Jelec, the White Bear

Beware an Encounter with a Raven and his Friends

Month: January, 2012

How to Write, Part 0: Reading is Essence

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For the first post in this series, go here.

Why am I calling this Part 0, when I’ve already written Part I? Because in some ways, I needed to backtrack from the act of writing to that which comes first – namely, reading.

Like many writers, I spent a wonderful childhood surrounded by the imaginary creatures, people, and places found in books. Whatever was going on in the outside world was somehow less important than what went on in the latest book or story I found myself living inside.

I’ve long suspected that this is a common phenomenon.

My argument, therefore, is this: in order to write well, you must read a great deal. One of the best ways to learn remains monkey see, monkey do. No amount of workshopping, collaboration, or talking about your writing process will help you improve so much as burying your head in books for ten years. (Good books!)

This does not mean workshops and collaboration are unimportant. It means that if you have not read a great deal, and do not possess the requisite familiarity with language, phrasing, grammar, and the like, you are walking into a workshop without the tools you need to do your best work. This does not mean you are lazy, or somehow unworthy, somehow “not good enough,” but that you are simply unprepared. One can go from being unprepared to a state of readiness. It’s just a matter of time, and work. Anyone can do it, if his or her desire is great enough. Talent is almost always overcome by preparation and hard work, in the end.

So many activities that surround writing and the writer’s life are distractions. There is a mantra I’ve developed that serves as a reminder: essence over ephemera. Reading is essence.

(Image courtesy henrybloomfield under Creative Commons license.)

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How to Write, Part I: Who not to Listen to

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This is the first in a planned series of articles in which I will teach you how to write. More precisely: I will teach you how to learn how to write. The rest involves a great deal of hard work that you’ll have to do for yourself.

(Update: the second article is now available here.)

Perhaps you’re wondering what qualifies me to make such a claim? It’s only fair that I should share my background. I have a Bachelor’s degree in English, with a concentration in Creative Writing. While studying for that degree, I studied closely under two professors who were themselves published authors. During my time at a previous college, I was lucky enough to study under two equally talented, published writers. Please bear in mind that when I say published, I don’t mean published in an academic journal.

Does this mean I’m a good writer? Am I claiming that the skill and success of others is somehow reflective of my own? No. But it means I’ve been around writers better than me. And that’s important. If you want to learn how to write, you should study those who are better than you, and politely disregard everyone else.

This does not mean that you should be rude or dismissive. Please note the use of the word ‘politely.’ I’m simply claiming that you will not improve by listening to advice from any of the following groups:

  • Non-Writing Friends and Family

    They may know you personally, but it doesn’t mean they know anything about writing, or your writing in particular. Sole Exception: if you are lucky enough to have friends or family members whose intelligence, experience, and taste you respect, by all means solicit feedback from them on your work. Don’t expect them to come back singing its praises, though. You will probably be disappointed.

  • People who Don’t Read Much

    It’s sad but true that many people simply don’t read very much. How could they possibly have any useful opinions about your writing if they don’t read? (Note that I am explicitly not talking about audiobook listeners here. I have a number of friends who enjoy listening to audiobooks. They qualify as readers. Ask Random House.)

  • People who Identify as “Writers” but who do not Actually Write Anything

    Nothing new here: Writers write. Non-writers who sit around and talk about writing are an annoyance at best. At worst, they’ll pull you down with them. Avoid them.

  • Bad Writers

    Dunning-Kruger tells us that there are lots of bad writers out there, and that I’m probably one of them. That’s OK, nobody’s perfect. But be aware of this, and be especially aware of it if you’re not sure where you stand. Dunning-Kruger in a nutshell: if you think you’re pretty good, chances are you’re not. If you think you’re pretty bad, you might in fact be pretty bad. Then again, you might be a little better than average (Most people who are above average rate their skills too low – see the link above).

That covers the basics about who not to learn from. I’ll have more to say about some positive actions you can take to improve your writing in my next installment.

(Image courtesy maggz under Creative Commons license.)

Jelec: the Complete First Chapter


 

The following is an excerpt of the first chapter from the complete book, which is available via Amazon here.

Read this excerpt in PDF format here.

Copyright 2011 R. M. Loveland.

I. THINGS THAT SLIP THROUGH THE CRACKS

The first time Glynis McGinty found out that she could transform into a bird, and could speak the secret language of birds, was shortly after her twelfth birthday.

