Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Theses and Dissertation Writing Strategies

I finished revising and have now posted my 32 page guide to writing strategies for theses and dissertations to the Essential Edits site.

I argue that one has to unlearn undergraduate writing skills to learn a completely new skill set to survive.

Research suggests attrition rates of between 50% to 65% for PhD candidates and thesis-route master's programs. Interestingly enough, most drop out of the program after completing all the course work and all the data collection and analysis for thesis/dissertation, which suggests that the problem is in the writing stage—though this is seldom recognized in the literature, and often not even by the students themselves! Reorienting graduate students to the different nature of sustained writing projects could assist many more students in completing their graduate degrees.

The guide is available free from EssentialEdits.ca/ThesisStrategies.pdf.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

H. A. Hargreaves, PhD (1928-2017)

H. A. Hargreaves, the grandfather of Canadian science fiction as a distinct genre, passed away July 27, 2017. This is more or less what I said at his funeral yesterday:

I have to confess that I didn't know Hank all that well. I'd only ever met him in person five or six times. But as H. A. Hargreaves, the author, he had a profound influence on my life.

I first met Dr. Hargreaves in 1977 when I was helping to organize an open house for the campus science fiction club (ESFCAS). A club member I didn't know well said, "Hey my English professor has just had a collection of his science fiction published. It's actually pretty good. Let's get him to do a reading." I was skeptical, because in 1977 sf was not widely considered appropriate subject matter for a professor of English literature, so who knew what an English professor might think of as SF; and I had frankly never heard of Hargreaves. But I didn't have a better idea, so we invited Dr. Hargreaves to read.

He read "Dead to the World", his most famous and most widely reprinted story, to a crowd of about 50. That story—and the rest of the North by 2000 collection, which I then rushed out to buy—changed my life.

First, Hargreaves showed me that there could be a distinctly Canadian science fiction. Hargreaves' was the first collection ever explicitly marketed as "Canadian science fiction", which was itself a new idea for me. I think everyone assumed that SF was a strictly American genre, exemplified by John W. Campbell's Analog magazine. Before hearing "Dead to the World", I had been slowly reading my way through the Hugo and Nebula award-winning novels (mostly American and British writers), but after hearing "Dead to the World" it occurred to me to search instead for Canadian SF. "Dead to the world" was charming, oddly engaging, and completely different than anything I had ever encountered before. Here was a new version of the genre that resonated with me in a way I couldn't completely put my finger on. So I tried to nail that down, and ended up spending the next 40 years of my career lecturing on the nature of Canadian science fiction, as distinct from the American and British versions of the genres.

Second, Hargreaves was a major influence on my own writing. (Well, by "major influence", I mean the opening scene in my novel is a direct steal from the opening scene of "Dead to the World".) As a reader, reviewer, and editor, I must have read thousands of short stories over my career, but the stories that most often come floating into memory are those from Hargreaves' collection. There is something strangely compelling about his story-telling that makes these quiet stories about TV repair, bureaucracy, or a college classroom so uniquely memorable. I never took a class from Professor Hargreaves, but he was certainly one of the people who taught me how to write.

More than that, his writing from a distinctly Canadian perspective gave me (and the other Canadian SF authors emerging in that period) permission to do so also.

I mentioned the American editor, John W. Campbell. Campbell was immensely influential, not least because his was the highest paying SF magazine, which meant everyone tried to match their style to Campbell's tastes in hopes of selling to Analog. Hargreaves was a great fan of John W. Campbell as well, and always sent his stories first to Analog, for as long as Campbell lived.

However, in contrast to Cambpell's preferred alpha-male, engineer heroes—who always won the day by dint of superior character and scientific knowledge—Hargreaves' protagonists were ordinary people caught up in sort of mundane events. Instead of a Captain Kirk or a Captain Picard heroically defending Star Fleet, Hargreaves wrote about the spaces station's TV repairman. Whereas Campbellian fiction was about winning through to one's goals, Hargreaves heroes often failed to achieve their goals. Instead, if they got their happy ending, it was by suddenly realizing that they had been pursing the wrong goal, and now choosing something different. The protagonist of "Dead to the World" for example, fails in his attempt to correct the computer error which has listed him as dead. After several attempts to be reinstated, he comes to realizes that he's actually way better off (listed as) dead.

Campbell always wrote back with a two-page critique, saying he loved the story, but that it would have to be changed to be an Analog story, fit for Campbell's American audience. Hargreaves, however, always chose to stick to his own vision, and sent it instead to British editor Ted Carnell—who always printed the story exactly as is.

(There was one exception. On the last story Hargreaves submitted to Campbell, Campbell made the usual demands for revisions, but then ended by saying, 'or you could forget all that and instead take this other suggestion for when you send it to Ted.' Hargreaves took that one, greatly pleased that Campbell had apparently understood Hargreaves' vision all along, and had approved of the stories going to Carnell instead.)

By modelling one version of what Canadian SF might look like, and sticking to his vision rather than trying to conform to the American market, Hargreaves became the grandfather [Phyllis Gotlieb is the grandmother] of a distinctly Canadian SF. He was consequently inducted into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Associations Hall of Fame in 2015.

Hargreaves next to display of Hall of Fame Trophy, at Fish Creek Library, Calgary.

Third, it was not lost on me that although Hargreaves wrote only a single story every other year, he still managed to create a significant canon—both in terms of size and importance—over his lifetime. Busy with life as literature professor and father, teacher and opera singer, he devoted only a single week of his holidays to writing that year's short story. As a professor and dad myself, I look to Hargreaves' as my model of a successful writing career. I often hear people claim they need to quit their day job to become full-time writers, or that anyone who claims to be a professional writer who does not make their entire income writing is a fraud. Hargreaves' example puts the lie to all of that. No one can dispute either the quality of his work or his place in history of the genre, yet his writing life was squeezed into a corner smaller than that afforded to many of those who complain that they cannot manage with less than full-time. Full-time is great if you can get it, and even half-time would be privileged, but no time is no excuse. Writers should check their sense of entitlement when embezzling time from parenting, familial, or day-job responsibilities. If Hargreaves could do it, so can the rest of us.

