Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Holy Fan Fiction

Okay, I'm always happy to learn new things, especially about the art of storytelling.  And the other day I found out about the religious roots of fan fiction: the Jewish concept of Midrash.  For those, like me, that have never heard the term before, apparently the Jewish religion has a long tradition of filling in the missing parts of the story. 

For example, take Lilith.  She doesn't appear by name in the Bible.  In fact, she came about because the Jews notice there were two very different creation stories in the Bible, and the stories of First Woman were incompatible. 

In the first Creation story, Man and Woman are created together as the final act of creation.  In the second story, The Garden of Eden is created first, then Man.  Then Man was lonely so all the animals are created as possible companions, but none work.  So a rib is taken from Man and used to create Woman. 

Clearly, these two Women are different, one created with Man, the other created from him.  So how to explain this?  The result, the story of Lilith, Man's first wife. 

There are many examples of this throughout antiquity.  But even in modern times we have similar stories, like The Red Tent, the story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob, a woman that was otherwise only really known by name.  And by her rape. 

But what I really found interesting was the idea of recreating stories, filling in the missing pieces, as an act of sacred reverence.  I've never really written fan fiction myself.  Not exactly.

Of course I have had plenty of conversations with friends and family about stories we loved, or hated, and how things could or should have gone differently.  Or tried to figure out the holes in the story, especially the backstory.  Like Harry and the other had gone past the room with the Time Turners, so when Sirius died by tripping through a curtain, why didn't someone just grab one and skip backward to push him the other way? 

I've also played in more than a few RPGs set in famous fictional worlds, from the Marvel Universe to Melnibon√©. 

But I never really thought seriously about writing my own fan fiction.  I guess I looked down on fan fiction, like it's for people that lack the creativity to do something original.  Besides, why put in all that time and effort writing something I could never publish?  Or at least never get paid for. 

So there I was, sitting, listening to this talk about midrash and had a bit of an epiphany.  I was a literary snob.  Okay, not a big epiphany, for those that know me.  But for me, it was fascinating. 

It also made me think about the relationship between fiction and fan fiction.  I know many writers that hate fan fiction, see it as people stealing their work, their characters.  Some are famous for their opposition to fan fiction, especially erotic fan fiction.

But I think I have to side with those who see fan fiction for what it is, a sign of a great fictional world.  If the writer creates characters and a world so vivid that the readers want to play around in it themselves, I think it means the writer has touched them at a very deep level.  I think a writer that generates that kind of following should be happy about it.

So I'm officially announcing, once my books get published and become world famous, I'm willing to let people write fan fic all they want, as long as they don't try selling it.  Well, maybe we can work out terms if they want to publish it.  After all, there are plenty of anthologies out there now of writers, some quite famous, writing in the fictional worlds of other famous writers (like Lovecraft or LeGuin).  

Seriously, maybe when I get some free writing time, I might see what I can come up with.  Not sure what universe would interest me enough to write something for it.  But at least if I come up with the story, this time I might actually try writing it.  After all, it would just make me part of an ancient, sacred tradition. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

An Update

Sorry I've been falling behind on posts again.  I started a new day job, as a Quality Engineer for a paint company.  A great job, actually.  And I finally have my nights and weekends free for the first time in about a decade. 

But I also hit my goal with my writing, I made it through the major revision of the first novel in my series before I started the new job.  I even took one of my first majorly revised chapters into my writing group and found I still had room to improve.

So I'm going through and tightening the whole thing up a bit more, smoothing out the seams where the old and new material blend.  Mostly I've found at this stage I'm mostly cutting out material that's become extraneous or overly explanatory.

I plan to read a few more chapters with my group, to see how I'm doing.  But I think I'm ready to start my agent search again.  So, once I finish this last polish pass, I'm going to put together my new list of agents.  And probably revise my query letter to better fit the new tone of the novel.

Wish me luck, and thanks for following.

The Storyteller's Art

Last night I took my family to experience my favorite band, Rush.  It was a wonderful experience on many levels.  For one, it was a chance to take my daughter to her first real concert (not counting the bands playing our local Fourth of July fireworks and such like).  It was also the first time I was at a concert with my son, though it wasn't his first concert.

Of course, it was also a chance for me to hear my favorite band in more years than I care to admit.  Haven't gotten a good excuse for some good old-fashioned head-banging fun in years.  Screamed along with the lyrics to many of the songs, loud enough my throat's still a bit sore today. 

But all of that is actually secondary to why I really enjoyed the evening.  This concert was for their new album Clockwork Angels.  Given the title, there was an interesting steampunk vibe to several of the new songs and a lot of the show.  And since I love steampunk, that was a huge plus.

However, that still isn't the real reason.  It was the show as a whole.  The concert began and ended with video pieces that old an amusing and weird story, just as they did with the Time Machine tour.  In fact, many of the songs had their own complex videos weaved in with them. 

The band used all of these elements (video, lights, instruments, vocals, even, for the first time, guest musicians for part of the show in the form of 5 violinists and 2 bassists) to tell a story. 

