Gatekeepers

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The other day, a friend was critical of the arts granting process, objecting to the fact that writers had to have had 2 or more ‘professional’ publications to qualify for a grant, effectively excluding self-published writers no matter how successful they had been at selling their work. He went on to suggest that similar restrictions were not placed on musicians or dancers or painters.

The latter statement is simply not true. Except for occasional special programs to encourage new artists, (Canada Council used to have a category called Explorations grants – I applied unsuccessfully several times when I was starting out), all grants require that artists demonstrate they are professionals or on their way to becoming one. The wording differs but essentially it says you must be making an effort to make art a significant part of your work and livelihood. One of the ways you have historically done that is through professional publications (or performances in a professional venue or showings in a professional gallery).

But, of course, the world is changing. More and more people are self-publishing or, if you prefer, indie publishing. Some of them are quite good. And granting agencies and professional organizations are responding. For example SFWA – the organization representing professional science fiction and fantasy writers – recently changed their membership requirements to include indie publishers, provided they had made an income from their writing equivalent to the minimum advance required for traditional published writers (roughly $3000USD in a single year). In this case they are using the marketplace to establish your professional standards. Given how few indie authors make that, it still represents a significant barrier and keeps the organization ‘professional’ in its mandate.

The Canada Council of the Arts studied ways that it can be more relevant and helpful in the digital age. It is doubtful they will base their qualifications on income but nonetheless they are looking for ways to include professional artists who have been previously excluded. I strongly suggest those interested to provide input in the still on-going consultation process.

But why have qualifications at all? Why not let anyone who claims to be an artist apply and let the chips and grant dollars fall where they may?

Two reasons come to mind. First most professional artists served an apprenticeship, years or sometimes even decades working on their craft – getting rejected and then accepted, taking courses and workshops and finally winning acceptance from the larger community. A lot of them – myself included – resent the fact that all that might have been pointless. We could have just slapped together a document on our first try and then with the click of mouse published it on Amazon. We take some comfort that most of those books don’t get read but take even more in the idea that they aren’t viewed as professional.

For grant agencies there are practical concerns. They already can’t fund all the proposals that do get through the qualification process. Dropping those requirements would lead to flood of applications – almost all of which wouldn’t and, in fact, shouldn’t be funded. The purpose of government grants is to fund people to become self-supporting artists not to support their hobbies or whims. Sorry. And, on top of that, the only way they could judge the quality of someone’s work – without the screening of professional gatekeepers – would be to actually read the self-published books themselves.

Not only would the workload overwhelm the lightly-paid juries, it would probably burn the eyes out of their heads. Because while some self-published work is very good, the vast majority is unreadable drek. Trust me – having read some of the things at the bottom of my own slush pile, I know. Oh, god, how I know.

And that’s a little more than ten minutes.

Write Drunk

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The best advice I ever got as a writer was an off-hand comment Hemingway once made: Write drunk, edit sober. I often use that quote in workshops and on writing panels at conventions.

Of course, like all things in literature, it shouldn’t be taken literally. It is a metaphor for writing without inhibition, with passion and emotion. Hemingway also claimed that writing was easy; just sit at a typewriter and bleed.

I’ve read a lot of well-crafted fiction and I can always tell when the writer hasn’t bled in the process of making it. Restraint in the creative process always carries with it the faint stench of cowardice. As a writer or any other type of artist, you need to take risks – put things out there without censoring your thoughts, words or emotions. Say anything, feel everything – at least in your first draft.

Of course, throwing everything on the page doesn’t mean it has to stay there. Editing sober is as important as writing drunk. Then you have to exercise your craft, your understanding of what belongs and what is excess. Not everything we write when we write a story needs to be in that particular tale. It may not belong anywhere in your published work. But if you don’t tell your secrets even to your first draft, your work will always have the feeling of contrivance rather than creation. Well-crafted sentences are good – unless they are boring.

Frankly, creation is a messy business.

But how do you do it? How do you turn off the inner editor and let it all hang out? Practice is the best answer I can give you. Keep trying to write as if no one is reading and after a while you may get the hang of it. Write fast is another solution. Thomas Wolfe was known to write 10,000 words a day on occasion. By hand. No wonder he died young.