Similarly, although I recognize the existential threat presented by the writing hobbyist to those professional writers trying to distinguish themselves from those engaged in vanity self-publishing, Hargreaves' writing career demonstrates that percentage of income may not be the best measure of 'professional quality'.

* * *

After lecturing about Hargreaves place in history for two generations, I was confronted by an audience member who pointed out that North by 2000 had been out of print for years, and nearly impossible to find.

"I'm surprised no one has thought to reprint it," I said. "It really deserves to be available to the current generation."

"Aren't you Senior Editor at a small press?" my questionner asked.

Do'h!

So I did take the manuscript to my publisher, who developed the expanded edition, North by 2000+, which include every SF story Hargreaves had ever written. She loved Hargreaves writing so much, she asked to see what else he had. Thus was born Growing Up Bronx Hargreaves collection of autobiographical stories.

* * *

Meeting Hank, the person, was always an honour and a pleasure. He was always kind, generous with his time, and soft-spoken. I can't imagine him ever shouting in anger, though I know that injustice angered him. He was the archetypal 'nice' Canadian, though as demonstrated by his refusal to compromise his vision, 'nice' should not be confused with a lack of strength or character. I suppose I should count this the fourth dimension on which Hargreaves has had a significant influence on me. I hesitate only because I spent so few days in his actual presence, but reading Growing Up Bronx makes it feel like I have known the man from childhood.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Starting a Writers' Group

Here is a link to a reasonable column on starting a writers' group.

I have been a member of a local writers group several times and found it helpful. The trick is to find one (or start one) that works. The two biggest problems plaguing writers groups are the dangers of becoming either

  • a mutual admiration society:
    "My but that is a wonderful story!"
    "Oh thank you! And I love your story too!"

  • OR
  • a cesspool of negativity:
    "Your opening sucks!"
    "Oh yeah? Well at least my story isn't homophobic/racist/politically incorrect/fake news like yours!"
It doesn't take much imagination to see how bad either of those scenarios could get. The mutual admiration society ends up publishing each other's work in a self-published anthology that nobody outside the group and their mothers will hear about, let alone buy, instead of focusing on improving to the point where they are selling their work to objective editors in professional paying markets. The downward spiral of the overly negative (people who don't know how to give constructive feedback, or who think being 'honest' means saying whatever pops into their heads) is that one or more members end up stopping: not just coming not coming back, but giving up writing all together. Getting the right balance requires designing appropriate structures; having ground rules (e.g., give three positive comments and three areas in need of refinement); having good leadership (rotating chair? elder statesman chair? guest editors as invited chairs?); and/or recruiting the right people in the first place.

The blind leading the blind is not that helpful, but finding one's way into a professional writers' circle can be difficult. I have seen writers getting terrible advice from other group participants; writers getting shrugs from other members who don't understand the writer's genre, or style, or purpose; and writers so intimidated by their more experience or more advanced peers that they give up. So writers' groups can easily go very, very wrong.

But I've been a member of at least two that worked very well. The first dissolved when too many members graduated university and the group lost critical mass (in the days before the internet); and the second is still going 20 years on, but without me because I moved away for my day job as a professor. (That group has the best writer group name ever: "The Cult of Pain") In both instances, the majority of members have ended up getting published. Similarly, two of the novels I've edited for Five Rivers Publishing this year thank writer's groups in their acknowledgement, groups that have routinely produced professionally successful writers. On the other hand, Lorina Stephens, the publisher at Five Rivers, has sworn off writers groups because of her negative experiences. So...your mileage may vary.

Note the not all writers' groups are critique groups. Some just get together for coffee once a month to commiserate on how hard it is to find time for writing; how relatives do not understand; how hard it is to work in isolation (in contrast to working in a workplace); how unreasonable editors are; and so on, or to celebrate successes. A writers group as water cooler social group can be surprisingly helpful, giving a moral boost that can last a month or more. Just knowing that others 'get it' and that one is not crazy for feeling what one is feeling is often really helpful. Another possible approach for a writers group is the educational workshop that invites guest speakers (editors, successful authors, representatives from the regional writers guild, publishers, book designers, cover artists, etc) each month on topics of interest to the group. Online groups can similarly go beyond offering each other critiques to organize private Facebook groups, cooperate on a blog or podcast, or organize webinars.

It is surprising how helpful a writers group can be, but one needs always to keep one's activity in the group balanced against one's own writing priorities. I have known aspiring writers who became so focused on participating in the group's activities that their writing time suffered. As writing superstar Robert Sawyer recently said at a WWC presentation, it's important that one doesn't get distracted by pseudo writing activities, such as participating in workshops, marketing oneself through social media, and other professional activities that take time that might be better invested in actually writing.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Aurora Award Voters' Package available until Sept.

The Prix Aurora Award 2017 voter package (e-copies of most of the nominated novels, short stories, etc) is now available at http://www.prixaurorawards.ca/auror…/voter-package-download/. The package is free to members of the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association so they can read nominated work before voting.(Seems like a pretty sensible idea to me!)

Membership in CSFFA is $10/yr and open to any Canadian, and includes the right to nominate and vote for the Auroras.

My short story, "Age of Miracles", was nominated for a 2017 Aurora in the short story category, so is included in this year's voters' package. I'm really pleased because that means more people will likely have the opportunity to read the story, though the anthology it's from, Strangers Among Us is a good one (six aurora nominations in all!) and well worth buying.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Essential Edits at When Words Collide 2017

Essential Edits will be at When Words Collide at the Calgary Delta South August 11-13, 2017. Elizabeth McLachlan has had to cancel, but Robert Runté will still be making the Essential Edits presentations and sitting on various panels. Below is Robert's schedule, updated with rooms and times, as of July 5:

Scheduled talks:

Friday 1 PM: Live Action Slush - Early Bird Edition (Panel) in Fireside room

Friday 4 PM: Common Manuscript Problems (Panel) in 1-Parkland

Friday 6 PM: Writers’ + Editors’ Speed Mingle (Interactive) in A-Waterton

Saturday 10 AM: Pantsers vs Plotters (Panel) in 2-Bonavista

Saturday 11 AM: Managing Sustained Writing Projects (Presentation) in 9-Rundle

Saturday 1 PM:Dyslexia, Dysgraphia and the Experience of Writing (Panel) in B-Canmore

Saturday 2 PM: Five Rivers Publishing Presents (Book Launch/Social) in Fireside room

Sunday 10 AM: Live Action Slush – YA Edition (Panel)3-Willow Park

Sunday 11 AM: The Publishers Panel: Novels (Panel) in 2-Bonavista

Sunday 2 PM:Working with an Editor (Presentation) in Rundle

Sunday 3 PM: Blue Pencil (Workshop) 6-Heritage

At 750 attendees, WWC is already sold out for this year. It's always a great writers' convention, so I highly recommend it to anyone for next year.

