Thursday, August 31, 2006

How Writers Should Behave In Public

If you start to see a bit of recognition and success (and perhaps, eventually, some financial profit) as a writer, you will also discover a new and strange change in your life:

You have become two persons.

1. The Private You - the person who eats, sleeps, works, lives, goes to the bathroom and is pretty much like everybody else.

2. The Public You - the figure appearing in the media, who most people associate with your writer name/pseudonym.

Why is it important to keep these two roles apart? Why not simply insist, like Popeye, that "I yam what I yam and that's all I yam!"
Because you risk going insane.

Your "public persona" will be subjected to scrutiny of a kind that never happens to "ordinary" people. Complete strangers will make absurd claims about your personality as if they were close friends. This can be frustrating. If you do not explain to yourself, "They are talking about my public persona, a role, not the real private me," then you'll lose your grip of who you are.

Always assume about "well-known" people: "I don't really know this person. This is really a stranger to me."

Between the reader and the successful writer lies a veil of prejudices, hearsay, gossip, unrealistic expectations, fears, projections and desires. And the more successful a writer becomes, the worse this problem becomes.

Nobody expects Mr. Totally Unknown Writer to outdo himself with every new book. But Mrs. Bestselling Writer will always struggle against ever-rising expectations; no matter how well she does, someone will try to spin it that she's "not doing as well as expected" or is already a has-been.

Now, about the "public persona," the "you" who appears at conventions, book fairs, conferences and interviews.... I think that regardless of fame, it is possible to project a public "you" which combines parts of your genuine character with certain rules of conduct.

10 Rules of Thumb for your Public Persona:
1. Be sincere about your beliefs and convictions.
2. Avoid self-destructive behavior.
3. Be polite.
4. Be consistent.
5. Show a sense of humor (if you have any).
6. Do not lie.
7. Be considerate of other people's feelings (to a point).
8. Only lose your temper when no other recourse is possible.
9. Dress and groom your public persona with care.
10. Always keep your teeth clean and your breath fresh.

When I see photos of writers during various gatherings and functions, certain kinds of writers stand out from the crowd:
A) Those who are well groomed and smartly dressed;
B) Those who look like homeless people;
C) Those who have horrible beards.

What IS it about writers and beards?
In 90 cases out of 100, a beard does not make you look distinguished. Those few who do, look distinguished also without beards.
Big, stripy beards that seem like they're trying to escape your face are even worse.
Goatees should be reserved for the lead singer of Metallica.
A well-kept three-day stubble is OK, but four days marks the beginning of a beard.
Women's mustaches should be shaved at all times.

Shaving your head bald may work - but then again, only if you have a handsome cranium.

Keep a spare shirt available at public occasions. If you happen to spill something on your shirt, you don't want the big unsightly stain to follow you around the entire event.

Some people sweat a lot. (I'm one of them.) Industrial-strength deodorant, black shirts and frequent face-wiping might lessen the impression that you're enacting "Richard Nixon Losing His TV Debate Against JFK."

And please, do not grope women on stage.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Now Let Us Praise Homepage Updates

This week's homepage update is small... but not insignificant: the 13th installment of my ongoing serial of satirical verse, "A.R.Yngve's READING BOOK".

Chapter 13 is titled "Men In Uniform"... have a look.

Jumping The Shark

Hugh McLeod asks, in an interview with Seth Godin:

"As a cartoonist, I find myself quite surprised that very few of the more prominent bloggers out there are in the 'Arts'.
It seems we have lots of business thinkers, technologists, entrepreneurs, consultants etc, but why do we have so surprisingly few filmmakers, playwrites, novelists, musicians, painters etc at the top of the pyramid?"

My first answer might be: "Because the first category (business thinkers, technologists etc.) are Early Adopters, and the second category are somewhat less tech-savvy."

My second, sarcastic answer might be: "Because the second category is too busy working to blog..."

But McLeod is right. I will jump the shark! Here's an art sample (from my Web novel DARC AGES):

And here's a blow-up of my cover art for the 2006 CafePress chapbook release of the Web novel ALIEN BEACH:

There's more art over at my Gallery page...

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Snappy Dialogue Or Cliché Hell?

Some sample dialogue from the Precinct 20 story I'm writing on:

They went to the local McDonald’s. She ordered a burger, salad and coffee; he ordered three Filet’O Fish, salad, a mug of coffee and ice cream.

“Your stomach must be made of pig-iron,” she remarked as Garris began to eat.

“You’re not scolding me for eating after a colleague just died?”

“I think you’re into comfort food. You didn’t drink much at the party.”

“So what’s your vice?” he said, and gulped down the last bite of his first fish burger.

Her face froze momentarily. Then, with a wry smile: “I’d never tell a colleague.”

Yes, I know people don't talk like that in real life. But kitchen-sink realism can only get a story so far.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

How Do You Choose What To Read?

