anyway, no one should expect to learn history or science from novels. If you want to find out about Athens in the time of Socrates, or what Alexander the Great was really like, there are plenty of serious, well-researched books about these subjects.
Well, what do I think?
Except for students, it’s very unlikely that anyone would read a serious, well-researched book on anything if their interest in that subject hadn’t been piqued by something, such as a story in the media or a work of fiction. Authors of novels can contribute to knowledge in this way, and they are most likely to do this by incorporating into their fiction subjects about which they are enthusiastic and knowledgeable.
I also think writers must exercise responsibility when they incorporate elements from the real world into their fiction. For example, World War I appears several times in my Herbert West Trilogy. It was such an enormous and terrible part of history that I decided I had to treat it with respect, which meant doing a lot of reading about the conditions the soldiers and medical personnel endured. Writing about quasi-fictional places in H.P. Lovecraft’s New England, such as Arkham and Kingsport (thought to be Salem and Marblehead), made me uneasy, as I have never been near these places, but I rationalized my ignorance with their quasi-fictional nature.
Even though fiction is fiction, therefore, it presents a unique opportunity to entice people into reading and learning more about the real world. Writers of novels must keep this in mind, and writers of nonfiction would do well to sharpen their technique and present their facts in prose that is entertaining as well as educational.
Is it confusing to mix up chronology in a work of fiction? Is it best to stick to strict chronological order when following a story’s arc?
The matter of narrative chronology in a work of fiction stirs up a variety of clashing opinions, at least in the novelists’ critique group I frequent. Some say that any deviations from the linear are frivolous and confusing. Others (and I am one of them) think that judicious use of chronological irregularity adds depth and texture to a novel.
It depends on how the narrative is presented. First person confessional is very different from third person omniscient. A disembodied narrator relating an event or sequence of events is quite different from a character remembering events of personal significance. In the latter case, flashbacks allow the writer to imbue events in a character’s past with thoughts and feelings from the narrative present.
(If you found the last sentence confusing, you may wish to stop reading right here).
Case in point: Islands of the Gulf, the middle book of my Herbert West Trilogy. Its principal character, Herbert West a.k.a. Francis Dexter, reminisces about his childhood and young manhood while convalescing from illness on Bellefleur Island in 1933. To remind the reader of that narrative present, I begin most chapters with a few observations about that situation — things that are happening around him as he relaxes on the sofa or deck chair or whatever. One of those observations segues into the past and the narrative resumes where it left off at the end of the previous chapter.
These time-shifts provoked some quibbling, but real dissent arose when I introduced further time-hops within the main narrative, as when my narrator leaves the 1890s of his childhood to relate a small incident from London when he was there during the Great War.
Thinking about this subject brought to mind one of my favourite Stephen King books, Gerald’s Game. Like my novel, it consists in large part of the main character’s memories, relived while she is in a very difficult situation. Her efforts to extricate herself from that situation are interwoven with the memories, and chronological shifts occur frequently. Unlike mine, this book is narrated in third person (but an extremely “close” third person).
For what it’s worth, here are my ideas on flashbacks and chronological mix-ups. First, use them sparingly. I admit to a fondness for this device and have to make myself use it wisely. My fellow novelists are not always wrong when they pounce on it. Flashbacks and memories must be used with a clear purpose in mind, not tossed in frivolously. Second, test rigorously for the confusion factor by asking someone objective and trustworthy to read the entire section in which time shifts occur. It’s important that this reading be as similar as possible to recreational, rather than critical, reading. I’ve noticed that confusion sometimes results when meetings of critique groups are separated by several weeks and members forget important details from material read weeks or months before.
Finally, if in doubt, delete and simplify. Time-hopping in fiction is like a spice or garnish in cooking. Too little is better than too much.
The Fiction Writers Guild at LinkedIn has the best discussions about writing — mostly articulate, no obscenities but a lot of hot zingers. Even the trolls are civil. Like most of my recent posts on writing, this one was inspired by (mostly) lurking on these discussions.
