Uncategorized, Writing

How to Enjoy a Writing Excuses Retreat (On a Boat)

Imagine a writing conference. If you are a writer like me, you’re probably already excited, especially when you know it’s composed of primarily science fiction and fantasy writers. You get to go to this writing conference to hang out with some of your favorite writers, meet a lot of cool people who have similar interests than you and learn a ton about the craft, art and business of writing.

You’re not excited yet?

Well, picture all of that on a cruise ship. That’s what makes the Out of Excuses Writing Workshop and Retreat extra awesome – in addition to hanging with Writing Excuses podcasts hosts Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal and Howard Taylor – you get to do it all on a ship bound for several exotic destinations!

This does lead to a problem, however. If you are shelling out a ton of money to go on a writing conference on a cruise ship, how do you make sure you’re getting your money worth? Don’t get me wrong – the programming on a Writing Excuses Retreat is worth every penny – it’s chock full of great content, great writers and great opportunities to meet great writers. But how do you maximize your earnings on the cruise? Here’s are some best practices I’ve learned over the last two years:

Read The Instructors’ Books – Writing Excuses, like most conferences, presents seminars from both the hosts of the podcast as well as guest instructors. On the months before the cruises, I read Steven Barnes’ “Blood Brothers”, Tananarive Due’s “The Good House” and Claudia Gray’s first two Firebird books as well as her Star Was book “Lost Stars”, in addition to the most recent books from the primary hosts – Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells and Howard Taylor. Was it a lot to read? Yes. Was it worth it? Definitely.

Reading these books gave me several advantages. First, it made me extremely excited to hear what these writers had to say. But more to the point, it also gave me insight into their favorite themes and overall strengths as a writer. In addition to giving me something to talk with them about, it also gave me plenty of subject matter to pick their brain about.

Bring Something to Write – I know what you might be thinking. “Write? I came here to learn to write, to network, or to generally improve my writing career. I don’t have time to write.” Needless to say, the Writing Excuses isn’t buying it, and neither am I. The hosts have several incentives to get you in the writing mood, but without spoiling that, I found this second cruise was my most productive outing yet.

I came with a checklist of four or so projects, and not only did I have time for them all over the course of the week – but I’m also very pleased with how they turned out. I think being around so many people who are also passionate about writing super-charges the creative juices – so take advantage of it!

Keep in Touch – This last one might sound a bit basic, but it’s the truth.  Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells have said numerous times that there’s a reason they hit it big – by keeping their writing group going since meeting in David Farland’s fiction class. The same goes the Writing Excuses Retreat. You have ample opportunities to make friends, between group writing time, excursions, dinner, game nights and more. Don’t think of these friendly conversations as simply downtime – the relationships made here can prove extremely valuable.

The good news is that social media makes it extremely easy to keep in touch. There’s also Google Groups to help alumni stay in contact. Even so, it’s a good idea to take down each other’s information if you have the opportunity. Print a couple inexpensive business cards and hand them out at the cruise. When the event ends and everyone returns to their distant corner of the globe, you want to make sure you keep contact with friends from the cruise. These friends can keep you motivated and keep you writing, even when you are separated by state lines and oceans – so make sure you write down their name and e-mail.

The Writing Excuses Retreat is one of my favorite writing events to attend year after year, so if you can afford it, make it a point to sign up. While I admit it can be a pretty big blow to the piggy bank sometimes, the contacts, information and experiences make at these conferences is well worth the cost. So with any luck, I’ll see you next year on the 2017 Out of Excuses Writing Retreat!

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Agents of ERROR

We are definitely living in the Information Age. Between Google and Wikipedia, it’s extremely easy to research and find new information – without opening a single dusty old encyclopedia. That’s why it’s all the more frustrating when writers – even bestselling ones – get it wrong, especially when it comes to very, very basic information, such as the general roles of basic government organizations. It’s not entirely the writer’s fault – Hollywood also has a way of perpetuating these misconceptions over the years. So I figured I’d write out some noteworthy misconceptions on law and government that keep popping up in books and movies.

Interpol doesn’t arrest people.