And that's what made it so amazing, the chance to feel on such a base, visceral level, what I have always known: that they are amazing storytellers.  It's why I list their lyricist and percussionist, Neil Peart, as one of my major influences as a writer.  I've found few writers that can tell a great scifi story as succinctly as "Red Barchetta". An economy of words, but it tells a complete story, including setting up it's dark future.  Of course, their most famous story-song has to be "2112".  Much longer, but it still tells a great story in a minimalist fashion.

And that is why the concert was such an amazing experience for me, the chance to see master storytellers working their craft in a mixed-media format.  It was exhilarating and educational.

I think that sometimes I can get too wrapped up in being a writer, thinking about the page, the words.  I can forget that the point is to tell a story.  Anything in service of the story is gold, anything not in service to the story is dross.  Maybe beautiful and fun and witty, but still dross.

Don't get me wrong, subplots are great, minor characters that play no apparent purpose can be fine to add, even scenes that don't seem to advance the plot.  All these are fine, just like a great song can tell a story, but include long instrumental stretches. 

All these things can be there, but I still have to tell a great story.  Otherwise I've broken my deal with my reader.  They give me their time, attention and  money and I promise in exchange to give them a great story.

For myself, I find that exploring other ways of telling stories, whether music, movies, or even games, helps me get at the message, and get away from the medium.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

"I Can Do Better Than That"

I consider myself a writer.  I know some prefer the term "aspiring writer", but I write.  That makes me a writer.  What I aspire to is to be an author, which I see as a person who makes their living from their writing.

In my quest to be an author, I have already written four complete novels (okay, two drafted and revised [and revised, and revised...] and two with full rough drafts).  The four books are all part of a series, so I've been submitting the first to agents for a couple of years now.  Still waiting to sell it, though.

Which brings me to the title of my post.  Best writing advice I ever got was from an article I wish I still had so I could properly site it.  (anyone that recognizes it, please leave a post in the Comments section)  The advice went something like this:

"The real writer's mantra is 'I can do better than that'.  When the writer looks at another work, even one of the great classics, they think 'I can do better than that'.  And when the writer look at their own work they should shake their head sheepishly and say 'I can do better than that'."

I've tried to keep that in mind, especially when doing my revisions, to think "I can do better than this."  So when I finished the rough draft of my first novel I set it aside for a bit and knocked around on some short stories.  When I came back to it, I knew I could do better, and I did.

Once I had it as good as I could get it on my own, I took it to my writer's group.  After over a year of reading chapters there, I went back and did another full revision.  Then I gave that full version to a few beta readers and did another revision based on their input.

At each stage, it was amazing what I missed, what I saw anew through fresh eyes.  And each time I could see the novel getting so much better.

So I sent it out into the world, trying to find an agent to love it as I did.  On my first round of queries, I actually got a request for a partial (50 pages) from a Dream Agent.  She rejected it, but I got a very encouraging letter (not just email) from her assistant.

So I revised again.  And, since I'd only gotten one request, I revised my query letter, too.  Actually, I ended up studying how to write query letters.  I found Query Shark very, very helpful (follow her advice and read the full archives from the beginning.  It really helps).

Since then I started to get at least one request for a full on each round of queries.  All of them said similar things: they liked the book, they just didn't love it, or at least not enough to rep it.

So I revised and revised my query letters.  I even looked for trends in who was requesting fulls.  The answers shouldn't have been surprising.  I found that all the ones who requested fulls had two things in common: 1) they were all very personalized queries, 2) they requested pages along with the query.

By very personalized I mean I did serious research and found one thing I could put in for why I wanted them in particular to rep me, or at least this book.  Something other than a stellar track record, or best selling clients or even a big agency.  Something unusual, probably not in their standard bio, or at least a new spin on it.  In  one case, it was something the agent had mentioned in one blog interview five years earlier when the interviewer asked for one thing about her that would surprise most people that knew her. 

I was happy to see my research paying off and figured that meant I could probably ditch the generic queries.  If I couldn't come up with one really good reason I wanted that particular agent, then maybe they weren't right for me.  (Okay, I do still send out some anyway when I really like the agent but can't find a way to say exactly why.)

And since pages seemed important, I figured I might need to revise my query a bit more.  But in the meantime, agents that wanted pages too went to the top of my list.

But what finally got to me was all those full requests that ended up still not loving it.  And they all liked it.  Some even seemed to love it, just "not enough" or "didn't love it as much as I'd hoped".  And all of them were very encouraging, not just to keep looking for the right agent for the work, but also to send them anything else I wrote.  Two were actually were almost insistent on seeing anything else I wrote.

Finally it dawned on me that maybe I needed to go back and look at the manuscript itself.  It's been over a year, maybe year and a half since I actually read through this thing.  Since I finished it, I've written the next three volumes in the series, expanding greatly on the overall story and getting much deeper into the characters.

