LOVE THE GAME OR GO PLAY A DIFFERENT ONE

Last week I recorded another tutorial for Writer’s Digest University. It won’t be available for a little bit but it was on the subject of genres—what genre your book fits into and why that matters. One of the things I touched on there, and that I’d like to dig into here in a bit more detail, and more specific to science fiction and fantasy, is how an author working in a specific genre should come out of that community.

Defining a “community” as any group of people with a common interest, genre readers are a community. There is a community of science fiction fans, a community of fantasy fans, a community of horror fans, and lots of people (like me!) who belong to all three constituencies.

You must write what you know, they say, and I’ll extend that out to genre. Write the genre you know, the genre you love, the community you are already a part of as a reader.

I’ve written before on the subject of my quest to not be a snobby reader, but I think it’s perfectly fair to say that I’m still not a member of the romance genre community. I don’t read it, really, and I haven’t made any effort to write it. And that community, for what it’s worth, seems to be chugging along just fine without me.

But on a few—thankfully rare—occasions after a conference or convention seminar I’m approached by someone who says something like: “I’m not really a fantasy fan—I really only read non-fiction—but I have this great idea for a young adult fantasy novel. Do you think it will sell?”

Controlling the impulse to murder this person on the spot I always manage to politely deflect and offer some non-advice like “I guess so . . . why not?” then I get the hell out of there.

I’m a middle child and so inherently non-confrontational, but what I really should say, for the benefit of this would-be Stephenie Meyer is “For God’s sake, no. Don’t do it.”

But why not? Young adult fantasy sells. And how hard can it be?

Set aside for a moment the fact that no one knows anything and this non-fantasy reader might well end up being the next Stephenie Meyer. Stranger things have happened; worse books have sold millions. But think for a moment about the fantasy community: the community of readers who love that genre. Is barging into someone else’s community to make a fast buck the way you really want to conduct your business? Is it, Wal-Mart? And can you actually “make a fast buck” writing . . . anything?

If you’re looking at genre in terms of get rich quick schemes, the genre that sells best most years is romance, but even then any genre is, statistically speaking, a stay poor slow scheme for almost everybody, and that includes fantasy . . . even young adult fantasy.

If your answer to the question “Would you write it anyway, even if its never published?” is anything but “yes,” don’t write it.

If you think of the current group of, say, fantasy writers as a club I think you’ll find us a welcoming lot, and fantasy-specializing agents and editors as much more welcoming than they might at first appear. We love fantasy and as an editor I can tell you for sure that I would love to discover the next J.K. Rowling—and so does every other editor and every agent. We read in the genre and we’re curious to see what you can bring to the table.

And I guarantee you all of those people are there after years of hard labor. They’ve read their share of “the canon”—even if there’s no particular consensus as to what that might be—and they’ve lived the fan’s life.

I couldn’t imagine engaging in the seemingly endless hours of hard work, study, writing, rewriting, and selling that a finished novel requires all for the vague hope of some magical payday at the end of that process if I had to add in getting up to speed with the massive, decades-old, and fan-intensive romance genre from a cold start. No glimpse into Danielle Steele’s surely-impressive royalty statement would change that.

If you’re in this—writing in general—for the money . . . wow, are there easier, faster, and less blue-sky ways to get rich in America than writing anything for anyone. It happens, yes, that some fantasy authors get huge paydays. It also happens that people win the lottery or get drafted in the first round for the NBA.

I get in on MegaMillions for a dollar every drawing, spend two bucks a week for the entertainment value I get from imagining what I would do with my winnings. Trust me, I’ve made no concrete plans based on that eventuality. It’s a wild possibility bet with a very, very low buy in: virtually no time at all, and a financial investment that amounts to pocket change. Why not give it a whirl?

I don’t play basketball and don’t watch basketball on TV, but I used to shoot baskets in the driveway sometimes when I was a kid, and they occasionally made us play basketball in gym class. I haven’t attended a gym class in at least thirty-four years, but why should that stop me? I could spend the next year doing nothing but practicing but at age fifty-two and with a decided lack of athletic skill I will not be drafted by the NBA. In fact, taking that year will bankrupt me, probably result in a wide range of physical injuries if not a fatal heart attack, and cause me to miss out on things I actually can do, love doing, and might even get rich doing—slowly, at least.

