Saturday, 7 October 2017

Marriage Equality, a step on the road to a just society



Today's blog isn't going to be about writing. Or is it? Tathagata Buddha said, 'with our thoughts, we make the world'. The writer's task, au fond, is to create worlds with our words, and in the process, we may sometimes cause a small shift in this world we inhabit. It has been said, often enough that one almost cringes when hearing it yet again, that the pen is mightier than the sword, and this is true in the sense that it is in the written word that nearly all thinking is communicated. All matters, therefore, are the proper business of the writer.

This being the case, today I am going to talk about Marriage Equality.

In 1955 Mrs Rosa Parks, 'tired of giving in', declined to yield her seat to a 'white' passenger. Ever since, we've been on the road towards civilisation. The road has at times been bumpy, and there may have been switchbacks and setbacks, but overall the trend has been upwards, although at a very slow pace. Nowadays, although racism is still very much a thing, it's at least recognised, and most people accept that it is a problem, and it's visible. There has been progress in other areas, too. The gay people are pretty well all out of the closet, at least if they want to be, which is a thing we could never have dreamed of when I was a girl. And now, they are asking for their rights; specifically, the right to marry the people of their choice, a right so basic that it is never even questioned.

What, some of you may ask, has this to do with me? Am I gay? Well that's as may be. Those of you who know me will be able to answer that, but I refuse to accept that my own sexuality has any bearing at all on the position I will take with regard to marriage equality. For me, the question is not one of can this person marry that person, but of whether we are going to have a just society, in which every citizen has the same rights as every other citizen, and there are not 'second-class seats'. Once the struggle of one's early years is past, when we know we will never starve, when we are assured of our basic needs, we may see that a better world to leave one's children is one of the highest goals to which we can aspire, and the question of whether one personally benefits in the sense of having more money because of a tax change must take second place for any thinking person.

In a sense, we are all that gay man who may not have his marriage recognised in our country. No man is an island, says Donne, and goes on to add 'every man's death diminishes me'. The fundamental truth of these words is something that few would contest, and today's shameful 'debate' ought to be seen in their light, and in that of the natural inference that every man's suffering also diminishes us. 

As well as the victims of an unjust law, though, we must also identify with the perpetrators. We are all shamed by a government that discriminates against this one and that one, that is corrupt, that condemns children to life in torture camps, and so on. We are all personally shamed when people must sleep in shop doorways and beg for their food. We are all the problem, because our government is an elected government, and there is no chanting the childish mantra of 'not my president', as one sees Americans doing. Because we let them do it.

That is why I voted YES in the questionnaire, and why every thinking, honest Australian ought to do the same.

This short story is my dystopic vision
 of where our current government wants to lead us.
It's free at the moment. Get your copy HERE



Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Promotional copies - they don't have to cost anything!

So often when I've been asked to review someone's book, the author has 'gifted' me a copy on Amazon. Not that I mind that, of course, but it always makes me a little sad to see a hard-working, underpaid independent author spending his money to get a review that may not even turn out to be any good. Those dollars, I always feel, could have been better spent. Not because it isn't important to get reviews - I do believe it's very important - but because it doesn't have to cost you anything.

If the book is traditionally published, of course, this is not relevant. In that case, it would be the publisher sending out a review copy, and that's another matter entirely. But mostly when I get these copies gifted through Amazon, the author is a self-published indie. Trad publishers are more likely to send a paperback through the post, at least in my experience. 

But it is with the independent author that this blog is chiefly concerned, because we are the ones who have to do it all for ourselves. And if you aren't making very much money from your books, as is sadly the case with most of us, you do not want to spend money unnecessarily. Save that money for things that you can't get for nothing: a good editor, for instance, and perhaps cover design.

Because I've encountered this situation dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of times, today I'm going to lay out, step by step, how an independent author published through KDP can get unlimited review copies to send out, for absolutely no cost. 

So, here goes.

STEP ONE
Open your KDP account and find your book. I'm going to illustrate this by getting a copy of my little book, Grammar Without Tears, but the process is exactly the same for any book. I've chosen this one because the big new second edition is in the process of being got ready for publication, but the method I am going to show you works just the same whether the book is published or not.


Here are both editions of GWT on my KDP page.
I can use the same process to download a free copy of either one.
STEP TWO
Go into your book. If you want the draft one, the button says CONTINUE SETUP, but the result will be the same in either case. You may wish to use the process for advance review copies, to get some reviews up prior to your release date. For this example, I have chosen the live version.

Mouse over the little box with three dots, to the right of the book, and when the list pops up, click on Edit eBook Content.

See the list that pops up when you mouse over the box with the three little dots.
The selection you want is Edit eBook Content.

STEP THREE
Now the next thing that always happens to me is that it diverts me to the sign-in screen, because I haven't signed in first, or it's expired, or something, so don't panic if this happens to you. You do not have to start the entire process again. Just enter your password and continue, and it will still go to the right place.

This is the second page of the book, the page that deals with content.
STEP FOUR
Now, because these pages are huge, I can't show the entire thing in my screenprint, and the entire thing won't display on your screen either. You now need to scroll down to find the bit you want- the Kindle Book Preview section.

See on the left where it says 'Kindle eBook Preview'.
This is the section you want.


STEP FIVE

Select 'Preview on your computer' from the options. This will make some additional text pop up. Don't worry about the downloadable previewer just now; it's irrelevant for our purpose. You want to click on MOBI, in Step 2. It is the Mobi file that is the object of the whole exercise. 


STEP SIX

You will get a little download window, and this is where you choose where to save your file. Once the download is complete, this is a usable ebook that you can send to as many people as you like.



OTHER FORMATS

Now that you've got your free copy, which you can send out as many times as you like, it's worth considering other formats. The mobi, like the azw and azw3, requires a Kindle device or emulator. But if you're after a lot of reviews, you may want to cast your net wider. Lots of people read on a Kobo or other e-reader, and those use the epub format.


You can easily convert your mobi file to an epub, pdf or other format using Calibre. It's free, open-source software, and I highly recommend it. You can also tweak the metadata, change the cover, and all kinds of things, but the primary use in this context is to convert formats. It's fairly easy to use, and unlike many products, it has really good technical support, provided by the product's creator, Kovid Goyal.

