28 June 2012

For the love of it

I was watching a movie the other day that included the lines:

"I know you're scared. I'm scared, too. But we have to pull together and beat this thing!"

I said to my friend, "Do you think actors die inside when they get a line like that?"

Then we laughed, and agreed that no, as long as an actor is getting paid well enough to support the next gig they probably don't care about a little soul-destroying dialogue. Similarly, when I found out that Robert Downey Jr. made 50 million dollars or so on Avengers Assemble I didn't begruge him any of it, and not because of his stellar business sense. I just know that for all the Robert Downey Juniors there are thousands of others who won't ever live on their craft. People who are doing it with the hope of success, but without the guarantee.

I sympathize with that because it's where I am. And anyway, success (and good dialogue) is not a gauge of whether an artist--be they actor, writer, or visual arist--still loves their craft.

At Write Anything this month I was asked to write about my greatest difficulty as a writer, and it wasn't the lack of pay. Find out at the WA site in "Writer Smash."

Photo: Stage Door by Michael Shane on flickr

26 June 2012

Speaking in tongues

This will be a surprise coming from me, someone so loving of grammar and its accoutrements, but anyway: I’d like the world to be more accepting of language, generally.

One day I made a sign for my library. I held it up for my colleagues to approve and someone said, “It has an Americanism.”

It didn’t. It had a Canadianism: Apologize. Yes, in Canada we like Zs. We call them “zeds,” just like the British do, and we like them. Just because you know it from the USA does not make it American.

One day I told a library customer there was no food allowed in the library. She said, “I can’t have water?” I told her the water was fine, but not the chips. She said, “Oh.” As I turned away, she muttered, “Crisps.”

Since I’m a professional and an adult, I get to ignore bullshit like that. I also ignore it because I understand that whatever language I grew up with does not define the only real language. English, spoken officially in dozens of countries, does not belong to any one country. Not even England. And the world is just too big and too small for anyone to force their ideals on anyone else.

So, it’s “chips” to me and a few million others, dear lady. The lift is an elevator and the pavement is a sidewalk. I'm not going to apologize for any of that.

Photo: Multilingual by Oren Levine on flikr

22 June 2012

Don't Become a Librarian

I recently tweeted a link to an infographic that claimed Library Science is a qualification that produces some of the highest unemployment of any profession. My comment was, “Want to become a librarian? Don’t.”

I mean it, but let me explain.

Libraries are changing along with IT and information access and government funding and smart phones. So library work is also changing. This is a time of extreme upheaval and restructure. Things are getting worse before they get better, sometimes for patrons, and especially for people trying to work in the field. People are being made redundant all over the place. There is a tumbleweed rolling through the libraries of yesterday.

Oh the other hand, libraries are changing and library work is also changing, and it’s as relevant and important as it ever was. The “digital divide” between those who have access and those who don’t is a yawning gulf. People who aren’t IT savvy and don’t know where to find information are being left behind. Government services are increasingly only online. People of all levels of technological know-how are in need of information and internet access while away from their familiar resources. And as it ever was, people who can’t afford fiction and expensive reference books still want to read them, and they want their children to read them. This is entirely leaving aside the idea of libraries as study spaces, a concept still very much alive in reality.

If you care about that—I mean really care, so much it hurts to imagine libraries shut down and people going without—then maybe you should study Library Science. Maybe you should become a librarian, whatever “a librarian” happens to be when the dust settles on the upheaval.

When I say, “Don’t become a librarian,” I mean that if an infographic can convince you not to work in libraries, don’t bother. If you’re looking for job security first, then it isn't for you. If what you want most is an easy paycheque and immediate job satisfaction, then don’t become a librarian.

Yet still, there are many reasons you might want to become a librarian, and if you can’t be convinced otherwise then we sure as hell want you by our side.

By the way, you could take out every "Librarian" in this post and replace it with "Writer." Yeah. I never do anything easy.

Photos: library by Rich Griffith & Auxiliary Stacks are Full! by UW Libraries on flickr

18 June 2012

"The Shock" at AE - The Canadian Science Fiction Review

Today you can read my short story "The Shock" over at AE - The Canadian Science Fiction Review. I was very pleased they chose my story and now I've seen it published I'm even more impressed with the illustration: a drawing of my character Della seeing her television flicker out for the last time. Please take a look, and read, and tell me what you think.

If you've arrived here from reading "The Shock": Welcome! You can check out more of my short fiction at my website, read an overly detailed biography, or stay here at Scribo Ergo Sum (my blog) to discover my views on writing and being a librarian. Comments and discussions are very welcome.

Graphs and maths and analysis of short story submissions

Doesn’t everyone love statistics? I love statistics. And there's no better way to wake up on Monday morning than with mathematics. Now I have over a year of recorded short story submission statistical information (RSSSSI) I thought I should perform a little analysis.

The following graph shows each of the stories I’ve submitted for publication since January 2010. Red dots represent published stories, and blue dots represent stories that have never been published.  The horizontal axis shows the number of times a story has been submitted for publication. Stories that were published stopped being submitted.