Hemingway himself was more restrained. According to his own records, he ranged from 500 to 2000 words a day – also mostly by hand when he was doing first drafts – at least on the days he was writing at all. He went for weeks or even months at a time without putting pen to paper, sometimes arguing that he had to let things ferment until the writing demanded to be done. But even when he was writing, he was only going at it for a couple of hours each day – always stopping when it was going well and he knew what was coming next.

Scott Fitzgerald took another tack. He suffered. He struggled. And when he put it down on paper, it was all filtered through that pain. Sylvia Plath was said to have taken the same approach.

Of course, it might not wise to follow the advice of these writers too closely. They all died young – Hemingway was about my age when he ended it all. The rest didn’t even come close.

Still, no guts no glory. If you are not willing to suffer for your work, you can hardly expect readers to respond with anything more than superficial emotion.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go check on my supply of bourbon.

And, that’s ten minutes.

Hugos 2016

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The World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) is over for another year and, as has been the case for the last few years, it was not without controversy. The culture wars that permeate American society have reached deeply into the doings of the science fiction community. The campaigns of the conservative Sad Puppies and loony right Rabid Puppies to subvert the Hugo Awards were again in play with a limited amount of success. One proponent of the slate was expelled from the convention for hijacking a panel discussion to rant against the evils of Social Justice Warriors and I’m sure other, less public, debates, filled many of the rooms and hallways.

I wasn’t there but it seemed to me that the whole thing had lost some of its sting. Perhaps people have grown tired of it (Man, are my dogs barking!) or perhaps the impending rule changes to limit the impact of slate voting took the wind out of their sails. None of the true puppy nominees won though there were a couple of categories where No Award was given. In the rest there was at least one non-slate candidate to vote for – and in most cases, more than one – and that’s who won.

As I say I wasn’t there but I did watch the ceremony on my computer. After all, having recently won an Aurora Award, I have some interest in the matter of SF prizes. I thought the hosts handled the situation with dignity and lots of humour and did a good job of keeping the tension out of the room. Only Neil Gaiman in his absentee acceptance took a shot at the whole Puppies’ slate – essentially pulling aside the cover that they had tried to hide behind of nominating a few works from outside their own numbers so they could claim victory when those more ‘mainstream’ nominees won. It’s an old trick and would fool no one with any experience in the world.

It made me wonder – just how big is the Puppies movement? Fortunately the voting results give us a clue. Theodore Beale aka Vox Day was up for a couple of awards; he is the leader of the Rabid Puppies so presumably his numbers should be fairly telling. And they were. For Best Novella, his total on the first pass was 67 out of 2903. For Best Editor it was 165 out of 2386. That then is the core group of Rapid Puppies – who presumably would show some loyalty to their putative leader. As for the larger Puppies group? That’s a little harder to pin down but can be winkled out from looking at the results of later passes – how many votes did they get before the ballot expired? Somewhere in the range of 450 (the number of nominations their slate received) to 650 (the maximum number of people who preferred them to No Award) it seems.

So the hard core RBs represent 5-7% of voting fandom and the more casual supporters less than 20%. While everyone denies there is an opposite slate – there is one telling number. A book by Jim Hines featuring John Scalzi and which, I guess (as I haven’t read it), represents the opposite camp, garnered about 188 nominations (out of 2080) in its category (and didn’t make the final ballot) . Conclusions can’t be drawn from a single case but I have to ask: What is all the fuss about?

Looks to me like most fans just want to have fun.

And that’s ten minutes.

The End

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This is the end. A little over 20 months ago I began this 10 Minutes of Words blog. Since then and counting today, I’ve written 591 of them – totaling more than 300,000 words. If I had written that many words of fiction, I’d have more than three novels. Which I guess is a lesson for those who say they can’t find time to write.

Of course, I wouldn’t have written 3 novels (fiction is such a different process) – but I might have written one. Or a bunch of short stories.

To be fair, during the first few months, writing every morning for ten minutes or so (I occasionally went longer) was a great way to start my day and get my brain up and running. For someone who can’t even imagine being a morning person that wasn’t a bad thing. But eventually, I found I dreaded it. I’d sit and stare at the screen for five minutes or more before I even had an idea what to write. Sometimes I’d have to start over when my thoughts refused to follow a logical path. More than a few times I erased an entire blog and started again with a different topic.