There's the Gutenberg Project, with an online catalog of over 18,000 free books (and growing, as ever more old books enter the Public Domain)...

There's Amazon.com, the world's biggest (and most accessible) bookstore...

There's all the good, established authors who are not only releasing a lot of new novels, but also releasing older books for free reading online...

And in addition to that, there are so many well-stocked bookshops near you - in train stations, shopping centers, convenience stores, and kiosks.

So I ask you, the average reader: How do you do it? Faced with this fantastic range of available books, all old books plus the recent and present ones... how do you choose what to read? More and more, I'm being overwhelmed by all this limitless choice.

And I'm starting to seriously wonder if it's pointless that I should write new fiction, when I'll have to compete with both the sum of all books written plus the flood of other new releases.

How do you do it? Please tell.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Stuff I'm Writing...

I'm writing on several things right now:

-Work on my "Military SF" novel THE TALE OF THE SOLDIESSE is going very slowly. At least I have written over 70,000 words so far...

-I just completed a new short story (2,900 words) and sent it to this new zine. It got rejected about five hours later - a new personal record! - and I'm wondering whether I should rewrite it or toss it.

-Another "Precinct 20" horror-mystery story in progress, "Natural Enemy," is turning out much longer than I thought -- primarily because it involves more character development and scene-setting than previous stories in the cycle.
Perhaps I'll split it into two parts...
(I am already thinking of creating a chapbook collection of all the "Precinct 20" stories, to be sold here.)

-The third TERRA HEXA novel is still in the early planning stages. I am trying to figure out how much plot I should cram into it -- I have a tendency to put in a lot of plot.

I recently saw TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY, the film based on the comic novel (or "meta-novel"). Great fun! See it.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Harry Plotter And The Magic Weekly Homepage Update

I've posted a long chapter from my "Military SF" novel THE TALE OF THE SOLDIESSE on my homepage... but never mind that right now. I'd like to talk about a completely different subject.


Now, in order to spend months and years on writing a novel, and to endure countless revisions, rewrites and proofreadings, you have to be a bit obsessive. It's easy to lose your patience unless you're determined to finish the job. (And you don't always succeed -- I've got many unfinished novels in store!)

How about obsession among readers, then? How much should a reader focus on a novel, or a series of novels, before her friends ought to get worried?

It's not just a question of "How many times can you read the same book before you get bored." The really obsessive fans are not satisfied with passively reading their favorite author's releases. They start writing fan fiction, they organize fan conventions, dress up as their favorite fictional characters... it gets cultish, and I've always found cultish behavior a bit disturbing.

If no one gets harmed by obsessive fans I suppose it's nothing to worry about. Still, I'm moderately itching to cry "Get a life!" when I read The Guardian's account of the Lumos 2006 "Harry Potter symposium" in Las Vegas:
"So, I say to the two women next to me, why are you here? Although in truth I think I already know: such-wonderfulbooks, JK Rowling-a-genius etc.

'It's just great to be able to talk to other people about Harry Potter,' says the first one, Lisa. I nod my head earnestly. 'Particularly,' she says, 'Harry Potter porn.'

Harry Potter porn? I say.

'Harry Potter gay porn,' she corrects me."

From "Harry Potter and the mystery of an academic obsession", Carole Cadwalladr & Emily Stokes for The Guardian, August 6, 2006.

This wasn't at all what J.K. Rowling intended, but I fear she has no say in this matter. Once a book gets that popular, the fans think of it as "theirs" -- not in the legal sense, but in the obsessive sense. You haven't made it as a writer until somebody fanfics your characters.

And note how the fans call it "Harry Potter" fanfiction -- not "J.K. Rowling" fanfiction. To the most hardcore fans, the fictional characters apparently become more real than the author. Isn't that weird?

The Final Problem

The other day I received a mail from a reviewer who was reading my e-novel ALIEN BEACH.
She correctly pointed out a scientific error I'd made in the text - confusing a "mass spectrometer" for a tool that measured mass.

Fortunately the book only exists in digital form, so I could fix the error quickly -- and I've already posted the corrected chapter online.

She wanted to share other comments on the novel she was still reading, and I welcomed her to send me a list...

... which she did. I received a list-in-progress of 15 objections. 11 of the criticisms were not related to spelling or grammar -- i.e. she described where the plot and characterization should be improved or changed.

It was my own fault: In my first reply to the reviewer, I had said that a digital novel could be edited "indefinitely" (i.e. without end). Her list made it clear how naive I had been...

ALIEN BEACH, written in 1997, has flaws. In fact I agree with many of the criticisms... and yet I can't make all the proposed changes, because too much time has passed since I first wrote the book. I can no longer muster the energy for such an extensive rewrite. Call me lazy, or human, but there you have it.

I replied to the reviewer that I should instead write an entirely new novel about the same theme: "And knowing now what I didn't know then -- about scientists, technology and people -- it might turn out a better novel than 'Alien Beach'."