I’ve established here that writing can be a very, very inexpensive business to start up, so not unlike the lottery in that regard, but where I might spend a few minutes every month or so buying a lottery ticket, it takes hundreds of hours at least to write a novel. Your investment in money may be small but your investment in time is huge. Do you really want to spend that time doing something you don’t really like in the hope of a possible but unlikely payday? Even at the same two dollars a week if I had to spend ten hours a week playing the lottery I wouldn’t do it. Full stop.

Same, then, for the basketball example. Would you put your next year at risk doing something you don’t really love on the way-outside chance of a million dollars?

I hope not.

But then if you were to ask me, “Hey Phil, would you spend about ten hours a week for the next year writing a fantasy, science fiction, or horror novel knowing you might make no money at all?” well . . . I have, I am, and I will.

I do it for the love of the game, and it’s that passion for the genres that fuels me, not the money. And I have found a way, as an editor, to make a living engaged in the work I love, leaving me some freedom to explore writing more as a passion than as a source of mortgage payments. I hope that comes through in the work, but if I have to write a romance novel to provide an adequate control group I’m happy to let that stay in the realm of the obvious but ultimately unprovable.

 

—Philip Athans

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WORLDBUILDING: GOVERNMENTS

With another round of my online course Worldbuilding in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing starting this Thursday, I’ve been going through the daily additional material that’s part of the course, and I’d like to share a couple of those items, on the subject of governments.

I’ve been reading, editing, and writing fantasy and science fiction all my life and I’ve noticed that “the government”—in whatever form that takes—is the most important single aspect of any fantasy world or science fiction future. Religion, usually unique polytheistic systems, tends to be lots more common in fantasy and does show up from time to time in science fiction, but some sort of political system is described in essentially everything.

Not all SF/fantasy is “political” in nature, in that the author is clearly trying to make some kind of political point, and that’s perfectly fine. Even then, though, there’s some kind of politics going on, from the highly detailed and intricate political machinations of Game of Thrones or Dune (both of which also feature carefully-crafted religious institutions) to the sort of evil priest-king du jour of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories.

A short story in which an alt-history government plays a role.

A short story in which an alt-history government plays a role.

Thinking about what your created government represents, how your characters interact with it, can take up an awful lot of your worldbuilding bandwidth. But most important—and what I try to focus on in the course, too—is that though setting up all sorts of laws and regulations and ministries and so on might be kind of a fun exercise, if your characters don’t interact with, say, the Ministry of Textile Design, or your villain has no interest in being made the Sewage Secretary . . . ?

How does the government, the king, the council, the senate, the alliance, etc.—interfere with or in any way interact with your characters?

In Writing Monsters I get into what monsters actually represent, what function they serve. I get into the idea of monsters as metaphor (Godzilla = the A-bomb, etc.) or how the zombie horde is not a villain but a force of nature/natural disaster.

Could we approach politics the same way?

How about these examples from the course material:

 

Science fiction grand master Robert A. Heinlein was well known as a political conservative, even if the hippy generation saw something he may not have known he was presenting in his classic Stranger in a Strange Land. Though I think Heinlein would probably move toward the Libertarian end of the contemporary conservative movement if he were alive today, unlike that generally anti-government ideology, Heinlein, in his novel Podkayne of Mars, had this surprising thing to say about politics . . .

“Politics is just a name for the way we get things done . . . without fighting. We dicker and compromise and everybody thinks he’s received a raw deal, but somehow after a tedious amount of talk we come up with some jury-rigged way to do it without getting anybody’s head bashed in. That’s politics. The only other way to settle a dispute is by bashing a few heads in . . . and that is what happens when one or both sides is no longer willing to dicker. That’s why I say politics is good even when it is bad . . . because the only alternative is force—and somebody gets hurt.”

Definitely something to keep in mind when you have a government that’s not meant to be the source of all evil—the thing your heroes are struggling against. And that’s the government that we see too often now in both SF and fantasy: the evil empire. But what about the governments that are at least worth fixing?

 

And . . .

