Do Your Research

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Walking along the Credit River (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Research is something many writers dislike and find daunting or even intimidating. Research for your book or short story will take on many forms from subtle to obvious and from non-directed (opportunistic) to directed (e.g., library). Its form and rigorousness will vary according to your purpose and circumstance. And where you go to do your research will vary accordingly.

In truth, as a writer, you are doing research all the time: when you’re riding the bus or train to work, when you’re traveling on vacation, when you’re having a lively discussion—or better yet an argument—with a friend or colleague. Everything you experience and observe is research. This is what’s called non-directed research. Writers, like all artists, are reporters of life, actively participating and observing. A writer is an opportunist, gathering her data through her daily life experiences.

Why is Research Important?

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Niagara on the Lake, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

You might be saying: well, that’s all well and good for a historical-mystery set in Budapest or a science fiction thriller set in the Vega system. But you don’t need to do research because you’re writing a fantasy or a memoir. Neither of these, on the face of it, appears to require research: the fantasy is based on a totally made up world, after all, and the memoir is all about you. So, why bother? As a matter of fact, they both need research. Most books do, particularly nowadays for our multiplex, intelligent and discerning readership. Readers of any fiction enjoy learning something when they read, particularly when it’s seamless and made easy through a compelling story. It’s a real bonus.

To return to the fantasy, you will find very quickly that in order to build a consistent world (even if it’s mostly from your own imagination), you will need to draw upon something real to anchor your imaginary world upon. Whether this reflects a powerful myth or forms an alternative version of a real society, you will still need to apply some “rules” to follow, so you don’t lose your reader.

With respect to the memoir, the need for research lies in placing your story in context with either some event, idea, theme or place of interest to attract readership. Unless you’re a world unto yourself (e.g., you’re a celebrity of some kind with an established following), your story will require this larger element within which to place your personal story. That’s where research comes in.

Internet as Resource and Risk

The Internet provides an excellent database that is rich with information, if you know how to get it and qualify it.

Chances are that your favorite newspaper or magazine has a strong online presence. The Internet provides an excellent platform for finding resources in a myriad of subjects. It is the largest single place where you can find current information relevant to almost anything.

With information so readily accessible and easy to find through Google and other search engines as well as giant amoeba-like encyclopedia wiki sites like Wikipedia, you needn’t suffer the frustrations of library and book searches. However, there is risk.

The risk is related ironically to the very accessibility of online information. You need to be even more vigilant of the veracity and reliability of your sources when conducting online research.

Optimizing Your World Wide Web Search

The Teaching Library Internet Workshop at Berkley University provides excellent tutorials on how to search the internet for topics. They recommend a search strategy that analyzes your topic and searches with “peripheral vision”. For instance, they suggest that you:

  • define for your topic any distinctive words or phrases, an overview of the broader topic to which your topic belongs, any synonyms equivalent terms or variants of spelling to include
  • not assume you know what you want to find. Look at search results and see what you might use in addition to what you’ve thought of
  • switch between search engines and directories and back

Verifying Your Research

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Deas Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When doing research, particularly on the Internet (but anywhere), you should do several things:

  • Use more than one source, particularly for important things; this will give you a wider range of material from which to discern accuracy and reliability
  • Verify your sources and preferably cross-reference to measure out objective “truth” vs bias
  • Try to use primary sources (original) vs. secondary or tertiary sources (original cited and open to interpretation); the closer you are to the original source, the closer you are to getting the original “story”
  • When going to more than one source, try to get a range of different source-types (e.g., conservative newspaper vs. blog vs. special interest site, etc.) to gain a full range of insight into the issue you’re researching

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.

Why You Want to Go To A Writer’s Convention

IMG_0304A while ago I attended (and participated as panelist and guest author) at the World Fantasy Convention in Toronto. And I was all jazzed about it! Why?… Well, let me tell you why…

If you haven’t yet attended a writer’s conference or convention, it’s high time you did. Because, not only are you missing out on an education, you are missing out on a sub-culture that may change your life as a writer, help feed the hungry and align the universe. Seriously.

The last World Fantasy Convention I attended was several years ago in 2008. It was held in Calgary, Alberta, when I still lived in Vancouver, British Columbia. The ten-hour drive through some of the most glorious Canadian wilderness and mountains was bracing and we were lucky that the weather played fair. It was an auspicious start to a wonderful journey of self-discovery.

Hosted by toastmaster Tad Williams, this world-class convention featured guests of honor, David Morrell, Barbara Hambly, Tom Doherty and Todd Lockwood. The World Fantasy Convention promised great things and delivered them. And I’m not just talking about that white chocolate cranberry-date-nut dip that had me loitering at the hospitality suite. Or all those midnight parties that served savory wine with salted almonds, sharp cheese and colorful conversation with the likes of David Hartwell, Tor editor and impeccable dresser (gotta love those ties!). I’m not even talking about the hot tub that sprung a leak on the 18th floor at 1 am or the entertaining panels and readings, which rocked for both writer and reader.

What made the con great for me was seeing my writing community (both writing colleagues and readers who followed my writing) and meeting new people, all lovers of books and “story”.

