Saturday, October 29, 2011

World Fantasy Convention 2011, or: my inner fangrrl is squeeing.

Pardon me while I grin like an idiot for awhile.  I'm wrapping up day two at this year's World Fantasy Convention, and even though I didn't get put on a panel this year and didn't have time to set up at the mass author signing, I'm still having a terrific time.

One of the best events I've attended so far was a "conversation" -- really, a two-person panel -- comprised of Neil Gaiman and Connie Willis.  Gaiman, who is one of this year's guests of honor, is a fantasy fiction rock star; he's written the "Sandman" graphic novels and several more traditional novels, including Anansi Boys and American Gods.  (To give you an idea of just how big a deal Gaiman is:  the reason I didn't have time to set up for the mass autographing session was because I spent nearly an hour in line, waiting to get Gaiman to sign my copy of the tenth anniversary edition of American Gods.  And I started out near the front of the line.)  Willis, who is the toastmistress this year, has written several excellent novels, including Doomsday Book and Lincoln's Dreams.  Toward the end of their panel, they were each asked to provide some advice for aspiring writers, which I've decided to share here.

Gaiman began by quoting Robert Heinlein's rules for writing.  Paraphrased, they are:
  1. Write.
  2. Finish what you write.
  3. Don't rewrite unless an editor tells you to.
  4. Send off what you write.
  5. Repeat from the top.
Number 1 validates a rule I've heard elsewhere:  to be a writer, you must apply the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair, and write.  Writing, like anything else, takes practice.  That means you actually have to do it.

Number 2 is designed to keep you going through the hard parts.  Everybody starts strong and gets bogged down somewhere in the middle of the story.  Everybody has good days, where the writing flows easily and every word seems like a gem, and the bad days, where it's like pulling teeth to get words out onto the page and you feel like everything you've written stinks.  Gaiman says he has both good and bad days, too.  But he says that when he reviews the galley proof when it comes back from the publisher, he can't tell which pages he wrote on a good day and which he wrote on a bad day.  So the quality of your writing doesn't vary from day to day as much as you think it does -- a great insight, I thought, that could help someone through a particularly unmotivated day.

Number 3 will help avoid another common pitfall:  constantly rewriting the same few sentences or paragraphs to make them ""better," thereby stalling the whole project.  It's also good advice for a writer who has handed his or her work to some readers and asked for their input.  If one person says you've got a problem here, or you need more description there, well, trust your gut; if you don't think they're right, don't change your work just to suit them.  If a number of people point out the same problem, though, or if an editor tells you that something needs a rewrite, then by all means, fix it.

Number 4, obviously, will prevent you from sticking your work in a drawer.  It will never be published if you don't send it out.  And number 5 gives you something to do while you're waiting to hear back on number 4.

Willis's advice reinforced those two final rules of Heinlein's.  She said that new writers should never give up.  She told of one particularly bleak day, early in her career, on which she received a notice from the post office that she had a package waiting.  Alas, it wasn't one package, it was eight packages -- all eight of her stories that she had submitted to various publishers had been returned, rejected, on the same day.  She admitted that she thought, that day, that maybe she should pursue a different career.  But she didn't give up, and clearly she eventually succeeded.

Gaiman's final bit of advice was to read outside your comfort zone.  If you typically read fantasy, say, then pick up something in another genre, or even a non-fiction book -- just so long as you push your boundaries.  You might learn a new trick or two, or gain a new insight or new inspiration for your own work.

This whole convention is a great lead-in, for me, to NaNoWriMo, which starts in just a couple of days.  I'm looking forward to beginning my own new writing adventure.  Here's hoping the high from this weekend carries over, for me, into drear November.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Shine, greed, and some stuff about the NaNo novel.

I am bemused by the effrontery of various People in High Places these days.  First, of course, is the reaction of the One Percent to the 99 Percent protestors currently clogging up the parks across from their high-priced-real-estate-type offices.  I'll get to that in a minute.

In addition, though, there's the brouhaha over at the National Book Awards.  The nominating panel for the Young Adult books phoned in its nominations, some poor secretary at the other end of the phone wrote down Shine when he or she should have written down Chime, and nobody caught the mistake 'til the nominations were announced.  A couple of hours after the announcement, Chime was hastily added to the list of nominees.  But that made six nominees when there were only supposed to be five.  That must have bothered some folks, because then ensued a public back-and-forth over whether Shine deserved a nomination.

You can imagine how Lauren Myrakle, who wrote Shine, must have been feeling at this point.