That's why about a week ago I sat down with a hard copy of my novel and started reading it.  It took my until about page 20 to see why they were rejecting it.  By page 30 or so I knew where my central problem was: I'd made my MCs life too easy.  I let him get away with too much, too easily.  There just wasn't enough conflict, enough tension to really keep the story going.  The writing was generally pretty good, but it could be so much better.

I shook my head and said "I can do better than this".

But I'm not, yet.  I'm going through the whole book first, finding all the scenes that don''t work and marking them for revision.  Finding all the scenes that, no matter how beautifully written or whatever, add nothing to the story or bore me.  If they bore the writer, they must be hell on a reader.

I'm especially horrified at all the times I let my character drift into Mary Sue-land (though technically Marty Stu, since it's male, but I still prefer the Mary Sue label).  Things are unrealistically easy for him, he can do no wrong.  He overcomes obstacles too easily.  It just gets boring.

Now don't get me wrong, I still love the book.  Everyone that's read it likes it, feels there's some solid writing there.  And I agree.  But having this much distance from it, and all these other books written, I can see it as the promising amateur work it is.

So now I need to make it look like the polished professional work I used to think it was.  Maybe then the next agent will finally love it enough.

Anyone else out there with their own humorous or horror stories to share?  Feel free to share in the Comments.  I think the writing life is lonely and frustrating, but it's better when we know we're far from alone.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

What Is The Right Amount Of Moral Outrage?

For those who haven't been paying attention to the news, Dan Cathy, President and COO of  the fast food restaurant Chick-Fil-A, made some comments during an interview that showed his opposition to same-sex marriage. 

This has caused a great hue and cry from both sides of the debate.  It has lead to opponents calling for protests and even boycotts of the chain.  Supports have called for rallies of people to buy massive amounts at the chain to show their support.  In at least two major cities (Boston and Chicago) there have been moves to bar new Chick-Fil-A restaurants from being opened.

Because of all this, several Chick-Fil-A restaurant owners have come out in favor of same-sex marriage.  The one here in Chicago tried to defend her store from politicians by claiming they have several gays working for the store and that she has no problems with gays or lesbians.  Other store owners have come out in  defense of Mr. Cathy's views.

I'm not going to bother discussing the whole same-sex marriage debate at this point.  That could easily take up a couple blog posts on it's own.

For now I'd like to address how one should respond to the remarks of one person who may be highly placed in an organization.   

As an example, I'd like to point to Marge Schott.  For those too young to remember (or too opposed to sports to have noticed the story at the time), she used to be the majority owner, managing partner and CEO of the Cincinnati Reds MLB team from '84-'99.  She was a very controversial figure for much of this.

In 1992, she was sued, in part, over her alleged racism.  That suit was lost, but the allegations kept up.  Aside from claims of using the "N-word", she was also accused of antisemitism when she said she felt that Hitler had been good for Germany in the beginning, but went too far.     

Many people were very offended by her.  In  the end, the league commission  would suspend her from her day-to-day managing duties twice (apparently it was almost three times, but she sold her majority share before anything materialized).

Now without speaking on the validity of the claims against her, I can at least appreciate the appropriateness of the response the commission took.  They penalized her, not the team, since she was the one that had offended them.

So in a case like the current Chick-Fil-A debacle what would be a reasonable response?  I think taking out one's outrage, or support, of the COO's comments on the individual restaurants of the chain  is unreasonable.  If I was upset enough about his comments, I'd call him an idiot, maybe send him a letter or something expressing my disagreement.  If I agreed, I might send him a letter of support, maybe speak out in  his defense.

What I wouldn't do was buy or not buy their food based on his opinions.  If I'm going to patronize or boycott a business on moral grounds, it will be based on their corporate policies and practices.  If Chick-Fil-A was like the Boy Scouts, with a stated policy banning hiring of homosexuals, I could see taking direct actions towards the restaurants. 

There are businesses I like to patronize and others I avoid at all costs because of their policies and practices.  Personally, I've never eaten at a Chick-Fil-A, mainly because I've never lived near one, and I'm not a huge fan of fast food chicken anyway.  So boycotting it would be pointless for me anyway. 

Let me put this another way: I really hate many of the policies and practices of the American recording industry, from their outrageous punitive lawsuits against illegal downloaders (with penalties far in excess of any actual damages done to the company in individual lost sales, that don't even go to the artists they claim to be protecting) to their contracts that often treat the artists (especially songwriters) as work-for-hire (so the company owns the copyright, not the creator).  However, if I follow the model of the Chick-Fil-A protesters, I should boycott buying anything from these major labels.  So how do I support my favorite bands?  How do I get their music, other than hoping it comes on the radio or illegally downloading it (even using a service like Spotify is indirectly supporting the record companies)?

Why should I penalize these bands by not buying their records just because I think they're getting screwed by their label?

And that's when I do object to a corporate policy.  It makes even less sense when I'm just objecting to something some idiot at the top is spewing.  If the CEO of Wendy's made some outrageously offensive comment in an interview, would I stop eating at my local restaurant?  Probably not.

