Roger’s Rule for Writing

Roger Zelazny was one of the greats. I had the immense good fortune to be acquainted with him, and to learn about what I call Roger’s Rule for Writing.

Only one rule. If he had others, I didn’t know about them. But this rule is pretty perfect on its own.

It’s this: He had to sit down at the typewriter three times a day. Each time, he had to write at least three sentences.

If he did that, he’d done a day’s work.

The hope was, of course, that at least one of those three times, he’d write significantly more than three sentences. But if he didn’t, it was all right. He’d made the effort. It wasn’t a highly productive day, but he’d shown up, and that was what mattered.

Word count gets a lot of emphasis these days, and daily word count goals are a fact of life for many writers. I’ve been there, done that. I wrote four pages a day for years…literally. I think it was eight years. Every day, four pages. I wrote on vacation, when I was sick – every single day.

Continue reading “Roger’s Rule for Writing”

Auntie Deborah Returns From Wildfire Evacuation To Answer Your Questions

It’s been an exciting couple of months. Back in mid-August, Auntie Deborah and her household fled from the wildfires descending upon their small California town. After a month staying first with friends and then in a hotel, she and her people and all four cats returned home to a herculean clean-up job. Actually, the cats did not contribute, except in a profusion of shed fur. Order and cleanliness are gradually emerging, along with a return to writing her own work and advising younger writers.
~~~~
Dear Auntie Deborah,
How can a literary agent tell from the first ten pages whether they want to represent a book?

Auntie Deborah: Most agents can tell from the first paragraph if they want to continue reading. Agents have read thousands of manuscripts by the time they’re in the pro league and they, like magazine editors who plough through mountains of slush, can spot right away if the author has the command of fictional techniques and language that are the bare minimum for a publishable story. It doesn’t matter what comes after that first paragraph if the author has failed to engage and intrigue, with every indication that if the reader places themself in the author’s hands, as it were, the experience will be reliably satisfying.
Dear Auntie Deborah,
Is it okay to write when I’m upset and not feeling like myself, or should I wait until I’ve calmed down?
Auntie Deborah: What makes you think that when you are “emotional, upset, or worried” you are not yourself? Passion is as much a part of writing as intellect. Let it all out on paper! Give yourself something intense and uncensored to then revise and mine for purest gold.

I am now revising a novel I drafted while caring for my best friend in the final weeks of her life. At the time, it was pure escape, a place to put all my strongest, most painful emotions. Only afterward did I see the amazing heart of the piece. It’s required several rounds of being taken apart and put back together the way fiction needs to be structured. This last round follows a long discussion with my agent, who is very excited about it. (As a note, I’ve been publishing fiction for over 35 years, with 15 novels and umpteen short stories, so I have experience with this <g>)

Dear Auntie Deborah:
Why do people advise me not to address an editor as “Dear Sir”?

Auntie Deborah: I strongly advise you not to address an editor as “sir.” The primary reason is the likelihood that the editor is a woman. In 2016, 78% of editors were women. (All 3 editors at my publisher are women.) Do you want to begin your letter with the assumption that an editor must be male?

Instead, say, “Dear editor.” Better yet, address your letter to the specific editor to whom you are submitting. (“Dear Ms. Jones” — not Miss or Mrs!) You should know this as part of researching your markets. Some publishers have a first or slush reader, usually anonymous, in which case, “Dear editor” or “Dear publisher” would be fine.

 

Dear Auntie Deborah,
What do I do when my main character simply won’t fit the scenario of the plot?

Auntie Deborah: You have a choice: let the character tell their authentic story, or promise to do that in order to keep the character quiet and happy, and stick another, more appropriate character in the current story. The fact that your character is talking back to you is an excellent sign, by the way. I’d go with that. You might discover you are an author who prefers character-driven stories, and this is a great place to start. Continue reading “Auntie Deborah Returns From Wildfire Evacuation To Answer Your Questions”

How Not to Win an Award

Each month, I ask my patrons what they’d like for their new essay. They vote. This month the vote was split, and I chose the one I wanted to write about, because no-one was asking me and I had stories to tell. You’ve seen the announcement here – that I won a prize for one of my novels. A not-unimportant prize. It struck me as odd that only my patrons want to know why I wrote this novel. Or maybe the oddness is that people are curious, but have not asked. Either way, I wrote that essay and it will go out tomorrow or Thursday.