At her mother’s insistence, in order to fill the long summers of no school, she had taken a very modest job at one of the local hotels. For four hours from eight to twelve noon, she would fold and stack sheets and towels in the hotel laundry, and also run small errands for the desk clerks as needed. She didn’t mind doing this, as it got her out of the house a few mornings each week, and it gave her the freedom of a little spending money. For this she was the envy of her friend John and sister Marla, who were themselves twelve and ten, and who coveted her freedom from parents as much as the little money she earned.

This was especially true in the case of little Marla McGinty, since it is a well-known fact that little sisters like to be allowed to do the same things that big sisters do, which is generally harmless and perfectly alright, except of course when it isn’t. And when you’re the Big Sister that Little Sister is following, it never is.

This meant that despite Glynis’s fervent pleas to her mother, Marla would accompany them on the drive to the hotel each morning at seven-thirty, come rain or shine.

And what a hotel it was! The Sycamore Hotel and Resort had stood by the shores of Lake William for over a century, and in all that time no other had been built that could rival it. Standing, as it did, on an island just off the western shore, it was a white jewel set in the blue heart of the lake, visible from the tops of nearby mountains for miles around.

It was to this small island that Glynis rode with her mother and her sister Marla two or three mornings each week, leaving the house for the drive over the mountains into the town, which was also called Lake William. It was the sort of town that people who lived in cities went to when they wanted to “get away from it all,” a small place on the shore of a lake in the mountains. Glynis and her family loved it, and they enjoyed a quiet life there.

Until Glynis took a job at the Sycamore Hotel, that is.

It all began innocently enough, as adventures go. Glynis was in the laundry room surrounded by bins of white towels that needed folding, and so she was doing just that. It was a cool, clear morning in early June. The dew was on the grass, and Mr. Stephens, the hotel manager, was feeling ambitious again.

“Oh, Glynis!” A voice called from behind a particularly overstuffed laundry cart, rousing Glynis from her daydreams about sailing ships and white towel seas.

“Yes, Mr. Stephens. I’m back here with the towels.”

“Ah, there you are.” He emerged from behind a small mountain of pilowcases, clutching his ever-present black notebook, which he turned to as Glynis looked on. “Where was I? Oh yes, page forty-two: “Special Projects.” Yes, well, since this is your first summer here at the Sycamore, you probably don’t know about this, but every year I create one or two of what I like to call special projects, that need to be done above and beyond the regular work we do. Things that otherwise slip through the cracks.”

“Slip through the cracks?” Glynis had never heard this expression before, and she wondered what her mother would think of it. Mrs. McGinty was not the sort of person to allow slipperiness, cracking (wise-or-otherwise), or any combination of the two.

“Oh, you know, the sort of thing which needs doing but never seems to get done. Usually we’re so busy with taking care of our guests that we don’t have time for much else, so I schedule these things in as and when I can. Anyway, just go and see Brian at the front desk; he’ll give you all the details.” And with that, he turned on his heel and left as quickly as he’d arrived.

“What a strange man,” Glynis thought as she continued folding her way through her ocean of white towels. “Just buzzing in one moment, and out the next! I suppose a hotel manager must have to have a lot of energy, especially at a big place like this. I wonder what sort of “special” this project will be? I guess I’ll find out soon enough.”

And so Glynis returned to her folding, and to her daydreams, until the formerly vast white towel ocean had become a mere pond, hardly big enough for a sailing ship anymore, though perfectly nice for paddling a canoe with a friend. It was at around this time that Glynis noticed the clock on the laundry room wall, which told her that it was half past eleven. She knew that her mother would be coming for her soon, and so she climbed the three flights of stairs to the main floor of the hotel, where her friend Brian worked. She liked Brian; he was funny and always had a smile and a kind word to share, and he would often let her sit behind the front desk with him while she waited for her mother to arrive.

“Hey Brian!” she called, happy to see her friend. Since there were no guests at the desk, she didn’t have to worry about formalities.

“Hey yourself, kiddo! What’s the latest news from the laundry dungeon?” Yes, Glynis thought, this was definitely a guest-free environment.

“Not too much news. White towels on and off all day today, with tomorrow’s forecast calling for a ninety-five percent chance of more white towels. But that’s not all, Brian.”

“Oh no?”

“No. Mr. Stephens came to see me this morning, and he said he had a ‘special project’ for me, and that I should come and see you about it. I guess it’s something he puts together every year?”