But wait, it gets better.  The head of the National Book Foundation then called Ms. Myrakle and asked her to recuse herself and her book, "to preserve the integrity of the award," as if the award had any integrity left by then.  Keep in mind, if you please, that Shine is about a hate crime against a gay teenager -- kind of hot-button stuff.

It's all kind of amazingly unbelievable.  But everybody's got a blog these days, including a YA author named Libba Bray, who also happens to be married to Ms. Myrakle's agent.  She tells the whole story better than I ever could.  Here's a link to her post.  (The link will take you to Tamora Pierce's reply to the post.  Just scroll up the page.  And if you don't know who Tamora Pierce is, you should.  Her Alanna books ought to be required reading for tween girls.)

Okay, back to the 99 Percent.  I said I wasn't going to get into politics on this blog, but I don't think I'm going too far down that slippery slope by saying that the One Percent, and the money behind them, are going to do everything they can in coming weeks to undermine and fracture the coalition that Occupy Wall Street is building.  The ruling class really likes ruling, and it's not going to give up without a fight.

I flatter myself that I've been ahead of the curve on this 99 Percent thing.  I've felt for several years now that a lot of us have gotten the short end of the stick on the American Dream -- that we did what we were supposed to, and the system betrayed us.

Now don't worry, the novel I'm writing for NaNoWriMo won't be a polemic.  But one of the underlying issues in this book (assuming it pans out the way I'm planning!) will be greed:  what it is, how it gets out of hand, and whether there's a way to stop it.

For Christians, greed is a deadly sin; for Pagans, it's not that simple.  Our one and only moral rule is "if it harms no one, do what you will."  And I tend to object on general principles to the sort of black-and-white thinking that proclaims absolutes like "Greed is Evil!"  I'm coming to the conclusion (with the help of friends at kevinswatch.com) that greed is the extreme end of a continuum that starts with healthy emotions like ambition and desire.  Which means there ought to be a way to bring the greedy back to a normal, healthy emotional state without threatening them with burning in hell (especially since Pagans don't believe in hell).

I've yet to figure out how to do it in real life.  But I suspect that in the book, I'll have to resort to magic....

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

More power! And some other stuff.

I did a little bookshelf spelunking after posting the last blog entry.  Turns out it was Mervin Block who wrote the tip about the power position in a sentence.  And I misspoke (miswrote?) a little bit -- it's the last word or words of a sentence that stick with your reader.  Number 22 of his Top Tips of the Trade is:  
Put the word or words you want to emphasize at the end of your sentence. And don't take the edge off by ending it with weak, incidental or irrelevant words.
That's number 22 of 33, by the way.  He's also got a chapter called "The Dozen Deadly Sins," and another called "Venial Sins."  Some of his points are specific to writing for broadcast, but many can be applied equally to any type of writing.  Now that I've unearthed the book again, I'll probably post more of his advice from time to time.

Okay, glad that's straightened out.  I feel better now.

I've got a couple of big upcoming events that I wanted to mention.  First, I'll be attending the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego at the end of this month.  I was honored to participate in a panel discussion last year.  Hopefully I will get to do it again this year.  If not, I will definitely participate in the mass book signing Friday night.  Just in case, y'know, you're going, too.

Second, I wanted to put in a quick plug for National Novel Writing Month, which runs from Nov. 1 to Nov. 30.  This will be my third NaNoWriMo.  The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days, which works out to 1,667 words per day.  It's a lot of work, but it's also a lot of fun.  And if you've ever thought to yourself, "I should write a book!" -- this could be the opportunity you've been looking for.  Even if you don't win, you'll be farther along on your Great American Novel than you were before.  Go to nanowrimo.org to sign up.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The final word, or: you've got the power.

Once upon a time, many years ago, when the kids were younger but no less goofy than they are today, I was driving us home from a visit to my mother in America's Heartland.  We'd been on the road for a long time -- it was about a twelve-hour drive from our house to Mom's, and I was in the habit of driving it straight through to save on hotels -- and we were all getting a little punchy.  As we drove through West Virginia, the girls decided it would be fun to pester Mom while she was driving.  I have no memory of what they said or did, but my response has gone down in the annals of family lore:  doing my very best impression of an Appalachian tour bus driver, I intoned, "Do not annoy the driver.  The driver is here for your comfort and safety."

Gales of laughter ensued, and we made it home without killing each other, which was the point.

Later, on another trip, the kids got rambunctious again, and again I trotted out my Appalachian tour bus driver schtick.  Through the giggles, one of the kids said, "Mom, shouldn't it be 'safety and comfort'?"  And I told her, "No, the last word has to be 'safety,' because that's the driver's biggest responsibility.  You always put the most important thing at the end of the sentence.  The last word is the power position."

