The Writer-Editor Relationship, Part 2: Five Things Writers Wish Editors Knew—and Followed

tree insideIn my previous article, “The Writer-Editor Relationship, Part 1: Editors Preparing Writers,” I focused on clarifying expectations between editors and writers from the editor’s point of view. Part 2, this article, focuses on this same relationship from the writer’s point of view.

Clarity of expectation, honesty, and mutual respect are key features in a productive and successful writer-editor relationship. Writers expect editors to inform them if their expectations are out of line, and writers rely on editors’ honesty and transparency to let them know if they are comfortable with the task being asked of them. This, of course, is predicated on the editor’s full understanding of what that task is; again, it is the responsibility of the editor to determine the scope of work from the author—just as a doctor will ask key questions to diagnose a patient. If an editor has reservations, caveats, or limitations with the project, these should be shared upfront. Honesty is always best, and it should start right from the beginning so that mutual respect is cemented.

Below is a list of five things that writers wish editors knew—and followed.

  1. Edit to preserve the writer’s voice through open and respectful dialogue

Losing your voice to the “hackings of an editor” is perhaps a beginner writer’s greatest fear. This makes sense, given that a novice writer’s voice is still in its infancy; it is tentative, evolving, and striving for an identity. While a professional editor is not likely to “hack,” the fear may remain well-founded.

A novice’s voice is often tangled and enmeshed in a chaos of poor narrative style, grammatical errors, and a general misunderstanding of the English language. Editors trying to improve a novice writer’s narrative flow without interfering with voice are faced with a challenge. Teasing out the nuances of creative intent amid the turbulent flow of awkward and obscure expression requires finesse—and consideration. Good editors recognize that every writer has a voice, no matter how weak or ill-formed, and that voice is the culmination of a writer’s culture, beliefs, and experiences. Editing to preserve a writer’s voice—particularly when it is weak and not fully formed—needs a “soft touch” that invites more back-and-forth than usual, uses more coaching-style language, and relies on good feedback.

An editor colleague of mine consistently accompanies her edits with the question, “Does this change preserve your meaning?” This prompt both focuses on “voice” and reminds the writer that the editor is considering it, which fosters a nurturing environment of mutual respect. Editors who are not familiar with working with writers in the early stage of their careers may wish to defer to one who is more experienced.

Editors also need to consider how the author’s narrative voice harmonizes with the standard in the author’s targeted genre and niche market. Pursuing respectful and open dialogue about how the author’s voice fits or doesn’t fit that standard is another responsibility of a good editor and one an author will come to rely on—particularly early on in their career.

  1. Understand—and embrace—the market and genre of your writer

Writers are often told to write what they know. This edict applies equally to editors: edit what you “know” and understand. Each form of writing—from literary and genre fiction to journalism, the memoir, and technical writing—encompasses an overall style, culture and vision, associated language, and even “jargon” that is important to understand to succeed with readers. Even writers who subvert the trope need to first understand what they are subverting, and so does the editor.

I write and edit science fiction and fantasy. I do it very well, because I have a passion for it and I intimately understand its world and language, including where the boundaries lie and where the risks—and sublime nuances of originality—also lie. I worked as a scientist for over 20 years and have published papers in peer-reviewed journals, so I am comfortable editing technical and scientific papers. I live that world. On the other hand, I do not read, nor do I understand or care for, the horror fiction genre. Not only would I do a lousy job editing a work of horror, but I wouldn’t provide the discerning editorial advice to best place that work in the horror market. It is in the area of market niche that one editor will shine over another based on their familiarity with, and current activity in, that industry sector. This is ultimately what writers are paying for: the multi-layered understanding of the editor that comes with a full embrace of that world.

Editors should ensure a good fit and the best chance for success by not taking on work in a genre with which they are neither familiar nor comfortable. Think of the author. Which leads me to the next point:

  1. Be honest and practice moral integrity: Don’t take on a writer’s work unless you like and believe in it

 When I was starting out as a writer with my first novel, I shopped it around to many agents, hoping for representation. While the book was eventually published with great success, many agents had rejected it. Literary agents take on clients and shop their books to publishing houses. They usually charge a percentage of the take and are not paid (if they are good agents) until the book is sold to a publishing house. Payment, therefore, is predicated on success. In many cases, an agent would respond with good things to say about my first manuscript but would not take it on, citing this common phrase: “It just didn’t excite me enough.” I was initially puzzled by this response. If they liked it, why didn’t they take it on? But “I like” isn’t the same as “I’m excited.” I soon realized the importance that excitement played in the agent’s business. They were my advocate, after all. If they weren’t eager about the book, how could they sell it to someone else? And if they couldn’t sell it to someone else, how could they get paid?

While the editor is usually paid up front and/or upon deliverable, they fulfill a similar role: that of advocate. If an editor takes on a writer’s work without enjoying it or believing in it, they are much less likely to do a good job. And both lose when that happens.

When we just do a job for the money and not for the passion of doing something well, we run the risk of losing on all fronts. We run the risk of being dishonest in our assessments and then doing a shabby job. And then losing our reputation. Be an advocate and be honest; sometimes, that means saying “no” to a project and explaining why. The writer will benefit and will thank you for it—if not right away, then eventually.