I can’t really blame anyone for this. Interpol just sounds cool. It’s an organization of international police officers. The implications of the name are just plain awesome, like Law & Order meets James Bond.

But the truth is much less glamorous. Interpol is, in reality, a network of law enforcement agencies throughout the world which work to clamp down on transnational crime. They have no agents, do not make arrests nor do they issue warrants. The legwork is conducted by traditional law enforcement agencies within the country, not Interpol itself.

Keep in mind that you can bend the rules a bit if you are writing fiction. Maybe your main character works is an Interpol employee swept into a conspiracy of some kind (which isn’t far from the truth – as Interpol has been the center of corruption scandals in the past). Just keep in mind your main character is probably not a secret agent. Interpol is not SHIELD or MI6.

The CIA doesn’t arrest people.

This one is less common, but still crops up from time to time. It makes sense, because often the FBI and CIA are used interchangeably by Hollywood. But the Central Intelligence Agency is a spy agency focused on collecting and disseminating intelligence. It is not a law enforcement agency like the FBI.

It’s especially frustrating to read or watch a scene where someone identifies themselves as CIA with a badge and then carts off someone in handcuffs. Since they are a spy agency, there are very few situations where a CIA agent would announce their presence, especially to arrest someone. The CIA would most likely share intelligence with other agencies, whom would ultimately make the arrest.

Of course, when writing fiction, there is still a little leeway – especially in this day and age. It’s certainly feasible for the CIA to arrange someone to be detained and perhaps even harshly interrogated – especially if the person is a suspected terrorist. Just realize such a situation includes many moral and legal challenges. In any case, the CIA would not officially arrest anyone because it lies outside the scope of their duties.

The United Nations is not a superpower.

As with a lot of things on this list, this one makes a certain amount of sense. After all, the UN is a powerful organization, capable of rallying multinational peacekeeping missions and police actions, leveraging sanctions against rogue nations and providing humanitarian assistance throughout the world. So it makes sense that some writers might perceive the organization as a massive superpower with the ability to supersede the will of individual nations.

The truth is the United Nations has rather obvious limitations to its power. First off all, it has no standing military, and relies on its individual members to contribute to its peacekeeping forces. Secondly, the five permanent members of the Security Council – the United States, China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom – all have veto power to block resolutions, so its difficult to see them being forced to do something by the UN.

If you are writing science fiction, it’s easy to picture a world where the United Nations plays a far bigger role in world governance. The video game series Halo has the United Nations Space Command, which stands as a perfect example of this. Just know United Nations would have to adopt key changes to its structure for this to happen.

The Coast Guard are not glorified lifeguards.

Think about it. How many movies about Coast Guards have been made? The Perfect Storm, The Guardian and The Finest Hours are the only ones that come to mind. Now think of every film made about any other branch of the military. Hollywood is never wrong, right?

While it’s true the Coast Guard are most associated with maritime safety and rescue, the scope of their operations extended far beyond that. Existing as both a military and law enforcement agency, the Coast Guard’s mission also includes drug interdiction, international ice patrol and homeland security. Their Maritime Security Response Teams are trained in hostage rescue while boarding and seizing vessels. Their Precision Observer Marksmen Teams are capable of disabling boats from long range by firing a sniper rifle from a helicopter.

The move is yours, Hollywood.

Special forces are not dumb.

This one is admittedly rare, and when it happens in fiction and movies, it starts out innocently enough. Say you have a henchman who needs to more threatening, so you make him ex-black ops, which is code for “extra tough and menacing”. But this guy has an obvious weakness – he’s crude, xenophobic and/or downright dumb. (The same pattern can also be applied to redshirts on the side of the heroes). After all, all the military teaches is how to point and shoot, right?

Wrong.

Special forces are comprised as some of the most capable soldiers in the world, tasked with complex, high-risk, multi-faceted missions. It’s no surprise that many special forces branches prefer their candidates to have some form of college education. In fact, the CIA’s Special Activities Division, which frequently recruits from ex-special forces, requires its candidates have a four year bachelor’s degree for consideration, and some even come from Ivy League schools. The Green Berets require their soldiers to complete six months of language training, primarily because their mission is to provide foreign internal defense.

