Monday, April 30, 2012

Hey, Writers! Let's Live For Today!

 Let's start with this:

Now, this song is awesome for a few reasons. One is because the guitarist for the Grass Roots was Creed Bratton. You know, the most amazing character on The Office now that Michael is gone.
Creed Bratton
But it's also an awesome song because of the message. Oh sure, at first glance, it's a hippie anthem and a teenaged fantasy. Live for today! Live for today! And all the older folks and businessmen say, "Cut your hair, get a job, live for tomorrow!"

But there's a lot of truth to this song's message. When I was younger, I was always told that I needed to see the big picture, start making plans, start setting life goals. I was told to make a One Year Plan, a Five Year Plan, and a Ten Year Plan. And, most frighteningly, I was always asked by adults, "What do you want to be remembered for? What will be your legacy?"

Maybe that's because I was raised in an Evangelical youth group, I don't know. What I do know, though, is that I quickly lost the ability to enjoy Today. I began to always look to the future, look to what's next. The scary part was, at some point the farther down the road you look, the only thing you can see is death.

As writers, we're always looking at the next big thing. I've got to get this book written so I can query agents. I've got to get an agent so I can get a publisher. I've got to get a publisher so I can be published. I need to publish multiple books so I can actually start living off my royalties. I need to get movie deals. I want to win a Pulitzer. Someday people will teach with my books in literature classes.

Oh my stars and garters.

I've decided to stop. I've decided to live more for today.

Oh, and if you also have been raised with that Evangelical guilt trip about future thinking, remember this verse:
"Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself." Matthew 6:34.

So, yeah, don't cut your hair. But, maybe you should at least try to get a job. After you've smelled the flowers. And been my loving woman, and I've been your loving man. So to speak.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Writer's Code of Ethics

Rachelle Gardner posted recently asking the question, “Are writers responsible for what their characters say?” You should go read it, and perhaps the comments that follow if you have the time.

In my opinion, the question isn’t really “Are writers responsible?” It’s not like writers become possessed when writing and wake up six months later shocked by what’s on their page. Writers make decisions constantly about what to write and include in their manuscripts. When a writer includes a reprehensible character in their book, he is responsible for what that character says and does. The writer is the reason those actions and that dialogue is included in the story.

The question, instead, is “Are writers ethically obligated to censor their characters and stories so as not to offend the audience?” Which really begs the bigger question, “What is the code of ethics for writers?”

While I don’t profess that this code of ethics will be for everyone, this is my code of ethics as a writer:

1. As a writer, I should be skilled. My writing should not seem amateur or clunky. It should be honed by reading literature and by submitting my own works to critique from peers. I have an ethical obligation to revise and edit my work so that it is the most skilled presentation it can be.

2. As a writer, I should be honest. That is not to say I can’t write fiction, or write fantasy. Rather, I am ethically obligated to presenting an honest depiction of the invisible elements of humanity and the universe. I should avoid stereotyping characters or social groups, avoid sugarcoating the foibles and frailties of humanity, and avoid deceiving my readers about my own fears and shortcomings.

3. As a writer, I should be magical. I should seek to write stories glowing with extrahuman power. By my count, my stories should share the magical powers of nature:
a.       Wind: The power to move others. My stories should inspire movement in the reader, and I have an ethical obligation to know what I am moving them toward and to make that destination beneficial.
b.      Water: The power to refresh and give life. My stories should be new and exciting, reading them should feel like you’ve quenched a long standing thirst. I have an ethical obligation to know where people are thirsty and try to refresh and revive them.
c.       Earth: The power to grow, feed, and flavor. My stories should inspire growth of thought and of character, and they should add spice and flavor to the lives of my readers. I have an ethical obligation to see where growth is needed and inspire development in that area.
d.      Light: The power to illuminate. My stories should shine a light onto people’s lives and hearts, and also onto those who have been hidden and forgotten in society.
e.      Fire: The power of change and destruction. My stories should tear down and destroy those things which need to be destroyed. Destruction is volatile and harsh, and I have an ethical obligation to be brave enough to bring the change about.

          4. As a writer, I should be persistent. I should realize that writing is not just a self-serving exercise and I should never give up on storytelling, no matter what sort of discouragement or disappointment comes my way.

      So, there you have it, my code of ethics as it were. If you have something to add, just put it in the comments. I'm always open to suggestions!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

An Elephant or a Dormouse: Is the wait worth it?

Sometimes the gestation period for a book seems to take forever.

