Category Archives: On writing

Amazon is a corporate bully

JusticeThere are a number of reasons why I’m not so prolific in my fiction writing than I was. One of them (a very large ONE) is the problem of getting noticed in a crowded marketplace. We’ve been told, we authors, that getting people to review our books is the way to attract attention – but we can’t pay for reviews, or swap reviews, or get family and close friends to review. And fair enough, you might say. But Amazon is a bully with a big stick.

Please read the experience of my good friend Nya Rawlyns and  do please read about the lucrative scheme netting millions from the Zon.

Seems to me Nya has become collateral damage for a giant flailing around looking for someone to hit.

It stinks.

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I’m giving up on Romance

(c) StockUnlimited Image ID : 1510419

(c) StockUnlimited Image ID : 1510419

I’m giving up on Romance. Not romance as in boy meets girl and love blossoms (or boy meets boy, girl meets girl – I don’t give a rats what happens in other peoples’ bedrooms) I mean Romance as in genre. It’s pure and simple escapist fantasy. Which is probably one of the reasons I never read much of it.

To each his/her own of course. If Romance is your thing, that’s fine. I know it’s the biggest selling genre out there, I know it’s not rubbish, I know it’s not easy to write. This is not a ‘take-down’ of the Romance genre, it’s a statement of why it doesn’t work for me as a writer. And really, that’s all about the tropes. By the way, if you think you’ll find that offensive, thanks for coming, but you’d better leave now.

I cannot believe that a multi-billionaire who has no doubt left a trail of girlfriends behind is suddenly going to fall so head-over -heels in love with the new PA or secretary or whatever, that he never even looks at another woman. <cough> Trump. Same with sheikhs (maybe even more so). But I can certainly believe that people in rocky marriages, far from home, might find themselves falling in love with someone else. Call it adultery if you will. It’s normal, common behaviour.

I do believe in ‘love at first sight’ – I know of too many instances where it has happened.  Sure, it usually starts as lust at first sight, but if it evolves into the real thing, so what?

Which brings us to the ‘happy for now’ or ‘happy ever after’ upbeat endings. This is a requirement of Romance. That’s fine, if everybody agrees it’s not about realism. The fact is an awful lot of marriages end in divorce. Fairy tales fall apart. Just look at the cover headlines on the women’s magazines while you’re waiting to go through the checkout.

Now as it happens, my books always have an upbeat ending because the world is bad enough without me adding to the misery even in a tiny way. That’s why I don’t read (or watch) horror. Despite my love of SF, I have not and will not watch the Alien movies. I have never seen a single episode of Game of Thrones. Same deal. I read to escape.

Having said that, I don’t have a problem with adultery, or mistresses, or even casual sex within the context of a novel. In The Iron Admiral books, Allysha commits adultery. So does her ne’er do well husband. In Morgan’s Choice, Ravindra goes through women like changes of underwear. It’s not a big deal, but I make it plain that’s how it goes – even after he has a relationship with Morgan. But that’s just sex, you see, and within his society, quite normal. He had been married off to a suitable woman at a young age, which is exactly what happened on our little planet in the past, and in fact what still happens right now. Imagine being a princess, married off as an infant to some royal prince, to cement the relationship between the two kings? I can understand a woman running away to escape being married off in just such a way, and that’s the plot of A Matter of Trust. But I expect the story would have been unacceptable to Romance if Amira was married, and trying to escape a loveless or abusive relationship.

So I suppose what I’m saying is that, because I don’t really understand the Romance trope, I write about romance the way I see it in the world – messy, up and down, evolving. Ergo, I don’t write Romance.

I guess I’d better remove all my books from the ‘science fiction romance’ category, and stick with space opera. I won’t win, though, because all the SF die-hards will moan about the soppy bits.

Just as well I don’t do this writing thing to try to earn a living.

And a photo, because I’m hoping you’ve come to expect them. This is the dawning of a new day. Singularly appropriate if you ask me.

(c) Greta van der Rol

(c) Greta van der Rol

What’s the opposite of writer’s block?

1239877Writer’s insomnia. That state when you’re on a roll, the story is flowing – but there are holes and questions (there are always holes and questions) and ‘oh hey’ moments and ‘is that plausible’ moments. And they all get together in your head and shake you awake at 2am. You think you’re getting up for a wee and a drink of water. But no. They ambush you, make you listen, pour words in your ears.

It’s fabulous. I LOVE this story. (It’s still called WIP – that’s Work in Progress for those not in the circle.)