  1. Edit professionally and appropriately to promised deliverable

In my capacity as writing coach, I have met with several writers who have complained that their work had been insufficiently or inappropriately edited. This can occur for several reasons: (a) lack of time; (b) incompetence; or (c) inappropriate match-up.

  • Lack of time 

As a writer, I once experienced an insufficient copy edit by a freelance professional editor. In fact, this particular editor was a good editor and had impeccably edited a previous work of mine. When I submitted my “edited” work to a beta reader, he pointed out many places that my copy editor had missed. A few is OK, but she’d missed many. From subsequent correspondence, I deduced that my editor had been overrun with other projects and had skimmed mine a little too fast. Unfortunately, this was unacceptable, given that I’d agreed to pay her a professional rate for a specific deliverable: a copy-edited, proofed, and publication-ready manuscript.

The ultimate message here for editors is, don’t take on a writer’s work and make promises of delivering until you know what you’re getting into and know that you can do it in the time you suggested. Honesty is best here. If you are too busy to meet the specified deadline, say so and refer the writer to another respected editor if they can’t wait. And don’t worry about “losing” the client—you haven’t. But that editor I mentioned in the previous paragraph did.

  • Incompetence 

Unfortunately, most editors who are incompetent are unaware of it. One of my professional writer-editor colleagues at SF Canada invoked the Dunning-Kruger Effect (“at a certain point, people who really don’t know something don’t know that they don’t know it”) to share her story of what passes for editorial input in “an age of homonym errors.” She suggested that some self-appointed editors are convinced they have significant skills but allow a large error rate.

This is where organizations like Editors Canada become invaluable. Editors Canada certifies editors for skills in various editing fields and forms (that is, structural-, stylistic-, and copy editing and proofreading). If you are a professional editor with certification, ensure that you make this known to the writer; many writers not only don’t understand the various editing forms (for example, copy editing vs. structural editing), they also don’t necessarily recognize competence until after the job is done—when it’s too late.

  • Inappropriate match-up 

This is similar to point 2, which talks about matching writer and editor through genre and market. A good fit also includes temperament, schedules, communication style, and other considerations that will affect the editor-writer relationship and the natural progress of the project. As editor, I have encountered a few clients whose communications with me created tension and misunderstanding. We mutually agreed to terminate our arrangement early on, which saved much tension and grief. The transparency of the relationship allowed us to recognize the mismatch early on and attend to it before it became problematic and wasted both our time and efforts.

  1. Keep the relationship—and language—professional and respectful 

Without necessarily expressing this, the majority of writers—particularly beginning writers and, by default, indie/self-published writers—seek a professional editor who will treat them with respect. What this translates into is the use of professional language, tone, and behaviour. Writers aren’t looking for an editor to be their “friend.” Writers are also not looking for a professional editor to validate their work or them as people. Writers seek professional editors to give them honest and helpful advice that will help them create the very best work they can for eventual publication.

Simple. Not so simple.

As an editor who is also a writer (who gets edited a lot), I provide rationale as much as I can for the suggestions I make to writers. This helps establish and maintain a respectful and collaborative relationship between author and editor through the use of professional language, tone, and behaviour. Think of it as a doctor-patient relationship; I’ve dropped doctors like hot potatoes who are not willing to sit with me as an equal and discuss their prognoses. I want to know why, and ultimately, it’s my decision. The editor is an expert, but so is the writer.

The writer-editor relationship is foremost a professional one. As an editor, I feel it is my tree insideduty to promote integrity and respect with the writer, and this hopefully within a safe and nurturing environment for the achievement of mutual excellence.

This article was copy edited by Nicole North.

 

Nina MunteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

The Writer-Editor Relationship, Part 1: Editors Preparing Writers

 

sunstream pathAs indie publishing soars into new heights and successes, writers are looking more and more to freelance editors to help them create works of merit that will stand out in the market. Whether this process is seamless and productive or fraught with difficulties relies on the relationship established between editor and writer—at the outset and throughout.

The writer-editor relationship—like any relationship—works best when communication between parties is transparent and clear. What ultimately drives misunderstanding—or its corollary, harmony—is “expectation” and how it is met. Clarifying expectations on both sides is paramount to creating a professional and productive relationship with few hitches.

Realizing Expectations

Indie authors often come to editors with unclear and, at times, unreasonable or unrealistic expectations on services. Many writers know very little about the kind of editing we do and the different levels of effort (time and associated fee) required. They do not understand the difference between “copy-editing” and “structural editing”, particularly as it pertains to their own work. In fact, many indie writers don’t even know what their MS requires. This is because of two things: 1) they can’t objectively assess their own work, particularly in relation to market needs; and 2) many authors have not sufficiently considered their “voice” or brand and matched it to a relevant target market. Both of these will influence how the writer comes into the relationship and the nature of their expectations.

It is best to be “up front” with everything, from understanding a writer’s work and market expectations to establishing your fees, your time, and the nature of your services. This is why a savvy editor will ask for a one to several page example of the author’s writing prior to offering their services and finalizing the nature of a potential relationship. Such an exchange may, in turn, include a sample of the editor’s work for the writer to assess. This exchange helps clarify the process for both parties.

