Friday, September 28, 2007

Why I Hate My Local Independent Bookshop....

I hate to say this, but I hate my local Independent bookshop. Writing this very sentence makes me cringe, but its time I finally admitted the truth and began to work through my feelings of rage towards my local shop.

I'm not a big fan of the corporatization of the world. I hate going to a different town in a different part of the country (or world) that looks exactly like my hometown i.e.: McDonald's on the left, Starbucks on the right, Borders in the centre, with a Blockbuster Video thrown in here and there for variety. It’s the differences that make travelling (and life) interesting. Plus, I really love the idea of a local independent bookshop that serves the community, bringing together young artists, being a hub for author/poetry readings, and events.

Recently my company threw a dinner for the independent booksellers in our country. It was an elaborate affair that took me months to organise. I can’t tell you how gracious the independent bookshop owners were or how smoothly the event went. I was again reminded of how important indie bookshops are—and of how quickly they are being lost to the corporatization of the bookselling world.

The greatest thing I took away from the whole experience is how the bookshops that were at the event had evolved to compete with the mega chain stores. True, local shops can’t sell books as cheaply as supermarkets or many high street retailers, but what the local shops are selling is a feeling as much as a product. Many of these bookshops had carved a niche for themselves in their communities having lots of events, perhaps a coffee bar, children’s story hour, or in one case and ice cream shop on their premises so that they could offer something different to their high street compatriots. These shops made a difference in their communities and had earned a place in their hearts. It was enough to make me want to quit my job and open up my own shop.

Before I launch into my tirade about Hung Duck Books (my local shop) I have to say this: owning an indie bookshop is difficult work. There’s not one aspect of it that is easy. Just like with any other small business you spend all of your time fretting over the minimal profits, staff turnover, and the increasing fear that a mega chain store will open up and steal all your customers. In other words, it’s not the life I’d like for me.

I will give Hung Duck credit for the one thing it does exceedingly well. Hung Duck is very popular with the elderly and has classes on Beginners Cooking with Arthritis (I’m not making this up), local authors who occasionally visit during the weekdays and sign books, and a funky ol’ people smell that seems to cling to the very fibre of the building. Hung Duck is very much the place to be if you are an old age pensioner. Which is really fair enough.

However, below are my reasons why I’ll take my patronage to anyone other than Hung Duck.

1.Hung Duck is Never Open: Since Hung Duck isn’t a corporate franchise they are able to set their own hours. This means that Hung Duck is open Monday-Saturday from 9am-5pm (and closed each day from 12pm-1pm for a tea break). Being your average office worker I am at work during the majority of the time my bookshop is open. The only day I can visit it is Saturday and generally I’m so busy running errands I can’t get down to the shop before it shuts. Convenience is one of the factors that keeps me returning to a bookshop.
2.Hung Duck has Nothing in Stock: Whenever I try to find a book in the shop I’m unable to find any of the most recent titles. I was home sick about a couple of months ago and decided I’d head out to the shop and pick up a copy of the third Harry Potter to read (a favourite series of mine to read when I’m unwell) and was shocked to discover they didn’t have any. This was about a week before the fifth movie opened in the cinemas. I looked for several other bestsellers and was even more surprised to find that they had none of the titles I was interested in. I went next door a bought a glossy mag and headed home to rest.
3.Hung Duck is Overpriced with no deals: One of the few things that I admire about chain stores is that they have buy two get one free offers. This is brilliant for me as I can stock up on some of the latest titles and financially recover from my splurge as I read (thus allowing me to indulge in the system again). However, because Hung Duck is not a chain store they are unable to charge the same cheap prices and charge full retail price for every title in stock. This becomes a problem to struggling writers, as we can’t afford to pay retail prices. So we have to shun our local indie store and hit the library instead. I would definitely purchase more books from Hung Duck if they even gave me a £ or two off newer (or even more obscure titles), but they don’t.
4.Hung Duck has no Events: I’ve always believed that indie bookshops should have an artsy vibe attracting authors/poets/and all other forms of artists to them. Occasionally authors of local history books have signings (always on a weekday and thus excluding most of the working population) but beyond that my local shop offers nothing to draw the community in. Perhaps if the shop stayed open a bit later they could have local writers in to read from their poetry, open mic nights, or an evening of local musicians.
5.Hung Duck is not Proactive: The best example of this is during the publication of the final Harry Potter book, Hung Duck complained that it would not be able to sell the book for as cheap as the local supermarkets and would lose money just by having it on their shelves. They even clipped a copy of an article complaining about how indie booksellers couldn’t afford to sell the book and posted on their shop window. I understand that they couldn’t compete with the low prices that other chain shops were able to offer, but this didn’t mean they had to give up. I would gladly have paid £20.00 for a copy of the book (about £11.00 more than I did wind up paying) for the privilege of purchasing the book at midnight and then heading home to read it. What infuriated me about this was that Hung Duck was looking at the problem from the wrong angle. People will pay more money for the book. People will show their local shops loyalty. People want to do these things, but when their local stores are whinging wont. How can you support someplace that refuses to change with the times? Beyond even that, how can you support a business that refuses to function like a business? Loads of other local bookstores did make quite a profit selling the final Harry Potter book at a higher price than their competing chain stores because they opened at midnight, hired a magician, or had contests engaging their customers. Its called being proactive. If you are a small business you have to work to make your customers happy.

