Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Do Something Different

I write novels. Novelist is one of the titles I like to wear. Novels are what most people want to read in the modern world and I am happy to supply them because I like to write novels.

I write short stories. Not many people read short stories. I think it's a form that is of interest to writers and few other people. But I like reading short stories and I like writing short stories, so I do.

I write comics. It has been a while since I wrote a comic script, but I've written a number of them in the past. It's a skill I have and I like to think I do a good job of it.

I don't often but have written scripts for radio and I have written the occasional script for stage. They were not very good but they were fun and educational and I can say I wrote them.

I occasionally write poetry. I'm definitely not a great poet but I'm particularly fond of tanka and haiku and will, if I'm in the mood, write a poem to pass the time. I never call myself a poet but I do sometimes write poetry.

What do you write? I'm going to bet you write short stories and novels and maybe you sometimes write poetry just because, like me. But have you ever considered writing a script for a television show? No? Why not?

Some time ago now I said "A story is a story is a story" and that you can learn how to tell a story from all kinds of media, not just books. I still say that. If you're a novel writer, you should also study how movies and TV shows tell stories because it's highly educational. The same is true about writing in other formats.

Writing a comic book is a lot different to writing a novel. Firstly, your audience is divided. The comic book reader is part of your audience, you write to engage and entertain them but much of what you write will be invisible to them. You also write for an artist (who might also be you) and in this way your writing must be instructive. The writer must have a sense of what to draw in order to give clarity to the words, but not be so instructive as to constrain them. The artist is the expert and you must write with enough wriggle room for them to do their job well. You and the artist are in a symbiotic relationship and you have to remember that when writing a comic script.

Comics also have a lot less words and if you write with a mind to having all the words of prose in a comic book then you're probably going to write a bad comic. Comics are a visual medium and the pictures must do a lot of leg work to convey place, time, thought, emotion and action. Most or all of the words that will appear in a comic are dialogue and so you must know how to write good dialogue. Because a panel has limited space, it must also be efficient dialogue.

I've been told I write good dialogue. If this is true (and I think it is, even if I do say so myself) then I credit that largely to having written comic books. That said, I can also think of one or two areas where my writing is weaker which is probably a result of writing comics. Oh well.

But you can see how writing a comic is a very different beast compared to writing prose. And yet, it made me a better writer.

This is why I encourage you--

No, this is why I am telling you to write something different. Experiment, go outside your comfort zone, try something different. Write a comic or a movie or a radio drama or some poetry or, if you are a screen writer, write a novel or a short story.

And when I say write, I don't mean slap together a quick piece out of left over alphabet soup and hazy memory of the plot to last night's Law and Order. Take it seriously. Put some time and effort into it.

Learn to do it properly.

Read about the needs of writing in your new format, find a guide book, find an expert, study examples of good writing in your format, study examples of bad writing in your format. You know, all that crap you did when you were learning to write for the first time. Treat yourself as that clueless, wide eyed newbie with big dreams.

And when you write it and you suck at it, go back and edit. This is serious business. You're educating yourself here and you will get out of it what you put in.

Then, when you can honestly say you completed a project or two to the best of your new found ability, go back to what you usually do and see how those skills carry over. Not all of them will, but some of them will. Maybe writing poetry improves the rhythm of your prose, maybe it improves the emotional impact of your writing over all. Maybe writing a script helps you to set a scene better and makes your dialogue more efficient. You won't know until you try.

But you've got to try.

Doctors go to medical conferences to learn the latest theory and practice. Scientists read journals to keep up to date on discoveries and research in their field. Like doctors and scientists, you're a professional. This is one way you can undergo professional development and make yourself a better writer.

Don't stagnate.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Summer's End Preview

The release of Summer's End is still a couple of weeks away, but because I think you're just so damned great, I'm going to give you a preview of what's coming!

You can hop on over to my Figment page and read the beginning of Summer's End right now. Click the cover to go see it!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Pre-Order Summer's End Now! Right now!

Time for an exciting announcement!

My new book, Summer's End is available for pre-order right now!

Summer's End is a detective novella. Writing a detective story is something I have wanted to do for years and has always been a difficult task for me. But I finally managed it and it will be coming to an e-reader type device near your face very soon!

I'll now take questions from the audience.

Can I buy this right now?
Yes you can! But you can't read it yet. Summer's End is currently available for pre-order and will be officially released on September 5. That's the first Monday in September and is approximately two weeks away.

Why pre-order?
Because they're fashionable? No, really, the reason is mostly technical. Right now you can pre-order Summer's End from Amazon and from Smashwords (links at the bottom) and it will be available from other ebook stores progressively.

You called it a novella. What's a novella?
A novella is a short novel. Summer's End is about 20,000 words, which is too big to be called a short story but is only about a quarter or less the length of your average novel. It's comparable in length to something like Animal Farm. It's an underrated story telling format that I personally adore. 