Does that make me a moral coward?  I don't think so.  I think it means I'm making a measured response, directed at the person that offended me, not waging total moral war with a complete disregard for casualties.

So, anyone out there disagree?  Or maybe even someone agree?  I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.  But let's keep to the issue of response, and not fall into arguing the same-sex marriage debate.  Maybe I'll address that later on.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Finally Going eBooks

I've fought it for a while now, but I finally went ebook.

I still love physical books, especially since they are way more convenient to lug around (especially paperbacks) than my laptop.  Though to be fair, some of that would probably go away if I was willing to put out the cash for a real ereader, but that's not really an option, at the moment.  

But I've read so much about ebooks as the way of the future and so on, so I figured I should look into it.  I wanted to get a feel for the medium, since if my books will eventually be published in it, I better understand it.

So I downloaded the free apps for my laptop and now have Kindle, Kobo, and whatever others I could find for free.  I've tried them all, and have to admit I keep going back to the Kindle app.  I think part of that is because I have more books for Kindle than anything else.  And that (I hate to admit) is because Amazon seems to have the best shopping interface of any online bookstore I've found.

Okay, sometimes I hate their list of recommended titles.  I often find ones there that are WTF?-inspiring.  Other times the recommends are based on stuff I looked at more from  morbid curiosity than actual desire to purchase.  But otherwise, it is a very intuitive set-up, very easy to find a book I'm looking for, or even a book I didn't know I was looking for.  It is by far the most browse-able site I've found.

Anyway, for the first few months, I stuck to free ebooks, since I couldn't/ didn't want to invest any  real money in this.  After all, I've lost so much data (documents/ files/ pictures/ etc.) over the years due to crashes, power surges, or just advancing technology, I am leery of investing much in a book that I can't hold in my hand.

But during our recent move, I found some of the old hardcovers we'd packed away were in boxes that had gotten wet at some point without our realizing it, and had to be pitched because they were moldy, had large chunks of pages stuck together, or both.  It made me realize that not even physical books were really all that permanent.  Also, having to haul all those boxes and boxes of books, even the paperbacks, was back-breaking.  And it occurred to me I could have carried all those books and a lot more on just my laptop, if they were ebooks.

Yeah, sometimes it's the visceral lessons that stick with us.   

So I finally took the plunge and actually bought an ebook the other day, one that is only on ebook format.  And it turned out to be pretty good.  I even reviewed it on Amazon.  Gave it 4 of 5 stars, mainly because it's a first novel from the author and everyone starts off a little rough.  I may copy my review over here and expand on  it as a later post.

Anyway, looks like even I can learn something new.  But than that's part of the joy of being a writer, learning new things and getting share them with others.


Okay, my apologies to anyone that was actually following (or at least trying to follow) this blog.  It was something of an experiment for me, my first attempt at really keeping a blog.  And it was pretty damn erratic.  

And that was before I just up and abandoned it.

So I'm going to try this again.  Think of this as A Walk in the Shadows 2.0.  This time I hope to get some regular posting done.  I want to shoot for at least weekly posts, though I'd like to get them more often.  I know myself well enough that daily probably won't be sustainable long term.  In fact, I figure I'll still be pretty erratic, but I want to keep to at least once a week.

I think this blog is important for many reasons.  The biggest, I feel, has to do with a remark I once read by Piers Anthony.  He said that, unlike many other writers, he responded to every piece of fanmail he received, and he knew only one other writer (can't remember who now) that did that.  He also noticed that they were the only two writer's he knew that never suffered from writer's block.  He felt these facts were related. 

I think he may have had a point.  I think it has to do with keeping to writing goals.  So I want to make this blog one of my writing goals, to make at least one worthwhile post a week.  That shouldn't be that hard.  And maybe keeping this writing goal will help me to work on keeping more discipline in my writing in general. 

For anyone's still stopping by, thanks for your faith in me, and I will make it worth your time to keep coming back.  And please feel to comment on what you like, what could use improving, or what just flat out sucks, whether it's the posting style, the content itself, or just the layout of the page.  I'd like you to keep me honest here, call me out if I can't keep my promise to make the trip here worth your while.

Thanks again, and see you around the interwebs.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Lesson For Writers and Other Storytellers

For those few who may have missed it, there's a video going around the internet by a group called Invisible Children.  It seeks to expose a warlord named Joseph Kony and his habit of abducting children and using them as sex slaves or child soldiers.  If you haven't seen it, go watch it.  It's interesting, and not just for the content.

Now, I'm not going to talk about Kony or how horrible what he's doing is.  Lot of people are talking about it, many of them way more qualified than I.  Besides, I think the video makes those points all on it's own.

What I found really fascinating was the response to it from the mainstream media, as shown here by Jon Stewart.  What I found fascinating is the complaints, not about the factual errors in the video but about how popular it is.  Kony has been doing this for 26 years.  Some of these media personalities said they'd been reporting on him for 8 years or more.  People had asked President Obama last year to address the issue with Kony.  And no one cared.

