Sometimes you get the bear…

And sometimes the bear gets you.

You know, I’ve always found that expression a bit annoying.  Wouldn’t it be:  “Sometimes you get the bear.  The bear gets you once“?

Be that as it may, the subject right now is writing, in particular getting stuck.  Most of the writers I know have had the experience of sitting down to work on a project and it just won’t come.  You sit there, staring at the page (screen these days) and the words just don’t want to come.  As I said, most writers I know have had the experience and I suspect most of the others just won’t admit it.  But I could be wrong.

The term for that is “writer’s block.”

I don’t like that term.  For one thing in every other job in the world, there are times when one doesn’t feel motivated, doesn’t feel “inspired,” when the body and mind say “I don’t want to do this.” They don’t get special terms.  There’s no “bricklayer’s block” or “engineer’s block” or “corporate CEO’s” block.  But writers?  Writers get to say “I have writers block” and people nod in sympathy and maybe buy them another beer.

You know.  I think that may explain writer’s block.

Seriously, though, there are times when the words come easily, where the story is just there.  You sit, your fingers fly over the keyboard, and words appear on the screen.  Magic.  It’s just about the greatest feeling in the world. (Just about.  I can think of one or two others that are better.)

Then there are other times, times when you sit there and write one word.  Then you sit there and write another word.  Then one more, each word like giving birth to a porcupine . . . breach.

And the thing is, at least in my own writing, there’s no difference I can tell between the results of the “easy” writing and the “squeezed out one agonizing word at a time” writing.  They’re just as likely to be good (as in “saleable”) or just as likely to be dreck.  Some of my published work is one, some the other.

The interesting thing is, writing for me rarely falls between those two.  It’s either one or the other but never, say, a little struggle to find the right words, or anything like that.  No, that’s reserved for editing.

In the Neolithic Age

In another Blog, the subject came up of people who claim “one true way” to write.  That if you want to be a writer, you must write this way and no other.

I answer them with this piece:

In the Neolithic Age
Rudyard Kipling

In the Neolithic Age savage warfare did I wage
For food and fame and woolly horses’ pelt;
I was singer to my clan in that dim, red Dawn of Man,
And I sang of all we fought and feared and felt.

Yea, I sang as now I sing, when the Prehistoric spring
Made the piled Biscayan ice-pack split and shove;
And the troll and gnome and dwerg, and the Gods of Cliff and Berg
Were about me and beneath me and above.

But a rival, of Solutr]/e, told the tribe my style was ~outr]/e~ —
‘Neath a tomahawk of diorite he fell.
And I left my views on Art, barbed and tanged, below the heart
Of a mammothistic etcher at Grenelle.

Then I stripped them, scalp from skull, and my hunting dogs fed full,
And their teeth I threaded neatly on a thong;
And I wiped my mouth and said, “It is well that they are dead,
For I know my work is right and theirs was wrong.”

But my Totem saw the shame; from his ridgepole shrine he came,
And he told me in a vision of the night: —
“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And every single one of them is right!”

. . . . .

Then the silence closed upon me till They put new clothing on me
Of whiter, weaker flesh and bone more frail;
And I stepped beneath Time’s finger, once again a tribal singer
[And a minor poet certified by Tr–ll].

Still they skirmish to and fro, men my messmates on the snow,
When we headed off the aurochs turn for turn;
When the rich Allobrogenses never kept amanuenses,
And our only plots were piled in lakes at Berne.

Still a cultured Christian age sees us scuffle, squeak, and rage,
Still we pinch and slap and jabber, scratch and dirk;
Still we let our business slide — as we dropped the half-dressed hide —
To show a fellow-savage how to work.

Still the world is wondrous large, — seven seas from marge to marge, —
And it holds a vast of various kinds of man;
And the wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Khatmandhu,
And the crimes of Clapham chaste in Martaban.

Here’s my wisdom for your use, as I learned it when the moose
And the reindeer roared where Paris roars to-night: —
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And — every — single — one — of — them — is — right!

