Being a Ship With No Flag: How to Ignore the Rules (A Micro-Musing)

Ennis Drake’s short fiction has appeared in various publications online and in print, including: “Love: The Breath of Eagleray”, at Underland Press (publisher of Jeff VanderMeer’s “Finch”, John Shirley’s “In Extremis”, Brian Evenson’s “Last Days”, among others); “The Dark That Keeps Her”, published in Twisted Legends, an anthology from Pill Hill Press (honorably mentioned in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 2); and “The Fishing of Dahlia”, published in the Bram Stoker-nominated and Black Quill Award winning +Horror Library+ Volume 4. “The Fishing of Dahlia” also received an honorable mention in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 3. Forthcoming from Word Horde (summer 2013), “The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick-Maker”, will appear in the anthology, Tales of Jack the Ripper, edited by Ross Lockhart. His debut novel, “Twenty-Eight Teeth of Rage”, was released May 31st, 2012, from Omnium Gatherum Media, and was a finalist for The Shirley Jackson Award. Most recently, his collected novelettes, “The Day and the Hour” and “Drone”, were released by Omnium Gatherum Media (Feb. 2013).


Write what you know. Write what you love. Write every day. Catch an adverb, kill it. Write longhand. Write as fast as you can. Edit line by line, page by page. Let it cool. Write it while it’s fresh and hot and screaming. The Oxford Comma. Strike unnecessary punctuation. Network. You must have a “Platform”. Create a Facebook, and a Twitter, and a blog, and an author website. No, none of us knows why we create massive networks of other writers and market to them (because all readers are writers?), but it’s what we do, so you should, too. Go to conventions. Wear adverts in your hat. Do everything I tell you. I’m a writer, after all. I know THE SECRET. Thousands upon thousands of my books are in circulation, I’ve been nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award, so, naturally, whatever I say must be true, and it must be true for me, and you, and you, and yes, you, too.

No.

The only truth is there are no hard truths.

I do not write what I know (unless you count crazy). I do not write what I love (I detest both my fiction and my subject-matter). I do not write every day (and don’t plan to). I don’t count words (and I sure as shit don’t waste time posting word counts to, well, anywhere). I happen to use a great many adverbs. Sometimes I over-punctuate. Sometimes I strip it out. Sometimes I don’t (the key, if there is a key, is consistency—your editor will have the say later, anyway). I do have a Facebook. I shit around on it with a handful of friends in the industry and occasionally post about my writing projects. I have a Twitter. I almost never use it. I don’t have a blog (chances are? I hate your blog), and I don’t have an author website (and unless a publisher requires me to have one in-future, foots the bill, and maintains it, I probably never will). I take every bit of advice I’m given, consider it, keep what I like, and ignore the rest. And yes, I’m aware I’ve stolen that bit (I can’t be bothered to remember exactly who from, but there you go)…so far as writing advice goes, it’s the best I’ve ever seen.

So what are we really talking about, then, I sense you asking (if you’ve not folded interest and decamped already)? Individuality. Individuality will make or break you. You can maintain it, or you cannot. If you cannot, you will surely disappear. You will learn your own unique Voice, you will learn what works for you, or you will not. You will (to paraphrase Bruner) learn to discover “the internalization of your personal novel. . .itself the search for identity”. It was once written of Gertrude Stein: “She is a ship that flies no flag and she is outside the law of art, but she descends on every port and a leaves a memory of her visits.” This is the advice I give to you. Be like Stein. Fly no flag and live outside the law of art, because there are no laws of art. True art pushes, bends, breaks rules.

So, these are the rules:

 

 

 

Good luck.

Creating the Future with Language

Carrie Cuinn is a Author, editor, bibliophile, modernist, and geek. You can find her work online at carriecuinn.com and follow her on Twitter @carriecuinn.


When writing a story set in the present or the past, you already know what your options for language
are. You can write in the language of your expected readers, ignoring historical dialects so we can
clearly understand your meaning, or you can use words common to your characters’ time period to help
create a realistic atmosphere. Whether your story features an Old West gunfighter, a medieval farmer,
or a Roman poet, you can research the names of popular objects or slang terms the people might have
used.

