BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XX: HEINLEIN’S RULES: FIVE SIMPLE BUSINESS RULES FOR WRITING

From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the fantasy author, so worth looking for.

 

Dean Wesley Smith is an extremely prolific author with over a hundred novels under his belt. He’s recently gone all-in on independent publishing, including a monthly magazine, Smith’s Monthly, devoted to only his own stories—a feat I don’t believe any other author has ever accomplished. Along with his wife Kristine Kathryn Rusch, herself an accomplished author of science fiction and fantasy, he runs WMG Publishing, which blurs the line between self- and small press publishing—a distinction that’s gotten a bit blurry around the edges of late across the board.Hrules

Published this year by WMG, Heinlein’s Rules: Five Simple Business Rules for Writing is one of a number of similar titles by Dean Wesley Smith offering advice to authors in and out of the science fiction and fantasy genres. With the wealth of experience he has to draw from, his is advice is well worth a read, but as I’ll put forward as we go, not necessarily to be accepted without question.

 

But then, no advice should ever be accepted without question, and of course that includes my own. Even if I’m critical of certain of this book’s assertions, I hope you’ll read it, and as with everything, take from it what’s useful to you, and . . . well, you get the idea.

As the title makes quite clear, this book begins with five “business rules” first set down by science fiction grandmaster Robert A. Heinlein, in a part of an essay included in the 1947 book Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing:

1. You must write.

2. You must finish what you write.

3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

4. You must put the work on the market.

5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

Sounds like good advice—simple advice—and from this starting point, Smith digs a bit deeper, though really just a bit.

I bought the paper book—I’m like that, being old and everything—and it weighs in at only 55 pages (not including the excerpt from his book Writing Into the Dark. I’m a notoriously slow reader, but I knocked this out in a single sitting—barely an hour, and I was stopping to make notes. But then, brevity is the soul of wit. If he says what he needs to say in 55 pages, then 55 is exactly the right number of pages. I would contend that he doesn’t say everything he needs to say in that many pages, and the book left me wanting for detail, but for what it’s worth, the book is an easy read, and Smith’s style is conversational, maybe a tad condescending (but that can happen to the best of us), and does seem to come from a good place. I felt he truly believes in these rules, believes in the positive effect they’ve had on his own career, and believes they will be of similar use to any and every other author who adopts them. And in that he and I are in almost total agreement.

It might be in that passion for the rules that he gets into a bit of trouble, especially in his assertion that there’s some novelty to the advice itself: “Also, these five rules smash into so many writing myths.” Do they? I’m definitely not the first or only person ever to say things like “writers write” or “write fast” and so on—I’m not even the first person to offer that advice today. But then, let’s get back to Heinlein’s original intention, which was to provide business rules—advice for how to conduct your career as a writer, and not necessarily how to write better fiction.

I was immediately onboard with Smith in the first lines of Chapter One:

For lack of a better way of putting it, Heinlein’s Rules allow you to get to the fun of being a writer.

They also help us all remember we are entertainers.

Indeed we are, and there isn’t the slightest thing wrong with that. But then:

I’m an entertainer.

It never occurs to me to add that literary stuff in purposely. But clearly it is there.

And by “that literary stuff” Smith means theme—any deeper meaning to the story, some political or social comment.

This bugs me. I’ve made the point in the past that every story is about something, and I stand by that. That doesn’t mean you have to be a “political author” in the vein of George Orwell, but it does mean that every story communicates something. If Dean Wesley Smith prefers that message to come by accident, okay, though I doubt that’s universally true of his own work. If any particular reader then interprets that story in some way the author hadn’t consciously intended—great. But this thread of didacticism begins early in this book and worms its way throughout—and really doesn’t serve Dean Wesley Smith, or his readers, very well. It seems to indicate that he’s purposely, joyfully writing meaningless fluff that someone might later misinterpret to have any greater meaning, and if they do, he’d rather not hear about it.

You can entertain and make a point, and you can do that consciously. You can also do that subtly. Point of disagreement number one.

But then Smith does remind us that these are business rules—advice more for what to do with the story once it’s written than how, exactly, to write it or whether or not it’s all for fun or might be a society-altering polemic for all time.

I’ll save his distinction between writer and author for another time, and dive into the rules themselves, and Dean Wesley Smith’s interpretation of them.

Rule #1: You Must Write

How could anyone possibly disagree with this? I sure as hell don’t.

Unless you’re actually writing, you aren’t a writer you’re an “Idea Man,” and as I’ve said before, no one cares about your great idea.

Write it down.

With each rule, Smith concentrates on why people don’t follow that rule, or why that rule is more difficult to follow than it may sound:

What stops most people isn’t lack of time, it’s fear.

Committing words to paper means you might have to show them to someone. The words might fail: you might be found wanting.

And again, I couldn’t agree more. If Heinlein’s first business rule is to be followed you have to write for the sake of writing, then toss it out there to sell or not to sell . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself. He even ends Chapter Three with:

Dare to be Bad.

You might discover along the way just how good a storyteller your subconscious really is.

Agreed.

Rule #2: You Must Finish What You Write

Of course. Just like no one cares about your Big Idea, no one cares about your Work in Progress. Have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s what a story is.

Fear is a recurring theme throughout Smith’s interpretation of Heinlein’s Rules, and I think he’s hit the nail on the head with that. We’re afraid to start writing, we’re afraid to continue writing, we’re afraid to finish writing, we’re afraid the send our writing out into the world, we’re afraid of criticism of our writing, we’re afraid we’ll fail as writers, we’re afraid we’ll succeed as writers . . . and on and on.