 

For “government,” an example from George Orwell’s 1984, one of the SF genre’s most enduring classics, and quite possibly the most important novel (of any genre) of the 20th century—an examination of government gone wrong:

Nothing is efficient in Oceania except the Thought Police. Since each of the three super-states is unconquerable, each is in effect a separate universe within which almost any perversion of thought can be safely practised. Reality only exerts its pressure through the needs of everyday life—the need to eat and drink, to get shelter and clothing, to avoid swallowing poison or stepping out of top-storey windows, and the like. Between life and death, and between physical pleasure and physical pain, there is still a distinction, but that is all. Cut off from contact with the outer world, and with the past, the citizen of Oceania is like a man in interstellar space, who has no way of knowing which direction is up and which is down. The rulers of such a state are absolute, as the Pharaohs or the Caesars could not be. They are obliged to prevent their followers from starving to death in numbers large enough to be inconvenient, and they are obliged to remain at the same low level of military technique as their rivals; but once that minimum is achieved, they can twist reality into whatever shape they choose.

Yeah . . . a much-bigger-than-one-blog-post subject, right?

 

—Philip Athans

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THE JOY OF WRITING BY HAND

In an effort to actually work through the exercises I’ve suggested for other authors, I tried a form of writing I haven’t practiced since I was a little kid and had no choice (read: no typewriter) and that’s writing by hand.

For years—decades actually—I’ve poopooed writing by hand as an affectation (you’re just trying to get it touch with your inner Shakespeare in some kind of dumbass Golden Age Thinking exercise in hipsteristic nonsense) or a waste of time (eventually you have to type it up or no one will be able to publish it, or will even be willing to read it for publication) and though the former may be true for some people, the latter can actually become a valuable part of the writing process.

Maybe it’s just because I’m getting on in years, but my interest in being any version of “hip” or “cool” or “trendy” or whatever variation on that might exist is so small I doubt science has provided us with a unit of measure to describe it. I’m nanohip, picocool . . . I don’t give a rat’s ass.

I use the best technological tools I can get my mitts on to do my job, working almost all the time on a computer. And when I do write by hand, it’s not on archival paper bound in a leather cover embossed with the Celtic cross, nor do I use a gold fountain pen or a goose quill.

I use the cheapest discount spiral notebooks or composition books I can find, purchased the week after school starts for a dramatic discount. Which reminds me, have you bought your writing supplies yet this year? The pens I buy in a plastic tub from Staples, and sometimes I use pens I took from hotel rooms or are other giveaways advertising whatever service—I don’t even know or care. If it works, I’m writing with it.

Fifty pens for twelve bucks! That’s less than a quarter each!

Fifty pens for twelve bucks! That’s less than a quarter each!

So you have to believe me, I’m not writing by hand so I can feel like a medieval monk or Abraham Lincoln, or whoever, whenever. I focus on the words, not the tools, and if you do that too you’ll find—much to the horror of your accountant, like mine—that writing may be the cheapest business on Earth to enter into and maintain.

So then what about this whole “waste of time” thing and retyping it?

Yes, eventually I have to retype all those words I’ve scrawled (literally—I try to go as fast as I can, not as neat as I can) into my 79¢ spiral notebook with my 24¢ pen. But that’s hardly a waste of time, in fact it’s my first editing pass.

I’m not just typing I’m making decisions about what I wrote—word choice, sentence structure, pacing . . . all that good stuff that takes you from rough draft to first draft. This isn’t just drudge work, or an added step, it’s a necessary part of the writing process.

And guess what?

I’m writing more.

I’m unbound from the desk again, even though my clunky old laptop has unbound me already. I laid down on my bed yesterday afternoon with my dog Fresno Bob and while he was licking my nose and biting my thumbs I wrote a solid thousand words of a short story.

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Yes, I named my dog Fresno Bob, because I’m a huge nerd.

I can carry that notebook around with me if I have to. If I lose it, yes that will indeed suck. There’s no cloud backup for a 79¢ spiral notebook, so I have to take basic precautions, but I still mostly write at home anyway, so that’s not a problem.

What I find is that writing by hand somehow frees me up to get into that “flow state.” I sit down with the blank page and for no reason I can explain or that could make any kind of empirical sense, I just find it less . . . scary? Intimidating? More . . . fun? Liberating?

I gotta be honest, I’m not even sure.

But here’s what I do know:

I’m writing.

It’s working.

That’s all I need to know.

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

 

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ACTIVE SEARCH: SOMETHING WAS VERBING

Has it really been since March of 2015 that I promised more posts ahead on the subject of active voice?

For shame.

Better late than never, let’s get back to the subject . . .