If you have a membership and are coming, let me know and maybe we can get together in the evenings or between panels (when I have more than a five minute break).

Monday, June 19, 2017

Will Social Media Kill the Novel?

Fascinating article in the Guardian by Andrew O'Hagen on the end of private life, that asserts, "Writers thrive on privacy, not on Twitter" and asks, "What does a world in which our interior lives are played out online mean for the novel?"

link to article

I have certainly seen authors get so caught up in the myth that one has to promote oneself on Twitter and other social media to succeed, that they end up having no time to write. (Or, more prosaically, just end up procrastinating on social media because getting likes is more fun than working on one's book.) And I'll concede that for some, telling their online audience the events that might have otherwise found their way into the novel could be depleting. But on the other hand...I have not infrequently had to edit out long passages from a novel that don't belong there and told the author, "stop venting! If you need to vent, go on Facebook. Rant all you want on social media, but keep this off-message rubbish out of your novel." When the space-suited hero puts down his blaster mid-battle with the alien hoards to complain about how the grade 3 teacher is assigning too much homework to his kid, I feel we may have allowed the intrusion of extraneous material...

Though, that's probably not the novel O'Hagen was referring to... :-)

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Interesting review essay on the role of the editor in a book's success:

Red Pens and Invisible Ink by Colin Dickey.

Essential Edits takes the stand that we work for the author, so do our best to follow and bring to fruition the author's vision. We will from time to time, point out issues that might impact the book's commercial success—such as scenes in a YA that might be objectionable to teachers and parents, or content that might be negatively reviewed—but our job is just to flag potential issues, not to censor them.

This is different than the role of acquisition editors and agents, the people to whom one is trying to sell the book if not self-publishing: the job of the acquisition editor or structural editor at a press is to alter the book to fit the vision of the press, which usually translates as 'make it more commercial'. There is nothing inherently wrong about that, because they usually won't buy a book unless it is already (mostly) consistent with the publishers vision of its books; and most authors have no objection to making changes that will increase sales. Most publishers will not initiate the complete rewrites spoken of in the article above, because it is too time consuming and expensive for them...they will just look for another manuscript closer to their own needs.

Still, authors sometimes feel editors have gone too far. If you are an author and you are unhappy with the changes the editor is asking for after you have made them, then there is something wrong. Every author naturally hates making changes insisted upon by their editor—it's just human nature to resist the effort and ego-bruising that changing even a comma implies—but usually, after the author has calmed down enough to actually fiddle around making the change, they come to see that the editor was right, and that this revision is in fact way better. If you don't feel that way, you are either working with the wrong editor or misunderstood what the editor was asking for. (Or, I suppose, there are who simply do not believe that there is a single flaw in their writing, and that every editor who fails to recognize their genius is an idiot, in which case they probably haven't gone to an editor in the first place. Self-publishing has its share of those.) If you like your book less in the edited version, then stop, go back to the original. The freelance editor works for you and does not get to dictate their vision. A good freelance editor can help you realize your vision for the book. It is okay for them to make suggestions, and it is usually a good idea to at least give it a try to see how that would look, but if the editor/agent is telling you to change the gay character to straight, the black character to white, or to add pointless sex or whatever, time to walk away.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Essential Edits at When Words Collide

Here is a tentative list of workshops, presentations and panels by Essential Edits staff at the When Words Collide writers and readers festival in Calgary, Alberta, Aug 11-13, 2017.

Essential Edits Presentations

  • Managing Sustained Writing Projects, Robert Runté and Elizabeth McLachlan
  • Working With an Editor, Elizabeth McLachlan and Robert Runté

Workshops (requires advance sign up)

  • Blue Pencil Workshop with Elizabeth McLachlan
  • Blue Pencil Workshop with Robert Runté

Panels

  • Live Action Slush - Early Bird Edition with Robert Runté, Michelle Heumann (EDGE SF), and TBA
  • Live Action Slush - Young Adult Edition with Robert Runté, Jennifer Estep (NY Times bestselling YA author) and TBA. Amy Totten (reading)
  • Common Manuscript Problems with Robert Runté, Michelle Heumann (Editor, EDGE SF), Samantha Beiko (Editor, CZP),and Sam Hiyate (Literary Agent)
  • Pansters vs Plodders with Robert Runté, Timothy Gywn (author), C.C. Humphreys (author & swordsman), and R. J. Hore (author)
  • Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, and the Experience of Writing with C.P Hoff (author & Leacock Medal nominee), Aviva Bel'Harold (author), Robert Runté (editor), and Elizabeth McLachlan (editor)
  • The Publishers' Panel: Novels: with Robert Runté(Five Rivers), Samantha Beiko (CZP), Kelsey Attard (Freehand Books), and TBA
  • Writers and Editors Mingle with Calgary Association of Freelance Editors

Book Salon

    Five Rivers Publishing Presents: with Senior Editor, Robert Runté, authors Timothy Gwyn (launching his YA novel, Avians); and C.P. Hoff (author of the Leacock Medal-nominated, A Town Called Forget) and brief readings from Michael Skeet's Poisoned Prayer, Ann Marston's Diamonds in Black Sand, and Joe Mahoney's A Time and a Place.

There are only 74 seats (out of 750) left, so if you are thinking of going, you need to register now.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Aurora Award Nomination


Dr. Runté poses with cover of Strangers Among Us anthology which garnered six Aurora Award nominations on the 2017 ballot.

The Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association has released the Aurora Award Ballot for 2017, and I am honoured to be included on the shortlist for one of my short stories, "The Age of Miracles".