You can download the software HERE.

The vastly expanded second edition will be coming out later this year,
along with a companion volume. Meanwhile, you can get the first edition HERE.

Monday, 2 October 2017

The Snowflake Effect



The world has moved on, as Roland would say. So much has changed over my life. Most of the things that used to enrage me as a child are no longer a thing. We've gone to the moon. We have smartphones and ebooks and we're all in touch with people all over the world, pretty well all the time unless we take steps to limit our access. Gay people are out of the closet and demanding equal rights, and racism, although still prevalent, is at least something that doesn't quietly slip under the radar.

Nowhere, though, are the changes more fundamental than in the way we deal with one another. This is particularly noticeable in situations where we encounter something we don't like. Once upon a time, if we saw something of which we disapproved, we used to 'walk on by'. Perhaps we'd have a discreet little chunter to our friends, but by and large we tended just to look away when confronted with something we thought was in poor taste, or even morally reprehensible.

Nowadays, however, a common response is to go on the warpath instead. Don't like someone's outfit that you see in the street? Take a picture on your phone, upload it and shame him on social media. Disagree with something a person said in a comment? Why not spend a couple of hours insulting him and inciting your friends to attack him, too. The more the merrier! Yes, let's have a mob by all means! See someone with his dog offlead in a place that isn't a designated offlead area? Follow him and find out who he is and report him to the council. See someone at the train station in a fur coat and you disapprove of wearing fur? Yell at her until you've reduced her to tears. It's your right!

This combative instinct isn't limited to seeing unpleasant sights, either. Did someone ask you to call your dog away when it was jumping all over him in the park/ attacking his dog/ spoiling his picnic/ giving him an allergy attack? Never mind complying with the polite request. Instead, follow him around screaming abuse until he gives up and leaves. Did someone ask you to keep the noise down in the library? Harass him until he gives up and leaves. Think I'm exaggerating? I'm not. In fact, I'm speaking from personal experience. Many personal experiences, some that have happened to me, and many more that I've witnessed happening to other people.

It isn't always an aggressive frontal attack, of course. Much of the attacking I see done nowadays is of the whining variety. Oh, poor me, I saw something nasty. Boo Hoo. It's meant to enlist sympathy from bystanders, so that hopefully everyone will hate your target. This is what I call the Snowflake Effect.


Triggers

Another thing is that now we have 'triggers'. All kinds of people are claiming to be 'triggered' by all kinds of things, even things as trivial as a funny meme. Now, if you see something nasty in the woodshed, you aren't just offended or disgusted on your own turf. It's become normal to accost people and rant at them in the street or on the internet. We are, it seems, no longer tough enough to survive encountering something unpleasant in our day.

This idea of the 'trigger', borrowed from the language of psychology, has spread far and wide, and Amazon is full of books carrying 'trigger warnings'. Members of writers' groups solemnly discuss the need for such warnings, and I've even seen trigger warnings placed at the head of Facebook posts.

What is a trigger, really? It's an event that causes a powerful recall of a traumatic event in a person's past, when that person suffers from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), a serious and debilitating psychological illness. Typically, this will result in an event called a flashback, where the patient experiences a recall of his traumatic memory that is very immediate and consuming, sometimes to the point where the person experiences himself back in the time of the traumatic events.

This is really nasty stuff. Really, really nasty. It is most commonly experienced by combat veterans and people who've gone through experiences so appalling and frightful that they are mentally scarred by it, to the extent where they have a diagnosed mental disorder. It's a serious psychological event that causes horrible suffering, and perhaps horrible behaviour as a result.

So-called 'triggers' are mostly bullshit.

My point here is that PTSD is a real illness and a very serious one that causes untold suffering, and it is in my view grossly disrespectful to its victims to appropriate the clinical language of the disease to describe the petulance of a spoilt, entitled person when seeing something he dislikes, or with which he disagrees.

Where To Draw The Line?

So where should we draw the line, when deciding whether getting involved is warranted? Personally, I think the law of the land is a good guide. Is the thing you've seen illegal? Then, depending on its severity, you may want to call police, or even intervene directly where the matter is urgent (e.g. an assault in progress).

Where it's not a matter of illegality but of offending some other set of norms (religious, moral, good taste, whatever), I think a good rule of thumb is whether you or someone else are actually being harmed. Actually. Not in your opinion, or according to your personal moral code, or anything else subjective, but right here, right now, someone is suffering actual damage. Those cases are fairly rare.

Being Offended Is Not A Head of Damage

Being offended by something, believe it or not, does not give you rights over the offender. You do not have the right to demand that others live according to your standards. Myself, I'm offended by a lot of things. Heaps and heaps. I can hardly get through a day without seeing something I consider offensive. Facial hair on women. Dreadlocks. 'Lay' used intransitively. Speedos. Little birds in cages. Pornography being marketed as 'erotic romance'. Americans grabbing their left tits when they hear their national anthem. The word 'tasty'. There's no end to it. And you know what? Almost always, I just shut my mouth, because at the end of the day it is none of my business what other people do. Well, okay, I usually do say something about intransitive 'lay'. But that's not because I'm on the moral high ground. It's more that I can't help myself.

Far be it from me to suggest that my own conduct should be viewed as any sort of universal guide. But really, haven't we gone a little too far down the path of entitlement? A right can only exist in the presence of its corresponding duty; my right not to be punched in the nose is the flip side of your duty not to punch me in the nose. They're not even corresponding, linked things - they're the same thing. Where there is no duty, there can be no right. And therefore, if it's not my duty to refrain from saying anything that someone, somewhere might not like, it's equally not your right to demand that I (or anyone else) do so. Because, after all, we're not two years old.

