Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Climate Deniers Versus Reality, Once Again

In a major speech yesterday, President Barack Obama laid out a plan for dealing with climate change. It's not a perfect plan--it gives too much away to "clean coal," which doesn't exist, and to fracking, which causes more problems than it solves--but it's a start. It's good to see the president finally delivering on the promises he made throughout his first and second election campaigns.

When I posted on Facebook praising the president's speech, I received the anticipated response from a climate denier. With roughly 250 friends, I was bound to have a denier or two among them.

We're rapidly reaching the point where the voices of climate deniers, for all their sound and fury, are being drowned out by common sense. Within a decade, I anticipate, climate deniers will be seen pretty much the way people who claim to have been abducted by aliens are seen: as odd, sad, strange people who, for whatever reasons, refuse to live in the reality the rest of us live in.

Because you know, it is strange.  A recent study demonstrates that over 97% of climatologists--those are the experts who study climate--agree with the consensus on anthropogenic global warming. That's a significant percentage of experts. The proportion of experts who disagree, the study concludes, is "vanishingly small."

When I pointed this out to my climate denier friend, he objected that science isn't based on opinion polls. And I agree. But expert consensus is not the same as an opinion poll.

Experts are those who know a subject best. Opinion polls involve random samples of people who probably know very little about the subject under debate.

We base many of our decisions on expert consensus. When more than 97 percent of cardiologists tell us we have a heart problem, most of us decide to get heart surgery. When more than 97 percent of plumbers tell us we have a plumbing problem, most of us decide to get the pipes fixed. When more than 97 percent of ex-girlfriends tell us we have a bad breath problem, most of us decide to invest in some Tic Tacs.

Opinion, as I tell my students, isn't the same as informed opinion. And informed opinion isn't the same as expert opinion.

We're all entitled to our opinions. But only if we're informed--or better yet, experts--are we entitled to have our opinions count.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

COVER REVEAL: COLDNESS OF MAREK by Rachel O'Laughlin

I'm thrilled to be doing something new on the blog today: a COVER REVEAL of Rachel O'Laughlin's forthcoming COLDNESS OF MAREK.  Check it out:




Book Blurb:
Serengard has been under Orion rule for centuries. Centuries of insufferable adherence to laws and traditions that none of its people ever asked for or agreed to. Raised by her scholarly grandfather in the fiery southern city of Neroi, Trzl is out to turn the monarchy into a free society where knowledge is king and no one has to be subject to the whims of an Orion.

As the rebellion escalates, her choices have an eerie impact on the revolution at large, elevating her to a position of influence she has only dreamed of attaining. But there are downsides to her power: appearances and alliances that must be upheld. One of them is Hodran, a rich rebel who wants to aid her cause, and another is Mikel, a loyalist farmer who wants to destroy it… and who just might be winning her heart at the same time.

By the time Trzl realizes she is in too deep, she has an infant son and a dark mess of betrayal and lies. She runs, to the farthest corner of the kingdom, in hopes she will be left alone with her child. But she has a few too many demons. Someone she once trusted takes her captive among the chilling Cliffs of Marek. She is thrown back into the political mess she helped create… at the mercy of a man she never wanted for an enemy.

Author Bio:
Obsessed with all things history, Rachel grew up reading adventure stories the caliber of Rafael Sabatini and only recently fell in love with fantasy as a genre. She lives in Maine with her husband and children, grows roses and tweets often. In addition to reading and writing, she loves coffee, spy series, and alternative rock.
Release DateAugust 6, 2013

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Reader Is Always Right

I received my editor's notes on SURVIVAL COLONY NINE yesterday.

She suggested a number of major changes concerning chronology, world-building, character relationships, narrative arc, plot developments, and more. My eyes nearly popped out of my head.

But the thing is, she's right about everything.

Which leads to the point of this post: the reader is always right.

I tell my students this when we're peer editing. I would say the same to any writer who's received a comment they didn't like from a critique partner or beta reader. I'd say the same to any writer, anywhere, any time.

The reader is always right.

Now, let's be clear about this. I'm not saying readers are always smarter than writers, or writers always have to listen to their readers. You're the writer, so you should, hopefully, be pretty smart and know your book pretty well. And if you don't like your reader's suggestions, don't follow them. The fact that the reader is always right does not obligate the writer always to follow the reader's advice.

