Ad Astra 2013

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I’ve been going to the Ad Astra fan convention for quite a few years now, and every time I go back there’s something even better than the last time. This year’s guests of honour were Jim Butcher, Stephen Hunt, Ben Bova, and Scott Caple (unfortunately Shannon K. Butcher couldn’t make it) and also on-hand were a number of past GoHs including Kelley Armstrong, Julie Czerneda, Ed Greenwood, Guy Gavriel Kay, Lesley Livingston, Robert J. Sawyer, and many more.

There’s always something to do each day of Ad Astra and the programming is always excellent. This year was no exception. I started off with a panel called “The Book is only the Beginning” which featured Gregory A. Wilson, Brett A. Savory and Samantha Beiko from ChiZine, Marie Bilodeau, and urban fantasy author Linda Poitevin, of whom I’m a huge fan. It was essentially focusing on what happens next when a writer has finished a book.

The best thing about the panel was the diversity of panelist backgrounds with both the independent small press contingent as well as traditional Big Six (soon-to-be-five) point of views and experiences being discussed. Some highlights included mentions of Dos and Donts, such as not pitching to a publisher when they’re in the bathroom, which is a pretty big one but still some people seem to be repeating it; another good one was to realize that authors aren’t J.D. Salinger-esque figures who can just come out of their cave every so often, give their manuscript to a publisher, and say “Okay, now you promote it while I go and work on the next book.” Publishers and authors should have partnerships. Even those signed with The Big Six must take promotions largely into their own hands to ensure their success. Brett and Samantha stressed the importance of having an active and up-to-date online presence, which there are many ways to achieve, and that publishers are ultimately looking for more information on an author when they’re considering a manuscript by that person, and not having a website or any online profiles can definitely work against an author.

Next up was the “Defining Horror” panel moderated by Suzanne Church and featuring panelists Michael Matheson, Matt Moore, and Rio Youers, which was an interesting look at attempts to define horror and what it means to fans, and ultimately, horror is very personal, because there are things that can terrify one person or writer to death and not be of such consequence to another person, so horror can be subjective in that way. There was also some discussion of horror tropes, some cliches that are best avoided, why certain works of horror have been effective, as well as universal themes that scare us all, including death. The audience contributed some interesting points to the discussion, which made it an interesting panel overall, and although Ad Astra usually has a small Horror contingent, it’s always nice to see some of the programming devoted to it along with the sci-fi and fantasy discussions that go on at the convention.

Following that was “You Must Finish” featuring Erik Buchanan (moderator), Stephanie Bedwell-Grime, Mike Rimar, Derek Kunsken, and Karina Summer-Smith, which was a discussion of why some writers have so much difficulty finishing projects, and why we get stuck, and what we can do to counter-act these problems in our own writing. This was a genuinely entertaining panel with many funny moments as some of the panelists had a great banter and moderator Erik Buchanan’s dry wit went over very well with the audience members. Discussions of plotters versus pantsers came up, giving advantages and disadvantages to both, as well as some talk of the “don’t look back” method whereby writers should power through writing a manuscript and not look back until they’re done, that is to say, don’t rewrite as you’re writing the manuscript. One of the panelists mentioned that there are some writers who are able to rewrite as they’re writing their manuscripts and that although it’s great that this works for them, this system doesn’t work for everyone. The most important thing is to go ahead, surround oneself with words of encouragement from other writers, particularly if participating in NanoWrimo or similar writing events, and to find a system that works for you. Some writers can get incredibly ‘boxed in’ and limited and feel trapped by outlines, and it’s always something that should be paid attention to when a book starts to deviate from the written outline, because perhaps that’s a sign that it’s too rigid.

There was also some discussion of the fact that not everyone can write 2,000 words a day and that writers do definitely set “too high” goals sometimes, which is definitely something I think we can all say we have been guilty of at some point or another, and that instead of beating ourselves up for only getting to 200 words one day that we should embrace the fact that we have made progress instead of lashing out at ourselves for not making as much progress as we said we would.

