Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Best Submission Guidelines of the Month: Forget Magazine

I often look around for markets for my own short fiction (my novel, obviously, is going to Five Rivers whenever I can get enough time between editing projects to finish the damn thing) and submission guidelines vary from businesslike to um, well, to the ones for Forget Magazine. Funny enough, and flexible enough to almost tempt me to submit something, but I did notice the one thing missing was the mention of any payment, so I am guessing it is a nonpaying market. It's fairly poetry oriented, so that is not entirely surprising: poets have figured out a long time ago that there is no money in writing, so the lack of payment in no way suggests a lack of quality—Forget seems to be attracting top rank poets (I recognize the names of some Governor General award winners, and so on) and it has been around for about a decade, so, you know, a market one has to take seriously. There are short stories and essays too, though, and some of this stuff seems pretty good. I was a bit put off by the explicit rejection in the guidelines of anything featuring spacecats, given that I am at this very moment editing a novel about space cats (Leslie Gadallah's classic Canadian Space Opera, Cat's Pawn, the first in the Empire of the Kaz trilogy, to be reprinted by Five Rivers next December) but it is a market I will definitely look at in the future, their random prejudices notwithstanding. And, no, I don't know why their logo (reprinted above) is upsidedown—just how they roll, I guess.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

CSFFA Hall of Fame Plaque Presented to H. A. Hargreaves

One of the best things I've done since becoming an editor with Five Rivers Publishing, was organizing to have H. A. Hargreaves's pioneering short story collection (the first ever marketed as "Canadian Science Fiction") reprinted. We made the decision to add every SF story he'd written since the original North by 2000 came out in 1976 and so called the new edition, North by 2000+. I wrote a lengthy afterword explaining why Hargreaves' stories were so influential and remain so significant, and also how his Canadian SF was different from the American SF of the time. (Basically, it was the lecture on Canadian SF I had been giving for the previous 30 years, but written down in the same book as most of my examples.)

Lorina (the publisher at Five Rivers) was so impressed with the collection, that she asked to see and subsequently published Hargreaves non-SF collection, Growing Up Bronx —which is an equally wonderful memoir of his childhood, albeit, revealing that the father of a distinctly Canadian genre of SF actually grew up American.

So, it made me distinctly happy to be able to be on hand to present Dr. Hargreaves with the Plaque from the CSFFA inducting him into the Hall of Fame.

Cliff Samuels, CSFFA Awards Co-ordinator (left), Hank Hargreaves (Center), Robert Runté (right)

The Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association's Hall of Fame acknowledges outstanding achievements that contribute to the stature of Canadian science fiction / fantasy. Inductees names are inscribed on a two-sided trophy. The two back-to-back faces are in the spirit of Janus, Roman God of doorways, of decisions and of beginnings and endings. They look forward to the future, as much of Science Fiction always has, and back to the past, which is the home of most of Fantasy. The trophy is currently on display at the Merril Collection of the Toronto Public library.

The male face represents the field of Fantasy with elements of Bacchus, Loki and the Green Man in the wild look and secretive, ironic smile. His helmet is the Knight’s helmet of Classical Fantasy. His wild face reminds us of not only the myths and legends that underlie all literature but also of dark fantasy and all of its eldritch children.

The female face is timeless, a homage to the sub-genre of Time Travel. Her helmet is a retro space helmet, referencing the traditional role of Space in Science Fiction. The retro helmet is also a bow to the sub-genre of Steam Punk, a part of the growing field of Alternate History.

In addition, inductees are presented with a personal plaque with the two engraved images of the trophy's faces. In 2015, three authors were inducted into the Hall of Fame for outstanding lifetime achievements: Dave Duncan, H.A Hargreaves, and Micheal Coney. Michael Coney passed away in 2005 and Dave Duncan received his plaque at a ceremony at VCon 41, Vancouver. Dr. Hargreaves, however, was in hospital and could not receive his plague until now. On Sunday, December 7, 2015, Cliff Samuels, CSFFA Awards Coordinator, and Robert Runté, Senior Editor at Five Rivers Publishing and one of five members of the CSFFA Hall of Fame Selection Committee for 2015, presented Dr. Hargreaves with his plaque at his home in Calgary.

My thanks to Aylson Hargreaves (his daughter) and Lee Hargreaves (his wife) for hosting Cliff and I for the presentation, especially so soon after Dr. Hargreaves was released from hospital. Special thanks to Cliff Samuels for coordinating the presentation, and to Clint Budd and the other Hall of Fame Selection Committee Members.

(Photo of Presentation: Aylson Hargreaves; Trophy Photos from MonSFFA webpage)

Monday, November 30, 2015

In Praise of the Hobby Writer

The wrong attitude—go ahead, try it!

One response to the explosion of vanity self-publishing (as opposed to professional authors choosing to cut out the middle man) is for authors to emphasize the difference between 'professional' authors, and the 'amateur' or 'hobby' writer.

The emphasis on 'professional' is outdated. (Actually 'professional' was never a real thing: read my literature review article on professionalism.) As I argued last post, whether one can make a living as a writer has more to do with being in the right place at the right time than anything else. (This is particularly true for all those early adopters who have written books on how they made millions through social media—none of which tricks are still valid by the time you read about them....) And, as is obvious to anyone flipping through any best seller (e.g.,books by Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, etc) it's often not about the quality of the writing. The hobby writer is as likely—perhaps even more likely—to be a great writer, given that they may not be trying to cash in on the latest trend or reach the widest possible demographic, as do those aiming for the best-seller list. There is nothing wrong with writing and publishing for the art of it, and making a living some other way. Most of the writers I most admire have a day job or the support of an employed spouse.

One of my very favourite writers, and my favourite example of a hobby writer, is H.A. Hargreaves, whose 1976 SF collection was the first ever marketed as "Canadian science fiction". I used his stories to define Canadian SF almost as long as I have been lecturing on the topic (35 years) and he was recently (Oct, 2015) inducted into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. His collection, reprinted and still available as North by 2000+, contains only 15 stories, but it has had a profound effect on Canadian SF, influencing an entire generation of authors that followed. But his biggest influence on me was the realization that hobby writing was okay. Hargreaves was a Professor of English at the University of Alberta, and his academic work kept him too busy to write—except for one week each year he took off to write one story. Not what you'd call a professional level of output. (Contrast that with 2015's other inductee into the Hall of Fame, Dave Duncan, whose recent release, The Eye of Strife, was his 50th published novel.) Nevertheless, over the course of nearly two decades, Hargreave's stories added up, not just to his North by 2000+ collection, but to a significant contribution to the genre.

Hargreaves was clearly not writing for the money, and he was not writing for the lowest common denominator to get on the best seller list; he was writing for himself. What he wrote were some of the finest short SF stories ever, and he pioneered the genre of Canadian science fiction. Each of his stories was originally submitted to John W. Campbell, the leading American SF editor of the time, who rejected each story in turn with a two page letter explaining how the story would have to be rewritten to fit into the pages of Analog. In each case, Hargreaves ignored the rejection, and the advice, and sent the story on to the British magazine New Worlds where it was published as is. Rather than change his story for the American market, Hargreaves stuck to his guns, and created something really new and worthwhile.

I aspire to someday get to the level of a Hargreaves. I am never going to be a full time writer because I could not possibly earn more writing than I did as a professor, and I insist on a better lifestyle than the gentile poverty that defines the life of most of my writer friends. I love writing and editing, and put some effort into getting better at both, but the amount of money available from these activities is not sufficient to take seriously as a career. As a hobby, I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing. As an avocation, writing is something I am passionate about and I hope that I have some talent for. I seem to be able to get whatever I write published, but thanks to other demands on my time, I only seem to average about one or two stories a year.