Whether good or bad, all characters need to be flawed in some way. That said, nothing bores me more than the expendable space marine with a gun bigger his entire body and an IQ less than his shoe size. Military characters especially should be handled dynamically and not as one-note, one-dimension cliches.

That’s it for this blog. Did I get anything wrong? Even though there’s a lot of resources available today, its still easy to make errors – especially when you are using the Internet as a primary source. But more to the point, what are some of the most groan-worthy errors you see in popular fiction and movies?

 

 

 

 

 

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A Word About Honorable Mentions

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an “honorable mention” as “a distinction conferred (as in a contest or exhibition) on works or persons of exceptional merit but not deserving of top honors”.

They are not participation trophies. I repeat, they are not participation trophies!

So what do writing contests have in common with reality TV competitions like “America’s Got Talent”, “The Voice” and “American Idol”? The answer is not crazy judges (or at least, not necessarily). Instead, both of these contests operate in similar fashion – by slowly whittling down the eligible entries over the course of several cuts, until only the finalists are left. Those entries which survive a cut or two but don’t make it to the semi-finals are usually conferred with some sort of “honorable mention” depending on their overall ranking. Thus, they aren’t given to everyone who enters – just to those who make it past the first cut.

How many writers eliminated per cut depends on the size of the contest, but it could be anywhere from thirty to seventy percent. Just ten percent of the submissions to the high-profile “Writers of the Future” contest receive some kind of “honorable mention” in a contest of hundreds if not thousands of entries. While it might not carry the cash or the publication of higher rankings in the contest, “honorable mention” is still nothing to sneeze at.

Why does all of this matter? Because writers need to celebrate their victories, even if they aren’t as big as they would like. Unfortunately, in a time of Millennial bashing, some confuse “honorable mention” with a “participation trophy” everyone receives. This just isn’t the case (nor would it be very helpful even if it was the case).

An unexpected victory, no matter how small, can fuel a writer’s passion for months to come. Whether it’s a kind word during a critique, a personalized rejection letter, or yes, even an honorable mention, a win is still a win. Writing is a solitary and often silent endeavor, making counting our wins all the more crucial. But there’s also plenty of negativity out there – so don’t let take your victory into the jaws of defeatism. Tune out the noise and focus on what you’ve accomplished – and where you are going next.

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Write. Revise. Repeat.

Last week I explained my process of moving on from an old project, so this week I figured I’d write about my current project: revising my new novel. It’s something I’m going to try to accomplish within a year, but even that might not be enough time. Revision can be a tough process. It’s more than spell-check, proofreading or even sending your manuscript to friends and family. Instead, revision is a process spanning many, many drafts (from four to six to upwards of nine or ten). It’s something I’m still, well, revising, but here’s what I’ve got so far.

Step One: The Writing Group

A writing group is a group of writers who meet to critique each other’s work on a regular basis. They could meet as much as every week or as few as once every few months or so. There are even some writing groups who are completely online. (My writing group is on the Reading Excuses sub-forum of Writing Excuses.) Regardless, there are a numerous advantages to writing groups. They provide in-depth critiques on a range of chapters which you probably wouldn’t get by simply handing someone your manuscript. They also provide several different perspectives on your work, allowing you to weigh criticism based on how many people are running into the same problem. There’s are quite a few things to keep in mind about writing groups (see some Writing Excuses episodes here), but here’s two big ones. One: you get what you give. Try to give good criticism instead of just demanding a critique while offering nothing in return. Two: Be civil and complementary when you give a critique. Being rough and heavy-handed isn’t going to do anyone any favors, even if you think you are just being “honest”.

Note: If you’re like me and you’re able to mostly turn off your inner editor, you might want to do this step second or even third or fourth. This was the first time I ran my novel through a writing group from start to finish, and my manuscript was rife with grammar mistakes and typos. It might be better to wait until you’ve had time to do a surface proof-reading first.

