Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Always learning more

It's been at least a year since I looked at my science fiction. When I put it down, I knew it needed work but I was fairly confident in the plot and the action. Well, I'm still confident in the action, but the work it needs is glaringly obvious now.

That's not unusual. If you haven't already heard the advice: you should put a story down for a while and work on something else, then come back to it with fresh eyes.

When I was writing in high school, I did all my revising on paper with a red pen and every single manuscript came away looking like a murder scene. Didn't matter how many drafts there had already been, it seemed. Red ink everywhere, rewriting, adding, deleting useless paragraphs.

My dad said it was because I'd learned so much more about writing since the last revision pass. Which was true.

It's also because when the story is fresh in your mind, you remember exactly what you meant to put on the page. Which isn't necessarily what got onto the page, of course. Things are always lost, in converting vivid hallucinations into little black symbols, but you're always learning new ways to translate.

These days, my revisions aren't so drastic as back in high school. There are a lot of reasons for that: awkward sentences get re-worked in progress, useless paragraphs don't get written in the first place, my outline and scene notes keep me on target, and my awareness of the vocab I'm using is much sharper. When my gut tells me something, it's easier to figure out what it's saying and whether I should trust it. (This has applications outside of writing.) All of that is the result of years of practice, years of writing, and there's no other way to earn those.

And after all these years of writing, I'm still learning the craft. Frankly, I hope I never feel like I've mastered it. If I did, I'd have to assume it would mean I've fallen into a rut or gotten my head stuck up my ass.

So I've been looking at the science fiction I put down a year ago and thinking about how to apply what I learned in the process of writing Disciple to it. I'm thinking this will be a murder-scene-level revision; time to get out that chainsaw.

What's the longest you've put a story down for? How did it look when you came back?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Stories, stories everywhere...

...and never time to write.

My father had a stroke last week. Being the reliable child (a frightening thought), I made the journey to New England to help my mother. I spent about a week chauffeuring her to the regional hospital and watching my father make a recovery so fast that he amazed all his doctors. The brain scan revealed minimal damage, and he's regaining movement on his left side. Within a couple days of his stroke, he was sitting up and alert enough to ask for his knitting.

Not what you expected a 70-year-old man to be asking for? It makes a good segue into what I want to think out loud about here.

It's a hallmark question of people who don't write, or are very new to it: where do you get your ideas? The short answer is: they're everywhere. You're constantly tripping over them.

Hospitals are especially packed with stories. Simply walking through an ICU -- trying not to look into the other rooms, because people have a right to privacy, but incapable of not stealing a glance or two -- threw plenty of ideas at me. 

In one room, a young guy flat on his back, on a ventilator, with an officer standing by his bed. Later, I saw the officer walk by and caught "Correctional Facility" on his shoulder patch.

A kid, under ten, with half his/her head shaved and the other half making a bed-head punk of him/her.

A silver-haired man with a strawberry nose* struggling with big knitting needles and fat yarn -- his left hand can't grip, and the stitches keep slipping away.

A good chunk of "being a writer" is the ability to catch the little snapshots of stories that are blizzarding around us all the time, every day, and build them into something unique and fascinating. Don't get me wrong: they're tough to catch. It's tough to catch the right one, the interesting one, and ask yourself the right questions.

A prisoner in ICU. A punk-ified child. An old man asking for his knitting. How? Why? What are the consequences of failure? What is failure, in this situation?

Another thing that got my brain burbling was watching the nurses go about their business. How would this be done in another place or time? Such as prepping a wheeled recliner chair for my dad to sit in, and the entire process of sitting him up, getting him on his feet and shuffled around to sit down. How would the process be different in a fantasy world? A science fiction one? During World War II?

So, that's why I didn't post last week: I was called away by a family emergency. Fortunately, my dad has a guardian angel, or a lot of good karma stored up (he doesn't knit for himself, only for others), or whatever form of good fortune you espouse. He was driving behind an ambulance when the stroke happened, and the EMTs had him in the ER lickety-split. The car sat on a side street, unlocked and full of stuff, undisturbed for the two days it took us to find it.

And that's my dose of talking about personal details for the year. :) Be well, everybody...

*Yes, my dad's nose has turned into a strawberry. It's been a strange transformation to watch. I fear for my own.

Tiny Plug: the Blogger Book Fair is going on over at Disciple of the Fount. So is a raffle of Disciple, Part I and Part II! Ends July 26th.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Indie Life: cover art

Welcome to Indie Life -- the second Wednesday of the month! Time to talk about the realities of self-publishing in the middle of the ongoing sea change that ebooks have wrought.

This month, an offshoot of my thinking about how the larger sexism and racism controversies in SF/F can trickle down to even little self-publishers like me. Have you seen Jim Hines' spoofs of the silly poses women are put into, on book covers? How about the "girly" versions of famous (male) authors' covers?

I follow Lousy Book Covers -- though not too closely, it's depressing -- and also some "beautiful book covers" Tumblr feeds... it should come as no surprise which one has the most traffic.