This is not an empty promise.
I'd really like to write a new "take" on the same basic plot.

What would you have done, if you looked back on something you had done 9 years ago and found it wanting? If I were George Lucas, I could tinker endlessly with old creations, keep changing them over and over...
The temptation is strong to do that... but bleaaahh, you know? One can only rewrite the same novel so many times and not get sick of it.

I don't want to get stuck in an endless, obsessive process of adjusting the same manuscript -- which is the same thing as never completing a book, every writer's worst fear. You have to let go at some point.
And too much tinkering will also alienate your audience (as shown by the "Han Shot First" controversy in the Star Wars fan community).

Still, it's healthy to receive criticism... and the reviewer showed genuine interest in the novel.

It occurs to me as I write this (writing helps me think), that there's an unresolved tension between
listening to criticism
letting your own vision be overrun by "backseat drivers" (someone will always want to change something).

That a manuscript can be "edited indefintely" only makes the problem worse.
The dilemma "When do I let go?" applies to writers and readers.

When do you let go?

Friday, August 04, 2006

Charlie Stross On Genre And Zeitgeist

The awarded and lauded science-fiction writer Charlie Stross has an interesting post on his weblog: "Genre Neurosis 101."

The central thesis of the post (and do read the debate in the Comments section) is that after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, American Science Fiction lost some (or much?) of its previous optimism about the future.

Stross notes:

"This turning away from the near future is going to be remembered as one of the hallmarks of the post-9/11 decade in American science fiction, as the chill wind of change blows through the hitherto cosy drawing room of the American century.

"The Brits aren't drinking the Kool-Aid — well, some of them are serving it up in pint glasses, but most of them have got better things to do with their time — and this is why just about all the reviewers in the field are yammering about a British Invasion or a British New Wave or something: it's not what the British are doing, but what the American writers aren't doing that is interesting. "

Read the rest.

What about countries that are not only lacking in optimism, but have none at all? Are there any active SF writers in, say, Iraq? (Or North Korea? Or Sudan?) I'd love to learn about people who try to write science fiction in the countries where you'd least expect it...

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Can't We All Just Get Along With Crass Commercialism?

Allow me to mention that several new T-shirts and items are now for sale at my CafePress Moychandise Shop.... check it out.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

On Mel Gibson And Evil Stories

Mel, this is God: What the hell were you thinking?

Jokes aside... I don't think being a drunk, or even a pampered celebrity drunk, is any excuse for vile bigotry. "In vino veritas," and this sure confirms any suspicions raised by that icky film THE WHIPPING OF THE CHRIST -- sorry, THE PASSION OF THE TORTURER.

(By the way, my mother -- who comes from a Catholic family and volunteers for a church charity in her retirement -- thought THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST was a sick movie. I agreed: it was an exercise in sadism that completely missed the point of what Jesus preached.)

One dark truth about any sort of creative endeavor -- such as writing -- is that anger can be a driving force. Even hate.

I'll admit that some of my own books and stories were written in anger. (Anger against corruption in politics, against war, bigotry, oppression and stupidity...) Authorial fury is no guarantee of quality -- rather the opposite -- but a big psychic "push" of anger can fuel the writer and make him or her accomplish more than usual.

But what happens when the hate overwhelms the work -- or the artisan? (I don't want to use the word "artist" here because it's so loaded with pretensions.) When does the creative passion go too far and become downright pathological? Can stories hurt people?

They can.

There are books that should never have been written -- evil stories that contain evil messages and try to poison the reader with hate. Many political and religious pamphlets are of that sort. But you can also find evil in fiction -- myths masquerading as fact, stories claiming to be based on fact, stories that warp history to suit a bigoted agenda.

One particularly evil type of fiction is the "scapegoat myth":

1. Some atrocity, wrong or slight is committed against a people tagged as "good." (Not because they do good things, they just are.)

2. The "good" people quickly find that they have been wronged by representatives of another people, who are somehow, magically, a single entity -- and therefore all equally responsible for the wrong.
(This blame extends to those who have no knowledge of the deed, or were born after the wrong was done, but are related to the "guilty" people.)

3. The "good" people, having thus justified themselves, try their hardest to persecute and annihilate the "scapegoat" people.

Scapegoat myths are toxic: they have killed people throughout human history, and still do.

I'm convinced that our species has evolved from hairier and stupider primates, and that we share many of the worst traits of chimps. So I've come to suspect that "scapegoating" derives from ape behavior. Anyone who writes or tells stories that spread scapegoat myths, tries to tempt us: "Don't think. Just find the weaker opponent, kill him and take his females. Your might is your right."

Deep down, the bigot who spouts myths about "evil peoples" longs to cast off his humanity and become an ape -- a murderous, unrepentant primate. Do not listen to his stories. Do not read them. They are evil.
ADDENDUM: Denis Leary sings the "Mel Gibson Blues" (Caution: explicit lyrics, but this is humor, satire... don't listen if you don't understand satire.)