Step Two: The Alpha Readers

Alpha readers are your first line of defense (well, after the writing group anyway). There are fellow writers whom you trust. They could be part of your writing group (in which case you could skip this step altogether.) They may even write for a completely different genre, but they should at least know what you are going for. In any case, you send them the complete manuscript. Some writers have trouble sending an entire manuscript, but honestly, that’s where the trust part comes in. There’s a time and place to be protective of your ideas and work, but you need feedback on how the entire narrative works from start to finish.

Step Three: The Beta Readers

Betas and alphas are often used interchangeably, but I consider beta readers to be readers of the genre you are working in, whether its science fiction, mystery, young adult or all of the above. They could also be writers, but need not be. Beta readers are invaluable because they are knowledgeable of your chosen genre. What twists did they coming? Did this work remind them of any story they’ve seen before? What was their experience reading your work? Betas are very good at answering these questions, providing another layer of criticism.

Step Four: The Gamma Readers

Gamma readers are ones who are neither writers (alphas) nor readers (betas) of your chosen genre. Many times, they are friends, families and other supporters of our work, and despite their unfamiliarity, they can provide valuable insight by sharing a newcomer’s experience to your writing. What confuses them? Have your built your world enough to explain all the necessary details? While gamma readers are definitely important, they are sometimes over-utilized, especially by new writers, who don’t look for criticism outside of their immediate circle. While friends and family can provide a very important support network for one’s writing, they can’t always provide the necessary criticism to improve one’s work completely. However, they can be a very important supplement to ensure everything is working right in a narrative.

Closing Thoughts

That’s what I’m looking for as far as revisions go. Keep in mind a professional writer probably uses a very condensed version of this. They may only use a trusted writing group, a few alphas and a gamma reader or two. If they are working for a publisher, they probably already have an agent, an editor and several others reading their work for quality control. When you’re trying to break in to the industry, however, you need all the eyes you can get. Also be patient – it might take readers a few months to get through your manuscript, so make sure you have other projects to work on while they are reading. Revision is a process, and all processes can be improved. As Leonardo da Vinci said, “great art is never finished, only abandoned.”

What about you? What’s your process for revisions. Feel free to share in the comments.

 

 

 

 

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Moving On and Keepin’ On

I don’t think any writer ever thinks about moving on from a project when they start it. Instead, I think we focus on the positive, whether it’s the possibility of getting an agent, getting published or just selling more books. The ugly necessity of moving on never really sets in, but moving on is just that – a necessity.

Imagine you have a sculpture. You’ve been working on it for a long time – maybe even several years. It’s pretty much finished, but you’ve been tinkering with it to ensure it’s perfection. Inevitably, there comes a point where you can’t really change the sculpture – at least without completely starting over. That point happens to writers – and it comes as we need to move on and start fresh. You could feasibly start out over, but even then, the mold has been set and you are limited to just how much you can change the narrative. You could write “the sequel”, but I don’t think this is a great option either, since you are still informed by the characters and events of the previous narrative (and besides, you can’t sell “the sequel” until you’ve sold the first book.) Moving on isn’t about failure – it’s about refusing artistic stagnation and growing as a writer.

Moving on from a project isn’t abandoning it either. I am just reaching this point with my first novel (after probably two years of work) and I’m not giving up – I’m still submitting it to publishers. But it can take some publishers four to six months (if not longer) to respond to unsolicited submissions. Based on this timeline as well as the response I’ve gotten from agents so far, I think my resources are better spent elsewhere. And ultimately, that’s what it comes down to: resources. As a writer, your time is a precious, nonrenewable resource.

Craft is also a consideration when moving on. The advantage of moving on is you can start one hundred percent fresh and experiment with techniques and elements you couldn’t attempt in your other project. My first novel was written in the first person; my new novel is written in third person with three point-of-view characters. I can’t say I’ve mastered the technique of multiple POV’s, but moving on gives me the freedom to start over and try new things I otherwise couldn’t in my other project.

What moving on shouldn’t be is an excuse to quit prematurely. Make no mistake: you still need to finish projects. You still need to make revisions. And you still need to send your work out to agents and publishers. Moving on shouldn’t be seen as a means of switching from project to project so many times you never actually finish a work.

