Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Feathered Edge is out!

Some years ago, I began editing anthologies, "sitting on the other side" of the editorial desk, as it were. I had a wonderful time, made a ton of mistakes, did a lot of things right, made some splendid friends, and had even more fun inviting writers I'd long admired. But the publishing world is bumpy and unpredictable, and I found myself with a completed anthology and no publisher -- and a climate in which I got told over and over, "no one is buying anthologies."

But I did not give up. For one thing, this one was so splendid, so delicious -- funny, heart-breaking, romantic, derring-do-ish, action-packed stories from amazing writers -- that I could not simply walk away from it. Judith Tarr, one of the contributors, called it, "lovely lush fantasy." So I got stubborn. And kept trying. And...

Monday, January 30, 2012

Sharpening Critical Skills, A Few Thoughts Thereon

As I was learning to write at a professional level, I participated in a long-running writer's group, along with people who'd attended the Clarion workshop and Advanced Writing courses at UCLA. Thus, as I struggled with my own writing craft, I also learning to read carefully and give written critiques. This involved a number of skills, including identifying problems with the story -- whether they were at the level of prose/diction/grammar, plotting or characterization, atmosphere and authorial voice, or theme and dramatic shape. As I got better, I learned also how to read between and beneath the lines, and especially to pay attention to what the writer was trying to do, not how I would prefer to re-write the story.

As in other groups, we gave the author written critiques after reading them aloud. This had benefits for the author, who did not have to take notes and remember everything, but could just listen and take in as much as humanly reasonable under the circumstances, as well as for the group, so we could all hear each other's reactions. But it also forced me to write down what I saw, where the writer lost my confidence, what struck me as infelicitous or out of tune or just plain lacking in credibility.

Coming March 2012!
In recent years, I have had the joy of editing several anthologies: 2 volumes of Lace and Blade for Norilana Books, and 2 forthcoming stand-alone anthologies, Beyond Grimm, Tales Newly Twisted for Book View Cafe, and The Feathered Edge: Tales of Magic, Love, and Daring for Sky Warrior Books. So I've spent a fair amount of time reading stories and thinking about how and why they work/don't work.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

GUEST BLOG: Patricia Burroughs On Paul And Me

Book View Cafe welcomes Patricia Burroughs! Here's a delightful tale of her first novel, now available for your delectation as an ebook.

This is about the first novel I had published, La Desperada. It’s about the script adaptation I wrote that was based on that novel. It’s about Paul Newman. It’s about a lot of things.

But mainly, it’s about how (if I want to do the Hollywood stretch) I almost wrote a script for Paul.
Or if you want to do the reality check, it’s about how I maybe almost talked to him on the phone.

Mainly, it’s about my writing, my western, my attempts to get it made as a movie, and my new efforts to bring out the ebook.

And it’s about a book by Gwendon Swarthout called The Homesman.

Some years ago one of the producers on the film UNFORGIVEN read my western script, liked it a lot, and said to me, “You know, as I was reading this, I thought, this is the writer who needs to adapt THE HOMESMAN for Paul Newman.”

That is a moment. A Moment. Somebody actually tied me as a screenwriter to a project for Paul Newman. Not that he was in position to do anything about it, mind you. But still. It put an idea in my head. (Dangerous place for ideas, my head.)

I read THE HOMESMAN and loved a lot of it–except for (no spoiler here, I’m restraining myself) how the female protagonist dealt with her loss near the end. And I knew, yes, I could write the hell out of this script, but not if Paul (he was Paul in my mind by this point) wanted THAT to happen!

Brace yourself.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Writing Science Fiction and Reading Canine Body Language

Our German Shepherd Dog, Oka, developed fear-aggression after being attacked by other dogs. I watched him go from "Another dog! Hooray -- great fun, great smells!" to "Another dog -- oh no, OH NO -- he's after me -- ohhelpwhatdoIdo -- Pre-emptive Strike!"

After wrestling with 90 pounds of fit, not to mention intense, dog in self-defense mode, we enrolled in a "difficult dog class." This was my first experience of a dog class, let alone one based on positive training techniques. Several things quickly became clear to me.

One, our dog really wants to please us but much of the time, he hasn't the foggiest notion what we want. What he notices is not necessarily what we think is the major point of the communication. So it's up to us to give him cues and feedback that make sense in dog-experience.

Two, dogs learn from consequences and the shorter the time between action and consequence, the better. There are all kinds of other things happening at any moment in time, things the dog may associate with the behavior in question but of which we are unaware. We need to learn a new way of paying attention, but it never hurts to be in control of a consequence that has a high value for the dog. In Oka's case, that's bits of freeze-dried salmon. This is not "bribery." It's using a powerful reinforcer to let the dog know the behavior is desirable. Salmon equals good. Loose-lease walking past another dog equals salmon equals good.