As I’ve often said myself, there is no way to “bowl a perfect game” in creative writing, no sure-fire recipe for success, let alone a single definition of success, and Smith takes this head on:

. . . a story must be some imaginary image of “perfect” before it can be released. And no story ever attains that.

For any of us, actually.

So let’s all try to shed that . . . good luck, right?

I’ve rejected literally thousands of manuscripts in my three decades as an editor but I have never rejected a single author. There is no Bad Manuscript Police. No one will arrest you, beat you, lock you up if your story isn’t exactly right for that publication on that day, or as Smith writes:

But yet the fear of mailing to an editor scares some writers beyond words. So they are better off not finishing than to have to face that fear.

Now we get to what is clearly the most controversial of Heinlein’s Rules, even for Dean Wesley Smith:

Rule #3: You Must Refrain from Rewriting Unless to Editorial Order

Smith’s assertion, whether or not this was Heinlein’s original intent, is that:

You get the story correct the first time, but you can fix typos, spelling, and wrong details.

I’m going to have to go ahead a disagree with Mr. Smith on that one.

Always give yourself permission to have a better idea, and always give yourself a reasonable amount of time to explore it. If as you’re making your pass through for typos, you feel a whole scene could benefit from a rewrite, rewrite it. But okay, do that once.

WorldBeyond

I think what Smith is going for here is that invisible line between revising just enough and revising too much. Not having any way to determine in advance for writers neither of us have ever met writing stories or novels we’ve never read, that line is impossible to see from a distance. Smith seems to take the fast out, then, which is to say never rewrite, ever.

That’s just too either/or for me. Still, I think Dean Wesley Smith and I agree on this point more than we disagree. I have no magic number in mind for how may drafts is enough except a minimum of one, or how many is too many, though my initial instincts say three. Write it all the way through, then make one revision pass. If it still feels wrong somehow make another. At that point, based on no actual science, you’re probably not going to make it any better—get it out to an editor.

In an iO9 post, Charlie Jane Anders calls Heinlein’s Rules: “The Famous Writing Advice That Could Seriously Mess Up Your Game” and focused in on Rule #3:

The other benefit of rewriting, of course, is that you can have a lot more freedom in your drafts if you know that you’re going to fix them later. Sometimes you can make some intuitive leaps and then figure them out afterwards, or you can push the story forwards and then fill in the little character moments afterwards.

Anders quoted Patricia C. Wrede, who also took a critical view of Rule #3 in her post “Heinlein’s Rules for Writing (Mostly)”:

“Don’t edit unless an editor asks you to,” on the other hand, is about process. Process varies wildly from writer to writer; what works for one, won’t work for someone else. This rule, in particular, will work fine for those writers who, like Heinlein, can produce an almost-perfect first draft (and/or those few who still have professional editors they can rely on to ask for in-depth revisions when needed). It will work not at all for those writers whose first draft is over- or under-written, or which is otherwise deeply flawed.

Late in his career, Heinlein himself admitted that he did, in fact, revise/rewrite his work before sending it out, but he never, to the best of my knowledge, explained why he had laid down this particular rule.

Chapter Six continues Smith’s discussion of Rule #3, after some scathing remarks against agents and editors based on what might be a tragic misapprehension of the current state of the publishing industry that I’ll take on in a future post.

I found this to be particularly useful, though:

I will often get comments from writers in workshops when I say, “Great job. It works fine.” The writer wants to know what is wrong. If I don’t say anything is wrong, nothing is wrong.

That kind of thinking, of always thinking something is broken, comes directly out of this myth that everything must be rewritten because it is clearly broken.

I’ve struggled with this myself in both my pulp fiction and worldbuilding courses. I reverse that misconception back at some of my students, feeling guilty if I don’t have some criticism for them. After all, that’s what they’re paying for, right?

But is it?

If a writer writes something that works, it works, and saying: “I like this—it really works” has just as much value as saying “This doesn’t work—here’s how I think you should fix it.”

Sometimes the best editorial advice is: Leave it the hell alone.

I particularly like Smith’s summary of rule #3:

Forward.

Always face forward.

But then I’m forced to disagree with him on some advice from his discussion of . . .

Rule #4: You Must Put It on the Market

Though again, I absolutely agree with the rule as Heinlein stated it and as he clearly intended it, Dean Wesley Smith’s contemporary take on it showed his own bias, which, again, I’ll react to separately.

Leaving that aside for now, do heed this advice from Smith:

My only suggestion is to figure out systems that work for you to get the story from your computer and on the way to a magazine editor or a reader who can buy it.

And if your system beaks down, change it, fix it, get the stories out there.

Get past the fear, get past the ego, and just do it.

Exactly! What’s the point of writing it if no one’s ever going to read it?

Rule #5: You Must Keep the Work on the Market Until it is Sold

What can I add? Yup.

As an added bonus, I found elsewhere that Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer added a sixth rule, and one with which I wholeheartedly agree:

Rule Six: Start Working on Something Else

That’s my own rule. I’ve seen too many beginning writers labour for years over a single story or novel. As soon as you’ve finished one piece, start on another. Don’t wait for the first story to come back from the editor you’ve submitted it to; get to work on your next project. (And if you find you’re experiencing writer’s block on your current project, begin writing something new—a real writer can always write something.) You must produce a body of work to count yourself as a real working pro.