A savvy editor will want to establish with the author the following things prior to taking him/her on as a client and embarking on the actual editing task:

  1. The nature of the writer’s work: a writer’s work should harmonize with the editor and achieve a good fit; e.g., I edit fiction and non-fiction; however, I do not edit horror, because I simply can’t relate to it and don’t care for it. More on this below.
  2. The author’s expectations and target market: this is key to establishing the kind of editing required for the author’s piece. Is it good enough to just copy-edit or will the piece require substantive edits to succeed in the identified market? This often requires open and frank communication between editor and author.
  3. Nature and time of submission: on which the schedule is based.
  4. Schedule and deadlines for deliverables: based on the editor’s realistic timing (including other work) and the nature of the editing job (to be established by some reliable means).
  5. Nature of communication: form and frequency; partly to ensure that the writer does not abuse the communication stream with a barrage of emails, e-chats, phone calls, etc.)
  6. Nature and cost of deliverables: e.g., use of track changes; inclusion of summary letter; follow up meetings, etc.
  7. Mutual agreement on fees, fee structure and payment details: what, how and when.
  8. Inclusion and nature of contract: this may include an NDS, if desired.

By clarifying these, you and the author create a new set of realistic agreed-upon expectations.

Fitting Writer with Editor

The right fit for editor and writer includes more than harmonizing genre, writing style, and content. The fit includes personality. A professional editor and colleague of mine recently shared on our list-serve about his experience as both a freelance and publishing house editor. The editor shared that a majority of writers responded to his edits with comments like, “finally, someone who just comes out and plainly tells me what’s wrong!” However, others complained: “why are you so mean?” The editor admitted to using humor liberally in his assessments and was described by one of his clients as “playfully harsh.” While the work of this editor is no doubt impeccable, the added humor may not be a good fit for some writers, particularly those who are not highly confident in their work.

Knowing your own brand of editing and being up front with it is part of achieving a good fit with a writer and can avoid huge headaches down the line for both of you.

Toward Honesty & Moral Integrity

I and some of my editing colleagues have run across several cases of indie writers who have come to us with “already edited works” that they believed only needed proofing or minor edits, but in fact called for substantive editing and story coaching to fulfill market requirements. The previous editor had either done a poor job of editing or the author had done a poor job of incorporating the edits. Either way, I was now in the position to inform this author, who had already spent several thousand dollars on edits, that his work required more than a “trim job off the top” to meet the standards demanded by the market.

My colleague suggested that it is unethical to copy-edit a manuscript that obviously requires structural editing or has serious “story” problems. I’m inclined to agree. The key lies in the expectations of the author and his/her intended market. This is where the editor’s knowledge of “matching work to market” becomes a critical part of the relationship with the author, whether you take him/her on as a client or not. I talked more about this in a previous article on Boldface, “The Moving Target of Indie Publishing: What Every Editor (and Writer) Needs to Know.” Honesty is best. Following the path of moral integrity may not put food on the table; but it will maintain your reputation as an editor of quality, which will keep the roof over your head.

Below is a mock email of a general response to a writer’s inquiry for help on their MS:

Dear Alice,

Thank you for your interest in my editing services. I am still taking on clients and would be happy to help you.

In your initial letter, you included a brief description of your story. It sounds intriguing and interesting. Science fiction is my passion (I’ve published nine SF books so far).

Before we proceed, I need a few things from you to ensure we are a good fit and to help me do the best I can for your project. First, can you please send me a short sample of your work (2-3 pages) and a very short summary. From this I’ll be able to confirm the kind of editing that best suits your project. For the kinds of editing/coaching services and associated fees please refer to this page on my website: xxxx.

Can you also answer the following questions?

1.     (If they haven’t included the genre or a short premise, I ask them for one).

2.     How do you intend to publish this book (traditional, indie, self-publish)?

3.     Who would you say is your intended audience and market?

4.     Is this book a stand alone or part of a trilogy or series?

5.     Is the book complete (first draft or more)? If not, how much is written?

Based on this, I will suggest the kind of editing (and coaching) required to best fit your needs. This may be one or a combination of the following: 1) an evaluation/assessment at $xx/page; 2) copy-editing (with some substantive editing) at $xx/page; or 3) story coaching at $xx/hour. As outlined on my webpage (xxxx), I provide digital commentary (line by line) in your manuscript (in Word through track changes) accompanied by a summary letter with recommendations. You can find examples of what I do on this page of my website: xxxx.

Once I’ve determined what services best suit your work and you are in agreement with the service and fees, I will draw up a contract for you and I to sign. The contract will stipulate a reasonable schedule that you and I can agree on for the process and deliverables.

Once the contract is signed by both of us, I would ask that you send me your material along with Paypal payment for the first half of the agreed total fee by the date marked in the contract.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best Wishes,

Nina

 

Nina MunteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

 

 

 

On Ecology, Women and Science Fiction: Part 2, Praxis

marsh boatIn Part 1, Gnosis, I explored the nature of our current worldview, its shifting face and how literature and women writers have both contributed and enlightened this shift.