What jumps out at me is the stories accepted for publication were accepted quickly. Of the 7 stories published, 5 of them were published after just 1 submission. At most they were submitted 3 times. Compare this to my unpublished stories, which have been submitted 4, 5, and even 8 times without success.

Looking at word count, I've published stories of all lengths but submitted many more stories around the 500-1000 word count area.

The next graph divides my short stories into genre and reveals which genres have been published more or less often.

It seems that for someone who identifies herself as a mystery writer, I write few mysteries. Oops. Anyway, in contrast to other genres I've had more General stories accepted than rejected. And it appears I can't write Romance at all.

And finally we'll look at the reason I write short stories and whether that has an effect on their publication.

It appears stories I write as exercises are far less likely to be published. The other categories don't say much, particularly considering the small numbers.

Pretending this has all been terribly scientific, we have these conclusions:

  • Published stories were submitted an average of 1.6 times before publication, whereas stories that are still hanging around have been submitted an average of 3.7 times without success.
  • Published stories represented a full range between 6-3000 words, whereas my unpublished stories range only from 500 to 2000 words.
  • General stories are more likely to be published than Science Fiction or Horror stories. Romance stories will never be published.
  • Stories written as an exercise are less likely to be published than stories written for any other reason. Stories written for a market or for no reason at all are most likely to be published.

We can learn from this. From now on I'll only write stories for market or when the mood takes me, and I'll only write stories that are around 1500-2000 words long. I'll only write General stories (whatever they are,) avoiding Science Fiction and totally ignoring Romance, and I'll send them out a maximum of twice before abandoning them forever. Right? Right.

Yeah, right.

14 June 2012

Fried Whitewashed Tomatoes

In the early 90s I saw Fried Green Tomatoes, like most people, and like most people I enjoyed it. I saw it again last week and I was disappointed.

The younger me understood the pathos, and Kathy Bates’ terrific arc, and all the things that made it a great story. I thought Idgie and Ruth were wonderful. I was happy the bad guy got made into BBQ. And that was enough.

Yesterday I felt it was missing something. It was so very pat and well put together. It seemed coy somehow. I looked up any trivia I could find and discovered this on IMDB:
In July 2008, afterellen.com reported that Mary-Louise Parker said that she, her costar Mary Stuart Masterson, and screenwriter (and original novel author) Fannie Flagg were all strong advocates for depicting in the film the lesbian relationship between Ruth and Idgie that had appeared in the book, but the director, Jon Avnet, and the producers of the film chose instead to excise the romance and just make the two characters into friends. In the DVD extras, Avnet does say that he considered Idgie and Ruth's food fight scene in the movie as an analogy for a love scene between the two that he chose not to include.

Why? According to an article in Entertainment Weekly:
"You can take it how you want to," director Jon Avnet says. "I had no interest in going into the bedroom."

Weird that he included marriage, then, since apparently making public your feelings for someone is “going into the bedroom.” Weird too that they allowed the women to have babies, since I’m certain that required a bedroom of some kind, unless it's the kind of film where the bedroom isn't okay but up against the side of the shed is fine.

Was a lesbian relationship too shocking for the time? The film didn't hesitate to show an abusive husband kick his pregnant wife down the stairs when she tries to leave him. Is two women in love more shocking than that?

I’m late to this disappointment party. In 1994 Lu Vickers wrote an extensive piece about how the film whitewashed lesbianism, racism, and pretty much every other –ism.  From this side of the decades it seems even more tentative.

I still like the film and I’m glad it’s out there, Tuwanda’ing its way through the parking lots of movie history. Obviously at the time it was exactly what I and many viewers wanted. But it’s interesting to me to notice how my expectations have changed for fiction. I'm not convinced it's good enough to present only a subtle suggestion of something so important, especially when that involves a change from the source material, and especially if you give no real reason for the change. If it’s that important—like the reality of the relationship between Idgie and Ruth—it should be allowed, and not analogized into a food fight.

Even a really great food fight.

11 June 2012

Iain M. Banks & Kim Stanley Robinson in conversation at the British Library

On Sunday Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Mars trilogy among many others, and Iain M. Banks, author of the Culture series among many others, sat down together at the British Library. Let me don my journalist cap for a minute and tell you how it went.

Banks reads from Robinson's book '2312.'

Robinson writes hard or literary science fiction, and Banks writes space opera. The difference in their writing styles was noticeable even in their personalities. Banks was bubbly, full of energy and good humour. Robinson was more subdued, answering questions with laser intensity and bringing real seriousness to the conversation. They're great fun together, especially when the questions touched on the difference between their work. For example: Banks said Robinson probably researches more, Robinson said research was easy, and then Banks pretended to burst into tears.

Someone asked what the authors thought about the privatization of space travel, and whether non-governments could create the utopias in their books. Robinson said he believed in space for the people, by the people, and non-government control of space seems like a way to let rich people bungy-jump up. He said that people loved the Mars rovers because they had no economic purpose, they were there to satisfy curiosity. Banks said he was more sanguine about it all, and whatever works to get people interested was fine with him.

Banks & Robinson listening to a question from the audience.