When you’re writing the future, you have to make more choices. You need to balance realistically
portraying the time period with showing its difference from our time as well as making sure that the
story is still coherent to people reading it now. You need to think about who your speaker is, not just the people talking in the story but the person telling the story to your readers. You need to decide if you’re going to mix languages, create new words, adapt words we’re already using to make them sound futuristic… but how do you decide any of that?

The simplest solution to writing the future is to not do anything special at all. If you assume that your story is translated for modern readers, somehow taken from the your character’s language (whatever that may be) and put into 21st century English* then you don’t need to fake up your language. But there is a reason you may not want to take the simplest path: language can add to the setting of your story in a variety of ways, giving you a richer, more complex look at your invented future.

You can show the merger of two large cultures by including words from a non-English language mixed
in with your dialogue or even description, but – and I mean BUT – you have to be cautious. It’s terribly easy to slap on a few “exotic”** words and think you’re creating accessible multi-cultural characters but if you don’t know what the words mean or how language evolves over time, it sounds slapped on. It shows very quickly that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Mixing languages gives you a more honest feel, but that means you’ll either have phrases your readers don’t understand or you have to find a way to explain everything in context.

Firefly mixed Mandarin into the otherwise English dialogue. Joss Whedon didn’t give us subtitles, and didn’t explain what was said, for the simple reason that the characters should have understood what was being said. There was no “outsider” to explain it to. It worked because they largely used Mandarin for swearing. So you didn’t need to know the exact translation, you just knew someone was angry. On the other hand, the first American version of Gojira, 1956’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters, mixed dubbed dialogue with the original Japanese, and added in a new character played by Raymond Burr, whose job was to be the outsider. He would yell, “What did he say?” and someone would repeat what had originally been said in Japanese.***

Firefly worked. Godzilla, King of the Monsters was a bit silly.

Another way to influence the setting with language is to create new brand names. We use brand names
as generic terms all of the time, once the object has become so common and has so many imitators that
the trademark can no longer be protected. We call that a generic trademark or a proprietary eponym.

It’s the reason you can ask someone to hand you a Kleenex or Band-Aid or a Thermos and they’ll know
what you’re talking about, even if what you’re asking for is actually produced by another company.

Inventing a proprietary eponym can be a way to show that changes have been made to technology
or commerce long enough ago that they were generalized into popular speech. Be careful that you’re
not creating a phrase you don’t need – I recently read a novel that used “Reefmail” instead of “email” because they lived on an artificial island. It was still mail, delivered electronically. The author described it as a fish swimming onto the computer screen, opening its mouth, and an envelope popping out. An envelope. So you know what it is. Then why call it something else?

Explore your options. Read over your work again. Out loud. Take out anything that feels unnecessary
or was inserted to sound exotic. Ask yourself, as many times as you need to, “why did I say it that
way?”

This is a just a beginning to the conversation about the possibilities of language in fiction. I hope that it gives you something to think about when you’re sitting down to write, or edit, your next great futuristic story.

* English is used as an example because that’s the language this post is written in. Of course, you
should use the language of your expected readers.

** If you’re hoping to create “exotic” characters you need to take a step back and consider a lot more than language. Simply put, something is only exotic because it is different than you, and different isn’t negative. A person isn’t more interesting or more sexual or more attractive or less anything just because they come from a different culture or the color of their skin is different. But you knew that already, right?

** While technically not set in the future, it is an alternate-Earth science fiction story, and illustrates
the example well.

Carrie Cuinn has written a follow up post here.

You Can Earn a Living as a Writer

I’m a writer. I’ve been at it for as long as I can remember. Although you probably don’t know me, I’ll bet that you’ve read some of my stuff.

Growing up in the suburban wastes of Kansas City in the 1970s, most kids I knew spent their free time playing softball on the schoolyard lot off Mission Road. Others went fishing down at the lakes between Manor Road and Meadow Lane. Me? That wasn’t my thing. On a hot summer day, I loved nothing more than to stretch out on the carpet of my living room floor near the air conditioning vent and scribble all over the pages of a Big Chief tablet with a Flair pen until my fingers went stiff. I wrote all kinds of junk. The earliest piece I can remember writing was a fake brochure for some kind of rocket ship / Chevy van hybrid. I was eight years old at the time. It was a bi-fold brochure with color illustrations. I was pretty proud of myself then. Still am.