I think Hung Duck has lost its way, and for that I feel sorry. Perhaps I've gotten this all wrong and Hung Duck is a wonderful pillar for the senior community in my quaint little town, I'd like to believe that. However, whether or not this is the case, my local shop doesn't support my needs. In other words, it doesn't support me.

I want to support my local shop and shower it with what little disposable income I can, but I wont. I’ll take my business somewhere else to some other place that’s innovative and actually gives the reading community what they want. I’m sorry Hung Duck, but you’re just that.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Back by Popular Demand-- It's Writing Prompt Wednesday!

So last week I experimented with Writing Prompt Wednesday, and much to my surprise it was a success! I've actually gotten several emails asking me what my next prompt will be and offering suggestions. So, I'm opening up the floodgates and encouraging you to email ( in your Writing Prompt Wednesday suggestions. I ask for original prompts only (ie: not something you read in a book) and that you give me your name/alias so that I can give you credit if your suggestion if chosen.

For me, writing prompts are always something I over hear, or over think (one of my many flaws), or just find (as if by magic), which turn into a kernel of a story someplace in my brain...I hope this prompt has the same effect on you!

Without further delay, here is our writing prompt submitted anonymously by a reader:

"No," she said. She stopped and spun, her eyes again full of the anger he
had seen in them earlier, but this time directed at him. "No," she repeated,
"you can't have it both ways.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Keeping the Faith

I've wanted to be a writer all my life. And for most of that time, I've been optimistic that I could do it: that it was, in fact, the thing I was born to do. Sure, I read a few things about how difficult it is to make a living from writing. But I sort of waltzed through life, telling people I was going to be Stephen King when I grew up, and not really thinking about what it takes to get there.

But now that I'm an adult and I have the rest of my life to do this, the reality of the publishing world gets me down a lot. When I allow my mind to wander down the path of shrinking markets, blind luck slush-pile transcendence, fickle publishing houses that drop your marketing campaign, and the idea of actually trying to sell my books face-to-face to indifferent bookstore patrons, I start to get depressed. More than depressed, really. I start looking around for something high to jump off.

And when I write, I suffer from Perfectionitis. I think I have to write the Best Book Ever. And about a hundred pages in, I invariably become convinced that what I'm writing is something that should never, ever see the light of day. So I start to look at that "delete" key long and hard. I can't tell how many novels I've abandoned because I've been convinced that they stink.

So when you're in the midst of writing your first novel, how can you keep the faith in yourself and in your future? Most of it, I've found, is mind tricks: surround yourself with positive reinforcement, and filter out the negative. Here are some things that work for me:

Listen to your fans and ignore your critics. When you're done with your novel, you need a critical eye to look it over and give it to you straight. But when you're in the process of writing a book, that's the last thing you need. Instead, look for supportive people who love your writing and will tell you how much you rock. Having a strong fan base will keep you writing through the times when you're sure you're writing the most horrendous book in the world.

And even more important--if someone doesn't like your first chapter, don't show it to them again until the book is done. They may have constructive criticism, or they may just hate your genre. Whatever the case, you don't need negative feedback right now--even if it's helpful. And if someone just isn't a fan of your genre--do not show them your manuscript. End of story.