Now, some nobody makes an internet video and everyone cares.  This leaves the mainstream media scratching their heads.  But why? 

To me, it shows first what Jon Stewart points out, that most people stopped watching the mainstream media a long time ago.  I'll admit I watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report more faithfully than any real news source.  Mostly I watch the news for the weather reports, when I don't feel like looking it up online. 

Mainly, I hate that the news is usually just about murders and other spectacular deaths, with a bit of scandal and corruption thrown in for good measure.  I'd have to watch hours of news to find any topics I'm actually interested in, and I can find that information faster online. 

However, the second point is what I really want to talk about --the way the video tells it's story.  It does an amazing job, which I think is the big lesson the media, and writers like myself, should learn from. 

The video doesn't jump straight into non-stop images of death and atrocities.  In fact, it starts off addressing the viewer, with images they should all be familiar with, things that make them feel comfortable.  Then it moves to introducing the narrator and making him someone you want to trust and listen to. 

When it does move to the real point, it does so on a personal level.  The narrator introduces one person, one child, named Jacob.  And he introduces Jacob, not as the destitute refugee child, but as the happy man he has become.  We see Jacob smiling, petting a dolphin for the first time, and other short clips.  We like this guy. 

Then we meet him as the refugee child, we get to see his pain, his hopelessness.  So when he talks about wanting to die, just to end the horrible life he's going through, the viewer wants to say "No!" because we've already seen that, for him, it really does get better.

These are the lessons I think the media needs to learn, and anyone trying to tell a good story can learn.  To really bring your viewer or reader into a story, we need to trust our narrator and we need to care about the hero.  That way, when you introduce the villain, we really hate them.

True, some writers break these rules very successfully.  There are unreliable narrators, and main characters you hate, who you read or watch just to see them fall (though at least you do still care, you just care to see them get what's coming to them).   But these are more the exceptions.  And when done successfully, it's because the people doing it are very good at what they do. 

So that's my contribution to all this furor, it doesn't matter what your topic is, how shocking or moving you feel it should be.  If you can't tell it in a way that others can relate to and care about, it's all for nothing.  No matter how long the media reported on and complained about Joseph Kony, people outside of Africa just didn't relate.  Those ideas are so foreign to our daily lives, we just don't connect.  It feels unreal. 

But when it's told in a way they can relate to, people get it, they care.  So if you have something you want people to care about, make sure you earn their trust and draw them in.  Make it personal.  Give it a face, a name.  Let them see themselves in the Other.  That is what we as storytellers really need to excel at. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Too Busy To Get Anything Done

Sorry it's been a while since my last post.  Surprisingly, being laid-off seems to have eaten up all my time.  I thought not having a job to go to would leave me with a whole ton of free time to finally do all those things I've been putting off.

Turns out I seem to spend most of my day busy, but with little to show for it at the end of the day.  And I always find the things I really wanted to get done still waiting.  When I think back on my days, I think my single biggest time-suck has to be the television.  Worst drug ever.  The bad part is the only spot I really have to sit with my computer at home is on the living room couch.  So if the TV is on, I find myself sucked in.  Worse, if I'm not interested in what's on, I pick up the remote and scroll through the stupid guide, convinced there has to be something on worth watching. 

And I hate commercials, so I always mute them.  But then I have to pay attention to unmute it when the program comes back on.  Or if I'm watching a DVRed show, I fast-forward through them.  Either way, it turns TV watching into an active pastime, rather than a passive one. 

In addition, there's the packing and other things related to moving.  And the looking for a job stuff (calling recruiters I'm working with, searching job sites, etc.).  Plus, since many of the jobs I'm looking at are different (some are R&D, some QA, some QC, and a variety of product types) I really need to tailor my resume for each job I submit to, and should come up with custom cover letters for each, though I often don't. 

I know, I should learn to multi-task.  I try, really.  I just suck at it.  The best I can do is with rote mechanical tasks that require no real thought.  Then I can at least get in some good thinking time at the same time.  Otherwise, I really need to focus on things one at a time to get anything done right. 

So I think maybe I should go back to the advice I was given before.  When I got laid-off, they had someone come in and do a day-long workshop on career management.  I think one of the better pieces of advice I got from that (and there really were a lot) was to make a list of things you need to do, then check them off as you do them.  Make the list either daily or weekly, as needed.  Also, he suggested to actually make two lists, one for personal stuff and one for work-related stuff, especially for job-search stuff. 

Great, now I need to figure out how to set-up the list, where to post it so I'll see it everyday, how to update it...  Should it be physical or digital?  Should I make it a list or a spreadsheet?  Do I need to print up some cool forms?  Should I make a weekly calender?  *sigh*  See, this is another reason I don't get anything done. :) 

Of course, the thing that's suffered the most is my writing.  I don't think I've written a word on any of my books since I was laid-off.  I haven't even really been submitting to agents lately either.  I really need to get back to that.  It'd be nice to at least sell one book.  Honestly, I do still dream of making enough from my writing to give up the day job, but I'd settle for making at least some supplemental income from it. 