So then, some significant disagreements aside in terms of the state of the publishing industry as a whole and an author’s place in it, which I’ll try to tackle separately because I really think he’s giving some terrible and even self-contradictory advice, go read this book and think for yourself.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

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SCREW IT, I’M TAKING A DAY OFF

I just finished a really big project, and have to get started right away on the next big project and another slightly smaller project, and I’ve got the Worldbuilding course going, and then there’s this other weird little project . . . I’ve got some stuff to do but I’m on top of all those things. My 3.85-hour workday has become a solid 6+-hour work day, and Facebook’s “feature” where it shows you old posts reminded both my wife and I that it’s been exactly four years since we last took a vacation. The current deadlines are off a bit in the future, which is to say I’m not behind, rushing to finish up, and so on. I’m on top of it—have been working my ass off, actually, including all weekend.

I need a break. I need my brain to do something else for a day before I start editing another book. I need to write. I need to read. I need to just sit quietly and stare off into space.

But it is Tuesday, so I still have a blog post to write, so how to reconcile needing a day off and having to write something that might be useful to someone who wants to learn how to write better?

Let’s see . . . hmm . . .

Have you ever thought maybe your characters need a day off?

Think about the last fantasy novel you read—there’s a lot going on. A lot at stake. And we don’t really see anyone just kinda, y’know . . . take a day.

And there are reasons for this, which I got into in a previous post, and that a smarter person than me once described:

The reason novels were so thick for so long was that people had so much time to kill. I do not furnish transportation for my characters; I do not move them from one room to another; I do not send them up the stairs; they do not get dressed in the mornings; they do not put the ignition key in the lock, and turn on the engine, and let it warm up and look at all the gauges, and put the car in reverse, and back out, and drive to the filling station, and ask the guy about the weather.

Kurt Vonnegut

But consider this:

No, as Mr. Vonnegut said, you absolutely should not show every detail of your characters’ days, but after you fast forward through the ten-day journey from castle to castle, maybe an offhand reference:

Rain had kept them off the road for a full day. Looking back, Galen missed that lazy afternoon in camp, the time to collect his thoughts and catch his breath.

Right?

There, a blog post. Now, the rest of the day is mine!

 

—Philip Athans

 

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SURPRISE VS. SUSPENSE VS. WRITING MONSTERS

It’s funny how sometimes these blog posts just pop up right in the moment.

This morning, while working through this week’s session of my online Worldbuilding course, commenting on one of the students’ assignment describing a monster, I paraphrased an interview with filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock that I remembered from college. That was a long tome ago and in my mind I swapped his words “surprise” and “suspense” with “horror” and “terror”—but the sentiment is the same.

God forbid I Google the thing before quoting it, but anyway I Googled at after I quoted it and found this, via the Olympia (Washington) High School of all places:

Mystery, Surprise, and Suspense According to Alfred Hitchcock

The following is an interview between famed French director Francois Truffaut (F.T.) and Alfred Hitchcock (A.H.).

F.T.—The word suspense can be interpreted in several ways. In your interviews you have frequently pointed out the difference between mystery, surprise, and suspense. Many people are under the impression that suspense is related to fear.

A.H.—There is no relation whatever. Let’s go back to the switchboard operator in Easy Virtue an early Hitchcock film. She is tuned in to the conversation between the young man and the young woman who are discussing marriage and who are not shown on the screen. That switchboard operator is in suspense; she is filled with it. Is the woman on the end of the line going to marry the man whom she called? The switchboard operator is very relieved when the woman finally agrees; her own suspense is over. This is an example of suspense that is not related to fear.

F.T.—Yet the switchboard operator was afraid that the woman would refuse to marry the young man, but, of course, there is no anguish in this kind of fear. Suspense, I take it, is the stretching out of an anticipation.

A.H.—In the usual form of suspense it is indispensable that the public be made aware of all the facts involved. Otherwise, there is no suspense.

Truffant & Hitchcock

Truffant & Hitchcock

F.T.—No doubt, but isn’t it possible to have suspense in connection with hidden danger as well?

A.H.—To my way of thinking, mystery is seldom suspenseful. In a whodunit, for instance, there is no suspense, but a sort of intellectual puzzle. The whodunit generates the kind of curiosity that is void of emotion, and emotion is an essential ingredient of suspense.

In the case of the switchboard operator in Easy Virtue, the emotion was her wish that the young man be accepted by the woman. In the classical situation of a bombing, it’s fear for someone’s safety. And that fear depends upon the intensity of the public’s identification with the person who is in danger.

I might go further and say that with the old situation of a bombing properly presented, you might have a group of gangsters sitting around a table, a group of villains . . .

F.T.—As for instance the bomb that was concealed in a briefcase in the July 20 plot on Hitler’s life.

A.H.—Yes. And even in that case I don’t think the public would say, “Oh, good, they’re all going to be blown to bits,” but rather, they’ll be thinking, “Watch out. There’s a bomb!” What it means is that the apprehension of the bomb is more powerful than the feelings of sympathy or dislike for the characters involved. And you would be mistaken in thinking that this is due to the fact that the bomb is an especially frightening object. Let’s take another example. A curious person goes into somebody else’s room and begins to search through the drawers. Now you show the person who lives in that room coming up the stairs. Then you go back to the person who is searching, and the public feels like warning him, “Be careful, watch out, someone’s coming up the stairs.” Therefore, even if the snooper is not a likable character, the audience will still feel anxiety for him. Of course, when the character is attractive, as for instance Grace Kelly in Rear Window, the public’s emotion is greatly intensified.

As a matter of fact, I happened to be sitting next to Joseph Cotten’s wife at the premiere of Rear Window, and during the scene where Grace Kelly is going through the killer’s room and he appears in the hall, she was so upset that she turned to her husband and whispered, “Do something, do something!”

F.T.—I’d like to have your definition of the difference between suspense and surprise.