Self-publishing is a kind of salon des refuses of the literary world, populated by writers who have been rejected by traditional publishers or decided to bypass them. Lately it has been full of turmoil about “bad” writers churning out inferior prose that makes everyone look bad, even those who have diligently honed their craft. Online discussions about writing almost always come down to this — what is good writing, and why don’t those bad writers ever listen? People jump in wielding metaphorical fists and philosophical razors, the action gets frothy and eventually peters out, exhausted. The following week it all starts up again from a different angle. Recently, there has been a vigorous discussion as to who should write reviews on Amazon — not self-published authors, some say, because they are self-serving. Not just any old reader either, but — get this — only “professional critics” who have been endorsed by editors (those all-knowing editors again!)
From the vantage point of this obscure blog, I offer my thoughts. Entering a minefield here — strap on flame-proof armour!
Before I was a writer, I was a reader (and remain one), so I approach the question from that point of view. I think it’s impossible to define good (or, for that matter, bad) writing in technical terms, but “good” books have specific effects on readers.
A good book leaves an imprint on the reader’s mind, generating longings for it between reading sessions. Especially good books have this effect long after being read, resulting in re-readings, sometimes many of them. The characters become friends whose company the reader misses, and the settings they inhabit are dream-places the reader wants to revisit.
This is irrational stuff, or perhaps “sub-rational.” As a reader, I relate to books in an emotional way. Some generate positive emotions, others are repellent. When reading a book that delights me, I’m not consciously aware of technical issues. I may notice them after several re-readings, but by then I don’t care because that book has become one of “my” books, sort of like a friend whose minor flaws I am willing to overlook. It’s entirely possible to become attached to books that are technically imperfect, although too many obvious typos or other errors jolt the reader out of the story on the first reading, preventing the bonding process.
If readers’ attachments to certain books are emotionally-based, no wonder it’s impossible to come up with a definitive set of criteria for good writing. A rational approach lends itself to creating such a list, but that belongs in the realm of academic literary criticism, which is not what most readers engage in when they give an opinion on a book they have read. This is actually a good thing for writers because it broadens the realm of action, throwing open an infinity of creative possibilities. Think of a blank canvas and a full spectrum of pigments as opposed to the outlines and little paint pots in a paint-by-numbers set. Why would writers want to fence themselves in with a write-by-numbers set of rules?
This is why discussions that try to define “good writing” frequently become heated and are never conclusive. For writers who are looking to do something other than write, they can be amusing, and for bloggers in need of topics they are useful.
Since joining LinkedIn’s Fiction Writers’ Guild last year, I’ve wasted — er, spent a lot of hours reading and occasionally commenting on several discussions. They are all about fiction writing and increasingly about self-published fiction. Inevitably, the topic of editing comes up. Someone opines that of course a self-published work must be substandard if the author has skipped the all-important step of having their work “professionally edited.” In the throes of one of these debates, someone said, “A writer who edits him- or herself has a fool for a client,” echoing a similar opinion about people who represent themselves in a court of law.
I found this statement quite provocative and felt a Rant coming on. Several weeks have passed and now I can offer a few temperate observations.
First of all, I will say that a writer who has contracted with a “traditional” publisher to publish their work has no choice in the matter of being edited. Since the publisher is investing their time and treasure in the work, it is entirely logical that they should shape the product in whatever way they believe is necessary. I’ll say no more about this. This screed is entirely about self-published works.
“Editing” is not a monolithic process. There is structural or developmental editing, in which the editor suggests getting rid of characters or giving specific characters more important roles. Entire scenes or chapters may be cut, or new ones written. The entire novel may be rewritten. This is huge and fundamental stuff. To me it makes sense that structural editing happen early in the writing process. A writer who is having trouble making their story come to life as envisioned may well need a structural edit.
Line and copy editing happen in the final stage of a manuscript’s life, to deal with things such as typos, grammatical problems and continuity.
Freelance editors with connections in the traditional publishing industry may be worth paying for, but I suspect they are in a position to command high prices and be selective as to which writers they take on — just like agents.
