Saturday, 7 December 2013

Setting the scene

Pigeon Point Tobago, setting of a scene in Cafe au Lait
Settings, both in my reading and writing, are often as important to me as character and plot. I treasure writers
who can bring a location, time and social context so vividly to life that I feel I've not just read about a place but actually spent time there. What is setting precisely? It's the overall atmosphere (place, time, society) and the particular physical setting of each scene.

Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, Miami, from Give Me the Night
When I think of alluring settings, Gerald Durrell's Corfu stories come to mind. His stories which are set in Africa, Argentina, Guyana and other places are equally compelling setting-wise. If I ever make it to his zoo on Jersey Island, I'm sure I'll recognize the place. I can even recall the smell of animal droppings in his backyard in England when it used to be cluttered with animals in cages--though I've never visited that island. I can hear his neighbors quarreling over the fence about the squawking of the exotic birds and screeches of the primates, just as I'm painfully familiar with the colonial India of E.M. Forster, the dust-clogged Canadian prairies of Farley Mowat, and the blistering near-mystical Australian outback of Arthur Upfield. Yes, I'm a setting whore of sorts.

The settings in my books are usually places I know intimately, such as the Caribbean and South Florida, or that I've imagined intimately, such as the post-apocalyptic barren permafrost wastes in my speculative short story, Bird. Whether the scene is a placid
Arctic tundra, similar to the landscape in Bird
beach or a tropical swamp, a Miami metropolis of highways and metrorails or a lichen-covered polar wasteland, I labor over the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures and rhythms that create that elusive element, setting. To me, these are as important as the speech patterns, personal tics, actions and psychological journeys of the characters. As such, I prize highly the review of an Amazon UK reader who said she was on Google Maps the entire time she was reading one of my stories, following the characters around. This, to me, is proof that the setting came alive and excited the reader to the point where she was living the story, an immersion that's essential to my reading experience, and which I try to create for my readers.

How important is setting to your writing? Do you labor over it, or is it a mere backdrop to that all-important element--the plot?

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Burned: Why I hesitate to give advice to new writers

Head in the clouds
Sunny Frazier's article "Fame and Fortune? Fugetaboutit" over on Novel Spaces brought back memories of the times I almost injured friendships in my zeal to help aspiring writers come to terms with the realities of the publishing industry. Those experiences taught me to leave people to their illusions unless they specifically asked for my input.

First there was the case of Friend A. He is not a reader (except for the publications of his particular religious sect) and it shows in his writing which is unwieldy and preachy. He was out of a job and decided, since I had just snared a publishing contract, that he would write a memoir and make some fast money. Fast money? This was around 2006/2007 when Amazon's KDP platform did not exist. I explained the process of getting a book published and the time involved, but he brushed all of that aside. He'd get a big advance that would take care of all his expenses until the royalties started pouring in. Okay...

This brought us to the work that has to be done before signing that lovely contract—you know, the querying of agents and publishers. At the time few agents were accepting e-queries and the process involved lots of printing out of letters, synopses and sample chapters and mailing them to another country (my friend lives in the Caribbean, as I do) with International Mailing Coupons or return envelopes with US stamps on them. And before that, I informed Friend A, a lot of research had to be done to find the agents/editors who might be interested—online research with ultra-slow dial-up connections (remember those?)... My friend's response?

"Oh, you know all about that stuff so you can do it for me."

I think my jaw must have hit the floor at the same time my eyebrows collided with the roof, knowing as I did the years of hard work and research that led to that first publishing contract of mine. (And I'm not even talking about the writing itself here.) Hadn't I just explained all of this to my friend? Yet he thought I had a few spare months or years lying around, late nights included, to do this on his behalf. It was at this point that I began to write off his publishing aspirations, because writers must be willing to do the work. You're not willing to do the work involved? Then you're not serious, buddy. But a friend is a friend, so I hung in there and kept trying to help...

I took a deep breath and moved along to the actual writing. His book was going to be a memoir, and he had written an introduction and a few chapters. I told him the same rules apply as with a novel: there must be a narrative arc, it must be interesting and written in a style that makes the reader want to keep reading. Since it was a memoir, though, he needed to tell the truth, so he would have to excise all the intriguing anecdotes about fighting his (nonexistent up to that point) agent and editor to the death for "creative control" and "joining the ranks of the literati—damn them". He also needed, I told him, to leave out the parts about his vast qualifications to write the book and how much the reader stood to gain from reading the story—and let the story stand on its own.

He was horrified, and his first thought was that I was being malicious. Then he recalled our many years of friendship and that nothing I had ever done or said before provided a sound basis for such a conclusion, so he resolved that it must be the publishing industry that was rotten and biased and I was just showing him what he would have to deal with "out there". At that point he decided he would not waste his time and talent on such a system, and he moved on to other dreams and plans.