Quantity and quality are different dimensions, however, and vague ideological terms like 'professional' tend to confabulate these two very different criteria along with the (largely random) criteria of 'sales'. Just because Stephenie Meyer has made more sales and more money than I will ever see, does that necessarily qualify Stephenie Meyer as a better writer than some hobbyist? I don't think so. I'll grant her the status of more influential writer, because far more people have read her writing than those published in SF mags or small press anthologies. I'll happily grant her the status of major writer, because her books have taught a lot of kids (including my then 12 year old) how to read. In spite of my reservations about the Twilight series, realizing that my daughter's lifetime reading page count tripled in the week it took her to read through all the Twilight books, yeah, I owe Stephenie Meyer a lot. You go girl! But is she a better writer than the hundreds of hobby writers I know? Not so much.

I'm on the membership committee of various writers' organizations, and the issue of the hobby writer comes up a lot, especially now that some many people are self-publishing. On the one hand there are those that are trying to keep the organization an exclusive club, defining membership criteria in dollars and cents or copies sold or some other measure of professionalism to keep the vanity self-publishers out. I have some sympathy for this view. I do meet a lot of wannabes who don't qualify in my mind because they are uninterested in learning to write. These vanity self-publishers are motivated by get-rich-quick dreams where readers are supposed to flock to their badly written first drafts and turn over large quantities of cash in return for very little effort. These are the authors who put no effort into learning their craft, who are too incompetent to recognize the extensive flaws in their structures, who care little for grammar or spelling, and who are deaf to feedback that might help them improve. There is little passion for writing in such individuals, just gigantic egos and a craving for fame and fortune.

Such individuals are, however, the minority. A loud, obnoxious minority that gets more than its fair share of attention by virtue of how annoying they can be, but still not the norm.

Most of the hobby writers I meet are NOT vanity self-publishers.

(If you were wondering if I might be bashing you in the preceding tirade, allow me to assure you this is not the case. Anyone who reads obscure posts on writing is by definition not the sort of non-learner to whom I was referring. Further, if you feared even for a moment that I might be talking about you, then by definition you are not that sort of ego maniac.)

Most hobby authors are talented writers trying to hone their craft to produce quality work. I would very much like them to be able to join writers' groups/communities and become part of the conversation. They, like H.A.Hargreaves, have much to contribute to that conversation; to the discourse that is our culture. Excluding them by imposing some arbitrary quantity of sales seems to miss the point entirely. (I would much prefer some test of quality, but fully understand that the subjective nature of the assessment makes such evaluations untenable.) So I would prefer to loosen the criteria to allow more people to participate in the conversation, rather than form a too exclusive club.

Similarly, at writer's conventions (though notably not the case at either When Words Collide or CanCom) I often see a hierarchy imposed on the gathering based on sales....but this completely wrong-headed. The hobby writers are often as interesting and knowledgeable as the full-time, commercially successful writers. New writers tend to flock to the full-time/commercial professionals in hopes of discovering the secret of their success. Since the secret is they hit the trend at exactly the right moment; or they discovered an overlooked audience, or—and this does happen occasionally—they happen to write really well; asking for the secret handshake that gets one into the big publishers rather misses the point. Asking about how to pace a scene; or starting a discussion of whether prologues are ever acceptable; or talking about how to manage the writing process—those are the conversations that help one improve one's writing. And a long-time hobbyist is as likely to have useful comments to contribute to that discussion as the big seller.

So please, let us not confabulate "hobby writer" with either "rank beginner" or "vanity self-publisher". There is nothing wrong with writing part-time. Indeed, Chaucer had a day job (as Minister of Public Works, no less), as did Kafka, and Jorge Luis Borges and Lewis Carroll, and well, pretty much everybody before the pulp era. (And folks, the pulp era is over). Indeed, I would make the argument that the part-timer might be a purer form of the profession, because they are motivated by the need for self-actualization (the 'need' to write) and write according to their own vision, rather than trying to match some commercial formula dictated by the best seller genre. Or, to put it another way, the part-timer is less likely to prostitute their art for filthy lucre..... :-)

Related Posts: Why we published North by 2000+

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Strangers Among Us

Happy to announce my story "Age of Miracles" is included in Strangers Among Us - Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts, edited by Susan Forest and Lukas Law. The anthology "xplores the delicate balance between mental health and mental illness through short speculative fiction". Other authors include such big names as Lorina Stephens (my publisher/boss at Five Rivers!) Hayden Trenholm (author, and publisher at Bundoran Books), Gemma Files, A. M Dellamonica, Edward Willett, Suzanne Church, Ursula Pflug (to whom I've sold stories for both her anthologies), Sherry Peters, Derwin Mak, Erica Holt and a bunch of others with whom I am as yet unfamiliar...but looking forward to reading in this anthology. Looks to be a pretty fascinating reading! Introduction by Julie E. Czerneda

The anthology is also a fund raiser for the Canadian Mental Health Association.

I had a lot of fun writing my story for this anthology, and I immodestly think "Age of Miracles" one of my better stories so far. The anthology will be officially launched August 8, 2016 at When Words Collide Festival in Calgary (at which, coincidentally, I am Editor Guest. I'm told as Editor Guest I get to do a 15 minute reading, so will have to see if I can maybe read this one. Either that, or something that I am writing next August.)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Exile Literary Quarterly

Glad to have made the cover of next issue (Vol.39, number 3) of Exile Literary Quarterly. They reprinted my story, "Hacker Chess" from The Playground of Lost Toys anthology edited by Ursula Pflug and Colleen Anderson. Considering what a fabulous anthology that is, kind of mind-boggled that mine was one of the five stories chosen out of the 22 in the book. But very glad for the extra exposure!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

How Do I Become a Professional Writer?

I am often asked by aspiring writers, especially those with some critical success writing short stories or winning contests, "How do I become a full-time writer?". The short answer is, "You don't."

I don't actually mean that too personally. It's usually not that one is not a good enough writer, it's that that career line simply doesn't exist any more. In the 1920s and 1930s, writing fiction for the pulp market could garner one a decent income. Unfortunately, that pulp market, and the pocketbook market that replaced it, are essentially gone. The few fiction magazines that remain still pay the same rates they were paying in 1930, so it is no longer possible to make a living from writing short fiction; and pocketbooks are pretty much down to a few dozen best sellers. When I started my career, there were 42 different publishers to whom I could send an SF we're down to maybe five. Given that everyone else is submitting to the same five editors, the bar for entry has been raised too high for mortals to cross, and the wait times to even have one's manuscript read (given the thousands of manuscripts submitted to the same five markets), this is simply no longer a viable career option.

For example, out of the three hundred or so published writers I know personally, perhaps three make what one would consider a decent middle class living; another 20 or so live by writing, but consequently live extremely humble lifestyles. For example, I recall one woman—the author of about i5 books at that point—who exclaimed to our writer's group, "Now I'll be able to buy tea!" when a royalty check arrived. I don't know about you, but not being able to afford a box of tea for months at a time does not constitute "making a living" in my books.

Most writers I know have day jobs to support themselves and their families. Many work as technical writers, so that they are still practicing their craft, but computer manuals and political speeches are not what they would 'count' as their actual writing. Others have jobs in unrelated careers, such as 'spouse'. (Though one writer told me lately that she would have married anyone prepare to support her writing, so maybe that is a related career after all.)

