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Friday, December 31, 2010

Eating Humble Pie

To date, I've not received any really negative reviews on my books, for which I'm grateful. The one short story that was reviewed early on, was somewhat negative. But most of the reviews of Infinite Realities and Transforming Realities have been very positive, 4 and 5 star reviews. But I've always, deep inside, worried what would happen if I received a really negative review. I guess all authors feel that concern, even if on the outside we acknowledge that there is no way everyone will like what we've written. Every reviewer is different both in what technical issues are their pet peeves to what style of stories they like, what strikes them as cool and unique, or ho hum and trite. So it is inevitable that one will get an unenthusiastic review, maybe even a very negative review, on what most would consider a good or even great book.

So, I feel to clear the slate on 2010 as we go into 2011, I need to fess up to not doing one reviewer justice. Not because he gave me a negative review, but because he gave me a "so-so" review. Because he honestly had some issues with what I'd written, and stated those, I felt upon first reading like it was a negative review. It really wasn't, taken as a whole, but phrases like: "On occasion the dialogue can be a bit wooden, as Copple uses some contortions to get his characters to preach as well as speak," and "Overall, I was not excited about this collection," stood out to me. You know how the negative obliterates any positive statements, especially when it is about your story? So it sounded very negative to me. It's not that others hadn't said anything negative before, but in general, this is the first review that made me wince.

Being the first "not enthusiastic" review of this book, I held back from mentioning it on my blog, or on Twitter, or on Facebook. And the worse part was, going into it I had received the impression that the reviewer was Christian. After that, in part due to the way he spoke about God in the book, and in part due to some other things on his blog, I began to question whether he was a Christian, and voiced my doubts on a private list that I believe he is on. No one ever corrected me, and they were simply doubts, I wasn't saying he wasn't. But I later found out not only from other comments, but post by he himself, that he is indeed a Christian and that comment could have been offensive to him.

So while it was a private list, I came to some conclusions that were in error, not being familiar with the gist and point of his blog site, which is read by a lot more people than Christians, and the review was written with that audience in mind. In retrospect, I realize I was being way too reactionary to what I perceived as negative, and I made some assumptions that I shouldn't have made. And because of that, I failed to promote the review and his blog on my platform.

So, I'm taking this last day of 2010 to fix what I believe to be an error on my part, and though it comes six months after the fact, I'm offering an apology to John Ottinger, III for any offense and failure to promote his site and the review in question. I promise not to be so reactionary in the future to what is an honest and valid review, which not only had some things he didn't like about the book, but also some things he found good, and suggestions to the types of people who would enjoy my book more than perhaps he did.

Because, yes, some of the dialog is on the wooden side. Not all of it, but as he said, "occasionally." There are some "unnatural" situations, some of which I'm aware of. Common issues when these stories were first written in my first year of writing fiction. John had some valid points. But I should have taken heart with other comments he made like "Told in first person, part of the enjoyment of the stories comes from trying to discover what principle or lesson Copple is trying to relate," and "If allegories like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or the fables of Aesop, or morality plays like Everyman are enjoyable to you, then you will like Infinite Realities."

And I have to add, that out of all the places that have reviewed Infinite Realities, it is the only review to which I actually saw a measurable bump in books sold on Amazon and my own bookstore. So despite it being a "so-so" review of the book, it obviously encouraged people to check it out for themselves, to which I can only be grateful for the exposure.

So, John, consider this my personal and public apology, and finally correcting the lack of promotion, as this will go to my Facebook friends as well as those subscribed to my blog. And I will add for my friends reading this blog on my site or on Facebook, I have subscribed to his blog since I first discovered it back around May of 2010, if I recall correctly. I can vouch for it not only being a wealth of information, but some great articles and book reviews. If you're not reading it, and you like speculative fiction, you should be.

I encourage everyone to read his honest and well-thought out review of Infinite Realities, and then check out the rest of his site, "Grasping for the Wind," and subscribe to the RSS feed if you're not already. You'll thank me later.

And thank you, John, for your work and enthusiasm for supporting speculative fiction. It is appreciated, even if sometimes some of us don't show it as we should. Here's the link:

John Ottinger's review of Infinite Realities at Grasping for the Wind

How have you, as a writer, reacted to negative reviews of your work? Do you fear them? How do you plan to react if you've not received one yet? Certainly somethings to think about.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

New Anthology: Ethereal Worlds

Can you believe it? I've written enough short stories and flash fictions over the past five years to fill a full novel-length book! And so what did I do? I made a book, naturally.