I was rudely eyeballing someone’s nametag on his chest, when I collided with the Prince George crowd that included authors, Lynda Williams (herself responsible for some pretty nasty intergalactic wars), Nathalie Mallet (who cages princes) and publisher Virginia O’Dine of Bundoran Press (rumored to have been somehow responsible for the hot tub fiasco). I also chummed with Jennifer Rahn, author of The Longevity Thesis, who was charmed by my sly cat (she’s a softy at heart). My cat-colleague Toulouse just kept charming his way through the crowd right to the book fair. We wandered to the back where Anita Hades of Edge Books gave Toulouse her usual greeting (a feline move that was a cross between Sophie Marceau and Brigitte Helm; both she and Toulouse have French blood coursing through their veins, after all—c’est vrai!).

I’d come a long way from the first writer’s conference I went to as a budding writer of a few short stories and non-fiction articles…

Here’s what author Susan Denney says about her first writer’s conference: “Going to my first writers’ conference was an act of faith. I was just starting to make some freelance sales when the members of my writers’ group encouraged me to join them at a conference a few hundred miles away. The expense didn’t seem justified to me. The cost was far more than I had earned through writing that year. But they convinced me at last and it proved to be a great investment. The benefits of a writers’ conference are there for anyone who has a desire to be a better writer.”

Here are some reasons why you can’t afford NOT to go to a conference or convention:

Contacts: you will make contacts with people working in the industry, an extremely valuable asset; this industry is a social one, based on trust, respect and joyfulness. While there’s no guarantee that you will meet anyone famous or influential, you will definitely meet people who know more about writing than you do. Just hanging out with professional writers, editors and agents is educational. If nothing else, you will gain some confidence and ease with industry people, who are real people too. Some may become friends; some may become colleagues; some will become both.

Appointments: through agent/editor/author appointments, you will have a chance to have a quality private conversation with a professional on all aspects of writing and publishing. This is your chance to pitch your novel or ask that one burning question. You know you’ll get a candid and professional answer. That in itself is invaluable and may be enough reason to attend the con. Appointments are also your best chance of getting your manuscript read. This is because it bypasses the slush-pile and months of waiting for a response. More and more editors and agents look to conferences to meet potential authors. For them, meeting an author in person is a bonus to their gauging potential success in a relationship with them.

Education on Craft & Marketing: you will learn something about craft and marketing, no matter what stage you are in your writing career. Depending on the conference or convention, aside from good information from panels, you may also get personal mentoring, 1-page critiques, or attend small themed workshops. Feedback from an experienced writer can save you months of frustration and grief. Just hearing about what is currently going on in the industry is also valuable and conferences are a good way to get the skinny on what the current issues in the writing and publishing industry are. Getting it from those who are working inside avoids the idle and potentially harmful gossip.

Community: you will be exposed to a community of writers, hundreds of creative people in various stages of their careers. By interacting with both those you can help and those who can help you, you will gain a measure of both humility and confidence and satisfaction. We learn so much by helping others. Simply being with other writers can help hone your people-skills, the same ones you will need when approaching agents, editors, publishers and research sources during your career as a professional. Remember, if you aren’t having fun, you are missing one of the most important aspects of attending a writer’s conference, and you will lose your own effectiveness.

Energy: there is nothing more energizing than a common sharing among those of like-minded thought and vision. Writing is primarily an individual pursuit, often thought to belong to the introvert; but, to succeed in the writing/publishing industry a writer must display staying power, persistence, confidence and enduring energy. There is nothing quite as inspirational as hearing an accomplished writer provide their story of victory against odds. I will never forget the moving words of Ray Bradbury at a conference in Palm Springs years ago. I have repeated those words many times since. If you come to a conference with the right mind-set, I guarantee that you will leave with more energy than you came and with a burning need to write.

Exposure: depending on the kind of conference or convention you attend, you will have the opportunity to expose yourself to something different (e.g., different fiction genres and associated communities; fiction vs. non-fiction; different media; etc.). I attended a romance writers conference a few years back (I write mostly science fiction and fantasy—but often with romance elements in them) and found it bracingly educational.

New Markets & Ideas: conferences attract writers of all kinds. Conferences provide fertile ground for cross-pollination of ideas, markets and marketing ploys. Writers, like you, are generally a nice crowd; most are willing and eager to share their successes and failures. And contacts. Sharing is one of the great things that happens at conferences. There may be a common pin board set up for people to share. Most conferences are Twitter and Facebook enabled for quick and easy viral sharing. If you don’t come away from a conference with at least one new idea, contact or market, you haven’t done your job: talk to people.

Here are a few do’s and don’ts for when you go conferencing:

  1. Wear comfortable but not sloppy clothing and shoes (it’s likely that you will be doing a fair bit of standing and walking); you want to make a good impression. Be yourself and dress accordingly.
  2. Bring promotional material with you (e.g., business cards, flyers on your book, stories, etc.). Have something to share and exchange with other writers and professionals. Most conferences also have tables devoted to shareware. This is your chance to introduce you and your writing to others.
  3. Take something to write with (e.g., notebook and pen or iPad, etc.).
  4. Talk to people. Chances are that everyone there is interesting.
  5. Respect the time, particularly other people’s time, and keep your appointments and meetings.
  6. Don’t bring your heavy manuscript with you to the conference. Agents and editors don’t have the time or inclination or space in their suitcase for it. Use the conference to make an impression and get an invitation for something later in writing.
  7. Keep all of your interactions verbal and face-to-face. Don’t rely on memorized speeches or a folded up written pitch in your pocket. Keep it casually professional. Make eye contact and speak from the heart. Show your passion.
  8. Have fun. And don’t be afraid to show it; there’s nothing more infectious and attractive than someone having fun.

