Wednesday, May 25, 2011

It's Not a Contest.

For two years people in the field and journalists have been less than cautious in their terminology regarding the Nebula Award.  The Nebula, a handsome tower of acrylic and stone, is awarded to stories in each of four categories; short fiction (<7500 words), novelette (7,500 - 17,500 words), novella (17,500-40,000 words) and novel (>40,000 words).  Every member of SFWA is eligible to vote on a preliminary list and for each of the top selectees.  The nomination and selection processes are embedded in a set of iron-clad and objective rules.

The Nebula is awarded for literary excellence alone.  This means that the top story demonstrates that the author has mastered the craft of writing, has developed the chops to tell a compelling story, and has proved that they have mastered the genre sufficiently to rise above all other nominees.  Although it seems trite, being among the final selectees really is as much an honor as getting the award itself.  I defy anyone to deny that the final list of Nebula nominees contains a single case where the quality of the work is less than superior and should not stand as an exemplar of its category.

Nevertheless, in our sports-crazed culture there exists this concept of winners and losers and that sort of language creeps over into the Nebula.  Let me be perfectly clear; the Nebula selection process is not a contest among writers, for such implies that one story is "better" than others.  The final selection is based more on the voters' individual tastes and preferences than against an objective standard save literary value.  Language such as winners and losers should never be used in articles, speeches, or even (Ha, like I could make this stick) on an individual's web site.  I recently wrote admonishing letters to newspapers about using terms such as winnerwon, etc and begged them to amend their style guides for reporting professional awards.

The other mistake often made is to suggest that one category is more important than the others.  I have know Hugo and Nebula Awardees for the novel that could not write a short story if they wanted. Conversely, many short story writers find the prospect of writing in the long form unattractive.  From my own experience it takes as much creative and artistic craft to write shorter as it does to stretch out the word count.  A Nebula nominated novella is not superior to the short story candidate, neither does the novel list represent works more prestigious than the novelettes.   To state otherwise is disrespectful to the authors and the field.

 My plea to you is to mind your words so as not to disrespect those hard working authors who fail to possess the acrylic tower.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Nebula Weekend

How does one describe the gathering of their tribe? How do you convey once again seeing the people whose creativity and craft you admire, and who understand the agonies, disappointments, and striving that bedevil your every day? How can you do this without falling into rabid fanspeak and still express the joy of feeling that you are part of something larger than the screen before you every day?

The Nebula weekend started with exclamations of joy and hugs, kisses, handshakes, and respect in the lobby and progress rapidly to HallCon, LobbyCon, BarCon, and random gatherings wherever two or more writers, agents, editors, or publishers gather.  These groups more often are a kaleidoscope whose brilliant array changes as one person is replaced by another and as conversational topics shift at light speed, morphs in strange ways, and always, always, always is about the craft.

Yes, there is a reception, banquet, awards ceremony and all that frivolity, but the core, the essence, the real impact of the Nebula Tribal Gathering is the free and open exchange of ideas on the craft, the art, and the business of writing, all done without the pressure of convention demands.  It is a time for writers to be among people like themselves. It is a time to immerse yourself into the sheer joy of the writing world to experience the wonderful, inspirational, entertaining, and physically exhausting weekend that you hope will never end.

And then, sadly and thankfully, it does.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Showing Up

This week I'll be at the Nebulas in Washington DC and consequently lose four or five days of writing productivity because I won't show up at my desk for the daily struggle with my muse.

I am firmly convinced that ninety-nine percent of success is simply showing up.  This applies to writing as well as work, life, and love.  If you don't put your tail in chair, fingers on keyboard or pen in hand, and WRITE every day.  You only get those mythical flashes of inspiration when they are watered by gallons of sweat and fed by bales of words on a regular basis.

Yes, writing is hard work as you strain to put one word after another, toil at stringing sentences together in some semblance of order, and facing this continual pressure to somehow make sense of the current piece.  On your worse days you practically rupture brain cells to produce plodding, barely literate, wooden narrative. On your best days the words flow from your fingertips like liquid gold, each phrase a gem of language and expression. You never know what will happen when you sit down, since either alternative seems to have little to do with how you feel, but if you don't sit down to write it is likely that your sudden flash of inspiration won't strike.

Years ago I started putting aside a couple of hours each evening in which to write - not email, not social networking, not rearranging deck chairs, but simply putting fingers to keyboard and producing lines of text. The exceptions were weekends, although I admit to sneaking an hour or two of writing in on occasion.  Some nights it was creating, sometimes revising and editing, sometimes simply blocking out story ideas or doing research on something needed for a story.  This last was difficult since I am very, very easily distracted.  Nevertheless, each night I would sit at the keyboard and try to write.  The result off those years of effort allowed me to sell a few stories, only two or three of which I can honestly say wrote themselves.  The rest, and especially the novellas, are the result of showing up, night after night, and slogging away at the craft.