Why science fiction?

I write mostly Science Fiction and Fantasy, and more science fiction than fantasy.  So why these genres in particular?

I started as an inveterate reader of SF.  That all got its start back when I was first reading.  In first Grade the reading material was boring.  Boring.  Boring.  Boring.  One half of the class was reading about this stupid “Dick” and his stupid sister “Jane” (my mother had taught me to read at home and I was reading the Childcraft encyclopedias for entertainment).  The other half of the room was reading an equally insipid book about “Tom”.

Sometime about this time I was introduced to a picture book about a trip to the moon that appeared to be based on von Braun’s old Colliers series.  That got me started.  About the same time I remember watching coverage of several Apollo missions on TV.

A couple years later we moved and I changed schools and in the classroom library had a bunch of the “Tom Swift, Jr.” books.  This was the first Science Fiction I read that I knew as Science Fiction.  The next year I got introduced to others, including Heinlein.

All of this stuff ignited in me a burning desire to go into space.  I wanted to go into orbit, walk on the moon, see the moons of Mars pass overhead from the Martian deserts.  And the way to get there was to become an astronaut.  But in Fifth grade I started noticing a difficulty seeing the chalkboards at school.  This got worse and worse until in 7th grade I finally got glasses.  Given the standards of the time, where only military (or ex military) test pilots could become astronauts and that to be a military pilot (let alone a test pilot) one had to have perfect vision, that put paid to that idea.

And so Science Fiction filled the whole of the dream that could never come true.  I could never go, but I could at least read about it.  From that point on SF totally dominated my reading.  Some years later I started branching out a bit and developing more “rounded” tastes but it remains SF that I come back to when I read for fun.

So when I started writing, I started writing SF since that’s just the way my mind worked by that point.

My introduction to fantasy was a bit different.  A friend of mine handed me a book and said “Here, read this.” He was so serious about it that I didn’t dare refuse.  The book was “The Hobbit”.  Soon, I had read The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.  And, a few years later, I came across a book marketed as “for people who have finished The Lord of the Rings and are looking for something else to read.” Yes, “The Sword of Shanarra” was really marketed that way.  And while Mr. Brooks seems to get a lot of hate in certain segments of fantasy fandom, he’s probably laughing about that all the way to the bank as he turns out best seller after best seller after best seller.  In any case, Mr. Brooks’ books showed me that there was more Fantasy out there and so I added that to my reading.

One of the things I liked about both SF and the Fantasy I was reading is that the characters generally mattered.  What they did had an influence on the world far beyond what a high school student from a poor family like me could ever realistically hope to.  This was much what drew me to superhero comics and some of the other things I was reading.  This was so different from the “literature” I was being assigned as reading in school that it was a whole other world. (I have, of course, since learned that it’s quite possible to write about people who matter, who make a difference, without going into fantasy and SF, but by that time my tastes had largely settled).

By this point, even when I have a story idea that could be told without science fiction or fantasy themes I tend to write it that way simply because that’s the way the stories come out.  I enjoy Shakespeare (The Tempest is my favorite).  I’ve read London and appreciated it.  I’ve found the mysteries of Lawrence Block entertaining.  But I keep coming back to Science Fiction and Fantasy.

In romance, first loves are often ephemeral, but in this case the first love has been the deepest and the most lasting.

So it’s not really a case of “why write science fiction and fantasy?” but rather “why write anything else?”

Continuing on the subject of easy self publishing

When I go looking for a book, oh, let’s say I’m looking for a good Heroic Fantasy (I like heroic fantasy but good stuff–meaning stuff I enjoy about people I’d like if I met them in real life where the challenges are enough to keep me rapt but not so great as to set off my rather idiosyncratic “squick” factors and so on–can be hard to find). There might be a half dozen or so on the shelves that I’m not already familiar with and pulling that out of a shelf full of science fiction and fantasy is enough of a challenge. But how many manuscripts get submitted for every one that turns up on those shelves? If a significant percentage of those go the self-publishing route then my problem in finding that “good Heroic Fantasy” for this week has become a hundred times harder. Yes, the publishers “miss” good work in their selection process and let some utter dreck through but, as a former slush reader, I can assure you that the ratio of “good” to “dreck” that makes the publishing cut is at least two orders of magnitude better than the ratio coming in via the slushpile.