How much does it cost?
Right now, Summer's End will cost you $0.99. It will remain that price for about a week after release, then the price will go up. Right now it's super low because I'm a nice guy who wants you to give you a discount just for being awesome and reading my blog. Get in early!

What's it about?
Jonathan King is an aging Seattle private detective looking for a little rest and relaxation in the country. He wasn't looking for love, but on his first night in the small farming town of Madison he meets Summer Bell, the first woman to make Jonathan's heart beat in an age. But the next morning, Summer is found dead in her home. 

An outsider and the last person seen with Summer alive, Jonathan is the prime suspect. Jonathan knows he can prove his innocence, but can he triumph over fear and corruption while dodging a hot headed deputy sheriff and a hard line FBI agent? With nothing but his cunning and the shirt on his back, time is running out for Jonathan to bring Summer's killer to justice and clear his name.

Where can I get it?
AmazonKoboApple or Smashwords. More stores to follow.

What's next?
If you click the Amazon link (and hey, why not pre-order while you're there?) you will no doubt notice that Summer's End is labeled as book 1 of the "Jonathan King mysteries." I already have two more novellas written to follow this one. They both need a lot of polish but I'm not done writing mysteries, just yet! I'm also not done with fantasy! In short, keep watching this space!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

But What About The Poor Unrepresented Majority

This is a quick follow-up to my last blog.

Last week we talked about representation, the importance of fiction and what sort of world we, as creators, want to present to the world. I've written about this a few times in recent memory, about people with special needs, about the spectrum of gender and people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. This stuff is important to me and it should be important to you.

But something that is raised whenever I board this train of thought is, well, what about real world demographics? What about actual population statistics. Say that I'm writing a story set in Australia, in the area I live, which I mentioned is mostly white, with a large number of people from Chinese descent, as well as Korean and Indian but very few people of African descent or South American descent represented in the local population. Shouldn't the story set in this area have a cast that represents that ethnic makeup of the population? Shouldn't my cast be mostly white and maybe a couple of Chinese characters? Isn't it conceivable that my story wouldn't include the full diverseity of the area?

What about people with mental illness? Special needs? Diverse gender and sexuality? What if my story is about lawyers? Most lawyers are men, so isn't it being realistic to have a cast mostly made up of men?

In a perfect world, we wouldn't have to have this conversation. In a perfect world, the great diversity of humanity in our world would be equally represented in the heroes of our fiction. The only reason we have to make a fuss and a focused effort to write better female (for example) characters in leading roles is because there is a historical absence of such characters. There's a lot of catching up to do. The women of the world deserve a representation they're not getting.

And not every story needs to be a rainbow of representation. Not every story needs to tick off a list of characters: Black, White, East Asian, Homosexual, Transgender, Woman in the cast. In fact, when you try do that, you often end up with token characters and that isn't as helpful as you might think. You might argue it's better than nothing, but we can do better than tokens and we should.

When we talk about better representation and more diversity, we're talking about across a larger body of work. If you want the main character of this story to be a straight white dude, cool, fine, there are straight white dudes in the world and nobody is asking them to be deprived of representation. But if you have written ten stories and each one has a straight white dude as a main character and a supporting cast mostly made up of other straight white dudes and maybe some straight white women from time to time, then there's a problem. You're not challenging your default thinking and you're creating worlds in which people are excluded.

And finally, reality is no reason to under-represent people. We're writing fiction. Anything is possible. Your world, your story, the characters - and anything speculative and beyond the normal like laser guns and werewolves - don't exist in reality. It's not the (fiction) writer's job to paint a realistic portrait of the world.

Like I always say: Truth should never get in the way of a good story.

So after I uploaded this blog, a good friend of mine asked me "What right do I have, as a straight while male, to try and tell the stories of people of colour or women?"

It is an excellent question. The short answer is that you don't have a right, you have a responsibility. I said that. But that short answer doesn't rally address the issue in question.

All of us, as creators, even the women and people of colour amongst us, have a responsibility to represent diversity in fiction. However, we also have a responsibility to be sensitive and respectful. Sometimes that is going to mean not writing from the perspective of a character you can't represent. I have no idea what it's like to be homosexual, growing up in the bible belt of America and I would not feel comfortable writing about that life experience. That is just too far outside my experience for me to approach the topic with the necessary sensitivity. Even though I am writing about an under-represented person, I'd be doing more harm than good.

But it's also possible to over-think it. You don't need to write a minority character in which their being a minority is the point of the story. There's room for that on the bookshelf, but there's room for so much more. Think about this: If you took the character of John McClane from Die Hard and made him Chinese-American but otherwise kept the movie and the character exactly the same, would Die Hard lose anything? Hell no. Would you need to add something more Chinese American about the character to justify the racial choice? Of course not, that's stupid. John McClane doesn't make a point of bringing up his Scottish ancestry through the film, he just kicks arse and takes names.

