We’re moving!

March 20, 2011 at 4:58 pm (Uncategorized)

nonsense with conscience is moving on to marcinwrona.ca, where the grasses are greener and the blog template is much more complicated to figure out. I’ll keep old posts up here, but won’t be updating this page further. Please drop in at the new digs!


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Publishing, Part 1: Have you hugged a writer today?

March 17, 2011 at 12:42 pm (Inanities)

Just a few weeks ago, I explained to the staff nurse at Nortel why I wasn’t interested in self-publishing. Now, I’m preparing myself to do exactly that.

What happened?

I finished Pale Queen’s Courtyard in 2009, and submitted it to a fiction contest organized by UK mag SciFiNow. The prize was publication by Tor, which is pretty much the largest genre imprint around. I made the short-list of ten entries, and while I didn’t win, I wasn’t terribly disappointed. Surely, I thought, this happy little bargaining chip would help to find an amenable literary agent and, eventually, a publisher.

And so, I threw my hat into the traditional publishing ring, which goes something like this:

1. Write book. Submit pitch, typically a query with an example chapter or two attached, to literary agent and/or publishing house directly. Most publishers say they don’t take unagented submissions (some are telling the truth). Most agents don’t represent writers who aren’t coming to them with a publisher’s acceptance.

In many cases, submissions are done through I’m-actually-serious-people-really-do-this traditional mail. With paper. I know.

2. Wait up to six months for a response.

3. Receive a response, maybe. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a form rejection. If you’re really lucky, it’ll be a personalized rejection (this is a very good sign). Publishers generally have the decency to send you a rejection. Agents appear to be bound by monastic vows of silence.

4. Do it again.

5. And again.

6. Years pass. Hopefully, you’ve been writing and pitching other things during those years. Income from writing so far: $0. Unless you’re mailing out paper, in which case you have costs.

7. Hark! An agent has taken notice. Or perhaps a publisher has done, which is infinitely better, because just getting a literary agent signed is no guarantee that said agent will be able to sell your book. Writer is now asked to do a number of rewrites to fit a (generally) educated guess as to what sells in a given market. These usually go pretty quickly.

8. A contract is signed. If you’ve got a good agent (or an IP lawyer, or a strong understanding of publishing contract law), this contract won’t give away too many rights (translation rights, for instance, can be sold to foreign publishers at a later date for an added revenue stream). A good contract will allow you to reclaim other rights if your writing goes out of print.

9. Writer receives advance. This is essentially a loan against royalties. If a book ‘earns out’ – i.e. if you make more money from royalties over time than you were paid in advance – any additional royalties go to you. Otherwise (and most books don’t earn out), the advance is all the money you’ll see from a given novel. Advances are typically small – first-time writers can expect something under $5k.

Royalties are roughly 10-15% of the sale price of a book. Agents take 15% of royalties. If you’re lucky, your agent might actually have done something to help sell your book.

10. Book goes on shelves, probably a year or two after you actually sold it. Well done!

You receive your advance in installments, maybe earn out eventually. You get very little promotion, beyond having your books on an actual shelf. Sometimes, you’re contractually obligated to do your own promotion, often at your own cost.

After a while, unsold copies of book are pulled from shelves and returned by the bookstores to the publisher for full credit. Yes, seriously. Books returned in this way are destroyed by the bookstore and can’t be resold. Yes, seriously. Publishers make significant money from the sale of recyclable paper to Charmin. Congratulations! You are now out of print, but can take solace in the fact that people the world over are wiping their asses with your work.

11. Alcoholism. Actually, it’s probably best if you hit this step earlier in the process.

12. Return to 1.

Readers may at this point be wondering why anybody would willingly submit themselves to this train wreck of a business. The answer is disappointingly prosaic.

Until recently, it’s been the only game in town.

Tune in next time, and I’ll explain why that’s no longer the case, and why I have withdrawn from the traditional model.

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Tragedy, farce, and Ouroboros

March 12, 2011 at 1:54 pm (Inanities)

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon RSAnimate, a series of absolutely wonderful shorts by the Royal Society of the Arts.

Perhaps the most interesting of the bunch was a talk by Slovenian philosophical heavy-weight Slavoj Zizek, echoing Oscar Wilde’s ‘Soul of Man Under Socialism’, entitled ‘First as Tragedy, Then as Farce’.

The thesis of Zizek’s essay is essentially that business has subsumed (some would say co-opted) charitable donation, by bundling its cost into the things we consume. A dollar spent at Tim’s sends Canadian kids to camp, and if you instead want to send help elsewhere, a dollar spent on fair-trade coffee represents more money for farmers in Brazil or Ethopia or Indonesia than they would otherwise get for their labours.

But where some might consider this to be an advancement, our favourite dour Slovenian, echoing Wilde, has another opinion – that it is immoral to use private property to address the ills arising from the institution of private property.