Up until now, publishers have performed two services: making books accessible, and acting as a filter to at least weed out the worst of what gets submitted. With POD, self-publishing, and especially e-publishing the first function has become largely superfluous but that also means that their ability in the latter function (far from perfect even in the best of times, and some of their business models in that vein have been nuts from my perspective) is greatly reduced. That doesn’t reduce the need for that second function to be provided by someone, even if not by the publishers. Who that someone might be, I think, is still an open question.

Like most people (I presume) I don’t really pay any attention to who publishes the particular books I buy.   I do buy a lot of Baen books, but a large part of that is that they make it easy to buy lots of books, cheaply, that I could put on my old PDA or on my iPod Touch now–I like the idea of being able to carry a large chunk of my library anywhere I go. Still, the fact that the book was on the shelves meant that it had been professionally published and that the worst 90% had been screened out before it was published.  Another 9% or so was also screened out but that may or may not have been “worse” than what was actually published.

I do think somebody needs to perform that “screening function” (I believe the “term of art” is “Gatekeeper”). I, as a reader, need help to get through that thousand Eye of Argon’s to get to the one “The Oathbound”. Maybe reviewers can serve that function but at present I don’t see reviewers going through enough books to make a dent in that pile and I don’t see a business model to pay them to do it. (Yes, reviewers often want to be paid.  Rude of them, I know, but that’s how things work.)

I’m not disagreeing in the long run with self-publishing and e-publishing as being “the wave of the future” but I also foresee some pretty serious teething problems in the transition. The simple fact is that “Well Known Writer” as the byline is going to draw a lot more people than “David L. Burkhead” (Who?). To start “word of mouth” somebody has to read the book in order to tell someone else. And a book by Well Known Writer is going to have a lot more initial vectors to start that word of mouth than will David L. Burkhead (Who?). And since not everybody who reads the book will enjoy it, and since not everyone who reads the book and enjoys it will take the time to tell others, and since not everybody who is told how great it is will buy it themselves, the more initial vectors one has the better chance of a word of mouth that doesn’t fizzle into nothing for reasons that have nothing to do with how good the book itself is.

Whew, this is getting long (getting?). Let me be clear about one thing. Although I used myself as an example above I’m not complaining “it’s not fair!” I’m an unrepentant capitalist. But the idea that good product will always find its market in a “free market” is a myth. Good product has better chances, all other things being equal (but when are all other things equal?) but there are no guarantees. I am simply pointing out that a business model that can be attractive for people who do have a following, who have people who will at least give the work a look because of the author’s name on the cover, or who have the resources (which need not necessarily be financial) to provide the “push” that publishers can do for favored authors, can be more . . . intimidating to folk who aren’t in that position. But then again if it were easy everybody could play.


But, like I said before, no answers, just questions.

Self Publishing and the Writer

A number of writers have been talking about self publishing and e-publishing of late, particularly as a way around some of the flaws of traditional publishing.  This is often combined with a belief that traditional publishing is either on the way out or is going to have to radically change.

Perhaps.  Some of these folk know a lot more about the field than me.  However I have some concerns about looking at easy self publishing and e-publishing as a solution to the problems they see.