 

Some upcoming writing-artistic conferences/ conventions / festivals in the Toronto area include:IMG_0306

 

 

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.

 

 

Learn How to Write Science Fiction at George Brown College

For those in the Toronto area, I’m teaching a 12-week course on how to write science fiction at George Brown College this spring.

Called “Creating Science Fiction”, the course runs Wednesday nights from 6:15 to 9:15 starting April 8th through to June 24th and costs $278. The course is also part of George Brown’s Creative Writing Certificate.
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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. 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.
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George Brown College is located on 200 King Street, Toronto, Canada.
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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.

Walking the Tightrope Between Innocent and Cynical

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Jungfrau, Switzerland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The writer’s journey from the passion and vulnerability of innocence to the wisdom of experience can be a dark and twisted road. In fact, if you are a writer of any merit, I guarantee you that yours will be too. Think Dante in the forest…

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Yellow Creek, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Let me tell you a story … It starts in the early 1990s. I was an eager young sprite entering the novel publishing world with my newly finished science fiction novel: “Escape from Utopia”. I’d published a few short stories and many articles by then. In addition, I’d published many scientific papers and reports. Confident and cocky, I was proud of my novel and eager to share it with the world. And I thought I knew my way through that dark forest…

I zealously sent the manuscript to a bazillion agents and editors. I was rewarded for my zealous efforts with a tidal wave of rejection letters. Mostly form letters (see my amusing account of the evolution of rejection letters in my fiction writing guidebook, The Fiction Writer) and an excerpt in a previous post here: “Rejection, Part 2: the Evolution of Rejection

Then it came: an enthusiastic letter from an agent (I can’t remember the name: Literary Bridge or something); they said my work had great promise and that with some help from an editing firm they would consider representing me if I had it edited and resubmitted.

They recommended Edit Ink.

Those of you in the know and with some history in the industry may recall the Edit Ink scandal of the 90s. In short, it was a bait-and-switch scam that Bill Appel and Denise Sterrs (of Edit Ink) and their associated literary agents ran for close to a decade. Edit Ink was a “book doctor” firm near Buffalo, New York. The State of New York eventually convicted Appel and Sterrs and associates for defrauding prospective writers of several million dollars.

I remember my heart swelling with gratitude and optimism. Finally, someone liked my book! I naively considered their recommendation. Soon after—within days—I got an invitational letter from the pro-active Edit Ink. I can’t remember the exact content, except that they assured me that only the most promising writers were recommended to them by this particular agent. I remember seriously considering their offer. Then I got two more letters, one from another agent who recommended Edit Ink and another invitational letter from Edit Ink. Alarm bells went off. I went from naively hopeful to cynically suspicious. I did some investigating (something I should have done initially); by then the buzz was already on the Internet on their questionable practices. The lawsuit by New York State had yet to happen.

The Science Fiction Writers Association (SFWA) runs a “writer Beware” page, where memorable cases are reviewed. It’s worthwhile perusing just for your general knowledge and edification.

Here’s what they said about Edit Ink:

Founded by the husband and wife team of Bill Appel and Denise Sterrs, Edit Ink was a New York State-based editing service that engaged in a kickback referral scheme with a wide network of literary agents. Here’s how the scheme worked.

  • Participating agents sent letters to writers who’d submitted manuscripts the agents didn’t want to represent, saying that the writer’s work showed “promise” but “wasn’t quite ready for publication.” A useful service was recommended: Edit Ink, which for a fee would polish the ms. to make it more salable. Once the ms. had been edited, the agent would then be glad to reconsider it.
  • The agent forwarded the writer’s name to Edit Ink, which sent off a solicitation letter claiming, among other things, that Edit Ink received referrals for only a “select few” manuscripts (false), and that most publishing houses insisted on receiving “professionally edited” work (falser).
  • If the writer took the bait and paid for an edit, the referring agent received a kickback of 15%.
  • Writers who resubmitted their edited manuscripts to referring agents, per the referring agents’ suggestions, were given the brushoff. Either the market had “changed in the interim”, or the agency was “no longer representing that genre.”

Edit Ink charged $5 per page–exorbitant at the time even for a qualified editorial service, which Edit Ink very definitely was not. Its staff mostly consisted of recent college graduates with no publishing experience, working long hours for minimum wage. The typical Edit Ink edit was slipshod and superficial, consisting mainly of basic copy editing suggestions, and omitting the kind of in-depth analysis of plot, theme, character, and structure that might make a professional edit worthwhile.

At its height, dozens of literary agencies participated in the scheme. Edit Ink even set up its own bogus agencies and publishers to funnel more manuscripts its way. It’s estimated that the company made in excess of $5 million.

Mounting complaints from writers, and efforts by writers’ advocacy groups, at last spurred New York State to take action. In January 1998 the NYS Attorney General announced a lawsuit against Edit Ink for deceptive business practices, false advertising, and fraud.