"Age of Miracles" was published in the anthology Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts, edited by Susan Forest and Lucas Law. The anthology's theme was speculative fiction addressed to issues of mental health, and my story looked at how someone with schizophrenia might navigate the world of the near future. (It plays on the idea that if we see someone on a corner talking when there is nobody else there, how do we know whether they are crazy or just talking on their cell phones?)

I'm pretty pumped that my story made the ballot, because humour is often a hard sell, especially when up against excellent serious stories, and the Strangers Among Us anthology alone had a number of outstanding stories, let alone the rest of the field this year.

The CSFFA makes available a voter package with the nominated stories/books/comics/artwork (or as many of those that publishers permit) for all CSFFA members, so voters can base their decisions on actually having read/seen the nominated works. Membership in CSFFA is only $10 a year, so the voter package is a great opportunity to see the best of Canadian SF&F, as nominated by CSFFA members. Additionally, again this year Kobo Canada has donated a Kobo for a prize draw for one randomly chosen voter to encourage voter turnout. So $10 buys you the right to vote, the right to read some great Canadian SF, and a chance at a free ebook reader. Join here.

Here's the 2017 ballot:

The 2017 Aurora Award Ballot

This ballot is for works done in 2016 by Canadians. The Aurora Awards are nominated by members of the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association. The top five nominated works were selected. Additional works were included where there was a tie for fifth place.

Best Novel
Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay, Viking Canada
Company Town by Madeline Ashby, Tor Books
The Courier by Gerald Brandt, DAW Books
The Nature of a Pirate by A.M. Dellamonica, Tor Books
Quantum Night by Robert J. Sawyer, Penguin Canada
Stars like Cold Fire by Brent Nichols, Bundoran Press

Best Young Adult Novel
Day of the Demon by Randy McCharles, CreateSpace
Door into Faerie by Edward Willett, Coteau Books
Heir to the Sky by Amanda Sun, Harlequin Teen
Icarus Down by James Bow, Scholastic Canada
Mik Murdoch: Crisis of Conscience by Michell Plested, Evil Alter Ego Press
The Wizard Killer - Season One by Adam Dreece, ADZO Publishing

Best Short Fiction
"Age of Miracles" by Robert Runté, Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts, Laksa Media
"Frog Song" by Erika Holt, Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts, Laksa Media
"Living in Oz" by Bev Geddes, Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts, Laksa Media
"Marion's War" by Hayden Trenholm, Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts, Laksa Media
"Seasons of Glass and Iron" by Amal el-Mohtar, The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, Saga Press
"When Phakack Came to Steal Papa’s Bones, A Ti-Jean Story" by Ace Jordyn, On Spec Magazine

Best Poem/Song
No award will be given out in this category in 2017 due to insufficient eligible nominees

Best Graphic Novel
Angel Catbird, Volume One by Margaret Atwood, Johnnie Christmas and Tamra Bonvillian, Dark Horse Books
Crash and Burn by Kate Larking and Finn Lucullan, Astres Press
Earthsong by Crystal Yates, Webcomic
It Never Rains by Kari Maaren, Webcomic
Weregeek by Alina Pete, Webcomic

Best Related Work
Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction edited by Dominik Parisien, Exile Editions
Enigma Front: Burnt, managing editor Celeste A. Peters, Analemma Books
Lazarus Risen edited by Hayden Trenholm and Mike Rimar, Bundoran Press
Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts, edited by Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law, Laksa Media
Superhero Universe (Tesseracts Nineteen) edited by Claude Lalumière and Mark Shainblum, EDGE

Best Visual Presentation
Arrival, director, Denis Villeneuve, Paramount Pictures
Orphan Black, Season 4, John Fawcett and Graeme Manson, Temple Street Productions
Killjoys, Season 2, Michelle Lovretta, Temple Street Productions
Dark Matter, Season 2, Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie, Prodigy Pictures
Murdoch Mysteries, Season 9, Peter Mitchell, Shaftesbury Films

Best Artist
Samantha M. Beiko, cover to Strangers Among Us anthology
James Beveridge, covers and poster art
Melissa Mary Duncan, body of work
Erik Mohr, covers for ChiZine Publications and Company Town for Tor Books
Dan O'Driscoll, covers for Bundoran Press

Best Fan Writing and Publications
Amazing Stories Magazine, weekly column, Steve Fahnestalk
BCSFAzine #512 to #519, edited by Felicity Walker
The Nerd is the Word, articles by Dylan McEvoy
OBIR Magazine #4, edited by R. Graeme Cameron
Silver Stag Entertainment, edited by S.M. Carrière
Speculating Canada edited by Derek Newman-Stille

Best Fan Organizational
Samantha Beiko and Chadwick Ginther, co-chairs, Chiaroscuro Reading Series: Winnipeg
R. Graeme Cameron, chair, VCON 41, Surrey, BC
Sandra Kasturi and Angela Keeley, co-chairs, 2016 Toronto SpecFic Colloquium
Derek Künsken and Marie Bilodeau, executive, Can*Con 2016, Ottawa
Randy McCharles, chair, When Words Collide, Calgary
Matt Moore, Marie Bilodeau, and Nicole Lavigne, co-chairs, Chiaroscuro Reading Series: Ottawa
Sandra Wickham, chair, Creative Ink Festival, Burnaby, BC

Best Fan Related Work
Ron S. Friedman, Villains and Conflicts presentation, When Words Collide, Calgary Comic Expo, and File 770
Kari Maaren, Concert, SFContario
Derek Newman-Stille, Speculating Canada on Trent Radio 92.7 FM

Best of the Decade
This is a special category for this year’s awards for works published between January 2001 and December 2010. Note: Items in italics are for multi-volume works. Multi-volume stories were considered if they began prior to 2001 but ended before or close to 2011. We defined a multi-volume story as one with a continuous narrative. Finalists were chosen by an eight-person jury from across Canada. The winner will be chosen by our membership’s votes.

Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson, Tor Books
The Blue Ant Trilogy by William Gibson, Berkley
Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson, Tor Books
The Neanderthal Parallax, Robert J. Sawyer, Tor Books
The Onion Girl, Charles de Lint, Tor Books
Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay, Viking Canada


The Aurora Awards Administrator, Clifford Samuels, shows off the new design adpoted in 2016 for the Aurora Trophy.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Canadian Science Fiction Fantasy Academic Conference

Of possible interest to SFeditor.ca clients:

I've presented at this conference three or four times (including as one of the two Keynote speakers in 2013) and it is always a very positive experience. What I like the most about it is the sense one gets of the next generation of Canadian SF&F scholars who are doing some excellent work, documenting and analyzing the Canadian version of the genre.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Finding an Editor

A good article on finding the right editor by proofreader, Louise Harnby. She talks about using national editor's association directory, Google, one's social network, social media, endorsements, and sample edits to find the editor who will be the best fit for your needs. Here at Essential Edits, we put a lot of emphasis on the sample edit not just to provide an accurate estimate of costs, but to ensure that the editor assigned 'gets' what the client is trying to do. And the sample edit allows the client to see if the feedback they are getting is the type and level they actually want before signing on for a full contract. Louise mentions the sample edit, but as a proofreader, she may place less emphasis on it given that there would be less variation for proofreaders than for substantive editors. But a good succinct overview of searching for an editor, so recommended reading.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Collapse (and Rebirth?) of the Textbook Market

Headline: Nelson Acquires McGraw-Hill-Ryerson

*Sigh*

The continuing consolidation of the legacy publishers into one giant corporation continues apace. Even when the branding remains to provide the illusion of consumer choice, the reality is that there are fewer and fewer publishers to whom authors can submit, and fewer and fewer differences in content for consumers to choose between.

As each publishers seeks to increase profit and therefore market share, it is much easier to do so by buying out the competition, then by predicting which books will sell. As the giant publishers acquire every other imprint, they do so by taking on debt (on the assumption larger market share will pay off the new debt over time). Having debt on that scale requires that each title produce a higher profit margin then when they had no debt, since the debt has to be serviced in addition to all the previous costs, and the only way to do that without moving price point beyond anything consumers would accept, is with economies of scale. Which means each title has to sell in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Mid-list authors no longer earn enough to be kept on, and niche markets can no longer be served.

These trends mean publishers can no longer afford to take risks, which means we’re looking at an increased tendency towards lowest common denominator and processed cheese.

In the Sf markets I write for, the number of major imprints (defined here as being available in brick and mortar stores) has fallen from over 40 when I started my novel to about 6 I can think of now. It’s worse in the textbook market—the strains have reached critical mass and the whole damn thing is (in my view) about to crash. My daughter’s textbook for the course she is taking in summer school is $210. But what choice does the instructor have? There are no cheaper choices because there are no other publishers, certainly no cheaper publishers, to choose from. But that is a ridiculous price! That could be a $5 ebook. Students complain, and instructors shrug, but eventually that trend will lead to rebellion. Instructors will (like me) stop assigning texts that students won’t even pretend to read, because they can’t afford to buy them. (My daughter’s roommate showed us her new $1000 bedside table in residence: it was a pile of four textbooks with a lamp on top.)

The collapse of McGraw-Hill-Ryerson in the k-12 market signals the end of the Canadian market—Nelson has made a miscalculation. As the increasing monopoly drives textbook prices even higher, there will simply be no k-12 textbook market left for it to service. The current attitude among the remaining publishers seems to be, well, what are schools going to do? Buy ereaders for every student and buy ebooks? No problem, we control the ebook market too and will make them pay hundreds for an ebook. Schools have to have textbooks, right? Bwahahahahahah!

But that’s not going to work this time. As I may have mentioned here before, I still have colleagues from when I worked in Alberta Learning (Albert's ministry of education) and I am reliably told that Alberta has made the policy decision to completely stop buying textbooks in 2018. That’s it’s. Done. No more textbooks. Because, they said, textbooks are "so 19th century" and no longer serve any purpose.

Textbooks were invented as a way a getting readings into the classroom economically when books were scarce. Previously, itinerate teachers would teach from whatever book they happened to have in their backpacks, but when schools evolved as stable public institutions, they became stable book markets: textbooks were provided via the state to make sure every classroom had a set of books cheaply; then to ensure that every classroom had a set of approved books [the Irish Readers being the first official textbook, whose explicit purpose was to teach Irish school children loyalty to the British Empire and suppress republican sentiments. The first Canadian Reader was the Irish Reader with a new cover on it; it wasn’t until the 1920’s that Irish Reader was replaced with a pro-Canada version]; and then to better organize material by grade and reading level.

And that tradition has continued pretty much up to now. Largely out of force of habit. But the Alberta government has figured out it can save millions by not buying any more textbooks. Because, why bother? Teachers can assign the appropriate entries on Wikipedia, or choose from the millions of pages—or more likely, video*mdash;of appropriate material available on the web. Which will be more up-to-date than any textbook, since it takes years for textbook to go from commission to publication, and so are two to three years out of date by the time they reach classrooms. But schools only renew textbooks for any particular curriculum once every ten years. In Alberta, it's done on a rotating basis, so this year social studies, next year Language arts, and so. That way curriculum committees have ten years to refine the next curriculum based on new research, assigning authors to write the update, arranging with publishers and so on. . . And schools only have to invest in textbooks for one subject per year, keeping those textbooks for ten years while they buy one other subjects per year, by the end of which time those initial texts are both worn out and too out of date to continue using, but then that subject comes up again in the rotation. But the down side has always been that teachers always had to supplement to bring up to date, particularly in social studies and science. Now, skip the cost and inconvenience of the outdated textbook entirely and let teachers use free, uptodate materials by following self-updating wikipedia and various teacher sites. Let classroom teachers custom make the readings for their particular class’ range of abilities and interests, for their particular community and neighbourhood (let’s use the Chinese examples in this class since 28% of this neighbourhood is ethnic Chinese, or use Calgary example for this class in Calgary, etc) for their particular slant. Let math teachers show the Khan academy videos. Why pay for textbooks at all?

So Alberta is done. Alberta is always at the forefront of any trend in Education (the Deputy Minister appointed my former colleague to the explicit position of seeking out innovations and mandated that there wasn’t to be a single innovation anywhere in the world that Alberta wasn’t on top of evaluating, and immediately adopting if it worked) so I won’t be surprised if we’re the first to go textbook-less. . .but um, won’t be the last.