I’m not there yet. I might say it’s fitting. But nevertheless, I can only agree with the thesis that our true goal should be to build a society not in which the symptoms of poverty are addressed, but in which poverty is impossible.

Utopianism, right? Well:

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing. And when humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.” – Wilde

Suck on that, Gloomy McPractical.

I do understand the concern that continuing to alleviate the symptoms delays the societal realization that causes can be addressed, even as my pragmatic side insists that what little we can do is better than doing nothing. But I have long thought that the ultimate goal of any charity should be to make itself obsolete. When enough men have been taught to fish, it’s time to eat one’s own tail or else move one’s expertise to another cause.

Business is big on what they’re currently calling root cause analysis, which is quite simply the pursuit of an underlying problem rather than the many things that go wrong because of it. Effective charity thinks that way as well. So must each and every one of us.

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Been a while.

March 7, 2011 at 7:38 pm (Inanities)

It’s been over a year since my last post. Habit is a timid creature, easily spooked. I had intended to get back to this sooner, but didn’t, and eventually I forgot that I should.

That seems to be a theme, after a fashion, which is mildly worrying, but nothing we can’t overcome through a bit of good, old-fashioned discipline. More on that later.

The Day Job is, as always, a draining thing. Doing something I’m not genuinely interested in, day in and day out, wears on me. Worse, it wears on me in a particularly insidious way; it’s quiet but it’s persistent, and eventually I don’t realize the drain is even happening. All that remains, after a while, are some common defeatist refrains.

That’s just the way it is.

That’s how the world works.

I need to eat, right?

Those are true, after a fashion (the last moreso than the former two; I do love me some eating), which of course makes the problem still more difficult to recognize.

And then we end up here, more than a year later, without as much to show for that year as perhaps could have been the case.

But opportunity, in the form of unemployment, knocks. Soon, The Day Job will be a thing of the past, and with that in mind, I have a few options.

I could search for another job. This is the safe option, inasmuch as anything is safe after our dear mustachio-twirlers in the finance sector basically broke the world for a few years.

I could do what I actually want to do. I could write. Full-time, “real” job writing. Forty hours a week at the computer, putting words in front of other words and managing the business that comes with that.

Will it work? I don’t know. But how can I, if I don’t put my nose to that grindstone and come away a little bloody?

So, with that in mind, here are my goals for the rest of the year:

1) Finish two novels, beginning to end – draft, edits, cover. I’ve started both, neither is as far along as it should be, but both will be finished by the end of this year.

2) Put up Pale Queen’s Courtyard on the Kindle, asap (target date is first week of April, though that depends on a few factors). Publishing is going through a sea change right now – more on that another day – such that self-publishing has to some extent emerged from a morass of stigma and is once again a viable option. Thanks, Mr. Gore. We couldn’t have done it without your tubes!

I’ve spent (perhaps not the first word that came to mind, but I don’t believe anything you learn from is truly a waste) a lot of time pitching to literary agents who, frankly, I’m no longer convinced are a going concern in the future of publishing, at least not in their current form. Now, it’s time to try something new. I haven’t decided whether I still intend to pitch directly to publishers yet. I suspect that the answer will to some extent depend on how much of a readership I can build up on my own.

3) Figure out the short story market. It’s back in full force (nb: it didn’t exactly go anywhere, but it certainly hasn’t been as hot as it is now for quite some time), once again due to the changing face of publishing. A few years ago, I would have told you that I don’t really understand short stories, because I was never much into reading them. My last writing projects, however, have been making use of vignettes, and I’m a bit more comfortable with the medium as a result.

4) Maintain a blog. One entry a week, minimum.

Simple enough, right? Four goals. One year. Let’s go.

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back to disappearing

October 29, 2009 at 2:33 pm (Uncategorized)

Nano starts in a few days. That means it’s about time to get back on the writing wagon (I’ve had a nice vacation from it, but I’m itching to start).

I’ve been outlining using a convenient tool called yWriter5, which I quite recommend. It’s effectively just a database tool, but one designed around the expectation that you’ll be writing a novel. So it’s got sections for chapters, characters, etc, and some neat organizational tools to help with continuity (one can specify, for instance, how long a scene is to take and build a timeline to ensure nothing’s in conflict). Useful stuff, and I recommend it.

In other news, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is absolutely enthralling. It’s a dark book at times, but rarely without a sense of gallows humour, and it’s both powerful and brilliantly written. It’s not an easy book (it reads a bit like Joyce at times), but neither is it entirely impenetrable, and a fine choice for the discerningly hoity-toity literature-as-art sort. I might have more to say about it once I’ve finished reading, but for now I must away.

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in praise of calvin

September 28, 2009 at 2:56 pm (Inanities)

I’ve been reading Calvin and Hobbes lately, mostly because it’s fantastic, and I’m struck by how well Calvin is characterized.