Throughout the appeals process, Edit Ink continued to operate. Many questionable agents continued to refer manuscripts, and Aardvark Literary Agents (one of Edit Ink’s original bogus agencies) was taken over by co-defendant Kelley Culmer so it could go on functioning as a conduit for Edit Ink referrals. Business was dwindling, however–in part as a result of media attention, but largely because of spreading word in the then relatively new environment of the Internet. Once the appeal was denied, the thrill was gone. In August 1999, Appel and Sterrs closed Edit Ink’s doors for good.

Shades of Edit Ink

Edit Ink is by no means unique in the publishing industry. “Book doctors”, associated kick-back agents and subsidy publishers are, in fact, on the rise. This is not surprising, in view of the current rise in self-publishing and associated models. The industry is currently inundated with a range of publishing models from straight printing-only firms to full service publishing houses and anything in-between.

Author Victoria Strauss on her blog “Writer Beware” shares this story:

Over the past couple of days, I’ve heard from several writers who queried agents at Objective Entertainment, a relatively new literary agency with a strong track record and experienced staff, and received the following response:

Dear [name retracted], 

Thank you so much for contacting us at Objective Entertainment. We have reviewed your material and we would like to refer you to one of our Publishers who we trust and believe will be able to serve you best. In order to do this I need your permission and the following information so they can either contact you via Phone or Email. The following information we need is if you would like to receive their newsletter and special offers. I think this is an amazing opportunity for you. 

Please reply with the information we asked so that we can get you that one step closer to getting your work published! 

Best 

Tracey Ravenelle
Objective Entertainment

When the writers, eager to know the name of the publisher, requested more information, they received this response from Ms. Ravenelle:

We work with Iuniverse and AuthorHouse. Iuniverse has the number 5 book this week on the NY Times Best Seller List!

The writers then asked why Objective was recommending a self-publishing service. As of this writing, only one has received a response, which Ms. Strauss reproduced below exactly as it was sent to her:

Because we believe they would be the most beneficial for you at this point in time. Then you would come back to us after the sales starting racking up and we go major! This is the best way for an author to get their work out their. One of their books is number 5 on this weeks upcoming NY Times Best Seller list. So we believe they can help our potential future clients immensely.

EEK… aside from their atrocious grammar, Objective made some questionable recommendations. The major one being that of referring rejected clients to a self-publishing service (of course, they got a fee for referring clients to the house).

Vanity and Subsidy Publishers

SFWA shares another story:

Thousands of writers worldwide entered into contracts with Commonwealth Publications of Canada, a vanity publisher founded in 1995 by fee-charging literary agent Donald Phelan. Phelan worked with a number of other fee-charging agents who, in exchange for a kickback, recommended Commonwealth’s vanity contracts to their clients. Phelan also advertised for manuscripts in magazines such as Writer’s Digest and Writer’s Journal. (Writers take note: this is just one example of why you shouldn’t trust the classified ads in writers’ magazines.)

Commonwealth, which identified itself as a “subsidy” publisher (the implication being that the writer was contributing only a portion of the cost) typically charged $4,500 for publication, with a promised print run of 10,000. Its glossy promotional material promised all kinds of support to its authors: editing, proofreading, marketing, international distribution. But few of these services were actually delivered–and there were many other problems. Publication dates were delayed. Authors didn’t receive the number of books they were promised. The quality of finished books was poor. Books never showed up in bookstores. Royalties from books supposedly sold were never paid.

Fee-Charging Agents

SWFA shares this recent story:

On January 7, 2010, UK literary agent/film producer Robin Price appeared in court, accused of stealing more than half a million pounds from clients.

Price is alleged to have encouraged authors to pay exaggerated literary fees and invest in non-existent film deals, and has been charged with six counts of theft, most committed over the course of several years.

Even successful established writers were taken in by this one.

Writer Brian Knight, who suffered a book doctor agent scam, shares this advice: “New writers need to know that these people are still out there, spewing false promises … patting us on the back with one hand and picking our pockets with the other.” He advises new writers to research every individual and business with which they intend to do business.

Reign in your excitement and enthusiasm. Breathe. Then do the research. “Google.com is your friend,” says Knight. “There are other online resources available to writers. In this era of the information super-highway, it has never been easier to arm yourself against the scumbags and swindlers who make their living off the trusting and naive.” Knight also suggests, www.duotrope.com.

A great site to check out anyone in the writing and publishing industry is “Preditors and Editors” (intentionally misspelled). A site I have come to rely on for excellent market advice is www.ralan.com.

The writer’s journey is a hero’s journey, fraught with obstacles, dangerous distractions, and great disappointments (see Christopher Vogel’s excellent book The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers for more). But it is a path illuminated by a beacon of passionate expression, great sharing and exquisite victory. Choose your hero archetype carefully: choose magician.

We are the shamans, the myth-makers of our community and society. The artist / writer carries her archetypal message through story to her tribe, her community, her society and her world. It is both fulfilling and a great responsibility.

After the Edit Ink debacle, I picked myself up—a little wiser and a little more careful—and went on to find a traditional publishing house who published my first and second novels. Escape from Utopia became Angel of Chaos published by Dragon Moon Press (Part 1 of the Darwin’s Paradox duology), and I went on to publish seven more novels through traditional, indie, and self-publishing models: a historical fantasy, an SF adventure trilogy, two romantic SF novels, a short story collection (Natural Selection) and two text books on writing.

I haven’t looked back since… except to write this article, that is.

 

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.