Set easy goals. You can do two hundred words a day, right? That's about half a page. Too much? How about a paragraph? A sentence? Pick a goal that sounds too easy to take seriously, and then take it seriously. Aiming for ten pages a day might sound grand and ambitious when you make the goal, but on days when you Just Don't Feel Like It, you'll give up--guaranteed. Then you'll get so frustrated at your inability to meet your own goals that you'll give up entirely. Instead, set an easy goal--the easier the better. Then you'll be more likely to stick to it.

Give yourself permission to write a bad book. My biggest downfall is I hate everything I write. No matter how brilliant I think it is to start with, I eventually start to think I'm writing the worst book in the world. Then I delete everything I've done and start again. Instead, whenever that irrational little demon is jumping up and down on your shoulder and screeching that you'll never win the Nebula with that one, say something like this "You're right. This book sucks. And that's fine, because I'm going to finish it anyway. THEN I can fix it."

Do you have anything better to do? This is my secret weapon. Whenever I look around and panic about whether or not I'll ever have an actual career--assuming I'll ever finish an actual book--I remember that, hey, I have nothing more important to do with my time than follow my dreams. I could just give up, but then I'd just be sitting around and wasting time. So I might as well try; it's not like I have anything to lose by trying.

It isn't easy to keep the faith. But it is possible. Let yourself write a bad book, give yourself easy, achievable goals--and try not to let the critics in. And besides--do you have anything better to do than try?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

In Defense of Romance Novels

My librarian mom will roll her eyes. My professors from college will throw things at me. But eventually, the secret will have to come out: I have a not-so-secret love of romance novels.

I think the first one I read was when I was around ten years old. My mom ran the local library, and I had the run of the place. There were some books I was emphatically NOT allowed to take out, though, and among those were romance novels. Of course, once I found out how strictly forbidden they were, I had to read one. So I grabbed one off the paperback rack--I still remember; it was Man of My Dreams by Johanna Lindsey--and I hid it in my backpack. I didn't even check it out, because my mom would find out I had it if I did. I took it home, hid it behind my bed, and waited for mom and dad to go to sleep. Then I took it out and read it under the covers, with a flashlight. I stayed up all night reading it, and man--was I tired the next morning.

Men and women were a bit of a mystery to me when I was a kid. I didn't really "get" relationships. But when I read my first romance novel, it's like a light went off in my brain: "oh--so THAT's what it's supposed to be like!" Which, unfortunately, led me to years and years of comparing the guys I met in real life to the guys I met between the covers of my clandestine books (all through high school, I never actually checked one out).

A lot of people I know don't really get romance novels. People say they're trashy. My boyfriend (yes, eventually I did actually fall in love with a real guy) thinks they're porn for girls. Strong women I respect think they're sexist and demeaning. And I think there's a bit of a grain of truth to some of these things.

But the thing about romance novels is this: much of mainstream media is all about the male gaze. You can't really have an average-looking heroine in most movies; even with romantic comedies geared toward women, the heroine is pretty and the guy can be cute, or not (um...Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally? Ben Stiller in There's Something About Mary?). It's very rare that you find a romantic comedy where the guy is gorgeous and the girl is just so-so. I mean, yes, it's true that a lot of amazing guys aren't perfect tens--but that's not the point. The point is that these movies are, even subconsciously, geared towards men's fantasies, not women's.

Romance novels, however, are completely and totally oriented towards women's fantasies--and that's relatively rare in our society. The heroine in romance novels is often beautiful, but she does NOT have to be. In older books the women are always gorgeous, but in the newer ones some of them can be downright plain. And that's really refreshing to me: because the hero (who's always good-looking) is also always insanely attracted to her. It's not because she looks like Nicole Kidman--she's just got some certain something he can't keep his hands off of.

I read an article somewhere that if guys want to know what women really want, deep down, they should read romance novels. And I think that's true--romance novels speak to many of us more strongly than romantic comedies and television. Because the nice, friendly guy with the great sense of humor is wonderful--but he's not the guy women fantasize about. Our greatest fantasies are all about meeting this incredible Matthew McConaghey-type who is way out of our league and who, somehow, falls completely head-over-heels for us and sweeps us off to travel the world in his yacht. It's kind of a new variation on the old one about the prince who fell in love with the peasant girl and made her a princess. That's what makes our toes curl.

