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Some Random Observations

In this blog posting, I just want to make a few observations on a couple of aspects of writing.  To wit:

First, I stopped at a  local Barnes and Noble bookstore this afternoon to get another science fiction book.  I wandered down the aisle where the sci-fi/fantasy books were shelved and, as usual, glanced briefly at the books that led to the sci-fi section.   Those books consisted largely of classics and other fiction, not sci-fi.  Then I hit the science fiction section, and the contrast was—as simply as I can put it—eye opening.  The classics, all those non-sci-fi books were brilliantly colored: reds, yellows, and oranges seemed to dominate, though other colors were evident too.  But the sci-fi books were almost uniformly black.  Coal black, black as midnight in a coal mine, black as the ace of spades, to use several well-worn clichés.  The actual dividing line was between the classics and the newest releases of sci-fi books, and certainly not all sci-fi books are released in blackened dust jackets.  But in this particular case, almost all the new releases seem to have been painted with a brush dipped in India ink.  Even a classic such as Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is in a deep blue, and it stuck out only because I was familiar with the name.  I did see two or three books in much lighter colors, and I even bought one, an anthology of space opera and military sci-fi called Infinite Stars, edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt, published by Titan Books.  It has a kind of light tannish-red grizzled cover, and it stood out from all the blackness like a sun in the midst of infinite darkness.

I’m not sure I can tell why so many sci-fi books are published in dark covers.  Perhaps it’s a trend of the times.  There seems a tendency toward dark plots nowadays, of heroes who are not what they seem to be, or who have to overcome vastly destructive personal demons before they can fulfill their destiny and rescue the damsel in distress (or whatever it is they have to do).  There are, of course, many sci-fi books released in recent years that are not dark (Victor Milan’s Dinosaur series comes to mind), but there is a serious trend.  I, personally, am not in favor of it.  If I ever get any of my books published (the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise), I will certainly insist that the covers be lighter, even much lighter.  Reds and yellows are common.  Even a light blue would be good.  What’s that you say?  The author doesn’t have any control over the cover?  We’ll find out.

Second, I want to comment briefly on one aspect of getting short stories published.  I’ve written several short stories, mostly literary in character, and I’ve been trying to get some of them published in literary journals around the country for quite a number of years.  Most of the journals state in their instructions to submitters something like: “read a back issue or two of our journal to get a feel of what kind of works we are looking for.”  Okay, well said.  Good idea.  And I have been reading some of the journals I submit to, when I can get to them.  But I’m becoming more and more convinced this advice is questionable at best.  Several times (more than I can count on all fingers and toes) I’ve read a journal and said, “Aha!  I have a short story that will fit well with this magazine.  I will give them a try.”  So I send in a story, wait a goodly number of weeks or months and, invariably, comes a rejection that says, “We did not feel this story was a good fit for our magazine.”  So I wonder, what value is it to read the magazine beforehand if they’re going to reject something the author thinks will fit their editorial style?  Granted, the whole process is subjective, and the editor’s decision is the last word, but if the author can’t make a good judgement on the “fit” of the story, that just makes it harder to get published in the first place.

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Books And Marketing–Where Are We Going?

In a short news report I read a few days ago, Sherry Lansing, the former head of Paramount Studios, is quoted as saying, “I’ve come to believe that the marketing of a movie is now more important than the movie.  That to me is a very, very sad thing and perhaps it explains why there are less films of social relevance.  Because they’re harder to market.”

Now, in this day and age of fake news, I suppose this could be a fake story, but the source seemed believable to me, and anyway, Sherry Lansing, as the former CEO of a major studio, should know what she’s talking about.  We’ve all probably seen a lot of trailers for movies lately, and I’ve noticed that many of those movies are ones in which the special effects are prominent, like science-fiction movies.  Marketing is certainly a big part of making a movie, that’s for sure.

But as a writer of fiction (but not screenplays), I found myself wondering if the same isn’t true for books.  Perhaps not to the same extent as for movies because there are probably a lot more books published each year than movies released.  But certainly, marketing for books is an important part of the publishing process.  Publishers nowadays do little marketing anymore, leaving it largely to the author, and if you self-publish, you have to do it all.  So many things go into marketing a book: you have to have a website, blog, Facebook page, Twitter account, and you’re even expected to go onto other social media platforms, just to get the word out about your book.  Book signings, a spectacular book launch, working with bookstores, libraries and other outlets, just to get the book in the hands of the public.  Go to book fairs and conventions.  Always keep a box of your books in the back of your car.  An email list is considered mandatory.  Many writers hire a publicist.  If you don’t market well, you’re considered a failure.  It goes on and on.  I wonder if an author does more marketing than actual writing.  Does that mean that marketing is more important than the book itself?  Do writers spend more time marketing anymore?  Are we channeling Sherry Lansing in all this?