As an editor, I frequently run across certain issues in the books I work on and in the interest of time, I’ve gathered together a small Word file I call “Common Comments.” Here’s one of them:

That construct: “something was verbing” is often a sign of passive voice. It’s almost always better to let the action be more direct: “something verbed” so that thing is happening in the past tense “now” and doesn’t come across as feeling as though there’s an extra layer of delay between your readers and the action.

“Something was verbing” is not a mistake, per se. This is one of those components to the craft of writing that goes past what’s grammatically correct and gets into what’s more engaging to readers. I’ve harped on this idea of emotional distance—the space between your characters and your readers—before, and this is another example of how unwanted separation can be introduced without you intending to do that, and there isn’t really a tool to use to identify it, at least not a reliable one.

Here’s what I mean:

Galen was running as fast as he could, the ghoul nipping at his heels the whole way. The screams the creature was making sent a chill down Galen’s spine, getting him thinking this would soon end with the ghoul’s fangs sinking deeply into his back.

To start with, there’s nothing grammatically incorrect about that short paragraph. It describes action, it gets into the character’s feelings about what’s going on—it’s fine, right?

Keep in mind that this isn’t about the number of words in each sentence. You need to use lots of words sometimes and very few words other times. It’s about the immediacy of the action, the immediacy of the feeling, and the difference between description in the context of fiction, and reporting.

As written this feels like a report on an unfolding incident. It tells us what was going on, and how Galen felt about it. But even if you’re writing in the past tense, there’s a sense of immediacy to well-crafted fiction that puts your reader inside the experience. The more words you use to qualify that experience, the more your reader is pushed away. We get the facts about what happened and what was being felt, but that one layer of remove is enough to leave readers dry.

This is another instance in which most readers wouldn’t necessarily be able to articulate what’s “wrong” with that paragraph, but they will be left with a feeling that the writing was just somehow . . . dry?

As I said in my “common comment” above, the solution is almost always just this easy:

Galen ran as fast as he could, but the ghoul nipped at his heels the whole way. The creature’s screams sent a chill down Galen’s spine, and he was convinced this would soon end with the ghoul’s fangs sinking deeply into his back.

Note that I removed almost all present participles, but not all. There’s no rule, as with adverbs, that all words that end with -ing should be summarily cut. They are, in fact, perfectly acceptable and extremely useful tools in any writer’s kit, but as with all tools, should be used with care and precision.

Identifying this as you’re writing is essentially impossible, but as you start to make your first edit pass through, use your handy search (not search and replace—just search) tool to find the suffix -ing.

Most of what you’ll find will be perfectly fine, but the key is not to delete anything, but to simply find those possible trouble points and read through it and think about it.

Would “she ran” make as much factual sense in that moment in the story was “she was running”? If yes, make it “she ran.” And if “she was running” makes more sense in that context, leave it alone—those three words do actually work together. But the point is to make that decision based on a set of specific circumstances rather than simply allowing yourself to write in a passive manner out of habit.

Once you go through this process in a few chapters or a few short stories, I think you’ll find new, more active habits forming.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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A BREAK FOR SOME SCIENCE NEWS

Despite the doom and gloom that seems to have settled over the poor beleaguered U.S. of A. lately, there’s some fascinating things happening, news of which is buried somewhere under the presidential campaign that’s ripping the country apart at the seams.

There’s been some science happening, and some of it is right out of the pages of the last hundred years’ worth of science fiction.

Let’s look at a couple of them, starting with the fact that the nearest star to us has a possibly Earthlike planet in its habitable zone.

Proxima Centauri is “only” 4.24 light-years away, and based on HARPS (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher) observations taken between 2000 and 2014, a team of astronomers discovered a planet about the size of Earth, in the habitable zone of the cool red star.

From the journal Nature:

At a distance of 1.295 parsecs, the red dwarf Proxima Centauri (α Centauri C, GL 551, HIP 70890 or simply Proxima) is the Sun’s closest stellar neighbour and one of the best-studied low-mass stars. It has an effective temperature of only around 3,050º kelvin, a luminosity of 0.15 per cent of that of the Sun, a measured radius of 14 per cent of the radius of the Sun and a mass of about 12 per cent of the mass of the Sun. Although Proxima is considered a moderately active star, its rotation period is about 83 days and its quiescent activity levels and X-ray luminosity are comparable to those of the Sun. Here we report observations that reveal the presence of a small planet with a minimum mass of about 1.3 Earth masses orbiting Proxima with a period of approximately 11.2 days at a semi-major-axis distance of around 0.05 astronomical units. Its equilibrium temperature is within the range where water could be liquid on its surface.