To which aspiring writers often retort, "Well those guys (pointing to the best seller counter) make a very good living. How do I get to be one of them?"

You don't. Because it is not enough to be a great writer anymore; you have to be outrageously lucky as well. (Or, you know, deal-with-the-devil seems the only plausible explanation for the success of some writers, but that's beyond the scope of the current post.) Unfortunately, pointing to a successful best-selling author these days and asking how to get there is much like pointing to a lottery winner and asking me how to make a living buying lottery tickets. Yeah, there are folks that worked for because somebody has to win, but I think we're all agreed that if one mortgages their house to buy lottery tickets,they're an idiot. One has a better chance playing for the NHL as a career path than making it to the exalted ranks of best selling author, so most career counselors will recommend having a backup plan to even the best aspiring hockey players.

The good news is that becoming a published writer is easier than it has ever been. Getting into the big five is next to impossible without an agent, and getting a respectable agent to take one on is pretty difficult, but it is possible, provided that one's work is both to that standard and commercial. But there are lots of smaller presses around, which can deliver a fair degree of quality and prestige,if not best-seller scale sales. And if one can't find a publisher to take one, one can always self-publish. (If you're going to self-publish, I suggest starting with Kobo Writing Life, which is an author-friendly interface, run by author and book nerd, Mark Lefebvre.) Seeing one's book in print (and digital) is easy--getting anyone to buy it after, not so much.

Bottom-line: if you're in it for the money, you're likely going to be disappointed. If you're in it for the writing, then happy days.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Editorial Feedback Style

It's kind of fascinating how different authors respond to my—er—style of editing. About 85% of the time I get, "finally, somebody who just comes out and plainly tells me what's wrong"; but 10% complain, "why are you so mean?!" and twice in the last two months I've had clients say, "That's it, I'm quitting writing!" And those were the ones I was trying to be tactful with. (I think I talked one of them out of burning the manuscript and quitting...haven't heard back from the other!)

I often joke that I took early retirement to edit full time because I could be ruder editing authors than grad students... the fact is, after doing this for 25 years, I can usually guess which writers I can be sarcastic with, and which I need to retain a degree of decorum. When an author and I are pretty simpatico, I can relax a bit and edit faster by just saying stuff, 'playful sarcasm' and all. It's actually a lot slower to find 'supportive' ways of saying "this is stupid". (Well, not that I'd actually use the word 'stupid', but you know what I mean.) I can be incredibly supportive when in supportive mode, and I've encountered plenty of grad students/authors over the years who didn't need editing so much as reassurance and morale building. And I happen to be good at that too (as testimonials on my website attest). The problem, then, comes if I guess wrong....

I've had this discussion with other editors, and they all pretty much tell me I should be nice to everybody all the time because you can't take the risk of getting it wrong. They're probably right, since I am painfully aware that writing is hard, we all question our ability all the time, and someone telling us this or that piece of writing sucks can set one back months or worse.

But um.

Here's the thing: I've also gotten a number of manuscripts across my desk that have already been edited, but I couldn't tell. I understand that sometimes novices ask for 'an edit' not understanding the difference between copy editing and structural editing. I get that maybe the editor in question thought the person wanted the grammar and spelling fixed before sending it off to a publisher, and honestly believed that their tactful copy edit was worth the $3500 they charged the client. But personally, I believe it is unethical to copy edit a manuscript that one knows to be terrible. Some of this might reflect in how low regard mainstream editors hold SF (i.e., they did not think the giant ants a problem), but I think most of it is motivated by the fact that freelance editing is a tough way to make a living (a lot like writing!) and taking an novice's money is better than being short on the rent. You know? So at what point does "tactful and supportive" morph into 'exploitative ripoff'? Because I have had half a dozen clients now tell me they have already spent thousands of dollars on several iterations of a manuscript, which when I get it, looks like I'm starting from scratch. And it's not that these writers didn't have any's that no one has told them that giant ants are a no-go, at least not in this way. So when is 'tactful' just out-and-out lying to maintain an income stream?

Vanity presses are tactful and supportive. I'm starting to wonder how much of the freelance editing industry is the new vanity press?

On the other hand...I don't want to scare away potential clients reading this and thinking, "Oh my god, he's admitting he's mean? So a couple of (made-up) examples of my editing style to illustrate what I'm talking about:

1) An author writes: "I expect a few good chuckles and maybe the odd wince."

If I thought the author should use "occasionally" instead of "odd" in that sentence, I might say something like: "Well, your protagonist is odd, so I would expect her to wince about 'occasionally' instead of 'odd''? I think I'm being hilarious, but if it strikes you that I am in fact revealing myself to be a self-indulgent ass, feel free to ask for the 'tactful' editing package.

2) "The good folks at Mall World accepted my proposal."

If I thought that a bit too casual for a formal piece of text, I might say in the track changes "Yes, the bad folks at Mall World were dead against it, but the good ones eventually prevailed." Again, I think I am lightening the mood, but would completely understand if people found that annoying.

Okay, maybe not the best examples I could have chosen but they do sort of represent my style with people I know well. I don't do any as much of that with new authors or ones I don't know.

This is one reason I insist on editing a sample (usually, about 30 pages) for a flat introductory fee ($90) before taking on any new client. That way, the client can see if they like my style of comment (and it's only the cost of a 'first date', if they don't) and whether the feedback they are getting is the type of feedback they want. (Not everybody wants to hear that they have to rewrite.) And, I get to see if the manuscript is one that resonates with me...because there is no point trying to edit a piece I don't 'get'.

Related Post: Five Rivers' Publisher, Lorina Stephens, weighs in on editing style.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Can*Con 2015

I flew out to Ottawa for first time in a decade to take in Can*Con 2015 (The Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature) which is Ontario's version of Calgary's When Words Collide. Can*Con had very much the same vibe as WWC, but was considerably smaller and therefore more intimate. I loved every minute of it.

I started the convention off with a bang by presenting Joe Mahoney with a Five Rivers contract for his book, A Time and A Place. That was scary for both of us, because I hadn't actually finished reading the manuscript, and Joe wasn't sure he didn't want to go with one of the big five.... But I liked what I had read so far, and my editorial assistant at Five Rivers, Kathyrn Shalley, had read it all the way through and recommended we buy it, and there is no point in having an editorial assistant if you don't trust her judgement and let her assist you. (And knowing Joe was either the producer or the story editor on the best SF ever to come out of the CBC didn't hurt either!) For Joe's part, he found himself taken aside by a couple of writers in the consuite who told him, 'if you find an editor who 'gets' your writing, take your book there!" Apparently he thought that good advice!

Joe Mahoney signs with Five Rivers

Considering that these days almost every stage of book publishing, including the negotiations over the contract, are conducted via email, it was a unique pleasure to actually meet and sign in person. An actual paper contract, not a scanned PDF....

Joe and I hung for most of Friday and Saturday, joined by various interesting folk. I met so many authors and editors, some of whom I knew virtually, but many of whom were completely new to me. Of course, that was the point of going out: to show the flag for and Five Rivers; and to spy out the lay of the land.... Some very interesting small press publishers out there. I already knew Bundoran, Dragon Moon and Tyche, of course, though this was the first time I've met Dragon Moon's managing editor, Gabrielle Harbowy. But it was a blast meeting Kristin Hirst (and her Dad) from Pop Seagull, for instance. And so many writers...Sorry CZP had to miss due to illness.