Meanwhile, a huge storm built up to the south of us, complete with mammary clouds, thunder and lightning. Fortunately, we got to enjoy the spectacle at sunset – but didn’t have to face the fury of the storm.

Impressive, it was. Share photos, I will.

sky3

Sky1

sky

Why do I bother?

1270187That’s a very good question. I’m talking about writing books. Like many of my peers, I self-publish my stories. The main reason, I suppose, is control. Nobody is cracking a whip. I’m not trying to attract the interest of a publisher by going through the horrible submission process (I’m too old for that). I get final say on my covers. Oh, and I’ve had my fill of draconian contracts and publishers going bust. AND I’ll add that I’ve had my fill of the ‘rules of writing’ and all the things you ‘have to do’ to market your work. Bah and humbug to all that shit. I’ve reduced my social media commitments. I took myself off a number of websites I never visited. No more Bookbuzzr, Authordb, Triberr and LinkedIn. I’ve removed my Twitter account completely, due to lack of use.

Do I make any money from my nine novels and various shorts? The answer would have to be a resounding NO. Especially when you factor in the cost of paying for a professional cover, and professional editing. And, in the past, advertising. I believe in doing it properly, you see. I hate trying to read books riddled with typos and horrible mistakes like “he drug the body to the edge of the creek”. Or “lightening flashed across the sky”. Or “she parked her space ship in the hanger”. You get the picture.

I might make a thing about one-star reviews. But lots of people have done that. I find the easiest solution is to not read the reviews. It’s not my job to monitor what readers think. I know lots won’t like my work. That’s fine. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. There are plenty of books I did not finish (life’s too short to persevere with something that doesn’t resonate – I did enough of that in English Lit at high school). A few people do enjoy my scribblings, which fills me with pleasure.

So given all that, why DO I bother?

Because when I get into the rhythm I enjoy the process. It isn’t easy. It’s never easy. The words don’t fly out of my fingertips. I tend not to plot, just create my characters and a starting point, then ask them what happens next. The further the story goes, the easier it becomes. Stuck? Just have a one-on-one chat with the characters. Or the villain. Or get into the detail of the universe we’re in. And don’t bother with whining that the Muse is on holiday or you have writer’s block. I’ve had no urge to write for most of a year. I pushed myself to start a new book, but now it’s moving along, it’s challenging.

There’s something magical about creating a world that doesn’t exist anywhere but between my ears. It’s wonderful to imagine traveling between star systems, and the interactions between humans and aliens. Every time I read about another scientific breakthrough – another exoplanet, gravity waves, 3D printing miracles, new nano-tech capabilities, carbon fiber, self-driving cars etc etc I pause in wonder and absorb another detail for the creative process.

Mind you, the situations and the interactions between the inhabitants of my make-believe worlds are deeply influenced by the behaviour of that most murderous of species – us.

So I’ll keep doing it. Maybe I’ll be an Overnight Sensation some time. Or probably not. Writing keeps my mind active. If it’s a hobby, so be it.

If you’re interested in what the latest project is, I’ve put up a few snippets on the Space freighters’ Lounge.

It’s always subjective (even when you think it can’t be)

1282745If you’re reading this you’ll know I write books and take photographs, not necessarily in that order. And although they’re both creative, they’re very different pursuits. In this day of Indie publishing, the exhausting task of trying to interest an agent or publisher in one’s work is no longer an issue. And just as well, too. I’m too old for that shit. Besides, agents always only consider what they think will sell. Which, I suppose, is fair enough. In the past publishers were willing to work with an author to hone a rough diamond into a polished gem – always assuming they recognised the rough diamond. It’s a subjective process, you see. Agent/publisher – author interaction, agent/publisher perception of what will sell, agent/publisher perception of how much work (money) would be needed to rework and polish.

The business of accepting a photo for sale on a stock photo site is a little bit different. Certainly  the aim of these sites is to collect images that people will want to buy, so sites like Dreamstime explain that they have lots of sunsets and sunrises. They’re pretty, but one can have too much a good thing. And that’s understandable and completely in line with the bookseller’s perspective of “will it sell?” On top of that there’s the privacy and proprietary concerns. No images of (recognisable) people without a model release. No picture of inanimate objects with some sort of proprietary identification, such as really famous buildings, sculptures, logos and even one stand-out house boat in a canal in Amsterdam.

However, photographs are required to have a high level of technical quality. No blurry images, no grainy textures where the photographer should have used a longer exposure or a lower ISO. Visible scratches or dirt marks. Overuse of filters or Photoshop fixes. Or any number of other perfectly legitimate issues with quality. The big stock photo sites can’t afford to have below par photos for sale. I’ve been selling pictures for about four years now, and I’ve learned what they’ll accept and what they won’t. A picture can look great on Facebook even if the focus isn’t quite right – but don’t bother submitting to a stock photo site.

Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? So you’d think that if one site is happy with the quality of a photo, another site will be, too. Actually, that’s not the case. I sell my photos on Dreamstime and on Canstock. Both sites have refused photos on technical grounds that the other has accepted.

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You can buy this on Dreamstime – but not on Canstock

You can buy this one from Canstock but not Dreamstime

You can buy this one from Canstock but not Dreamstime

It’s very, very easy to be over critical of one’s own work. I found fault with this one, for example, and it was literally years after I took it that I thought, “what the hell?” Both sites accepted it.

Wildflowers brighten the Pilbara landscape

Wildflowers brighten the Pilbara landscape

The other day, on the premise that if you don’t ask you don’t get, I sent Dreamstime three of my sunrise photos. Four years ago, they’d rejected a couple I thought were nice on the basis that they had plenty like that, only better. I was expecting more of the same, but to my eternal astonishment, they accepted all three. Here’s one.

A person takes the dogs out on the tidal flats as the eastern sky brightens

A person takes the dogs out on the tidal flats as the eastern sky brightens

 

So what should you take home from all this? Very often a judgement is an opinion, nothing more, nothing less. Don’t give up just because one person says it’s not what they’re after. Don’t take every one-star review to heart. And stop beating yourself up. There are plenty of people out there eager to do that for you.

 

What The Battle of 5 Armies taught me about writing

"The Hobbit - The Battle of the Five Armies" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Hobbit_-_The_Battle_of_the_Five_Armies.jpg#/media/File:The_Hobbit_-_The_Battle_of_the_Five_Armies.jpg

“The Hobbit – The Battle of the Five Armies” by Source.

I’m always keen to see the extended edition of movies that take my fancy. The Hobbit trilogy is one such. And I have to say, the extra 20 minutes shown in the movie did not, in my opinion, add much. In fact, a few times I caught myself thinking, “I can see why he cut that”. So I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to come to your own conclusion in that respect.

I will, however, talk about the appendices.

I LOVE the ‘making of’ stuff. This collection of appendices is second to none. The script writers talk about what inspiration they obtained from Tolkien’s books and where (and why) they varied from the story. There are shorts about how particular characters like Thranduil and Dain were fleshed out, how the sets for Erebor, Dale, and Dol Guldur were created. And of course the way digital technology was used.

I loved the books, and I loved the movies. Part of that was that I understand and accept that the books and movies are inherently different media, and especially when you’re trying to translate a kid’s book to take its place as part of the Lord of the Rings saga. Because that’s what Peter Jackson and his people did. And that’s why it is three movies, not one. But I digress. I learnt a lot – as a writer – from watching those appendices.

1. Detail matters

In every single one of the movies’ locations the scenery, sets and props were absolutely convincing. Each race had its own culture, all exquisitely detailed. One of the best examples of that attention to detail came in the section about Dale, the city near the gates of Erebor which Smaug destroyed. Jackson’s props people built a real and beautiful town which was shown on film for at best a few minutes in the opening section of the first movie. Then they proceeded to destroy it for the scenes from the rest of the movies. Because the place was so real, we could relate to what had been lost. That’s even more important in the written word.

2. Secondary characters should be real

It was fascinating listening to the script writers talk about the characters in the kid’s book.  If you’ve read it you will recall that most of the dwarfs are not much more than two dimensional sketches, distinguished mainly by the colour of their hats. Thorin, of course, is filled out a little more. But in the Hobbit movie, every one of the dwarfs was fleshed out as an individual, each with his own eccentricities, his own costume, his own behaviour.  They, of course, are the main characters in the movies. But this attention to detail (see above) went into the secondary characters, too. Particularly fascinating was Thranduil, Legolas’s father. In the book, Thranduil isn’t named at all. He’s just the elvenking. We learn his name in Lord of the Rings, where we meet Legolas. As an aside, given that Legolas is Thranduil’s son, it would have been quite odd if he had not appeared in the Hobbit. But back to Thranduil. The script writers fleshed out his back story, made him cold, arrogant and distant. Gave him a reason to attack the Lonely Mountain and by the end of the movie, he had grown and changed. Bloody brilliant.