A.H.—There is a distinct difference between suspense and surprise and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean. We are now having an innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens and then all of a sudden, “boom!” there is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence.

Now let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the décor. The public can see that it is quarter to one. In these conditions the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen, “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.

 

In that reply to a student this morning I paraphrased a portion of this interview in regards to the introduction of a monster into a story. In Writing Monsters, I went into some length regarding the staging of the reveal of a monster, working under what I continue to defend is an accurate premise: The more we know about a monster the less scary it becomes.

I think this is mostly true, but what about the other possibility, that the more you know of a monster the scarier it becomes?

Available Now!

Available Now!

Consider The Walking Dead.

Even before that series started, we knew what the George Romero-style zombie can and can’t do, and we know how to kill it. The Walking Dead chose not to mix that up in any detectable way, so here we have slow moving, dim-witted cannibals than can only be killed by traumatic brain injury.

Check.

But that doesn’t make them any less scary. In fact, knowing that they’re offering the Death of a Thousand Bites makes them scary. Knowing that they can be killed but it isn’t easy makes them even scarier. Putting a whole horde of them together to overwhelm you makes them scarier still.

So what The Walking Dead and similar monster stories play off of isn’t the sense of mysterious “other” that many, if not most monster stories depend on, but the terror of knowing precisely how bad it’s going to be if they get you in their clutches—and that can be sustained for a lot longer. They can, conceivably, remain scary episode after episode, season after season, because we know there’s a bomb there, essentially, and know that it can go off any minute, and knowing what a bomb can and can’t do or that under some set of limited circumstances it could be defused, doesn’t necessarily lessen that suspense, that terror.

—Philip Athans

 

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MY 3.85-HOUR WORK DAY

I’ve used this space to suffer over my personal work ethic, writing process, and relative lack or excess of projects, and I don’t really want to belabor the point, but . . . here I go, once more belaboring the point in hopes of finding some new wisdom that will make me a better freelancer.

I have a few clients—not many—that I bill on an hourly basis. I don’t like to work this way, but it’s not always avoidable. When you have a client like that you have a basic responsibility, both to your client and to yourself, to accurately track and report your time. But for a long time I was tracking only those projects and not the others, which paid flat fees in one form or another. At some point I heard a good piece of advice and that’s to track all of your work hours, and for a number of reasons.

For me, the most telling result of that data is a look at how that flat fee translates to hourly work. Doing this, I was able to re-prioritize my time, shifting work to projects that ended up with a higher per-hour rate. This also helped me set flat fees, per-word rates, etc., to make sure that I was able to actually make a living doing the freelance editing and writing work that I do.

And let me stress that again: I’m trying to make a living. I’m not independently wealthy. I have demands on me: two mortgages, student loans payments, utilities, food . . . crazy stuff like that. This is what I do not as a hobby or a calling but as a career.

Okay, so I started tracking my work time, rounded to five-minute increments, some months ago and every so often I take a look at that data and try to match it up to my actual work experience, income, etc., to get a sense of whether or not my little one-man operation is on the right track.

I’ll admit, 2015 was hard for me. For various reasons, some I can’t really even identify, I managed to get behind then more behind then even more behind, so I was almost overwhelmed. But by the end of May, 2016, I was at a state where I had dug out of that deadline hole and was as close to “caught up” as I’ve been in some time.

Now I find myself running late on an edit for an extremely talented author who’s been more than patient with a string of broken promises, and I’m getting ready to dive into another project right behind it while having to finish up this current online pulp fiction workshop and the seven 6000+-word short stories that all need edits, and etc., etc., etc.

It’s the first week in July, so after having entered all my time data so far for the year I thought the halfway mark was a good time to take a look at what that work-time tracking was showing me.

Based on the number of week days (I don’t count holidays as days off, and often work on weekends, but . . .) and the number of hours logged as work, I averaged only 3.85 work hours per day in 2016’s 129 work days through June 30. I won’t say what that breaks down to in terms of hourly rate based on income received but it’s low. It’s way too low—a third or less of my actual target.

This is not good.

I feel like I should be working more hours per day and I have at least one late project to back up that assertion.

But what good is the internet if it can’t help us find rationalizations for our bad behavior?

Poet and playwright T.S. Eliot was asked about his writing process in a 1959 Paris Review interview:

T.S. Eliot, at hour 2

T.S. Eliot, at hour 2

But whether I write or type, composition of any length, a play for example, means for me regular hours, say ten to one. I found that three hours a day is about all I can do of actual composing. I could do polishing perhaps later. I sometimes found at first that I wanted to go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I’d done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory. It’s much better to stop and think about something else quite different.

So, wow. I have .85 hours a day up on T.S. Eliot!

Until you consider that at this time Eliot was also working in publishing at least part time.

Crap.

Now, going out into the freelance world, I expected that I would work about as much as I did when I went to an office every day, but without the considerable time wasted by the back-and-forth commute, incessant meetings in which three or four minutes of actual new information was wrapped in an hour or more of general office bullshitting, and then some more general office bullshitting, and lunch, and more process stuff, logging things, and so on.

Well, I still do process stuff, still answer emails, manage my social media presence, much of which could be considered “general bullshitting”—but I do have ultimate flex time. Want to spend a Wednesday afternoon sitting on my butt watching TV? No problem—I’ll make up that work on Saturday, or at night, or . . . never?

The office makes us work an eight-hour day, but as freelancers, can we really work an eight-hour day? Where dose that concept even come from?