Ten Things to Consider When Revising Your Novel

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Spalted log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

No piece of writing is complete without submitting it to the scrutiny of revision. A colleague of mine once shared the story of what a student of hers had said about revision: it’s “like beating up a nice friend. Why would I want to do that?” Because, my colleague replied, without a little pummelling all you have is a “nice draft”.

Here are ten things you can do to revise your first and subsequent drafts into something stellar.

  1. Let Your Work Breathe

Once you’ve completed your draft, set it aside for a while. This is key to helping you make objective observations about your writing when you return. The longer you leave it, the more objective you will be. Don’t worry about losing momentum or interest; they most certainly will return. But if hey don’t, then you didn’t have a story in the first place—and that, too, is a good thing to discover.

  1. Dig Deep

Now that you have the whole story in front of you, you’re in the position to restructure plotlines, subplots, events and characters to best reflect your overall story and its main theme. Don’t be afraid to remove large sections or even whole characters; you will likely add others.

  1. Take Inventory

Take stock of how each chapter and scene/sequel contributes to plotline and theme; root out the inconsistencies as you relate the minutia to the whole. You may decide to merge two characters into one or add a character or change a character’s gender or age to better serve your plotline and theme.

  1. Highlight the Surges

Some passages will stand out as being particularly stunning; pay attention to them in each chapter and apply their energy to the rest of your writing.

  1. Purge & Un-clutter

Make a point of shortening everything; this forces you to use more succinct language and replace adjectives and adverbs with power-verbs. Doing this will tighten prose and make it more clear. Reading aloud, particularly dialogue, can help streamline your prose.

  1. Check Point of View

This is the time to take stock of whether you’ve chosen the best point of view style for your story (e.g., first person, third person limited, omniscient). Many first manuscripts by my students have suffered from shifting or inconsistent point of view. Ensure that yours is consistent. You may wish to experiment with different points of view at this stage (e.g., changing your narrative from the third person to the first person, for instance); the results may surprise you.

  1. Make a Plot (Story) Promise

Given that you are essentially making a promise to your readers, it is advisable that you revisit that promise. Tie up your plot points; don’t leave any hanging unless you’re intentionally doing this. But, be aware that readers don’t generally like it. Similarly, if you’ve written a scene that is lyrical, beautiful and compelling but doesn’t contribute to your plotline, nix it. You can file it away for another story where it may be more applicable.

  1. Deepen Your Characters

The revision process is an ideal time to add subtle detail to your main characters: a nervous scratch of his beard, an absent twisting of the ring on her finger, the frequent use of a particular expression. Purposefully adding unique qualities to your characters, like vernacular, body language, and inflections grounds them in reality and makes them more personable and memorable. However, if you want a particular character trait to stick with the reader, you should repeat it a few times throughout the story. This applies to minor characters as well. When you paint your minor characters with more detail, you create a more three-dimensional tapestry for your main characters to walk through.

  1. Write Scenes (show, don’t tell)

Use the revision process to convert flat narrative into “scene” through dramatization. Narrative summaries often read like lecture or polemic. They tend to be passive, slow, and less engaging. Scenes are animated by action, tension and conflict, dialogue and physical movement.

  1. Be Concrete

Ground your characters in vivid setting and rich but unobtrusive detail. Don’t abandon them to a generic and prosaic setting, drinking “beverages” and driving “vehicles” on “roads”; instead brighten up their lives by having them speeding along Highway 66 in a red Carmen Ghia while sipping a Pinot Noir.

Remember to pace yourself when revising; otherwise you may become overwhelmed and discouraged, even confused into incessant rewrites. Your story needs to settle between revision stages. As my colleague said, “you don’t need to beat up your nice friend all at once.”

 

 

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.

 

 

From Pocketbook to Tablet … What’s Next?

aldus manutius bookThe recent exhibition at the Grolier Club in Manhattan, “Aldus Manutius: A Legacy More Lasting Than Bronze” reminded me that the pocket-sized book was invented some five hundred years ago.

The pocket book revolutionized not only how we read but who and what we read.

In a recent talk I gave to the Editors Association of Canada about the changing face of publishing, I defined two milestones in the publishing industry.

First Milestone…

The first milestone came in two stages, beginning with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Guttenburg in 1452. Up to then,

…Books were a work of art… And part of an elite. Delicate, large and beautiful, they were created in the language of the church—Latin—and in turn copied entirely by hand by the monks. With the dimensions of a current newspaper, but much thicker, these large illuminated manuscripts sometimes weighed more than 50 pounds.

Readers were mostly scholars and the religious elite. In fact, reading was an elite occupation. The majority of people at the time couldn’t read and had no interest in books. Besides, books were not written in the commonly spoken language of the countryside such as English, French, German or Spanish.

In fact, the presses formed the very basis of the artistic Renaissance, the religious reformations and the scientific revolution, wrote Elizabeth Eisenstein in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. “The printing press allowed the spread of information that couldn’t be controlled by the clergy, kings, politicians, or the religious elite,” adds New York Times technology reporter Nick Bilton in I Live in the Future and Here’s How It Works. Storytelling was no longer confined to an elite clergy; books could be created by anyone and shared in the spoken languages of the people.

The printing press had opened a gate of opportunity for secular expression to a greater audience. Whenever an opportunity is created, a corresponding need is identified. The need to connect a literate lay public with scholars and storytellers was resolved fifty years later by Aldus Manutius.