So what if the year is only 11.2 days long? If I was born there I’d be getting ready to celebrate my 1694th birthday. You’re only as old as you feel!

Okay. This is a big deal. And not that I’m 1694 in Proxima b years.

To me, at least, what this says is that if a potentially earthlike planet is right next door, simple logic would seem to indicate that they’re everywhere. That means the observable universe is looking lots and lots more Star Trek and Star Wars-friendly all the time. There are planets all over the place, and some of them aren’t gas giants, and some of those non-gas giants are not too close (too hot) or too far away (too cold) from their stars. In that zone, the zone Earth inhabits around our own Sun, if you have an atmosphere that isn’t too thin (like Mars’s) or an atmosphere that isn’t too thick (like Venus’s) you could have liquid water, and if you have liquid water and sunshine and a good magnetic field to keep solar radiation out you can have life. And if you can have life maybe one of those life forms might develop creative intelligence as a survival tool, and when they’re done just surviving they might look up at the stars and think, What are those, anyway? And they might invent radio and then . . .

Italian astronomer Claudio Maccone might pick up that signal and get everybody with a radio telescope looking at HD 164595, which appears to be the source of a strong, regularly repeating signal that might be aliens trying to say hello, finally. Anyway, they tried to say hello about 94 years ago, which is how long it would take a radio transmission to travel that far.

Or it might be any number of naturally occurring phenomenon and have no intelligent cause whatsoever.

Or it might even be coming from a different star entirely.

But hell, it’s a candidate signal, and worthy of a closer look. But for now, as quoted in a cnn.com article, Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) president Douglas Vakovich said, “the greatest limitation of the May 2015 signal is that it hasn’t been replicated. Before we can give any credence to a signal as coming from extraterrestrials, we need to see it repeatedly to make sure it wasn’t just a transient phenomenon.”

Okay, so we might not be leaving on colonization starships for the 4.3-year trip (at the as yet impossible to achieve speed of light) to the nearest possibly Earthlike planet (which could just as possibly be Venus-like or Moon-like and we haven’t moved to either of those places, which are lots, lots, lots closer but totally suck as places to live) and you likely won’t be adding any HD 164595ians to your list of Facebook friends in the next . . . probably, ever . . . but look at this science being done!

Look at these possibilities!

It makes me want to write a science fiction story in, like, the worst way.

Oh, and I started this by saying:

Despite the doom and gloom that’s seems to have settled over the poor beleaguered U.S. of A. lately, there’s some fascinating things happening, news of which is buried somewhere under the presidential campaign that’s ripping the country apart at the seams.

But that’s total nonsense.

The United States of America is actually more or less fine, and though there’s a lot wrong with it it’s still among the best places in the world to be a poor or middle class person. Our enemies are actually shockingly few in number, mostly hopelessly under funded and under manned DIY terrorist operations, and despite countries like China and India making lots more money than they used to, the US is still, by a huge margin, the world’s strongest and most stable economy. Donald Trump is not going to be president. Goldman Sachs has already decided on Hilary Clinton, so at least politically speaking nothing is going to get much better but don’t expect anything to get much worse. This is still the single best time ever to be a human in the entire two million years or so that there’s been such a thing.

And even if the “lamestream media” doesn’t think anyone cares, we’re barreling toward a scientific and technological singularity, whatever that is, and are experiencing an exponentially-increasing explosion in both pure science and practical engineering entirely unprecedented in all of that same two million years.

Okay? So . . .

Let’s take this as inspiration for more Star Trek-style hopeful, aspirational SF, and lots less gun-centric post-apocalyptic power fantasy. We aren’t degenerating into savagery, we’re evolving into a race of technological super beings that might very well take their place in an interstellar community.

Believe it or not.

Literally.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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THE GHOSTWRITER’S LAMENT

This morning I read the article “Trump’s Boswell Speaks” by Jane Mayer in the July 25, 2016 issue of The New Yorker. I’m not in the slightest fraction a Donald Trump supporter, but something about the story of Trump’s The Art of the Deal co-author . . . or is it ghostwriter, or is it PR copywriter . . . Tony Schwartz coming forward to throw Trump under the bus left me somehow unsettled.

