Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Inspiration from the natural world

The Canadian Shield. Trees down to the water's edge.
I've made it back from the wilderness!
A typical "Canadian sunset" picture. 

Actually, I've been back for three days now, and it wasn't that wild. While the Mattawa is significant as part of the original "river highway" of Canada, used by the fur traders as part of the route from Montreal to the Great Lakes, today it's paralleled by a highway, dammed and is home to many summer cottages.
A rapids on a small stream as it enters the Mattawa.

Still, it's an inspiring landscape, evoking thoughts not only of the early days of European exploration of North America and the founding of Canada, but also of far older civilizations (Algonquin, Ojibwa, etc.), and of the deep power of the Earth itself. 
The Stepping Stones reach about halfway across the river as it leaves Trout Lake. 

I find these pictures spark ideas for stories and essays. What about you? Can you attach a story, or at least the beginning of a story to any of these pictures? Share in the Comments section if you can.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Into the near(ly) wild

As this post goes live, I'm on the highway toward North Bay, Ontario, to begin a canoe trip down the Mattawa River. It's going to include some white water, a few short portages and more white water, all in the great Canadian wilderness.

Actually, it's not all that wild. There are provincial campsites all along the stretch of river, the route is marked and mapped, the portages are long established and marked, and there is human habitation, even towns, along the way. We'll even be within cell phone range for most, if not all of the trip.

The pictures here are from that trip with Super Nicolas and the Rovers. They'll give you an idea of the kind of territory I'll be going through, and maybe inspire you, too.

Talk to you next week.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Rules, shmules

Photo by: Scott Kleinberg, Creative Commons
Writers are always teaching me, whether they know it or not. I’ve been editing and beta-reading manuscripts for a number of people this summer, and their words make me re-evaluate some ideas I held firmly for some time. And I keep coming to the same dilemma: at what point does trimming text and adhering to the current stylistic conventions begin to trample legitimate expressions of writing style?

Every writer has heard of Elmore’ Leonard’s “Ten Rules for Good Writing.” You can Google them easily enough.

And it seems to me that the “rules” thrown around by those who claim to be publishing professionals and insiders are often contradictory. For instance, real professional authors don’t use adverbs much, if at all. I once heard an author in a radio interview claim proudly (there’s another adverb, damnit!) that he only had three or four adverbs in his whole book.

Then there’s the dilemma over dialog. “Never use a word other than ‘said’ to describe dialog,” advised Mr. Leonard. Also, never modify “said” with an adverb.

Meanwhile, I read some time ago that a large number of grade-school teachers across the US encouraged their pupils never to use “said” in their compositions. They could use “exclaimed,” “asked,” “replied,” “retorted” or anything else that made sense, but not “said.”

In providing a beta-read for a good friend’s new manuscript, I couldn’t bring myself to follow either rule. Now, there were times that I thought “said” was the right word, and I suggested that to my best-selling friend. But sometimes, as a writer, you want to describe how someone spoke. So you need either a stronger verb—which breaks Mr. Leonard’s Rule #3, or you need to describe with an adverb, which breaks rule number 4, or longer description, which breaks rule number 9 (“Don’t go into great detail describing places and things”).

Probably Leonard’s most famous rule is “Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose.’” Usually, it’s good advice. If something happens suddenly, then you can usually find a stronger verb to describe it.
He came in suddenly.He burst into the room.And you never need to write “it burst suddenly.” A burst is a sudden thing.
But sometimes, “suddenly” is the right word. Here’s an example from my first book, The Bones of the Earth:
[Photius’] staff was glowing white, and [Javor] suddenly understood it had been the source of the white flashes.
I suppose I could have written it differently, but this phrase most efficiently conveys the meaning to the reader—that the character understood a cause-and-effect relationship in an instant, after a period when he did not. I could have written “the glowing stick made him realize in an instant….” But that would have taken more words.

In praise of the cliché

In my own writing, I try to avoid clichés (like the plague, right). For a new client, I explained that removing or replacing clichés was part of my standard level of service, and she stopped me immediately (damn, another adverb). Clichés are part of her style. They’re part of the way she speaks and she wants her little expressions in her written work, too.