“Oh Glynis, you are a lucky girl, aren’t you?” he said with a grin. “Follow me then, you poor soul,” he added, grabbing a flashlight from under the desk.

And so she did. They left the lobby and followed the hall to the North Wing of the hotel. When they had reached the very far end of the building and could go no further, Brian turned and, after some fumbling with the lock, went through a narrow door that opened onto a dark stairwell.

“This is an old part of the hotel,” he explained, though it seemed clear enough to Glynis that it was. “We’ve gone through several renovations over the years, and you can probably guess that these stairs aren’t legal under the building codes we have now. It’s hard to believe that this used to be how people got around inside the hotel. Can you imagine chambermaids carrying laundry up and down these narrow stairwells, or bellhops carrying luggage?”

Glynis had to admit that she couldn’t. She was too busy trying not to trip and fall while studying the strange patterns illuminated in the wallpaper by Brian’s flashlight. It was a sort of paisley print, shot through with curlicues arranged in such a way that they kept catching in the corners of her eyes, and she found it very distracting. Added to that was the difficulty of navigating the stairs themselves, which were tall and narrow in the style of very old houses. Or very old hotels, for that matter.

Glynis had known that the hotel was old, but it was one thing to hear her mother say it and another actually to see this strange, dry wallpaper curling off the walls like onion skin, or to feel the thin boards creak and sag in the middle of each step as she and Brian walked over them. Down one, two, three cramped flights of stairs they went, and it seemed to her that they were almost holding their breath as they went, so strange was the place they’d found themselves in. It truly was as if they had gone back in time. She realized that they were now back to the lowest level of the hotel, where the laundry room was, and where she’d just spent all morning working.

How strange to think that she had just come from there! You wouldn’t even know you were in the same building, especially given the smell of the place, which she was just beginning to notice. It was musty, and gave the impression of a place which hadn’t been disturbed in a very long time indeed.

“Glynis, can you hold the light for me? I need to open the cellar door.” Brian was fumbling with his keys again. “I need to get at the fuse-box and get these lights working again before any work can begin, but I just wanted to give you a quick tour.” And with that he bent down, fumbled a bit with a lock and latch, and lifted two large sections of the wood floor, first one and then the other. Together they opened on hinges like a pair of rusty wings, revealing a passage underground.

“This is the deepest part of the building, Glynis, and it’s where you’ll be working for the next several weeks, in addition to your regular duties in the laundry room. As I said, I still need to fiddle a bit with some fuses and bulbs to make things habitable, but once I’ve done that, you should be able to come and go as you please.”

“That’s all very nice, Brian, but what is it I’m supposed to be doing down here? You still haven’t told me.”

“Ah well, now comes the magic bit. Take this flashlight and go over to the edge of that opening there. Be careful not to fall in, because there aren’t any stairs, so we’ll need to get you a ladder. Now crouch down and shine your light into that big hole in the floor, and tell me what you see.”

Glynis did as she was asked, but she decided to lie on her stomach instead to get a better look. And when her eyes followed the beam of her flashlight down into that dark place, what did they see? They saw ornately carved dressers and liquor cabinets, faded paintings in gilded frames. There were rolled-up carpets and lamps with shades of many-colored glass. And more that her eyes could not detect, receding into the darkness, but no doubt covered in the same dirt and dust and faded grandeur as what she saw now. She felt like an explorer cracking open a Pharoah’s tomb, and the old hotel was the pyramid which held it all.

She knew right then that she couldn’t wait for another visit to see what was there; she had to start exploring it right away.

“Brian, you said there’s no ladder yet, but I do so want to have a quick look around, now that we’re all the way down here. Is there any way you can lower me down for a quick peek?”

“I don’t know, Glynis. Your shift is almost up,” he said, looking up from his watch.

“I’ll be in and out before you know it. Please?” She put on her best approximation of an `aren’t I a nice young girl not to mention completely trustworthy at all times’ face. Brian was helpless against it, or very nearly so. “All right, all right –but it’s a quarter ’til twelve already, so no dilly-dallying, O.K.?”

“O.K.” She tried not to grin too broadly, lest he should change his mind. “Five minutes or less, on my honor as an employee of this fine hotel.”