The story of the novel may be cool, but I thought you’d like the story of what happened on the night of the award ceremony. It was the beginning of what promises to be a very interesting year.

The Ditmars are the Australian equivalent of the Hugos – awards for writing and art and criticism and more voted by SF fans. My novel was one of the finalists for best novel. I assumed I wasn’t going to win because I could see no reason why I should. I was fully expecting Eugen Bacon to win, in fact, so I didn’t worry too much about the award itself. My brain pushed all deep thought and lists of debts owed to the side, although I did wonder when the announcement would be made.

I only heard about the award ceremony three hours before, and that was a form invitation that all the finalists received. It was already Rosh Hashanah. My New Year.

If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, I wouldn’t even have kept the computer on. Work was out of the question and for me, that award ceremony was work. It took me a while to puzzle this out. I did it on Facebook with many contributions from friends. I discovered then that a lot of people go to award ceremonies for fun. I don’t. I love it when people I care for get recognition, but I find the ceremonies themselves hard work. Speaking to a big audience about a topic I love, however, that’s fun.

I finally puzzled my way through the whole problem, sent an email to my publisher, and sent an apology to the organisers. The only reason it took me that long was that I was dealing with medical issues all that week. I had to decide through a haze and it was not comfortable physically or emotionally. My mother was happy with my decision, which was the big thing. I couldn’t tell her about it until afterwards, however. Three hours is not a long time.

When the three hours were nearly up, I was spending my new year with two of my close friends. Yaritji Green, in the middle of our chat, asked me if I knew someone and I told her they were on the Ditmar committee. I asked her if that meant she was at the online ceremony. Not only was Yaritji at the online ceremony, but she was willing to stand in for me if needed. 

She asked me for some dot points, in case. I didn’t take the need seriously, for that whole day had turned improbable three hours before. I told her “This was an impossible work and the award is in an impossible year and it’s impossible for Gillian to be here cos it’s Rosh Hashanah.” I tried to think about it more but, “I have heaps of things I would say, but I can’t think of them tonight. My brain is outside work zone.”

She asked me about the nomination and I explained, “I had my heart stuff then wrote that novel the following October/November, BTW, so it’s very appropriate that you’re (as a doctor) my sub.” (I’ve cleaned up the impossible typing – everything looked impossible at that moment.) “I cogitated on the conditions for the novel for 20 days in hospital, then while I was recovering, then when I found myself with no paid work because the uni was leading up to sacking me and then splurged and I wrote it very quickly. You don’t need to say any of this – I’m just remembering that this was the first time I sorted out HOW to turn garbage into fertiliser. Fruitcake was the first flower in my new garden.”

My mind didn’t have much time to dwell on the irony in what I’d explained to Yaritji. In fact, the moment I finished typing it, I sent it and two words arrived from Yaritji.

You won,” she typed.

She had been speaking on my behalf while I was trying to get my mind around why it was impossible to think lucidly about this novel. My immediate reaction to “You won” was “Wait…what!!!” Yaritji knows me very well and sent me a picture of her computer, with the announcement writ large on the screen.

That’s the end.That’s how it happened. I suspect I won’t believe I actually won until I see a trophy.

 

Working Together

It’s time to let go of the myth of the lone genius. It carries too much weight in our world. In real life, nothing gets done by one person.

There are visionaries and leaders, don’t get me wrong. But they can’t accomplish things without a team. A lone genius who doesn’t have support from others cannot change the world.

This is true whether the goals are good or bad. The people out to do evil don’t do it alone, either. Trump would not be in power without all the people who jump to do his bidding.

Take energy – a significant issue since it is so tied to climate change (and right now here in the Western US, we are well aware of climate change). Right now there are millions of people world-wide working on thousands of ways to produce energy from renewable sources and also on thousands of ways of improving the efficiency of the necessary appliances and tools that we use. Continue reading “Working Together”

In the Creativity War, Sometimes You Need to Retreat

Even before the pandemic hit, I was having trouble getting traction on my new book. Lots of notes, lots of false starts. Feeling like a blind badger trying to find its way through unfamiliar territory. Since we entered Covid-world, it’s only gotten worse. I’m sure you all have your own reasons why it’s hard to get things done these days. Add to that a degree of discouragement over how hard it’s been to get my two-volume last novel (The Reefs of Time / Crucible of Time) noticed within the SF readership, and the result has been a creative malaise that I’ve found very difficult to shake.