3. Not everything has to be explained

Thranduil is probably my most favourite character from the movies because of his complexity. And because I find men like him – handsome, distant, positively arrogant in their self-assurance – attractive. Thranduil didn’t need a crown. He was the king. End of story. But there was something else about him, something about his obsession with the white gems that were heirlooms of his people. Although we are never told at any stage what that was about, over time we are given hints, sufficient to work out our own theories on what has caused Thranduil to put up those barriers. It keeps the man interesting. And in the appendices my theory was confirmed.

4. Not everything has to work the first time

Costume designers start working on a costume before an actor is chosen. The she-elf, Tauriel, isn’t in the book, so she was a clean sheet. Richard Taylor, the chief of Weta Workshop, the company which created the props for the films, came across a designer who did some wonderful things with chain mail and thought the effect would be perfect for Tauriel. The costume was made – long, painstaking work – the actor put it on and it looked terrible. Scrub that, start again. The prosthetics used for Dain, played by Billy Connolly, were changed several times so that we could still see the man behind the makeup. Whole scenes were shot and then cut completely because they didn’t contribute to the plot. That’s like writing the first draft, or the second edit. And that’s okay. You can go back and make changes – until you publish. And all a writer has to change is a scene here, a few words there…

5. The villain has to be powerful

There are a number of villains in the Hobbit movies. One of them is Smaug, played and voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. Smaug may be a digital image, but he’s absolutely arrogant, sure of his power, clever and vindictive. Him landing on the rooftops of Lake town and advancing on Bard matched the dragon’s character. Playing with his food, so to speak. And so much better visually than in the book, where someone who is just a name shoots the beast down.

Then there’s Azog. If you’re a Tolkien tragic you will know he actually died at the gates of Moria, slain by none other than Dain Ironfoot. Be that as it may, the screen writers kept him alive as an adversary for Thorin and the company, and reserved Bolg for Legolas. And over the top of all this, we have the Necromancer/Sauron. All of these villains were necessary. Gandalf was faced with something greater than himself, a story which fitted into the Lord of the Rings. That’s an important lesson for writers of series. We should always remember that the Hobbit is the prequel for LOTR and what happens in that little book leads on to greater things. The enmity between dwarfs and elves  is clearly established and doesn’t waiver until they are faced with the common, hated foe. And the orcs are no push-over, assisted as they are by wargs and trolls. It’s a real battle, all the way. Each battle is personal – Thorin vs Azog, Gandalf vs Sauron, Bard vs Smaug, Legolas vs Bolg. We have an investment in the struggle, even if we know how it will end.

6. You can get away with things in film that you can’t in words

In the movie, Azog sets up a command post on Ravenhill, above the gates of Erebor, from which to direct his battle. He stands up there and uses a semaphore system to direct his commanders. Not only does that show the audience that the orcs are more than mindless fighters, it gives the script writers the opportunity to set up a confrontation between Thorin and Azog. It works exceedingly well and we’re so caught up in the battle of five armies (which Tolkien covered in a couple of sentences in his book) that we don’t even think about the elephant in the room. How did Azog and his boys get up there and set up a semaphore system without anybody noticing? The other issue, how did Thorin, Fili and Kili – and Bilbo, get up there with an army of orcs in the way, is addressed, especially in the extra footage. I confess I hadn’t thought about how the command post was set up. The battle scenes are so fast-paced and so absorbing I didn’t notice. But if you’re going to pull something like that in a book, you’d better have thought it through.

7. Consider your audience

I’m adding this for the one thing that I believe was not a success. Sorry, but a love story between a dwarf and an elf – especially one that happen so quickly – doesn’t work for me. I have no objection to adding Tauriel to the cast. She was great as a fighter, and as an elf with a different view of the world from Thranduil and his son. I can kinda see what the writers were trying to do and in the appendices reference is made back to Gimli and Galadriel, but that wasn’t a love story. Not to me, anyway, and I know I’m not alone. Millions of people have read and loved the Hobbit and LOTR. They have their own ideas about how the races interacted. Tolkien himself described several instances of marriages between men and elves, but never dwarfs – and any other race, really. So that’s about reader expectation. Some things perhaps you can’t, or shouldn’t, do.

Anything you’d like to add? Please share your wisdom.

Poster Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Hobbit_-_The_Battle_of_the_Five_Armies.jpg#/media/File:The_Hobbit_-_The_Battle_of_the_Five_Armies.jpg

 

Diversity is much, much more than skin colour

PrintOver at Space freighters Lounge, we’ve been talking about diversity in science fiction. Again. Here’s what I had to say. Heather Massey who has been a great supporter of diversity in stories, and POC (people of colour) writers in general, weighed in with some comments. Here’s what Heather said:

Diverse characters not only makes for better science fiction, it’s just plain necessary realism! When I go from seeing my local neighborhood full of diverse groups to an all-white SFR ensemble cast, I’m like, uh-oh–someone made a conscious choice to erase people of color.”