I did a couple of panels (How to Pitch Your Novel, and one on the History of Canadian SF with Jean-Louis Trudel and Allan Weiss; I did three rounds of Five Rivers Pitch sessions; a couple of Blue Pencil Cafés and a reading as part of the mini-launch of Playground of Lost Toys (from Exile Editions). Must confess I was a bit intimidated by readings by Kate Story, Claude Lalumiere, and Mellisa Yuan-Innes whose stories were all completely fabulous, and Derek Newman-Stille's introduction....Had to miss David Hartwell's panel on history of Science Fiction; readings by some other authors I really wanted to hear, but there was just something interesting every hour and I couldn't do it all. I did get to a panel with Ed Willett, Ryan MacFadden, Gabrielle Harbowy based on CBC's "Adults read things they wrote as Kids". It was a pretty awesome time — though Ed Willett's voice can make anything sound fabulous...

The con was very well organized. Trains all ran on time. I really liked the design of the Blue Pencil Workshops / Publisher's Pitch sessions which were set up in an area where one volunteer (three cheers for Kerri Elizabeth Gerrow) was able to run all four sessions simultaneously. And registration was not just hyper efficient (e.g., tracking me down to correct the error printed on my panel schedule so I could be where I was supposed to be...), they were also totally enthusiastic — all smiles all the time.

The Sheraton as the venue worked well for me. I heard some grumbling over the cost of the restaurant, the lack of alternative places to eat nearby, but I personally really liked the hotel restaurant. I guess the food was bit pricey, but worth it. I don't mind paying when the quality is there: best steak sandwich in a long time.

Did lots of work for Five Rivers, got a couple of potential customers for, and totally enjoyed myself.

I'll try to get back next year. Highly recommend the Can*Con to any writer/editor/etc out there.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Quote of the Week: On trends in the Publishing Industry

[Concluding a detailed analysis of sales figures, & rankings in different categories, for various equivalent titles on Amazon]:

"What does any of it mean? I think that chaos is alive and the natural order of the universe."

— Lorina Stephens, Publisher, Five Rivers

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Writing Kids into Your Novel

Do you have characters — or stickfigures

Years ago I attended a presentation by Emmy-winning author, Sean Stewart, in which he explained why there were no children in SF. It is, he said, extremely tricky to keep the action going and the tension up if the heroine running down the corridor is trailed by a toddler saying "Are we there yet, Mommy?" or "I don't like the Death Star, Mommy! I want to go home!" every ten feet. (I thought this terribly funny at the time, but found it less so when I subsequently had children of my own, and recalled Sean's description as my five-year-old kept punching me every 30 seconds because we were stuck in an hour-long line up at customs one 3AM flight, and she couldn't understand why I wouldn't let her leave.) Kids and action adventure stories do not make an easy mix.

Challenged by Sean's talk, I chose to include a 9 year-old in my own first novel—which may partly explain why my first novel took so long to finish. Although a key factor in a couple of scenes, figuring out what to do with the kid for the rest of the book was ridiculously difficult. Arranging for various babysitters to show up so my hero(s) could go adventuring without him wore thin pretty fast, and the biggest flaw my editor identified in my preliminary draft was that I had simply forgotten about the kid for five chapters while the main characters dealt with their current crisis. "And where is her son when all this is happening?" came to be the one editorial comment I dreaded most during revisions. So yeah, I don't recommend including child characters in an action novel unless one is a glutton for punishment.

The biggest problem I see with child characters coming across my desk as an editor, is authors getting the ages wrong. As any parent knows, there are huge gaps in sophistication between an infant, a toddler, a grade 1, a grade 4, and a grade 7. When one has an infant of one's own, one can accurately peg the age of other infants to within a few weeks. By the time our child is in grade school, our accuracy is down to being able to say if a newly encountered child is the grade above or below our own: a mere six weeks makes no difference developmentally, but a year's difference is still sufficiently significant to be obvious. As kids grow up, age becomes increasingly unimportant, with some teenagers, for example, presenting with greater maturity than many of the adults one encounters. As our own children age, our ability to remember what characteristics go with which age becomes less precise, because that knowledge is no longer relevant to our daily lives—at least not until our children start delivering grandchildren.

Writers, however, need to get this right. If one gives a nine year-old character the dialog of a five-year-old, one's adult readers might not notice—it's just a kid talking—but a nine-year-old reader will find it infuriating. It is not just not credible to that young reader; it is highly insulting to discover the author has so little regard for nine year-olds—whose self-image is that of a grown up / sophisticated almost-adult, definitely not to be confused with a five year-old child. That the writer could make such a fundamental mistake is to them an insurmountable barrier to finishing the book, no matter how good otherwise. Could you finish a book that gave the character of a Sudanese immigrant an Irish brogue? If the author can't get the dialect right, how is the reader to take anything in the novel as credible?

Most authors know better than to attempt depicting an accent they are not themselves intimately familiar with, but I am astonished at how frequently they will assign dialog or actions inconsistent with a character's age when depicting children. If one is writing a YA novel, for example, the younger siblings in the novel had better behave in a credible way, or the YA readers will throw the book across the room in disgust. YA readers have a much more accurate estimation of maturation levels than most adults because they either have actual siblings that age, or have best friends with siblings that age; and if they cannot picture their little brother or sister saying or doing that, the story loses all credibility. I don't understand authors who spend months researching police procedure or forensic evidence or the astronomical details of their SF setting, but are three years off the mark in depicting the reactions of a ten year-old. If one doesn't currently have a ten year-old in one's household, or a convenient nice or nephew, then why even have that character in the novel? If there is some compelling reason to add a child, do your research: go find some kids that age to talk to. One needs to put at least as much research into that character as one would any other element of the novel.

I started with a seven year-old in my novel...but have revised the age upward with each subsequent draft as my own youngest matured, because the only sure test I have ever had for the credibility of that character was to ask, "Is this something my kid might actually say/do in these circumstances?" Of course, not living on a starship, I have to do a certain amount of extrapolation, but at least I'm determined to be in the right ballpark in terms of maturation. Am shocked and appalled how often this is not the case with many of the manuscripts that cross my desk.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Being Strategic: Writing for Specific Markets

Cover for Playground of Lost Toys, edited by Connie Anderson and Ursula Pflug

My story, "Hacker Chess" which appears in Playground of Lost Toys scheduled for Dec 1, 2015 release, is a good example of writing for a specific market.

When the call for submissions originally came out for Playground I didn't have anything to hand, or even any ideas for a story I could possibly submit. It was pretty much a topic to which I didn't relate. So, I ignored the call and wrote a story for a different anthology that fit nicely with a couple of the stories on my "in-my-head-and-should-really-write-down-one-of these-days" list. I sent that story off, although I was not completely satisfied with it's ending.

I subsequently wrote a second story I liked even better for that other anthology, but when I ran it past my personal editor (naturally, I never submit anything anywhere that hasn't first been edited) she said, "Hey, this is pretty good. Why don't you submit it to Anderson and Pflug for their anthology, since you're already got that other one in for the first anthology?" And because it is always a good idea to listen to your editor, I did that, even though I didn't see how it even remotely fit their theme at all. And lo and behold, they rejected it by return email because, as they correctly pointed out, it didn't remotely fit their theme. But--here's where things start getting interesting--they thought the story 'clever' and asked if I would rewrite it to make it fit the theme.

I thought about that, and played around with the story a bit to see if I could make it fit. But every time I tried to change something, the whole thing fell apart. So, bad news was there was no way I could bend that story into shape to fit Playground; the good news was that in looking closely at that story again, I realized I could improve the ending to make it both more optimistic and more realistic. I then sent "Age of Miracles" off to the other anthology which bought it (though it's TOC hasn't been officially announced yet, which is why I'm being coy about calling it "the other anthology".)