Brian had to smile and shake his head at that, then then he turned and began searching in the darkness for something to lower her with. After a moment’s grunting and some jostling aside stacks of wooden deck chairs and dusty bookshelves, he emerged from behind an eight-foot dry sink with a tallish stepladder in hand. A bit more digging produced some white rope, a former clothesline probably, and they were ready.

“So here’s the plan,” he said as he began tying one end of the rope to the top of the ladder. “I’ll lower the stepladder onto the floor with the rope and, if it holds, I’ll lower you down onto it, and you can walk from there. I’ll stay up here, and try to preserve my last clean shirt, that is unless you need me for anything. Either way, you’ve got five minutes and then we go, no questions asked? Got it?”

“Got it.”

And so Brian did as he’d planned, lowering the stepladder into the cavern beneath them. When he’d finished, Glynis came over and, with his help, stepped down onto the ladder’s top step. It was surprisingly stable, and she turned to Brian to gather their only flashlight before leaving him there in the darkness.

“Four minutes, forty seconds,” said Brian, half-smiling, though Glynis couldn’t see it.

“I’ll be right back.”

Glynis climbed down the stepladder with no surprises and found herself surrounded by all of the wonderful and strange things she’d only glimpsed a moment ago. She had sensed that there was more to the room than she had at first seen, and as she picked her way by the flashlight’s beam through the maze of four-poster bed frames and antique rolltop writing desks she found she’d been right. The Cavern (as she had already taken just now to calling it in her mind) seemed to extend the entire length of the North Wing of the hotel.

Glynis realized then that this was going to be a very big job indeed.

Just then her light caught the edge of something that flashed, something over by the wall. She had been walking down a sort of central aisle that had been left clear, so she turned left, in the direction of the flash, and began squirming between the bookcases and wardrobes, trying to find its source. Worried that she’d lost it, she began sweeping the flashlight from side to side, a bit wildly perhaps, when she saw the flash again. She was much closer now and was able to discern that there were mirrors and other various glass items leaning against the walls, some covered in burlap, and some not. She had homed in on her target’s general location when the third flash came, several feet ahead. As she approached, she could see clearly that her quarry was entirely covered in burlap save one corner, and that it too was leaning against the Cavern wall.

Glynis did next what any curious person, young or old, would do, and when she had slid the burlap tarp onto the floor, her eyes widened at the treasure which lay before them.

There was a tree at its heart, a tree rendered in a window of stained glass, its many-colored leaves reminding Glynis of autumn, which was still months away. The branches of the tree, leafy and full, were supported by a massive, gnarled trunk that disappeared into a grassy hillside. Upon further inspection, she could see that it was a maple tree by the shape of its tiny glass leaves. Behind the tree, an expanse of clear blue sky faded up into the star-filled blackness of the heavens, as the sun and moon hovered far overhead, one in each corner of the starry heights. Each had been given a face: the moon’s, dreamy and cool, was the face of a woman gently smiling, while the sun had the prominent brow and nose of a man, his expression resolute and strong. Between and below the sun and moon, directly above the tree in question, was a constellation of small, bright stars which Glynis had never seen before. She made a mental note to start looking for that constellation in her own sky or, failing that, some books on astronomy in the Lake William Town Library.

In her musings over the mysterious constellation, her eyes wandered over the entire window, not really settling on any feature in particular, until she noticed a small, uneven rectangle hidden in the gnarled lines of the tree’s trunk. Though it was quite small, she could make out the Roman numerals inside: XIII. Thirteen. “What does that mean?” she wondered to herself. “Are there thirteen of these windows? By the same artist, or many? Maybe there are more of them down here,” she speculated aloud. Her curiosity piqued, she took an oath, or something she thought very much like it, in the sense that an oath is a promise to yourself; her oath went like this: “On my honor as Glynis Helen McGinty, I will discover the secrets of this window of stained glass, not least among them the name of the secret constellation and the mysteries of the many-colored tree, numbered thirteen. I hereby take, of my own free will a solemn oath that I shall not cease in my labors until the secrets of this window are known. Let it be done.”

At that point, surprised at her own strange behavior, and having sworn to the seriousness of her intent, Glynis reached out to touch the tree of glass, thereby sealing the oath-taking ceremony in her mind and in time. As her fingers approached it, the sky behind that strange tree began to ripple as if reflected in water. One inch more her curious fingers came closer, and the leaves of that odd tree swayed first this way, then that, as if caught in a mild evening breeze. Glynis was not afraid, however, having sworn such a solemn oath (not to mention being naturally curious, and perhaps not in her right mind of course), and so her child’s fingers didn’t hesitate for an instant. The unknown constellation responded in kind to her curiosity, twinkling and fading as if to the rhythms of a music she could hear, or perhaps the music was her own? She could no longer tell, entranced as she was by this magical scene: tree, sky, and stars each dancing after their own fashion to this music without time.

