Thursday, February 16, 2017

Stuart McLean Memorial — by Robert Dawson

photo credit:CBC    

Dave turned off the television.

He thought for a long time.

"What do we do now, Morley?" he asked.

For once, Morley was at a loss for words.



Monday, February 13, 2017

2016 WWC Guest of Honour Speech

Dr. Robert Runté speaking at When Words Collide.

The When Words Collide writers' conference (held each August in Calgary) has a podcast page on which they release Guest of Honour speeches, panel discussions, and interviews. These are generally well worth a listen.

My Guest of Honour speech August 2016 was just released: "WWC 2016 GOH speech finds the curmudgeonly, retired professor Robert Runté questioning English teachers and praising fan fiction".

Friday, January 27, 2017

Editing in times of darkness

I find myself spending too much time on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, trying to get my head around what is happening to the world. Like many high school graduates of my generation, I have read 1984 as part of my English courses, and talked about how that one book helped us all recognize the dangers of an Orwellian future in Social Studies. But, um. That particular inoculation seems to have warn off now, as I look around at a world where the major superpowers seemed to have suddenly switched alliances (Brexit, Trump praising closer ties to the kleptocracy of Russia, China talking about the joys of globalization!!) and the election of an American President who talks about alternative facts and who doesn't/hasn't read books and reduces language to 140 tweets. Even Orwell could not have imagined a world in which there were not only fewer words every year, but fewer characters in which to say things. Sad.

Some days it's just hard to look at the screen and face the headlines

So I was going to talk a bit about editing in times of darkness, when I came across (thanks to Amanda Fuller Richards) this post by Liz Jones that covers the same ground for me:

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Creating Magic Systems

Guest Post by Edward Willett

Edward Willett is the award-winning author of more than 50 books of science fiction, fantasy and nonfiction for readers of all ages.

The Space-Time Continuum: Creating Magic Systems

Most fantasy stories include magic: that’s what makes them fantasy. (In fact, if I had to distinguish between fantasy and science fiction, I’d say, “The fantastical stuff in fantasy is ascribed to magic. The fantastical stuff in science fiction is ascribed to advanced technology.”)

However, different writers take different approaches to the use of magic in stories. In older books of the fantastic (think The Lord of the Rings), magic is (in the words of Brian Niemeier, winner of the inaugural Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel in 2016 for Souldancer) “mysterious, ineffable, and unpredictable,” whereas in most modern fantasy, magic is more likely to work “like a technology that we can systematize.” It’s the latter form of magic that has given rise to the term “magic system”: the rules established by a writer of fantasy to which the magic in his books adhere.

The designing of such systems seem to be a topic of endless fascination for those interested in writing fantasy, which is presumably why Niemeier wrote his essay, “How to Design Magic Systems," from which I just quoted. It’s also why I was on a panel entitled “How to Build a Consistent and Original Magic System” at the 2014 edition of the annual—and highly recommended—Calgary writing conference When Words Collide.

The star attraction of that panel was not, alas, me, but rather Guest of Honour Brandon Sanderson, widely acknowledged as among the best at crafting interesting magic systems for his bestselling novels.

Over the years, Sanderson has formulated his approach into laws, three of which (so far) he has explicated on his website, starting with his First Law: “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.”

Sanderson recounts how, while on a convention panel on magic early in his career, he stated as a given that, “Obviously, magic has to have rules,” and was shocked to be challenged by the other writers. They claimed systematizing magic robbed fantasy of its sense of wonder: that sense of the “mysterious, ineffable, and unpredictable.”

Sanderson calls that kind of magic “soft magic,” and he and Niemeier point out the problem it sets for writers: because it has no rules, it cannot be used to regularly solve story problems without becoming a deus ex machina. Since we don’t know what magic can and can’t do, every time magic is used to solve a problem faced by the characters the reader is left wondering why magic doesn’t solve all the characters’ problems—which of course would destroy the narrative.

Systematized magic, on the other hand, which Sanderson terms “hard magic,” operates in accordance with strict rules. Looking at my own books, in Magebane, magic requires energy in the form of heat, so the palace has giant coal furnaces; in my Masks of Aygrima series, magic is literally mined, and most magic-users must have a store of it handy in order to perform magic; and in my Shards of Excalibur series, my young protagonist can dissolve into water and travel anywhere it goes—but only fresh water, and she can only reappear in water deep enough to submerge her (giving swimming pools and ponds an unusually prominent role in the narrative).

These limitations heighten narrative tension, because magic is not always available to solve problems, and shape the plot, as the characters struggle to find ways to use their magic.

Or, as Sanderson puts it in his Second Law: “Limitations > Powers”; it’s by putting limits on magic that you make it interesting. Superpowers are a form of magic, and as Sanderson points out, how dull a character would Superman be if not for his Achilles’ Heel, Kryptonite? (For that matter, how dull a character would Achilles himself have been if not for his famous heel?)

Sanderson’s Third Law is, “Expand what you have before you add something new.” Or, as he sums it up, “A brilliant magic system for a book is less often one with a thousand different powers and abilities—and is more often a magic system with relatively few powers that the author has considered in depth.” This ties in with the previous laws quite nicely. The more magical powers that are available, the easier it is for someone to solve their problems with magic, which may result in a flabby narrative.