Although much has changed over the decades – my writing skills have improved, I think – I still write commercial copy. During the daylight hours, I write about lawn mowers and deburring machines and satellite TV. As I said before, you’ve probably read some of my stuff. Planned a trip to Louisiana for Mardi Gras recently? You’ve read my work. Frequent a popular dating website? That’s me too. Spend any amount of time online researching orthodontists, equestrian supplies, building materials, self-storage facilities, or high fashion? I wrote some of that stuff.  I run my own little “content development” company. We’re writers and bloggers for hire. After hours, I write supernatural horror and science fiction. The commercial copy pays the bills, and that’s what this article is really all about.

Since I subscribe to a number of writer’s magazines, I get a lot of junk e-mail about books, DVDs, and seminars where you can quickly learn “how to make a six-figure income writing advertising copy.” Let me say – right here and now – that some of you can. Most cannot. Sure, if you can string together words and phrases and clauses with a fair grasp of sentence structure, punctuation, and grammar, you have a talent that can command a fair income – if you know what you’re doing.

In this age where text-speak has spread like Ebola from cell phones to term papers to casual conversation, many under the age of twenty-five appear to be incapable of putting a convincing argument for one thing over another to pen and paper (my personal opinion, not that of anyone else here at BookLifeNow). And since most marketing – whether in print or online – is driven by written content, there’s a great need for those who can write well. But you have to know the rules – those rules above words and phrases and clauses. Marketing copy is not written like fiction or journalistic articles. I won’t go into deep detail here, simply because there isn’t enough room to spell it all out in a single blog article.

But I’ll give you a peek. Here we go.

1. If you’re writing copy that sells window treatments, roofing supplies, invisible braces, air handling units, bug and tar remover, party supplies, liquid face lifts, or financial products, you have to first identify your audience. Ask yourself: WHO would want this? If you can come up with an answer, you’re well on your way to some compelling copy.

2. Always write to the business purposes at hand. Your client wants to convince the market that they need to pick up the phone or fill out a form or set up an appointment. What you write must gently nudge the readers toward acting on this suggestion.

3. Keep it interesting, engaging, and brief. Most people can read about 350 words (a single page from a paperback novel) in about a minute. They read whole pages because they’re invested in the characters and story. As a writer of commercial copy, you have none of that to your advantage. The average time a reader will spend on any page of content on a website is a whopping 33 seconds. Interesting, engaging, and brief, yeah?

4. Sell! If you’ve never sold anything in your life (cars, computer software, shoes, whatever) you may not have the experience needed to craft compelling sales copy. Selling is more than listing features, advantages, and benefits. It’s about creating an emotional connection between your reader and the product. In sales, we talk a lot about building commonalities, discovering needs, leveraging pain points, and overcoming objections. And it all works beautifully – with practice. Lots of practice.

5. And you must sell without selling. If this sounds like some twisted Kung Fu technique, you’re right. You must strike without being seen. Truly compelling copy leads the reader to believe that their needs are in direct alignment with product features, advantages, and benefits. You can almost see them nodding their heads in agreement as they ponder the words on the page.

6. Learn to write for robots. Pick up a book on the basics of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Online, everything is driven by search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo!). Every piece you write for a website is going to be seeded with keywords and phrases and links. Why? Every search engine employs search bot software to scan every web page for its content and then adds that data to a searchable index. This is how the web works. If you’re writing a page about chocolate chip cookies, you’d better mention “chocolate chip cookies” a few times in the copy.

You can earn a living as a writer. Like many, I’ve had a number of cube farm jobs. Long ago, I decided that I was unsatisfied with corporate life and made a decision to bail. I spent years building a book of business for my content development company. I’m a full-time writer now. It’s a sweet gig but it has its drawbacks. When 5pm rolls around and you’ve been killing yourself to crank out 10,000 words for a plastic surgeon, it isn’t easy to switch gears and be creative. Somebody once said that the worst day job for a writer is as a writer. Some days, I fully agree.