Until then, books, albeit printed in the language of the people, remained large, heavy and cumbersome. In 1502, Aldus Manutius invented the portable pocketsize book—the small format libelli portatiles (portable little books)—effectively creating “the mobile phone of his day,” according to Bilton.

Bound in vellum, these long, narrow libelli portatiles, easily transported in a pocket or a satchel, “could be held in the hand and learned by heart by everyone,” wrote Manutius. aldine press book

Manutius founded The Aldine Press in 1495 in Venice. His printing company proudly bore the logo of dolphin entwining an anchor—taken from the term festina lente (hasten slowly), a motto Manutius took from a Roman coin—and Aldine books quickly gained a reputation for their clean design, excellence in typography and inexpensive and accessible price. The Aldine press emphasized Greek and Latin lexicons and grammar manuals, with the first printed edition of Aristotle in 1495. Manutius was also the first to print Thucydides, Herodotus, Sophocles and other Greek philosophers. “He was possibly the first printer to compare manuscripts to arrive at the most reliable text,” adds Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times (February 27, 2015).

Manutius was the first to use italic type, mimicking the handwriting of that time, and the first to use the semicolon in its modern sense. In 1501, Manutius released Virgil’s Opera as the first of his octavo editions of the classics and the first book to use italic print. It was produced in higher-than-normal print runs (1,000 rather than the usual 200 to 500 copies).

The octavo format book is created from one or more full sheets of paper on which 16 pages of text are printed; the sheet is folded three times to produce eight leaves. Each leaf of an octavo book represents one-eighth the size of the original sheet. The actual size of the book depends on the original size of the full sheet of paper on which it is printed. These varied according to place and time. A sixteenth century octavo printed in France or Italy was about the size of a modern paperback; an eighteenth-century octavo printed in England was larger, about the size of a modern hardcover novel.

Second Milestone…

The second milestone I talked about is, of course, the worldwide use of the Internet. Like the Guttenberg printing press, the Internet and associated World Wide Web has created a gate of opportunity that has identified a need. That need is currently being satisfied by ebook publishing, mobile phone communication and the Indie/self-publishing model.

In my September 6, 2014 article “How We Will Tell Stories in the Future” I describe the effect of the Internet and use of digital devices as agents of change and empowerment in storytelling and publishing.

The first email was delivered in 1971 and in 1989 Cern gave us the WorldWide Web. The Internet wasn’t commercialized until 1995. The first web log (blog) was published in the late 1990s and Facebook was launched in 2004. A few years later smart communication devices were created and mass marketed with multi-touch interface (e.g., the iPhone). By 2013, over 2 billion people were using the Internet and social media via computer, smartphones, tablets, game consoles, e-readers and music players. Over 156 million blogs were identified and over 1 billion files were uploaded daily to Dropbox.

While many people still read books and go to the cinema, watch pre-programmed TV or rent DVDs, many more enjoy their stories through other devices: computers, downloads, mobile phones and e-readers that provide material through other media and venues such as Indie and self-publishing, amateur YouTube videos, interactive games and social networks. We stand poised on the edge of a wonderful cliff that celebrates the expression — and consumer choice — of the individual. The music industry shows this the best, where people dismissed the prepackaged albums and CDs and opted to create their own unique playlists through individual song downloads. The publishing industry is currently struggling with its own painful yet thrilling metamorphosis as is the visual arts industry. In fact, they are all blurring into one large integrated amalgam of artistic expression.

The information you get today is coming “more and more through your friends and through your social network. It’s being distributed through channels of trust and the trust isn’t necessarily the BBCor The New York Times. It’s people,” says B.J. Fogg founder of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University.

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Ward Island, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

During the days of packaged content, leading storytellers were published authors, journalists and writers of newspapers and magazines. “Now distribution channels matter less and anyone with an appropriate device can be a storyteller,” says Bilton, who shares that on the Internet we tend to follow individuals we trust (e.g., Clive Thompson or David Carr) as much if not more than established organizations (like Wired Magazine or The New York Times). Accessible technology, platforms, free applications and software has totally enabled the individual.  No longer confined to the written word via paper books or visual expression through movies or TV shows, storytelling has embraced many forms. Amateur and professional have equally blurred.

From paperbacks to digital phones and tablets, we are embracing the shifting zeitgeist of an entire world. The future belongs to the storyteller, from pocketbook to tablet. What’s next?

 

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.

Who’s Your Audience and Why Should You Care?

 

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Winter in The Beach (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The artistic process, whether painting or prose, is admittedly the child of self-expression. The long-standing image of the cloistered artist in her studio — hunched over her writing desk or standing before her canvas to create from the depths of her soul — is surely a truism. Artists create from the heart; we dive deep inside our often tortured souls and closeted past to draw out the universal metaphors that speak to humanity and share—

Ay, there’s the rub. For to share is to have a dialogue and to have a meaningful dialogue is to demonstrate consideration of the other. Somewhere in that journey that began with self, others entered. It is, in fact, something of a paradox and a conundrum for many artists. One that has challenged the artistic community for centuries. It is also why many artists have relied on agents, benefactors, and advocates to effectively communicate, target — and even interpret — their often abstruse “message” to their appropriate audiences.

Purists will tell you that a true artist need not consider her audience; because her self-expression naturally finds relevance with the culture and zeitgeist from which she writes through universally understood metaphor: her story is their story.