Friend B is another story. He also has a lot to learn, but makes up for his shortcomings with his love for and dedication to writing. He does the work, and has been doing it for many years. He puts in the time to learn more about the craft, constantly challenging himself. At some point he decided he wanted to have something to show for his years of effort, so he self-published an anthology on Xlibris. There was just one problem: he believed the royalty checks would start pouring in from the very next month. When I tried to tell him a bit about the reality of self publishing at the time, he got an angry glint in his eyes and a certain set to his jaw. I knew what he was thinking: that I had gone and gotten a publishing contract and now I was  trying to rain on his parade. I was being a wet blanket. A purveyor of negativity.

I shut up. He went ahead with his plans and at last check, after five years, he had not yet sold 10 copies of the book. He continues to ask my opinion and advice, though. The difference now is that he pays attention. I don't know everything, but I share what I do know. I'll always try to help Friend B to the best of my ability because he works hard and loves writing stories. I hope that he finds some measure of success in publishing, whatever his definition of "success" might be.

So, unlike Sunny, I no longer try to put new writers right about the realities of publishing. When they ask in person or write me for advice, I point them to helpful websites. And I don't read their manuscripts unless they are paying me to edit them. I've discovered that to some aspiring writers, it's all about fooling around with a fuzzy dream of immediate fame and fortune. They aren't interested in the years of toil, setbacks, and disappointment, with rare moments of bliss, that go into the making of a real-world publishing career.

Liane Spicer

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

What have you done for your writing lately?

As a writer you're never done learning. This can be daunting, especially when you stumble across a book that blows you away—like The Portrait of Dorian Gray did to me two years ago—and you realize that even given multiple lifetimes you might never attain anything close to the genius of an Oscar Wilde.

But few of us have such lofty aspirations anyway. We just want to write what we enjoy in such a way that readers enjoy it as well. Many readers, preferably. We gain pleasure from the realization that each book we write is better, craft-wise, than the one that went before. And the way we ensure that we get better at what we do is to hone our skills. How do we achieve this?
  • Reading widely should not even be on this list because it's a given: writers of fiction are--or should be--great consumers of fiction. The former state grows out of the latter. I have met too many aspiring writers who say they don't have time to read, or only read the Bible, or only read sci-fi, or romance, or some other narrow slice of the wealth out there. To paraphrase Stephen King: anyone who doesn't have the time to read has neither the time nor the tools to write.
  • Fall in love with words, if you aren't already. I know people, including some editors, who are miffed when they stumble across unfamiliar words in a manuscript. I happen to love authors who challenge my vocabulary and teach me exciting new words. I'm not referring to to those, particularly in the literary arena, whose paragraphs are minefields strewn with obstacles to clarity, or the ones who engage in thesaurus overkill. Expand your vocabulary and use your new tools to telling effect. 
  • Challenge yourself by taking writing courses. I did a fiction writing course last year, and followed up this year with a poetry writing course. I can tell you, that poetry class was a challenge! The class days were the highlight of my week; it was fulfilling to spend three hours reading, critiquing, discussing, learning, and just being in the creative zone with like-minded people. As a consequence, I wrote more, and I wrote better. 
  • Befriend writers on social networks. Most of my online contacts are writers. I have learned much from them about the business of publishing, about writing craft via their favorite books on the subject, about their workspaces, their problems and their solutions to writing and publishing issues. I've learned where to go for cover art and marketing advice. These writers are my lifeline. 
  • Attend writing retreats, residential workshops, conventions. I haven't been to any of those, but from all accounts, the laser focus of a writing retreat and the energy and excitement of conventions are invigorating. In addition to learning new skills, atendees often end up making new friends for life and discovering valuable industry contacts. 
These are just a few ways in which I boost (or plan to boost) my writing. What have you done for your creativity lately?

Liane Spicer

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

I'm the language police and you're under arrest!

Back in 2007 when I was still new to blogging I was unceremoniously pulled over by a helmeted laptop cop, a regular visitor to my blog, who cited me for misspelling ad nauseam. I Googled the expression and discovered that my version, ad nauseum, did not exist. Duh, I told myself. The expression is derived from nausea, so where on earth did I get that second u? I did a quick search of the blog and found I had misspelled the word not just in the current article, but in another I had posted a few months earlier.