I talked with four women, all in the science fiction or eco-fiction genres; two are writers, and two are publishers. We discussed this shift, what it looks like, what the “feminine archetype” means and the nature of “Optimistic SF.”

When asked to describe SF today, Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel series, argued that, “SF is mainstream now … It has grown up, emotionally, from being about wish-fulfilling technologies … to embracing the social implications of change.” Stephanie Johanson, editor and co-publisher of Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine, notes that, “Science fiction often reflects the views of the day, following and expanding on newer technologies.” Williams adds that SF fiction has gained a literary presence, but at some expense: “now there’s a sordid fascination, in a lot of self-consciously dark SF, with self-interested cynicism and extended analogies to drug addiction as a means of coping with reality.” Johanson provided a different perspective. “Stories that predict doom have been around since the beginning of SF,” she argued. “But lately perhaps there might be more stories with a glimmer of hope … perhaps it won’t be science that destroys us … the right sciences might actually save us.” Editor and Publisher of On Spec Magazine, Diane Walton shares that she is seeing a lot of Post-Apocalyptic submissions, “mainly because it’s interesting to put your characters in a setting where the rules don’t apply any more. They have to try to rebuild the life and security and order they used to have, or else revert to savagery, or else adapt to a whole new set of circumstances—the choices are endless. Except zombies. I don’t want to see any more zombies.”

When asked if SF had a role in literature, Johanson suggested that, “SF has fewer limitations and more frontiers to explore than other genres.” Both Johanson and Walton suggest that its main role is to challenge our preconceived notions of the world and “open up the mind to new possibilities.” Walton and Williams agree that SF is recognized more today as “real” literature rather than being dismissed as “escapism.” Williams shares that SF’s roots are as old as myth. “Like myths and bible stories, SF is an instructive literature, pointing out how things can go wrong (or right) and why. The growing up SF has done since the 1950s lies in an increasing recognition that [humanity is its] own worst enemy and a better understanding of human nature is crucial to the problems we face, not just the hard sciences.”

I shared that I had witnessed (at least in my classrooms and writing workshops) a rising ecological awareness, reflected in a higher percentage of new writers bringing in works-in-progress (WIPs) that were decidedly “eco-fiction” or “climate fiction.”

“I have always gravitated towards, and often found, literature with ecological components,” Sarah Kades, author of Claiming Love confides. She then adds, “But I do agree with you that ecological awareness is not only gaining momentum, it is front and centre for many, and as such, we are naturally finding it more and more in literature.”

“I never thought of my own work as ecological,” shares Williams. “But it’s true: the underlying issue in it is how does, or can, the collective will prevent groups or individuals from destroying what is irreplaceably precious…Yes, I think SF has graduated from a fascination with building bigger death rays to tackling questions of how we avoid committing the unthinkable while still indulging in lots of entertaining conflict. Because conflict must exist in any story. We wouldn’t be human without it. There’s plenty of conflict in an ecosystem, too, but it stays balanced. SF used to be optimistic about scientific discoveries shifting the system out of balance in the direction of net gain for humankind. And this has happened. Even today’s poor are richer than yesterday’s. What worries us, increasingly, is whether some sudden imbalance could tip us into irreversible catastrophe because unlike 1950s readers we don’t trust smart and powerful people to act sanely in their quest for power.”

“I think that authors have come to a realization that the setting of a book can be just as strong a character (and character-builder) as the people in it,” says Walton. “Humans are so vulnerable, and must depend on their brains and skills at manipulating the environment to be able to adapt to harsh and potentially life-threatening situations…We don’t have fur, for example, or the ability to burrow under the sand to find shelter from a hot sun. So the books that embrace the environment, and that use it to present character-building challenges to the protagonists, can be more interesting than just a ‘good guys against bad guys’ story in any genre.”

Johanson provokes with the concept of awareness-guided perception—itself a valid cultural metric: “Perhaps there is an increase of ecological awareness in literature, or perhaps we are just noticing stories that have always been there.” This notion was discussed in a recent panel on Eco-Fiction in which I participated with Susan Forrest, Michael J. Martineck, Hayden Trenholm, and Sarah Kades at the writer’s festival When Words Collide in Calgary. One author pointed out that environmental fiction has been written for years and it is only now—partly with the genesis of the term eco-fiction—that the “character” and significance of environment is being acknowledged beyond its metaphor; for its actual value. It may also be that the metaphoric symbols of environment in certain classics are being “retooled” through our current awareness much in the same way that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four are being re-interpreted—and newly appreciated— in today’s world of pervasive surveillance and bio-engineering. Johanson cites Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia trilogy, John Varley’s Titan trilogy, Joan D. Vinge’s The Snow Queen, and the works of Jules Verne. Classic titles Walton remembers from her younger days include John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Word for World is Forest; and more recently, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Walton includes the 1965 Dune series by Frank Herbert, given that the environment of the desert and how humanity has adapted to it plays a major role in the series.