Cheers!

Debunking the Myth of a Strong Opening

John Klima previously worked at Asimov’s, Analog, and Tor Books before returning to school to earn his Master’s in Library and Information Science.  He now works full time as a librarian. When he is not conquering the world of indexing, John edits and publishes the Hugo Award-winning genre zine Electric Velocipede.  The magazine has is also a four-time nominee for the World Fantasy Award.  In 2007 Klima edited an anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories based on spelling-bee winning words called Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories.  In 2011, Klima edited a reprint anthology of fairytale retellings for Night Shade Books titled Happily Ever After.  He and his family live in the Midwest. You can follow him on Twitter @EV_Mag.

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There are countless writing books and countless lists of writing tips that trot out the same maxim again and again: make sure your story has a killer opening.  I’m here to debunk that myth.

It’s not that your story doesn’t need a strong opening.  There are countless times when I’ve read submissions where the story doesn’t start going until the five or sixth page, and in a ten-page story, waiting that long to get going is death.  There isn’t much room, get going!  On the same token, I’ve read almost as many stories that have a great opening that just fall flat by the end.

I’m not sure which bothers me more.

Let’s break down why this myth gets trotted out time after time, why it actually matters, and in what ways it doesn’t matter.

First, the reason that this myth consistently makes its way into writing advice is that it’s meant to convey to you the importance of keeping the reader reading.  If you have a catchy opening, the reader will be sure to keep turning pages, right?  And we want readers to keep turning pages and digesting the words we wrote, right?  Of course we do.

In some ways then, a catchy opening makes perfect sense.  Give the reader something intriguing, and off we go.  And catchy doesn’t necessarily mean explosions, nudity, action sequences, and the like.  A catchy opening can be slow and deliberate.  So let’s change the word ‘catchy’ to ‘compelling’ since ‘catchy’ implies forgettable pop tunes and we don’t want our stories to be forgettable.  Think of Henry James and how deliberate and slow-paced The Turn of the Screw is (if you haven’t read The Turn of the Screw go do it; for all its brevity, it’s still arduous and slow, but worth it) and still how compelling it is:

“The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.” – Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

Whew!  That’s a long opening sentence.  You finish it virtually breathless much like the literary audience listening to the tale.  I know that James isn’t for everyone, but for me, that opening sentence made me keep heading down the page to learn what the tale was that left the audience breathless.  But the opening isn’t full of action and excitement, in fact, it’s rather confusing.  But it still works to keep the reader reading.

I work primarily with short fiction, so a strong opening is particularly important to me.  When working at 10,000 words and less, there’s not a lot of space for exposition and you had better start moving into the story proper from the first sentence.  I continually see stories that take a few pages to start, and by then you’ve already lost your reader.  The writer typically has one paragraph to grab my attention and keep me reading.

So we should put all our efforts into making the opening as best as we can, right?

Well, no.  Not if you’re going to forego making the rest of the story strong, too.  The trick is that your story needs to be strong from beginning to end.  A strong opening followed by a weak end is just as much a failure of a story as a weak opening with a strong end.  Writing a poor opening means you lose readers who don’t wait for your story to get going.  Writing a poor ending means you’ve ticked off a bunch of readers who decided to stick with you to the end.

I know that’s easier said than done, but unfortunately for you, there’s no way around it.  Your story has to open strong and finish strong, whether it’s 500 words or 500,000 words.  Look at your strong ending, can you replicate that language and strength in the beginning of your piece?  Can you start your piece later and just cut your current opening?  Take your strong beginning and sustain that language and power through to the end.  If you can’t pinpoint what makes something strong, let someone else take a look at your writing and help you.

The best, and yet most difficult, advice I can give is to set the work aside and come back to it after some time.  One night might be enough.  If you can do it, write something else (this obviously works better with short fiction) and then come back to the first piece.  You’ll no longer be in that world and you’ll be reading it closer to how a reader will see it instead of your brain filling in gaps.

Heck, I’m guilty of telling people to write strong openings to stories.  Just don’t spend so much time working on the start of the story that you give the rest of it the short end of the stick.