(I think I misspelled Matthew McConaghey's last name. Now he'll never fall in love with my cartoon avatar and sweep me off my feet. So much for my master plan...)

The graphic sex is another thing people tend to misunderstand. A lot of people think it's porn for women. And I guess in a way you could say romance novels are exactly that. But it's emotional porn, not physical. The sex in romance novels always, always serves the relationship. The graphic descriptions aren't gratuitous; they're showing us an intimate moment that the whole book has been building toward. If the author cut us out of the action right at that crucial moment, she'd be cheating us of an enormous emotional payoff.

And I guess if real porn shows you what guys fantasize about, romance novels show you that women's fantasies are more complex. We want the hot sex, yes. But we also want to feel fundamentally desired. Like the guy we're with will slay outlaws, storm castles, and brave anything to have us--both physically and emotionally. The ruthless alpha male is a mainstay of the genre, and with good reason: these guys want what they want, and they don't care what they have to do to get it. And when the thing they want is US, that's absolutely irresistible.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Writing Prompt Wednesday

Its autumn, the air is crisper, the days are growing far too short, and I’ve finally accepted the fact that I will be spending more time indoors. For whatever reason, I find that I hunker down and write more in the Fall/Winter then the summer. Maybe because the weather is so much worse, or maybe because time seems to slow down a bit in the Winter months—I can’t be sure exactly, but my mind tends to become more interested in other worlds/words/possibilities.

Normally, I would save a post like this until a Friday—but I suggest any of you out there who are looking for a great mid-week escape to actually slow down and pay attention to the world around you. In this past week I've been dealt some devastating news.... someone very dear to me has been told she has about a year to live. It’s been a very difficult thing to digest (I'm still numb). I’ve tried to think about what I would do if I knew I had one year left (give or take). I’m pretty sure a lavish trip would be in the cards and reading some of those books I ‘always meant to read’, perhaps writing that novel that’s been rumbling around in my head. In any case, I’d try the to make the most of my time.

After spending far too much time in hospitals over the past month, I’ve come to one realization—that I was never so conscious of noise (or the absence thereof) as I was in a hospital. So, I suggest you take a break and listen to the sounds around you. What can you hear (crickets, computers, the tea kettle?) and what do all those sounds mean? Can you find a story in them?

Below is the opening that has helped me find a story:

Between every other beep of the monitor I tried to breathe. I wanted to fill the room with sound. You are never so conscious of noise as you are in a hospital…

Good luck. Take a break this Wednesday and get in touch with the sounds of autumn.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Whose Gaze?

I had a friend once in college who was an Art History major. She was continually talking about something called “the Male Gaze.” She was particularly into Renaissance art, and told me that a piece of artwork was actually a conversation between the subject of the painting—usually a beautiful female—and the person looking at the painting. Every artist had an ideal viewer in mind, and, according to my friend, Renaissance artists pictured their ideal viewer as male. So they painted a lot of beautiful women in various stages of undress, looking at the viewer provocatively. They weren’t looking at another woman that way. They were performing for the Male Gaze, not the female one.

Renaissance art may be part of history—but the Male Gaze is as contemporary as it gets. The modern media caters to it relentlessly. A really obvious example of this is the typical beer commercial—it’s rare to find one without a scantily-clad model implying that she’s available to any slob who orders this beer in a bar.

But you find it elsewhere, too. There’s no question that sex sells. But whose sex? Beautiful women shill for everything, from cell phone plans to cars to vacation cruises. This is odd, when women control at least half of all household spending money in the country. You occasionally see advertisers using these tactics on women as well—I remember reading an article from some advertising exec for Mr. Clean, suggesting that they wanted women to “fantasize” about their chrome-domed spokes-cartoon. But compare the number of beautiful women you see in ads to the amount of beautiful men, and you’ll probably see that the women are much more ubiquitous.