In short, this ten minutes began to stretch out to 30 on some days. It was no longer an exercise in thinking and writing – it became a central focus of my day. Some nights, I’d even lie awake in bed trying to work out a particularly complex argument. Ten Minutes began to occupy an inordinate amount of space in my head.

I tried various strategies – writing out lists of possible topics, writing a series of related blogs and so on. Often I’d look at the list and wonder what I had had in mind. The series almost always seemed forced. I eventually decided that winging it with a blank slate at least had the advantage of being spontaneous. Sometimes, they were the funniest blogs I wrote if not the most profound.

Still, I think I did hit profound on occasion – at least based on the responses I got from my readers. Eventually I may go back and see if I can mine these nuggets to see if there is enough gold to make a short e-book worthwhile. Or not.

For those who have been regular readers – all 40 or so of you – I appreciate your loyalty and support. On occasion it has seemed pretty lonely in here. Other times I’d hit a resonant note and several hundred people would drop in and see what I had to say. My record was the piece I wrote about the shooting at the Ottawa War Memorial which garnered over 700 views since it was published. Not exactly best selling territory. The least read entry was one about Gardens which attracted only 8 readers.

In any case, it wasn’t all about numbers – though obviously if I had 10,000 readers I’d probably still be doing it or actively looking for a book deal somewhere. I’ve enjoyed the process and the contacts I’ve made.

But this is it. I may be back from time to time as the mood strikes me but it won’t be a regular, or even frequent, thing. I’ve got other stories to tell in other venues. If you look for me – you will find me.

And that, at last, is ten minutes.

Write Off (and On)

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I’ve been writing since I was about 15. Not every day of course, not even every year. Still, it is the one artistic thing I’ve ever been good at. I actually failed art in school. Can you imagine that? Who fails art? Me. I was a little better with music but only because musical notation is a lot like math. I can read music; I just can’t play it.

I tried. Saxophone of all things, because it would be foolish to take up an instrument where it was easy to fail. No one blames you when you fail to master the saxophone. Though it’s not like the bagpipes where they actually thank you when you give them up. A few years ago I bought another saxophone thinking I might do better at 50 than I did at fifteen. Not so much – but it is nice to look at.

Sax

On tour with Silver Donald Cameron

But writing was something I could do – well, not really well for the first fifteen years I was doing it. I’m not big on keeping memorabilia but I do happen to have a play I wrote when I was in Grade 11. To call it crap is an insult to sewage. I also have a notebook with my first short story and pages of really bad poetry. Of the three forms – poetry, play and short story – the prose was the best. Not good mind you but better than the other two.

Yet, strangely it was the theatre that got me writing in a serious way back in the late 80s. I wrote a number of plays – about 20 – and some of them even got professionally produced. I would have liked to be a successful playwright – theatre parties are such fun – but I suspect that my motivation was focused on the wrong things.

Instead, for better or worse, I settled on prose fiction and most notably on science fiction. I have written some fantasy, a mystery or two and even some literary fiction – and published some of what I wrote – but if I’ve learned anything about writing over the years, it is that it is better – for me, at least – to pick one thing and try to do it well.

You might think by now I would have developed my work habits to the point where writing was something I did every day or at least every week. Not so. I have over the last thirty years or so gone long stretches where I didn’t write at all. I think my biggest gap was when I first moved to Ottawa in 2002; I didn’t write a word of fiction for over 18 months.

In recent years, I’ve spent so much time editing and publishing other people’s work that I barely have time to write at all. Saturday was an exception. I invited my writing group over to have a day-long write-off. We all get together and write (and chat and snack). It can be productive but for me, not always. The last few, I snuck off and did some publishing work instead.

Fortunately I had brainstormed a story a couple of weeks ago – come up with most of it in 20 minutes in a coffee shop while waiting for a meeting. Brainstorming is a technique I teach but have failed to use myself recently. Duh. So I actually wrote – over 2000 words. It felt pretty good. Think I’ll do it again over Easter. Because I can.

And that’s ten minutes.

Making Stories

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A couple of months ago I was asked to submit a story to an anthology. The theme was interesting but nothing I’d ever really thought about. To be frank I didn’t have a clue where to start. Besides, I thought, I’m too busy to write a short story – I’ve got slush to read, novels to edit, an anthology to put together, not to mention year-end books to do, a web-site to build and marketing that won’t do itself. And that doesn’t even take into account my day job. Or the people I mentor or the workshops and contest judging I’ve promised to do.