Note, despite Sanderson calling them “laws,” they are of course nothing of the sort—more “suggestions from experience.” After all, wizards in the Harry Potter books certainly have “a thousand different powers and abilities,” and limitations seem few, but the J.K. Rowling did all right.

In truth, there is only one absolute law of creating magic systems: it has to result in a better story.

Or, as Niemeier sums it up: “In magic as in everything else, make it fun for the reader.”

Edward Willett's website is He also produces a biweekly newsletter which includes excellent advice for writers, such as this post on creating magical systems. You can subscribe for free on his website.

My favorite Willett novel is his space opera, "Lost in Translation": a great fun read, and its anti-racist, anti-war message has never been more timely.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Is Good Grammar Racist, Sexist and Classist?

Here is a thoughtful two minute video from the Guardian newspaper on why Grammar snobs are patronizing, pretentious and just plain wrong", by Mona Chalabi.

Once one gets past the rather mean-spirited depiction of the 'typical' grammar snob, I'm more in agreement with Chalabi than not, though I think what she is missing is the question of audience. If I'm editing a novel and I miss catching that a character says 'less' instead of 'fewer', well, that's not as big a deal as if I miss that in a government paper which represents more formal writing; and if I miss that in an academic journal, I might actually be allowing a significant error through because precision of language is crucial in describing an experiment or scientific concclusion. The example Chalabi uses of how of the dictionary recognizes modern usage more readily than grammar snobs is the word 'literally', but her narration glosses over the fact that we can see in the video that the dictionary entry clearly identifies the updated meaning as 'informal'. So if my daughter uses 'literally' to mean metaphorically as she rants about her roommate, I'm not about to interrupt her with a correction. That would be mean spirited and silencing. But if she uses 'literally' metaphorically in a paper she's handing into her English prof, I'm going to point that out. I try not to interrupt speakers with grammar objections, and I'm okay with informal English in emails and blog posts or whatever; but if one is writing in a formal context, formal English is to be preferred, though clarity trumps all, always.

One reason to have editors is to help people express themselves in formal contexts when they have something significant to say and want to get it right: When speaking to power, it's sometimes helpful to speak Power's dialect.

But I agree with Chalabi that constantly correcting someone's grammar is silencing. The meaning of the phrase "I ain't never" is perfectly clear, even though grammatically incorrect for formal English. Recognizing that it is part of black dialect is important because, for generations, blacks underperformed in schools partly because every time black students spoke in their mother dialect, a white teacher (or assimilated black) would interrupt and tell them that they were wrong. I'm not sure the Ebonics movement is entirely the correct response here, but ignoring the issues of class and race and gender conflict inherent in language is worse. There are more English speakers in India than there are in England, so it's not entirely clear to me why only the Queen's English counts. If I am editing a novel by a Chinese Canadian, and the author's language usage shows vestiges of her Chinese heritage, I'm not sure I want to entirely edit that out. Maybe yes if it's a fantasy novel intended for a general mass (probably American) market; but if it's a novel about life in China, or about the Chinese immigrant experience in Canada, not so much! I want to retain the author's authentic voice, as if she were talking directly to the reader, though enough editing so that doesn't become a barrier to reader's comprehension. For me, clarity is always king. The reader should feel as if the author is speaking directly to her, but not with such a thick accent as to not be understandable. The trick is to find the right balance between reader effort (sometimes the reader should have to work a little to understand!) and reader comfort (but they have to keep reading!). That, in part, depends on the significance of the work (literature or escapism; is the reader trying to experience a culture or solve a whodoneit?) and in part on the intention/wishes of the author on dimensions such as critical acclaim vs sales....

So yes, interesting video expressing an important point. As an editor, I have a responsibility to help the writer fit the grammar to the intended purpose and audience, with the default as 'fix the grammar' because that's why clients seek out editors. But outside of paid editing work, if they don't ask, don't tell.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Writing Tip: How to keep going...

One of the harder aspects of writing is how to keep going without getting stuck on a scene or idea. One important trick I learned (the hard way) was to 'stop on the clock', mid-sentence if necessary. For years (literal years working on my dissertation) I made the mistake of finishing for the day when I had successfully finished a section and it seemed a logical place in the writing to break for the day. The problem was, having finished a section the day before, each day I started by facing a new section—a new blank page, with no idea where to start. I spent much of each day trying to get started, and came to dread sitting down to write, or, you know, getting up in the morning. I eventually realized that the only days when I didn't start with hours of fruitless angst and wondering how I was going to start the next section was when my wife had pulled me away from work the previous day before I had finished for the day. Consequently, I was anxious to get back to work to finish what I had been going to say the day before. Instead of dreading starting, I started the day wildly getting down on paper things I already knew I wanted to say...which momentum generally carried me through the day. Having finally recognized the pattern, I learned that (for me at least) stopping at a set time meant that I knew at least the next few sentences I needed to write next morning, and a good way to start the day meant a better day writing generally. (The other benefit of this approach is that it is also easier to respond to other people's needs, since picking up the kids from school at 3:30 was a deadline to stop on the clock, and no longer an interruption until I could finish my thought.)

