B is for Blocked

BWhat do you do when you’re blocked? I freewrite. That’s what I am doing here. I just keep my fingers going, typing on the keyboard, spitting out words, not stopping for anything. I don’t kow what my next sentence is so I keep typing. Why am I blocked? Why? There are a lot of B topics I could blog about. I could blog about blogging. I could blog about beauty. Or bitchiness. Or bits. Or brandy. Or bugger. Or bollocks—

Don’t the Brits have great swear words? So arcane, so bizarre, so regional. So rude. And yet with their accents they come off as being polite even when they’re describing animal testicles.

It was Writing With Power, by Peter Elbow, where I learned about freewriting and the act of separating the Creator within from the Editor within. You see, if your inner editor is too powerful, too ascendent, then nothing you write will be any good and your editor will have you deleting what you write long before any blue pencil could be brought into action. It’s the separation of the processes that is the key. Writing. Then Editing. Not both at the same time. Otherwise it’s like driving with your foot on the gas and the brake at the same time. Or trying to–never mind, I was going into some bathroom analogy that would be inappropriate for this venue.

Anyway, where was I? I was wondering what to write next. I have no idea so I’ll just keep going if you don’t mind. After all, if you get bored you can just click away. Amazingly foolish, that last sentence, actually asking you to click away. Not very wise of me, is it? But hey. What can I say? I’m freewriting. This is the uncensored truth. Or at least the unedited truth. Or at least the unedited blathering on of someone who was feeling blocked on this letter of the A to Z Challenge.

I mean, when you think about it, I’m in trouble if I have to resort to freewriting on only the second letter of the alphabet. I mean, how hard is B, anyway? It’s not like it’s X or something.

X. That will be a hard one. Most of the X words that come to mind actually use X as a word in some silly, colloquial way, like “X marks the spot” or “X Men,” where X means just a mark on a map indicating a point at the vertex of the two lines, or extraordinary, respectively.

So back to the freewriting. If I get stuck on F I’m not going to be able to go here again. That would be rather redundant, wouldn’t it?

Lest I bore, I’m going to stop bitching about Brits and bits and buggers and go have a glass of brandy, so that I can sit in the comfort of my home and think about all the things I could’ve blogged instead of this.


A mentor by any other name

Who decides who’s a mentor?

Today in a Facebook writing group I saw someone talk about how the “mentors” have come to the group to teach and impart wisdom. Who are these mentors? By the statement to this group, the mentors are the ones who’ve decided to mentor others.

To me, there’s a distinction between a teacher and a mentor. A mentor is more than a teacher. A mentor is almost a friend. Mister Hand in Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a teacher; Mister Miyagi in The Karate Kid is a mentor.

Both teachers are strict. Both are teaching a lesson. The difference is that Mister Miyagi has earned the trust of his pupil, while Mister Hand has not. The pupil must be ready to be mentored, yes, and the pupil also must trust the teacher.

We’ve all had many teachers in our lives. How many of your teachers actually became your mentors? Probably not many. And if you think about all the mentors you did have in your life, were all of them teachers? A mentor might be anyone: an uncle; the lady who works in the convenience store who asks about your day; an older coworker.

Merriam-Webster defines mentor as “a trusted counselor or guide.” Trust is the critical word here, would you agree?

Teachers teach. Mentors are trusted. It’s a difference in more than just emphasis. It’s a difference in subject and object. A teacher can look back at all the students she’s taught, but only the student can look back and identify who were her mentors.

A teacher decides to teach a student, but only the student can decide that she trusts her teacher implicitly, decide that her teacher is also her mentor. When that trust happens, then the relationship develops a deeper intimacy. And in some ways there’s nothing worse than someone trying to mentor you when he hasn’t earned your trust.

I wanted to share a video clip from the TV show Kung Fu where young Kwai Chang waits with a few other boys for several days, in hopes of being accepted into the Shaolin temple. Finally, the doors are opened and the few boys that had not given up are asked in to sit with the Master, and tea is served. The other boys immediately sip their tea. But Kwai Chang does not. The Master asks why did not drink his tea. Kwai Chang answers, “After you, sir.” The other boys are dismissed. Kwai Chang is accepted. Kwai Chang has decided ahead of time to trust the monks and submit to their teachings. The monks want only pupils who can and will be mentored.

That’s the hardest thing to do, trust in advance. For most of us, with most teachers, that trust is earned over time.

Anyway, because that video does not seem to be online, I share the opposite end of that part of Kwai Chang’s journey, when he is to leave the temple and bids farewell to Master Kan.

So much happened in between those two moments in Kwai Chang’s life at the temple. Not just teaching, but mentoring. It’s why that show is still a classic.

