Archive for July, 2010

Jul 28 2010

Writing Wednesday – 4

Published by under T-Space,Writing

Eye wont two torque about spilling inn yore righting.

Okay, enough. That was probably harder for me to write than it was for you to read — but the built-in spelling checker didn’t complain about a single word. What I meant was “I want to talk about spelling in your writing,” and to make the point that you can’t trust computerized spelling checkers. They’ll happily tell you that you spelled the wrong word correctly — and sometimes complain about the correct word with a valid spelling.

Nothing turns a reader or editor off faster than a lot of spelling errors in a manuscript. (Okay, writing it in purple crayon on the back of a used paper lunch bag might, even if the words are spelled correctly on that bag.) To someone who reads for a living, even common errors — confusing “its” and “it’s”, or “their”, “they’re” and “there” are frequent — make the text as hard to read as my first line up there. Or worse. Even avid readers may have trouble with spelling, as one of my sons does

So, learn how to spell. Then turn off your computer’s spelling checker and especially turn off any automatic correction software. Seriously. Once you’ve written a few tens of thousands of words with that stuff turned off, and you’ve gone through and fixed typos like “hte” for “the” yourself, your fingers will have learned better the correct sequence. And you’ll have avoided all those times where the well-meaning but incredibly stupid software has changed a word you wanted to something it thought you meant. Besides, as Larry Niven says, “save your typos”. If you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, you might want some strange words, and Niven has invented several from mistyping other words. (The samlon creature in Beowulf’s Children comes to mind.)

Now, the spelling checker is a useful tool. When I’m done my first draft, I’ll turn it on and check for misspellings and typos. It’s useful for that, although I do find that I tell it to ignore more words than I let it change. Then read through the manuscript and fix all the places where you typed “their” instead of “they’re” (which a spelling checker won’t catch), or you paused in mid-sentence and typed “the the” or some other word duplication. Or just typed the plain wrong word because you were thinking of something else, mind racing ahead in the plot, as you typed. When I’m writing an action- or dialog-heavy scene, my fingers will sometimes type the homophone (word that sounds the same) for the word I meant, even though I know better. If I don’t catch that, I look stupid.

Don’t let your writing make you look stupid.

– – – – –

I’m in the middle of writing a significant addition, per editorial suggestion, to a T-space novel I thought was finished. (Although its been said that no novel – or any work of art – is ever truly finished, only abandoned.) For the next couple of weeks these entries will be on the short side. It’ll be worth it; the book is going to be way more fun to read than this blog.

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Jul 26 2010

Space Horrors release date set

Published by under Writing

It’s official, the anthology Space Horrors will be released on October 1, 2010, from Flying Pen Press. (The editor, David Lee Summers, hopes to have a few copies available sooner for CopperCon.) The ISBN is 978-0-9818957-6-5.

Space Horrors cover The cover art now has the author names listed, and I’m proud to say that my story, “Poetic Justice,” leads off the volume. Click the image to see a larger version.

Writing Wednesday was absent last week because I was travelling and my web connection was too unreliable to do the update. I’ll try to work out a better system next time. Sorry about that.

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Jul 14 2010

Writing Wednesday – 3

Published by under Writing

Last week I said that perfect manuscript formatting and making a great first impression is useless if you’re not submitting an actual story. It’s like showing up professionally attired for an interview — for a job you’re utterly unqualified for.

So how do you know if you’ve got story?

Well, do you have a plot? You can’t have story without plot. You can paint wonderfully descriptive word pictures, or slice-of-life vignettes, but those aren’t stories. There have been many attempts to categorize plots, with arguments about how many basic plots there really are. Thirty seven? Twelve?

Heinlein argued that they could all be boiled down to only three: boy meets girl (or these days, and in speculative fiction, sentient being meets sentient being); the man (or woman, or android, or small furry creature from Alpha Centauri) who learned better; and the little tailor (man–or whatever–succeeds against incredible odds).

I’m going to tell you that there’s only one plot that matters: stuff happens to someone. (Note, though, that the best stories involve that someone not just passively accepting the stuff that happens, but reacting to it, or proactively making stuff happen.) What kind of stuff? Well, as Heinlein said, meeting a girl, learning better, or overcoming tremendous difficulty. Or any permutation, combination, or variation thereof.

Now, a plot is necessary, but it is not sufficient. I said “stuff happens to someone,” but is that someone worth reading about? You need an interesting character. The longer the story, the more interesting the character needs to be to sustain the story. Let me give a couple of counter-examples.

The “shortest SF story ever told,” by Fredric Brown, goes: “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.” We know nothing about the character, except that he is the last man on Earth. That’s interesting but it tells us nothing else about him. It doesn’t need to, that’s all we need to sustain the story. But don’t try to get away with retelling I Am Legend with that little characterization.

Or take Hemingway’s classic six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” Arguably that’s not even a story. Where’s the stuff happening? And to whom? That’s off-stage. This kind of story is sometimes called hint fiction; the real story is merely hinted at. But Hemingway’s story is a powerful hint indeed. Ask any parent.

However, if you’re reading this, you’re probably not a Hemingway or a Fredric Brown — and even they didn’t try publishing stories that short early in their careers.