Finally, moving in isn’t about burying or killing a project either. You can always come back to a project later. And like I said, I’m still sending my first novel out to publishers and agents, albeit at a much slower rate. The only thing I’ve burying this novel under is the other projects I’m working on in an effort to start fresh. For the time being however, I’m not putting my novel in the junk drawer – I’m just putting it on the back burner.

(For much better advice on this topic, be sure to check out the Writing Excuse episode on the issue of Moving On, which features not only sage advice from its hosts on the subject, but also many words of wisdom from the awesome Ellen Kushner.)

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Know Thy Genre

It’s less than a week from the release of the next Star Wars, and even though I still won’t see Episode VII for still few more weeks, I still can’t contain my excitement for the new trilogy. The Cantina scene on Mos Eisley was one of my first movie memories as a kid, and the franchise – from movies and TV shows to the comics and books – certainly played a big role in putting me on the path of a geeky science fiction writer. But in spite of my enthusiasm, I have to point out an obvious fact: George Lucas did not invent (or even re-invent) science fiction.

I say this out because a friend of mine once gleefully told me he had an idea for a science fiction story without laser guns or sword fights. And he’s not the first person to tell me they have an original science fiction story that’s not Star Wars, or Star Trek, or Battlestar Galactica or Babylon 5.

No genre exists in a vacuum. Science fiction dates back to the works of Jules Verne and Mary Shelley. Mysteries can be traced back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allen Poe. The roots of fantasy can go all the way back to mythology and folklore. It is ignorant – and borderline arrogant – to assume TV and movies are accurate portrayals of genres in and of themselves.

Honestly, I think most writers know their genre pretty well. After all, something must have inspired you to become a writer in the first place. Whether it’s a healthy diet of space opera or cozy mysteries, beginning writers often have a solid knowledge base in their primary genres. It’s when they start to cross the border into a different genre – or subgenre – that issues arise. Fortunately, there are few ways to ensure a seamless transition from story to story.

First of all, if you want to write in a genre, you have to read that genre, plain and simple. Fortunately, there are many resources to point you in the right direction. Goodreads is an invaluable resource when it comes to genres. Probably the best way, however, is to just ask someone you trust. I recently started working on an urban fantasy. I asked a friend for some recommendations – not only did I get a better understanding of the genre with regards to audience and POV, but I also added a few new favorite authors to my list. Not a bad deal.

Secondly, don’t be quick to discard an idea if you find out it isn’t as original as you hoped. Originality can be highly overrated. Often times, it’s not so much an idea that matters as much as the personal touch a writer brings to a story. For months, I’ve been hard at work on a story involving the great-great grand daughter of Abraham Van Helsing – only to find SyFy Channel is also working a project involving such a character. But in truth, a female Van Helsing is nothing new – such characters have appeared in both Hammer films and Marvel comics. While I’m curious what the SyFy Channel comes up with, I’m continuing my own project because it gives me a chance to further work my particular vision, my individual voice on the subject.

Ultimately, writing isn’t about mastering a genre – it’s about mastering several different genres. Love him or hate him, George Lucas didn’t re-invent sci-fi – instead he combined several different genres a time, mixing together the pulp sci-fi of the Golden Age with Kurosawa’s samurai epic “The Hidden Fortress” and the works of Joseph Campbell into a wholly unique vision. Want to follow in his footsteps? Then find your voice across numerous worlds and infinite stories.

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Why I’m Not Publishing on Amazon (Yet)

When I tell people I’m a writer, the inevitable question is “Are you published?” I tell them while I have been published, my work hasn’t appeared very widely. This always leads to the dreaded follow-up question: “Why don’t you just publish on Amazon? It’s so easy.”

Normally I just smile and reply “I’ll think about it”, but the truth is quite a bit more complicated. To understand why I’m not throwing books up on Amazon left and right, you have to know a little bit about the publishing landscape, which is currently in a great deal of flux. There are (at least) three ways to publish. I’m going to give an overview of each of them, along with the reasoning behind my current publishing strategy. The two factors to keep in mind, however, is that a) your strategy has to tailored your own goals and dreams and b) you can – and should – revise your strategy as time goes on.