I find children somewhat difficult to write, particularly as I have none of my own (yet), and tend to struggle with a bleary sense of nostalgia for the better aspects of childhood while eliding the worse. I’m fully aware of the (sometimes surprising) perspicacity that children can display, of their great struggle with what’s ‘no fair’, of the generosity of which they’re capable.

I often need to remind myself of the scheming cunning of childhood, the egocentrism, the power games between peers, and the astounding stupidity that you can only get from someone who simply doesn’t have an adult understanding of consequence.

Calvin embodies all of these things. He’s by turns perceptive and stump-dumb, worldly and locked within the confines of his imagination, deeply concerned with Hobbes’s happiness and stunningly self-obsessed. Certainly, it’s all played up for comedic effect, and most of the insights that come out of Calvin are much too sophisticated for a six-year-old, but they feel true to life.

Calvin’s not an adult-in-child’s clothing; he’s not a pensive Linus or a world-weary Charlie Brown, he’s not one of the too-jaded Foxtrot kids, he’s not wise-beyond-his-years Huey (he’s a pretty good match for Riley, though). He’s a child, through-and-through: whiny, brilliant, exasperating, hilarious. We feel for his parents, even as we’d like nothing better than to get on that toboggan with him.

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September 24, 2009 at 3:31 pm (Inanities, Snippets)

In other, adorabler news, my gorgeous little niece is apparently now walking unaided! Alas, she can’t say ‘Marcin’ yet, and I’m getting the feeling that Daena isn’t taking me entirely seriously when I ask her to make with the teaching. All very unfair, I’m sure you’ll agree.

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September 24, 2009 at 3:23 pm (Inanities, Snippets, Uncategorized)

Apparently, in their wilder days (i.e. circa 300ish BC), the Gaulish tribes – much unlike their French descendants – had a rather draconian approach to questions of punctuality. When a summons to war was declared, the last man to make it to the meeting was sacrificed to the gods for good luck in the coming battle!

Oh, those kidders.

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September 14, 2009 at 7:16 pm (Inanities)

In this post, I alluded to a contest into which I’d entered my novel.

It turns out, dear reader, that I’ve been shortlisted. A top ten was chosen, from all of the submissions, and I’m on it!

Much though I might like to play this off, with a wee bit of dignity and perhaps that :coffee: emoticon so well-loved the world’s internet forums over, I’m actually really damn excited.

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but what did they eat?

September 14, 2009 at 3:04 pm (Inanities)

I’m currently in the research phase of my next writing project, and so I find myself reading about Gaul.

It’s not the easiest of subjects; the Gauls left no written record of their exploits, and as such survive mostly in the collective memory of other cultures (the Greeks and Romans, primarily, and to some extent in the Irish by dint of generalizable similarities between Celtic/Gaulish peoples). And so I find myself reading a Frenchman quoting Caesar quoting Poseidonius, in a historical variant of ‘Six degrees of Kevin Bacon’.

Now, I should note that historicism is not my number one concern; I’m not that sort of writer. I’m primarily interested in the semblance of historical accuracy, and particularly in those bits that make for a strong story. In short, I’m more concerned about feeling right than being right, and I’m not unwilling to play fast and loose with the details if they don’t fit the story I mean to tell.

In my defense, I never claimed to be a historian.

That said, I take that feel seriously. I want to be accurate, not for the sake of it(else I’d simply write a textbook), but because history is interesting. The ancients had their own themes and behaviours and metaphors, which feel alien enough to our modern sensibilities to stand out, but similar enough in their commentary on the human condition that we can nevertheless recognize pieces of ourselves in the distant past. The details of Gilgamesh may be foreign, but who among us hasn’t laughed about a woman taming her lover? Who among us doesn’t fear death?

One of the greatest difficulties in establishing this feel of historicity is that the details of interest to historians unfortunately are not always those of interest to writers. This is to some extent changing with the advent of what I like to call ‘DIY history’ – you know, the blokes who dress up like Roman centurions and erect a Roman camp using Roman techniques, to get a better sense of how things were really done – but nevertheless a not insignificant portion of historical research concerns itself with dates and names and who conquered whom. It’s not by any means a dastardly agenda; merely a reflection of the fact that the history that tends to survive is that of the upper classes. Even if Joe Babylonian could write, he’d have been too busy with the plow to commit to clay the details of his day.

In the end, some of the questions I most want to pose – what did they wear? what did they eat? how were their families structured? how were their cities laid out? what did they do for fun? – are the most difficult to have answered.

It’s an interesting conundrum. I find myself making great use of history aimed at children – who, having little interest in dates and names, are natural targets for questions of the quotidian. I find myself reading myth, and trying to cross-reference the attitudes referenced therein to what we know of historical realities. Mostly, I find myself extrapolating a lot.

Yes, and making stuff up.

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