So I guess I'd better stop wasting time posting here and get back to work.  ;)  Best of luck to all of you out there.  Let me know if you also find yourself too busy to get anything done and how you deal with it.  I'm always open to suggestions.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Writer's Responsiblities

I recently came across an interesting article Science fiction needs more scientist heroes.  First, the article gets a big thumbs up from me just for using Agatha Heterodyne as it's lead picture.  If you haven't experienced the Foglio's Girl Genius, you are depriving yourself. 

However, what really struck me was the writer's call for more scientists who can write to try writing SciFi with scientist protagonists. 

It's a nice idea, really.  And as a scientist who writes, I see the merit in that request.  In fact, I am working on selling my own novel right now.  So if that works out, I could be just the sort of person they're looking for.  Of course, my books are YA, so none of the MCs are professional scientists.  To be fair, most of them are geeks of one type or another, and a few have interests in science or technology.  However, I'm not sure it's where the writer was going.

But it got me thinking, can a writer change society that much?  Could a well-written book with a scientist hero really help turn the tide against all those scientist villains? 

Well, I think the article has a point; certainly the prevalence of evil scientists in fiction does seem to correlate to the negative view many people hold of scientists and science in general.  But of course, any good scientists knows correlation does not mean causation.  It could as easily be the other way around - the fact that there is a general bias against scientists could cause the poor portrayals of scientists in fiction. 

And even if it is possible for a writer to turn around the world's view of scientists with one brilliant book, maybe that's the wrong way to look at it.  Because I've found that books that have a message, the ones that are "about" something, usually suck.  If the writer is too busy hitting the reader over the head with a moral or lesson, then the reader usually gets bored or insulted and stops reading. 

If the writer really wants to connect to the reader, they need to start with telling an interesting story.  They need to make the reader care -- about the characters, about the story, about where this is all going.  And maybe somewhere along the line, if the MC is an interesting character that the reader can connect to and root for, who happens to also be a scientist, maybe that will help achieve the article's goal. 

Because in the end, I think the writer's real responsibility is to the story.  They need to tell the whole story, and just the story.  They need to be true to their characters and to their world.  If they do that, then the reader will want to be drawn in, taken along for the ride.  And if somewhere along that ride they learn a thing or two of some real world value, so much the better.

Even the great theologians of the past knew that a good story will stay in the memory a lot longer than any lecture.  So tell them a good story, make it involve people doing things, making hard choices and following the sorts of paths you feel people should, and your readers will remember it. 

As the old saying goes, you can get anyone to do anything, you just have to get their attention first.  Sometimes it takes a gentle word, sometimes a two-by-four upside the head.  And sometimes it takes a really great story.

So what do you think?  Is a writer's responsibility to what the story can do, or to the story itself?  Or is it just about writing something that will sell?  Or something else completely?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Fine Art of Querying

For those that don't know, I've got a novel I've written that I'm trying to get published.  So this month, I'm sending out another round of queries.  My usual approach has been to put together a list of a dozen or so agents that I think might be interested in my book, do a bit or research on each to make sure there aren't any red flags (not taking my genre anymore, died, left agenting, serious complaints of possible scam, etc.), then polish up the query letter and send them out.

Usually, if something catches my eye in the research, I'll try to add in a couple sentences about why I chose that particular agent to send to.  But If nothing jumps out, I just send the query without it.

Lately, though, I've noticed a trend -every single request I've gotten (full or partial) has been from a query that I had that personalized paragraph in.  Now, not every personalized one has gotten a request, but none of the non-personalized ones did.  So this time I'm trying to make sure that every one I send has something personal to say.  I guess it makes sense, if I can't think of even one special reason why I want this person as my agent, other than they have a proven track record of good sales in my genre, then maybe I should reconsider them as an agent.

So far, I've got about a half dozen or so that I've got really good ideas for personalizing.  The biggest problem with some is finding information on them.  Some just don't have much web presence at all, even some established ones.  It takes a lot of digging to find anything to work with.  But there are some great resources out there.  I've put some in my links on this blog, like Literary Rambles, which is a wonderful place to find YA agents. 

Also, if you are starting to query, I strongly suggest Query Shark, a blog by a wonderful agent who gives a lot of tips on creating a good query.  Read the site, read the archives.  Do understand this is one agent's take, so YMMV, but it really was a big help to me just in rethinking how I was writing my query.  I know after I reformatted my query after reading her site, I got a lot more positive responses from agents.

One thing I've found this time around, in researching agents I've twice found out that the agent I was interested in was about to be part of a query contest through a blog.  So I jumped in right away and got my query out there in front of the agent.  I've gotten some good feedback and even wound up tweaking my query a bit as a result of comments on those contests.  Even got one request for a partial out of it, so far.  So look for contests like this, too (for one agent, I just happened to check her Twttier feed for the first time right after she announced she'd be doing the contest, which was at the last minute to enter).  They seem to be fun, but intimidating, since everyone can comment on your query, though my experiences have been very positive.
Well, guess I'd better get back to the querying.  If anyone has their own tips and tricks for querying, please share them in the comments.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Identity Theft Sucks, But At Least You Can Do Something About It

So this all started a few days ago. 