Occasionally, I'd even have a small flash of inspiration.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Putting a Toe in the Water

In her recent blog Writing Like it's 1999 Kris Rusch describes the radical changes in the publishing industry over the past ten years (or so) and how this has affected publishers, editors, agents, and especially, writers.  She contends that this allows the writer to bypass all of the middlemen and directly access the reader.  Before one steps into this brave new world it might be important to understand who those "middlemen" are and what roles they perform.

Historically writers petitioned agents and/or publishers to consider their works.  The traditional process meant the writer had to first submit a proposal and, when that was accepted, submit a synopsis and the "first fifty" pages to demonstrate the quality of the writing.  After an agonizingly long delay, the response would appear, stating that it was not "suitable" or that the writer should now submit the entire manuscript for editorial review.  After more delay, the editor would request structural changes - meaning major rewriting of the manuscript.

When this was accomplished to the editors satisfaction, the copyeditor would comb the manuscript with the finest discernment and produce an affliction of alterations, corrections, and suggestions more numerous than fleas on a scrofulous dog. Remember, this is all to get the piece started toward the actual  production, which will involve the wrap-around cover, writing back and front matter, page setting, galleys (which again needed correcting by the writer), before going on to printing, binding, and distribution all of which means that the final book appears years after the proposal acceptance.

Todays environment allows writers to go directly, as Kris points out, from a final manuscript to production as a Print-on-demand book or as an ebook in any of its many forms, and all within a few months at most.  Those who have the rights, such as Mike Resnick and others, have successfully e-published their out of print books.  There are many tools avaialble for the would-be writer/publisher that make production of an ebook a relatively painless and certainly faster process.  The downside of doing this is that such productions lack professional editorial input and probably suffer as a result.

 I've begun producing thematic collections of my fully edited and published stories as Kindle editions and e-pubs.  After discovering how easy that process was, I published a make-up novel composed of already published novellas and novelettes, through Smashwords as Distant Seas.  Wildside Publishing also released my mass market paperback Vixen as an e-book as well.

With somewhat of a presence in the e-publishingworld I decided to test Kris's premise by e-publishing Magician! - an old novel of mine based on the Nebula finalist novella "Magic's Price" to see if it will develop legs, produce endless criticism, or fail to reach a single reader. If this test proves successful I might try another completed, but unsold novel instead of waiting years for result.

We shall see.

Monday, May 9, 2011

My favorite advice books

Although I admit to being a writing advice junkie, there are two books that have exerted considerable influence on my actual writing practices and to which I return again and again and one exceptional one that I've recently read.

The first, and most referenced is Andrew Tobias' 20 Master Plots, whose title may mislead you into thinking that this is a cookbook of winning formulae.  Instead, Tobias breaks down the essential elements of twenty plot themes; Quest, Adventure, Escape, Revenge, etc. and discusses why they work as they do and provides illustrative examples.

Years ago I was writing an adventure novella (Magic's Price) when I first encountered this book.  Upon reading Tobias' chapters, I realized that my story was actually a character study of the maturing protagonist who must face the consequences of his choices.

But personal insights are not where I've found this particular book so useful. I'ver returned to it time and again to check my story, to see if I have missed something, or only to verify my writing instincts. In this latter respect I've used the checklists Tobias provides at the end of each section on the essential elements usually found when using in that particular approach.  Including them is optional, but validating your story against them forces you to justify to yourself just why you choose otherwise.  I strongly feel that this book is an essential reference for fiction writers at any level, but most importantly for the short fiction writer.

The second book is Nancy Kress' Beginnings, Middles and Ends which is more focused on developing the long form.  This book introduced me to the idea of successive layering, adding another level of meaning with each successive edit and, in a blinding revelation ( for me, anyway) that the meaning of a story comes after you finish, no matter what you intended.  Kress suggests that the final edit, the layer of varnish that brings focus to the entire work, is the injection of symbolism wherever it makes sense.  We often see an iconic item, such as the wonderfully descriptive passages about the train in ian Mcdonald's Ares Express, which while essential to the plot, nevertheless is the touchstone around which all else revolves.

Kress also provides important advice on crafting the story's climax - that essential element that concludes the throughline and gives the reader the satisfaction they deserve.  But this discussion comes after many pages of advice that she has codified over her many years of writing experience.

Finally, I cannot be effusive enough about Kate Wilhelm's Storyteller which provides a plethora of writing advice.  After a quick review I decided to read it more carefully and put a marker wherever I saw advice I should heed.  When I'd completed this slight volume I had almost run out of markers. Wilhelm's writing advice is presented painlessly, along with a bit of sf history and its personalities that makes the entire book fun to read.  The real bonus comes at the end, where Wilhelm provides a review in fifteen short (and factually dense) pages.  I feel that I will return to this book over and over, if for nothing else than reassurance that my writing agony and frustration is not unique.