It’s not ads, though, where I really notice the Male Gaze. It’s movies and sitcoms. Have you noticed, in TV-land, how often beautiful women get with average—or even sub-average—guys? I think I first noticed something was up when I saw There’s Something About Mary. I just remember thinking, “Come on—Cameron Diaz chooses Ben Stiller over that football player? The guy looks like a tree stump with eyebrows!” And then there’s Cider House Rules—if Tobey Maguire wasn’t a movie star, do you really think he’d have a chance with someone who looks like Charlize Theron? Puh-leeze.

You notice it a lot in sitcoms, too. King of Queens is an obvious example. So is That 70’s Show—Donna was so out of Eric’s league. You even see it in cartoons—the fat, kinda slow guy is so often paired with the good-looking, smart wife, it’s become a cliché. These movies and shows clearly aren’t written with women’s desires in mind—they’re written by, for, and largely about guys.

Our culture worships a feminine ideal that most women can’t attain—and then pairs that ideal with male icons who couldn’t be more ordinary. It sends women a bleak message: you have to be gorgeous. And even then, you’ll probably wind up with the fat guy. Or the one with the overbite. Guys, of course, are conditioned to think it’s realistic to date women who look like models, no matter what they themselves look like. All this is bad news for normal-looking girls, who find themselves competing with Charlize Theron, as well as for beautiful women, who get pestered by potato-shaped guys in bars who think they actually have a chance.

So what can we do about it? Easy. Let’s make a bunch of movies that pair Judy Dench with Brad Pitt. Let’s have some more sitcoms about older women paired with Latino hotties ten years their junior (hey—it worked for I Love Lucy). Let’s show women that guys aren’t half as shallow as the media says they are.

And let’s think a little more about the Female Gaze in ads. There are a lot of products out there who are missing out on half their potential customer base. I’m not a big fan of Bud Light, for example. But I’d probably drink it, if I really believed it had the power to compel that hot guy by the jukebox to come over and hit on me.

Which is why I love romance novels. But that's another blog post.

Friday, September 14, 2007

What I'm Reading: Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair

I have to admit, I wasn’t crazy about this book right away.

The Eyre Affair is a mystery/fantasy—an interesting blending of the genres. In a world where the arts dominate daily life, detective Thursday Next must catch arch-fiend Acheron Hades. Hades has stolen a machine that allows people from the “real” world to enter the worlds of individual books. They can change stories and even bring fictional characters over into the real world. Hades is using the machine to kidnap characters of famous novels and hold them for ransom.

In Fforde’s vision of the world, literature and the arts dominate society. There’s a lively black market for forgeries of famous manuscripts; when we first meet Thursday, she’s working as a LiteraTec, breaking up crime rings of counterfeit literature. French impressionists lurk in alleyways and assault surrealists, who riot in the streets. Baconians go door to door, proselytizing that Sir Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Panhandlers recite Longfellow to earn their handouts. Fforde clearly loved his literature, but at first it was a little too cutesy for me. It seemed like an interesting construct of a world, but I didn’t know if it was interesting enough for me to want to stay with it for 300 pages.

I think one of the reasons I wasn’t wild about it to start with was the lack of characterization. Good characters really draw me into a story, and fantasy and mystery are both genres that traditionally depend on crystal-clear characterization. But Fforde is clearly more interested in his world than in his characters. The heroine is strong and fearless, but she's not fascinating--although she is funny, in a dry sort of way, and she has a cool backstory. But her love interest, her fellow law enforcement officers, and others she interacts with aren’t quite real enough for me to become invested in this world.

Acheron Hades perked the story up when he made his first appearance; he’s a formidable rival who can exert some sort of mind control on his adversaries. And I started to allow myself to be won over when Thursday goes to see Richard III. This is no ordinary production of Richard III, however. It’s been playing regularly for fifteen years. It’s got audience participation like you’d get at a showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the audience puts on the play. If there was a showing like that in my town, I’d become a regular. And I have to admit, this book is slowly beginning to grow on me. Like a fungus.

I haven’t finished the book yet, so I can’t give you the final verdict on it just now. Will Thursday Next catch Acheron Hades and save Jane Eyre? Will she get back together with estranged boyfriend Landen, or will she succumb to the charms of her coworker/vampire, Spike? Will I stay interested enough to finish the book? Hard to say at the moment…we’ll have to wait and see.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Carving out a Writing Niche in your Life

‘If you wrote one page a day, in a year you’d have a novel’, was the sage advice my great-uncle gave me when I discussed my desire to become a writer. At the tender age of twelve this sounded obvious, perhaps even insulting to my intelligence (its hard to be twelve). However, in my twenties, I find myself thinking about this simple statement more and more.