My gratitude for that citation was profound. I had always been a little--okay, a lot--impatient with writers who inadvertently break the rules of the language in their Internet scribblings (and, needless to say, in their books). Yet I had made this egregious spelling error on my own blog, not once, but twice. I was mortified, but thankful for the directness of the language cop. I admired her seeming inability to shrink from what some might consider a sensitive issue. I imagine that all writers are sensitive about errors in their work; I know I am, which is why, unlike my blog friend, I rarely point out glaring errors in the writing of authors I know--the exception being friends who ask me to edit their work and clients who pay me to do so.

Correcting minor errors in articles submitted by guests of Novel Spaces is something I do routinely. As a blog administrator, I also correct typos, incorrect formatting, and sometimes language errors in members' posts, not routinely, but now and then when I stumble across them. What I never do is send an e-mail to the author citing him or her for the mistakes.

I know, I know. I'm a craven coward who dreads causing offense or embarrassment. I've seen the reactions of writers across the web to having their errors pointed out, heard the screams of "Spelling police!" and "Grammar Nazi". I also have time constraints like everyone else; it's more efficient all around to just make a quick edit and move on. But I never do this without a little pang of remorse. The spelling-cop (who became a good friend) ensured that I'd never again embarrass myself on the world wide web or anywhere else by writing ad nauseum instead of ad nauseam.

What do you do? Do you point out language errors to writers as you find them in the knowledge that every word we write, even informally on the Internet, reflects on us professionally? Or do you just you move along knowing that we all err at times?

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Writing advice from the greats: Henry Miller

In my last two posts on writing advice from the greats, we looked at Kurt Vonnegut's 8 tips for writing great stories and 6 writing tips from John Steinbeck. These guidelines worked for Vonnegut and Steinbeck, and they'll work for you. I've been guilty of doing the opposite of what successful career writers do: I've worked on too many things simultaneously so I began to feel overwhelmed and could not focus on any; I've wasted time waiting for inspiration or the right 'mood' to get down to work; I've edited to death instead of finishing and starting a new book... My transgressions run the gamut, and some are an ongoing challenge, but re-reading proven advice from the masters always gets me back on the rails.

We'll wind up the series with some advice from Henry Miller. Enjoy!

Henry Miller's 11 Commandments

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’ [Or, finish your WIP!]
  3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  5. When you can’t create you can work.
  6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.
There it is - the best writing advice I've found. You'll find many other authors repeating the tips in these three articles. My own advice is to take what works for you and dump the rest. Take Miller's #11, for example. You can't always write first; children, day jobs, illness, general vicissitudes of life can get in the way. But if we make our writing a priority and follow much of the advice at least some of the time, we'll stand a better chance of completing the stories we want to write.

Happy writing!

Liane Spicer

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Writing advice from the greats: John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck
In my first post on writing advice from the greats, we looked at what the Slaughterhouse-Five author, Kurt Vonnegut, had to say about writing good stories. The good writing advice does not stop there; John Steinbeck famously claimed that no one has been able to reduce story writing to a recipe, yet even he had a few ingredients of his own for creating good stories.

John Steinbeck's 6 writing tips:
  1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
  4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
  6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
Even the writers who claim there are no rules admit that there are a few that they live by. The only one I've taken to heart is that you never, never show anyone your work until the first draft is complete. Do you have one unbreakable writing rule? Please share it with us.

Next up on Advice from the Greats: Henry Miller's 11 commandments.

Liane Spicer

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Local Color

Writing coaches recommend that writers use local color in their stories to make them come alive. Every location, real or fictional, has unique sounds, sights and flavors. The characters in a story don't live in a generic town; they live in a town in a particular place where the stench of the swamp permeates when the wind blows south,
where little blue buses called "Conchita" bustle along the main street, where a paraplegic veteran sits in a cart in front the courthouse and curses the gov'mint every Saturday morning.

I'm from the Caribbean so a reader might expect to find a certain island flavor in my storiesinfusions of hot sunshine, white beaches, clear turquoise waters, lush vegetation, and market stalls heaped with mangoes and pineapples forming the perfect pictorial background to my scenes. They might expect colorful characters from the postcolonial melange of cultures, the syncopation of reggae, calypso and reggaeand they would very likely find these. But local color extends far past the touristic image of a tropical paradise. Those elements are not the whole picture.

Particularly exciting to me are the languages, myths and legends of the region. There are many versions of English, English Creole and French Creole spoken in the Anglophone Caribbean, varying from island to island and even within territories.  Then there are the mythsthe tales of jumbies in Trinidad (duppies in Jamaica, ghosts elsewhere), the lagahoo (loup-garou or werewolf elsewhere), douens and La Diablesse... Penetrate deeper and a kaleidoscope of fantastical human, animal and supernatural characters emerge.