I proposed that an awakening to the feminine archetype (cooperation, compassion, relationship, altruism) is occurring and currently reflected in literature. Johanson suggested that, “If [cooperation, compassion, relationship, and altruism] are used in balance with science and logic, there can be an optimistic future.” Had she seen this increasing in literature? “I don’t think so, but perhaps I have been reading the wrong stories,” Johanson admits. Kades shares a different perception. “I would definitely agree there is an awakening to the feminine archetype in our culture as a whole, and literature is reflecting this,” she argues. “The books that resonate most strongly for me are the ones that honour and celebrate both the feminine and masculine, stories that demonstrate mutual respect and successful collaboration between men and women. Throw humour and romance in there, too, and it’s irresistible.”

Walton observes that, “It’s definitely something that drives a story in a different direction from the more “male” pursuits of taking everything by force, or the lone-wolf hero solving problems without any collaboration with others.” She confides, “I loved the new Mad Max film, where compassion and collaboration made the story come alive. And yet, it has been accused, by some, of being a feminist propaganda film.”

Williams answers with a tale of two characters. “Amel, my prince-raised-as-pauper, is a hero of the pol virtues. Loosely speaking, we could call the pol virtues feminine. Horth Nersal, on the other hand, is an alpha male—a hero of the rel variety in Okal Rel theology. There are important female characters in my saga, but I have to confess my teenage self was simply more fascinated with heroic males for reasons inaccessible to my older, sager self. So, in my own work I could make the case that Amel’s problem-solving and character development is absolutely an example of an awakening to the feminine archetype. And he does wind up in power. But even as Amel gets his act together, after book six, and learns to use his more subtle kind of influence to make the world behave, Horth Nersal starts stealing the spotlight. I don’t quite know how this happened. And maybe Amel’s central, anchoring role throughout the series argues in favor of the feminine principle dominating. But I think the Amel/Horth dilemma isn’t unique to my own work. I see it crop up in other SF where, on the face of things, one might say the feminine archetype is in ascendance.”

Can we (as writers and editors and otherwise) foster such a change in worldview and gain a sense of place, purpose and meaning in our lives through it?

“If writers are writing stories to change the world, and I hope some are, then they should write stories that first entertain,” Johanson advises writers. “It doesn’t matter how great a theory, or how good an idea, if it doesn’t entertain, fewer people will read it. This also applies to editors. Karl and I decided early on that we wanted to teach people with the stories we published in Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine. We wanted our readers so entertained that they wouldn’t necessarily realize that their views had just been broadened.”

“As a writer I feel a rather persuasive responsibility to help foster positive social change,” says Kades. “For me it is considerable motivation of the stories that take turns between calming, weaving, and banging around in my head, eager to get out. And stories don’t have to tackle epic social issues to be a conduit of positive social change. Stories that create new ‘normals’ of compassion, respect and tolerance are just as important and interesting as stories that address specific social issues. To create change, first we must imagine it. Writers can help with that.”

“I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about meaning and purpose these days,” Williams confides. “First, we need to foster creativity in others and respect it in ourselves. But in both cases we must challenge our creative cravings to do work. I personally believe the richest entertainment comes not just from simple wish-fulfillment narratives – although these are fun and perfectly at home in epic literature – but from touching a raw nerve here and there, and making sure the ‘bad guys’ are at least as realistic as the heroes, not just straw men defeated by a better ray guy. Best of all, can a resolution be found in which the bad guys co-exist with their conquerors? At least think about it, and how your society might avoid problems cropping up again, and make that part of the fabric of your tale.”

“I’m not sure I agree with this being part of my role as an editor,” Walton shared. “It may be that I am drawn more to the kinds of books and stories that espouse this concept, and thus more likely to buy them to publish. We are all gatekeepers of some kind or another. One thing that is interesting is the recent brouhaha over the Hugo awards, where, I think, the various ‘puppy’ slates would look on any sort of eco-fiction that embraced the feminine archetype as being something only a Social Justice Warrior would like. Some people just don’t want their worldview changed, I guess.”

…Which brings me to “Optimistic SF” and what it represents. In a recent discussion with Lynda Williams over several Schofferhofers at Sharkey’s Pub in Vancouver, we shared our thoughts on how the evolution of the science fiction genre and the place that optimism holds in literature and art, generally. Is “saving the world” and “The Hero’s Journey” still viable in literature today? And how many Schofferhofers does it take to get there?

“I’ve asked people to help me define ‘Optimistic SF’ on my blog,” Lynda shares. “Check out what we’ve got so far at http://realityskimming.com/2015/09/10/fall2015optimisticsf/ and leave your own suggestions if something springs to mind. My own definition has to do with how a story makes me feel. If I’m entertained and emerge feeling there’s some point to living another day rather than convinced human beings are a bad idea best eliminated quickly before they do more harm, it’s optimistic SF. I want to encourage the notion that it’s not dumb or simple minded to strive for improving the world or defending moral behavior when feasible.”