First, I received a letter from a collection agency for a credit card I never opened, that was closed back in 2000.  We've argued with them before.  The last big one was back in '07, when I tried, again, to get the police to file a report on it as ID theft, just to get the collection agency to back off.  Sadly, it was past any statute of limitations, so they wouldn't even take the report.  But I had told the agency and the original bank that it was fraud repeatedly.   (When I tried filing a police report in 2000, the police where I lived then told me it was a civil matter, and not their problem.) 

Then last year, while going over my Free Annual Credit Report (annualcreditreport.com) and found the fraudulent card was still being reported on one of them.  However, the woman I talked to at their customer service line was very friendly and helpful.  I got that removed from my report, along with a name, another Social Security number and a couple of addresses that didn't belong. 

So flash forward to this week.  I get the letter asking for over $500 to settle the account (which has now grown to over $5000).  I called them to tell them, again, that it was fraudulent.  They again said they need a police report to do anything about it.  So I tried to figure out what to do, since it was so long ago now.

Then on Wednesday, I get a letter from Capital One saying they think someone was trying to open a fraudulent card in my name with my Social Security number.  I call them immediately.  The woman I talk to is polite and helpful and we get the application denied.  However, she tells me they can't give me any information about the application.  I'd have to file a police report and have them request it.

So back to the police.  Though with a first stop to one of the credit agencies to place a Fraud Alert on my account.  Luckily, they say they'll file it with the other two as well.  To save time, I leave it at that, for now. 

When i talk to the police, the guy taking the report is friendly, but not very hopeful.  He takes what little information I have (Capitol One, the date, and the Case Number) and tells me they can't get any more information without a grand jury subpoena.  Great, just great.

When I post a comment about all this on Facebook, a friend tells me to file an ID Theft report with the FTC (Federal Trade Commission).  I check their website for consumer fraud protection.  The information there is great, though there is a lot.  At one point, despite the fact that it is well-organized and very readable, I felt a bit of information overload.  Just so much there.

But I easily found the form to fill out to file a complaint.  And they even have a cover letter for law enforcement to go with it when you file a police report and a cover letter to send with it to the CRAs (Credit Reporting Agencies).  All very user-friendly.  

Also, I find out that I was told wrong.  In fact, the law says that all I need is a copy of the FTC complaint form and a copy of the police report to request the fraudulent application for the bank.  Oh, but I had to make the request in writing. 

So, today I need to print out my copy of the FTC report, with the cover letter for law-enforcement, and drop it with the police.  Then I'll need to get a copy of the police report, once it's available.  Hopefully, in a week or two, I'll be able to send those out to Capital One and get the information on the application.  Don't know what happens then, but at least I may find out something about who's doing it this time.

And actually, after reading the FTC site and going through the reporting process, I may go back and file a complaint on the one from 2000 as well.  Nothing they can do about whoever did it now, but at least it's on record and maybe sending a copy of the FTC report to the collection agency will be enough to get them to finally back off.

Well, my advice to everyone out there is this: go to the FTC website, even if you haven't been victimized by ID theft, yet.  Read what's there.  It will make you so much better prepared in case it happens.  I know it would have saved me a lot of time and fear if I'd known my rights and what to do from the start. 

If you think you have been a victim, or could be (had ID like wallet, purse, etc, lost or stolen and so on), contact the three CRAs (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) and file a Fraud Alert.  Then contact the FTC and file a report there.  Then file with the police.  It will save you time and aggravation. 

Saturday, January 7, 2012

What Do You Call Work?

Just read an interesting post.  Miss Snark's First Victim - Friday Fricassee  In the post, Authoress asks the question of writers, when someone asks what you're doing, do you say "writing" or "working"?

An interesting point made is that a lot of artistic types, don't say "working".  An actor may say they have a rehearsal or are practicing lines.  A painter is painting, a writer is writing, etc.

So why is creative work labeled differently than "normal" work?  And should it be?

I can see why people use other terms than "work" for artistic work.  I think part of it is that most people can't do it, so they don't relate to it like they would to a "real" job.  They see it as doing something you enjoy, so how is that work?  It's even worse if you're not supporting yourself financially through your art.  Then it's just a hobby, right?  So how is that work?

To be fair, I also know a lot of people who have similar impressions of professional athletes, they're just playing games, so how is that work?  Especially, why do these people make all that money for playing games?

So maybe the real question should  be why do we have such an ambivalent attitude towards work?  

There was a guy I used to work with, many companies ago, who was called (for reasons not related to this story) Crazy Jeff. During the time I knew him, Jeff was probably in his early to mid 30s, and we worked at a chemical plant.  Nothing too hazardous, especially compared to some of the places I've worked since.