Which left me with the predicament that I had a couple of editors who actually liked my writing (indeed, Ursula had already bought another of my stories for her previous anthology, They Have to Take You In) and no story for them. So I looked again at the initial call for submissions and at all of their subsequent posts talking about the kinds of stories they were getting as opposed to the kind they actually wanted, and I sat down and wrote the story they said they wanted.

I have to say, that was one of the fastest I have ever managed to write something, because having a specific target made it really, really easy to focus. And I was very happy with the result. Indeed, when I made my daughter read it she was sufficiently impressed to say, "Hey, this is actually really good." (Which, you know, I still can't decide if I should be complimented by her enthusiasm, or insulted by her surprise.) But thus reassured, and with the blessing of my regular editor, I submitted it to Colleen and Ursula.

Who promptly rejected it. They still wanted me to rewrite "Age of Miracles". I thought this one was at least as good as "Age of Miracles", and more on target, but the writer's opinion is not the one that counts in these situations. I had to confess to them that I couldn't make "Age of Miracles" work for their theme and had already sold it elsewhere, so that left me just a day and a half to come up with something else before Playground's final deadline for submissions.

Carefully analyzing what they had liked about "Age of Miracles" and what wasn't working for them in the second story (well, it did take awhile to get to the toy part), I wrote "Hacker Chess" in less than 10 hours. That's an all time record for me. But having a very clear idea of the target and a tight deadline seemed to focus the process wonderfully: no time for the usual angst, no wandering off message, no obsessive rewriting...just a quick turn around from my regular editor assuring me it was up to my usual standard.

I hope you like the result.

Writing for a specific market, then, has the advantage of knowing exactly what the target is, which may both speed and focus the process. The downside is, if you miss, there is nowhere else for those stories to go.

Let's face it, no one wants to publish a story someone else has already rejected (because what would that imply about one's standards?); and even if one were open-minded enough to realize that a story may be rejected because it didn't quite fit the editors' theme rather than for questions of quality, it's quite likely other venues in that genre are going to be inundated by stories on that theme from all the rejected submissions. An editor can only take one dinosaur or flying saucer or 'toy' story per annum, so when 25 toy-themed stories come in the month after Playground closes, only one of those has even a theoretical chance of seeing publication. In reality, once the editor realizes that 25 toy stories are not a coincidence, quite likely to have an allergic reaction to them all.

So I now have two stories in my inventory with nowhere to go. Luckily, the story I wrote specifically for Playground was sufficiently mainstream there's a chance I can pass it off as CanLit. Consequently I shot it off to a mainstream lit mag hoping that its editors sufficiently removed from the genre scene not to instantly recognize it as a Playground reject, and the market sufficiently removed that it won't be the first choice of other rejected Playground writers. If that doesn't work, I'll have to tuck it into a drawer for a couple of years until the flow of other toy stories has ebbed, and it's safe to bring it out again.

The leftover story from the other anthology is probably too odd to go elsewhere with ease. It is part of a larger world I'm developing, so I might just have to wait to incorporate in that collection/novel; or wait for the second volume in that anthology series, should the editors/publisher think there is potential market for a second collection. (I think there is, because fascinating topic, but having a story in hand on the topic may be biasing me.)

One's other option, of course, is to enter the leftover stories in contests, such as the Merril. The Friends of the Merril contest is particularly good one because it has (1) low entrance fees, (2) excellent judges, (3) significant prize money, (4) they accept simultaneous submissions (5) they aren't asking for publishing rights, and (6) the proceeds go to a really good cause, which I would support anyway. Oh, and you get a free Lovecraftian e-book just for entering this year, which is pretty sweet if you're into that at all. Again, danger of the judges being overwhelmed with stories addressing the same theme, but at least my Playground reject has the advantage of being off topic rather than being yet another doll story. Downside, of course, is a lot of tough competition for the one winning spot.

Front and back covers, with backcover blurb.

I would, on the whole, count the experience of targeting specific anthologies a positive one. Two sales to top anthologies (seeing the TOC, I'm pretty happy with whom I am rubbing shoulders!) feels pretty good, and I was slightly amazed at how much easier and faster my process given a clear target. Instead of being a constraint, writing to a theme turned out to be strangely freeing. I recommend giving it a try next time you see a call for submissions, even if the topic at first glance is not one for which you have an idea to hand.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

In Acquisition Editor Mode...

Signed a new author for Five Rivers yesterday that I've been stalking for a long time.... So happy! Brilliant, brilliant book. I'm sure it will be the author's breakout novel; just the best thing I've read in years.

Adrianne Kerr (editor of Commercial Fiction at Penguin Canada) said on a panel a couple of conventions ago that acquisition editors these days can't just sit at their desks and wait for great manuscripts to come in over the transom, they were increasingly expected to go out and find them. I thought she just meant combing the big sellers among the self-published novelists for something that might be worthy of bookstore distribution, but I think now she maybe meant something a little more complicated... I know it took me a long time and very deep roots in the speculative genre to hunt down this book. The manuscript had been sitting in the author's bottom drawer for years. Finding that...feels like the greatest coup since Carr scored Rite of Passage for his Ace Specials series. So feeling pretty good today!

And if that wasn't the end of a perfect day, next up on my agenda, editing a brand new Dave Duncan novel! Whoohoo!

And three more solicited 'possibles' sitting on the editorial assistant's desk, awaiting her judgement; a nonfiction monograph due back in from revisions at end of the month; and the first of a two book deal with another new writer who hung onto the movie rights because, yeah, that one could be a successful movie....

Never thought there could be a better job than professoring...but editor is giving it a good run for the money....

(cartoon source)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Word on the Street, Lethbridge 2015

Robert Runté, Barb Geiger and Nuzreth Hussain at Five Rivers / / Editors Canada Table.

This year I took a table at Word on the Street, Lethbridge, because, why not, eh? I divided the table up: half for a book display from Five River Books; half for Editors Canada (formerly, The Editors Association of Canada), and a bit in the middle with business cards and an 8X11 sheet for

Editors Canada/Bluepencil Café I had the Editors Canada banner and flyers left from last year's WoS and at Barb Geiger's suggestion, organized a Bluepencil café at that end of the table with a couple of extra chairs I brought from home. People signed up for 15 minute live edits of the first two-three pages of their manuscripts with one of the local members of Editors Canada and/or Barb (since she was sitting there and is arguably the best fiction editor of us all). We had almost no publicity for the bluepencil café because I only decided to take a table at the last minute and so didn't get into the WoS usual publicity channels, just a single post on Facebook, but we still had a decent number of takers: eight or nine I think, though not all of them remembered to sign the sheet. That was loads of fun, particularly in those instances where we had an opportunity to have more than one editor provide feedback. I was somewhat in awe of Barb, for example, who nailed in one phrase what I had been fumbling around trying to say for the last five minutes of my session with one client. The idea of the Bluepencil café, of course, was to both give people a sense of what editors do and could do for them (i.e., free samples!) and some feedback on their work from a professional editor. I was mostly able to provide positive feedback, since most of the hopefuls who show up at WoS are already members of a writers group etc. so well on their way to a decent second or third draft. I particularly enjoyed providing feedback to the three or four 18 year olds, since it is very hard for them to get a sense of where they are at, since one cannot trust what mothers and peers think of one's work. Always pleased to see work from the next generation, because gives me a lot of hope and refutes the oft heard assertion that the next generation is illiterate, and so on. Some promising work there. Gives one hope.