I've been a graphic designer for 15 years or so, and I know enough about advertising to say that there are reasons why marketers package books the way they do. I've seen enough data to agree that even while we object about the gratuitous sex, violence, etc., we still buy it. It's a deep and complicated problem with plenty to unpack from it... and that's too big a topic for here and now. I want to think about what goes into a book cover. As a self-publisher, I try to take all of these things into account when giving my cover artist instructions.

The primary purpose of a book cover is to give the viewer an idea of what to expect from the contents. Among the things the cover tells the viewer are:

My book's cover:
Fantasy, non-Earth, monsters,
dark/grim/gritty, adventure/travel,
girl looking tough.
What do you see?
There's a stock of images associated with every genre, whether it's spaceships, aliens, and electronics for science fiction, or dragons, swords and castles for fantasy. The vocabulary's large, and there's overlap to some degree, but it's easy to classify a book by its cover.

Those stock images can be very specific (a cybernetically enhanced person), or combinations of them can indicate a specific sub-genre (vampire plus teenaged girl). Also, the cover can indicate any unexpected overlaps with other genres. If you've got steampunk with dragons, or a spy thriller with supernatural elements, the cover art is a good place to alert readers to that.

Darkness? Humor? Idealism? There's an equally large stock of associated imagery with all of these things. Lighting and color palette can convey this, too, independent of the images.

Major themes
With the rise of ebooks and the need for covers to look good as thumbnail images, there's been an increasing abstraction in the artwork -- simplifying it down to a single image, maybe two -- which can be powerful. But it can also be vague. It's perfectly valid for a fantasy novel to have just a sword for its cover art. But that doesn't tell the reader much, unless it's a very distinctive sword.

What do I mean by "major themes"? All of those cheesy romance covers of a woman languishing on Fabio's shoulder do convey the theme very efficiently: ROMANCE. A World War II novel with Mustangs dogfighting on the cover: ACTION. It's in how the genre-related elements of the cover are interacting.

Interesting details
The cover is a chance to intrigue readers with unexpected combinations or fun details. Bear in mind, though, that a viewer knows absolutely nothing about the story inside, so only the most general things can be conveyed here. If your characters have a cool gadget, its presence on the cover will be entirely as a cool gadget. Its magical powers or time-travelling capabilities aren't easily explained. Which means it had better be pretty darn cool, to be on the cover. Tread with care.

What quintessential aspect of your character can you tell the reader, in the book cover? That he's tough? That she's frightened? If there are people in your cover art, this is not optional -- the viewer will see personality in them. Choose carefully.

Symbolic vocabulary
How do you know what elements communicate what? To some degree, you already do; we've all been drenched in advertising symbolism all our lives. We all love books here, as well, so we have plenty of chances to study their covers.

And to some degree, you've worked on this vocabulary as part of mastering the craft of writing. Yes, we use words but what we convey to the reader are images. You've hooked your readers and drawn them into your story by way of powerful images.

How have you translated those into cover art?

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Things nobody wants to talk about

I follow KKR's business blog posts, because I'm serious about trying to make a living at this writing thing. This week, her post talked about the impact of personal disasters, health insurance, and how unpredictable a writer's income is. During this, she mentioned the terrible accident that befell David Farland's son and how people are trying to help with the enormous medical bills.

It just so happened that I had been semi-scheduled to appear on one of David Farland's conference-call writing chats when this disaster hit. Needless to say, that's on hold indefinitely. 

Nobody likes to think about disaster striking and how it can ruin you physically and financially. But these things happen. Having medical insurance, in America, doesn't mean you'll be able to walk out of a hospital financially intact. Personally, I pay too much for insurance that won't pay for anything useful -- I'm in debt because of it, don't get me started -- and I have no illusions about what would happen if I got hit by a bus. 

And speaking of getting hit by a bus, KKR's posts about estate planning for writers are something else that provoked a great deal of thought in me. I haven't drawn up a will yet, but I wanted to talk about part of it here for what it's worth. 
  1. There isn't anybody I could bequeath my copyrights to who would be able to take care of them. At least, not as of July, 2013 -- who knows, that could change. 
  2. A self-publisher's worst enemy isn't piracy, it's obscurity. Assuming I'm still obscure when I die, my copyrights may not be worth much.
  3. I have a great deal of respect for the open-source movement, and I'm thankful for all the free software out there. 
Love this photo, let's use it again: Parisian catacombs.
Photo by Atif Gulzar, available at sxc.hu
So. Until further notice, if I am hit by a bus and they pull the plug on me -- they will have to, I'm poor -- then the contents of my "Scribblings" folder (currently over 2 gig, wow, didn't know it had gotten that big) will be made available in a public Dropbox folder under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License. Links will be posted here when I die. Not yet! 

If you want to write something in the Saints of War universe (or the Jovian Frontier, for that matter) before I die, hey, email me. We can talk. 

Have you made plans for your writing estate? You should. 
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