Johanson adds that, “I became a fan of SF, because of stories that I might now classify as ‘Optimistic SF’, stories that made me look forward to the future, characters that I would love to have as friends, and places I wanted to explore. Optimistic literature to me isn’t free from problems. It wouldn’t be a story if everything was splendid. It is conflict that makes a story, but optimistic SF solves problems, and by the end of the story things are looking that much brighter. Anne McCaffrey wrote a lot of ‘Optimistic SF’. I was very fond of her Dragons of Pern series, though the later books by her son Todd McCaffrey seem far less optimistic in nature. I found many of Larry Niven’s novels to be optimistic, like the Ringworld books. Lynda Williams’ Okal Rel novels have a lot of suffering in them, but her series has always seemed like ‘Optimistic SF’.” For Johanson, optimistic SF has at least one optimistic character, one positive goal achieved and a positive [resolved as opposed to ‘happy’] ending, not “leaving evil posed to strike.” She suggests that this includes “overcoming adversity, exploring, discovering, and/or self-growth.”

Walton submits that optimistic SF is, in fact, a challenge to write, “because you still need to have some kind of antagonist (be it human, alien or environment) to make the protagonist want or need something enough to take risks and go on that literary journey. Maybe the optimism comes from stories that are ‘less dark’ than others?”

Lynda Williams openly shared her ambitions for her recent publishing venture, Reality Skimming Press: “Reality Skimming Press is my answer to how to continue being creative now I’m post-published. Not just to keep the Okal Rel Saga in print, although that’s my core motivation for even considering becoming a publisher. But to be brazen enough to talk about ideas and art and what it means to be optimistic, for example, instead of bowing to the demands of commercial success and elusive, fickle fame. Arguably, Reality Skimming Press is the ultimate feminine solution where the meaningfulness of the work and quality of the relationships, on and off the page, trump the call to do battle for the big prizes. Success is lovely, of course. And showers of gold and fame wouldn’t be scornfully rejected. It’s more a case of asking the question: ‘Would I do this even if I never got rich or famous?’ And if the answer is ‘yes’ to have the courage to keep enjoying the journey.”martian_chronicles

Sarah Kades echoed my initial discovery in “responsibility and connection,” noted in my first article, with her admission: “It was rather startling [to] first realize [that] the responsibility I feel [in writing] socially relevant stories is not universally held among writers. It is not, which is of course just fine; it just surprised me because of how [strong] it is in me. The knowledge brought my writing and my voice into sharper focus for me.”

 

 

nina-LL-interviewe-closerNina Munteanu is an award-winning Canadian ecologist and novelist. In addition to eight published novels, she has authored short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which have been translated into several languages throughout the world. She is currently an editor of European zine Europa SF and writes for Amazing Stories. Nina teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Her latest book “Water Is…” (release May 10 2016 by Pixl Press; available for pre-order April 12) is a non-fiction examination of the meaning of water.

Lynda WilliamsLynda Williams is the author of the ten-novel Okal Rel Saga and editor of the growing collection of works by Hal Friesen, Craig Bowlsby, Krysia Anderson, Elizabeth Woods, Nina Munteanu, Randy McCharles and others writing works set in the ORU. As a publisher, she is working with Kyle Davidson, Jeff Doten, Sarah Trick, Jennifer Lott, Paula Johanson, Lynn Perkins and Yukari Yamamoto in re-inventing publishing through Reality Skimming Press. Lynda holds three degrees and works as Learning Technology Analyst and manager of the Learn Tech support team at Simon Fraser University. She teaches part-time at BCIT.

Sarah KadesSarah Kades hung up her archaeology trowel and bid adieu to Traditional Knowledge facilitation to share her love of the natural world and happily-ever-afters. She writes literary romantic eco-fiction where nature, humour and love meet. She lives in Calgary, Canada with her family. Connect with Sarah on Facebook, Twitter and www.sarahkades.com.

 

Stephanie and IsaacStephanie Johanson is the art director, assistant editor, and co-owner of Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine, publishing since 2003. She is an artist who has worked in a variety of media, though painting and soapstone carving are her passions. Stephanie paints realism with a hint of fantasy, often preferring landscapes as her subjects. Examples of her work can be viewed on the Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine website at www.neo-opsis.ca/art.

.

Diane-Walton02Diane Walton is currently serving a life sentence as Managing Editor of On Spec Magazine, and loving every minute of it. She and her lovely and talented husband, Rick LeBlanc, share their rural Alberta home with three very entitled cats. 

 

 

How to Write Science Fiction at George Brown College April 2016

nina-workshop 2This April, I will teach my 12-week long writing course on how to write science fiction.  The 12-week course “Creating Science Fiction” runs TUESDAY nights from 6:15 to 9:15 starting April 5th through to June 21st at George Brown College on King Street in Toronto and costs $285.

“Creating Science Fiction” is now part of George Brown’s Creative Writing Certificate.

See the description below:

Microsoft Word - GBC-SF course-APRIL2016 AD.docx

Meant for both beginning writers and those already published, the 12-week course is run like a workshop with student input and feedback on student’s WIPs.
.spaceship02
I explore with students the essential tools used in the SF genre (including world building, research and plot approaches). Students will work toward a publishable original piece by learning to generate and follow through with premise, idea and theme.
George Brown College is located on 200 King Street, Toronto, Canada.
.
nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

What Genre Are You Writing … And Marketing?

colourful boats on waterOur multiplex world of discerning consumers is getting used to having what they consume laid out clearly and categorized. Literature is no different. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, when Aristotle proclaimed in his Poetics that poetry could be categorized into many “species”, critics have endeavored to label art to help the “commoner” interpret it.

