Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The 'How To' of Writing

I'm often asked if I can recommend writer's workshops or books on writing. The answer to that question often results in a shrug of the shoulders and an apologetic smile. Can't say I'm particularly a fan of either, although in the book department there have been a few that were helpful, just plain nuts and bolts, straightforward discussion of the craft, no cloud creations, no gimmicks.

I think the light went on for me in the 1980s when I started submitting short stories to Marion Zimmer Bradley's fantasy magazine and empire. At first I received standard form rejections. Then she'd pen a small suggestion. The last rejection I received from her was a very long, hand-written critique which ended by saying, "Stop trying to impress me, Lorina." And she went on to say that I could write; I just needed to do it from the heart. I sold her my next story, Smile of the Goddess.

I also studied a lot of writing, and read articles in Writer's Digest, articles I went on to use later in life when teaching creative writing through the local continuing education program. Orson Scott Card's book on character and viewpoint is an excellent book for anyone starting out.

Mostly, I'd have to say, examine the authors you enjoy reading. Start asking yourself why a particular story or passage resonates with you. Is it emotional? If so, how did the author set about writing something that would touch that personal experience of yours? Is it the words themselves? If so, examine how the writer crafted the passage. Is it the environment? If so, examine how the writer made real that environment.

Workshops, well, I think it takes a certain character-type to find workshops of use, whether online or a retreat. I've been part of several and mostly found them a dismal, frustrating experience. But that's because I'm probably just a wee bit too anti-social and jealously guard my privacy and solitude.

I formed a critique circle back in the 80s in the area I lived. Mostly writers would make tremendously useful comments like, "Oh, that's such a wonderful story," and of course I'd wade in, pen slashing, saying, no, this word, this phrase is redundant. This is clumsy. I think you could have used less exposition here and more action (show don't tell). Too many passive verbs. Too many adjectives; try choosing one, precise word over several. I think you've started your story at the wrong point, and all this back-story you've presented up front could have been filtered in through dialogue.

Needless to say people didn't like me much. Mind you, out of that group came Barbara Kyle who now teaches writing at the University of Toronto, and continues to write historical novels.

For a brief (one week) period I was part of an SF&F group out of Toronto, loosely affiliated with Michael Skeet and Rob Sawyer. But I met with such resentment and foolish comment with regard to my application story that I didn't bother to return, which was met with more resentment.

And I did do three of the six week alleged boot camp of SF&F, Clarion, which then ran a workshop at Michigan State University in East Lansing. By the end of the third week I'd had enough of adolescent frat-house commentary and writing that I packed my bags and left. And, yep, once again met with resentment and anger.

Do you see a pattern here?

So I pretty much decided to go it on my own, write my stories in a closet and shove them out under the door in the hope someone on the other side might find them compelling enough to actually read, dare I hope, even enjoy.

Were all those workshops a waste of time? I used to think so, but in retrospect I think not. It helped me to realize I don't write stories that are hugely commercial and likely won't find a broad audience. It also taught me that my stories tend to evoke strong emotion, and when I started examining the critiques I'd received there was little by way of common thread. Mostly it was nit-picking. But I did read carefully for those common threads, realized the story had a flaw, and I revised carefully to correct that flaw.

From that, and from some very excellent teachers I had as a kid (who very much believed in cultivating inquiring minds), I learned to remove myself from my work and examine with a critical eye.

Are workshops and books on writing useful or a waste of time? I think it depends on the person. For one person they're going to be a tremendous boon. For another, like me, a complete waste of time. Just as in life, I don't think there's any one hard and fast rule.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Review: A Paradigm of Earth, by Candas Jane Dorsey

A Paradigm of EarthA Paradigm of Earth by Candas Jane Dorsey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Paradigm of Earth, by founder, and fellow SF Canada member Candas Jane Dorsey, is a remarkable work of literary science fiction.