Introducing Ethereal Worlds, an anthology of 23 space-opera-style science fiction and fantasy stories written and appearing in magazines between 2006 and 2010. Two of the stories have never appeared anywhere before, and one is set to come out in ResAliens around the beginning of 2011.

Follow Moth Man as he searches for the light, and in a spoof, searches for Rumor. Deal with an angel who thinks a dragon and dragon-slayer marrying is a good idea. Ride into Neptune's atmosphere as man discovers what is there for the first time. Learn that a toilet can be used as a dimensional transportation device. Hours of fun stories await the brave reader of this compendium.

Currently the book is available as an ebook at Amazon, Smashwords, and soon at Barnes and Noble, IBooks, Sony, Kobo, Diesel, and other online ebook retailers.

What? Don't have an ereader or don't care to read on a screen? It will also be coming out in paperback soon through CreateSpace. Will announce when it becomes available.

Don't miss out! And if you haven't decided yet what to do with that Christmas money, can you think of anything better than enjoying fun stories? Go for it!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas Hope

I contemplated writing another Christmas themed fiction to post here on my blog as a gift to my readers, like I did last year. Several appeared to appreciate that story, so I thought it would be something good to continue. But I decided today to do something a little different, and a little more personal for my Christmas blog post. I decided to tell about a special Christmas in my life.

What made it special? Really, it is what happened before that. I went into one of the worst depressions of my life. I don't get depressed all that often, but in 1988, several events conspired to drag me down.

One impending issue was my ministerial license. I had graduated from college in 1984. Four years later I hadn't gone to seminary nor had I become a pastor. When I met with the district board that year, they told me that if I hadn't either headed to seminary or found a pastorate, they wouldn't renew my license the following year.

Problem was, I had no luck getting a pastorate. Went to a few interviews, but nothing had ever materialized. And I had a mobile home that I couldn't seem to sell, even though I had tried for a couple of years. Until I came out from under that, there was no way to pull up roots and go to seminary in Kansas City, MO. So as the year marched on, and I knew I would be facing the board again the following year, the threat of losing my license and all that I had gone to college for pressed in upon me.

On top of that, I worked at a job that hadn't kept up with the bills. Each month I sat down to decide who would get paid and who would have to wait. This situation had gone on for at least three years. There were times I would think I was about to climb out of the hole, only to have something happen that shoved me back down. By the fall of 1988, I had grown weary of struggling with the bills, and began to believe that I would never get out of this downward financial spiral. The constant pressure and self-doubt of not being able to pay my bills began to get to me.

I also had some negative things happen at church that ate away at my self-esteem. Our young adult group did a monthly get together, where one family would plan it and get the goodies together each month. These were always well attended and fun. When it was our turn, I planned this fun seeking for clues. They would get an envelope with a clue in it, which would lead to the next clue, and the next, and so on until they found the prize. The task was to see who could get to it first. The night arrived, and no one except the Sunday School teacher showed up. Everyone had an excuse. I had felt an underlying sense of people didn't take me seriously, or respect that I could take on something and make it work from some previous events that had happened. But that night I felt I could no longer ignore the reality that no one in that church believed I could head up a function and make it work well. No one wanted to attend anything that I planned or taught.  And the pity that came later as some found out what happened didn't help any either. I couldn't get past the thought that they only did it because they felt bad about what they really felt inside about me. The cat was out of the bag, and they felt guilty about it. But out of the bag nonetheless.

To make matters worse, my wife had become pregnant the year before. Yes, that overall is a good thing.  And I wouldn't trade my son for anything. But at the time my wife dealt with sickness all through her pregnancy. Her desire for any intimate relationship, whether that be hugging or more, had gone out the window. I struggled through her pregnancy that year until my son was born on September 9, 1988. I expected her to finally get better and be able to emotionally support me as those other issues rushed toward me.

But I had already gone into a depression of sorts by then, even though at the time I didn't realize it. Because of that, she didn't want to be around me because I was so depressing. She didn't want to get sucked into my depression, so she withdrew. Which, or course, only made my depression worse. I didn't feel connected to her at all.