In Gift of Continence, a woman plots to kill her unfaithful husband.
 This is just the kind of over-the-top reaction that should be avoided in life.
Get it at AMAZON


Monday, 18 September 2017

On Labelling


In his marvellous book, A Fair Dinkum Pain in the Neck, author Peter Henri relates an argument with a hospital doctor. With his permission, I'll quote the section here:

While I was working at the hospital I went to the ear nose and throat department for another check-up, or down as the case may be. I was seen by a visiting doctor from the ENT at Royal Adelaide. I hadn’t met him before, and when I arrived in his room I was still wearing my hospital identity badge. He had my file in his hand, and by way of greeting he said, “Ah Mr Henri, I see you’re a laryngectomee.”
I said, “No I’m not.”
He looked confused, obviously reading my name badge and checking the file at the same time.
“It says here that you had a laryngectomy in August 2001.”
“That’s right. I’m Peter, not Mr Henri, and I had a laryngectomy in August 2001.”
Now he looked even more confused, and I’m sure he probably thought that he had just met a Territorian who had ‘gone troppo’ or had developed ‘mango madness’ as we are wont to do up here in the Top End.
“And if I had an arm amputated I wouldn’t be an amputee. I would be Peter who had his arm amputated. You see, doctor, I don’t identify as being a thing, a laryngectomee, or any other ‘ee’. Nor do I identify as a cancer victim. I was afflicted by cancer, or got cancer.” 


Who has not seen someone who is, or who has a friend or relative, on the Autism Spectrum, making the point that those people should be referred to, not as 'autistics', but as people who have autism? The issue isn't particular to autism, either, by the way.

This is not a situation peculiar to a particular person, or to hospitals, or to any particular conditoin or industry. It is a general issue, and the issue is one of courtesy. The reason for this is that this kind of discourtesy is labelling.

Let's take a look at what we are doing when we say to someone, 'you're a xxxxxx'. By using a noun to describe a person, we are assigning him to a category. Even if it's a compliment, there's a shade of arrogance to that. We are implicitly saying that it is for us to define what that person is, a thing we have no right to do. 

This is why it goes to courtesy; by arrogating to ourselves the right to define a person, we have implicitly placed ourselves above him. And that's rude as hell.

What To Do About It

The whole problem can easily be made to disappear. There are two possible ways. 

One way is to examine whether the remark was even appropriate. There are many situations where the whole thing would be just better unsaid. For example, if it's a comment you're making about a person's physical appearance. These are generally better avoided. Whatever it is you want to say, the person has almost certainly heard it a million times, it is not going to be news to him, and unless you know him very well, it's intrusive. Commenting about a person's body is just the first step on a path that leads to touching him.

If it is still something that needs to be said, there is an easy fix: it is to use a verb instead of a noun. Not 'he is autistic', but 'he has autism'. I am using autism for my example because that's the context in which I most often see people complaining about labelling, but this method has quite general application. For example, not 'he is an animal lover', but 'he loves animals'. Of course, statements like this are unlikely to give offense, at least not consciously, but as courtesy is so often a matter of unconscious habit, it does no harm to err on the side of strictness.

Labelling Enables Bigotry

A huge benefit of forcing yourself into this more verbal approach is that it can support your effort to behave well in other ways. A great example of this is racism.

Why is it so, you ask. Let's try an experiment. Pick a person, any person. Try to make a racist remark about that person, without first saying, or at least thinking, something like 'he is a (insert noun). I'll be surprised if you can do it, very surprised indeed.

It is the very act of labelling that enables bigoted thinking. For this reason, if for no other, it is a habit we all do well to overcome.

Try my new short story, Uncle Zan's Dog.
 AMAZON



Saturday, 9 September 2017

Cast of Thousands Need Not Apply

Vampires. Werewolves. Witches. Zombies. Elves. Goblins. Fairies. Elder Gods. Practically every fantasy novel one pick up these days appears to have a cast of thousands, that makes Tolkien's five sentient species look positively stingy.

Sometimes I imagine conversations between these writers.

"Oh, Mary's book isn't going to be any good. She hasn't even got vampires!"
"I hear Fred's new one has Silkies and a Pooka as well as dragons, griffins and elves."
A brief hush follows, as a roomful of writers scribble notes to look up what a Pooka is and add it to their Gothic Christian Steampunk Transgender Erotic Romance Fantasy Epics. Or whatever.

This mania for having one of everything has, I suspect, in the ancient art of 'Keeping Up With The Joneses.' "Oh," one imagines them saying to themselves. "Joe's got zombies AND cyberpunk." And off they rush to add some zombies to their mediaeval quest fantasy.

Don't even let me get started on how overworked is the mediaeval quest fantasy. It's a truism in the writing world that whenever something really good and original is published, at least a decade will follow where hundreds of people produce poor copies of it. As far as I can see, this applies to just about every genre except literary fiction. That one's too hard for copyists.

Is this overabundance of fantasy species in modern fantasy literature a bad thing? Yes, I have to say I think it is. It's not so much that extra species are a bad thing per se, but more that the wholesale inclusion of everything under the sun signals a lack of restraint. Further, there is something intrinsically comical about the 'cast of thousands' approach. Who can even hear the words 'cast of thousands' without a tiny snigger? And unless your book is actually meant to be funny, that really isn't the response you're looking for from your readers.

About now, I can hear my reader thinking, "But what about Terry Pratchett?" Although I never accept the appeal to authority as any kind of valid argument, his books are so lovely, and so very successful (in the literary, not in the commercial, sense) that the existence of the Discworld, with its dwarves gnomes gargoyles vampires werewolves dragons et alia, may be seen as adding weight to the contra position.

I don't think this is so. Pratchett's work is deeply satirical, and he does not just make fun of policemen, movie producers, dog breeders or whatever aspect of society he's chosen for his particular target in any given book. He is, all the time, making fun of himself and all the other fantasy writers. He mocks us all, and we love him for it. 

My own approach is different. If I write fantasy, I like to keep the fantastic element to an absolute minimum - no more than is needed for the story to work. Some people have unkindly referred to this as 'diet fantasy.' I will defend this approach with my last breath, though. To me, it's a matter of fixed principle that you should use no more of anything than is required for the story to work. And that applies to sentient species, just as it does to sex, to violence, to descriptions or anything else. 