Leo Wildrich, in his article “The Origin of the 8-Hour Work Day and Why We Should Rethink It” traces the origin of the eight-hour work day to the Industrial Revolution and Robert Owen who raised the clarion call: “Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest,” which was then solidified by Henry Ford as the most efficient way to run a factory. But then Wildrich challenges that with the idea of ultradian rhythm and the 90-120 minute work/20-30 minute rest concept popularized by Tony Schwartz.

Lisa Evans’s Fast Company article “The Exact Amount of Time You Should Work Every Day” doubled down on this concept, quoting a Draugiem Group study that found:

“. . . the 10% of employees with the highest productivity surprisingly didn’t put in longer hours than anyone else. In fact, they didn’t even work full eight-hour days. What they did do was take regular breaks. Specifically, they took 17-minute breaks for every 52 minutes of work.”

Like Wildrich, Evans goes on to suggest a timer.

Now, I’ve tried something similar to that and though I will take Leo Wildrich’s advice to turn off all notifications, I actually tend to get distracted by the act of eliminating distractions—looking at the timer to see how many minutes of work time are left, trying to pull away when the time is up, wondering how far over I can go, then being distracted by something else in the “rest” phase, which quickly stretches from 17 minutes or 20-30 minutes to one episode of Game of Thrones, which turns into two, then there’s the day.

That just hasn’t worked for me at all. Is it because I’m too old?

The BBC reported on an Australian study that claims “Three-day working week ‘optimal for over 40s’ ” Is that it? Am I just too old to work more than twenty-five hours a week? I actually find that difficult to believe. I mean, I’m over forty, but I’m not actually that old.

And that article is more about older people holding down part time jobs, not for freelancers like me. Even then, a 25-hour week would mean a 1.15 hour/work day increase for me.

Tamara Berry took a deeper look at the peculiarities of the freelance life in her SparkPlugging article “How Many Hours Does the Average Freelancer Work?

Working from home is tricky because you aren’t punching in and out, you don’t take regular breaks, and if you’re like me, you always do a quick email check before you (insert pretty much any activity here). I find it hard to track the total number of hours I spend working for this very reason. For example, I just got done writing about fifteen catalog descriptions. It took me an hour, but the only reason I know it took an hour is because I was watching one of my favorite television shows while I did it. Does that mean I was really working? Does it count as an hour? A half hour?

As I said, I do track my work time, but I assume that some minor distractions count into that. I don’t stop the clock to choose another album on iTunes, read a couple tweets, or take a quick bathroom break. I do stop the clock for my own social media efforts, reading a full article online, etc., but the time it takes to, say, edit a chapter also includes breathing, glancing up at this or that, and being a human, not some kind of gear in a machine.

Faster, you damn proles! Work faster!

Faster, you damn proles! Work faster!

Lest anyone think I’m now rationalizing my 3.85-hour work day, how about some tough love from Samar Owais in his “9 Things You Should Know About Freelancing Full-time” at Hongkiat:

Freelancing full time means you’re responsible for yourself and your work more than ever. There’s no one around to monitor how much work you’re getting done or whether you’re meeting your targets.

For you to be successful as a freelancer, you need to be accountable for yourself. Otherwise, you might end up spending half the day tweeting and going through your RSS reader.

Ahhh, damn it. He’s right. Even when he also says:

Set your own hours: if you can get your work done in 4 hours instead of 8, no one’s forcing you to stay in the office. How cool is that?

It’s pretty cool, and you couldn’t force me back to an office, but the evidence of late projects, low average per-hour rate, and some financial stress is a clear and impossible to ignore or rationalize sign that I need to get my butt in gear.

I extended my own math out to get a better picture of how much actual work I can get done in an hour, and so on, and it looks as though the target number, five days a week, is six hours. I bet that put me, sans “day job,” in roughly the same territory as 1959 T.S. Eliot, an hour over Australians age 40+, and a full two hours ahead of Henry Ford’s factory workers.

Wish me luck!

 

—Philip Athans

P.S.: Writing and posting this article? Almost exactly 120 minutes.

 

 

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LESSONS FROM THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE: ITALICS

The 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style has twelve individual index entries under italics, and one of those items, “uses, other” has twenty-one sub-entries. So there are a lot of rules, but let’s look at a few that I see come up in fantasy and science fiction novels and stories. I’ll leave a few of the more obscure bits for you to find on your own if you’re writing something more technical.

First of all, in their handy glossary, the CMS defines italic as:

A slanted type style suggestive of cursive writing (like this). Contrast roman.

And roman as:

The primary type style (like this), as distinguished from italics (like this).

So those are our basic terms. And then a quick bit of advice on how to access italics: It’s always better to highlight a word and choose italics rather than to identify it as a whole new font, or worse, a new style. There is no reason in 2016 that you should underline something to indicate italics. Just highlight it, click that I icon or command-i (in MS Word, at least, and command might be Mac only, I don’t know about those crusty old PC things) and you’re good to go.

Actually making text italic is easy, knowing when and why to do that can be a bit more complicated. Chances are you’ll use italics in one of four categories: emphasis, titles, foreign words, and thought/alternative dialog. We’ll look at the basic rules from the CMS for as many as we can find, but we might have to dip into other sources.

Emphasis

This is when, especially in dialog, you want to make sure that a particular word or short set of words really lands, making sure that this word or these words are seen as particularly important. Here’s a good warning, though, from the CMS, that I hope you’ll take to heart:

Overused, italics quickly lose their force. Seldom should as much as a sentence be italicized for emphasis, and never a whole passage.