I’ve done some ghostwriting myself and I’m happy to report that none of the books I’ve worked on in that capacity could ever be seen as assisting a dangerously unstable demagogue in his quest for power. I’m equally happy to report that when I have functioned as a proper ghostwriter, which is to say, an uncredited writer of someone else’s ideas, I have never “outed” anyone, much less fired off public attacks.

This all gives me a really icky feeling. Since Donald Trump is so overwhelmingly horrible I’d never want to be seen as in any way supporting him, or even feeling the least but sorry for him, I need to think about this whole ghostwriting thing from the perspective of professional ethics.

A bit of background from that New Yorker article:

Schwartz had ghostwritten Trump’s 1987 breakthrough memoir, earning a joint byline on the cover, half of the book’s five-hundred-thousand-dollar advance, and half of the royalties. The book was a phenomenal success, spending forty-eight weeks on the Times best-seller list, thirteen of them at No. 1. More than a million copies have been bought, generating several million dollars in royalties. The book expanded Trump’s renown far beyond New York City, making him an emblem of the successful tycoon. Edward Kosner, the former editor and publisher of New York, where Schwartz worked as a writer at the time, says, “Tony created Trump. He’s Dr. Frankenstein.”

For what it’s worth I’ve never been offered anything like that money, but it’s fair that we keep that payday in mind as we proceed.

The first question we have to answer in terms of ghostwriting in general: Why hire a ghostwriter at all, or why do ghostwriters even exist, is, I think, clearly answered in the freelancewriting.com post “Why Ghost Writing is Ethical”:

Not every company CEO got to where he or she is because of writing skills. Often that position was earned through people skill, business sense and financial skills. When someone like this turns to a ghostwriter, they should not be labeled unethical.

If you were to tell me that Donald Trump had neither the ability nor the time to write a book, I’m perfectly willing to believe you, and in 1987 I might even have agreed that he had something of value to say about business negotiations, the commercial real estate business, and so on.

Okay, so a publisher hired Tony Schwartz to do the writing, and Donald Trump to do the thinking.

Fair enough.

Richard L. Johannesen’s “Ethical Guidelines for Ghostwriting” really brings into suspicion the ethics behind the person who hires the ghostwriter, much more than the ethical responsibilities of the ghostwriter himself:

If we assume, as most do, that presidential speeches are ghostwritten, then the only unethical act would be for the President to claim to author his own speeches.

Did Donald Trump do that? Claim to author this book?

From The New Yorker:

In my phone interview with Trump, he initially said of Schwartz, “Tony was very good. He was the co-author.” But he dismissed Schwartz’s account of the writing process. “He didn’t write the book,” Trump told me. “I wrote the book. I wrote the book. It was my book. And it was a No. 1 best-seller, and one of the best-selling business books of all time. Some say it was the best-selling business book ever.” (It is not.) Howard Kaminsky, the former Random House head, laughed and said, “Trump didn’t write a postcard for us!”

This is tough, since we’re dealing with someone as nuts as Donald Trump. He said here that Tony Schwartz was the co-author but then said he wrote the book, not Schwartz. In case you needed another example of Donald Trump’s situational ethics.

Johannesen continued:

Obviously, the more input a communicator has in his or her own writing, the more ethical will be the resultant image. We really don’t expect the President to write his own speeches, but we do expect that the sentiments expressed in them will be his own.

And back to the freelancewriting.com post “Why Ghost Writing is Ethical”:

The real question of ethics lies in whether the message being transmitted by the ghostwriter is authentic. Does it accurately reflect the message the non-writer wants to transmit through the ghostwriter? Then the basic requirement to remaining ethical has not been violated.

This says it was perfectly ethical for Schwartz to write The Art of the Deal, and the final product is without ethical question in that Trump approved the text, clearly gleefully signed on to the content, tirelessly promoted the book as his own—the message within, at least, even if the precise language was Schwartz’s and even, honestly, if some of the ideas were Schwartz’s. As long as Trump, like anyone who employs a speechwriter or publicist—in the language of political TV commercials—“approves this message” then neither Trump nor Schwartz has done anything particularly wrong.

Johannesen once again:

Does the communicator accept responsibility for the message he or she presents? When former president Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes, disclosed in his book that many of the quotes attributed to the president were, in fact, either made up or “borrowed” from someone else, he caused quite an ethical uproar. Part of the problem with the Larry Speakes revelation was that the President denied the accusations. In other words, he claimed he never approved Speakes’ work. Most communicators simply assume that whatever they say or whatever they sign their names to is theirs, whether written by someone else or not. This is obviously the most ethical position to take.