No, really, FOREVER.

You wait for the ideas to come, you wait on yourself while you write, and you wait around while you revise.

Patience, patience.

Then you wait to hear back from agents about your query letters. Wait even longer to hear back from partials and fulls.

And it doesn't end there! You have to wait and wait and wait when you finally go to submissions while editors and publishers actually read your work. Some will pass it to another editor, who passes it to another, and they all have to take their time to read.

Through all that waiting, you will see others who seem to have their dreams come true overnight. And it's frustrating.

When I begin to feel that way, I remember the Elephant and the Dormouse.

When Ella Elephant and Dora Dormouse find out they're pregnant, they both get excited. They go shopping together, they dream of baby names together. They're co-pregnant. It's a beautiful thing.

Three weeks later, Dora has her babies. Four of them.

Ella's not even close to done.

Ella has to wait another twenty-one months after Dora before she sees her baby. Singular.

And I'm sure that, to Ella, that might seem frustrating. And unfair.

But that's when you have to do the math.

Sure, Dora had four kids in three weeks. But those kids will only live to be five years old before they die. Dora won't even get to see much of their lives, cause she'll be dead very soon.

Meanwhile, the baby elephant will live twelve times as long, all the way to sixty or older. And Ella will get to be with her child for a very long time.

What about size? When the dormice are fully grown, they'll be between two to seven inches long and weigh about a half of an ounce.

The elephant, on the other hand, will be eighteen times taller and 160,000 times heavier, coming in at eleven feet tall and weighing two and a half tons.

So, if you're ever feeling antsy while waiting, remember: It's better to be an Elephant than a Dormouse.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Peek At My World-building

As I've mentioned before, I love writing historical fiction for kids. I love the challenge of conveying a time period to a group that hasn't experienced many time periods on its own. It's part of my belief that exposure to unfamiliar cultures is essential to building proper perspectives on life and society.

One of the key dynamics of conveying cultures in writing is world-building. World-building gets a lot of press in regards to Sci-Fi and Fantasy, but it is essential to every genre of writing. The task of world-building in historical fiction can be exceptionally daunting, because it's less "world-building" and more "world-acquiring."

Take the example of James Cameron in making Titanic. Not only did he have to amass as many historical facts and figures as he could, he also had to recreate the culture and character traits common in 1912. To do this, he immersed himself and his cast and crew into the world. They had videos playing in every dressing room portraying life in 1912, music of the era playing everywhere, and brought in as many experts on the culture of the day as they did on the sinking of the ship. And those efforts paid off in a big way.

When I write, I attempt to do the same. Besides studying the historical events and facts, I also immerse myself in the culture of the time period I'm writing. My playlist is filled with music of the day, my TV watching is imbued with period appropriate shows, my desktop background is a rotating gallery of art popular at the time. I try to eat food my characters might eat, talk as they might have talked, and even occasionally dress like them, if I can get away with it. (Thankfully, I have a wife who will reign me back in if things start going overboard)

For instance, when I was writing and editing my book, Johnny Cannon and the Bay of Guinea Pigs, I had to be in 1961. One of the first things I did was make a playlist of songs from '61 and '62, and I listened to those songs through every step of the process. Now, for your viewing and listening pleasure, here are the first ten songs that were on that list of over 100. (I may post more on another date)

Artist Track
Ben E. King  Stand By Me 
Patsy Cline  Crazy 
Dion  The Wanderer 
Dion  Runaround Sue 
Roy Orbison  Crying 
Ray Charles  Hit The Road Jack 
Del Shannon  Runaway 
Gary "U.S." Bonds  Quarter to Three 
The Showmen  It Will Stand

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Future is That Way: 5 Tips for Independent Bookstores

If I read one more blog about the DOJ lawsuit and Amazon vs. Big 6, I'm going to puke in my mouth. 

Ok, that's not true. Actually, I've been really enjoying the voices of both sides. But there is one group that is a bit under-represented in the "back to the old drawing board" dynamic that has arisen as the dust has settled. Independent bookstores. What are they going to do as the world is moving to digital publishing? (PW reported just today that Bookstore sales declined 4.1% in February. I'm assuming that includes chain bookstores and independents. Take the chains out, the number might even be higher.)

Well, here it is! My not-so-expert opinion on what needs to be done to reverse the supposed tide of doom that’s impending on the independent bookstore industry.

Aren’t you excited? No? Too bad, cause I’m going to tell you anyway.