One of the problems with the “you too can publish” situation is that, as a reader, you too can read slush*. How does one sort out the simply literate (never mind “quality”) from the vast majority of stuff that crosses a typical first reader’s desk. (I worked as one for a while and let me tell you….)?
With epublishing still in its relative infancy the problem is perhaps small now but it will grow as more people “discover” it. How do we prevent the Kindle store (for instance) looking like my first reader inbox? How does the average reader sort out what they want to read from the deluge of slush.
It may be different for authors who already have published works in the double digits, who are “known” names with an established readership, but for a beginner who only has the words on the page/screen to differentiate him or her from the flood of others who have different arrangements of words on their pages/screens–some barely literate (if that), some entertaining reads, and a precious few that are “wow”?
No answers here, just questions.

*”Slush” is a term for unsolicited submissions sent to publishers and agents.  Most editors of my acquaintance say that it is almost universally bad and a lot of time is spent trying to find the handful of publishable stories in the lot.  This matches my own short experience as a slush reader.

I love it when things just "click".

This morning, on the drive into work (my day job) I had an idea for a story spring “full blown” in my head (like Athena from the head of Zeus).

On getting home and 1200 words later it’s time to call it quits for the day.  I’ve got a good setup.  Some of the stylistic points (doing some things I’ve never done before) are coming along nicely.  And I’ve got a good idea where the story is going from here.

I expect the final result to be in the 3-5 thousand word range.  Not a major money maker even if it sells (and that’s never guaranteed) but something to definitely keep my hand in and stretch my writerly muscles.

My first sales

On to my first sales.  In 1990 I moved to being a “full time writer” which, frankly, was another way of saying that I was unemployed. (Various reasons for that, none of them particularly germane to this blog.) At that point I started writing a lot.  Most of my stories were still fairly derivative but one was something a bit different, a near-future piece written in an epistolary format (that is, in the form of various letters back and forth).  It was this story, titled “The Future is Now” that garnered my first personal response from an editor:  Stanley Schmidt of Analog:

“This story has good microwriting, that is writing at the sentence and paragraph level but the essence of story is conflict.” And my story didn’t really have that.  So I went back, added a rival corporation and some challenges along the way.  That came back with the criticism that the conflict all happened “off stage” (letters about conflicts that were resolved). Stan suggested breaking out of the epistolary formatting and going to straight third person narrative for the key scenes.  I didn’t like that thinking it would jar with the rest of the story being written as it is.  So I came up with a compromise.  I wrote one of the key scenes as “minutes” of a board meeting and the other as transcript of a launch and rescue operation.  This gave the in-story immediacy that it needed and the next round Stan bought.

Shortly after that I got a contract back from a story I had submitted to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine.  The story was a very short humorous (at least so intended) piece “Jilka and the Evil Wizard.”  Although this story was sold after The Future is Now it was actually published first. (More on that in a bit.)

Finally, while this was going on I was sending out queries for non-fiction articles.  I got a response from one from a magazine “High Technology Careers” asking that I write a 1500-1800 word article on the topic of The Economics of Lunar Mining at 17.5 cents a word.  This article was accepted as written and appeared about the same time as the other two stories.

Back to Marian Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine.  The turnaround between Ms. Bradley accepting the story and it appearing in the magazine was awfully short.  In that issue, Ms. Bradley’s editorial expressed some ire at people who simultaneously submit and then withdraw accepted stories leaving the editor to scramble to fill a hole.  I’ve always assumed, given those two facts, that she bought my story because it was a “not impossible” of the right size to fill a hole she was scrambling to fill.  That may not actually be the case but I’ve always thought it likely.

A kind of sad point of looking back at these first sales is that two of the three magazines are no longer in business.  When Ms. Bradley passed away, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine went with her.  And High Technology Careers ceased publication some years after my article’s publication.

There were several lessons I learned through all this:

1) “The essence of story is conflict.” That really comes down to the heart of things.  You cannot be nice to your characters.  If there’s no conflict you may have a narrative but you do not have a story.
2) The reader/editor is never wrong about their experience of the story but they may be wrong about how to fix problems they see.
3) Luck matters.  Sometimes the timing of when a story arrives can make the difference between selling to that market or not.
4) Persistence pays.  I sent out a lot of queries before I got the assignment to write the article.