One page. Everyday. It’s not too much of a commitment to make. It’s perhaps a half hour at the computer/notebook pouring my thoughts out onto the page. I’ve been known to waste a half hour trying to decide what sort of take-away I fancy.

Before I got married I lived in a small untidy apartment by myself. I used to assign myself a magic word number to attempt to write to. Sometimes I achieved my goal. Mostly, I felt disillusioned. After I got married I realized that everything had changed. I had to share my time, my space, and my life with someone else. Cooking a half-hearted dinner and then plopping down to write in front of the computer was no longer an option. I had someone who actively wanted my company and as a result I had to adjust my thoughts on how to plan writing into my life. It took me a few months, but I managed to devise a plan that has worked for me thus far. Its ever evolving…so watch this space!

1. Make a date to write: Ok, some of us may not have time to write everyday. Sometimes we are just too busy, but if you want to write you should do just that. No one can write your story for you. Block out time in your planner to commit to your work. If you feel overwhelmed by the different projects you are working on then block out specific times to work on each project. This should help you streamline your efforts.

2. The amount doesn’t matter: Ok, sometimes I feel like if I’m only going to be able to write a paragraph it’s not worth the hassle of powering on my computer. However, that paragraph is a lot better then the alternative, no paragraph, or a paragraph locked in your brain.

3. Scribble: Many of my friends are compulsive scribblers. They jot down ideas for poems, stories, and process art sculptures, in the most bizarre places. Never be afraid to assault a napkin and put your ideas on paper. Just don’t forget where you’ve put them and offer them to a friend.

4. Go for a walk/get outside: During a brief period while I was unemployed I found myself with far too much time on my hands and a complete lack of creative ability. I wanted to make the most of my glutinous afternoons off to write and apply for jobs, but couldn’t find the inspiration. So, each day around 4pm (the saddest time of day for any job hunter as you realize you haven’t been given a job and will have to wake up the next morning and do this all over again) I went for a walk through my neighbourhood. It was the dead of winter and the days were still pretty short, but I remember noticing all the life and beauty that surrounded me (not the mention the amazing sunsets). The cold, and the natural stillness of that time in my life helped me to sort through my ideas and clarify the story I was working on. By being outside and away from my computer I was able to get the perspective I needed to find something worth writing about.

5. Write something short: My husband always suggests this when I get stressed out about lacking ideas/time. He's got a point. If you write something short, a poem, a short short story, or a prompt you can complete something. Sometimes completing a project is all it takes to give you the confidnece to get to work on something else.

6. Think of Writing as Archaeology: This thought always inspires me. Writing is a process of digging. It’s a process of uncovering a story that only you have to tell. It’s about bringing something hidden to the surface and then showing it to the world. Letting it breathe new life again.

Remember its not about a magic word count, a page count, or any other tricks you might concoct to help you endure the your battle with the blank page. In the end, it’s about the archaeology of the story, the world you create which will get your butt back into that chair every time.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Why Fantasy and Science Fiction Are Not the Same Thing

If you’re a fantasy fan, you’ve probably noticed how often fantasy and science fiction are lumped together and presented as the same thing. Libraries and bookstores are confused: I can’t count how many times I’ve found a “science fiction” section full of books by Tolkien, Eddings, and Brooks. Fans are confused, too—fantasy authors are routinely voted in for sci-fi awards like the Hugo. Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, and The Princess Bride are all past winners.

I remember reading an article in the National Review Online back when the first Lord of the Rings movie came out. I can’t find the link anymore, but the article was about the type of people who tend to like these movies. Obviously the author wasn’t one of them; she said that “Tolkien's trilogy has traditionally been the exclusive cultural province of the sort of pimple-ridden, Hot Pockets-eating boys who go on to make millions as software developers.” Even this author was confused: she couldn’t tell the difference between science fiction fans and fantasy fans. But there’s a big difference, both between the genres and between the people who love them.