As writers, we hope to find mentors among our peers, among our editors, among the wise folk who generously share their wisdom online, in meetups, in workshops. Those who become our mentors are not merely those who teach us, or those teachers whom we respect. They are those who teach us and whom we respect…and whom we trust.

Who have been your mentors?

The noise and discovery problem


As a reader, how do you find a good book among all the choices out there? As a writer, how do you get your book noticed by readers?
Photo by Madhava Enros (Creative Commons)

A couple of days ago, Chuck Wendig posted a long expletive-rich rant about the proliferation of low-quality books—which he blames on self-publishing’s lack of gatekeepers—and how that makes it harder for everyone because the signal (quality books) is being buried in the noise (poorly written/edited/packaged books). And despite the high-handed tone so many writers adopt when writing about others (and perhaps I’m guilty of that as well), he makes some good points.

To sum up this point:

All books go into the big undiscovered pile at first.

All books need some manner of discovery to, duhhh, be discovered.

Traditionally-published books have access to more channels of discovery.

Self-published books have access to fewer channels.

So: what does this have to do with the quality level of author-published books?

via Slushy Glut Slog: Why The Self-Publishing Shit Volcano Is A Problem « terribleminds: chuck wendig.

There are nearly 200 comments on the post so far, but I wouldn’t call it a comments thread, as most of the participants, even when replying to each other, seem to be talking past each other. Even so, it’s an interesting read and worth a few (or more than a few) minutes if this is a topic of any interest to you.

One thing I find distasteful about many of these discussions about publishing is that the participants so often take the the attitude of “there’s this problem and it’s your fault!” Maybe this is more than simply a difference of opinion. Wendig writes:

But the very existence of self-publishing as the robust option it has become is one that comes out of a culture of people. And the books that exist now and do well now are sometimes the product of that culture and of the collective passions of people who freely share information.

These cultural differences I think do come into play. Maybe that’s why so many times it feels like these discussions are less debate and more tribal warfare.

I tend to see both sides, though, and feel caught in the middle. I come from two cultures—one of highbrow (or high-middlebrow?) attitude about the importance of quality, and one of entrepreneurial attitude about forging your own path, which in part, at least for me, has an element of rebellion against orthodoxy for orthodoxy’s sake.

I hate the noise that buries the signal in the books world today, but let’s face it, it’s only a change of degree, not a new problem altogether. I’ve bought and read an awful lot of crap over the years, and nearly all of it was traditionally published—mainly because self-published books haven’t been strong in the marketplace all that long, but also because, as a reader, I, too, have a prejudice against self-published books, in part out of habitual attitudes cultivated by long years living and working in traditional media, and reinforced by the all-too-often horrific quality of many books today.

That’s from the reader’s perspective. Where are the books I want to read?

What about from the writer’s perspective? How do I get my book in the hands of readers? This is where I focused my contribution to the comments non-thread:

This is a tough subject, but let’s frame it by comparing apples to apples, not apples to apple pies.

For the reader, it makes sense to compare end-product to end-product. The reader is looking for a book, and there’s no question that’s a challenge, and the proliferation of poor-quality books makes that harder, and the self-published author has fewer resources, theoretically, to stand out from the noise and get noticed by the reader.

However, for the writer, the fair moment at which to compare self-publishing with traditional publishing is not when the book is published, but rather when the manuscript is completed.

The author with a completed manuscript has a choice: To self-publish or make a go at the traditional publishing route. Either way, the author faces a discovery challenge. The author can try to stand out from the noise in the published marketplace, or the author can try to stand out in the traditional publishing process (finding an agent, being accepted by an agent, being noticed in the slush pile, surviving rewrites demanded at any step along the way, and so on). Either way, there is a lot of noise.

Maybe my view is too colored by Hollywood, where the myth of “meritocracy” is cited daily in self-congratulation.

The whole industry is in disruption. Yes, self-publishing is generating an awful lot of noise, and it’s next to impossible to get noticed. And yet it seems that the traditional publishing route has huge problems as well. Either way, when it comes to books, the reader is far far away from the writer, and there is no easy way to cover that distance.

This is how things are now. Where are we headed?

Writing and editing status: 1 January 2014

I thought I’d document what non-blog writing projects I have been working on sporadically this past year, where they stand now, and where they might be going. Please forgive me, my one and only reader, for using acronyms—they reference working titles only, for my own use. The final titles, which for me always come last, are TBD.