Three, and most importantly, Oka is very clear in communicating what's going on with him. A huge chunk of the fear-aggression problem was my not understanding when he tells me he's anxious or fearful. I had to learn, for instance, that an off-leash dog bounding "playfully" on a direct path toward him (non-threatening dogs approach a strange dog calmly and on a curved path) is certain to elicit signs of anxiety -- ears pinned forward, body tense, gaze fixed -- even before the fur rises in his ruff.

After immersing myself in books on canine body language, I began seeing mistakes in my own inter-species communication. It's natural for us as primates to use primate-friendly language when greeting a dog. We make eye contact, we bend over. (We also make ridiculous chirping noises.) Direct eye contact is a signal of aggression in dogs (polite dogs soften their gaze and look away to indicate their non-threatening intentions). Bending over a dog is dominance behavior, which makes many dogs uncomfortable or fearful. I've had occasion to practice polite dog language in greeting: look away, soft eyes, don't bend over the dog but beside it, approach slowly, maintain distance if the dog exhibits symptoms of distress. I'm amazed at the clearness of their response, often an immediate relaxation of their anxious body-language.

The situation got even more interesting when we introduced two young cats to the household. One had learned that dogs were Dangerous Cat-Eating Monsters; the other hadn't figured them out yet and decided Oka was a sort of overgrown, illiterate big brother. Watching these two, each trying to communicate in his own body language, each puzzled by the other's response, has been fascinating.

As a primate, I know I'm seeing only a fraction of the interaction. I notice the commonality of "predator stare" and "look away." "I just don't get what that ear position means" (cat) is matched by "I'm signaling submissive 'puppy-ears' but he isn't getting it" (dog). This reminds me of conversations I used to have with a co-worker, he in Spanish and me in French.

Eventually Oka decided that "freeze" was a safe response and Shakir took his immobility as an invitation to come rub against him. Once the dog had discovered a successful approach to non-provoking behavior, he decided to try it out on the other cat. She was not impressed at first, but as she relaxed, her curiosity came forth. She was clearly interested in his smell, now that he would stand still long enough for her to feel safe.

As a writer of science fiction and fantasy, I create alien races and strange, divergent human cultures. I don't want my aliens to be actors with bumpy foreheads. That's sloppy writing. Neither do I want to see my animals as people with fur. That's even sloppier thinking. The lure of projecting human reactions and emotions not only leads to misunderstandings, usually at the pet's expense, but deprives us of the opportunity to get outside our own primate limitations and see the world in a new way.

Friday, January 20, 2012

GUEST BLOG: Joshua Palmatier On Creating A Fantasy World

First of all, thanks to Deborah for inviting me to guest blog here today. I appreciate the offer!

Once upon a time I started a novel. I was in high school, I’d just decided that I wanted to be a writer, and so I tackled a novel (after a few half-hearted attempts at short stories). I had an idea after all, and I had a map I’d drawn in U.S. Government class, and I could see the world in my head. So off I went.

Ten years and five drafts later, I had a book. During those five drafts, the world and the map and the magic fleshed itself out, not to mention I managed to teach myself how to write. I sent it out and got rejection after rejection after rejection. Most of those were actually good rejections, saying the writing was good, but the idea behind the novel just wasn’t quite there, not for a debut novel anyway. It was disappointing . . . no, that’s a lie . . . it was heart-rending, but I sucked it up and started work on other books, other novels, other ideas.

And now, five published novels later, I’m looking back at that initial book. Why? Because the current series—in fact, all of the books I’ve written—have been set in that same world. My first trilogy, the “Throne of Amenkor,” was set at about the same time as that first book, but on a separate continent. The current series—including Well of Sorrows and the just released Leaves of Flame—is set on the same continent but at a much earlier time period than that first novel. However, both series are connected to that first book in significant ways.

That’s one of the most important things I’ve learned about writing over the course of the years: that everything you write, everything that you do, is useful in some way. Nothing is ever wasted. That first book, even though it didn’t find an agent or an editor or publisher to call home, is still to this day being used in various ways. I didn’t realize exactly how important a part it would play in the novels that I’m writing today.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What's New At Book View Cafe

One of the things I most appreciate about electronic publishing is the renewed availability of the backlist (not to mention a Renaissance of midlist). It always struck me as sad that books authors worked so hard on, and that readers loved, become difficult if not impossible to find. The internet has made it easier to search for used copies, which is good. But as more readers used electronic devices, it's wonderful to find this repertoire available in this form, too.

For me as an author, it has been a special delight to hear from readers who have just discovered my novels Jaydium and Northlight through ebook editions. Later this spring, I'll be bringing out the first for a whole bunch of stand-alone short stories, perfect for when you have only a limited amount of time and want a complete story.