But is that enough?

I suppose it finally comes back to whether you are interested in sharing. I don’t know any published authors who don’t wish their books to sell. Every storyteller needs an audience to connect with and engage. That is ultimately what good storytelling does: engage, connect, rouse emotions and evoke empathic feelings. Make an impact.

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Photo N. Munteanu

Does identifying and targeting a specific audience result in more satisfied readers and ultimately better sales? Of course it does. The more you—and whoever is helping you market your work—know about your audience, the more likely you are going to attract them to your book, convince them to buy it and ultimately connect with them. That’s the irony of art: it is a treasure that is created out of the depths of solitude but ultimately brought into the light and shared with the world. For your art to have impact, you must know and understand your world.

Knowing your audience will affect every aspect of your book project. It will help determine:

  • What your story is about and how you write it (from language, voice or personality, narrative style, tone or mood/attitude, characters, setting and theme)
  • What genre it lies under
  • the look and tone of the cover and blurb
  • all aspects of promotion

For instance, who are your intended readers? To what age group to they belong? What culture and sub-culture? What gender(s)? What education and intellectual capacity? Economic status? What regions? What political leanings? Prejudices and beliefs? What knowledge-base?

To know your audience is to know your story better.

 

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.

 

 

Nina Talks to EAC About the Changing Face of Publishing

In January 2014, I gave a talk to the Editor’s Association of Canada (EAC) on the changing face of publishing and what it means for editors and writers. Editors learned about self-publishing and indie publishing, publishing myths, and where to find new editing opportunities.

 

 

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.

Rejection, Part 2: The Evolution of Rejection

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Pebbles on Hirtle Beach, NS (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Enduring and surviving rejection is part of every writer’s successful career. Rejection letters can be part of a writer’s toolkit to success. This comes from objectively perceiving them as opportunities in a long process of relationship-building and the business of writing and publishing.

Writers often witness an evolution in rejection letters as they learn more about their craft and about their markets. The ability to recognize the evolutionary steps can be useful in determining your next move in that particular market.

Below I describe one sequence of a manuscript’s evolutionary path. These don’t necessarily follow a chronological path for any particular manuscript; nor am I suggesting that your personal writer’s path will follow this particular pattern. Take these for what they may represent to you for any particular manuscript’s journey to success.

  • Lowest form: the form-letter, with no name or signature—you get no information from this except that they’re probably swamped with submissions. File the letter and try them again with another story; you can even play a game of it to see how many submissions it takes to get “recognized”. Meantime send the rejected story elsewhere.
  • Next lowest form: Personalized form letter with your name on it and a name and signature on it. Congratulations! You are now a person. And you will likely be remembered when you submit another story here.
  • Higher on the Evolutionary Path: a form letter that includes a personalized note about your work and why it was rejected (often with an added comment about the story or your writing). You have made a mark. Try them again!
  • Even Higher on the Evolutionary Path: a personalized letter that explains why your story was rejected—this says as much about the editor as it does about how they felt about your story; that they are taking the time to write to you and give you suggests means you are worth their valuable time. You have an opportunity to begin a relationship with this editor. Play fair.
  • Highest on the Path: a personalized, perhaps even handwritten, note that specifies why they rejected your piece with suggestions for revision (and resubmission) or invitation to submit another piece. Congratulations! This is the beginning of a relationship. Revise and resubmit.

What Rejection Letters Look Like 

As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve received a lot of rejection letters in the many years of my writing career. They’ve ranged from the short card form letter with no signature to the handwritten, per-sonalized letter with inviting comments.

Zeotrope-rejectionRejection letters will vary as much as the magazine and book market varies. The larger, busier companies that receive many more submissions over a given time period are more likely to go with the form letter. I’ve heard some agents and edit-ors go this route simply because it is safer for them. One magazine editor lamented to me not long ago that after she had provided a writer whose work she’d rejected with sev-eral paragraphs of explanation, the said writer had responded with an irascible diatribe of her skills as an editor.

Take heart: receiving a form letter like the one above from Zoetrope is very common, particularly from a large publisher. And take it for what it is, a letter that gives you very little infor-mation other than they rejected your story. File the letter and send the story elsewhere. challening destiny-rejection

Some publishers and agents use a checklist, which can provide you with very good feedback (see example below from Challenging Destiny for my short story, Arc of Time which found a home in several places after this rejection).

The next letter that rejected my short story Angel of Chaos (which later turned into Butterfly in Peking) provided enough insight to why they didn’t choose it that I could have gone one of two ways: 1) I could have left the story as it was and submitted elsewhere; or 2) I could have emailed them with a suggestion that I’d be willing to revise if they would reconsider a revision according to their specifications. I’ve done this in the past and published. This time I decided not to because I liked the story the way it was. space & time rejection

One magazine I submitted to gives your story to two independent readers whose comments they include along with their rejection or acceptance. This is great feedback for you! What I found frus-tratingly amusing was that the accolades of the reviewers didn’t guarantee the acceptance of my story. While my story Arc of Time generated very positive comments from both reviewers, the magazine still decided against publishing and the rejection letter gave no reason (see reviewer’s comments below):

Reviewer #1:I love the way this story is set up, switching back and forth from the different points of view. The “trippiness” is very appealing and works well with the modern/fantastical contrast.”