Along with horror, science fiction and fantasy both belong to the meta-genre of “speculative fiction” that deals with alternate realities. But the difference is that most science fiction alternative worlds are extensions of ours in one way or another—Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, take place in our future, and Star Wars takes place somewhat vaguely in our past—“long ago, in a galaxy far, far away”—but still can be logically placed in our universe. In science fiction, the world the story inhabits may be very different from ours, but it is always an extension of it. The natural laws are the same as those in the real world.

In fantasy, however, the writer builds an entirely new world—including its natural laws—from scratch. In general, Middle Earth and Narnia take place in completely separate universes that allow for magical forces. But even if the setting of a fantasy novel is technically on earth, it’s a different earth—with different natural laws. The America of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and the Oxford of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series are parallel to our own, but they operate under very different rules than you’ll find in the real world.

There are many people who love both fantasy and science fiction. But most lean more toward one side or the other, and some love one genre but can’t stand the other. This is because science fiction and fantasy appeal to two different kinds of people.

The quote from NRO demonstrates a typical misunderstanding of fantasy as a genre and the people who love it. It refers to the stock nerdly character—the skinny social misfit stereotype much more gifted in math and science than his peers—who, if you'll forgive my similarly unforgivable stereotyping, typically fall in love with science fiction sagas, like Star Trek and Star Wars. Their talent for science and math, as people who “go on to make millions as software developers,” makes them likely to have an interest in the futuristic technologies and ethical dilemmas that are hallmarks of sci-fi. People who love technology fall in love with Star Wars.

But Lord of the Rings is steeped not in technology but in magic. Passionate fans, I admit, can be no less geeky. But they are the kind of people who are gifted with perhaps more imagination than their peers—not more logical ability. People who love Tolkien are the kind of geeks who spend more time reading than watching television, who would rather work on a novel than a computer program. The Tolkien fan’s love of elves and wizards and hobbits is basically an attraction to a world more full of flat-out wonders than ours, less full of the crushing banality of ordinary life.

While science fiction contains wonders as well, they are technological wonders of a kind that becomes banal when the mystery of it is stripped away. Warp drive and teleporters and wormholes are wonders to the audience but ordinary within the context of the story's world much the way television and electric toothbrushes and lightbulbs would be wonders for people a thousand years ago, but ordinary to people today. In fantasy, however, that sense of wonder permeates the whole world of the story, which is perhaps why fantasy fans prefer to take Earth out of the equation altogether and make up something entirely more interesting.

So yes, there is a difference between science fiction and fantasy. A big one. It’s becoming fashionable to blur the lines a bit; Anne McCaffrey and the Dune series does this, to an extent. In general, I’d rather have my science and my fantasy on separate plates, but if the book tells a good story, I’ll overlook a little blending.

Friday, September 7, 2007

My Defence of 'Day Jobs'

I'm a big fan of the image of the 'struggling/starving writer' typing out a lonely existence in her tiny garret apartment. To me the romance of this image is inexplicably attractive. The reality of this is something altogether different and somewhat terrifying.

I’ll not be typing out a lonely existence anytime soon, because to be honest, I can’t afford it. It’s a hard truth that 'day jobs' are in fact a necessity for many aspiring writers. If I want to have a roof over my head, some ramen on my plate, and to keep the creditors from frog-marching me off to debtors prison I have to work in a ‘day job’. Its unromantic, its uncomplicated, and it lacks the flare that I thought would surround my life, but each morning I get up and head off to the office for a stifling eight hours.

Except— my eight hours aren't all that stifling. In fact, I quite enjoy my 'day job'. I work for a great publishing house that encourages me to have opinions about books, proposals, author events, and constantly gives me new insight into the publishing industry. While it’s not exactly what I'd like to be doing (see writing alone in a garret) it’s certainly not a bad compromise for the time being.

I’d go so far as to say that I’m actually supportive of aspiring writers having ‘day-jobs’. Ok, so it doesn’t fit in with the romantic image, but I know that my job has helped me to understand humanity better. Getting up and going to an office everyday has allowed me to see a cross-section of humanity that would have been lost to me in my little garret. Not to mention the obvious benefit of seeing the publishing process (from proposal to finished copy) in action. I’m lucky enough to also be up to my eyeballs in free books, which is nothing to sniff at! Half of my inspired ideas come from conversations with co-workers or random doodling on the tube. Besides that, most companies have courses in copywriting, grammar, and marketing, which will provide me with excellent skills when I am able to freelance full-time. Actually having a ‘day job’ has also forced me to have a strict writing schedule, which makes the most of my time and efforts.