Please take this to mean that if, say, you are including the text of a letter in your manuscript, that text should not be set entirely in italics. If you have little interstitial scenes or some other device like journal entries or something like that, also, do not set them all in italics. Italics were not meant to be read for sentence after sentence, page after page, and doing so can be really hard on the eye. This is another instance where your readers might not be able to articulate that. They might not say, “I hated all the italics—they hurt my eyes.” But they will hate all the italics, because they do hurt their eyes.

I’ll add to this that italics, and italics only, are to be used for emphasis, never all caps. If someone is really screaming really loud! the exclamation mark and the surrounding context will have to carry that. And please resist any temptation to MIX these Elements all UP or to use any more than one Punctuation Mark at the end of the sentence!?!…!

Remember: You’re writing a story, not some kind of concrete word art.

Titles

Set the titles of the following things in italics: books, journals, movies, and paintings. (8.2) Also “the names of ships and other craft, species names, and legal cases.”

For fantasy and science fiction authors, this means that “in world” book titles like The Book of Common Spells by Galen Wizardson or General Principals of Anti-Gravity by Bert Einstein, Jr. would be set in italics.

We’ll also have ships, including starships and future or fantastical versions of ships (steampunk airships, etc.), so make sure you’re italicizing Enterprise or Sea Sprite. But in a separate rule (7.28) the possessive s should be set in roman:

I was the last of the Enterprise’s redshirts to get the safety briefing.

Going back to the rule for titles (8.2) note that sub-titles or chapter titles should be set in quotation marks, as should the titles of poems. The title of a series should be set in roman, without italics. So you would write: The Legend of Drizzt, Book I: Homeland, where the series title is the Legend of Drizzt and the title of the individual book is Homeland.

That mention of species is worth noting in that what they mean there is, homo sapiens, not human. So if you have elves or unicorns or halflings in your story, elf, unicorn, halfling, etc., should not be italicized, but if you invent some kind of Latin(ish) classification for unicorns, equus magickus, or something, okay then.

Note, please, that the names of businesses like inns, taverns, restaurants, etc. are not set in italics:

While waiting for the rest of Merry Widow’s crew to unload the coffins, Galen sat at the bar in the Weeping Pony Inn and read the last few chapters of the Blood Red Steel Saga, Book XXXVI: Bronwyn’s Lament with a tear in his eye.

Foreign Words

Going back to that idea that you don’t want to invent any rules of grammar, style, and usage you don’t have to, foreign words will include words in any language you create on your own, so what’s good for French is good for Dwarvish. From the CMS:

[7.49] Italics are used for isolated words and phrases in a foreign language if they are likely to be unfamiliar to readers. If a foreign word becomes familiar through repeated use throughout a work, it need be italicized only on its first occurrence. If it appears only rarely, however, italics may be retained.

I’ve used the example of the Forgotten Realms piwafwi—the peculiar magical cloak the drow wear—as an example of an invented “foreign” word you can’t “translate” into English. There is no real world analog for a piwafwi, so that’s what we have to keep calling it.

Following this rule to the letter, in a Forgotten Realms book, anyway, we’d see only the first instance of piwafwi in italics and if it’s referred to again in the text it would be set in roman.

Here’s where I feel I have to break from the CMS, though they do give me an out with the last sentence of the above quote. I tend to leave foreign words like this in italics throughout, adhering, I’ll admit, perhaps a bit too closely to the escape hatch provided. Since the CMS seems reluctant to define in concrete terms what constitutes “only rarely,”  I’m going to have to. And in section 11.95 of the CMS, I’m given another out: “If used throughout a work, a transliterated term may be italicized on first appearance and then set in roman.” That says to me: “or, you can leave it italicized . . .” at least as much as it says, “You don’t have to italicize it in the first place.”

Thought/Alternative Dialog

The style at TSR/Wizards of the Coast was always that a character’s thoughts were left in roman, and italics were reserved for magical or telepathic communication. If your story contains some form of magical or telepathic communication, or some other alternative means of communication (hand signals, flashing lights, etc.) I think you’d really benefit from adopting that style.

The CMS seems to kind of punt on this subject:

[13.41] Unspoken discourse. Thought, imagined dialogue, and other interior discourse may be enclosed in quotation marks or not, according to the context or the writer’s preference.

I honestly can’t think of a single book in which I’ve seen thoughts in quotes—how can we tell that apart from spoken dialog?

I think the rule I’ve followed for years comes from Words Into Type, another essential text, especially for you self-publishers out there. I have an older edition, but from page 142:

Thoughts. Unspoken thoughts, which might appear in context with dialogue, are often italicized rather than set roman with quotation marks.

Even there, it’s not stated in absolute terms.

So on this score, taking into account whatever special needs your story may require, set your own standards, be as careful as you can be to adhere to those standards yourself, then communicate those standards to your editor(s).

As with all rules in creative writing these are all made to be broken, but I’ll remind you again of the significant difference between breaking a rule on purpose for some specific effect, and not knowing the rule in the first place.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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AN EVIL EMPIRE, BENT ON SELF-DESTRUCTION (BUT WHY?)

Though I tend to shy away from a direct examination of current politics, let’s dip our toes in another troubling month in this country and take a look at present day America as a worldbuilding exercise. This could be considered a sequel to my March 17, 2015 post “An Evil Empire, Bent on World Domination (But Why?),” which was itself a “sequel” to “An Evil Genius, Bent on World Domination (But Why?)” from August 7, 2012. The former ended with this conclusion:

And just as with villains, it’s not nearly enough to just say that an empire is “evil.” If a villain is someone whose motivations we understand but whose methods we find abhorrent, that same criteria should be applied to an evil empire.

We live in a country where the daycare center in which my wife works just went through an “active shooter drill.” This might seem like an over-abundance of caution, except that we have actually managed to create for ourselves a nation in which people go into public places and start shooting—and doing that, now, with startling regularity.