And that got me thinking. Heather is American. I am Australian, born in Amsterdam (the Netherlands). And the difference is more than the fact that Americans talk funny. My neighbourhood isn’t diverse at all, and really never has been. For me, an SFR with an all-white cast would be a future view of home. Let’s examine that for a moment.

My family emigrated to Australia ten years after WW2 ended, leaving behind battered, war-weary Europe and the spectre of Communism looming in the East. We settled in probably the most Anglo-Saxon of Australia’s capital cities – Perth, Western Australia. Bear in mind that Australia had restrictive immigration policies, designed to limit the types of people who could settle there. It was called the White Australia Policy, and it wasn’t dismantled until well into the 1960’s. “White Australia” was something of a misnomer. As the article says, white people from Eastern and Southern Europe could be treated unfairly.

In the ‘fifties, western European kids like my brother and me learnt English and were absorbed with little fanfare. My parents attended English classes and went to lengths to become part of their new world. Our neighbours were Aussies. As I grew up, the “different” people were the Greeks, Slavs and Italians; olive-skinned people with dark hair and eyes. The older women wore black dresses and spoke to each other in an unintelligible gabble. And they all seemed to live together, in the cheap parts of town near the city centre, or the market gardens, or the fishing boat harbour. Aboriginal people kept to themselves in areas as close to slums as Australia ever got. I rarely saw anyone with dark skin.

I moved to Melbourne  in my early twenties. For me, Melbourne was gobsmackingly different. Just outside the city centre shops had signs in languages other than English – Greek, or Turkish or Italian. You’d go into a shop, the people saw you coming and fetched their son or daughter from out the back to talk to you because they couldn’t speak English. And there was a China Town. But even so, the city was predominantly Anglo-Saxon.

These days, things have changed. We had a new influx of immigrants fleeing the Vietnamese war. That caused a stir. They moved into the market gardens and the inner city suburbs, replacing the original Greeks, Italians and Slavs. But after a couple of generations, their kids speak English with an Aussie twang and they’re just part of the scenery. The Greek and Turkish shop signs have been replaced with Vietnamese or Cambodian. And after them came the Sudanese, the Lebanese, the Iraqis, the Iranians. Many of those people have not, at this time, integrated. There are parts of Melbourne and Sydney that could be part of the Middle East, places where many Caucasian Australians don’t feel safe.

But I’m no longer in one of the big cities. Since we retired, my husband and I moved to a small town. I’d say 98% of the people here are Anglo-Saxon. There are a number of Dutch and German descent, a handful of indigenous or Islander folk and a smattering of Asians. So “diversity” has very little meaning here. And that is true in many, many other parts of our world – if we’re talking skin colour.

In the early nineties I visited Beijing, one of a group of about twenty Australians – all Caucasian. China was just starting to open up, although the massacre in Tienanmen square was a recent memory. The residents of Beijing were becoming used to visits from Westerners. But Beijing is also a tourist spot for Chinese. I remember standing in a group while our Chinese guide talked about the Forbidden Palace. As she talked, a second group formed around us – Chinese people wearing Mao suits, staring at us. They’d never seen people with round eyes, fair skin and fair hair before. And I’m willing to bet the same thing happens every day in Africa and India. It was quite an experience being one of the weirdos. In fact, probably the most ‘diverse’ place I’ve ever been is Singapore, where Chinese, Malays, Indians and a few white folk rub along together very well. It’s also a tiny little island.

So does that mean people with the same external characteristics are uniform, showing no layers of diversity? Not at all. You don’t have to look far to see the differences wealth and religion can make. Not to mention sex. Even in our enlightened Anglo-Saxon communities, white male privilege is a real thing. India’s caste system is a more regimented form of class distinctions that can be found in every human society. It’s how we roll, the tribal instinct. Even so there are other external cues that set people apart – weight, height, a missing limb, a walking stick, age, the length hair, clothing, tattoos, occupation…

Now, in the early years of the twenty-first century, we are grappling with the fact that ‘sex’ as in gender isn’t black and white, and doesn’t altogether depend on physical attributes – boys have these dangly bits, girls don’t. And love isn’t necessarily one girl and one boy. So diversity is much, much more than skin colour and eye shape. As writers of science fiction we should go outside our comfort zones and consider ALL the possibilities. If we don’t, we restrict ourselves. And that would be a shame.