Both writers said they weren't interested in writing for video games.  Banks said he isn't a team player, like most writers, and he likes being a God in his stories. He wouldn't want players making the decisions for him. Robinson said he didn't even like Choose Your Own Adventure stories as a kid as they gave him "existential nausea." He said he enjoys being led through a story, like a child being read to. Banks added further that it was good to be in capable hands, as a story is not just "stuff that happens."

When asked about whether they'd like to write a dystopia for a change, neither agreed. Robinson said he'd already written The Gold Coast and he sees no point in artificial dark dystopias. He said when we read something that bad we think "We aren't as bad as that, so we're okay now," and also that there's still conflict in a utopia--love and death--so what more do we need?  Banks wondered why no one thinks that maybe we're all going to be just okay. He loves the energy and attitude of American fiction, and there are enough dystopias already, especially in British fiction.

The empty stage.

I got a lot out of the event for being a writer, too. Speaking on how their stories are so complicated but look so effortless, both authors had useful advice. Banks said he made stuff up as he needed it, so the complicated comes as it's required, and you get used to that the longer you write. He advised writing whatever you can get away with, and ignoring the advice to "Write what you know." Robinson said, "Grind grind grind," and that reading is deceptive. One paragraph might have taken weeks to write.

If I can pull anything extra from the experience, I'd point out how these two science fiction greats write what they're passionate about, and they seem to love to write. They've been writing and published a long time, but even aspiring writers can learn from that confidence. Don't write what you know, write what you love.

08 June 2012

Friday Flash: "Splash"

by Jen Brubacher

The lightning preferred her. This is what they said, later: it hit the statue of Mayor Ney first and found too much resistance, and Adeline was right there, so it splashed her. They said that, too: splashed, as if it was a kick of cool water. Playful, even.


In a moment she was deaf.  She strained and realized that although she thought she’d thrown her hands up to her ears, to her eyes, she hadn’t moved at all.  Adeline was paralyzed. She was looking at the statue of Mayor Ney with his big hat and his broken sword, and she couldn’t look away.  The clouds above his head cracked open and blue sky shone through so bright it seemed it should have made a noise, but there was no noise, even from the shouting face that appeared in front of her.

Her brother’s eyes were wide and his mouth kept moving.  Silence.  Lovely silence. And light shining over their heads, brilliant, like a wash of blue water. A splash.


I have always been fascinated by the idea of splash lightning. Whoever invented the term had a very interesting mind.

Photo by Arielle Fragassi on flickr

06 June 2012

Write Anything: "Writing Mind-sets"

Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. Parfait has layers. Aaand writing has layers.

Read all about it in my new post at Write Anything: "Writing Mind-sets." And tell me if I missed a layer.

Photo by Joelk75 on flickr

04 June 2012

Storytime: Are we learning yet?

Last month my book club chose 'Cry, the Beloved Country' as our book of the month, and as it was described to me ("It's about a black pastor who goes to Johannesburg in the 40s to find his son who is in trouble with the law") I thought, Well at least I'll learn something. I didn't wince or anything, but I wanted to.

I'm not good at reading novels based on real life. I dislike it. A lot of the time you can see the author's research there on the page. "This part isn't entertaining but look how much time I spent at the British Library looking up dates! Look at all the dates!" It makes me feel a little bit ill. For a good example read 'The Stolen Village,' which is about pirates kidnapping an entire Irish village and selling them into slavery. This book is also a good example of the lying first 50 pages, which are a harrowing description of a pirate raid that peters into two hundred pages of backstory and politics. Some people would love it. Not quite me.

Of course most stories are based on real life. We're all living here on Earth, as far as we know, and we have all these experiences that become stories, so... Let's not argue semantics. When I say "novels based on real life" I mean the situation where "This book is based on a true story" or "This book explores a culture to the extent that it's teaching you something. Learn!"

Yet now I've read it, 'Cry, the Beloved Country' has become a book I'd recommend to anyone, and not because it taught me about Johannesburg in the 40s and the relationship between Afrikaners and indigenous black people. I would recommend it (and have) because instead of lecturing it made me realize the relevance of its history to my life and my world. It taught me something, not because it forced facts down my throat in the guise of a story, but because it told a story worth hearing, about characters I connected with. My life is about a million miles away from South Africa in the late 40s, but I felt for the people in the story, I saw the issues it presented through the eyes of people who saw it and cared about it, and so I cared, too. It's a marvellous trick.

One thing this book had going for it is it wasn't written as historical fiction. It was written in the 40s, presumably to be read in the 40s. Instead of being concerned with setting the scene for a different age, it was concerned with its story. It didn't have to tell me about differing gender and racial roles at the time because I gathered them from the interactions between characters. We can learn from this. There's nothing to be gained from treating your audience like a class of students who need to pass their History A-levels if they thought they were reading a fiction novel. Even if you're writing something nearly-true and culturally relevant, if you're writing fiction it's about the story. People learn when they care about the subject matter, so make the story something to care about and people will learn all the other bits without need for a lecture.

Are there any stories you love that taught you something about the world, a culture, or something else beyond yourself? I'd love to hear about them.

And hey, our book club book this month is about the polio outbreak in New York in the 40s. ...Great.

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