Marketing, of course, is selling.  To market means to ask yourself, “What can I do to sell my book(s)?”  Ours is a selling society.  The gradual increase in commercial time on TV is one indication of how TV networks and local stations have to raise more and more money just to produce their shows.  I’ve even seen commercials that are five (5) minutes long, for crying out loud.  Push, push, push.  Sell, sell, sell.  It’s getting to be the same in publishing.  We have to market more and more just to recoup the cost of producing the books.  I’m wondering if there will be a breaking point somewhere along the line where one or more authors will say, “Enough is enough.  I can’t sell enough books to make writing worthwhile any more.”  I don’t think we’ve reached that point, but I really wonder how far away it is.

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The Writer And The App

The November, 2017, issue of The Writer contains a couple of articles about apps for writers that can (potentially, at least) make the physical act of writing easier.  My first reaction when I saw the magazine was very much in the realm of Ebenezer Scrooge: “Bah”, I said, “I don’t need an app to do my writing.  I do it myself.”  Of course I do.

But now that I’ve read the articles and looked over the listings of products and tools that can make writing easier, I’m beginning to change my mind.  Granted, the writer still has to do the actual writing—or at least the mental, imaginative, and creative part of the writing if not the physical act of putting one word after another, because now software is available that will write as you speak.  I’m not sure I’m ready for that just yet, but I am leaning toward looking at, if not outright purchasing, one or two apps that might help me get the job done.  File storage, social media management, e-book creation, all look like possibilities, if not now, at least in the future.

But I’m not leaning toward any of the large, word-processing apps or downloads.  I’ve been using Microsoft Word for—well, let’s just say a long time now—and I’m satisfied with it.  I’m very familiar with it, and I can’t see learning a new word processor that does largely the same thing, even though it may have other functions.  Some people swear by word processing programs that can help them “organize” their work into, say chapters and scenes and convenient blocks of text.  I can’t say I need anything like that.  I keep most of that in my head anyway, or on paper.  It works for me, and I’ve always felt that writing is best done by whatever works for the writer.  Do it your own way.

In the end, of course, you have to do the writing yourself.  No app will write a novel for you, though that may be in the not-too-far distant future.  Artificial intelligence may make us writers obsolete, and such original material as reports, poetry, novels, biographies, whatnot, may be computer generated.  Fortunately I won’t be around to see that, and I suspect that artificial intelligence will never fully replace the human mind.  I’m sure AI will do more imaginative, creative thinking than it does now, for better or worse.  But it will be a long time before a computer wins a Pulitzer.

So, whether you’re writing one haiku or an exhaustive history of all the dinosaurs that roamed the North American continent, you still have to sit down and write the damn thing.  Apps can help, but it’s up to you to do the heavy lifting.

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Writing; Also Reading

In the almost twenty years since I started writing fiction, I’ve noticed a change in the way I read that same genre.  I started my career as a scientist many, many years ago, and the only thing I wrote for a large part of my life were scientific papers.  The only thing I read with any frequency was nonfiction, including other scientific papers and the occasional nonfiction book.  (With the one important exception of Sherlock Holmes; for some reason which I can’t explain I latched onto Holmes a long time ago and read and reread it.  Perhaps it has to do with Holmes’s insistence on using logic and reason—which is an important part of the scientific method—to identify the criminal in the case.  The fact that Watson was a physician also didn’t hurt.)  But in any event, my life was largely saturated with nonfiction, from biography to all sorts of general nonfiction to straight science and how-to books in microbiology and virology.  Then I started a novel.

And as I started, I also began to read novels I hadn’t read before; I studied writing; I read writing magazines and books on writing; I went to writer’s conferences; I joined writing groups and listened to speakers talk about all phases of writing.  I read novels and short stories and tried my hand at both.  And I have so far gotten to the point that I feel I can write a reasonably good short story, one that stands a good chance of being published.  (You can see two examples of my short fiction on this blog site; just go to the Short Stories tab.)  Now all I have to do is convince a publisher to agree with me.  But all that writing and learning about writing has had another effect.

Now when I read, I read more like a writer.  I notice things I almost certainly would not have noticed had I not studied how to write.  I’m much more conscious of what the writer of a book or short story is trying to do and say than I would have been otherwise.  I look for plot holes; I look for foreshadowing: Ah-ha!  He’s introduced an new character/concept.  That could be important.  I will follow this.  To a lesser extent, I am more  aware of things that are missing (why isn’t the main character doing this?  Or this?).  I look at grammar and sentence structure more carefully, I am aware of voice, point of view, and tense more stringently.  I look at the author’s voice and style much more than I used to.  Before, when I read nonfiction, I only wanted to get the information from the book/article/whatever.  And in the case of the odd fiction piece, I read only for the entertainment.  I didn’t have the knowledge to understand how it was put together.  Now I am much more attentive to style and performance, even in nonfiction.  Good or bad, that has been one of the side issues of learning how to write.