Read at your own risk.

Read at your own risk.

Then from the New Yorker article:

It took Schwartz a little more than a year to write “The Art of the Deal.” In the spring of 1987, he sent the manuscript to Trump, who returned it to him shortly afterward. There were a few red marks made with a fat-tipped Magic Marker, most of which deleted criticisms that Trump had made of powerful individuals he no longer wanted to offend, such as Lee Iacocca. Otherwise, Schwartz says, Trump changed almost nothing.

“Ghostwriter” Tony Schwartz is clearly identified on the cover of the book, and as an author on the book’s Amazon landing page. To my mind, that would make him a co-author, a collaborator, and not a ghostwriter. But where that term “ghostwriter” seems to be applicable to Schwartz is in the revelation that he actually wrote all of the book, with little if any input from Trump himself.

Schwartz went to his room, called his literary agent, Kathy Robbins, and told her that he couldn’t do the book. (Robbins confirms this.) As Schwartz headed back to New York, though, he came up with another plan. He would propose eavesdropping on Trump’s life by following him around on the job and, more important, by listening in on his office phone calls. That way, extracting extended reflections from Trump would not be required. When Schwartz presented the idea to Trump, he loved it.

That last from the New Yorker article. So the fundamental “lie” at the heart of the book was actually Schwartz’s idea, approved by his lazy, disinterested subject.

Should you have the unfortunate feeling that any memoir or autobiography is the pure, complete, and unadulterated truth, please allow me to disabuse you of that notion now and forevermore. Of course, there are more honest books than this one, books much more revealing or heartfelt, but the people who bought this book bought it for advice on how to manipulate the business world for their own gain, and they got that. And it was signed by both authors, both of whom got paid.

Trying to walk that back almost thirty years later is more ethically suspect, frankly, than having written it in the first place. Tony Schwartz agreed to write the book, Tony Schwartz got paid, and when Trump revealed himself a fraud Tony Schwartz passed through his moment of doubt and pain and constructed a way to keep working. And then, again from the New Yorker article:

. . . Trump approached Schwartz about writing a sequel, for which Trump had been offered a seven-figure advance. This time, however, he offered Schwartz only a third of the profits. He pointed out that, because the advance was much bigger, the payout would be, too. But Schwartz said no. Feeling deeply alienated, he instead wrote a book called “What Really Matters,” about the search for meaning in life. After working with Trump, Schwartz writes, he felt a “gnawing emptiness” and became a “seeker,” longing to “be connected to something timeless and essential, more real.

If, since 1987, Tony Schwartz has rededicated himself to better people and better causes, and used his ill-gotten gains to do good works, I applaud that, but if there’s a Ghostwriter’s Code I think he broke it, and that sucks.

Even if it further embarrasses a truly dangerous man.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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PROGRESS IS POSSIBLE

I don’t necessarily like to go back and revisit things, but today I thought I’d take a look back at four previous Fantasy Author’s Handbook posts and see if I’ve managed to take my own advice, correct my own shortcomings, or keep my own promises.

That isn’t always easy to do, but I’ve never been a big fan of “do what I say, not what I do”-style advice, so in the same spirit of actually trying my own writing exercises, let’s see how I’ve done on four points, working my way back from the most recent.

On July 5, only six weeks ago, I wrote about . . .

MY 3.85-HOUR WORK DAY

In that post I bemoaned my own lack of progress on a couple projects and also did some research on the origin of the eight-hour work day and how many hours real people actually work. At the end of that post, I set myself the goal of increasing my work day from that less-than-four-hour low to six hours.

So how did I do?

It bears repeating that this is time spent actively working, not including lunch, errands, talking on the phone with friends, taking the dog out for a walk, yelling at my kids to take the dog out for a walk, and all the other things that intrude on the work hours of someone who works from home in the same way that meetings, “water cooler chat,” the day’s commute, and other distractions and time-wasters intrude on an office worker’s day.

Since I post these on Tuesday and wanted to make an immediate change after July 5, I added up my weekly hours as though a work week ran Wednesday-Tuesday. In the full five weeks of this modified work week since that initial post I’ve averaged out to 4.75 hours per day, an average increase of .9 hours per day. So, haven’t quite made it to six hours, but I’m headed in the right direction. And more importantly, running behind on nothing.