Although the premise of first contact is not new, Dorsey brings to the discussion a complex, poetic exploration of what it means to be human. Through the characters of Blue, one of twelve aliens dropped on Earth to become the essence of humanity, and his mentor, Morgan, a woman immobilized with grief, Dorsey incarnates a story part CanLit, part SF, part crime mystery. Her characters are vivid and compelling, avoiding stereotype. Her premise suspends all disbelief with facility and elegance. The writing is tight and yet poetic; the pacing deceptively brisk. Further, Dorsey unfolds her tale without devolving to the kitsch tech-speak which is the failure, and alienation, of so many popular SF writers, and as a result Dorsey creates an emotional environment that will bring a tender heart to tears.

If you love the work of Ursula K. LeGuin, you will fall in love with this story by Candas Jane Dorsey.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Do Reviews Matter?

If you're an indie author, there's a marketing philosophy that reader reviews matter. I suppose that strategy arose out of the fact critical reviewers (those who write for literary or trade publications) for the most part won't consider an indie book.

Books, experts, publicists -- all of them tell either the publisher or the author that you have to get your book out there for review, with the idea you'll then clip pithy lines for promotional purposes.

But does that really work? To be honest, I'm not sure. As both a publisher and an indie author I pursue that avenue of thought, but not as an exercise to gain good reviews, but rather by way of simple exposure, using the philosophy any publicity is good publicity.

How I came to that conclusion is the result of much scratching of head and muttering to the walls. My own books have been up on Goodreads and LibraryThing for review, and I've noticed a trend. People generally feel fairly strongly about what I write, so that reviews tend to come in very positive, or very negative.

For example, my historical novel, Shadow Song, has 66% of Goodreads readers giving it a five or four star review. 68% of readers gave From Mountains of Ice a four or five star rating, and 60% of readers rate my short story collection, And the Angels Sang at four or five stars. That remaining 30-40% of readers tend to rate the books at two and one stars.

For a time this concerned me. It's important to make sure, especially as an indie author, that you're not simply stroking your own ego, that you're paying attention to the craft of writing the best work you can. I started examining the ratings and reviews of other authors whom I admire and consider mentors. You might find the results of that research a bit surprising.

The Satanic Verses, Salman Rusdie: 62% 4-5 stars
A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry: 73% 4-5 stars
The Bishop's Man, Linden MacIntyre: 50% 4-5 stars
Through Black Spruce, Joseph Boyden: 74% 4-5 stars
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood: 66% 4-5 stars

It's also interesting to note that of those readers who rated my own works at one and two stars, it was as if they had read something other than what I'd written. Clearly there was miscommunication on a profound level. I'd been accused of not doing my research in Shadow Song, of rewriting the Gladiator movie in From Mountains of Ice, and challenging a reader too much in And the Angels Sang.

It would seem my mentors above faced similar perplexing reviews:

The Satanic Verses, Salman Rusdie: too many moment of abstract non-sensical story; he used a lot of big words I’ve never seen like “orotund” and “obsolescent”
A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry: quite vulgar and has a lot of sexual promiscuity; Nothing good happens in the characters life.
The Bishop's Man, Linden MacIntyre: This book would have gotten 4 stars if the storyline was changed to be linear, or possibly if I was able to read it in one sitting. the story seems aimless and slow for a good portion of the book....
Through Black Spruce, Joseph Boyden: I think Through Black Spruce should start from scratch all over again and the author rewrite his story. Spent most of it wanting to smack characters upside the head. 
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood: lacking in substance; plot really isn't going anywhere

So it would seem I'm in good company.

What did I learn from this exercise? Some people will understand what you're doing as an artist. Others won't. That's just the way of the world, that there are a variety of opinions, tastes, paradigms and levels of enjoyment.