As if that wasn't enough, one month after my wife gave birth, her gall bladder sent her into pains. She ended up in the hospital, getting her gall bladder taken out. I had to take care of my three year old daughter and the new baby while she went under the knife and recuperated. Thankfully, her sister who lived nearby was able to help me out. Don't know how I would have made it. I was in the situation of expecting to be the strong one, and I didn't feel strong at all. I felt helpless, overwhelmed, and sinking fast.

By the time she returned home in mid-October of that year, I hit rock bottom. I felt I would lose my license and would never pastor a church. The bills would spiral out of control and flush me financially down the toilet. My wife would hate to be around me and hold me at arms length forever! I knew in my mind these things weren't necessarily true, but at that point it felt like they were. And that's what mattered as far as my depression went.

When November arrived, I had lost all hope that these things would improve. Literally. I was doomed. It was all going to come crashing in upon me, wave after wave. What did I do? I crashed and burned. All motivation to do anything disappeared. I dropped all responsibilities at church. Just stopped doing them. I couldn't bring myself to open the checkbook and write bills to pay what we could. I had to show my wife how to do it because I simply couldn't. I couldn't do anything, and now everyone could see just how worthless I was. I struggled to even go to work, but at least I did that much.

Now, I'm sure in the grand scheme of things others have had worse depressions than I had that year. But if you've been in one, that matters little because to the one in a depression, everything is bleak, horrible, and the worst it can get, all the while knowing that it will get still worse. So I'm not saying all this to say "my depression was worse than yours, na na ney boo boo!" No, simply that I was in a deep depression. Never had one that worse before then, nor since, though I've had some minor ones since then.

Then December arrived. Christmas music filled the air. Nativity scenes and lights popped up everywhere. The spirit of Christmas nibbled at my heart. Now I know for many, Christmas tends to be one of the more depressing times of the year due to the loss of loved ones, or some tragic event that happened around that time. Some this year will experience their first Christmas without someone dear to them. I'm not belittling that at all. Those are real feelings. I'm not saying deny those or hide them.

But, as Christmas moved closer, I noticed something happening in my heart. And the only way I can describe it is hope. As Christmas approached, I focused on Christ, and what His birth meant to the world, and to me. As I did that, I felt the hopelessness I had experienced the previous few months evaporate in the face of His reality. Hope was born anew in my soul. Literally, by the time Christmas arrived, I felt joy in my heart, and no longer felt depressed. It was as if the world brightened, and I felt at peace about the future, simply because He was there. Alive. Born in a manger so many years ago, but born in my heart, and His hope renewed in my life. How could I not be happy?

What changed? I still didn't have enough money to pay the bills. I still felt the threat of losing my ministerial license the coming spring. I still couldn't sell my mobile home. My wife hadn't at that point indicated any further desire to be with me other than what she had to be. Nothing exterior had changed around me. The same events that pushed me into depression were still there. But I had changed. I began to hope again. Hope that Jesus was enough, and He would get me through whatever would happen. He was in charge.

Well, I hate to make this sound like that alone fixed everything, but it just about did. Because I was no longer depressed, my wife started wanting to be around me. Her desire for me even returned, after over a year of minimal physical contact or desire to be with each other. A couple from our church heard we had a mobile home for sale, and were getting married, and wanted to buy it. The money from the sale allowed me to go on a work and witness trip, and get caught up on all my bills. It also allowed me to start plans to go to Kansas City, so I could start attending seminary. In the month of January, 1989, all the issues that had sent me into depression were resolved. And while 1988 was the worst year of my life to that point, 1989 was the best and brightest year. I did move to Kansas City and start going to seminary. The new church I attended looked at me with respect, and I took on some task there that I succeeded wonderfully at. I kept my license and went on to pastor two churches and be ordained as a minister so I didn't have to renew every year. Life went from horrible to great, all because of a baby in a manger that gave me hope for the future.

I'm not saying have hope and all your problems will disappear. I've had more since then, and not all were totally solved at that point as well. But it didn't matter. He showed me that I shouldn't have to wait until I've hit rock bottom to learn to place the future into His hands. He'll take care of it. My duty is to do what He wants me to do. And to keep hope alive, because He was born into this world to establish that very hope, that our future is not one of death and destruction, but life and joy with Him.