In my case, of course, I'm going to follow the reader's advice. She's my editor. I'm trying to get a book published. I have one question for her concerning her comments, but once she clarifies that one point, I'm going to do as she says.

The way I'm going to do as she says is, of course, my own business. No one's telling me exactly how to make the changes I need to make.

She's just telling me I have to make them. And I will.

I think this is important advice for writers to learn. Many writers--students and otherwise--get all hot under the collar when anyone dares suggest there's something that could be improved about their brilliant prose. They storm, they pout, they sulk. And then they retaliate by not doing what their reader tells them to do. Or, worse, they refuse to show their work to readers at all, and they go ahead and self-publish something that's nowhere near ready. So there!

Yeah, that'll really show 'em.

As writers, I think we'd do ourselves a great service if we just remembered that the reader is always right. If we'd remember that, then we could focus on what we're supposed to do as writers. Not storm, pout, sulk, or retaliate. Not lash out at our readers. Not curl up into a little ball and hide from the reality of the writing life.

But listen to our readers.

And then write.

Friday, June 7, 2013

... And More Bad Writing Advice

Bad writing advice comes in all forms.

In some cases, as in yesterday's example, it was bad advice about the content of the writing.

In other cases, as today, it's bad advice about the path to publication.

This morning, I found this guest post in a blog I follow. I usually like this blog, so I don't want to suggest that it's a bad place to get writing advice. Usually, it's not.

Today, it is.

In the post, the author--who by no coincidence is a paid ghostwriter--suggests that everyone who's seeking an agent or a publisher had better first employ the services of, you guessed it, a paid ghostwriter. Here are her exact words:

You don't want your book to be passed over. So it's best to always hire a professional book editor to give your manuscript a thorough going-through before presenting it to an agent or publisher.

I'd suggest that if you do hire a professional book editor, you don't hire this one, who obviously doesn't know what a split infinitive is.

But leaving that aside, is her advice sound?

Well, it depends. She tells us later that "spending money on your book is worth it" in today's competitive marketplace. But she also tells us that the kind of services she's advertising can run anywhere from 2,000 to 50,000 dollars. Do you know what the average advance for a debut author is?

I'll give you a hint: it ain't 50,000 dollars.

Look, there are some books that are in desperate need of editorial assistance.  There are some writers who don't write very well.

But those writers are probably not going to get published no matter how much someone else tinkers with their books. Those writers just aren't good enough.

Other writers can discover the weaknesses in their manuscripts with the assistance of unpaid critique partners or beta readers. And they can fix what's wrong themselves before subbing to an agent or editor.

Then there are some writers who are good enough to get published, but who need a paid editor to get a book into agent-or-publisher-ready shape. Those authors should consult their consciences and their pocket-books and make their own decision.

But to say it's "always" best to hire a paid editor is to put false hope in the minds of those writers who are unpublishable, while putting unnecessary fear into the minds of those writers who don't need to pay anyone.

And it's all done in the name of making a buck.

I'm an old-fashioned guy. I believe you don't lie to people or take advantage of them. In that respect, I guess I'm out of step with the whole capitalist mantra, which seems to be: anything goes.

So on the one hand, as a blogger, I'm thankful for all the bad advice out there. It gives me something to do. It keeps me in business (though obviously, I don't get paid for these posts).

But on the other hand, as a writer and a human being, it really ticks me off.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Bad Writing Advice, Part III: Mirror, Mirror

Last night I participated in a chat on Twitter. This was a good thing for at least two reasons: 1.) there was lots of lively, if compressed, conversation; and 2.) it proves that I've mastered how to use hashtags.

But anyway, we were discussing beginnings in YA novels, and inevitably the subject of what NOT to do in the beginning of a novel came up. And equally inevitably, someone dropped the "never start with a character waking up" rule.

As I've discussed in another post, the problem with this particular "thou shalt not" is that lots of successful novels violate it. If it were really an ironclad rule--like, "never squash your head under a pneumatic press"--then we wouldn't see people ignoring it and living to tell the tale.

But it's not a rule; it's a preference, and that's very much not the same thing.

When I pointed this out, another Tweeter argued that you should only break the "no waking up" rule if you have a very good reason to do so.