 Speartoons, Inc. is licensed under aCreative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
That made me think about clichés, and alter my opinion. Really, they’re a form of jargon. Words can have more than one meaning, and any phrase, sentence or longer writing works on several levels. It conveys the literal message, as well as memories and associations. That’s how advertising works—by associating a word, a message or an image, or a combination of them, with positive feelings. “Buy this stuff and you’ll be happy.”

We can think of clichés as our modern social jargon. Jargon does more than convey a specific meaning within a narrow group: it identifies the speaker or writer as someone in the know, part of the club. Current slang and clichés serve the same purpose. They tell the audience that the user is up to date, part of the in crowd. Using last year’s slang is also dangerous—it tells the audience you’re out of date.

In fact, using a cliché well may be the most efficient way to achieve your communications goal: to get a particular reaction from your audience.

And the way people use quotation marks in writing, or air quotes when the say a well-used phrase, is akin to a bibliographic entry. Quotation marks essentially mean that the words they contain are not the writer’s original work, but someone else’s. The writer or speaker who uses them is giving credit, or at least, admitting they’re using another person’s expression.

Maybe there is room in the professional, credible publishing world for description, for using clichés and words other than “said.” If we all follow the same style conventions, isn’t all writing going to seem the same? Isn’t diversity what we want?

Have I blown my credibility out of the water by daring to support that pariah of the writing world, the cliché? By arguing against Elmore Leonard?

“That’s just the way I roll,” I thought suddenly.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A lovely award

Every time this blog gets one of these spontaneous, friendly “awards,” I’m surprised and delighted. It still makes me happy not only that people read Written Words, but like it enough to give it some public recognition.

Thank you, Rosalind Burgess and Patricia Obermeier Neurman of the Roz and Patty Write blog for nominating Written Words for the One Lovely Blog Award.
Roz and Patty are co-authors of the Val Kit Mystery series, which includes The Disappearance of Mavis Woodstock, The Murder of Susan Reed, Death in Door Country and LethalProperty. Follow the links and check them out.

The One Lovely Blog Award is one of those award chains. Now that I have gladly linked back to the writers who nominated me, it’s my turn to nominate some of my favourite blogs.

But first, I have to share seven things about me. Here goes:
  • I like my coffee black, and after all these years, I’m still searching for the ideal ratio of coffee grounds to water.
  • I am enjoying this cool summer. It makes it so much easier to ride my bike to work when the air isn’t hot and muggy. On the other hand, it’s been windy most days, and for some reason, the wind always seems to be blowing exactly from the direction I need to go.
  • I have more ideas for stories and books than I believe I will ever have time to write down, even in rough form.
  • I once tried starting my own religion, but it’s really hard to rally fanatical followers with the phrase, “Think for yourselves, you self-deluded fools!”
  • I used to do book paste-ups using waxed galleys. I also used actual glue to do rough paste-ups of a magazine I used to work for.
  • I hate pomegranates. Just hate ’em.
  • I love the prairies, and wish I had more time to visit them.

Now it’s time for me to nominate the blogs I think are lovely. Remember, nominees: in accepting this award (you have no choice), you must follow through by acknowledging your nominator (me), confessing seven facts about yourself, and nominating 15 “or so” other bloggers. And you have to let them, and me, know about all this!

It probably won’t surprise you that most of my favourite blogs are about writing and writers. Here you go:
  • BestSelling Reads—a collective of authors whose books regularly hit the best-seller lists—not because of a huge marketing push, but because they know how to appeal to an audience.
  • Rachel in the OC—the blog of Rachel Thompson, bestselling author and one of the driving forces behind BestSelling Reads. There always something to get out of this blog.
  • Van Brown’s Journal—Van is one of my first fans, an actor, writer, funny guy and all round good person. I haven’t found I disagree with him, yet. Except maybe about motorcycles.
  • Seb Kirby’s New words for new times—Seb is an excellent, best-selling writer, author of the Take No More series of thrillers as well as the sci-fi book Double Bind (which evokes my favourite old-time science fiction author, Philip K. Dick).
  • WriteHook by my brother from another mother and father, Scott Morgan—one of the best writing stylists I have ever found.
  • Cinta Garcia de la Rosa’s many blogs, like Indie Authors You Want to Read, I Can’t Stop Reading and Cinta’s Corner. I don’t know how she manages to produce so much every day.
  • Guild of Dreams—a collective of independent fantasy authors who always produce something worth reading.
  • Rob on Writing—the blog of my friend and bestselling author in his own right (grrr…), Rob Guthrie.
  • Because Life is a Reallly Good Story—the website and blog of writer, designer and photographer David C. Cassidy, author of Velvet Rain, Fosgate’s Game and the upcoming The Dark, and designer of some terrific book covers (including two of mine).
  • Author Unplugged— Frederick Lee Brooke’s blog about writing and life.
  • Ms. Cheevious—the blog of “Ms. Cheevious,” Lisa Jey Davis, Hollywood publicist, author, health speaker and personality. Yah, I know I’m not the target audience for this blog, but it’s fun to read and educational, too.
  • The Thoughts and Opinions of a Writer on the Rise—Bruce Blake is one of the most original fantasy authors out there, and someone like me who doesn’t seem to want to be constrained to one genre. I just wish I could be as successful as him!
  • Indie Universe—Gary Henry is an excellent writer, and he’s a proponent of indie authors, to boot!