That extends to watching TV and movies.  I’m now much more tuned in on how the show was put together.  I’m conscious of plot holes and things that aren’t there.  I look for oddities and peculiarities.  I’ve come to realize that Captain Kirk on Star Trek, The Original Series was a lousier captain of a deep space vehicle than I thought he was at first.  (Some of the things he did—wow.)  But enough of that; who cares?  Writing is fun and interesting, and looking at other writer’s works just makes me a better writer in the long run.  A fundamental tenet of writing has always been that writers must be readers.  This is one reason why.

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“Dunkirk,” The Movie

This is not meant to be a review of the movie “Dunkirk.”  I just want to use it to make a few observations about stories and writing.

I saw “Dunkirk” last Thursday, and it deserves all the good things that are being said about it.  (It was loud, though.  For some reason either the theater turned up the volume on the sound, or maybe the sound was recorded that way, perhaps, as my companion said, to emphasize the nature of the warfare the movie displayed.)  The movie is about the evacuation of British, French, Dutch and Belgian troops from the French port of Dunkirk in 1940 as they were surrounded by German troops.  For some unknown reason, the Germans halted their advance on the Allied troops, encircling them on the beach, giving them a couple of days to evacuate.  But the British navy didn’t have enough ships to do the job, so hundreds, if not thousands of smaller civilian craft, from small sail boats to pleasure craft, came from England to help.  They eventually evacuated over 330,000 men, allowing the British to continue to fight later.  (Keep in mind England and France declared war on Germany in September, 1939, after the Nazis invaded Poland.)

Dunkirk was a disaster of, if I may use a well-worn cliché*, epic proportions, and would have been much worse if the Nazis hadn’t stopped their advance and destroyed or captured them.  The consequences could have been tragic.  England would have had difficulty raising another army over the next several years, and the eventual invasion of France in 1944 probably would have been much different.  Field Marshall Montgomery’s forces in Egypt in 1942 might have been much smaller, and his victory against Rommel could have turned out much differently.  They have some unknown order to German forces to stop their advance to thank.

But most of this was never presented in the movie.  Not even hinted at, except for the eventual count of troops evacuated.  The movie took a far different route to tell the story.  The story was told from the point of view of individuals, not armies or even divisions or regiments or battalions.  Individuals just doing their job to either make the evacuation happen, or try their best to get off the beach.  No large-scale events were described, or even hinted at.  Just individuals.  The story made personal.  This was the story brought down to its basest level: the soldier or sailor himself, one at a time, running, swimming, dodging bullets, finding safety, or not.  Nazi troops were not shown at all.  Only their bullets.  (Except for one brief shot where a Spitfire pilot who landed his plane on the beach when he ran out of fuel (“petrol”) was captured by German soldiers, and then shown only out of focus so their faces were not visible.)

I liked the way the story was told.  I did have a little difficulty with the fact that the entire movie was told this way, because it didn’t put the affair in perspective.  All events and all people have a greater impact on life than just their individual lives.  Every human has two parents and four grandparents, and so forth.  Every human exists in a larger situation.  Even a man who retreats to a cave on a mountain top as a hermit has a larger life than that.  Where did he come from?  What drove him to that cave?  How did he grow up?  Did he go to school?  And so forth.  Other than the fact that the final total of troops rescued was given, little was said of the broader picture.  That certainly wasn’t necessary to enjoy the movie, but it would have been nice to know.  To complete the picture, so to speak.

I look for a broader picture when reading novels and non-fiction.  Put things in context.  But tell the story from the individual point of view.  It’s far more satisfactory.

(*Of course, “well-worn cliché” is itself a well-worn cliché.)

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“I Couldn’t Put It Down”

Have you ever read a book you liked so much you said to yourself (or to someone else), “I just couldn’t put it down”?  You meant, of course, that you liked the book so much you kept reading even though you had other things to do, but couldn’t tear yourself away.  I’ve read a few books like that, though most books I’ve read were of the “I can put this book down and get on with my life any time” type.  Right now I’m reading a book that, at the very least, approaches that “couldn’t put it down” status, if it doesn’t stand squarely within it.  The book is Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”  It was first published in 1986, but has gained some attention in the past few months because the repressive ultra-conservative society it portrays has struck some people as similar to the path our conservative government has begun to take us down.  Whether that’s true or not, I leave to history to decide.

