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The emphasis on 'professional' is outdated.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.