Reviewer #2:This was an intriguing and extraordinary clever story. I didn’t have a clue about the jape at the end until I got to the last page. And then it unfolded beautifully. The theological tie-ins were smart and fun and showed either some Mormon extrapolative thought or extreme knowledge of Biblical lore.” talebones rejection

You’d have thought, eh? But they rejected anyway. Below is an example of a form letter with a handwritten comment added along with signature and an invite to try them again. When this happens, by all means, try them again!

Make Rejection Work for You

One way to see your way through rejection is to find ways to distance yourself from your story once you’ve sent it off and to see the whole process of submission-rejection-acceptance as a business. The very best way to do this is to submit lots of stories and to keep submitting them. With novels, this is a little harder to do but you can certainly be working on the next one once you’ve submitted the first.

When I was writing short stories, I kept a list of what and where I sub-mitted, along with the most important item: where to submit NEXT. At any given time, I made sure that I had at least x-number of submissions out there and each story had a designated place to go if it returned. As soon as a story came back from magazine A, I simply re-packaged it and sent it to magazine B. The critical part of the list was to have a contingency for each story: the next place where I would send the story once it returned. I was planning on the story being rejected with the hope that it would be accepted; that way, a rejection became part of a story’s journey rather than a final comment.

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webI ran my submissions like a bus terminal. A story was in and out so fast it never had a chance to cool off. And, since I had five other pieces out there, I could do this with little emotion. I was running a fast-paced “story depot”, after all. All my stories had to be out there as soon as possible; if they were sitting in the terminal, they were doing nothing for me. Now, ask me if this worked. D*** right! Soon after adopting this process, I started selling. I think several things were happening and galvanizing into sales: publishers were getting to know me; I got more and more familiar with the market and my professionalism paid off.

 

This article is an excerpt from Chapter R of The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire, 2009).

 

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.

 

 

Rejection, Part 1: How to Accept Rejection

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Pebbles on Hirtle Beach, NS (photo by Nina Munteanu)

We’ve all suffered rejection and disappointment. Perhaps that job you coveted or someone you loved who might have even led you on before dropping you. It hurts. But you move on. And it does get better. Eventually. It does, trust me. It helps by starting with knowing that we don’t always get what we want, but we always get what we need…

Being a published writer involves accepting rejection. It’s part of the job description. Think of rejection as an integral part of your road to success. If you have never been rejected then you haven’t really tried, have you? There are several ways that you can gain a good perspective on your rejection letters and even make them work to your advantage.

Adopt a Healthy Perspective

One way is to adopt a realistic, objective and healthy viewpoint on your story’s rejection:

  • View selling manuscripts as a “cold call” business: When you view it this way, you will treat it that way. Until you establish a relationship with your market, selling becomes a numbers game. The more you send, the more likely you are to get a hit. It’s all in the statistics.
  • View rejections as an opportunity. Rejections can provide you with the opportunity to learn and re-evaluate, usually of appropriate market and publisher subjectivity rather than writing quality.
  • View rejections as the beginning of a relationship. Not all rejections are final; in fact most aren’t. Most rejections by a publisher or magazine editor stem from story redundancy, lack of space or editorial requirements. Many rejection letters will reflect this (e.g., “Thanks, but this isn’t a match for us…do try us again.” They mean it. It just means that the story wasn’t right—they may have run something too similar to it already or it didn’t fit with the other pieces or theme or whatever.)
  • View rejections as part of your success journey. Rejection is a given in the writing business and a necessary aspect of your journey as a soon-to-be and published writer (you don’t stop getting rejections once you’re published!). Often a story may be considered “before its time”; too different, a risk and is therefore harder to place. This is often why a book that was rejected so many times becomes a great hit once it is published. The very quality that made it hard for a publisher to accept made it a success with the readership: its refreshing yet topical originality.
  • View rejections as your first step to success. Take heart in the fact that you reached this stage in your writing career. Getting that first rejection in the mail is a great affirmation that you have taken that first significant step to becoming a serious writer. It means that you’ve completed a work and had the courage to enter it into the world.

Acceptance begins with rejection.

Make Rejection Work for You

You can maintain a more objective view on your rejections by keeping an objective view on your submissions. This can be accomplished by submitting a lot and submitting often. Treat your submissions—and rejections—like a business. The best way to do this is to submit lots of stories and to keep submitting them. The critical part of this process is to always have a contingency ready for each story submitted: once a story is returned, you have a place to send it already. Most professional writers will recommend that you do not revise the story before resending it out. This is because many rejections occur not on account of poor writing, but because of poor or unlucky marketing.

Remember that You’re in Great Company

Virtually every writer of merit who has published has had their work rejected several times. Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit was turned down so many times that she initially self-published. Irving Stone’s Lust for Life was rejected sixteen times before a publisher finally picked it up and sold about twenty-five million copies. Not bad for a story that was passed off as “a long, dull novel about an artist.” Jonathan Livingston Seagull was turned down twenty-three times and Dune twenty-one times. There are a bazillion examples; I’ve just picked a few. Go check J.K. Rowling’s track record for rejections before getting her Harry Potter published…

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webI’ll be talking more about how to read a rejection letter, how to recognize their sub-text messages, and how to make the most out of them in Part 2, the evolution of rejection letters.

 

This article is an excerpt from my fiction writing guidebook The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire, 2009).

 

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.