This blog post is not intended to be a review of the book, but rather a brief examination of the factors that contribute to the “couldn’t put it down” concept.  What makes a book so good you enjoy reading it so much you’d rather read it than do something else?  Many books I’ve read—in fact most—I could put down at almost any time, but “The Handmaid’s Tale” is too exciting to do that.  The last book(s) that took my attention into the story to that degree were Connie Willis’s dual set about the Battle of Britain, “Blackout” and “All Clear,” even though I’ve read a number of other books in the meantime.  Why should this be?

I think several things have to come together to contribute to a book to that extent.  First, the writing.  The writing has to be above reproach; smooth and free of points that take you away from the story.  As you read, you’re immersed in the story, and nothing comes along that is unclear, unreadable, or varies from the author’s style.  The English grammar is fundamentally impeccable.  Actually, Ms. Atwood uses an inordinate number of commas, many in positions I wouldn’t, but that hasn’t seemed to bother me.  Very early on I began to overlook them and haven’t looked back.  The writing still flows in spite of them.

Second, the subject matter has to interest the reader, and more than to just a small degree.  As I mentioned, our political climate today has induced some people to make comparisons between the book and the present government.  I’m not sure I agree with them to the extreme extent they’re willing to go, but I can see their point.  As a result, the book has aroused my attention and I want to see what all the fuss is about.  I’m interested and want to know more.  That’s the same reason I liked Connie Willis’s books; I have a great interest in World War II, and I enjoyed reading her take on it.

Third, I believe there is the undefinable.  Everything “comes together” in these books.  The writing, the subject, the author’s style—they all meld together to produce a book that for a few people becomes fascinating to the point of delight or enchantment.  That’s good, but that’s not something that can be quantified or dissected.  That situation is precisely what a writer wants to achieve.  Really.  I just hope my books reach that point for a few people.

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Ideas

A few days ago I watched the second half of a movie from 1974, called “The White Dawn,” about three whalers, two Caucasian and one African American (played by Warren Oates, Timothy Bottoms, and Louis Gossett, Jr.) who get trapped in the Arctic, and have to rely on the local Eskimos to survive.  The movie takes place in the late 19th century, and the natives rescue them from a hunk of ice in the Arctic Ocean.  They take them into their extended family and feed them, and generally keep them alive until, ostensibly, they can get back to the civilization they are more familiar with.  I found it interesting to watch the use of Eskimo culture in the movie: life, fishing, killing seals, building igloos, etc.  The terrain was fascinating too, especially the way the ice, snow, rock, and water came together to produce a real otherworldly—and in a color movie an almost black-and-white—landscape.  From the list of names that scrolled across the screen at the end of the movie, it appears that real Eskimo people were used as actors in the movie, not Caucasians made up to look like them (as so often happens in American western and Indian movies).  The outsiders bring to the Eskimo culture some of their own culture such as booze, sex, and a sort of “me-first” attitude that the Eskimos don’t have.  Eskimos live in a severe environment and depend on one another for survival.  A “lone wolf” or “loose cannon” type of person could jeopardize the entire extended family.  Eventually the outsiders make some home brew and get some of the Eskimos inebriated.  One young woman gets so warm from drinking the concoction that she strips to the waist and goes outside the igloo, but collapses in the snow and eventually freezes to death.  The outsiders are subsequently either run off or killed, and the movie ends.

But as I watched the movie, I began to take it in as a writer would, and I realized there are things in this movie I can use in my next novel.  I have in the back of my mind an idea for a science-fiction novel, and I’ve begun to make notes about plot, characters, terrain on a far distant planet, the natives, and so on.  But within that movie, details of Eskimo culture could be adapted to my fictional characters.  I would never transfer Eskimo culture directly to a made-up culture, of course, but broad concepts such as dance, sex, life in general, hunting, terrain, housing, and so forth, could form the basis for the fictional culture’s life.  And I certainly don’t mean to pick on Eskimo culture alone here either; far from it.  There are many different cultures around this blue and brown and green and white globe we live on that ideas about culture can be gleaned from many, many different areas.  It’s just that I happened to be watching an Eskimo movie at the time.

Some non-writers ask authors, “Where do you get your ideas?”  That’s especially true of sci-fi writers.  Well, here’s one answer: the movies.  (I’ve heard that some people get their ideas at Sears, but I never have.)  Ideas are a dime a dozen.  They’re all around us.  Some good ideas come from the movies, some appear in the newspaper, some from politics or science, or whatever—you name it.  This one movie I watched just goes to show you (pun intended) that ideas can come anytime, anywhere.  Just keep your mind open.

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