I also had the pleasure of attending the “Demons, Werewolves, and Necromancers” panel moderated by Douglas Smith, and featuring perhaps the most popular GoH at the con, fantasy author Jim Butcher, as well as Timothy Carter, Timothy Liebe, and Andrew Pyper. This was one of the most fascinating panels to listen to and it was a packed house with standing-room-only for good reason. Some very interesting questions were asked including how not to make protagonists–or villains–come across as perfect, flawless and thus unsympathetic Mary Stu/Gary Stu types, as well as a particular motivation given to a villain from each of the writers that they considered to be the most interesting thing they’d done. I was glad to see Pyper in particular, author of the recent supernatural thriller The Demonologist as he’s more known for his contemporary real-world thrillers, and although he’s not known for being a genre fiction writer, and is new to the supernatural, he made very interesting contributions to the discussions and it was nice to see the diversity of panelists represented not just on this panel but overall, as well.

As well, I was fortunate enough to get my copies of Sins of the Angels and Sins of the Son signed by Linda Poitevin, which was fantastic, and I’m so happy I had the chance to meet her as she’s one of my favourite urban fantasy novelists and it’s amazing to see more Canadian UF novelists emerging in the field, which gives me hope for my own novels (someday…;-)). It was a great way to cap off a great afternoon, and if you haven’t been to Ad Astra before, I would wholeheartedly recommend that you do attend, because there’s something for everyone, and it’s a great combination of a fan convention with cosplay and dances, but also many amazing, useful, and insightful panels for aspiring and established writers as well as genre fans and readers alike.

Does Setting Writing Goals Really Work?

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It’s that magical time again, writers. It’s the beginning of another year full of hopes, dreams, promises, and so much more, and already January is almost at an end. I’ve seen posts from most of the writers I know and follow to the tune of “Goals for 2013” or something indicating what they hope to achieve this year with their writing. Commonly it’s about finishing that WIP, or simply writing more this year, or it’s on the business side with social media and marketing goals.

We all do it. We come up with this list of New Year’s Writer Resolutions that we aspire to follow, and posting it to our writer blogs gives us a sense of accountability. We’ve put it out there in the world, and theoretically, others will hold us to our Writerly Resolutions.

But does writing out our Writerly Resolutions for the year help us get more writing done?

Rather than pontificate about how I never used to have to set writing goals when I was a fledgling writer in high school, or about how my writing just used to “flow” and my well never seemed to run dry, and cursing the high heavens for this ungodly writer’s dry spell that has affected me for the better part of a few years, I find myself wondering if setting these goals at the beginning of each year works.

I find myself wondering if I would get more done if I didn’t take the time to put down my goals. Would I get less done? Would I get the same amount done as I would without a goal list?

“Of course you have to have a list of goals,” you might say. “How will you be able to measure how much you accomplished at the end of the year? How will you be able to keep track of all the projects you want to work on?”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a compulsive organizational freak. Not to the extent that I colour code binders or have a cross-referenced filing system, but I’m pretty strict when it comes to organizational methods and enforcing them for myself. I’m the first one who will tell you that setting goals and priorities is the best thing that a person can do to keep their tasks in order and to get things done.

But one could also argue that all of this organization and planning is just a form of procrastination. And we all know that writers have no trouble finding more and more ways to procrastinate. Surfing the net, Twitter/Facebook, online and video gaming, TVs and movie, getting drunk at bars, etc.—the list goes on.

“I’ll get to it tomorrow,” we promise ourselves. And the next day we say the same thing, and get perhaps a page or so done, and phone it in. And somehow, months pass by and then November comes along and we think, “NanoWrimo will be the perfect kick in the pants I need to get writing done!” And some writers really do! I don’t know how, but they make it work. Others make a valiant effort, but don’t quite get to the 80,000-word mark.

Another way we set ourselves up for disaster is by planning goals that are too lofty, goals that are unrealistic, or that we choose to think we “must” accomplish in an unfeasible timeline that just doesn’t work. Life happens. New commitments crop up. Things change. Schedules morph. Everything gets messy and/or messed up.

Sometimes, we just can’t connect to the writing well. It dries up. I seem to have forgotten that like our body’s muscles, we need to exercise our writing muscles to keep the engine going full steam ahead. I fear that I turned the writing switch off in my head one too many times to make room for other things in my life, and now my writing well has disappeared.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get it back. I feel like I’m grappling with a snickering demon who has hidden it from me, and I don’t know how to find it again.
Maybe I need to enlist in the help of an angel to send its ass back to Hell 😉

demon from hell cartoon

For this year, I have set my goals, managed my expectations a little bit, and am doing some breathing exercises to calm down 😉

Some of these other writers have written wonderful posts on “dry spells” and what they’ve done to overcome them, including:

So, I want to know from other writers—do you feel like setting goals helps you? Do you even set goals? If you don’t set goals, do you still get as much done as you would had you set goals?