Is that it? An interesting character, and stuff that happens? No, we’re still not quite there. It should be interesting stuff, too, and it should happen in some logical sequence. Algis Budrys, author of many books and short stories and who taught at Clarion and the Writers of the Future workshops, had a seven point “formula” for successful stories. (It’s not the only such formula, there are others, and indeed it’s possible to come up with a successful story that doesn’t fit a formula — but it’s easier to learn the rules of the road in a car than on a unicycle. Get the basics down pat, then experiment.) Budrys’s formula begins with (1) a character, in (2) a context (or setting), with (3) a problem. The middle of the story covers the character’s repeated attempts to (4) solve the problem, which (5) fail. Finally (6) he succeeds (or fails permanently). The end of the story is (7) validation of the character’s solution.

This is all described in far more and better detail than I can put here, in Algis Budrys’s short book Writing to the Point: A complete Guide to Selling Fiction. I highly recommend it.

Prolific pulp fiction writer Lester Dent (among other things, as Kenneth Robeson he wrote most of the original Doc Savage stories) had a formula for writing his sort of action tale. If that’s of interest, search the web for “Lester Dent master fiction plot” and you’ll find his explanation of it on numerous sites. As Dent puts it, “no yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell.” That’s no guarantee these days, since sensibilities change and that was Lester Dent writing those yarns in the first place, but his points are still relevant.

So after some practise you’re ready to submit your story — show up for that job interview — dressed for success and with some knowledge of what the job is about. The first words out of the interviewer’s mouth are “Bonjour. Comment allez-vous?” Oops. Better make sure you (your manuscript) and your interviewer (editor or first reader) are speaking the same language, which if you’re reading this is presumably English, not French. And not something that only looks vaguely like English.

Next week: grammar, spelling, and why you should never trust a computer.

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Jul 07 2010

Writing Wednesday – 2

Published by under Writing

I promised to talk about presenting yourself this week, more specifically about manuscript formatting. But before I talk about the latter, let me say a word about envelopes. Yes, there are still a few places that prefer postal (that’s snail-mail, not whacko crazy) submissions.

Remember, the guiding thought behind all this is to make a good impression on the editor (or first reader), so common sense and professionalism applies. Think about your manuscript as a job application, and act accordingly. Would you send a job application in a screaming fluorescent pink envelope? Sure, it would stand out from the crowd, but probably not in the way you want. Similarly, anything that has to be signed for — certified mail, FedEx, etc — is just going to annoy the recipient. (Also, unless you’re sending something that has been specifically requested overnight — and if you’re at that level, you don’t need to be reading this — don’t waste your money on any kind of express delivery; first-class mail is fine.) Don’t bother taping up the envelope either, that just makes it harder to open. You want the reader in a good mood when they first see your story, not frustrated from trying to tear open the damn tape or spending five minutes searching under the stacks of other envelopes for a pair of scissors.

Keep it simple. A 9×12 inch envelope (don’t fold the manuscript), sealed as designed. Myself, I prefer the white envelopes which self-seal when you peel off the protective tape, but the kraft or manila kind that you lick’n’stick are fine too. Use a damp sponge if you hate the taste of envelope glue as much as I do. And, make sure you get the address right.

On to manuscript format. This has actually been covered in several excellent sites on the web — and a few others with some odd ideas about formatting. Simply put: clean, readable, and certain information in standard locations to make it easy to find. “Readable” means a good sized, clear font, double spaced, with wide margins. That’s the general guide, now to specifics.

Many publisher’s submission guidelines specify Shunn format, which is standard format as described by William Shunn on his web site. There are a few minor changes to that which some editors will allow, but that is the best place to start. Courier, 12 point font, double spaced, one-inch margins all around, on white paper with appropriate details on the first page and header on every other page. (One publisher — who prefers electronic submissions anyway — calls Courier font “evil”. Copy editors editors actually prefer Courier, for reasons I’ll get into another time.)

To reinforce Shunn’s advice, SFWA (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) has this article by John Betancourt on their site. It explains some of the reasoning behind the requirements. Author Robert Sawyer (Flash Forward, Wake etc) has a sample manuscript and this checklist on his site. Sawyer suggests using Dark Courier font as it makes a somewhat heavier impression (and is thus easier to read) when laser-printed.

All of the above advice is actually worse than useless, though, if what you’ve submitted is just a bunch of words on pages rather than an actual story. Worse, because by sneakily presenting whatever it is in standard manuscript format, in a professional-looking package, the editor had to waste time reading it (at least the first page) rather than rejecting it for the hot-pink scented envelope or the calligraphic typeface on decorative paper. So next time, something on making sure your writing doesn’t suck.

PS: The Kris’n’Dean show
Dean Wesley Smith has just posted his and Kris’s workshop schedule for next year. These are rather unlike most writing workshops, but are invaluable for any writer serious about treating it as a business. In particular, the “Kris’n’Dean show”, being offered in March, is an overview that is a real eye-opener for newbies. I’d been around publishing and writers for years, and sending off the occasional story, but it wasn’t until being exposed to the “mini” version of the show that Kris (that’s writer/editor/publisher Kristine Kathryn Rusch) and Dean (writer/editor/publisher Dean Wesley Smith) put on at the Denver Worldcon in 2008 that I moved it up a notch and started selling. (Selling fiction — I was selling non-fiction years before, but that’s a different skill set.)

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Jul 01 2010

Happy Canada Day!

Published by under Uncategorized

To all my friends and family in the Great White North, happy Canada Day. Today marks the 143rd anniversary of the British North America Act which created Canada as an independent country. Which means, good grief, that it’s been 43 years since Canada’s centennial and Expo67 in Montreal.

Forty three years, has it really been that long? If we’d launched a ship back then towards Alpha Centauri at a modest one-tenth lightspeed, it would be getting there just about now. Mind boggling.

Anyway, enjoy the holiday. It’s our turn down here in three days.

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