No story needs more
than one dancing zombie cockroach.
Danse Macabre






Saturday, 2 September 2017

When You Get A Bad Review

For some of us that sorrowful day is still in the future, for some of us it's a traumatic memory. Some newer writers have even be heard to say they'd be grateful for any review, if only someone would write one, even if it was terrible. But make no mistake, it comes to us all, and if it hasn't happened to you yet, then you have it coming.

The whole vexed question of bad reviews is something I often see discussed in writers' groups. Why say anything if you can't say something nice, is one of the most frequent comments. 

This is missing the point of reviews. Of course, many of us have been brought up to be 'nice', and of course if you're at a party and someone asks you what you thought of his biography of Thomas Crapper, you're going to be racking your brains for a compliment, even if you have to resort to the worn-out 'interesting'. But a review is not a social occasion. A review is feedback from your reading public, and if you're a publishing writer, it can be very, very valuable, and a critical review can often be more valuable than a complimentary one, because it will point you to areas where you are displeasing your readers.

Over the years, I have heard a number of well-known authors quoted as saying they never read their reviews. I used to believe it too, until I was publishing myself. Now I think it is mere posturing. 

Mind you, that isn't necessarily bad. It's much better than starting one of those ghastly public bitchfights all over the social media. That not only makes you look like an amateur, it makes you look like a child. Therefore, I believe, for the safety of your image and reputation, the first rule of reviews ought to be that you do not respond. No matter what.

DO NOT RESPOND TO REVIEWS OR ACKNOWLEDGE THEM IN ANY WAY.


This may seem a little hardline, but I truly think it's for the best. If you get a real stinker, you can maintain your dignity much better if no one knows you've seen it.

Given that any response you make to the review is not going to be public, let's look at what you can usefully do. There are several questions you should be asking at this point.

Malicious or not?
I see a lot of writers speculating about whether a bad review has been prompted by malice. This is not helpful, because at the end of the day, it really doesn't matter if it has been or not, if the criticism is valid. Of course, if the criticism is not actually about the book but attacks you personally, the rules of most sites will allow you to report it and it will probably be removed sooner or later. But generally this will not be the case.

IS IT TRUE?


Of course, a reader's enjoyment of a book is purely subjective. If the reviewer just hated your plot, or didn't like your characters, or for any reason didn't enjoy the book without a specific and concrete stated reason, then truth or falsehood do not apply. If he says he didn't like it, then he didn't like it.

Often, however, specific statements will be made. Formatting errors, poor proofreading, bad grammar, defects of style - all of these, if clearly stated, warrant a second look. If, for example, a reviewer says your book has formatting errors, it's easy enough to check this, especially if it's a print edition. If it's an ebook, then you'll want to look at it on more than one device and varying the font size. If you find that the criticism has merit you can go ahead and fix it. That's a win for you; you will avoid annoying future readers. Similarly, if he says your grammar is all wrong, you can check that too, or get a good editor to do it. This kind of criticism should be viewed at as free quality-control advice.

If, after careful examination, you find that the criticism is not true - the formatting errors claimed do not exist, or whatever - then you can just move on and forget it. Yes, in such a case, it may have been prompted by malice, but so what? You're a published author, you're a public person to that extent. You need to be able to take this stuff in your stride. And yes, it's hard, damned hard, the first time it happens, but every job has its downside.

HAS MORE THAN ONE REVIEWER MADE THE SAME CRITICISM?


This is the second question you should be asking. If the answer is yes, especially if there have been a number, you have identified an area of your work that needs improvement. There are no two ways about this. If you published your work, you wanted people to buy it and read it, so at some point you need to consider your market, and if dozens of people are complaining about, for example, plot holes, wooden dialogue, stock characters and so on, or even something that isn't technically a flaw but seems to be displeasing a lot of your readers, this is something you need to look at. For example, if anyone in your book kicked a puppy, you're almost guaranteed to lose stars, no matter how beautifully you wrote about it. 

IF THERE HAS BEEN MORE THAN ONE INSTANCE, HOW PREVALENT IS THE CRITICISM?


This question goes to the question of how drastic your response should be. If you have a hundred reviews and eighty-six of them make the same major criticism, I should recommend withdrawing the book from publication and either scrapping it or reworking it to fix the problem. It isn't usually so clear-cut, though, not least because as novice authors, we tend to pick these things up before there are so many reviews, because we are constantly checking on our reviews, whatever we may say in public. Nevertheless, if a majority of your reviews mention the same fairly severe criticism, you would be wise at least to consider revising the work. 

At this point you have a judgement call to make: is fixing it going to be worth the time it will take, or should you suck it up and move on, hopefully avoiding the same blunder in future work? If it's an easy fix, or if you've only just published this book, it's probably a good idea to fix it and republish. If it's been around for some time and it's well in the past, unless that particular book is very important to you, it might be better just to write it off to experience and apply what you've learned to your new work. Either way, you should never, never, engage with the reviewer in any way. Trust me on this. If you do, you'll end up looking like a fool, a psychopath, or both.

Each of these has received one real stinker.
It didn't kill me.
Grammar Without Tears
Once Upon A Dragon




Friday, 1 September 2017

Productivity Revisited - my problem solved; followup from 31 March


On 31 March this year, I posted a cautionary tale of productivity gone wrong. In that post, which you can see HERE, I described how last year, despite meeting my daily wordcount goals and writing well over 200,000 words, I finished almost nothing. 

My approach this year has been to limit, very severely, the things I allow myself to work on. At the New Year, when I make resolutions, I made a list of goals for 2017:
  1. New edition of Grammar Without Tears
  1. Companion volume to Grammar Without Tears
  1. Two long stories or perhaps novellas
  1. Two short stories (which had already been written and only needed revisions etc.)

The plan called for everything to be finished and in a ready state for publication or submission, and for the companion volume to Grammar Without Tears to be published.

This seems like a very small amount of achievement for a whole year, and I think that's one of the big hidden dangers in planning. If I'd written this list cold, I'd have been going, 'of course I can do WAY more than that.' However, the clarity afforded by Microsoft Project, used properly, in conjunction with data I've accumulated about how long things have taken in the past, told me that this little lot, based on a five-day working week and not going at it like a maniac, could be expected to take me to the end of November, and December is pretty well a write-off anyway, what with all the bites that get taken out of one's work time.