May your Christmas this year be full of hope, given by the gift of Christ Himself, to us. Because of that, I can truly say, Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Spaced Out

A new short story of mine, titled "Spaced Out," has been published at Fantasy World Geographic. It is a space opera story, with a hint of mystery and humor. Give it a read, and leave a comment if you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Dare to be Bad?

One of the traditions I've had is when I'm writing my NaNo novel in November, it gets printed out, and whenever our family is driving a ways, usually to church which is 45 minutes each way, or to Austin which is about an hour, my wife will it read in it in the car, warts and all, and my two sons (22 and almost 17) will listen. It usually does two things for me. One, if they really like something, they'll laugh, or say something. If they find something silly, then I know it doesn't work. And listening as someone else reads your work allows you to see what mistakes you've made.

This year right in chapter 1, I noticed as my wife read it that I had an "As you know, Bob" bit of dialog. So I made a mental note it needed to be fixed. A little later on, they mentioned something I had the main character find. And I realized I'd never used it during the rest of the novel to that point, creating a smoking gun. Check, another issue to fix. And so it goes.

I see all those glaring bad mistakes. Then I read a blog post of Dean Wesley Smith titled "Dare to be Bad." I have to admit, the concept makes a lot of sense. And it is supported by numerous professional writers. Take a moment to read the blog post, and the comments if you have the time are good too. But make sure you come back. Or open it in a tab to read after this.

I've posted this on my Facebook account, and Twitter, and retweeted. But he mentions there that the scariest thing is to take literally Robert A. Heinlein's third rule of writing: You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

Checking a few writer blogs on his rules, I've read those who think what he "really meant" was not to tinker with it endlessly. Another simply dismisses the rule as something of his culture or experience, but things are different now. But not too many want to take it literally, as Dean does, and I know from secondary sources, some other authors do as well.

In Dean's case, he doesn't do any rewriting. He does do "editing," that is, he corrects typos and grammar mistakes, but that's it. So I'm thinking about this. I'm looking at that "As you know, Bob" dialog I have in chapter 1. If I take this literally, does that mean even if I notice something, and I'm right on that page fixing a typo, that I shouldn't fix that "As you know, Bob" dialog or ignore it and let it be?

Most writers would fix that if they saw it. Can I ignore that obvious newbie mistake and send it out like that anyway? That's scary. And I know I tend to be light on description. My last short story I sent out, the editors sent back that they would like some revisions, and one was better descriptions. That actually fits with Heinlein's rule, since it was to editorial request. But do I take my current NaNo novel draft, and send it out without going through and adding in needed description? I know I have places that need it. But if I followed this rule, I would only add in description if the editor requested it.

Now, some of the reinterpretation of Heinlein's rule appeared to be because the writer didn't want to take it literally. But I would suggest that the "except" clause specifically specifies the one time you can rewrite, so Heinlein meant one shouldn't rewrite at all. I don't think he was specifically addressing endless tinkering, though obviously that gets fixed in the process. I don't even think it applies purely to newbie writers, though it probably applies more to them than anyone. Yes, I know. That goes counter to what all newbie writers are told, to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, and then do it again. My first short story, I must have rewritten ten to fifteen times, but the last two were to editorial request.

Let me explain why I think Heinlein put this rule into place, not as a "writing process" rule as one blogger put it, but as something that will prevent an author from selling the work and so fits with the rest of the rules. There are two reasons why I think he said this.

One, and maybe the obvious one, is that rewriting, even once, will slow your output down by at least half or more. For instance, I've written all but one novel within a month's time for the first draft. Yet, I'll take several months just to get the first edit done. Then I will take a few days to go back and fix what my chapter-by-chapter beta reader noticed, both typos/grammar and plot/character issues. Then I'll send the complete novel to one or two beta readers, and then fix whatever things they noticed that I agree with need to be fixed. Then I deem it ready to ship out. But by then, it's been nine months or more since I wrote it.

If I didn't rewrite, just sent the rough draft to a beta reader, then when I received that back, fixed the typos, grammar, and maybe any glaring plot holes/continuity problems (not rewriting, mind you, just easy fixes that don't require me rewriting paragraphs), then ship it out, I'd probably have the novel sitting at an editor's desk within three to four months of writing it, rather than the nine months to a year it currently takes, if I am diligently working on it and the beta reader doesn't take too long going over it.