At the university level, I think there is increasingly the opportunity for small presses and independent authors to put out inexpensive ($10) ebooks or ($40) Print On Demand textbooks without any role for these mega-corporations. Let me finish my text on test construction, post it to Amazon, and let individual instructors decide whether it meets their needs for their class. The author makes $5 per copy, instructors get an expensive text for their students, and everybody’s happy. Universities will eventually figure out to count self-published texts towards a professor’s output by asking about sales (i.e., how many other instructors are using their book) rather than by asking how prestigious the publisher is.


A more boring textbook for Teacher Education than it needed to be.

And we will get much better, much more interesting textbooks. I’ve no doubt already mentioned in previous posts how the publisher of my first textbook insisted on me taking 95% of the humour out because a few of the referees thought I was not sufficiently serious about the subject. So I did take the funny bits out (because I needed the publication credit for tenure), and that textbook tanked after two years—but the stuff I took out and subsequently distributed myself is still in use in some Education Faculties across Canada, 25 years later (and has made me more money than the publisher paid as the advance for the whole book) precisely because they are funny/outrageous. History is BORING, for example, because textbook publishers explicitly remove anything remotely controversial, lest it be unacceptable to some market somewhere: as the saying goes,"if you can’t sell it in Texas, you can’t sell it anywhere.” So no evolution in biology texts, nothing but the bare facts of history, because talking about Louis Riel sells differently in Quebec than Alberta, so just avoid the whole controversy and stick to just dates and indisputable (i.e., uninteresting) facts. Nothing local, because we have to sell the same book to everybody, everywhere. (Or more recently, make only token changes in the new “pick and choose your chapter” textbooks which switch “Alberta” into the sentence from “Ontario”, which are about as useful and meaningful as those kids books you can buy which will print your kid’s name in as one of the character names.) Why you hated every textbook you’ve ever read, but loved every science book by Claire Eamer. . . . Let’s just go with Clarie’s books from now on, eh?

Thus endith today’s rant.

=====================

And now it's another day:
ADDENDUM

Years ago the Social Studies Curriculum changed to include an understanding of the Acadians (specifically, the community of Meteghan, NS) in Grade 2. Unfortunately, teachers found that when they came to that portion of the program of studies, the province hadn't actually gotten around to writing a textbook or providing any other resources about Meteghan. Since I had a daughter in Grade 2 and was an Education professor, I set out to prove to my student teachers how easy it was for a classroom teacher to produce their own curriculum materials--that they don't need to wait around for, or be dependent upon, textbook writers. I produced the "Tigana Learns About the Acadians" website, gathering & filming the material in one day, and constructing the actual website in about two to three weeks of after hours fiddling. And that website got over 80,000 hits by Alberta Grade 2s, until the province got around to producing resources three or four years later.

And that was before YouTube was really a thing! (2006 is so long ago that most modern browsers won't show the .MOV files on that site without some fiddling, though there are workarounds for teachers who are still using the site with their Grade 2 classes.) It is WAY easier to do that these days: which begs the question, why ISN'T producing their own curricular materials an expectation on teachers?

Not every objective in every course, of course, but maybe one thing a year? So that all together we in effect crowd source the whole curriculum? Sounds ridiculous, but it really isn't. Every teacher I have ever met has one unit in their curriculum where they think the text is stupid or the module is missing something key, or whatever...so, don't just complain, upload something better. Then let other teachers grab it or not, based on their classes and their tastes.

There are in fact, lots of websites like that today--some charge teachers to download lesson plans and pay the teacher who uploaded it a percentage, like any textbook publisher, only better because it's custom made by the people who are teaching the concepts, the frontline workers, not someone who hasn't seen a classroom in 20 years. Not that there isn't room for authored books (see Claire Eamer example above) but teachers could regain a degree of professionalism, of professional autonomy, if as a profession they produced at least some of their own collaborative materials.

Or in sociological terms, the separation of curriculum design from classroom teachers reduces teachers to deskilled workers: technicians who implement other's design, which inevitably leads to alienation from the work process. Allow teachers to develop their own resources and you automatically get better teachers and better resources. The Wiki format or the upload/down load for cash format, or just everyone produce their own Youtube videos and self-published books for sale on Amazon...or something new we haven't thought of yet...it doesn't matter, we just need to take charge of our own teaching again.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Attribution

An excellent piece on misattribution and misinformation: "Why You Should Cite The Source of Images by Bev Newman.

...but I doubt the average Pinterest user cares about copyright issues or attribution or historical accuracy or anything much beyond 'pretty' and 'good illustration for my alternative facts.' So preaching to an empty church.

Even academics are getting ridiculously sloppy about such things. In my dissertation (1991) I demonstrated that scholars in Education had been misquoting the conclusions from Sociology for over 28 years, because no one Education had bothered going back to the original source, but had just cited each other citing the sociologist they were misquoting. Consequently, everything on that topic in the Education literature of the 1980s and early 1990s was wrong, tracing back to a mis-reading from the mid-1960s. Alternative facts indeed!

And that was back in the 90s, before Google Scholar. Now misquotes are (I would suggest) more frequent than accurate ones. Under the pressure of putting out unrealistically high levels of productivity to maintain one's competitiveness in a shrinking market for tenured positions, a lot of 'scholars' are looking for short cuts. And google supplies! Typically, a desperate scholar trying to remember where they once read that quote they now need for their current article, will google the desired phrase, and up it pops. That's great for finding stuff vaguely remembered, but um...it's a short step from there to "I could use someone saying X about here...Say,I wonder what Google can find for me." And so up pops the statement they need for the next paragraph, and click here's the citation reference, and Bob's your uncle. Without, um, actually READING the article the quote is pulled from...

Everybody is tacitly happy with this situation: the author gets another paper pumped out, filled with current citations without, you know, the time consuming process of actually reading all the literature... The dean is happy because look at how productive all his people are being...and the original author got another citation to his paper which beefs up his 'impact' score, so who cares really if he was misquoted?

Except, my wife and I keep finding examples of where citations to our work have got the argument we were making exactly backwards--because they quoted from the bit we were refuting, or took the quote out of context, or just left out the "not" in the sentence. It's appalling to be cited in support of arguments we find offensive or which go against all logic, or serve someone's political agenda in the face of the scientific evidence. But if it happens to my colleagues and I this often, then it's happening at epidemic proportions.