Now, to continue the search for the grail of the best-seller.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Review: The Colour of Magic

The Colour of Magic (Discworld, #1)The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've come to Terry Pratchett somewhat late, only to find I've overlooked a writer deft at the difficult art of farce. Imaginative, funny, zany and without any pretense, Pratchett's The Colour of Magic is an easy, entertaining read that demands nothing of you but your willingness to again become a child and explore a sense of wonder.

The world Pratchett creates is a disc carried upon the the backs of four elephants, who in turn ride a great galactic turtle. On this disc-world magic abounds (and hence the interdict regarding the number eight), as do strange creatures (I particularly loved the luggage), strange adventures and even stranger outcomes. Just when you think you've figured out this world and this plot, Pratchett turns his story upside down to see what shakes out.

For sheer escapism and entertainment, it doesn't get much better.

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Friday, September 2, 2011

AzincourtAzincourt by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cornwell turns to the now legendary Battle of Agincourt as inspiration and foundation for his novel Azincourt, using the archer, Nick Hook (an actual historical archer who was at Agincourt) as the vehicle for this story.

The story itself attempts to illuminate the actual events that led to King Henry V's resounding victory over the French, using a fictional backdrop of Hook's family feud, a damsel in distress, and the guidance of Saints Crispin and Cripinian (who speak to Hook) as the plot arc.

On a personal level, I wanted very much to enjoy this story. The subject matter is one I've researched extensively and have found of fascination for decades. I'm afraid, however, my enjoyment was overshadowed by Cornwell's heavy hand illustrating gore, and several technical inaccuracies which, for the average reader, wouldn't be an issue, but for me twanged in the way of a badly-tuned instrument.

An entertaining read, but not a memorable one.

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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Eulogy for Karin Vandenberg

Karin and Bo Vandenberg
How do you summarize the life of a friend, particularly one you have loved, lost, found and then lost permanently? I'm afraid I'm not up to the task, it would seem. There is so much to say about Karin.

I first met Karin through my son, who was studying theatre arts in secondary school. Karin was an intern teacher at Orangeville District Secondary School. We all knew immediately this young woman was one who lived life in broad, sweeping strokes, who used colour and passion in all she created. It was never in Karin's vocabulary to do anything in half-measures, whether it was to teach, or live, or love.

Love, however, was illusive for Karin. Despite her enormous charisma, it seemed as though she would never find that soul mate, that person who was willing to simply dive blindly and blissfully into the ocean of what she had to offer.

And then came Bo. A quiet man. A bard. A man who also knew about the enormity of life and love, and when he met Karin at the Orangeville Medieval Festival in the early '90s that was it, quest fulfilled. It was like the meeting of Tristan and Isolde, Henry and Eleanor, Anthony and Cleopatra. Yes, their love was that epic, although far more enduring, stable, encompassing.

Karin was diagnosed with leukemia. Like everything else in Karin's life she faced it head-on, fiercely and with an optimism and determination that brooked no possibility of defeat. Defeat just simply wasn't part of her lexicon.

And so through Facebook, those of us who loved and admired both her and Bo, followed her journey, cheered her on through every frightening, tense, trying moment until the morning of August 31, 2011, when finally, delirious, she died with the love of her life who was there to walk every painful moment with her.

There is one less star in the firmament. She has arced across the sky in a blaze of brilliance, searing our consciousness with the grandeur of her life and her love. To say she will be missed is understatement.

Karin was my fellow earth-mother, a woman of wisdom, grace, huge of heart and long on loyalty. It is inconceivable she is not among us. My spirit is broken. The house is silent. And in that silence I listen for you, Karin. Will always listen.

Viewing is scheduled for Friday, September 2nd from 2 - 4 p.m. and 7 - 9 p.m. and services are scheduled for Saturday, September 3rd at 11 a.m. at Gilbert MacIntyre and Son Funeral Home, 1099 Gordon St., Guelph. It is the location marked 'A' on the Google map.

Instead of flowers, donations to the Grand River Hospital Foundation would be greatly appreciated.

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