Why is that important, you ask? After all, some writers, even some famous writers, sweat over their manuscripts for years. It's the difference between wanting to make a career out of writing, to earn a real living out of writing, as opposed to it being a side hobby. If you look at most professional writers who earned their living writing fiction, they have one thing in common: they put out multiple titles a year. They were prolific, whether we're talking the classics like Asmov, Heinlein, Clarke, and Del Ray, or current authors like King, Card, and McCaffrey. And the closer to being a mid-list author, which most are, the more true it becomes. Short of hitting the big time like J. K. Rowling, you can't earn a living pumping out one book a year. Most advances on a novel will fall in the $10,000 to $25,000 range until the author can command more because of customer demand. If you can live on that, then maybe you can do it. But it will be a slow build.

And if I spend a year getting one book out, guess what? I'll never reach my goal of becoming a full-time professional writer. Now, if your goal isn't to make a living off writing, you want to tinker away at it, maybe get a book here or there published, then this point doesn't apply to you. Don't quit your day job short of hitting the Rowling jackpot. But if you do, it means you need to cut your rewrite time down to the minimum, so that you can get started on the next book. You're call there.

Two, unless you know what you're doing, you're more likely to rewrite your voice out of the work the more you tinker with it. What makes a story uniquely yours is your writer's voice. To develop that voice takes doing a fair amount of writing, for most authors somewhere between half a million to one million, or maybe more. But your rough draft will contain your raw, unedited, unique voice. Dean Wesley Smith points out that when writers do rewrites, especially new writers, they will tend to edit their voice out of the work. This is most especially true if you take your work to a critique group and adopt changes they suggest.

The problem, especially for new writers, is they don't have the skills, the time spent writing, to readily identify their voice to know how to preserve that in rewrites. Why is that? Well, it really makes sense if you think about it.

First, what is voice? It isn't just style, it isn't just word choices, it isn't just poetic feel, it isn't just worldview. Voice is a combination of all these elements, the way your brain thinks and views the world, the reactions and interactions of people. It is all these things combined into your unique mixture. Because of that, it isn't something you logically think about doing. You don't decide, "Hum, today, I'm going to write with voice X." It is a subconscious event that develops the more you write. Once you have a distinct voice, people can hear something being read, no matter the style you used, and identify it as yours if they are familiar enough with your novels and stories to know your voice.

Because of the way voice gets into your work, once you shift from the creative mode of writing that first draft, over to the critical thinking mode of editing a work, it is easy for your critical mind to say, "Hum, all the books say I shouldn't use [insert favorite writing rule] so I should edit that out." Or someone in your critique group says, "Your teen is talking too much like an adult," so you go back and rewrite his dialog to sound more teenish. What you may have actually done is to remove your voice. Why? Because you don't know what your voice involves, especially early on. You can't even identify "this is my voice," so how are you going to know if you are taking it out with any specific rewrite? Bottom line, you won't. And what you're likely to end up with is something generic that sounds like every other writer out there.

And that's not what editors want. They want something with a unique voice. The reader wants something with a unique voice. Most any story you write will be something someone has done before. What will make it "original" is your voice infused into it. Edit that out, and you have the same story everyone else has told. Therefore, if your goal is to ever sell your work to an editor, the more you rewrite, the greater the chance you've edited your voice out of the work, unless you really know what you are doing. Therefore, the more you rewrite, the less likely it is to sell to an editor.

Dean, in the post linked above, relates how he used to be a rewriter in the comments section (and other places on his blog). And he had a hard time selling. One, because he wasn't sending out that much, and two, because his work sounded like everyone else's. When he took the advice of the professional writers he hung out with to heart and stopped rewriting, he started selling. And over 100 books later, is still selling using the same formula. Write the first draft. Give it to a beta reader. Make typo and grammar corrections the beta reader caught. Send it out.

Because what sells a story is primarily and foremost, the author's voice. Not the absence of plot holes. Not the hard to find "unnatural" dialog. And when the editor finds a unique voice, they will request whatever edits they believe need to be there. Then, according to Heinlein's rule, you rewrite. Why? Because they can buy it and publish it. Not your beta reader. Not your critique group. Not even your agent. The editor is the one ready to put up the money to publish it. He's the only one with a significant vested interest and the knowledge of the market to suggest changes that need to be made. He's the one with the cash to put behind your novel.