Defining Genre

The word “genre” comes from the French word for “kind” or “gender” and provides a loose set of criteria for a category of composition. People in the book industry often use it to categorize literature.

“Genre” is notoriously difficult to define. For instance, what kinds of literary form should properly be called genres? Poetry is generally thought of as a literary “mode”, being too broad and too varied to be called a “genre”. The various types and forms of poetry are more properly called genres, such as the epic or the lyric.

A genre can be defined either by the formal properties of the work, or by its subject matter. A poem can be called a sonnet if it is 14 lines long, or described as an elegy if it speaks of the death of a loved or admired person.

Although genres are not precisely definable, genre considerations are one of the most important factors in determining what a person will see or read. Many genres have built-in audiences and corresponding publications that support them, such as magazines and websites. Some people think that books and movies that are difficult to categorize into a genre are likely to be less successful commercially. They’re probably right. And this is why we do it.

So, if you haven’t figured out what “genre” your writing falls under, start figuring it out now; your future publisher and marketer will want to know because they, in turn, have to tell their distributor and bookseller where to shelve the book. This is why you need to do this; the alternative is leaving it to Jack in the marketing department who may not have even read your book, but used the cover picture to figure it out. Yikes!

Genre Categories

Today’s Teacher provides the following list for genres in literature:

  • Biography/autobiography
  • Fantasy
  • Historical Fiction
  • Myths & Legends
  • Poetry
  • Science Fiction
  • Fairy Tales
  • Folk Tales
  • Mystery
  • Realistic Fiction
  • Non-Fiction
  • Short stories

They were pretty good in identifying the major genres but they missed Romance, Westerns, Horror, Erotica, Literary Fiction, Humor, and Young Adult (if you want to call that a genre). The point I’m making is that each person is bound to come up with a different list of genre categories. Go to five of your favorite bookstores (not just the chain stores, but the independent bookstores) and see for yourself how the professionals do it. It’s a miserable confusing mess. I’ve seen science fiction thrown in with fantasy and the whole category called “fantasy”. I’ve seen Diana Gabaldon’s historical time traveler series shelved under romance, mainstream and science fiction or fantasy depending on the bookstore. In truth, it’s all of these. Which brings us to cross-genre literature.

Crossing the Genre Lines

“Cross-genre”, also called “slipstream” or “interstitial fiction” or “fabulation”, is most commonly defined as fiction that crosses genre boundaries. Unless you’re Bruce Sterling, that is, who defines slipstream as:

A contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality. It is fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so. It does not aim to provoke a ‘sense of wonder’ or to systematically extrapolate in the manner of classic science fiction. Instead, this is a kind of writing that simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility. We could call this kind of fiction Novels of Postmodern Sensibility, but that looks pretty bad on a category rack, and requires an acronym besides; so for the sake of convenience and argument, we will call these books ‘slipstream.’

“…Simply makes you feel strange”? Although lots of writing may do that to me (of course, I’m strange already), I’m not sure that I would define “slipstream” as writing that “makes you feel strange”. This is because I don’t think you can pin it down; it’s too slippery a “creature”. However, I think that this form (or is it a movement?) is promising to be one of the most exciting things occurring in literature today.

Patrick Kelly, in Asimov’s Science Fiction, wrote:

Today, we have literally many dozens of writers in both mainstream and genre who are working from these influences and creating new forms of cross-pollination. The problem with talking about cross-genre is that it’s not a single movement–it’s a bunch of individual writers pursuing individual visions that tend to simply share some of the same diverse influences. So it’s difficult to pin down and say ‘this is what it is and what it isn’t.’ That’s what is exciting to me about it–that it is difficult to categorize. In a sense, that means it’s a complex, organic creature.

Some popular “cross-genre” mixes include:

  • Action comedy = action + comedy
  • Black comedy (tragicomedy) = tragedy + comedy
  • Comedy-drama (dramedy) = comedy + drama
  • Romantic comedy = romance + comedy
  • Science fiction Western = science fiction + western

A friend of mine who is part Cree writes “slipstream” or “cross-genre” works that are essentially unclassifiable. Although she is a great writer, she has yet to find a publisher. I know why; they don’t know how to market her books to the booksellers. Where do you put them on the bookshelf? What a conundrum for the publisher and bookseller alike.

But, things are changing and hopefully my friend will see the results of that change. The irony of “slipstream” defying categorization is that it may be the next bestseller.colourful boats on water

“From the ‘Lord of the Rings’ box-office smashes in the theaters to adults reading ‘Harry Potter’ books on their commute, it seems that the fantasy genre has permeated the mainstream,” notes Alana Abott, with Thomson Gale (an e-research and educational publishing firm). “The publishing industry has noticed, and new books combining familiar mainstream forms such as historical fiction, romance, and chick-lit are beginning to see an influx of magic.” Cross-pollination is cool. Cross-genre is “in”.

What genre are you writing?

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

Creating Great Characters in Fiction

 

renoir-table-close01Fiction characters have a dramatic function and a role in advancing the plot and theme of your story. They need a reason to be there.