In order to stay competitive in the changing world, independent publishers and bookstores need to:
  1. Change the paradigm. The shift from print to digital formats is a scary one because, for publishing houses and bookstores, the business is the printed word. If the printed word becomes obsolete, then the business becomes obsolete as well. That’s why my suggestion is to change what the business is about. It’s not about printed books, it’s about literacy. Publishers aren’t printers, they’re purveyors of literacy. Bookstores aren’t booksellers, they’re custodians of literacy.
  2. Understand what e-books are replacing. E-books aren’t replacing all books. They’re replacing mass-market paperbacks. Don’t believe me? Look at the price expectations of consumers. Look at the buying habits and the reading habits for e-books. It’s almost identical to the mass-market craze of the pre-digital era. Beautifully crafted hardcovers and trade paperbacks that have high-quality paper and illustrations, neither of those are going away. In addition, book tie-in merchandise (toys, posters, confectionary items, etc) also can’t be replicated on e-books (outside of apps. But, really, unless your book is about agitated fowl or horticulture vs undead beings, I doubt you’ll see that big of a plus side.)
  3. Don’t just create or sell a book, create and sell an experience
    1. Become a world builder for books. Entice potential readers to engage in books by immersing them into the world of the books you are selling. Host Greek god parties for Rick Riordan's books, or have a lawyer costume party for a Grisham release (if that's your thing.)
    2. Reward inquisitive readers. Have Easter Eggs ready to hand out to attentive fans. Not actual Easter Eggs, but treats to reward those willing to hunt for them. Like a fake cheese in the middle of the floor for Wimpy Kid fans. Fake names for all the staff members for Pseudonymous Bosch fans.
  4. Don’t throw spaghetti at the wall. Instead of trying to stock all the big titles, or a lot of different genres, focus on what you're best at. If you narrow your focus, you're more likely to hit your target. Like they say in The Patriot, "Aim small, miss small."
  5. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket either. Don't bet your money that you'll make a ton off the next big release. Remember, it's a good idea to have a few backup plans. Sure, plan for a big push, but plan for a few small pushes as well.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Up or Down?

Once upon a time there was a boy named Mark. He was thirteen when he died.

Yes, this will be a sad story.

After he died, Mark came to vestibule that said “Eternity: Up & Down.” Muttering to himself that this didn’t look anything like pearly gates, Mark entered.

A gruff man in a white suit, with a nametag that said “I’m Not St. Peter,” greeted Mark.

“Where you goin? Up or down?”

“Up.” Mark said, never more sure of a decision in his life.

Not-St.-Peter chuckled. “That’s what everyone says.” He handed Mark a clipboard. “Fill that out and we’ll see.”

Mark sighed, disappointed that piles of paperwork was one of the few things that made it into eternity. He began to fill out the form. Name, age at death, address. It was all the usual fields.

Then there was one that caught him off guard.

“Excuse, mister. It asks if I’m gay or straight.” Mark said.

Not-St.-Peter nodded. “Yup. Easy one, huh?”

Mark stared at the two little boxes, both begging to be filled in.

“But I’ve never even had sex.”

“So? Answer the question.”

Mark didn’t want to answer the question.

“Look,” Mark said, “I’m a Christian. I love Jesus, I even sing at church. Why do I have to fill out this form? I thought it was a sure thing.”

“Used to be.” Not-St.-Peter said. “Then Fallwell got up there and started raising a fuss. Now we have a form.”

Mark sighed. “I don’t know how to answer.”

Not-St.-Peter sighed back. “Do you like boys or girls?”

“I don’t know. I guess I’ve always kind of liked boys more. Maybe both?”

Not-St.-Peter snatched the clipboard out of Mark’s hand, quickly checked the box marked “Gay,” and pushed Mark into the elevator.

“Going down.” He said.

The door closed before Mark could protest.

And down he went.

I warned you this was a sad story. Wait, why are you laughing?

Oh, you’re not. Sorry, that’s Fallwell. He loves this story.

(There's more to this post, but it's rife with my faith and specific to my church background. If you PROMISE to read it with an open mind, you can here.)

Monday, April 9, 2012

In which I exit my cave for a brief overview.

In ten days it will have been two months since I last blogged. It is not a good practice to leave a blog dormant. Or to feed them after midnight. But that's another issue.

I have disappeared because I have been writing.

I completed the book I was writing, 75,000 words if you're interested in that sort of thing, and now realize I need to shower.

After all, it has been two months. Minus ten days.