The most fun was talking to people interested in maybe joining Editors Canada. Editing is a lonely profession, since most people don't understand what we do and we often work in isolation out of home offices etc, so it was great fun to meet others doing that work locally. We had the associate editor from the local magazine come by, a couple of freelancers, a couple of people who edit theses; and remarkably, an editor who had just this week been hired to start work doing French-English translation for the UN in NY--pretty much the pinnacle of the profession. I've really enjoyed the coffee sessions with the local Editors Canada group, because there is a lot of mutual moral support over difficult clients, obscure editing issues and the general invisibility of the work.

I have also offered to organize proper bluepencil cafés at the library if they'd like to have that as ongoing programming, so we'll see hif they take us up on that. There is a lot of programming for the arts in Lethbridge, but not as much for the written word as one might hope, so maybe we can get something going.

Five Rivers Publishing Given this was a last minute impulse, I didn't bother shipping in boxes of books to sell,just had my personal copies on display. I stupidly forgot the bag with the bookstands, half the signage, etc at home, so the display was not as spiffy as I had envisaged, but even laid out flat on a table, it was a lot of books for a small press, and I was pleased with the effect.I hoped having the "Display Only" signs up would translate to "no pressure here", since I am well aware that attendees often stay 20 feet away from the tables at such events, lest they have to buy something. A number did pick up this or that book (a lot of positive feeback on our covers) and a few took our card and wrote down the titles of books, so that might translate to a few sales down the road.

The table to my right (Champange Books) sold a case or two, making the trip from High River worthwhile; one of her authors was present at the event, so books sold to people wanting to get them signed. In contrast, The table to my left, a group of six who had travelled from a distant corner of BC, sold not a single copy I could see.... That's pretty much our experience of these sorts of events: unless one is already a known quantity, one is not going to sell much of anything. One needs to be part of the readings, etc. to get any audience interest. What might work for the future, is for three small publishers to get together and organize readings in our shared tent. I could see that working. People are more likely to buy one's books if one can get a sample.... There is not a lot to display for my own company, beyond a one page sign and some business cards, but a number of people did talk to me about being edited, and if I get even a single client out of those conversations, that would certainly pay for the table and my time there. Although mildly optimistic about a couple of potential contracts, I would be fine if nothing came of it because it was a very enjoyable day, thanks to having a chance to talk to Barb (a former editor with Five Rivers, left now to be a full-time writer), the other local members of Editors Canada, and passerbys (all of whom are, by definition, interested in reading, if not writing and editing).

I cannot speak to the readings or performances at Word on the Street proper, since I was pretty much anchored to my own table the whole time, but others brought reports that suggested the event was a success. The event has certainly grown over the last few years and whatever bugs there were the first year have certainly been ironed out by now. A worthwhile event and one I might well take a table at again next year.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Pluto Flyby

Is it just me, or is this obvious:

Pluto flyby reveals true nature of what we used to think of as our 9th planet.

Monday, August 31, 2015

What editor's do

Most of the editing I do at is necessarily confidential, so I obviously can't post examples on my blog. So I am always pleased when I stumble across examples of typical editing that authors post to illustrate the process. Award-winning Canadian YA author, Arthur Slade, has two excellent posts that illustrate typical interactions with one's editor. Whoever these editors are, their style is pretty similar to my own, though it never occurred to me until I saw the second post here that one could upload photos to the "comments" section.

Typical page of editor's markup on a 'finished' manuscript:
See My Editor Tear My Work to Shreds


My Editor Says These Two Words I Use Make Kitties Cry

Slade, if you are not already familiar with his work, is a fabulous writer. I often assign his novel "Tribes" in my education classes, for example, but all his series are wonderful.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Editor Guest of Honour at When Words Collide / Canvention 36

I am deeply honoured to have been chosen as the Editor Guest of Honour for the When Words Collide Festival (Calgary), August 12-14, 2016; which is also that year's Canvention, the Canadian national SF&F convention at which the Aurora Awards are presented. Previous Editor GoHs at WWC have included Adrien Kerr (Editor of Commercial Fiction at Penguin Canada) and super literary agent, Sally Harding, so I feel I am in very distinguished company.

I have been Fan GoH at various conventions back in the 1980s and 90s, culminating in Fan Guest of Honour at the Worldcon, but this is the first time I've been invited as a pro Guest, so that's pretty special to me. I had always dreamed of being a pro GoH, though back in the 80s I assumed that it would be as a writer, not an editor. (But apparently, you have to actually finish your novel to qualify as an author guest.... as I have admitted many times, editing a novel is a lot easier than writing one.)

I find it fascinating how many of the fans I did zines with back in the 80s have subsequently gone on to become pros. We were just kind of goofing around, but I can count four with published novels, two who became editors, and one who became a prominent book designer. I can't help wondering if Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr will produce the same % of next generation authors....

Anyway, excited but a little intimidated by the opportunity--Sally Harding's GoH speech at this year's WWC was wonderful: funny, insightful, and uplifting. Tough act to follow!

I'll do my best.

Monday, August 17, 2015

When Words Collide Festival Report

When Words Collide (Calgary) convention was once again wildly successful, with great programming, wonderful Guest of Honour speeches, and 650 wonderful-to-meet-and-talk-with attendees. Small enough convention to feel 'intimate', but large and diverse enough that one constantly learn new things. The cross-genre format of WWC leads to a lot of cross-pollination. (For example, the launch of Sleuth at WWC this year, a new mystery magazine from the people who have put out On Spec SF&F magazine for the last 25 years. Would that have happened if there hadn't been a WWC to bring those folks together?

Five Rivers author, Susan Bohnet, reading from My Life as a Troll at WWC.

Highlights for me of 2015 edition were:

  • Robert Sawyer presentation: I've always made a point of getting to Rob's sessions and have heard him many times at various conventions over the years, but every time he manages to deliver something completely new and insightful. This time he talked about lessons learned over his 25 year career, and aside from some wonderful anecdotes, he drew out a half dozen extremely useful morals for any writer, including:
    • Don’t try to write for everyone; write for that narrow section of the market for which you are their favorite author. The example he gave was that every writer's workshop tells you to avoid 'info dump'. But Rob's fans love information, so info dumps in Rob's writing is not a mistake, something he and his editor missed, but a requirement. (Kind of a revelation for me. It's not a bug, it's a feature! Sorry for ever doubting you man!)
    • Avoid Parawriting Activities. Rob gave several examples of how writers get so wrapped up in being writers--volunteering for writing organizations, giving talks on writing, tweeting out writerly tweets--that they forget to write. You're a writer when you're writing; everything else is distraction. [I'll add the industry standard here is that writers should schedule 10% of their time for community development to give back, and to develop the community of readers necessary to sustain the industry (e.g., school readings.) I don't think Rob was talking about that (since he does more to help new writers than most people I know) but was saying not to get carried away.]
    • Closely related, stay off line. Okay to tweet when one has a new book release, but otherwise it is a trap. Good advice, but like dieting, difficult to follow.
    • Sawyer has done 350 TV and 350 radio interviews so far (and he noted that it was interesting both media were neck and neck here.) What publishers look for is someone who can get "off the book-page coverage". Appearing on book review page is not that helpful because nobody is actually reading that page. So, to get off the bookpage onto the news, you need to write about the hot topics so can be interviewed about that topic every time it comes up. The strategy obviously works for Sawyer, not sure it would work for me. It also helps if you have some journalistic/media background and a good voice like Rob.
    He had more to say, but those were the highlights for me personally.