This shows that by gathering data, thinking about it, comparing it to the experiences of others, it is possible even for a middle-aged gentleman like myself to change his evil, or at least slovenly ways. Looking at this week’s to do list, if I keep my eyes on that prize, I’ll be getting to six hour work days starting . . . yikes . . . today!

On April 5 I blamed myself for a series of . . .

TRAGIC WRITING INJURIES

The back pain only got worse, and after a solid year went by since the first jolt of breath-stopping pain turned into lingering chronic agony, I finally had to try another doctor—anything to figure out what the hell this was, especially with some other really scary symptoms including numbness in my arms and legs suddenly showing up.

Finally, finally, got a doctor to look at me for more than a few seconds, take blood and x-rays, and . . . drum roll please . . .

Osteoarthritis of the thoracic spine!

We have a winner.

What causes this? I suppose my crooked posture photographed in that post might not help but it’s looking like I’m just too God damned fat. I’m tall, at about 6’3”, but 360 pounds is just way, way too many pounds.

Don’t believe me? Try this:

Get a hundred pounds of sand and strap it to the front of your abdomen. Carry that around everywhere, always. Sleep with it. Wake up with it. Go to bed with it.

Yeah.

Treatment?

Stop being so fat.

I’m now into week three of no processed sugar, very little if any fat, very much less meat, and regular aerobic exercise every week day including stretching exercises and Wudang Five Animals Qi Gong. I already have more almost pain-free days, and will get back to the doctor in the next couple weeks to see if there’s something else I can be doing.

I’ve lost weight before and if you’ve never had to attempt it, you have no idea how hard it is. I use food as an anti-depressant and it can be just as hard to kick as any drug. But strangely, I’ve found that I have no sugar cravings at all, don’t miss the afternoon salty snack, and can walk away from the third serving at dinner—even seconds!—without the withdrawals. I think I managed to get my body to such a damaged state that my brain actually recognized that it’s more painful to be this fat than it is to go without ice cream. Fingers crossed, we can get this thing beat in a year.

I NEED TO READ NEWER BOOKS

. . . was a promise I made on January 12 when I realized that most of the books I was reading at any given time were older than me, and I’m pretty old.

I started off by adding the recent Elvis Costello autobiography to my “currently reading” shelf and . . . just finished reading it last night.

What?

It’s a pretty long book, but really? Eight months?

I blame the New Yorker, which just keeps coming.

Every week.

Week after week.

My non-New Yorker reading really dropped off the first half of this year.

But thanks in large part to spending half an hour on the exercise bike every day, I’ve started reading more in general, so let’s see if I’ve managed to read more newer books . . .

My current books are:

Essential Doctor Strange, Vol. 2. Marvel comic book reprints from the late 60s. Not new.

Black Legion of Callisto by Lin Carter. Early 70s sword and planet series. Pretty much the same age as the good doctor.

A book from 2015!

A book from 2015!

Space Wolf by William King. A Warhammer 40,000 novel from—hey, not that long ago: 1999. That’s only a year older than my son. I think I said I wanted to read books that were less than eighteen months old but what the hell, it came from my random science fiction grab bag box, and I’m diggin’ it, so, whatever.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love—a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver, mostly from the 80s. Raymond Carver is a national treasure, so . . .

And replacing Elvis Costello for my current non-fiction read: The Upright Thinkers by Leonard Mlodinow from 2015! Hey!

So, yeah, at least there’s nothing from before the time of Christ.

Baby steps.

But my favorite of all . . .

RANDOM BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION PROMPTS FOR WRITERS

This one I’ve fully embraced right from the get-go.

I love this.

You really need to do this.

One thing I’ve added to it is to mix up the prompts more. Some didn’t really help me, and I had a couple other ideas, but just today my Calendar told me to strike the superhero pose and I did, and it always makes me feel better.

This month includes prompts like “fix something that’s broken,” “Read Dr. Strange,” and “Tweet about someone else’s book” that just stops me, gets me doing something else, clears my brain, maybe gets me moving, and otherwise not just wallow in the to do list.

You might not have a hundred pounds to lose, you might already be reading new books or don’t agree that new books have anything to offer, and might not be entirely in control of your work hours, but if nothing else, try this.

I’ve come to look forward to those little reminders and try not to look ahead at them so I can be surprised.

When was the last time you were pleasantly surprised?

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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