So how has it gone, so far? Well, as we approach the 2/3 point of the year, only one long story and the two books remain uncompleted. They are all substantially finished, though; only revisions and formatting, etc, remain. In addition, I've published one novella, one long story and one short story that were drafted last year.

The way I did this was that I now forbid myself to touch anything not on the project plan, and I allow myself to add anything to the plan only when a) it is inside my stated working hours and b) I am genuinely unable to work on anything that was on it. 

It hasn't been as much fun as last year when I wrote up a storm. By the end of April I'd finished all the actual writing part of the project, and since then it's been all revisions, and formatting, and proofreading. But things are getting finished, and there is a quiet joy to meeting a goal, especially when that involves publication, that is for me worth the short-term sacrifice. It's like graduation ceremonies - that moment when you stand up on the stage and receive your testamur makes you very, very glad of all the pub nights and days at the beach that were foregone in the preceding years.

Is there a lesson in this? Well, I don't know about you, but for me there certainly is, and it is that when you have spent twenty years developing a particular skill, you shouldn't stop using that skill when you take up a new line of work.


None of these would have got published if I'd kept to my frivolous ways.
Operation Badger
The Real Winner
Uncle Zan's Dog



Monday, 28 August 2017

Series or Standalone - pros and cons

The trend towards writing series of novels has become increasingly strong in recent years, and there are many authors who do not write anything outside series. More and more lately, I've seen what amounts to a fundamental assumption by some independent writers that everything they write will be part of a series, particularly in certain genres. 

There are arguments for and against writing a series, and today we'll take a look at what they are.

THE PRO CASE

Persistent World
First of all, and this one's a biggie, whatever worldbuilding you do, of your setting and/or main characters, will stay done, and you can keep on using it, over and over again. This is particularly beneficial if you're writing the kind of thing that has a massive worldbuild or research component, such as fantasy, steampunk or historical fiction. 

Build a Following
Once you've firmly established a series, readers who enjoyed earlier books are very likely to keep buying later ones. They know what to expect, and if they liked the others, they know they'll like this one. And a lot of people are quite compulsive about series, even when each book is able to stand alone (as it must, if it's been properly written.) Even readers who first encounter one of the later books are quite likely to go back and buy the earlier ones. This is great for your sales.

Knowing What To Expect
Once you're up to about the third or fourth book in a series, you will have a pretty fair idea of what's going into it before you even start outlining. This can make the book quick and easy to write compared to a standalone novel.

THE CONTRA CASE

Lack of Variety
If all you write is one series, you will never get to try anything new. This means that many, many avenues for growth as a writer are going unused, and also that you are missing out on trying different genres that you might have really loved. You don't know how you'll go in a genre until you try it. For years I was convinced I would never write children's lit - but when I came up with the outline for No Such Thing it was clear that it needed to be a middle-grade kids' book, and I enjoyed writing it no end and have another one in progress for the same age group. I would never have found this out if I hadn't been willing to give it a go.

Branding
This is the flip side of building a following. Writers, like actors, can be 'type cast'. If you've spent many years writing, say, chicklit, and suddenly decide you want to branch out into dystopian sci-fi, your established readership probably won't like your new work, and many potential readers who would have liked it may never see it because they think of you as exclusively a chicklit writer. Imagine if Stephen King suddenly started writing romantic comedies. How many people would buy the new book and throw it away unfinished in disgust? You never want to disappoint a reader.

Of course, branding doesn't only occur in the context of a series, but if you do have a long-running series and don't write other stuff as well, you may be sure it will happen to you.

Getting bored or stale
If you keep writing the same series, sooner or later you are likely to get bored with it. If it's making money for you, you may press on, but remember, you cannot do your best work if you are less than fully engaged yourself. Your quality will suffer.

Going Out of Style
Literature, like everything else, has trends and fashions. Vampires are very popular at the moment, and it's a fashion that has been surprisingly long-lived - but it is a fashion. If all you've ever written is a vampire series and suddenly the bottom falls out of the market, there goes your passive income stream, leaving you high and dry, with nothing to fall back on until you develop a whole new thing. This is what happened to Rudolph Valentino when the talkies came along.

Of course, these 'contra' arguments are not so much arguments against writing a series as against writing only a series. You can have the best of both worlds by writing both a series and other stuff too; of course, you are splitting your effort then, and you will not get your series books out as rapidly as you might otherwise have done. 

TYPES OF SERIES

Series fall into two categories: the finite and the infinite.

The Finite Series
A finite series is one where you know ahead of time, at least roughly, how many books the series will contain. Trilogies fall into this category, as do longer series such as Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time. A longer series of this type will have an overall story arc, within which you position each book, while being sure that each book can stand alone, as a properly-written novel must do.

A modern variant of this is the 'episodic' series, such as Patti Roberts' popular Witchwood Estate series. These books are episodes in a larger story. They're very entertaining, and have enjoyed a good deal of success, but a great deal of care must be taken if you want to do this. You must ensure that every bit of marketing that is done underlines the nature of the series, lest you gravely disappoint readers who were expecting complete novels. Really, this type of series is more in the nature of a long book published by instalments, as was a lot of Dickens' work.

The Infinite Series
An infinite series, on the other hand, can last as long as the author is alive and willing to continue with it. Most detective series fall into this category, although if you've used a theme for your titles, like James Patterson with his nursery rhyme titles or Sue Grafton with her alphabet ones, it can be problematic when you come to the end of the list.

A Series Doesn't Have To Be Novels
A series need not be of novels. My own Operation Tomcat series are novellas, and you can also write short stories in a series, which can prepare the way for a themed collection down the track. This can happen if you've a character of whom you're particularly fond, like my own Sophie Green, whom I've used again and again.