The editor can suggest changes to improve marketability. He can point out typos or grammar mistakes, or plot holes that he deems needing fixing. But he can't tell you how to put your voice into something. If that isn't there, the novel's not going to fly.

Therefore, I believe the rewrite prohibition is more than to prevent endless tinkering and never sending something out. It is to prevent an author from cutting the voice out of his novel, and make him productive enough to earn a living writing fiction. If you skip step three, steps four and five are not as likely to produce a sell. Not impossible, mind you. Just make it that much harder.

So the main problem we writers have with this, is the fear of sending out a flawed manuscript. One author blog talking about this, said to not rewrite, a writer would have to write a perfect first draft.

No, no, no, no! That's not what this means. And this is where the title comes into play. We know that draft will have problems. It isn't a matter of making the story "perfect." Indeed, make it "perfect" and it will sound like everything else unless you really know what you're doing, and feel proficient enough to identify and edit your voice. Rather, we send it out knowing it isn't perfect, but does have our voice in it, and that is what will sell it. Not the perfection of the writing craft.

That point right there is exactly why you see editors buying books like "The Davinci Code," which breaks tons of writing rules, and is roundly criticized among writer types. And justly so. But writers ask, "How did that make it to market?" The answer: a unique voice. And the sales proved it to be a correct assessment. People gobbled it up.

Then how is a writer supposed to get better? Do we really want them to send out crap to an editor? Yes. What? Well, think about it. Let's say a new writer who doesn't really know what he's doing yet, writes a novel, fixes the typos and grammar, then sends it to an editor. The editor may see a unique voice in the work, but sees there are tons of things that would need to be fixed for people to read it. Maybe the plot is all over the place. Maybe the characters are stereotypical. So he'll reject it, maybe even write an encouraging note of what the writer needs to work on if he likes the voice he sees. The writer learns and grows through the effort, both the practice in writing it, and finding out from someone with the money to publish the work what doesn't work for them.

The writer keeps sending it out, but while waiting on that one, he's already written another novel that is ready to go out. So he sends that one to the editor. The second novel is even better, because the writer has improved. But, still, there are too many things that the editor would have to fix, but the voice is stronger now, and compelling. So he writes another note back. Multiply this process for several editors at several publishing houses. With each novel, the writer gets closer to critical mass. So maybe on his fourth or fifth novel, his writing has improved significantly enough that despite the remaining issues the editor sees that needs fixing, he likes the voice so much that he's ready to go to bat for the novel with the sales team.

If the writer is putting out even one book every quarter, shoot, how about one every six months, then he's spent two years before getting his novel published. Meanwhile, the person that takes a year to crank out a novel because they spend so much time editing and polishing and rewriting based on input and critiques from a variety of people, not only are they likely as new writers to have their voice edited out by the time they get to sending it to an editor, but in the same time they are only on their second novel when our other author gets published. And because the voice is gone in their work, they only get back form rejections because the story didn't grab the editor's attention with a unique voice. So they never hear from the one who can buy their work, what was wrong with it. Instead, all they get is the input from other writers who are also not published, in many cases. Or an agent who acts more like a critique partner than an agent to negotiate your book deal, but also has never published anything (in many cases). And what feedback they do get, they use spending time rewriting the same story yet again, instead of using it to write something new, something better.

Granted, that is one scenario, and one can find the exceptions to that. But you're more likely to have that scenario than not. Maybe the numbers would be a bit different in various cases. Five years instead of two, etc. But the dynamic remains the same.

Point being, a new writer learns best by doing creative writing, not by doing critical rewriting. So you write something, learn from your mistakes, go onto the next story. Do that over and over again, until you start selling.

So, am I going to "dare to be bad"? I'm certainly eager to test drive that theory. I even have the perfect candidate with this last NaNo novel, because while it is a good story, I don't feel it is my best (but writers are said to be the worst judges of their own work). If I send it out and it sells, then it will confirm what I know in my brain, but am scared to do in my heart.