I'm okay with people using Google etc to quickly locate relevant literature, but read the damn article, people...or at least the whole paragraph where the sentence is found.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Quote of the Week: Fletcher on self-editing

Me Writing: So many beautiful words! I love the words, all the words!

Me Editing: So many fucking words! Die words, DIE!

—Micheal R. Fletcher, author of 88, Beyond Redemption, Mirror’s Truth

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Longlist Announced for Leacock Medal

The longlist for the 2017 Leacock Medal (in alphabetical order by author surname) is:
  • John Armstrong for A Series of Dogs, New Star Books.
  • Mona Awad for 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, Penguin Canada.
  • Gary Barwin for Yiddish for Pirates, Random House Canada.
  • Judy Batalion for White Walls, New American Library/Random House Canada.
  • Lesley Crewe for Mary, Mary, Nimbus Publishing.
  • C. P. Hoff for A Town Called Forget, Five Rivers Publishing.
  • Marni Jackson for Don’t I Know You, Flatiron Books.
  • Amy Jones for We’re All in This Together, McClelland & Stewart.
  • Jack Knox for Hard Knox: Musings from the Edge of Canada, Heritage House Publishing.
  • Noah Richler for The Candidate: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Doubleday Canada.
  • Drew Hayden Taylor for Take Us to Your Chief And Other Stories, Douglas & McIntyre.

From the Stephen Leacock Associates Press Release:

This year’s longlist will be narrowed down to three Leacock Medal finalists, who will be announced in Orillia on Wednesday, May 3, 2017.

The final winner, who also receives a $15,000 prize supported by TD Bank Financial Group, is to be announced on Saturday, June 10, 2017, at a gala award dinner at Geneva Park Conference Centre, just outside Orillia, Ontario. The gala dinner is open to the public, and limited tickets are on sale exclusively through the Stephen Leacock Museum in Orillia.

In announcing the list, Taylor described the submissions this year as of exceptionally high quality. The judges and readers recommend all the longlisted books as entertaining Canadian works, worthy of consideration for this prestigious and unique literary humour award in Canada’s sesquicentennial year.

All the staff at Essential Edits are thrilled to see C. P. Hoff's A Town Called Forget on the longlist.

The novel follows the adventures of a young girl, sent without explanation to live with the eccentric aunt she didn't even know she had. As she tries to solve the mystery of her banishment, she slowly comes to terms with her aunt's skewed view of the world, and the exceedingly odd townsfolk of Forget.

From the moment we first saw the early drafts, we knew this novel was something special.

C.P. Hoff had already been working with Elizabeth McLachlan and had gone through several revisions before the Essential Edits group was formed. Recognizing Hoff's exceptional talent ("quirky" is the word Elizabeth uses to describe Hoff's writing), Elizabeth introduced the manuscript to Robert Runté, Senior Editor at Five Rivers Publishing.

Lesley Little, who had also reviewed the manuscript, told Robert, "You'll like it. It's really different. Quirky."

Robert passed it on to publisher Lorina Stephens, who at once recognized the manuscript's potential and personally took on the substantive editing of A Town Called Forget. Lorina calls Hoff "a unique, new voice", and when asked to describe Connie's style, replies with: "quirky".

Before it was sent off for copy editing, Robert line edited A Town Called Forget, and found it simultaneously hilarious and touching. "Hoff has created a narrative that is screwy and yet somehow completely credible—in a word: quirky!"

The entire Essential Edits team has its fingers crossed for the win.

This brings to three the number of books edited by Essential Edits staff that have been shortlisted for national awards, and the fourth for Five Rivers Publishing.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Quote of the Day

Re editing: The first 90% of the project takes 90% of the time, and the last 10% of the project takes the other 90% of the time.——Barbara Ann Hehner

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Getting to the Publishable Draft

Guest Post by Sociologist, Lisa Wade

I asked to reprint Dr. Wade's column below because it nicely illustrates the important point that most graduate students and beginning writers never get to see published authors in the process of writing, only the finished product. I often find that graduate students and new writers are disappointed with their first drafts because they are making invidious comparisons between their rough draft and draft 5 (or maybe 36) of their very favorite authors (i.e., the very best writing their field has to offer). This is simultaneously inferiority complex . . . and hubris. One cannot successfully complete a thesis or a book without realizing that everybody's first draft sucks (maybe worse than yours!) This realization is the first (I would say primary) step in becoming a successful academic or writer.

On intellectual thrashing: My thanks to Dorothy Roberts

Lisa Wade, PhD on April 7, 2017

One of the most important moments of my graduate education occurred during a talk by Dorothy Roberts for the sociology department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. At the time I had been teaching her book, Killing the Black Body. I thought this book was genius, absolutely loved it, so I was really excited to be seeing her in person.

I sat in anticipation; she was introduced and then, before she launched into the substance of her talk, she apologized for likely weaknesses in her thinking as, she explained, she had only been thinking about it for “about a year.”

I was stunned.

I couldn’t believe that Dorothy Roberts would have to think about anything for a year. In my mind, her brilliance appeared full form, in a span of mere moments, perfectly articulated.

Her comment made me realize, for the first time, that the fantastic books and expertly-crafted journal articles written by scholars were the result of hard work, not just genius. And I realized that part of the task of writing these things is to hide all of the hard work that goes into writing them. They read as if it were obvious that the conclusions of the paper are true when, in fact, the conclusion on paper are probably just one of many sets of possible conclusions with which the author experimented. Roberts’ humble admission made me realize that all of the wild intellectual goose chases, mental thrashing, deleted passages, and revised arguments were part of my job, not evidence that I was perpetually failing.

And I was and am tremendously grateful to Dr. Roberts for that insight.

Reprinted with Lisa Wade's permission from Sociological Images

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram,.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Ten Laws for Science Fiction Writers

Resources for Science Fiction Writers has this post on Ten Laws for Science Fiction Writers. Not quite as comprehensive as Turkey City Lexicon, and I do not agree completely with everything, but still a good read.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Two Demotivational Pieces by Cliff Burns

Tired of bubbly encouragement and endless motivational talks on writing? Try these demotivational pieces by author Cliff Burns (who is not one to suffer fools gladly).