The Nature of the Decision
Personally, I don't believe this is a career-level decision that needs to be made. Some books lend themselves to founding a series, and others don't. Operation Tomcat founded what I hope will be a long-running series (after a writer colleague persuaded me into it), but my historical novel, King's Ransom, could not, even if I wanted it to; it just is not suitable for the purpose, being based wholly around certain defined historical events. It's a decision that needs to be made at the story level, whether that story is a huge saga that will encompass fourteen long novels, or a single book with potential for sequelae.


My own Operation Tomcat series, which I was bullied into writing.
1. Operation Tomcat
2. Operation Camilla
3. Operation Badger


Sunday, 27 August 2017

Literary Activism - Racist Stereotypes

A while ago, I started working on a new story, a fantasy story of the fairy-tale type - beautiful princess locked in a tower, evil sorcerer seizing control of the kingdom, kind of thing. I wasn't planning on making any kind of political statement with this story; it was to be purely for entertainment.

The trouble came when I wanted to commission my cover. I'm keen enough on this story that I plan to publish it as a single, and I wanted to get my cover done early in the process, because this works well for me, as I talked about in Your Cover Designer and You, on 11 May this year.

My cover person likes to use stock images from a particular company where she has an account, and so I went there to find an image of a beautiful princess for her to use. So far so good - this company has thousands, tens of thousands of pictures of everything under the sun. Patti likes to use them because of the quality, and although I sometimes browbeat her into using pictures of my own animals, whenever it's about a human, I like to cut her a break.

So there I was, and I put in 'princess' or something, anyway up came thousands of pictures of girls and young women in full-on Disney princess kit. I paged and paged, so many of them were so lovely, and I was having trouble choosing one. Spoiled for choice, I know.

Something struck me, though, as I looked at page after page. There was a weird similarity to all the girls and women. I didn't twig at first, because I put it down to their outfits, but finally the penny dropped. They were all European types. Every single one. I don't know how many pages I went through, but I do know I was at it for a long time, and I did not find ONE traditional princess who didn't have pale skin. No brown people, no golden people, just page after page of what used to be called 'white people', but I don't like that terminology. And it reminded me of a sad little news item I'd seen, where a tiny little Aboriginal girl in a princess costume for some event was berated by an adult bigot because 'Princess Whatever isn't black', and told that a 'black' girl couldn't be a princess.

That got to me rather, and I decided that I would make my princess a brown girl. Just to stick it up the stereotype. There were some consequences for my story, because I wasn't able to source an image of a princess in what's regarded as typical princess gear. I found a beautiful young girl who also looked quite regal, but she was in a sleeveless dress and big hoop earrings. This meant that I needed to set my fairytale land in a hot climate. A good example of why I like to get my covers done early!

This is the cover I'm talking about.

Making the princess a brown girl actually worked really, really well for my plot. I'm not going to say exactly why, because that would be a spoiler, for a story I haven't even finished writing yet, but I love what that one change has done for it. So often in life when we go to do something good in a disinterested way, karma pays us back in unexpected ways. At least, that's been my experience.

So, to come back to my topic. Doing things like this is what's known as literary activism. Just as judicial activism in common-law countries changes the law to fit more civilised ideals, so can literary activism change the world, tiny drop by tiny drop.

Now I'm not talking here about people like Stephen King saying stuff in radio interviews, or anything like that. Valuable as this kind of thing may be, it is not literary activism; it is celebrity activism. When you do that, you are operating through your fame, not your writing. You have on your celebrity hat, not your writer hat. Literary activism is done by using our writing, and the good news is that it doesn't require any fame at all, although of course if you are a very well-known writer, your audience will be larger. 

How to do it

There are three ways of doing literary activism. 

1. Lecturing Your Reader.
The first, and most obvious, way, is to have one of your characters expound the point you wish to make. Robert Heinlein's work is full of examples of this technique, and if you like reading sleazy rubbish, so is that of John Norman. I have advised my readers in other posts not to keep stopping in your narrative to deliver a lecture, so I don't feel I need to say more about it here, other than to reiterate that it isn't a good idea, and that Heinlein and Norman have been successful in spite of, not because of, this nasty habit.

2. Showing Your Reader The Bad Thing.
In this technique, all we need to do is to portray the thing we are against; to hold it up to the reader in all its ugly stupidity. An example from my own work is Goebbels, in Dance of Chaos. I write him being a vicious bigot to his Aboriginal employee, and I don't make any comment on it at all.

3. Showing Your Reader a Better Way.
This is what I'm planning to do in the story I talked about above. I'll be showing the reader a classic fairytale princess, with brown skin and Africanesque features, and I will not be making any comment about it. I will actually be going a little farther than that, but 'spoilers,' as River Song says.

The thing about literary activism is that, as with all fiction writing, you are allowing your reader to supply, to fill in the blanks you have left. You're giving him something to think about. You're not telling him what to think. See, this is what I meant when I said 'tiny drop by tiny drop'. All you are doing is showing your reader something that implicitly invites him to think about it. And if you've done well, some reader may change his belief or attitude about something. Don't underestimate the power of that. It took only one experience to make me discard the racism I'd been taught in primary school. You change one person's mind about something, you do not know how far-reaching the consequences may be. For example, in my story The Real Winner, I used a combination of (2) and (3) to show the rights and wrongs of bringing up a puppy. One reader contacted me to tell me that as a result of reading it, he'd re-evaluated his situation with his problem dog, and would not be returning her to the shelter after all, but was hiring a training consultant to address the dog's problems. That dog is now a happy and well-behaved dog, bringing joy and comfort to a widowed man. And that is just the one I know about. Do you see? My story saved a life. A small thing in the context of the world, but a very big thing to that dog, and to her human, too. Because of this, I will always regard myself as a successful writer.

This is the story that saved a life.
You can get it at Amazon.

A good example of a popular writer using a combination of techniques (2) and (3) is the work of Sheri Tepper. Her activism was directed to the saving of the planet and our ecology, and it was very well done; she never spoiled the readability of her books by lecturing, and they are real page-turners. Sadly, Ms Tepper is now deceased, but her work lives on, and I'm sure it has educated many people. 

The point I'm trying to make here is that there need not be any overall cost to literary activism, when it's done well. The extra dimension can work for your story; it is not an extra load holding you back, but a power cell boosting you on. If it's done well.