I couldn't tell you where I picked up this little bit of writerly wisdom.  It might have been at some seminar for broadcast news writing, or from Ed Bliss's Writing News for Broadcast, or from Mervin Block's Writing Broadcast News Shorter, Sharper, Stronger.  But regardless of whether you're writing for the ear or for the eye, it's true:  The final word of your sentence is in the power position.  That's the thing your readers (or listeners) will take away with them.

If you think about it, it makes sense:  the last thing you hear or see is the thing you tend to remember.  If you've ever played that party game where a bunch of things are arrayed on a tray, you know what I'm talking about.  Somebody whisks off the cover of the tray and you get to look at it for a short period of time; then the cover is replaced, and you're supposed to make a list of all the things on the tray.  It's easy to remember the very last thing you saw, and probably the first thing, as well.  But listing the others is a struggle.

As you might have guessed from my analogy of the memory game, the first word in your sentence is in a pretty important position, too.  And I'm not denigrating any of the other words you might put in a sentence -- they all have a job to do.  But if you've got an idea or a concept that you want your readers to take home with them, put it in the power position.  And conversely, make sure that your final word is the one you want your readers to take away.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

In defense of commas, or: The homicidal panda.

We had a short digression of a discussion about comma usage at the Fiction Writers Guild board on LinkedIn the other day, and it reminded me of how much I miss the little fella.

Oh, sure, people still use commas.  Sometimes, if you're very lucky, you'll even see them used properly.  But like other niceties of our written language, the comma is beginning to go the way of many of the other punctuation rules I learned back when I was just a teeny writer.

Lynne Truss championed the comma back in 2004 with her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves.  The title, in case you've never read the book, refers to a joke about a panda in a cafe.  The panda sits down at the table, orders and eats a sandwich, fires a gun into the air, and heads for the door.  The mystified waiter picks up the wildlife guide the panda has left behind, turns to the bookmark, and reads:  "Panda.  Large, black-and-white mammal native to China.  Eats, shoots and leaves."

The punch line, of course, contains a comma that doesn't need to be there.  What I'm finding more often these days is not an extraneous comma, but one that's MIA.

Take, for example, your standard e-mail salutation.  Say you're writing to your friend Sally.  If you think to include a salutation at all (which is doubtful, but that's a different rant), you're likely to start with "hi" and then your friend's name, like so:  "Hi Sally!"  Right?

Right.  But technically, there ought to be a comma in there:  "Hi, Sally!"

There's some fusty old grammar rule for it, which I will leave you to look up for yourself.  The point is that the comma ought to be there, but it's gone, kaput, seeyabye.  Read the two sentences aloud.  Doesn't it feel like there ought to be a pause there, between the "hi" and the "Sally"?  That if you drop the comma, you could be misinterpreted as making a statement about Sally's intoxication level?

Commas indicate a pause.  We're supposed to stop there and take a breath before going on.  (Believe me, I know what a temptation it is to skip the pause.  Back in my radio days, I had the habit of reading right past commas on the air.  I had to replace them with ellipses in my copy...like so...or I would forget to pause.)

Commas also set off certain elements of the sentence from certain other elements of the sentence, for the sake of clarity.  If for example I dropped all the commas out of this sentence it would be damned hard to make out -- you could do it but it wouldn't be much fun would it?  You might even have to go back and read it again to figure out where the commas should have gone.  You might even be seized with a desire to track down the author and hurt her, depending on the number of times you had to reread the sentence.

Sometimes commas should come in pairs, but don't any more.  I am more and more regularly seeing dates written this way:  "On May 25, 2010 we received a letter from you...."  Again, read it aloud.  Don't you hear yourself pausing after "2010"?  Then where's the comma?  You think you're done because you put in one before "2010"?  Au contraire, mon ami.  You need them both.

Of course, the debate about the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma, still rages.  This would be the comma before the "and" in a series:  lions, tigers(,) and bears, oh my!  Style guides vary.  To be honest, so do I; if the sentence seems clearer with it, I'll use it.  Otherwise I revert to AP style, which leaves it out.

I will admit that I sometimes overuse commas.  I like to make it very clear where the pauses are, particularly in fiction, in which a comma can make or break the rhythm of the sentence.  You can quote rulebooks all day long, but for me, the comma's most important function is to add clarity.  Please, for the love of the gods, use 'em.  Don't make me track down that panda with the gun.