Writer with a Day Job by Aine Greaney

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writer with a day job book cover

One of the biggest hot button issues among writers–a constant battle for us–seems to be the never-ending and elusive struggle to find a work-life balance and manage our own writing while working a 9-to-5. Granted, some writers work retail or service industry jobs to earn a living and support themselves and, in most cases, their family–not all writers have what is traditionally considered a career in a corporate environment. Many writers have a string of odd jobs and go from temping to semi-permanent positions. The point is, we all have different ways of going about it, but most of us have realized and accepted that it’s unrealistic to expect that our book sales (or projected book sales in the case of yet-to-be-published writers) are going to afford us the ability to quit our full-time jobs and just write for a living. Many writers, especially those who are fortunate to be full-time writers, have pointed out over the years that they are among the lucky few and not the majority, and that writers need to reconcile themselves to the fact that they will need to keep those day jobs.

A few months ago, frustrated with my inability to a) find a set writing time that worked for me and fit into my schedule and get over what I thought had to be the worst case of writer’s block I’ve ever had, and b) choose a consistent place in which to get writing done, I turned to the web for support on other writer blogs and fora, and while I did find helpful articles with some helpful tips, they weren’t things that I could actively implement, so I reacted with much delight when I found out about the book Writer with a Day Job by Aine Greaney, which contains helpful exercises, chapters devoted to tips on if you’re a morning writer as well as if you’re a nighttime writer, and Aine offers actual, implementable solutions both to common quandaries, as well as responses to common excuses that writers make for why they can’t write, including exhaustion, family commitments and obligations, etc.

She also suggests that writers get into the habit of keeping a daily journal, not so much in the sense of “Dear diary, Shirley that biatch in accounting was so rude to me today. Argh!” But more along the lines of “So, I’ve been considering the scene in Chapter 5 when Amanda and Rick uncover the Bateman dossier and make some starting discoveries. What if…” which I think is infinitely useful, and if you’re struggling for ideas or aren’t sure what to write about, she has some prompts for every day of the week. Don’t knock something unless you’ve tried it, basically 😉 And far from being an exercise in navel-gazing, keeping a journal helps writers have a clearer sense of where they’re going in a manuscript. You can also keep a travel journal and dedicate it to the world in which your novel is set, historical details, period costumes, etc. And what better way to get to know your characters more intimately–and write them more convincingly–than to keep a journal writing in their voice?

Far from being a slap-you-on-the-wrist type of writer’s guide, Aine thankfully abstains from the negative reinforcement that many prescriptive writing books dish out to writers, and says writers need to break the pattern of guilting themselves into asking why they couldn’t write for two hours today and instead re-shifting one’s perspective to smaller increments of time.

Now, I’m notorious for hating mornings. I am absolutely not a morning person, and don’t see myself being able to get up earlier to do some writing, but it does make sense to write first thing before the day’s events have had a chance to sully our mental landscape or clutter it with our day-to-day worries, but some view night-time writing as a way to unwind. In fact, Aine suggests that one of the excuses writers give for not wanting to write in the evenings is because they just want to chill out/relax, and she advises that maybe one can incorporate writing as one’s chill out/relaxation phase.

Of course, the biggest component of making a writing/work relationship to function involves sacrifice. Although every single writing publication and writer blog/website routinely shouts at the top of its lungs about how important an online presence is, and being in tune with social media, which I agree with, there’s an extent to which it becomes useful as a promotional tool but with most writers, I find it reaches a point where it becomes a platform not for increasing their book sales but rather a) whining and complaining about rejections, b) whining and complaining about not having enough writing time when perhaps the issue is that the writer needs to realize that by being online and devoting time to this, it’s taking away from their writing time, c) constantly tweeting multiple times a day about how they’ve increased their word count (this is a personal irritant–some writers find it motivating to track their progress in this way, and if it works for them, I say go for it, but if it’s constantly inundating their twitter/Facebook feeds with “look at how productive I am” it becomes a bit bothersome imho), d) posting negative/sarcastic comments, and the list goes on. I do think it’s important for writers to show their personalities online and not just be robots with automated tweets about buying their books, but again, as with most things, there’s a fine balance.