What about you? Would you dare to be bad and follow literally Heinlein's rule number three: You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

NaNoWriMo - Pros and Cons

I finished my fifth NaNo (short for "National Novel Writing Month," where people from all over the world sign up to accept the challenge to write fifty thousand words on a novel during the month of November). Out of the five years I've done this, this is the first time that I've barely stretched across the finish line on the last day, crossing the 50K mark around 9:30 pm yesterday. I ended up with 51,553 words by midnight and the marathon ended. Every previous year, I hit that before or around Thanksgiving.

So after five years of doing this, what do I see as the pros and cons to it? The day after is a good time to reflect on this.

First, let me dispel what some claim are cons, but are not. So we can get those out of the way.

Fake Con 1: All these people writing crap will flood the market with it, thinking it is some kind of masterpiece.

Some will put them out on the market, when they are not ready. And it can add to the noise of publishing. But when you factor in how much noise is already out there, percentage wise it will not add significantly to it. And the fact is, cream will rise to the top. Even if everyone who participated in NaNo self-published their work, it wouldn't prevent readers from finding what they like. There is a natural weeding out process that takes place through reviews and such. It has always been hard to get noticed as a new writer. This will not make it much harder, if any.

Keep in mind that the biggest majority of NaNo participants will simply file away their manuscript, and it will never see the light of day again. Their goal wasn't to publish a novel, but to either prove to themselves that they could write a novel in one month, or they are simply working on their craft. They know they are not good enough yet but this is concentrated practice time. Only a small percentage of NaNoers will ever send that to an editor/agent, or throw it on the market via self-publishing. And an even smaller percentage of those will actually be something that readers want to read, and will start buying.

Fake Con 2: Anything written in one month has to be crap. It takes months, if not years, to write a truly great novel.

Experience says the opposite. While you will find some literary masterpieces that took years to write, like the "Lord of the Rings" Trilogy, there are others that were written in weeks, and became best sellers and/or classics. Dean Wesley Smith speaks to this much better than I could on his blog post titled "Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Speed." The fact is many classics and best sellers have been written within a month or less.

I've seen those two thrown out as to why NaNo is bad, but they are baseless. Myths that some writers believe, but Myths all the same. But onto the pros and cons. First we'll attack the cons.

Con 1: Not getting to the 50K goal can make one feel like a failure as a writer.

This happens when a writer or a region totally misses the point of NaNo. They see the 50K as the line that says, "I'm a good writer," so if you don't make it, you think, "I'm a horrible writer." No, the 50K goal is simply a challenge, a motivation to do one thing: stop worrying about editing and write, freeing the creative mind. Having that goal, that deadline, allows one to push themselves and see what they can do. And many are often surprised.

But there is nothing magical about being able to write 50K words in one month that makes one a good or bad writer. The majority of people who crossed the 50K line last month won't publish what they have, because it is crap. And they know it. Those who don't know it will find out soon enough, probably the hard way. But there is a lot of crap people have spent years pouring over as well.

The problem results when in the heat of the month, the regional leadership, or the writer, sees that 50K mark as a validation of their writing skills and ability. Let me say this: speed has nothing to do with the quality of your work, whether it took two weeks to write it, or ten years. So anyone going into it with this mentality will set yourself up for failure, because you had that nagging feeling in the back of your head that says you're not a good writer, and this proves it. Hogwash.

It proves one of several potential things. You're method and style of writing isn't fit for working in a month time frame. You tried it, didn't work, move on. Or too many real life events kept you away from the computer. Some unavoidable, some not, but stuff happens. Bottom line, you didn't have the approximately two to three hours a day (depending on typing/writing speed) to invest in getting to the mark. Or you ate too much on Thanksgiving, sending you into a state of shock, which you just pulled out of on November 30th.

Con 2: Seeing the 50K as THE goal, and nothing else matters.

The message at times can seem to be just that. Getting to 50K is the end all and be all of what NaNo is about. Do it anyway you can. Some may even "cheat" by copy/pasting, or just typing eileis.  s eiels is els e seis se eis as fast as they can. If you "cheat," you're only harming yourself. It means you've gained nothing from the month long effort, for which the 50K goal is designed to spur the writer to achieve. NaNo would be a total waste of your time.