Fiction writing

  • RTFT—A scifi/fantasy/comedy that I started four days ago, this is an adaptation of a very silly farcical screenplay about aliens visiting Earth I wrote back when computers still had floppy drives (with the floppy disks that were truly floppy). Its being an adaption has made writing the book a breeze so far, but I think I’ve gotten through the easy part; the screenplay has story problems towards the end of the second act, which means I’m at the point where the adaptation stops and the greenfields writing begins. (11,132 words of probably a novella.)
  • HTS—This is a more serious science fiction story about a woman newly promoted to command a ship in a tense political environment, when she’s confronted with first contact with a species that’s vastly more technologically advanced. I’m feeling a great deal of attachment to this universe, and the main character. This story is epic, with political intrigue, cold war, gender politics, family conflicts, personal crises, sexual awakening—and it scares the crap out of me. (5,592 words.)
  • TCM—A present-day comedy about a young woman with a shiny new Ph.D. in English who can’t find a job in her field, and takes a “day job” that ends up taking over her life in ways that are quite spectacular. This one is proving to be a lot of fun for me. So far, I have the voice, I have the character, I have the meta-plot concept, but I don’t have an outline, so I’m still pecking at discovering that. This may end up being a novel in the chick lit genre, which has been my rare guilty pleasure reading-wise. (1,398 words.)
  • S—This is another screenplay I wrote a while ago that I want to adapt. I haven’t started on this one yet, but I have the script sitting there in a folder, waiting for me, so I’m tossing it into this post with the hope that a year from now I’ll have made some progress on it. One of the fun aspects of this one is that it’s a mystery thriller that unfolds non-linearly—we see the same events happen from different points of view, each time learning something new. And the characters are vivid. (0 words.)

Obviously I need to pick one and get a draft done. As much as I love writing, I love even more finishing something I created (even if that can be a nerve-wracking experience).

Fiction editing

I had the distinct pleasure of working with Katherine M. Lawrence, who is writing a wonderful series of books set in 12th-century Japan. Here are a few:

  • Cold Saké—This novelette introduces Yamabuki, a woman samurai in ancient Japan. In this tale, she’s only 17 and on her own when she arrives at a mysterious inn out in the middle of nowhere. That night she discovers that all is not what it seems. It’s currently available on Kindle. We intend to make it available as a paperback as well.
  • Ôbon: Festival of the Dead [working title]—This novel is really a kind of preamble to the next book listed below. A young couple leaves their seaside village seeking better fortunes elsewhere, and encounter violence, disillusionment, sacrifice and friendship. This is in a final edits stage, and we hope to get it out by end of the month.
  • Haru (Spring) [working title]—This is the first novel of The Pillow Book of a Samurai, and includes characters we meet in Obon. It’s now several years since the events in Cold Saké, and Yamabuki, on an intelligence-gathering mission for the Imperial Palace, finds herself caught in the middle of tumultuous events. We’ll talk about this soon.

Non-Fiction writing

No bullet points here, just a mention of two books that relate more to my design/tech work. I have a bit of material so far, so in between fiction writing I may try working this up into a short book or two. (12,284 words.)

Words are not the thing

Many writers like to add up their word counts and consider them meaningful, but for me words don’t count for anything unless and until they’re combined into something readers can enjoy (even if I’m the only reader). That said, I do see a value in velocity in general, and word counts can measure that; you can see how fast you’ve been going, even if you can’t see, just from this number, whether you got anywhere.

Adding up these numbers above, I get 18,122 words in fiction, 12,284 words in non-fiction, zero books finished or published. That’s it. That’s all. Anemic numbers, I know! I didn’t even blog very much in 2013. I expect to be doing better this year. (And here I am with my 2nd post on day 1.)

Cold Saké, our first book, available on Kindle

Laura Lis Scott:

This was what took me off of the NaNoWriMo path, but has been a very rewarding experience. It’s a privilege to work with Katherine M. Lawrence. This first novelette is but the beginning.

Originally posted on Toot Sweet Ink:

We uploaded the Kindle file yesterday at about 3pm MST, and saw that it was live in a couple of hours. We are very proud to offer our first published book, Cold Sake, A Yamabuki Story (The Pillow Book of a Samurai)! We’ll be publishing a paperback edition as well.

Note that this book also includes an extended excerpt from Katherine M. Lawrence’s full-length novel, Haru (Spring), which we will be publishing soon. In fact, Haru (Spring) is the first of an epic 5-novel saga, Tales of the Autumn Creek Land, about the woman samurai Yamabuki in the years leading up to the Gempei Wars. Sign up for the Inkvine, our newsletter, to get all the latest on new releases and promotions.

Right now, the novelette is available only on Amazon Kindle. We are just getting going on the ebooks publishing world and decided to take…

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