    Marie Powell reading from Hawk at Random Readings session.

  • Mark Leslie Lefebvre Director of Kobo's Writing Life program: Again, I always seek out his sessions because he has access to current insider data on publishing trends. Where the rest of us try to guess what's hot, he can tell you down to the nickel (or yen, or Euro) what's selling and what's not; how different price points affect sales; whether "free first in series" promotions work; where books sell—with the very clear message that we have to stop just looking to the US in a global market; and so on. I also greatly appreciate his honesty in weighing out the relative benefits of traditional/smallpress/self-publishing, and similarly, the relative merits of Kobo/Kindle/Amazon etc. But really, it you're going to self-publish, Kobo's Writing Life is the place to start. (I had known of Lefebvre before Kobo recruited him, and I said to anyone who would listen, that was the smartest hiring decision ever made by any corporation. A writer and booknerd of the first order, he is on the authors' side, and as a former Chapters manager and former manager of the McMaster University bookstore, the guy understands authors, booksellers and consumers better than anyone else in the country –including 'Heather'. When I finally met him in person at an early WWC, I discovered he is also a really great guy.)

  • Marie brought cookies!

  • Five Rivers Book Launch: Marie Powell's Hawk and Nowick Gray's Hunter's Daughter. I had ten copies of Nowick's book, and a bunch of other recent 5R titles, but only 3 copies of Marie's Hawk made it to the conference. Disappointed, but at least we had a copy to hold up and one for a photo-op of "first copy sold". Attendance was down from last year, but not unexpected given that the new WWC venue allowed for several additional streams of programming with which launches had to compete. I understand the other publishers had a similar decline in launch attendance. We might want to move to a different format for next year. But we can hardly fault WWC for being too interesting....
  • 5R Book Launch: Robert Runté (left); Nowick Gray (center); Marie Powell (right)

  • Meeting Jill Cabrera, Five Rivers Social Media / Promotions staffer, in person. In this day and age of virtual corporations, we have staff members in four different cities, so pretty great to actually spend time at same event. Jill came down from Edmonton to help out with the 5R book launch and other 5R promotions.
  • Similarly, great to welcome Kim Greyson to 5R editorial team. Kim is taking over editing of the PM of Canada series. I met Kim at a previous WWC, and through those conversations realized he was perfect candidate for our new editor position. Kim has previously been a first reader for authors such as Dave Duncan as long as I have, and done some freelance editing for Tor.
  • Seeing Sandra Kusturi and Brett Savory from CZP press again and getting to have breakfast with them and CZP author GMB Chomichuk. I bought Chomichuk's graphic novel, and he kindly drew original cartoon on the flyleaf of his interpretation of CZP logoguy. Sooo coooool!

    Photo by Brett Savory

  • I was on the publishers panel along with Mark Lefebvre (who moderated), Sally Harding (this year's editor guest of honour and super agent!), and Romance acquisitions editor,Danielle Rayner, from the Southern California. Nice diverse group there, but best moment for me was when Stacey Kondla spoke up from the audience to challenge something I had said. I love it when I learn something new, and clearly what I 'knew' was out-of-date. (In my defence, everything any of us knows about publishing is out of date by the time we say it a second time, so, yeah: why one needs to attend WWC to stay current.) But such a collegial environment,
  • I did two bluepencil café sessions and was impressed by overall quality of what I was seeing. Told two of those attending to send me manuscripts if they were interested, they were that good. My experience has been that the quality of writing of those attending WWC improves every year, either because in attracting more out-of-province writers, those tend to be more experienced writers; or because, the regular attendees are getting to be better writers thanks to what they're learning at WWC.
  • I sat on the Early Bird Live Action Slush session, wherein authors anonymously submit first page of a story/novel, and a reader (in this case the fabulous voice of author Edward Willett) reads out the page while the panel of editors listens. Each editor then raises their hand when they would have stopped reading because the number of problems had reached critical mass to move the manuscript to the 'reject' pile. The reader stops reading when 3 of the 4 hands goes up. (Sort of like the gong show if you're old enough to remember that.) Of course, the object is for one's page to get through with no hands up, at which point author has option of claiming ownership and taking a bow. The point of the panel, of course, is to show authors common mistakes they're making and the sorts of things that drive editors crazy; but also to see that what one editor hates, the next might be fine with (so pick carefully to whom you are submitting your manuscripts.) Was slightly embarrassed that one of the manuscripts I trashed turned out to be by one of my own author's, but it was okay because she was aware this new piece had problems, was hoping panel could articulate what that might be. (I can see the problem, but am at a loss how to fix it. Sometimes writers come up with issues I'm not good enough to fix because they are, frankly, challenging themselves to reach a level above my own ability. Which is why you want a press with more than one editor....Lorina is the one who edits this author.)

  • Five River's author, Candas Jane Dorsey, was at WWC, but everyone was focused on her too cute dog.

  • Had a pitch session. Five minutes is too short to really make a decision, so have asked these be lengthened to 12 minutes in future; Randy said he may give publishers the choice in future of 12 or 5 minute format, since others have expressed preference for 5 minutes. Again, high quality pitches, with me asking to see several manuscripts. Several others who had been on the waiting list and not made the session pitched to me in the hallway to same effect.
  • Attended several readings, particularly of new writers so I can monitor who is being published by whom, and to scout possible authors I might want to work with. Really love the 15 minute "random readings" session, because cram a lot of newly published writers into 3 hour slot.
  • I love WWC because I get a lot of work done there. In addition to the 15 or so pitches from authors, I sought out five other authors and asked for them to pitch. (I had asked to see a sixth, but stupidly forgot to hit 'send', so found my email still sitting there that evening when I got back to my room—wondered why she hadn't responded.) I look to get four to five book deals out of the weekend, plus some tentative discussions about setting up an audiobook cooperative; plus talking to two of my authors about how their books were coming; plus sitting down with the coeditors of an anthology to which I've submitted to talk about the changes they wanted to my story; and taking to two other editors about my submitting to their respective magazine/anthology. So yeah, very productive weekend. I calculate that I get about six months worth of deals/work every WWC. And that's all on top of how much I enjoy the conference personally.

  • Five Rivers author, Susan MacGregor, at When Words Collide 2015.

    There were also the panels I hated to miss but had to, either because I was myself on a panel/giving a workshop, or because I didn't know how great it was going to be until after I heard other people rave. An example of the latter was workshop on "How to do a Chapters/Indigo book signing session" by Chapters manager, Stacey Kondla. Talk about useful!

    Fail: Of course, not all panels out of a three day, 11 track program can be wonderful. I knew better than to attend a session entitled "Readability" (because fundamentally a wrong-headed concern) but colleagues that did were shocked and appalled by presentation based on rhetorical questions with predetermined (and largely wrong) answers, rather than, you know, actual data. Well, in a democracy everyone is welcome to their own opinions, so no criticism of the WWC programming here: I wouldn't want them to censor out this presenter just because I think she represents the forces of darkness. (Well, the forces of stupidity, but you get my point.) I do worry a bit that beginning authors will be taken in by such self-styled experts. My personal opinion is that dumbing down your writing will not increase sales, but on the contrary, means that editors like me will simply reject your work before it can see print. Pretty obvious to me that people who accept rules like "only five semicolons in a manuscript" end up doing vanity self-publishing. But, you know, your mileage may vary.