In my opinion, this is the simplest and maybe the best way to write diversity for most authors. Tell the same stories you love to tell, but diversify your characters.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Rethinking Your Natural Defaults

Fiction matters. Media matters.

There was some controversy recently about Matt Damon appearing as the hero in a film set in China during the Song dynasty. That's around the 10th century, a time when there was a historically notable absence of white Americans in China. Now there's a big conversation to be had about a film set in China about Chinese things having a white American hero. It's not a simple thing and it's a conversation that needs to be had.

And anybody who says "Relax, it's just a movie, it's not like it matters" is full of shit.




I'm not here to talk about The Great Wall or the racial controversy around it.

I want to talk about some writing I was doing recently. Actually, it was world building. I was writing up some notes for a role-playing game. Setting details, plot hooks, important and interesting NPCs. Exciting stuff to you, I'm sure. I had grouped my important NPCs by categories like Business, Politics, Law Enforcement, Crime and so on. Within those categories, I wrote some notes on all the important people within the world. As I was working, I began to notice something a little off about my notes. I scrolled through all my important NPCs that I'd written up so far - organised crime bosses, police commissioner, two mayors, a business tycoon. After skimming over what I'd read, I noticed the problem.

All my important people were men.

All of them.

And with only a couple of exceptions, they had very white sounding names. The exceptions were a couple of characters of Chinese.

This happens a lot, regardless of whether I'm working on a role-playing game, a short story, a novel or whatever else. I have default modes of thinking that guide my creative endeavours. You don't need to be a genius to figure out where these come from, either. I live in a part of the world that is overwhelmingly white and if you live in this area and you're not white, you're statistically likely to be of Chinese descent.

This ethnic mix is my day to day reality. This is the world I see when I go outside.

But I also default to male and that's a little weirder. The world I see is not 90% male. I don't walk down the street and see a noticeable absence of women around me. And yet, male is my default. If I'm thinking up a character, I will automatically write them as male. Is it because I'm male? Does that tip the scales?

Let's go back to my game notes. I was writing about important non-player characters. These were the movers and shakers, the people with influence, the people who matter in my fictional world. They were 100% male. Not let's compare that to my day to day reality, the world that I see whenever I open my eyes, go outside, turn on the TV, listen to music. It should come as no surprise to you that I see a lot of men. Business leaders, political leaders, sports stars, popular musicians*, even criminals who make the news are largely male.** The people who shape the world are men. That's a pretty weird dissonance between population and power.

Well, yeah, obvious, right? Everybody knows that.

Right. So let's go back to fiction. Like I said before, fiction matters. We consume fiction in all kinds of media for a variety of reasons but there's always an element of escapism. Fiction offers us something we can't experience in our life. That might be adventure and excitement, it might be drama and romance, it might be sorrow. Whatever the case, we're stepping out of our life and into another life in another place to gain some form of fulfillment.

Now imagine that when you look around the world and see all the important and special people are, I don't know, foxes. Red foxes. You're not a red fox and maybe you can never be a red fox and, even if you could, you don't want to be a red fox. Now imagine that when you read a book or watch a movie, all the best characters are red foxes. Heroes and villains and even most of the supporting cast are all red foxes. You might get it into your head that unless you're a red fox, you can't be special or important. This is why fiction matters.

Yes, okay, we get that. This is nothing new. Hell, this isn't even new for me. I wrote about the importance of representation ages ago. Why are we here?

Well we've talked about the world, and my role-playing game notes. We've talked about why we consume fiction, why fiction is important and we've talked about red foxes. Now let's talk about you.

Just like me, you're going to have default ways of thinking. There's a good chance that your defaults are similar to or the same as mine. When you're being creative, those default ways of thinking are going to shape how you create. Your fictional world will automatically reflect your defaults. That wouldn't be a surprise. It is a problem, though.

It's not your fault, of course. It's the world around you and the life you live that shapes your defaults. You don't get to choose them. But you're still responsible for them. In fact, you're responsible for a lot. Fiction is important, remember? If you create fiction, then you're creating something important. You're taking on a responsibility, here. You've got to be aware of what you're saying with your fiction without actually saying it.

Are you reinforcing an inequality? Are you shutting people out? Are you creating a world where certain people don't exist and aren't welcome to exist?

You might not be. You might be. Maybe you don't know. If you don't know, then it's probably time you took a moment to stop and think about your defaults and, if those defaults aren't living up to your responsibility as a creator of fiction, start changing them.***

Fiction matters.

*Fun fact about me: I love glam metal. Take a look at the glam metal page on Wikipedia and count how many glam metal bands it talks about that are all men vs the ones that are all female. After you've done that, go listen to a Vixen album. Not to prove a point or anything, just because Vixen is awesome.

**Do you know where women do turn up in media? As victims, as wives to important men, as reporters talking to and about men, as co-stars, supporting cast and love interests to me.

***I'm happy to say that my game notes - which are a work in progress - now have a much better mix of gender and ethnicity. Also werewolves because werewolves, like Vixen, are awesome.