Wife to the rescue. The moment certain outside stressors let up enough to allow it to happen, she seized the proverbial bull by the you-know-whats and made the call to get me a retreat-spot on Cape Cod. Sending me kicking and screaming, that sort of thing.

And now I’m here in Sandwich, MA, near the sea, land of great bicycling and even greater seafood. I’m loving it. Her instructions were explicit: “If you can write, that’s great. But you are not going there to get writing done. You are going there to shed all the dog walking and the house repair and the taking care of people who need help and the worrying about the state of the world and find yourself again. You are going to rediscover what it means to you to write a book, and why you want to do it.”

So, here I am. Too soon to be certain, but from preliminary signs, I think it could be working. (And I did write a bit last night.)

Here are some pix from the motel and the Cape Cod Canal bike trail.

CapeCodCanalside bike trail sundown
Sunset over the Cape Cod Canal bike trail.

 

Coast Guard, heading out toward Cape Cod Bay. I’d like to have one of those boats, tough and seaworthy. I wouldn’t paint it gray, though. Something bright.

 

Duck-mascots at the motel.

Thinking Generationally

I’m working — slowly — on a book that includes a generation ship. (The way I’m going it may take a few generations to write it.) The other day on social media, a friend observed that the extended lockdown made it clear to him that he wouldn’t be happy on a generation ship.

I think I would be. Being stuck on a space station with just a few other people – which I find more similar to lockdown – wouldn’t make me happy, but a well-set-up generation ship with a thousand or so other people has the potential to provide one of the things I value most in life: community.

I’m talking way more community than we get in our modern lives. I mean, I live in an apartment building with thirteen households, and while we’re mostly friendly and cooperative (except for one asshole), we never have each other over for dinner. We do things for each other in a pinch, pet each other’s dogs, chat in the lobby or in the back yard, but we’re not a community.

When I was at Clarion West all those years back, living in a dorm with sixteen other students up and down the hall, I was happy most of the time, because I was surrounded by people with common purpose. I’ve felt that way in Aikido dojo, though I didn’t live there and have as much community as I would have wanted.

But our modern lives are not well set up for community. Also, since I grew up in a small town where the ways in which I was different would have made me more and more miserable as I got older if I’d been stuck there, I know that communities are not always good.

But the generation ship that I’m developing for my book could be a very happy place for me. Continue reading “Thinking Generationally”

Living in small spaces during big times

Every few months there are five Mondays in a month. Also, I posted last week because … magpies. This means you hear from me three Mondays running, and this is only Monday #2. Brace yourself…

I broke iso on Saturday. There was a medicine I urgently needed and I didn’t want to ask a friend when I also had to post a letter and get some money form the bank. I walked under falling blossom and realised that I’d chosen to go outdoors the first day of the new season. The actual change of season isn’t until 1 September, but Spring arrived on Saturday. The only shop I actually went into was the chemist. There, I could see why I am not supposed to go near people. For every nine people using common sense, there was one who wanted to make the queue move faster by creeping up behind me.

I break iso once every six weeks, on average.

Just sitting in the sunshine reminded me that the outside world is not defined by the internet and Netflix. This got me wondering why I don’t feel the need to break out more often. All kinds of other people cannot stay in their homes even if they have gardens. They have to buy milk or bread every day. I only reach that level of stir crazy every six weeks, despite living in an apartment.

I suspect it’s partly because I’ve worked mostly from home for years. I don’t have to go out at all now, though, and so I have more time to catch up on silly films I missed.

I shall not list the films, for they are all ones I would not have gone to the cinema to see, except Hamilton. Hamilton is not a silly film, even though I ran an inner argument with it the whole time.

That inner argument is the other thing. I’m watching movies with Italian subtitles or Spanish subtitles where I can, for my insufficient knowledge of both languages makes me restless. A few minutes ago I started telling my TV screen that I had not fully considered the effects that the choice of ‘guard’ and ‘watch’ and equivalent words had over the way we think about possessions and people. Then I moved onto ‘save’. Look them up in Spanish and Italian if you don’t already know them. Take your time. Tangents for thought are perfectly allowable when one looks up words.