Cliff Burns' cautionary advice to young, developing writers

and

Cliff Burns on the perils of semi-autobiographical fiction

Cliff Burns has been a professional author for over thirty years. He has eleven books and many published short stories to his credit, including numerous anthology appearances. He lives with his wife, artist and educator Sherron Burns, in western Canada. Cliff's blog, Beautiful Desolation is often a provocative read....

Monday, March 20, 2017

James Alan Gardner on Writing

I greatly admire the writing of Canadian SF author, James Alan Gardner. One of my favorites remains Expendable, the first novel in the League of Peoples series, which is sort of a Star-Trek-like novel written from the point of view of the guys in the red shirts who know that they are, well, expendable. Commitment Hour, the second novel in the series, is one of the most interesting SF novels about gender. So I was pleased to have a colleague point out that Gardner has an online seminar on writing available at http://www.jamesalangardner.com/prose/prose.htm. The Preamble alone is useful for its advice on taking writing advice.

He also has "The Skill List Project" which "lists all of the skills that are actually involved in being a professional SF writer, plus advice on improving those skills" at http://www.jamesalangardner.com/ (scroll down the page to the list links).

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Karl Johanson on The Future

From Karl Johanson's presentation at Tsukino Con (Victoria, Feb 17, 2017) "What's Going to Happen in the Future" is of possible interest to our SF fiction writers, and to anyone else who plans to live there. Karl Johanson is the editor of Neo-Opsis Magazine

Part 1: The Decline of Future Shock
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cxlAts6QAik

Part 2: The Great Fizzle Before the Singularity
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7rXUZv2kEN8

Part 3: A Problem with Neural Implants
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOwLrs0OLqg

Part 4: Can We Stop Genetically Modified Organisms?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CfLXF61h7BA

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Stuart McLean Memorial — by Den Valdron

Guest Post by Den Valdron

There was a restaurant on a bridge.

I suppose I should back it up a little. When my marriage broke, I was living in The Pas. It was hard then, coming back every day to an empty house. I used to leave the lights on when I left for work in the morning, just so that it wouldn't be dark when I came home.

Eventually, after a long while, I met a woman in Winnipeg, and we started to date. It was long distance. There was a seven hour drive to get to Winnipeg. I travelled when I could, and on those long lonely rides, I would listen to the radio. That's the lonely period in my life when I made friends with the Vinyl Café, when I got to know Dave and Morley and Sam, when I listened to stories about Wong's Scottish Meat Pies, and their genial Italian neighbor, and all the rest.

I found that there were Vinyl Café books. So one day, for breakfast, I took my sweetheart out for breakfast on the Restaurant on the Bridge.

That itself was the sort of thing that Stuart would have loved. The Restaurant was a local Icon slash Boondoggle. It had been the brainchild of Winnipeg's first openly gay Mayor. Part of a city core redevelopment project, some effort to make the city special and interesting. Now, if you're thinking, 'Restaurant on a bridge, that might not be a good idea.' Well, you'd be right. A restaurant isn't an ordinary construction, you had to run special water lines, and sewage lines, and grease traps out there, and suspend them in the air, to endure 40 below Winnipeg winters. You obviously couldn't park on the bridge, so everyone coming there actually had quite a walk. Space was at a premium, the kitchen was way too small for a proper restaurant.

In the end, once they built it, nobody wanted it... Restauranteurs, I mean. Eventually, the only party that was willing to take a chance was the Salisbury House. Itself a local institution. Salisbury House, so the story goes, were started in the 1930's, by the former employees of a bankrupt circus who needed to make a living. They served sandwiches, burgers and fries, simple ordinary breakfasts to simple ordinary folk. It was successful, within a few decades, there were Salisbury houses all over Winnipeg. It was part of the character of the city, a defining attribute. Eventually, Burton Cummings, one half of the Guess Who, and a famed musician in his own right would buy into it, a Winnipegger himself, coming home.

The city wasn't thrilled with the Salisbury House on the bridge. They wanted something more upscale, more haute. But the humble sandwich shop was the only one that would touch it, so they got it.

Which is how I came to go there with my sweetheart, for a Sunday morning breakfast of pancakes and sausage. And which is how I came to pull out the Vinyl Café, and in my best imitation of Stuart's stentorian tones, read to her the story of Sam and his friends and a chemistry set.

That became our tradition. Breakfast at the Sals on the Bridge, watching the river stretch out before us, reading aloud the adventures of Dave and Morley and their neighborhood. The staff got to know us, the waitresses would sometimes hang close, listening in. We gave Vinyl Café CD's to our parents, we attended the shows. We even found an old metal children's chemistry set box to keep our collection of books in.

Then one say, the staff told us this was their last day. They were closing. We found other places to have breakfast. Other books to read out loud to each other.

It was at a chicken chef, reading the Vinyl Café out loud that I finally broke down and cried like a baby after my father's long battle with cancer ended.

Stuart, and Dave and Morley were there through some pretty dark times, and some good times. Stuart shared in my healing, and my grief, in loss and love. I'll remember Stuart for lazy mornings, and milkshakes and pancakes, reading out loud, his voice in my head, watching a lazy brown river. Whatever was going on, they were a touchstone.

Den Valdron is the author of The Mermaid's Tale, from Five Rivers, and The Greatest Unauthorized Doctor Who Films.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Stuart McLean Memorial — by Robert Dawson

photo credit:CBC    

Dave turned off the television.

He thought for a long time.

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

For once, Morley was at a loss for words.

 

 


Robert Dawson is a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Computing Science at St. Mary's University and the author of countless stories and poems.

Monday, February 13, 2017

2016 WWC Guest of Honour Speech


Dr. Robert Runté speaking at When Words Collide.

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

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

Friday, January 27, 2017

Editing in times of darkness

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


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

So I was going to talk a bit about editing in times of darkness, when I came across (thanks to Amanda Fuller Richards) this post by Liz Jones that covers the same ground for me: https://eatsleepeditrepeat.wordpress.com/2017/01/18/editing-in-times-of-darkness/

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Creating Magic Systems

Guest Post by Edward Willett


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

The Space-Time Continuum: Creating Magic Systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Is Good Grammar Racist, Sexist and Classist?

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

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

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

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

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