So who is a “professional editor?” Anybody. There is no accrediting body or degree-granting authority for editors. Like writers, they create their reputations by pursuing their craft. Success comes in the form of recognition by readers, writers and peers. And as with writers, just because someone calls themselves an editor doesn’t mean they are any good at it. Writers who want to hire an editor to help them structure their work or provide the professional polish are advised to use a process similar to that of hiring a contractor to do renovations on their house — request references and ask to see samples of their work. Someone suggested getting test pieces edited and going with the one you like best, but given some of the opinions expressed on LinkedIn, my suspicious self wondered if the opposite approach wouldn’t be better. We writers are a self-castigating bunch.
Here I’m getting into Rant territory again. Perhaps because the current abundance of self-published fiction includes quite a lot of naive, or unpolished, or — to be quite frank — “bad” writing, some people have decided that all self-published writers are childish, self-indulgent seekers of adulation, brainlessly inflicting half-baked textual travesties on the overburdened reading public. They need to be whipped into shape by Editors.
Like all sweeping condemnations, this bugs me. Which is why I’m writing this.
Back to that “fool for a client” remark. I disagree with that 100%. I think anyone who wants to call themselves a writer should also know how to edit. It’s part of the package.
Another thing to keep in mind is that independent, self-published authors are just that — independent. Unlike editors who work for publishing houses, they are not obliged to create a marketable “product” that will show a return on investment in a limited time. The self-published writer decides how much of their time and treasure they are going to invest in their work, and what constitutes success. Options for editing include critique groups, beta readers and endless rewriting.
In the end, what is the worst consequence of publishing a flawed, unpopular or obscure piece of writing? If it’s an e-book, it will cost the reader no more than a few dollars (less than $5 in many cases) and however much time they are prepared to spend reading until they decide a book isn’t for them. That happens all the time with traditionally published books — even so-called “best-sellers” — bought for considerably more money. And at least an unwanted ebook can be disposed of with the push of a button. It won’t be cluttering up anyone’s shelf or taking up space in the landfill.
I decided the book trailer I made about a week ago would be even better with a few images, so here it is.
Ever since I viewed a simple but compelling book trailer created by Michelle Proulx, I just had to make one for The Friendship of Mortals, the first novel of my Herbert West Trilogy. After some brooding, listening to lots of royalty-free music snippets, wrestling with an old version of PowerPoint (discovered on an old computer), downloading Windows Movie Maker and figuring out where to put what — ta da!
View it here
It’s also on the book’s page at Smashwords.
A while ago there was a discussion on LinkedIn’s Fiction Writers Group about whether reading “how to write” advice is a waste of time. There certainly is a lot of advice to be had — books and courses and blogs dispensing shoulds and shouldn’ts, dos and don’ts and sententious pronouncements for those who aspire to be Writers — get a professional editor, rewrite no fewer than 55 times, bow deeply to the God of Marketing, blah, blah, blah. On this blog, I’ve dispensed advice as well as commented on it, so I’m as guilty as anyone.
The interesting thing was how many said they don’t bother reading blogs by “just anyone.” Ha! It’s kind of ironic that on a forum frequented by self-published “indie” authors there should be suspicion and distrust of advice from fellow indies. I’m not surprised though, being inclined to argue with such advice no matter where I find it. Statements starting with “You should,” or “Never,” or “Always,” trigger an inclination to challenge. Sometimes I argue myself around in a circle and actually end up agreeing with the statement. Another irony; life is full of them.
My advice to writers inclined to dispense advice — stick to your own experience, describing things you’ve done that worked or did not work. That might actually be useful to others, especially if you include the ideas behind the actions.
I suspect that 100% of writing blogs are written in order to draw attention to the bloggers’ own books. That brings up the final irony for today, which is that we are preaching to the choir — other writers. I’ll bet most people who don’t write, even those who read a lot, aren’t really interested in dissections of grammar or the details of how to write dialogue. Blog posts on how to write, therefore, aren’t very good for marketing, and if other writers ignore them, what’s the point?
That said, practical advice from someone with credibility does have value. In that spirit, I endorse a post on proofreading from Michelle Proulx, a fellow WordPress blogger whose first book is due out in January. While you’re there, check out her post from December 13, featuring a first try at a book trailer for her book, Imminent Danger.