I was watching the live action Aladdin and had to pause it to do work, for otherwise a whole new plot would have accompanied the film.

Not that I object to whole new plots accompanying films. Earlier today I was thinking that three of the Star Wars films would be massively improved with a dubbed version that turned them into comedy.

I like music, though, and needed to listen to it rather than let my mind play with historical linguistics. I often dance to musicals, mildly, for it hurts. Every time I do this, the next day is less difficult so it is worthy pain. My dancing feet remind me that they are musicals and that I really shouldn’t drift too much.

My time sense has warped beyond all logic since the bushfires and COVID-19, but my mind takes me into some wonderful explorations. I was bored for an hour earlier this year and I tweeted it. It astonished me, that, in over twelve months of things being so seriously challenging, I should only have been bored that one hour.

I rather suspect I made a decision in my childhood that no matter how alone I was, I was not going to be lonely. I know I worked hard in my teens to develop this skill. I’m still working on some elements of it. I wasn’t expecting this work to give me the pandemic experience some of my friends crave. I hope there are classes on this for people who had lives that didn’t push them to develop this skill. I can’t imagine how awful COVID-19 in an apartment would be without my arguments with the TV screen or my dreams while I wash dishes. (I hate washing dishes.)

I am not alone in this drift of time and the richness it embraces. Quite a few writers I know are experiencing something similar. What I wonder is the possible relationship between problematic childhoods, a determination to not be defeated by them and us becoming writers.

My sentences are growing complicated and I’ve been sitting down for too long. Time for more Aladdin.

Talking About Audiobooks on Cat Rambo’s Blog

Cat Rambo is former president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), and an author of considerable note. Instead of writing on my own blog today, I wrote on hers—a fairly detailed piece on audiobooks and how I went about it with my books. I called it “How I Ventured into Audiobooks and Lost My Shirt—Or Maybe Found It.” If audiobooks interest you, and especially if you’re a writer wondering how that whole thing works, why not step over there and take a look. Here’s a teaser:

Audiobooks are the current gold rush in publishing—or so they say, and you know “they” always know what they’re talking about. If you don’t get on the audiobook wagon, you are sure to lose out.

That might or might not be true. But one thing that is true, without a doubt, is that listening to a book narrated aloud is an experience unlike that of silently reading text. An audiobook can make or break a book for the listener. In the hands of a poor narrator, any book can be crushed. But in the hands of a skilled narrator, even humdrum text can take flight, and sparkling text can soar.… [continue reading]

Journalistic Ethics

I was practically born in a newsroom. My mother always said that while she wasn’t the first woman copy editor at the Houston Chronicle, she was the first pregnant copy editor. When I worked there many summers later as a copy girl, there were people still there who knew me before I was born.

Which is to say, that while I was raised Episcopalian, the true religion in my childhood home was journalism. Both my parents worked on newspapers throughout their lives, eventually running several weeklies outside of Houston after they got tired of putting up with top management at the city’s dailies.

Their principles were rooted in journalism. Get the facts right. Do what it takes to get the story. And you gotta run the story even if it’s going to piss off the powerful people who might sue and who will certainly pull their advertising.

I came up with a strong sense of journalistic ethics. So it surprised the hell out of me the first time I met a reporter who said they never voted because they didn’t think journalists should take sides. Continue reading “Journalistic Ethics”

Too Much to Nothing to Do

Perpetual Motion Machine

I grew up in one of those families where the not-so-subtle message was: “what have you accomplished today?”  (One of the not-so-subtle tensions between my parents was that my father embraced this question as it regarded himself, and my mother did not–she did a lot of stuff, but the minute it was expected of her she shut right down.) I learned from this to feel guilty if I’m not accomplishing all the time, at the same time that what I really want to be doing is reading or doing a crossword puzzle or playing endless games of solitaire while I listen to TV re-runs in the background.

I know. I’ve lost the respect of all right-thinking people. As I should. But these times have not made it any easier to Do Things or Do Nothing, have they?

Continue reading “Too Much to Nothing to Do”