These blogs are all more than worth your time, so click on the links and spend a few minutes every day.
Creative Commons

Monday, August 11, 2014

Where do you stand when the boundaries blur?

The boundaries between the different types of publishing just keep getting more blurred and more porous.

Amazon and Hachette’s dispute has reached a new plateau, with the respective CEOs writing mass emails to explain their respective positions over book discounting. Amazon is also in a dispute with Time Warner, and has blocked pre-orders of some Disney movies.

About three weeks ago, Amazon spurred news attention yet again with rumours that it’s in negotiations with another Big Five publisher, Simon + Schuster. Some speculated that it may lead to Amazon purchasing this publisher from its current corporate parent, CBS.

In addition to the publishing operations that Amazon already has, this would make Amazon one of the biggest publishers as well as the biggest book retailer.

Is this really new, though? Remember the Doubleday Bookstores, which were the most prestigious in the US until they were bought by Barnes & Noble in 1990.

Major corporations straddle boundaries

One of the raisons d’être for the commercial publisher is to provide those essential selection, editorial, design and manufacturing services that ensure audiences get quality books. Self-publishing, according to this argument, just cannot measure up to the professional standard of major publishers. I’ve ripped this argument apart a number of times already, so suffice to say now that it’s not backed up empirically.

But several major publishers have invested millions and more in self-publishing platforms. Penguin launched Book Country in 2011 and then bought Author Solutions a year later. Simon & Schuster has Archway Publishing, a vanity publisher. And they’re not the only ones.

So, now we have vanity publishers owned by major commercial publishers, in an embarrassing and disingenuous pissing match with the biggest retailer, which also owns the most successful self-publishing platform.

Neither side in this argument is being open

It’s kind of hard to understand just why Amazon is going to such lengths in this dispute. After all, they make a lot of money reselling publishers’ products. Why should they care what price the publisher sets? But remember that Amazon also sells a particular brand of e-book reader. Lower prices for e-book versions of the world’s favourite, bestselling titles will encourage Kindle sales.

The dispute between Amazon and Hachette or Time-Warner is over how much of the money readers pay they get to keep. The author isn’t part of the dispute, even though both sides like to repeat how important the author is to them.

“Brick and mortar” bookstores are another trope in the sympathy pleas of both sides. “Amazon is putting brick-and-mortar, physical bookstores out of business.” It’s hard to argue against that, particularly following the loss of Borders and uncounted independent booksellers.

As for the independent booksellers, though, they’re getting squeezed not only by the Internet, but also by the growth of big-box corporate bookstore chains. And if it weren’t Amazon, it would be some other company that uses the efficiency of the Internet to grab market share.

Amazon, for its part, does what it says it will do, and efficiently. Whenever I have ordered anything from Amazon, it’s arrived in a breathtakingly short time.

In this light, I have a hard time finding sympathy for big publishers, multinational corporations that are self-appointed gatekeepers of the written word.

What if we change the question

What if we shift our focus from the publisher and bookseller to the author? What if the authors, the people who put most of the work into producing a book, got the greatest part of the proceeds? What if publishers and printers and retailers were only incidental to the value chain?

It would be an ideal world. But I’m not hopeful it will arrive.