    It raises a point that author Barb Geiger has made to me: if you go to craft fairs, it's not the crafters who make sales, it's the guys selling the beads to the hobbyists who rakes in the cash. I think we're seeing the same phenomenon in publishing these days. The people who are selling 20,000 copies of their self-published books are not the novelists, but the people writing books entitled, "How I Sold 20,000 of My Self-Published Book". You know?

    So all in all, WWC was and is a fabulous convention I cannot praise too highly.

    Robert Runté talking to WWC Board Member, Cliff Samuels, at Dead Dog party (i.e., after convention party, last night of festival.) Photo by Kirstin Morrell.

    Sunday, July 19, 2015

    The Life of An Editor 11 year-old is having trouble getting to sleep one night, so I offer to sit with her until she is asleep. I bring my computer so I won't be bored and so she can't talk to me when she should be trying to get to sleep. And I'm doing my email, because that's the sort of not-having-to-concentrate work you do when you're in a dark room waiting for your 11 year-old to finally fall asleep, when I get an email from horror writer JW Schnarr...which I open to see this:

    ...which not something you want your 11 year-old to see last thing before she goes to sleep, particularly since you're there because of the potential monsters under the bed. I yank the computer screen to face the other way before she sees it, and of course that motion causes her to sit up and ask what is wrong and etc., and I'm trying to think of how to explain why there is a man eating a leg on my computer screen, when I realize she has a sleep mask on and couldn't have seen anything anyway.


    I calm her down again, and then turn to replying to Schnarr's email. My problem is, I had asked Schnarr to send me a photo for a poster I was doing for Five Rivers Publishing featuring a number of authors, Schnarr included, because he had objected to my using this photo:

    Now, I had assumed he vetoed this one because it was too aggressive, particularly in a poster featuring the smiling, approachable head-and-shoulder photos of the other authors. But apparently I was completely wrong, and he had objected because it was too tame. I forgot that horror writers do not see the world quite like you or I.

    So, I wrote back saying that he had perhaps misunderstood the purpose of the poster, which was to help attendees at the When Words Collide Festival recognize Five River authors to make them more approachable, and not, as he apparently believed, a wanted poster to scare people away. I further explained that sending me such photos as I sat with my afraid-of-the-dark 11 year-old was counter-productive, vis-a-vis getting her to sleep. To which he replied:

      Definitely not "calm down and go to sleep, there are no monsters" material.

      My daughter was brought up on a slightly different strategy. The "Yes there are monsters, and they are hiding under your bed waiting for you to get up or make some noise, so they can drag you away into the darkness..." strategy.

      Worked like a charm! My kid NEVER got out of bed!

    Did I mention horror writers see things very differently?

    I should clarify that Schnarr is in reality one of the nicest guys I ever met, and I've met his daughter who seems a well-adjusted, creative teenager.

    JW Schnarr will be at When Words Collide Festival, Calgary, August 14-16, 2015, along with six other Five Rivers Publishing authors and two 5R staff.

    Monday, June 8, 2015

    Barbara Geiger on
    the Secret of Good Writing

    I asked Barbara if I could reprint this column on the secret to good writing because what she had to say resonated strongly with me as both a writer trying to fix my own novel, and as an editor trying to fix everyone else's. Words to live by folks.
    It's really stupid, and I'm sure it's common knowledge to some, but it was hardwon for me. If you're asking someone to pay their after work and social obligations time and their after taxes and fixed expenses money, you're providing a service like any other person out there who has something and wants money for it. If that's the case, your story has to be worth something, and that something has to be as much entertainment as what that ten dollars and four hours *could* be doing.

    Which means not only do you have to catch the attention of the pre-reader with the kind of character, problem and world that from page one is going to make the exhausted, underpaid and over-worked intern think that she wants her boss to come back from lunch so she could share this amazing ______, which doesn't have to be the best _______ out there, it has to just tell from the very beginning why it's going to be different from every other _____ out there. But then, after the amazing beginning, you need to leave a trail of bread crumbs, from about every 1000-1500 words that you can point out to your ideal reader and say *this. This part is going to tickle you*.

    And then follow the formula where every single time you don't know what to do, or you find your main characters just leaning around and talking, you throw the worst possible thing at them. You need to have all the parts line up and it needs to say something about the world that when someone asks you what's it about, you can say "it's about overcoming your fate and crushing all those who oppose you" rather than "it's a girl who does stuff." And when all of *that* comes together (you know, just pluck the ace of spades out of a card deck eleven times in a row) you've got a great story.

    Which is like saying...lose weight by diet and moving more. We all know *what* we have to do, but I've found ways of figuring out *how* to make sure all of those are done in a way that other people think I've accomplished the same goal. Which is the 90% of the problem I was talking about. I'd thought I knew all the cheats around so I didn't have to eat less and exercise more, but then I figured out for *me* at least, the best way to lose weight is to do the obvious things. Some people plunge into an ice pool and use SCUBA gear to breathe because being cold burns more energy. I don't know if that works just as well, but yeah. I figured out that the things people have been telling me since the beginning were, no fooling, the only way I figured out how to write after fifteen years. I'm not saying I'm the brightest person out there, but learning to know that you need to learn how to know to write is again, 90% of the battle.

    And the how just do it. We talk about writing as though the answers are multiple choice and we just need to recognize the work when we see it. That's the lowest level of "knowing" how to do something. There are five or six, but it ends with synthesizing new things from what we know about two different things. So the "how" is to show your work that you know the rules of writing. Life is long answer format.

    Start with a main character who has a problem. You don't need to know the iceberg level of the problem, you need to see what the tip the MC says. Characters who see the whole issue are like the AI characters in the Two Towers who were smart enough to look at the problem and run in the opposite direction. Big problems need big pay grades. Small problems need characters who just need to step out of their life momentarily.

    Then as they figure out what the problem is, so do you. You're learning what they're learning, then as soon as you know what the iceberg problem is, in your rewrite you rewrite it like you knew what the whole problem was from the very beginning and as soon as you know what your character doesn't, it's really easy to provide the clues in the rewrite to the audience.

    Another thing I see a lot as an editor is the talented youngster who fails to fulfill their promise. I like what Barbara has to say about that too:

    I remember how absolutely sure I felt in my 20's that I was doing absolutely nothing wrong and that the last thing I needed to do was learn how to write. I thought I just needed to be discovered. Coming to the realization that what I was writing wasn't very good and that I had to learn how to write in my thirties was a major shock to the system. So many writers, like me, had started life just a little bit wiser than most--which makes you brilliant at 17 and so stupid at 27--if you've never had to learn that that little bit of extra you started with is just a drop in the pan to what's possible when you put your mind to it.

    I can relate to that, only just add a few decades to the ages given. Just now starting to get a glimmer of maybe how to start writing stories that work--most of which I learnt by editing other people and then turning around and saying, "Oh wait, I screwed that up in exactly the same way!"

    As Barbara would say, if you're not selling, learn to write better.

    Saturday, May 2, 2015

    Ruth Rendell Obituary

    BBC news this morning carries obituary of Ruth Rendell, dead at age 85. She was a much beloved and highly successful mystery author, but I have to say that I loved hearing that her career as a novelist started when her career as a journalist ended with a huge FAIL:
    "Rendell began her writing career as a reporter on an Essex newspaper. However, she was forced to resign after filing a story about a local sports club dinner without attending. Her report failed to mention that the after-dinner speaker had died half-way through the speech."
    Okay, bit sorry for her that people STILL going on about it 50 years later, because really, after 60 novels, I think you should have earned the right to have lived that down. But on the other hand, pretty much best example ever of god telling a writer to stop messing around with the day job and get writing.....