Stumbled across an NPR broadcast today that made the same point, part of the now defunct How To Do Everything podcast. The Nov 4, 2016 episode "StoryCorn" starts (approximately 1 minute in) with an interview with writer Eric Larson who makes the same point, if somewhat more eloquently. Larson also tempts himself to his writer's desk with permission to eat a double-stuffed Oreo cookie with his coffee when he first sits down to write. Worth a listen!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Actual Self-Publishing Experience

I see a lot of rubbish about self-publishing on the Internet, most of which comes down to some sort of get-rich-quick schemes. There are hundreds of supposedly successful self-published authors offering to sell you their (self-published) secret to their success—which won't actually apply to anyone else because they were either (1) an early adopter who used this or that social media technique (trick), which won't now work for you, the too-late adopter, because consumers are wise to that one now; or (2) they were already well known authors or bloggers or Youtubers or etc with an established readership who simply carried that reputation/readership with them as they cut out the middlemen (i.e., dropped the publisher(s) who invested to made that author's reputations in the first place). Most new writers won't be able to duplicate their success, but nevertheless fork over $$ for books or courses from these self-appointed gurus, and then end up selling maybe 100 copies of their novel, no matter how slaveishly they adhered to the suggested formula.

It is therefore extremely refreshing to come across actual facts about the actual experience of an actual author....for free.

Arthur Slade is a successful Canadian YA author: he has won major awards (e.g., the prestigious TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award and the Governor General's Award for Children's Literature) and sold a lot of books (i.e., makes a living at it). My oldest read a number of his books (e.g., The Hunchback Assignments series and ,Jolted) during the crucial period when she was deciding whether reading was really worth the effort and I credit Arthur for being one of several authors who pushed her over the edge to 'yes'. And I've used his novel about high school cliques ,Tribes, as an assigned reading in my course for student teachers.

Now Arthur is experimenting with self-publishing, and what's of potential interest to readers here, is that he is documenting what he has done, step by step, what it cost, and how the whole process has gone (so far):

  • Why I am Self-Publishing in which Arthur talks about his reasons for self publishing his vampire novel(s); arranging for editing and book design and so on.
  • Part 2 where Arthur discusses how it all went a month after the book's launch (complete with charts!)

It's all pretty useful information, and gives one a real feel for costs and income—though one month is still pretty early and we can assume the book will continue to earn for some time to come.

[Arthur has also previously talked about self-publishing his backlist as ebooks if that could apply to you.]

You will note that even though Arthur is a critically acclaimed writer (see awards above) such that we can assume the quality of the manuscript is high (reader reviews would seem to confirm this); and even though he has an established readership ready and willing to buy his books, and he is pretty savvey about social media and so on, he didn't exactly sell a billion-zillion copies. I'm guessing that he did about as well in terms of sales the first month as if he had gone to a small press (which would have covered the expenses, but then taken half the net income) so those figures look pretty reasonable to me.

The question then becomes, what are the implications for a new writer?

Well, the most obvious moral is: don't quit your day job. If someone tells you can write a book and make your fortune, and you buy their book or take their course or etc, expecting that to happen, then I'd like to introduce you to my cousin from Nigeria who has this really interesting proposition for you.

The second, perhaps less obvious moral, is that if you're going to do self-publishing right, then you have to be the publisher, and hire the editor, cover artist, and book designer etc for which the publisher normally pays.

I note that Arthur says he paid an absurdly small amount for editing, but that just means that Arthur's manuscript didn't require much actual editing. (I mentioned that he is an award-winning author, right?) New author's can expect to pay more for editing because their manuscripts are likely to require more work, and perhaps several iterations, to get to publishable standards, which therefore requires more hours of editing.

[Professional editors charge between $40- $60/hour, but one can often find colleagues with whom to swap edits, or qualified friends to do some of the initial editing for free, so that the professional editors are not starting from scratch, as it were. Going to a small press is another way to avoid paying out for expensive editing, since editing and cover art and book design and distribution are what the publisher brings to the table—and distribution of ebooks is probably about as easy for you as for them,'s just really about the editing/art/design. (Oh, and publishers may add a layer of branding, assuming they are a credible publisher (like, say, CZP).]

Realistically—which is to say—statistically, most self-published books only sell 5-200 copies, depending how big one's family and circle of friends is, and how aggressively one is prepared to push the book on neighbours and one's church congregation. I'm considering self-publishing my collected short stories, once I have enough published stories to fill a book. I have a bit of a reputation among fans, and people seem to like my stories, so I can allow my ego to daydream about such a collection eventually making sales into the 50 copy range, but I'm no Arthur Slade, so I do not expect to ever match his self-published sales figures. So...we're talking chapbook, we're talking souvenir, we're talking self-fulfillment, but we're not talking about making a living, let alone making one's fortune. You've seen Arthur's figures... feel free to extrapolate that experience to your own situation.