Saturday, 26 August 2017

The Seven Deadly Sins of Writers' Groups

Writers' groups. Love them or hate them, nearly every independent writer belongs to at least one, and usually a lot more than one. And not just the indies, either - even Brandon Sanderson is in a writers' group, although I don't think his one is a Facebook group.

There's a lot to be said for joining a writers' group. A number of benefits can accrue from membership in these things. Just hanging out with other people who are going through the same things you're going through can be reassuring, and then there are often opportunities to learn new techniques, whether of writing or marketing, get some help with your query letter, and so on. And then there are the people you meet. I could write the whole post about that, but today I'm talking about sins, so I'll just say that I've made some wonderful friends in writers' groups, and also discovered some utterly brilliant writers whose work has given me many hours of reading pleasure.

So a writers' group can be very beneficial to you, providing it's a decent group, and you behave yourself properly. If you don't play nice, the other kids aren't going to want to play with you, and your posts and comments are likely to be ignored, and you may even be blocked by a lot of people. 



Here, therefore, I've listed the most annoying behaviours I see in writers' groups, so that you may, if you wish, avoid them. Just for fun, I've categorised them according to the real seven deadly sins, which as I'm sure you know are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth.

PRIDE



Two behaviours of which I see a lot fall under the category of pride, and they're both irritating AF. Both are forms of bragging, hence the classification. Now a certain amount of bragging is perfectly acceptable in a group. Of course you want to tell everyone when Random House have picked up your book, or when you've sold a million copies, or even when you get your first short story accepted for a magazine or anthology. That's respectable bragging, and it has its benefits for others; these success stories give us all hope when we're despondent about our own careers.

There is, however, pointless bragging, and you will be guilty of this if you:

Carry on about how suspicious your browsing history is, and how ASIO/MI5/MOSSAD etc might investigate you. No, they won't. No one cares.

Post memes about how 'special' writers are. I've talked about this one before, so I don't think I need to say more than that it's childish and pathetic.

GREED


Greed is basically trying to get more than your fair share of anything. The big offender here is inappropriate promotion, such as:

Posting 'buy' links to your book, over and over, perhaps even multiple times a day. 
Commenting on other people's (unrelated) threads with a buy link to your book. This is appallingly rude. 
Not quite so egregious, but still very bad behaviour, is twisting conversations so that you can work in a mention of your own book.
And of course, promoting your book in groups that do not allow self-promotion, which would include most of the better groups.

LUST



There isn't a lot of scope in writers' groups for lust, but it's worth remembering that quite a few groups that do allow self-promotion still don't allow promotion or posting of so-called 'adult' material (i.e. porn). Usually, this is because the group's membership may include some children. It's extremely inconsiderate to post sleazy material in such a group. And no, Virginia, claiming it's 'erotica' doesn't make a shred of difference.

ENVY


This is a big one. Over and over I see long, angry threads that are just a hatefest against high-profile writers such as Stephen King, James Patterson, E.L. James, Stephanie Meyer and J.K. Rowling. I say it is envy, because there is never any real attempt made to analyse any of the target's work, and also because one never, never sees this kind of mob attack on anyone except those lucky writers who have achieved major commercial success. 

GLUTTONY


Like lust, this sin has limited application to writers' groups, but postwhoring is, I think, rather analogous to it. We all know what a postwhore is, right? If you are posting more than a few times a day, or if you can scroll through the group and yours is the last comment on every single thread, you may be a postwhore. 

WRATH



Wrath manifests itself in a writers' group in two main ways. The first is, of course, trolling. Picking fights, posts whose only purpose is to offend, and using personal insult in an argument are all forms of trolling. Enough said.

The other really awful behaviour I see in this category is posting an excerpt and asking for critique, and then whining, arguing, or worst of all, throwing a tantrum when the work is criticised. 

Especial caution needs to be exercised with this one, because it's not nearly as easy to avoid as are most of the behaviours we're looking at today. I discovered this myself last year, when under the influence of some advice from the great Mr Sanderson I experimented with posting pieces for critique in several groups. If you feel someone has missed the point of what you wrote, it can be awfully difficult to hold your tongue. But hold it you must, for that very fact is itself a silent criticism of your writing: it is up to you, the writer, to ensure that readers don't miss the point.

SLOTH



If you post in your writers' group asking people to think of a name for your character, to decide on his hair colour, or in any way to tell you what to write, you are being slothful. You are supposed to be the writer. You need to get on and write your own book. If you can't, then perhaps it's time to rethink whether you are really suited to the work.

Similarly, whining about so-called 'writers' block'. I have seen so many of these posts that I am completely devoid of sympathy. If you are guilty of this, try getting a job on a building site, or in a factory, for six months or so, to learn a decent work ethic.




Friday, 25 August 2017

Things No One Will Tell You About Showing Your Dog


If you got your dog from a reputable breeder intending to show him or her, you've probably been given a bit of instruction about how the whole thing works. You know not to speak to the judge unless spoken to, you know to give your dog a bath beforehand, and hopefully you have at least a basic understanding of the process. With any luck, you may have attended a few shows with your breeder or someone else from your breed club, and had your hand held through your first stumbling efforts.

What no one will tell you about, though, is the awful ways in which you can embarrass yourself in the ring, without even being aware of it. I am referring to your outfit. 

It's not my intention to shame anyone, so I will be mentioning no names here, and I won't be posting any candid snaps either. But there is a list of things to avoid, and one thing that you must have, so without further ado, I give you Tabitha's Guide to Ring Wardrobe.

WHAT NOT TO WEAR

You have a wide choice of clothing for dog shows.  Really, there are few things not allowed, although there is, of course, always the invisible constraint of 'done' vs 'not done'. But there are some garments so utterly toxic in the show situation that it's really best to be forewarned.

Short Skirts

Do not, under any circumstances, wear a miniskirt, or any skirt shorter than just above the knee, into the show ring. When you have finished running about, you will be called upon to stack your dog, and unless you're fantastically lucky, this is going to involve some adjustments to the placement of his feet. This means you are going to have to bend over. Not just once, but probably a number of times. You'll be stacking your dog for the judge, whose basic position is in the middle of the ring, so you wil be standing with your back to the crowd. 