But then my wife suggested I was working too hard and that was why I was tired all the time. I liked her diagnosis better than my doctor (he thinks all my troubles are caused by wine). We agreed that we would take the 4-day Easter weekend off and just have fun.

Great! Now I can spend four days not working. I can write a short story instead!

Now, the only problem was: what to write? I still didn’t have a clue and the deadline for the anthology is looming. I suppose I could write something else – but the anthology pays so well and I already have an in with the editors. No guarantees, of course, but better than a blind submission.

On Thursday, I was finished my lunch and had twenty minutes to wait until my next meeting began – which was being held in the same Yellowknife coffee shop where I had just eaten. I took out my note book and a pen and wrote down the theme of the anthology (as best as I could remember it). I stared at it for five minutes. I scribbled down a random disconnected thought. A minute later I wrote down a possible name for the protagonist. Then a few of the character’s basic features.

Then I thought about what they might want (notice I haven’t decided on gender yet) and then what might be standing in their way. Things were starting to happen but I only had ten minutes left.

Where does the story take place and what does it look like? What colours predominate this world, what smells, what textures? What does all that have to do with the story and the character? Well, maybe this person has been shaped by their environment. But that takes time – so now I had a sense of how old the person was.

So I knew what was standing in the way of the character’s goals but since it was largely an internal conflict – regarding duty and values – how might that be manifested? Could there be a physical representation of the conflict. Yes, I thought, the environment itself might be a character and since this is science fiction – that means the spaceship they (now there is a bunch of people – sort of) are riding in or rather the artificial intelligence that runs it.

All that was left was to discover the theme of the story – which needed to be a reflection of the anthology’s theme. I wrote down a sentence that encapsulated the conflict and what it meant to the character and the larger world.

My appointment arrived – but I had a story in two pages of notes, words, arrows, shapes and connections. Because that is where stories come from.

And this is ten minutes.

No End in Sight

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I talk a lot these days about retiring. What I’m really talking about is moving from one occupation to another. Frankly I’m tired of working in a regular job – getting up every day to someone else’s schedule and trundling off to an office where my activities are constrained by those around me and the systems in place to manage the work.

I’ve never been keen on systems. I didn’t mind school but found plenty of ways to circumvent or at least ameliorate the rules. It was not a case of rebelling – I was a radical but not much of a revolutionary – but of co-opting them to my own interests. Being smart and working hard can buy you a lot of freedom. It helped that the high school I went to had 2000 students and my university only 1300. You could choose to be invisible if you liked – or you could stand out in ways that seemed to buy into the system while secretly subverting it.

Good times.

Real life was never so easy. Governments and corporations have had a lot of practice shackling their employees, locking us into the iron cage of bureaucracy. Small businesses – unless you happen to be the owner – are nothing but arbitrary fiefdoms where employees are treated like family – in the worst sense of the word – and expected to work like slaves.

Work – the curse of the drinking class.

But, having been smart enough and lucky enough to work in a place that offers a defined benefit pension plan (indexed to inflation) means that soon I will celebrate, not freedom 55 but freedom 61 or 62 (the timing remains uncertain). I will have an income free from any obligation.

It’s as if I was suddenly a member of the gentry in a Jane Austin novel!

But as they say a man with an income is soon in need of, well not a wife – I have one of those – but an occupation. Something useful – at least to them – to fill the hours until happy hour. Without it, happy hour may start to come at 10 in the morning.

But what to do? Fortunately I’ve been planning for these days for a very long time and have plenty that will fill my hours with interesting tasks while still leaving me free to pursue my real hobbies of traveling and sampling all the various foods and drinks the world has to offer.

I have my publishing company and my writing. I don’t see giving up the latter – ever – and as for the former, well, that depends upon other people, those who choose to buy or not buy the books I publish. But for now it continues to beckon me. After all, writing and publishing have their own benefits and not merely in terms of being engaged in a creative process but in being engaged with creative people.

That’s what keeps your mind young even as the rest of you ages into decrepitude. Even after my body stops moving my mind can journey to far shores.

I’ve seen the alternative and it isn’t pretty. Wasting away in body AND mind. No, I’d rather go out like Robertson Davies, starting a short story on the morning of my death at age 90.

But that’s ten minutes.