I think the trick to making a 'day job' more than a cubicle farm (although we have a horrible open plan office!) is treating each day as a fact-finding mission. What can I learn today about publishing? People? Characters? How can I use all this information to create richer stories? What have I learned that will help me get published? At least, that's what I keep telling myself.

Don't get me wrong, I've also had horrific 'day jobs'. I've worked in a cubicle farm that sought to break my spirits 1984-style. While each day became more and more nightmarish and I literally felt my creativity and will oozing out through my eyeballs, I realized one truth: I don't want to work for someone for the rest of my life. In fact, all I have ever wanted to do is write. Ever since I realized that I could take the stories in my head and put them on the page I’ve been hooked!

After college I felt completely overwhelmed by the vastness of the world, and the odds of actually finding a job in my major, my field, and finally WRITING professionally. Working in a crap 'day job' finally opened my eyes as to what I'd need to do to succeed professionally. For that, I'm grateful.

So for now, I’m going to have to content myself with writing in stolen moments at work and at night in the safety of my flat. I certainly hope one-day to freelance full-time and hang my shingle outside my garret, but until then, I'm going to make the most of my 'day job'. Watch this space!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

In Defense of Selling Out

Writers, artists, musicians, and actors are all guilty of taking pride in the “starving artist” mentality. Generally speaking, we’re all supposed to eat a lot of ramen, smoke a lot of cigarettes, live in squalor, and create brilliant work. Somehow, our suffering is the engine that drives our genius.

Because so few artists of any category “make it,” the majority of us have to buy into this mentality in order to keep some dignity in our lives. The problem with a truly artistic career is that yes, there is a lot of success to go around. But most of it goes to a lucky handful, while the rest of us go hungry. And the non-successful ones sometimes look at what it takes to become successful—producing work that a large amount of people actually understand and want—and they see it as “dumbing down” their creative genius. So they feel justified in rejecting success and scorning those who embrace it.

I remember back when I was a creative writing student at college. A few weeks before graduation, one of my favorite professors asked me what my plans were after college. Being the blasé dreamer that I was, I shrugged and said something like “write a lot, submit to some magazines, get a job somewhere.” He shook his head. “You really should give some thought to getting your MFA,” he said. “Then you could apply for a teaching position.”

And all of a sudden, I realized: all of my professors thought that this is what creative writers do. They teach. If they’re lucky, they get a cushy job with a sabbatical that allows them to concentrate on their writing every few years. They might be celebrated essayists, poets, and short story writers. But they certainly don’t make a living from their writing. Creative writers who don’t want to sell out nowadays have another option besides starving in a garret: they can be professors.

Nobody ever said anything like: “You really should sign up for RWA. Then you could network with some published authors and learn how to write commercially viable fiction.” If you said anything like that at my college, you’d probably get keelhauled.

The thing is, I never wanted to be anything but a writer. I didn’t want to teach. I didn’t want to be an insurance agent. I didn’t want to do anything but write. And if it meant I had to change the way I wrote to make a living, then fine—I could live with that.

The creative writing department was great at helping me map my literary strengths and weaknesses and giving me confidence. But it gave me no guidance at all about the business side of things. Looking back, I wish there had been more of an emphasis on genre fiction, marketing your writing, how the publishing industry works, and possible stop-gap careers for aspiring novelists. I wish they took our future careers as seriously as they took our raw writing ability.

In my experience, most liberal-arts literary types look down on the nitty-gritty “business side.” They look at popular fiction and see a wasteland of bad books. And yeah, there are plenty of bad books out there. But there’s also a lot of well-written, successful genre fiction. And it sells.

I know there’s a bias out there against it, and I understand why. But I just don’t see what’s wrong with making a living as a writer. I see a lot wrong, however, with letting a non-writing career sap most of your energy and time. So sorry, Dr. Cutter, you can keep your cushy professor’s job. I'm planning on selling out just as soon as I find someone who'll buy.