Hipster Pants.

For a similar reason to that given above, low-rise trousers should be sedulously avoided. Especially if you have g-string underwear. At best, you'll treat onlookers to an expanse of knickers, and at worst, the dreaded 'Y' of a g-string, or even a Builder's Crack.  

Light-Coloured Trousers

Because, unlike the better skirts, trousers are generally not lined, white or very pale colours should be avoided too. There is something really sloppy about the view of a broad backside, with pale fabric stretched over it to reveal black knickers, or even worse, ones with a design that you thought was going to remain private. Remember that dog shows generally take place out of doors in the sunlight; it's an unforgiving light, and shows all this kind of thing up really well.

Low Necklines

Again, you'll be bending over. Enough said.

Now there are, of course, other criteria than personal embarrassment. Your outfit can work well or poorly for you in terms of how good you can make your dog look.

WHAT YOU SHOULD WEAR

SUPPORT BRA

There is only one positive commandment (apart from sensible shoes, which ought to go without saying.) 

If you are larger than a 'B' cup, you MUST have a good support bra. Yes, they're expensive, and no, if you aren't accustomed to living in them they can be uncomfortable. But you can have no idea of how dreadful it looks when you are running around the ring if you don't have one.

Of course, if you are exhibiting one of the tiny breeds, you won't need to move faster than a brisk walk, but if your dog is medium sized or larger, you will have to run in the ring, and at a considerable speed.

If you only buy one article of apparel for dog shows, make this the one. Because otherwise, it's just horrible.

SHOES

Footwear should be flat and comfortable, but there's more to it than that. It should also be firmly fastened to your feet. If you have slip-on shoes, or, God forbid, thongs, you run the risk of losing one as you run. Ideally, lace-up styles are the best.

COLOUR

The colour of your outfit should be such as to provide a good contrast with your dog's fur. This allows the judge to see a nice, crisp topline when you are standing behind your dog, as you will be nearly all the time from the judge's viewpoint. Depending on the height of your dog, the top and bottom parts of your outfit will be more or less important; if you're showing a miniature breed, it really doesn't matter what you wear on top, but if you're showing a male Deerhound or other giant breed, the colour of your jacket becomes paramount.

A bright red skirt is an excellent choice
for this dark grey hound.


Grey isn't a colour I'd normally choose for a Deerhound,
but this suit is pale enough to get away with it.
Note the double vents on the skirt, a better choice
for bending over than a single slit at the rear.

JACKET

At least at the larger shows, it is polite to have a jacket. You won't be thrown out for not having one, but it's the done thing.

The more formal option is the suit.
Three-quarter sleeves and a sleeveless top under it
will help your comfort levels on a hot day.


TRAILING FABRICS

Generally, full skirts, especially of a lightweight material that flies about, are not advisable when showing a large dog, where you have to run. Loose material flapping about next to your dog's face is distracting for him, and you want your dog to be focussed. This is especially important with a puppy or young dog, who is not as steady as a veteran of many shows.

If you don't care for the straight style of skirt, a pleated skirt or kilt is a good alternative.

A good choice for a country show.
The heavier fabric of the kilt allows a full range of movement
 without distracting fabric flying about.
A brighter colour would have been an even better choice for this hound.

LETTERING AND LOGOS

It is not done to wear anything in the ring that identifies a breeder or kennel. Club T-shirts, hoodies with your kennel name or even logo on them, should be kept for afterwards.


Thursday, 3 August 2017

MUSIC REVIEW - WOODSTOCK 2019, Bernie Manning



Continuing in the new direction of tribute music that he took with his last album, Heroes, Manning now brings us Woodstock 2019, an intriguing pastiche of several prominent musicians of the 70s.

Unlike Heroes, though, this new collection is not just a celebration of the chosen artists. It's a wishful, whimsical venture into the land of might-have-been, the country of What If.

Taking as its starting point the sudden, early deaths of a number of pop icons in the 70s, Manning postulates what might have happened had it not been for those deaths. Taking as a starting point the influence these singers had on the youth of the day, he suggests that had those people lived, they might have been the catalyst needed to turn humanity, as it were, on its axis, to redirect us into a new era of civilisation, a world where there was universal peace, where countries shared instead of invading, and where climate change had been reversed.

This vision of an alternative future, of what might have been if humanity's eyes had been on the prize of civilisation rather than of prosperity, is heart-breaking in its distance from the world we know today, yet it is in the context of this vision that Manning's songs must be heard. 

There has always been an element of the protest song in Manning's work, so it was no surprise to find Bob Dylan among the lineup in this album, along with the Beatles, the Doors, David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix. At this point I must confess to a certain inadequacy as reviewer; my limited familiarity with the oevres of both Hendrix and The Doors made it hard for me to evaluate those songs in the context of the overall album. 

Be that as it may, the Hendrix songs did, to me, evoke the period wonderfully well - especially Sea of Tranquility, with its meditative hippie tone. The Bowie songs, in particular the sad, haunting Goodbye Earth, brought to mind the classic Major Tom. The soft voice of Bruce Haymes melded perfectly with the lyrics of the George Harrison tribute, What Might Have Been, and this one really had, for me, that authentic Beatles sound. The long guitar fugue in Behind That Door had a very Doors-like sound to me, although with these songs I rather missed the gritty voice of Jeff Burstin, who seems no longer to be part of the team. 

It was in the Dylan songs that I felt Manning gave us his best. In Freedom Air we see a return to the style that works so well for Manning, the spoken poem with musical backing, with its wry, but never bitter, social comment, and in Life Happens, my personal favourite, the author shines through with his kindly, humorous observations of Melbourne life and his fellow humans. This is more the old-style Bernie Manning work that we saw in his early albums.

Sadly, there are none of the comic monologues that Manning does so well; I noted their absence with sorrow, although I must admit they wouldn't have fitted the rather sombre theme of this album.

All around, a good listening experience, and a timely reflection on just how far humanity has walked down the Dark Path.