Your characters need to appear real without being real. Characters in fiction fulfill a dramatic function in the story for the reader and are, therefore, more logically laid out. They may, as a result, be more coherent, consistent and clear in their actions and qualities than a person in real life.

In his 1995 article in SF Writer called “On Writing: Constructing Characters”, Hugo and Nebula award winning SF author Robert J. Sawyer reminds us that “story-people are made-to-order to do a specific job.” This notion goes back “twenty-five hundred years to the classical playwrights,” says Sawyer. “In Greek tragedy, the main character was always specifically designed to fit the particular plot. Indeed, each protagonist was constructed with an intrinsic hamartia, or tragic flaw, keyed directly to the story’s theme.”

When we begin to tell stories, our characters can often suffer from lack of distinction or purpose; they will clutter and dilute a story’s promise. You may wish to focus on fewer rather than many characters. One way to tell if major and minor characters are fulfilling their role in story is to assign one or more archetypes to them (see my earlier article on archetypes in the Hero’s Journey). If you can’t come up with an archetype for that character, he or she may simply be there, filling up unneeded space. You might need to merge two characters into one or nix a few altogether. This is especially important in short story. The most common thing new writers do is clutter a short story with too many characters and associated sub-plots. These stories are actually novel-wanna-be’s.

You achieve distinction in characters, including minor characters through a number of ways. One is “voice”. A character’s “voice” must be unique. Give your character distinctive body movements, dress, speech, facial features and expressions that reveal his inner feelings, emotions, fears, motivations, etc. Then keep them consistent.

It may also be useful to create character dossiers on major characters to help keep track of their distinctive traits and keep these consistent. Dialogue is an excellent tool to reveal a person’s education, philosophy, biases, culture and history. A character’s inflections and common vernacular can be used to identify them from a particular region or culture.

Fictional characters come to life by giving them individual traits, real weaknesses and heroic qualities that readers can recognize and empathize with. You play these against each other to achieve drama. For instance, a man who is afraid of heights but who must climb a mountain to save his love is far more compelling than one who is not afraid; same for a military man who fears responsibility but must lead his team into battle; a shy scientist impelled to discovery; etc.—the hamartia that Sawyer talked about.

Make your character bleed, hurt, cry, and laugh. This needs to be clear to the reader, who painted leaveswants to empathize with some of them and hate others. How characters interact with their surroundings and with each other creates tension, a key element to good storytelling.

“The lesson is simple,” Sawyer tells us. “Your main character should illuminate the fundamental conflict suggested by your premise.”

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

Write a Story Title That Arouses

rock path forestThink of the title to your story as the ultimate headline. It’s the first thing an editor reads of your work. Titles are often used by one reader to describe the story to another reader. According to Kathryn Bohnhoff, author of The Crystal Rose, “titles can determine whether a story is read, in what spirit it’s read, and whether it’s remembered by name or forgotten.” Choose it wisely.

Three Cardinal Rules for Title Selection

When choosing a title for your story it should be: 1) original; 2) easy to read; and 3) appropriate to your story.

Make your title original (like your story) and preferably unusual in some way. It’s best to use something that is different enough to stand out but not so different that it will be difficult to remember. It should “role” off the tongue with ease. Titles are best if they are short and not difficult to pronounce. One way to check this is to read it out loud. Some publicists have suggested that a title should be short enough (and therefore large enough) to be read from across a room. One or two word titles are often chosen for that reason. Lastly, your title should reflect the subject or heart of your story, but without giving it away. A title should be the ultimate tease, the ultimate promise. Titles, says Bohnhoff “can be like store windows that offer a tantalizing glimpse of what’s inside, or they can give away the entire inventory.”

Types of Titles

The best titles are those that grow naturally out of the subject matter and capture the emotion and heart of the story. A title can be a play on words (e.g., You Only Live Twice) or convey several meanings at once (e.g., Darwin’s Paradox). A title could be the name of a place, thing of person (e.g., Doctor Zhivago). Titles can be metaphors or provide contradiction or irony (e.g., Calculating God). They can be a popular expression or harbor a hidden meaning that unfolds in the story (e.g., Pale Fire). They can also be a portion of a famous line (e.g., Brave New World).

Some Titles Are Better Than Others

I chose the title, Collision with Paradise for my 2005 science fiction romantic thriller to convey the paradox of conflict and action in collision with the quest for well-being (paradise) that reflected my lead character’s own conflict. The two juxtaposed as oxymoron made the title provocative and readers became naturally curious. What made it particularly tantalizing—and me somewhat smug—was that the cover and the setting and premise/plot all resonated with the abstract theme. The plot involved the real collision of a spaceship with hotshot pilot on a planet with a jungle paradise. So, even though the title very accurately conveyed the overall theme, it didn’t give it away; the reader still had to tease it out through the subtext and subplots of the story.rock formation7

Whatever title you select, remember the three rules and keep it simple and relevant. Think of some titles of your favorite stories. Think of what the title conveys and what it quietly implies, given your knowledge of the story. Here are some to ponder: A Tale of Two Cities; Gone With the Wind; White Oleander; Lady Chatterley’s Lover; The Blue Sword; Return of the Native; Lord of the Flies.

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.