What follows each incident is the inevitable rise in talk about gun control, with the voice of a lame duck president added to the chorus, but the fully bought-and-paid-for legislative branch just says some version of, “Nope, we like it this way.” Then we grumble and get on with our lives, content in our own positions and free of any responsibility.

One of the founding principles of the United States of America was a separation of church and state, but what’s happened over the course of our history, and what seems to be coming to a head right now, is the separation of people and state. We might show up to vote, but most likely not. We’ll watch the live feed of this week’s active shooter situation and shake our heads. But then we go back to work. Most of us just don’t have time to try to figure out how to affect positive change—we’re too busy just trying to pay the mortgage and/or the student loans and/or the car payment and/or the credit card bills, etc.

It’s not my fault. I don’t have any guns. I’m not going to shoot anyone. I was as far away from Orlando, Florida as you can be and still be in the continental United States, but if I lived there, I would have voted for the other guy—the guy who would have taken that shooter’s assault rifle away years ago . . . if there was actually any such guy on the ballot. Run for office myself? Not a chance in hell, thanks.

People can be citizens of an evil empire and simply not recognize it.

We’re too busy, too disconnected, unable to trust but unwilling to engage, so whatever happens, it wasn’t my fault, and meanwhile we have our own to do lists to complete, our own children to feed.

So where does that leave me? Where does that leave all of us?

First of all, let’s ask the essential question: Do we actually live in an evil empire, bent on world domination? Or is it an evil empire bent on self-destruction?

Looking back at a particularly strange indie science fiction film of the early 1980s in his Omni essay “Liquid Sky and You, We, I” Jean-Pierre Fenyo wrote:

The 80s were the last decade of The Cold War, and the beginning of The AIDS Epidemic which has had a very negative impact on Liberal Social values, including Tolerance of Tolerant Others, and has helped give rise to irrational reactionary extremism in politics and society. And with the dramatic transformation of our societies as a result of excessive fear of otherness; Fascisms have gained traction. It can be said that with the False Victory of The West against The Soviet Union inadvertently a dangerously unstable unipolar World arose; in which the USA under George H.W. Bush began to tamper with the delicate balance of power in The Middle East, and the horrific attacks of 9/11/2001 could happen, the aftermath of which has given rise to Ultra-Nationalism, Xenophobia, Anti-Semitism, and Plutocratic Fascism, which are once more threatening all Humanity!

Though I’m not sure Mr. Fenyo has got all this precisely right, I do think you’d have to be particularly dense to think that everything is fine here in “the greatest country on Earth.” But does that mean we’re all tools of an evil empire?

Don’t assume someone is acting out of evil intent when mere incompetence, ignorance, and stupidity are equally valid explanations. Our leaders are human, and thus full of human flaws like greed and fear. The United States government is no more intellectually capable of creating a New World Order based on race hatred and greed than it is of creating a New World Order based on empathy and compassion. They have today’s money to make. Tomorrow is another day.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky

And then we were all suddenly dropped into the Internet Age, having no idea what to actually do with that thing, and so now every weird fringe belief is given full throated voice. As easy as it is to “fact check” some blog post (including this one) or internet meme that comes along, it’s easier to just click “share,” wallow in it for a minute or two, and move on to the next possibly societal-damning proto-idea.

In his novel Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote:

“But man is so addicted to systems and to abstract conclusions that he is prepared deliberately to distort the truth, to close his eyes and ears, but justify his logic at all cost.”

This means that logic will fail us when it comes to the gun lobby’s hyper-entrenched bullshit cowboy power fantasy, which, like all delusions, eventually becomes self-perpetuating: I’m arming myself against “tyranny,” and I define “tyranny” as anyone who tries to take my guns away. For what it’s worth I’d be more than happy to leave them on that particular hamster wheel, except that every once in a while, and at an accelerating rate, one of the weaker ones falls off the wheel, with disastrous results.

Conservatism is the politics of fear, hatred, and suspicion, and when you approach people with those emotions in mind, the likely response will be the same, so we end up with precisely the sort of self-perpetuating eternal state of war that George Orwell warned us about in 1984.

George Orwell

George Orwell

When all fringe superstitions from bible literalists to anti-vaxxers are given full voice, no argument to the contrary can possibly penetrate. Even government’s principle raison d’être, control of information, somehow manages to cling to life even when all their nonsense is revealed. Everyone pretty much shrugs it off. The NSA is spying on me? Shrug. What would Orwell think of a totalitarian oligarchy that’s revealed in its full face to all of its people and the people respond by pondering it for a minute or two then they just ignore it.

Honestly, I think science fiction authors looking to create a future dystopia really have their work cut out for them. As long as everyone’s well fed and have access to pop culture, you can literally do anything as a government and get away with it, up to and including occasionally tanking the global economy, leaving assault rifles in the hands of the mentally ill, and forcing people to choose between medicine and shelter.

J.M. McDermott, in “Villains Make No Sense,” a sort of review of Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, captured this perfectly:

Isn’t it easier just to engage in hostile takeovers of other companies, and gut them for parts? Isn’t it easier to kick all the wealth currently earned into an Index fund and let the stable world generate all the revenue an evil asshole needs to punch his manservants for a lifetime? What use all the extra wealth? His motivation made no sense. He sought power, but he had it. He sought wealth, but he had it. Shredder’s free-floating evil menace makes no sense, either. What use do immortal samurai of doom have for destroying whole cities? One would imagine a low-profile and careful reinvestment of dividends would be more useful to securing a lasting future than engaging in swordfights with rogue turtles.