Some years ago, Irene Radford wrote a wonderful series of fantasy novels about the descendents of Merlin, with each generation of magical guardians in a different historical period. They've been out of print for some time, and now Irene's bringing them out as ebooks from Book View Cafe. The first one, Guardian of the Balance, is out now at a special price. (Click also for a link to a sample chapter, maps, and more!)

Caught between her beloved father, the Merlin of Britain, and Arthur Pendragon, the old ways and the new, Wren must find a way to balance the forces of Chaos with peace.  She nurtures the land and the people, creating a haven for anyone displaced by the turbulence.  And for the safety of all she must guard her heart against the deep love she shares with Arthur, a married king who holds the future of all the Britains in his hands and his sword.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

On Reviewing Books: A Gift For Your Favorite Author

From today's Book View Cafe blog:

Michael K. Rose blogged here on 5 Ways to Help Authors Without Spending a Dime. He suggests using Tags and other tools on Amazon.com, as well as Facebook shares and Twitter ReTweets to “boost the signal” for your favorite author’s books. I think this is all very well, using the system of referral algorithms (“Readers who liked this book, also liked that other book”) to direct potential buyers.

Catherine Mintz pointed out that a thoughtful review is even more effective. Depending on where the review gets posted, that can be the equivalent of “word of mouth,” which is a good thing. But it leads — for me, anyway, and I suspect for far too many other readers — to daunting prospect of actually writing such a review.

Between them, high school book review assignments and professional reviewers had done a disservice to the greater mass of readers (my husband subscribes to the New York Times Review of Books, which always comes to my mind as an example of reviews that look to be as demanding to write as the books themselves!) Although I may appreciate the exercise in comparative literature, historical perspective, and contemporary social values — these are not the reviews I want to write, or can write with any degree of facility.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Shouldn't You Be Writing?

... not that I want you go go away and not read my blog. But I don't know any writer (who is online, that is) for whom the internet is not a time sink. The black hole that eats up hours -- days -- of writing. Not to mention leaving us frazzled and dry-eyed. This latter bit is true: when you're staring at a computer screen, you blink less frequently than when you're not, so your eyes get drier. As you age, this effect becomes even more pronounced. So, apart from eye strain (again, more of a problem for older folks), there's that scratchy-eyed feeling as if it's 2 am. This is apart from neck and shoulder strain -- well, you know the ergonomic lament of anyone who sits at a desk all day.

Juliette Wade's blog today is on "the internet as a trap" -- some thoughts on the psychology of how we get locked into online stuff, including what we get out of it -- or think we get out of it -- and some strategies for disconnecting. No, not unplugging. Email, blog sites (like this one!), news sites, social media, are all valuable in their place. So how do we, with our primate brains and addictive natures, manage to keep it all under control?

Friday, January 6, 2012

Sleepy Mind, Great Ideas... Maybe

Why is it that juicy story ideas, as well as brilliant solutions to plot problems, pop into my mind when I'm dozing off? All right, that's a rhetorical question. We all know that as we drift into sleep, our brain activity changes. Logic and other constraints on creativity shut down and we make unusual and often wonderful connections between otherwise disparate bits of memory, thoughts, etc. The point of my question is not why this happens, but what to do about the inevitable waking up and being unable to remember.

Catherine Mintz playfully suggests that "it is a law of writing that wonderful things appear as soon as you are too tired to make notes."

Keeping a pen and paper at bedside is a logical remedy. I've done this for a dream journal, which has a slightly different objective, and I've done it for writing ideas at various times over the years. I don't any more, and here's why.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Editors Are Your Friends

There's a tendency among newer writers (and -- let's face it -- all of us, at one time or another) to regard editors as adversaries. First of all, acquiring editors are gate-keepers. They're the ones with the power to say No, the ones we have to get past in order to get our books accepted and paid for. They're the ones we think of bribing with chocolate, or placating and cajoling and offering the sekrit handshake to.

Then, once we've cleared that hurdle, we have to face editorial revisions. It isn't enough that we've toiled and toiled and turned ourselves into knots getting a book accepted -- now they want to us to change stuff! To alter our peerless prose! What if they want us to do something that's wrong, wrong, wrong for the book? Where do they get off telling us what to do, anyway?

Madeleine E. Robins made a wonderful comment on this:

My constant refrain, when I'm talking to would-be, wanna-be, and future writers, is: "editors are your friend. They keep you from going out in public with your slip showing and pieces of spinach caught in your teeth. Yes, there are some editors who are, um, overzealous. But most of them have the best interest of your work at heart, and I doubt there exists an editor anywhere who gets up in the morning saying "How shall I screw up great works of prose today?" 

What is sad is that twice I have been informed by someone in the crowd that editors were just wanna-be writers who were taking out their disappointment on the text before them.

While many editors are also writers, many are not and never want to be. They love editing, they love "midwifing" wonderful books -- they want to fall in love with yours and make it the best it can be. It is such a joy to work with an insightful, skilled author. Truly, such a professional is an author's best friend.