What that also means is if you don't make it to 50K, say you reached 30K, though you didn't reach the group goal, you still have 30K of a novel written! You still enjoyed the benefit of pushing yourself, despite time limitations. You still got in at a minimum 30K more words of practice, if nothing else. Your time wasn't wasted because you didn't reach the 50K. Yes, you're name won't be on the list. You won't have the "winner" plastered on your progress bar. But you know what? All of that is designed to get you to do one thing: write. You did write, and so you have won where it really counts. The point isn't to reach 50K, that is a goal to spur you to write. If you didn't write something, then you're a loser no matter what the progress bar says, and if you did, you're a winner.

Those are the main two valid cons, and why people might decide NaNo is not worth it for them. The really big logical fallacy happens when that person, taking their limited experience, decides that NaNo must be bad for everyone else too.  Let's say this person is simply not a "fast" writer, in that they have trouble spending more than an hour a day on their work, and stare at the screen the majority of the time. So they think everyone else who writes must write the same way, if they produce decent work. This is because they've bought into the "fast equals low quality" myth.

But every writer is different. Every writer will approach writing in different ways. So it is impossible for one writer to say that they way they write, the speed they write at, and claim it is the only or even best way for all other writers, or even a majority of writers, to follow if they want to produce "quality" stories.

So, what are the pros I've experienced or seen?

Pro 1: It encourages you to write.

When approached in the correct way, the main thing NaNo does is help people who might be future writers, to actually sit down and write something. The first novel I wrote, I did in a month without ever knowing anything about NaNo. It just happened. I'd never done anything like that before in my life, back in October of 2005, but when I finished that rough draft, I knew then that this is what I wanted to do. And I've been working on it ever since.

With motivation to reach a goal and the support of other writers, people will be stretched to do more than they ever have before, and potentially discover that this is what they want to do. Even if they don't make it to 50K, they may have never written anything as big as 20K previously, and find they love it.

Pro 2: It gives a writer motivation to practice their art.

And the one true fact that applies to all but some prodigy kids, is writers have to do one thing if they are to be writers: write. And write a lot. The general figure is that most authors won't reach professional levels of writing until they've written one million words. Because that's how much practice it tends to take for most people. Some may take fewer words or some may take more. But the more you practice, the better you get if you are seeking to learn from your mistakes and take guidance. And that is true even if you're a professional writer with three million words under your belt.

Pro 3: Many discover their creative side is able to produce some really good stuff.

While all writers are different in how they approach things, there is one area that is limited to our physiology. We have a creative and critical side of our brain. And the fact is, for a majority of writers, the critical side will get in the way of the creative side.

There are writers who work best editing as they go. Through whatever training, life experiences, or just the way they are put together, they can switch to the critical thinking mode without disrupting the creative mode's flow and rhythm. But based on what I've read, these folk are not the majority. From several different authors and how they worked, from several editing books I've read, they are practically in 100% agreement that these two modes should be separated if we want to free the creative mind to do its best work.

Problem is, either because it seems right, or because they've been told it is "the right way," many people assume that they should write a scene, then go back and edit it, rewrite it, polish it, before moving onto the next. But not realizing this, they stay stuck in that process, taking years to write it, and maybe even give up on it and toss it in the drawer, never to be pulled out again other than to show relatives what you did.

NaNo can help those folks discover whether they really are edit as you go types, and have not bought into it without critical thinking. For what you'll discover is that when the goal is to attempt to write 50K in a month, and you've never written that much in a year, is that you can't afford the time to let the editor in the door to review what you've written. You're onto the next scene, the next chapter. Then you get to the end of it and look back and say, "Wow, that's actually pretty good. A bit rough, needs some editing, but the plot is so much better than anything I've written to date."

Someone in that state finds out that their better mode of writing is to let the creative side of the brain free reign for a month, free of the editor sticking his nose into everything, with the promise the editor can dig into it uninterrupted by the creative side later on. Or it may be total frustration, and the writer is feeling horrible because they are leaving crap back on page 21 and it is bugging them to no end, that they can't write page 25. Then those people discover either they are locked into a belief system that says it has to be done that way, or have done it that way for so long they find it hard to change, and/or the way they write best is through edit as you go, and this NaNo proves that for them.

In either case, NaNo can be a big help in either showing a writer that they can be much more productive and write better stuff by leaving the editor out of it while writing the first draft, or that they need that editor and can't do without him/her.

Those are my main pros, cons, and even the fake cons thrown in for good measure. I probably haven't covered them all, these are the main ones I see. What are pros and cons you've seen or experienced?