Villains make no sense.

So what we’re left with is, to my mind, not so much an evil empire, but a hopelessly fragmented society of self-absorbed, self-serving individuals, giving transitory allegiance to rotating groups based on their immediate needs and the degree to which they happen to believe the last thing they read on the internet or saw on the so-called “news.”

The only one of the three men pictured here that all Americans would recognize, which pretty much illustrates the problem.

The only one of the three men pictured here that all Americans would recognize, which pretty much illustrates the problem.

We’re actually seeing this in play in the current election as the Republican Party unravels before our very eyes, not because of anything the toothless Democrats did, but entirely on their own steam. George Packer described this is convincing terms in his essay “Head of the Class” (The New Yorker, May 16, 2016):

Trump also grasped what Republican élites are still struggling to fathom: the ideology that has gripped their Party since the late nineteen-seventies—anti-government, pro-business, nominally pious—has little appeal for millions of ordinary Republicans. The base of the Party, the middle-aged white working class, has suffered at least as much as any demographic group because of globalization, low-wage immigrant labor, and free trade. Trump sensed the rage that flared from this pain and made it the fuel of his campaign. Conservative orthodoxy, already weakened by its own extremism—the latest, least appealing standard-bearer was Ted Cruz—has suffered a stunning defeat from within. And Trump has replaced it with something more dangerous: white identity politics.

I don’t know. I’m white, and identify with nothing I’ve heard, so far, from Donald Trump. But I guess I’m just extra smart?

Well, that got ranty fast, didn’t it? A little unfocused, like the country I live in.

Here’s the takeaway for would-be worldbuilders:

Governments aren’t ever as monolithic as they might seem, and efforts to create monolithic governments have all ended in disaster. Hitler’s Third Reich lasted pretty much as long as it took him to really piss everybody off.

Maybe the real dystopia, the one that’s hanging by the thinnest of threads above our heads now, isn’t the monolithic fascist state, but something more like what Mike Judge portrayed in the movie Idiocracy. Not an evil empire, bent on world domination, but a nation of self-absorbed babies, bent on pretending everything is fine except that transgender people want to use a public bathroom.

There’s a world no twentieth century science fiction author, even George Orwell, ever foresaw.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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ART VS. CRAFT

A month ago I wrote a short post in which I tried to backpedal a bit from all the talk about pulp and action I’ve been doing lately. You should read that post first, if you haven’t already.

I’ve tended to define these two aspects of the writer’s life as the thing you can learn (craft) and the thing you can’t (art). But that’s not good enough. Not for me, anyway—not anymore. I’d like to take at least a slightly deeper dive into the difference between art and craft.

A simple distinction is made by DifferenceBetween.net in the short article “Difference Between Art and Craft”:

Art is a form of work that is the expression of emotions. Craft is a form of work, which results in a tangible output, for example, moulding and carving.

Art is often described as unstructured and open ended. It has no limitations of expression, just like in painting. Craft on the other hand is structured, which means that it has a certain form that is visible.

For me that means well-made “craft” becomes “art” when it’s appreciated as such, and poorly executed “art” can be relegated to “craft” if it fails to emotionally resonate. Art is in the eye of the beholder and a great work of art can show little in terms of technical expertise, like the great abstract expressionist works of Jackson Pollack often criticized as paintings “anyone” could make, or a work of exemplary craft like a simple glass and steel office building that no one finds particularly inspiring but that will stand for millennia, and functions perfectly as designed.

Convergence, 1952. Image property of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.

Convergence, 1952. Image property of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.

For the record, I do see Pollack’s work as art and don’t think for a second that I could have done it. These paintings transcend the method. It’s about the idea, the feeling, the comment on the time and place in which they were painted, on the author’s inner life . . . things that all great art shares: the perfectly intangible.

That being said, it’s fair to see craft as tradition and art as innovation.

The split between art/artists and craft/artisans dates back to Renaissance humanism when, according to Laura Morelli in her TED-Ed video “Is There a Difference Between Art and Craft?”: “within a single generation, people’s attitudes about objects and their makers would shift dramatically” and the culture began “placing greater value on individual creativity than collective production.”

Morelli prefers the term “visual arts” in terms of painting, sculpture, etc.—can we extend this to “written arts”? So that we can appreciate pulp fiction or “boilerplate” thrillers as art the same way we appreciate certain decorative items as folk art?

“ ‘The irony is that the art hasn’t gotten better, we have,’ said Brooke Davis Anderson, curator and director of the Contemporary Center at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. ‘At last we can recognize its quality.’ ” Margo Jefferson wrote in her New York Times piece “Beyond Cultural Labeling, Beyond Art Versus Craft.”

“People still debate the relative value of art made to be used (crafts and design), and art made to be contemplated (painting, drawing and sculpture),” Jefferson continued, “It’s the utilitarian versus the high art tradition. But why must high mean better? Why can’t it just describe a certain history of techniques and practices?”

Good question. But fiction was never created to be “used” in the same way a chair or serving dish is used, so now this distinction fails us. If pulp was mean to “entertain” then isn’t that, by it’s very nature, eliciting emotions, and so, therefore, good or bad, art?

I think so.

“Happily,” Jefferson wrote, “institutions and individuals are deciding to throw out the old debates about the relative values of art designated fine, folk, high or utilitarian. The point is to understand each tradition. The point is to open one’s eyes to any artist who, as Joseph Conrad said, can make us hear, feel and above all see.”

Same for writers of once-marginalized genres. A novel featuring dueling wizards, if it elicits an emotional reaction in its reader, is as much a work of literary art as those novels “designated fine” by academia.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

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