While I knew him, every time someone left the company (voluntarily or not) Jeff would always say, "They can't leave, they haven't suffered enough yet."

The weird part was, while no one really would say they agreed with him, no one really objected to the idea either.  It was like they all felt it was unfair that they had to stay in such a crapsack job, while these people got to leave, probably for somewhere better (better pay, better benefits, better conditions, etc.).  The interesting part, to me, was the automatic assumption that anywhere else would be an improvement.

To be fair, I have worked at places since then that have been both much better and much worse than that one was, even for the guys in production.  But I've seen the same attitude at many of them, even some of the better ones.     

So why doesn't everyone follow the advice of Joseph Campbell: "Follow your bliss"?

Of course, who's bliss would involve most of the jobs shown on the series Dirty Jobs?  Seriously, there are a lot of jobs that are necessary for our society to continue, even ones that aren't so obviously disgusting, that I doubt most people would qualify as following their bliss.  Maybe there are some people who would love to spend their days amortizing mortgages or typing and sorting employee records.  But I've never met ones that really love their factory jobs, at least not at the chemical plants I've worked for.  Some did feel they were the best jobs they'd had, but it was still just what they did for a paycheck.  It's not like they'd do this on their own time.

So maybe that's part of the problem, we view work, to paraphrase Twain, as that which we have to do, while play is what we choose to do.  So if you love your job, it isn't work.  But since so many of these jobs have to be done, we have this idea of the superiority of suffering.  Those with the worst jobs, who suffer the most, have a certain pride, because those with easy jobs are just playing.

It seems kind of screwed up to me.  But then again, without that sense of pride, how could you keep on doing those kinds of jobs?  I mean, is it really worth the paycheck?  I've even had jobs where I had to justify to myself why I was doing them for the crappy paycheck I was getting.  So I tell myself the job was important, or that there was something good about it.  I had to convince myself that it was worth spending my time doing it, in direct contrast to the obvious fact that it was a crappy job, I hated it, and it didn't pay me nearly enough.

So is it okay to say we're working, even if we love what we do?  Personally, I think so.  I think if it is what you are doing, especially if it is something you get paid for, then it's work.  If it's something you are doing that you aren't getting paid for yet, I think it can still be work, especially if you are trying to get paid for it.  I am writing.  I haven't sold any of my books yet.  However, it's still work, because I'm trying to sell them.  I also include the time I spend researching agents, preparing queries and so on as part of my work as well.  I'll also count the time I spend studying the craft of writing, editing, publishing and so on as part of my work, because it is.

But I also love doing all that stuff.

So what about everyone else?  Work, play, hobby, love suffering, what are your thoughts?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Happy New Year! Now What?

So it's now 2012, the end of the Mayan Long-Count Calender.  I guess that's as good a reason as any for making plans for this year.  I think I like the idea of plans more than resolutions, because most people treat resolutions as things they think they should do, but  maybe don't really want to do (like giving up smoking or bad eating habits), or don't want to do the work to get there (like exercising or losing weight).  It's more of an intention, but with nothing to back it up.

With a plan, you have a goal, as well as an idea how you'll actually get there.  Now all you need is the will to accomplish it.

My plan for this year is to finally get my book published.  I've spent the last few years searching for an agent.  This year, I plan to make a more aggressive search, while also exploring other options.  I've already done some research on options for self-publishing it as an e-book.  Probably start with Amazon and Smashwords, since they seem to give me the widest audience the quickest.  That is, if I can't find an agent before the end of the year.

I've got my list together, about 25 carefully selected and researched agents that actually sell in my field (contemporary YA), are open to submissions, and seem to be people I would enjoy working with.  Also, ones who seem like they would be interested in my particular work.

I have the first couple of queries in this set out already.  I plan to have the rest out by the end of this week.  Then I give them a reasonable amount of time to respond, while getting the next round of potentials together.  If I keep this up for the rest of the year, I should either find an agent, or exhaust all the worthwhile possibilities.  :)

Now don't get me wrong, I'd love to get a big contract with one of the Big 6 publishing houses.  Something with a huge advance (okay, mid to upper 5 figures would be nice, and far more possible than dreaming of those 7 figure advances).  But I'm realistic.  There are a lot of books out there.  Some are great, some aren't.  And quality doesn't always dictate what gets published by the Big 6.  They've all put out their share of the literary equivalent of Warterworld over the years.  (Obviously, considering how many books they lose money on each year)  Maybe my book is the shining gem I think it is, but even then it may never find the right agent, the right editor to take a chance on it.

But I have enough faith in myself and in the work to try.  And if I don't find them, I have enough faith to go it alone.  I'm also realistic enough to know that self-publishing isn't going to be a golden path to easy money either.  There will be up-front costs I wouldn't have with a traditional publisher, like editing, cover art, ad copy, and so on.  I'll have to handle it all, and pay for anything I can't do myself.  But I'm already looking into alternatives there, if the need arises. 

So I have my plan and my back-up plan for this year.  How about anyone else out there?