The first way writers are published is through traditional publishing. This is the way publishing has worked for decades. Writers seek out an agent, who present their work to a publisher, in return for fifteen percent off the writer’s earning (this is a standard throughout the industry). A publisher agrees to produce the writer’s book, providing not only publication, but also cover design, editing services and some marketing. Major publishers also usually have the connections to put the author’s work in bookstores across the country. The writer usually receives an advance as well as subsequent royalties after the book sales have paid out the initial advance.

One of the biggest downsides is that this way is fraught with gatekeepers. From the agents themselves to the editors acquiring the book, there are tons of hurdles a writer has to clear in order to land a deal. While these gatekeepers ensure a certain standard of quality, it’s still a very difficult process for writers. Don’t believe me? James Patterson and J.K. Rowling were both rejected at least twelve times by publishers and I’ve heard of major authors being rejected upwards of fifty times.

In spite of these hardships, this is the path I’ve currently chosen. I want to eventually make enough from my writing to do it full-time, or at least most-of-the-time. This way, I’ll have an agent in my corner to help make that happen. While I realize the lion’s share of the work falls to me, and that there’s only so much agents, editors and even publishers can do, I like the sense of structure and teamwork. Plus, these are my first novels. Having them rejected gives me more incentive to go back, revise and ensure they really are the best work I can produce.

But of course, that’s not the only way to publish nowadays.

The other way is through self-publishing. Most self-publishing is done through Amazon’s CreateSpace, although there are tons of other self-publishing services. For years, self-publishing was looked down by traditional publishing entities, but the advances in printing technology and the widespread availability of print-on-demand services has changed that. Unlike traditional publishing, self-publishing is simple: as the name implies, you do it all yourself. It’s actually a lot easier than you think. You just buy an ISBN, upload a PDF of the text, provide a cover, click a few buttons, and then you have a book.

“If it’s that easy, what aren’t you doing it?” you might ask. “Heck, why isn’t everyone doing it?” Well, that’s the problem: nearly everyone is doing it. At least a million books are published a year in English alone. The competition is fierce. And remember, you are doing this all without a publisher, which means you provide the cover, you do the editing. Flubbing either of them can put a black mark of your book, making it difficult to land publishing deals later on in your career.

I think self-publishing works for two kinds of writers on opposite ends of the spectrum. The first are the hobbyists. These writers aren’t looking to make it big or turn it into a career – they just want to get their feet wet. So they put together a well-edited book with a basic cover and see what happens. It worked for Andy Weir, whose book “The Martian” started out self-published, and is now a bestselling novel and movie. The other class of writers are the ones who have tried traditional publishing to no avail and decided to put their work up on Amazon – again with solid editing and a good cover. My friend Cat Stark did this with her book “The Elven Prince”. She’s happy with the results and preparing to publish another book very soon.

Last but not least, there are the hybrid publishers. This is a nebulous category at best, but an important one nonetheless. Like all forms the media, the publishing industry is experiencing a rabid amount of change. What worked thirty years ago in publishing doesn’t work anymore, heck, what worked ten years ago might not work anymore. Hybrid publishers represent those writers with one foot in either camp. It could simply be a writer who uses both traditional publishing and self-publishing venues to get his or her work out there. Or it could be a writer who teams up with a vanity press and then uses crowdfunding to purchases ala carte services to obtain publisher house quality for their project. Or it could mean something completely different.

The industry is rapidly changing. Hybrid publishing acknowledges publishing doesn’t have to be binary choice of either going through the gatekeepers or going it alone. If there’s one part of the industry that’s going to grow in the next couple years, I suspect it’s this one – but how and where, I don’t have a clue. All I can say is if it sounds like a great plan and you’re willing to take the risk – go for it – but keep it mind all experimentation involves risk, and all risk involves failure. Publishing in general is a thorny business to innovate, filled with plenty of good ideas attempted too soon or too late – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try in the first place.

Ultimately, the 21st century has made publishing personal. Thus, the tools and strategies we use have to be tailored to our own objectives, but don’t be afraid to restock or completely revise these strategies from time to time. After all, no plan survives the battlefield.