I also recently read this blog post that chronicles the experiences and suggestions of one writer with a day job that I found particularly insightful. Publisher’s Weekly also recently did a piece highlighting writers who never quit their day jobs, which I found to be interesting. I think we need to dispel this romantic notion of “Oh, if only I had the time, and if I had the hours on end that I need to be productive…” Actually, many writers on blog comments have noted that when they were between jobs or for some reason had an opportunity to write full-time for a short stint didn’t get more writing done. In fact, they got less done and procrastinated more. There’s also a need to dispel another romantic notion of the lone wolf writer, furiously scribbling away in a cabin in the woods away from the civilization and brilliantly churning out manuscript after manuscript and not ever doing anything in support of his or her novels, leaving the promotion up to the publisher.

So much has changed in the past twenty years when it comes to author promotion, and most authors have found that due to a lack of publisher support, they’ve had to take their promotion into their own hands whereas it used to be that the publisher would build an author as a brand (for the top-tier writers, anyway). But that’s the subject for a different post 😉

If you are a writer with a day job and you’re at the end of your tether, desperate to find a way to reconcile your work and writing lives, check out the articles I mentioned, and definitely get yourself a copy of Writer with a Day Job.

Praise for “Do You Need a Social Media Intervention?” post

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I was browsing through some tweets this afternoon when I found a link to a post from The Bookshelf Muse, a site that I have referenced on many different occasions for their indispensable entries in the setting thesaurus, as well as the emotion thesaurus, two things that make the site an essential for all writers just by themselves, but they also post tons more useful stuff. If you’ve never visited, now is a great time. The setting thesaurus, as the name suggests, is hugely helpful to writers of all levels simply because it delivers on what its name promises. Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a scene, or about to write it and stuck, thinking “What the hell is there on a beach besides sand and the ocean?” The setting thesaurus is for you; it has all sorts of helpful tips like sounds, smells, and sights that will help make your description that much more vivid.

And the emotion thesaurus is fantastic for when you’re stuck, as well, thinking “Apart from frowning and crying, what the hell happens to people when they get sad?” It has a wide variety of actions to choose from, even more thesauri since my last visit (the ‘character thesaurus’ seems interesting) and the comments sections also sometimes contain useful tidbits.

A post went up this afternoon about social media burnout (click here for the link to the article), something I’m convinced that most, if not all, writers who are trying to build or maintain a platform suffer from. It’s always about how to get known before the book deal. Writing magazines and books seem to have a laser-pointed focus on writers who need to get out there on social media, to be more active, to be on a million different sites in addition to Facebook and Twitter, to blog incessantly, and to let as may people out there know that your book exists.

While there are certainly useful elements of that approach, one of the article’s main points that resonated with me was that it’s better to be good at a few things, i.e. Facebook, Twitter, rather than to try to be good at all of the social media platforms and do a so-so or not so great job at it. The whole point of blogging and social networking is to make yourself seem engaged with your audience and readership, and it becomes very apparent early on if you’re not into a particular medium. Blogs aren’t for everyone. Some writers prefer to post updates on a more sporadic schedule that isn’t set, some don’t like blogging or simply can’t afford to take the time out to do it as often as they would like to, some people are better on Facebook but not so much on Twitter (or vice versa)…it all depends on the individual writer.

But I’ve noticed a growing sense of frustration and malaise as more and more platforms like Google+ emerge, trying to be the next Facebook or the next Tumblr. Writers get fed up and I don’t blame them, because there are so many other things competing for our time and attention, and having to prioritize every day can be a real struggle. The saddest part about all of the time spent on social media and promotions is that it zaps away real writing time. It’s a tricky balance to achieve and one that few writers do (and most of them are, with few exceptions, full-time writers, i.e. they don’t have to worry about the demands of a day job, but most of us aren’t so fortunate and will probably never be).

The suggestions outlined in the article are fantastic; it’s not about quitting or completely eliminating things or having to start from square one all over again. It takes time and dedication to build a platform, but the best point of the article was that it doesn’t make sense to put in that much time and promote something that doesn’t even exist yet, and thus can’t be translated into sales (this applies to those of us who still have WIPs and not published novels).

I think that in this age of confirmation bias where people mostly log on to websites and blogs and look only for those posts that support what they already think, rather than getting a second or alternating opinion, it’s refreshing to see articles like this that offer solutions to the daunting and frustrating tone that several books and articles promising to deliver info on how to be a “social media god when it comes to promoting your writing” unfortunately continue to perpetuate.

Don’t get me wrong–social media is vitally important for writers to use as a marketing tool and to promote our work, and it has many benefits when used correctly and to the best of its potential, but as with most things in life, balance is necessary for the best outcome.