Some myths blur the lines between reality and fiction. When I was a child one of the tales with which my father held us in thrall was the story of the giant snake. It lived in forest pools, he said, and every so often it would come out and raid nearby villages, swallowing livestock and children whole. This horrifying creature was called a wheel, and years later, whenever I swam in deep forest pools after a long hike, the image of the wheel lurking below never failed to send shivers down my spine even as I laughed and splashed with my fellow adventurers. Suppose the thing was real? Why was it called a wheel anyway? Did it put its tail in its mouth and roll through the forest like a hoop? Suppose one lived down there? Would it emerge from the green, shadowy depths and pull me under where it would proceed to swallow me whole as I thrashed in vain, while my companions ran (or swam) for cover?

I subsequently discovered that the snake is not a wheel but a huile, French lexicon creole for oil, and the name is derived from its fluid movements in the water. The huile is also known locally as macajuel, a Spanish creole form, I think. It is a type of boa constrictor and is related to that famous South American giant... the anaconda. My father did not invent the huile; the darned monster is real.

The more I write, the more I feel the urgency to capture the colors of this place. The old spaces are being razed; the old words are dying out, replaced with the Americanisms of cable television. I remember standing in front of a literature class a few years agowe were reading a novel by local novelist Michael Anthonyand not one of those teenage suburbanites knew what laglee was. (It's the sticky white sap of the chataigne or breadfruit tree that's spread on twigs to trap birds.) When I was a child no boy worthy of the name would be ignorant of the existence and applications of laglee. The colors are fading fast, including those of the old characters, the lagahous, douens and that man-eating she-devil, La Diablesse, who are retreating further and further into what's left of the tropical forests.

There's only one way to keep them alive: on the pages of our books. Keeping them alive has become an important part of my mission. Do you feel a compulsion to conserve the colors of your patch of earth?

Liane Spicer

Monday, 21 January 2013

The Big Bump

The Great Flatlining Phenomenon
In March 2012 I plunged—well, more like tiptoed warily—into the world of indie publishing after vacillating for a year or two. I started with short stories and a novella that I published on the Kindle for a friend, an erotica short on behalf of another friend, and a couple literary-type short stories of my own, written under a pen name. I did not have great expectations, and these were fulfilled with single-digit sales every month for the next six months or so. In September 2012 I added a few more short stories and novellas in different genres, generating sales that approached double digits over the next two months. In November a new release started selling right out of the gate, racking up 16 sales in one day and zooming up the rankings.

I became an addict of the KDP report, watching in wonder as the figures crept up, sometimes in multiples, every couple of hours. The lead title was selling 44-54 copies per week up to the middle December, with the overall trend showing an increase every week. I was hoping for bigger and better things over the holidays as experienced indie authors could not stop talking about Christmas 2011 when they had seen unprecedented sales. We were all waiting for The Big Bump.

The optimist in me rubbed its hands in anticipation of the seemingly inevitable windfall. Hadn't I—well, my press—not sold close to 300 stories in 6 weeks? Having gone from single to double and then triple digit sales, wasn't it reasonable to expect that four-digit sales were in the cards?

The other part of me, the part that knew from bitter experience that expecting the worst is a good way to stay sane in the publishing industry, raised an eyebrow and expected nothing. For that part of me, every sale was (and still is) a miracle, and there was no guarantee there would ever be another. I'm glad this part of me held the other at bay, jeered at it as it made grandiose plans to finally quit my part time job and be, yanno, a full time writer/publisher.

On or around December 18, sales fell to a couple a day, and between the day before Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, nothing sold. Not one copy. Of anything. In any genre.

The battle-weary, scarred and stoic part of me got on with life. There was a novella waiting to be completed, another to be edited for an author with the press, cover images to be found and covers to be mocked up and sent off to the artist.

The excitable, optimistic part of me tore its hair out and banged its head against the keyboard as the fallout from The Great Flatlining Sales Phenomenon of December 2012 made its way across the interwebs, consuming discussion boards, industry blogs, comment threads and private e-mails. Theories were rife: Amazon had changed its infamous algorithm once again! The US economy was to blame! The KDP Select program with its immense wasteland of free e-books had destroyed the industry! The Great Cull of indie books had begun!

Three days after Christmas, sales began to trickle in again. 2 on the 27th. 3 on the 28th. 4 on the 29th. My stoic half is back at work writing, editing, designing covers, researching, and, for the very first time, compiling exceedingly modest royalty statements for the authors who threw in their lot with me and my micropress.

It's business as usual around Lianeland. The optimistic part of me is still sulking, but coming around. It's sitting there in front of the laptop with the stoic half, putting behind it the excitement of The Big Bump That Wasn't—and not a moment too soon. We have work to do.

Happy New Year!

Liane Spicer