I couldn't agree more. But then, you should never do anything in writing unless you have a very good reason to do so. Thus, once again, we're not talking about rules versus non-rules; we're not saying "no waking up" is a rule that can be broken only under the right circumstances while, say, "no character putting his head in a pneumatic press" is a non-rule that anyone can ignore with impunity. If you have a character put his head in a pneumatic press, you'd better have a good reason for it, just as you'd better have a good reason for inserting a conga line of elephants dressed like Groucho Marx.

Do you see what I'm getting at here? Writing doesn't have rules the same way reality does.  It has parameters and possibilities, and anything is possible within the right parameters.

Which brings me to another supposed "rule," one that came up last night as well: "no first-person narrator describing her or his reflection in a mirror." There's what we might call the "soft" version of this rule, which says never to do so in the opening chapter, and the "hard" version, which says never to do it anywhere, ever, for any reason, under pain of death.

But the problem with this "rule," again, is that it's violated on a regular basis by published authors. For example, I find the following passage in Margaret Stohl's quite well-written and successful YA book Icons:

I watch my reflection in the window. My brown hair is dark and loose and matted with dirt and bile. My skin is pale and barely covers the handful of small bones that are me.

Nice writing, nice description, nice moment.  Nice mirror.

Plenty of books, YA or otherwise, have the first-person narrator engage in mirror-gazing. Gennifer Albin's Crewel does. Leah Bardugo's Shadow and Bone does. Elsie Chapman's Dualed does.  It's a common technique for the very reason that it's consistent with the reality readers know: one of the few available ways in which we can see ourselves is by looking into some reflective substance, whether that be a mirror, a window, a pool of water, our lover's eyes, or the blade of a knife. Especially when you take photography out of the equation--which many YA fantasies do--how else are you supposed to see yourself?

I'm not being naive here. I know that too many inexperienced writers have their first-person narrators looking into mirrors because they don't know what else to do, and somehow this convention has slipped into their minds as a good thing to have first-person narrators doing. I'm not defending every instance of first-person-narrator-mirror-gazing that's ever been written. Some of these instances are no doubt poorly written, poorly thought out, poorly motivated.

But many are not. Many are brilliantly written, cleverly thought out, ingeniously motivated. And thus they're fine. They're exactly right. They belong.

In writing, each beginning, each scene, each word needs to find its own rightness, its own reason for existence. If it can do that, keep it. If it can't, lose it.

But let's put an end to punitive novel-gazing. Let's put an end to the literary correctness police. Let's put an end to writing "rules," when we all know they were made to be broken.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Problem with Paradise


The Eagles' song "The Last Resort" begins with these lines:

She came from Providence 
The one in Rhode Island
Where the old world shadows hang heavy in the air.
She packed her hopes and dreams like a refugee
Just as her father came across the sea.

It's a song about emigration, about westward movement, the colonization (and destruction) of the continent.  With each westward move, to the farthest coast and then to the islands beyond, the colonists believe they've found Paradise, the ultimate place of rest and beauty.

But there's a problem: no sooner do they arrive than they begin to turn Paradise into a wasteland.

I was thinking about this song when I watched After Earth, the Will and Jaden Smith vehicle.  Not a bad film, as summer sci-fi fare goes; if you want a full review, check out my other blog, YA Guy.

But what got me thinking about the Eagles song as I watched this film was the theme of emigration and colonization, in this case emigration away from earth and colonization of distant planets.

In After Earth, humans have destroyed our home planet's environment, and so they leave, seeking a new, more hospitable planet.  It's a theme we've seen in a number of recent fantasy/sci-fi films: Avatar, Wall-E, Battle for Terra.  I wrote about those films here.

And what I wrote is that I find such films disturbing, because--for all their ostensible environmental awareness--they suggest that even if we trash this planet, there'll always be another planet waiting for us.

Some people actually believe this.  Should earth become uninhabitable, they say, we'll simply pull up roots and terraform the moon or Mars.  That such a feat is far beyond our current technologies isn't the main problem with such thinking.

The main problem is that, unless we can overcome such thinking, no matter where we go we'll start doing the same thing all over again.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with Paradise: we don't really want to live in it.  We want to devour it and move on.

The Eagles song ends:

And you can see them there on Sunday morning
Stand up and sing about what it's like up there
They call it Paradise
I don't know why
You call someplace Paradise
Kiss it goodbye.

What's going to save us, if anything is, is not another place "after Earth."  There is no such place, or if there is, it won't be safe from us for long.

Paradise can't save us until we decide there's something worth saving.