When at last her fingertips reached the tree, they felt not iron and stained glass, but moist leaf and branch. The gentle breeze she had thought imaginary a moment before now touched her bare arms. A turn of her head revealed the same secret constellation, now far overhead, still twinkling and dancing merrily in the night sky. Far above, shining down on all, was the moon; though faceless now, and cold, it glowed beautifully nonetheless.

“Where am I?” she wondered quietly. “What is this place?” She was surprised to find that she felt no fear, despite her strange journey (which had mostly involved standing in one place, but many journeys are like that, as any child can tell you).

“Wondering what to do next, are we?” The voice carried down out of the tree, raspy and sharp.

It startled Glynis. “Who’s there? Come on, show yourself. Don’t be afraid, I’m not going to hurt you.”

“Strange to think that you could hurt me, child. I am older than any that walk your world. You’d do well to rein in your tongue a little here, I think. This –”

“– And where is here, pray tell, O Kind Voice that Lives in a Tree? And who are you?”

Glynis knew it was rude to interrupt people (if this was indeed a person), but she’d listened to enough of her mother’s lectures to know that sometimes it’s best to stop long speeches before they get started.

The voice did not respond to her question. Afraid she had driven it away entirely, Glynis tried to apologize. “I’m sorry, kind voice. I didn’t mean to offend you. I’m lost, that’s all. I don’t know where I am.”

The branches above her head began to shake, a little at first, and then a lot. The shaking grew violent, and she began to fear for her poor head as small branches began falling from the tree to the grass all around her.

The voice returned, this time much deeper and louder. “That you don’t know where you are, that much is clear. This realm does not forgive ignorance so easily, child. If you would travel these lands, you must learn to have a care for your speech, for words are powerful things here, in the Realm of the White Bear.”

Just then the tree, which had been shaking wildly and dropping branches as the voice spoke, groaned and convulsed mightily, as if throwing off a great weight. Glynis jumped back, trying to avoid danger, if danger it was, and saw something large and dark emerge from the top of the tree. The dark shape climbed high above before it swooped down, wings outstretched, coming to rest in the grass a few feet away, in the tree’s moonlit shadow.

Glynis was cowering away now, a little afraid. The shape removed itself from the tree’s shadow and Glynis gasped: it was a giant, ragged bird, oilblack, with a twisted, ragged beak. The creature just stood there a moment, half-opening and then closing its wings, which were enormous, the biggest Glynis had ever seen, even on television. Overcoming her fear, Glynis asked, “Um, pardon me, Mr. Bird, sir, but I don’t know where I am, and I’ve grown a little afraid. Yes, I’m afraid I’m well and truly lost.”

“Finally, you begin to talk sense,” the creature croaked, not entirely unpleasantly. “Now we can move on to the next stage of our encounter.”

[Image courtesy http://www.flickr.com/photos/poplinre/ under Creative Commons license.]

Linkdump: Ebook and Self-Publishing Resources

I’ve spent a great deal of time over the last weeks compiling information on various facets of ebook creation, distribution, etc. I’ll be digging into many of these topics at length in upcoming posts, but for today I’d like to give you a nice, juicy linkdump from my own notes for your reading pleasure.

LeanPub

http://leanpub.com/

‘Leanpub’ is a Canadian company that pays you a 90% royalty rate, minus a $0.50 fee per book sold. You set your own price, and retain all rights to the books, including the right to publish elsewhere (Amazon, etc.) or sell to traditional publishers at some point. Their name is a reference to the idea that you can publish works-in-progress and get feedback along the way. In addition, you can publish compilations of blogs. I’ve read a few books that were compilations derived from blogs I like. It’s a great format. I’m getting pretty excited about these guys.

Kindle Direct

https://kdp.amazon.com/self-publishing/signin

Amazon offers ‘Kindle Direct Publishing’, whereby you sell your ebook directly to Amazon’s customers via their web store. There are two royalty options: 35% and 70% (see here for an analysis of their royalty rates).

Smashwords

http://www.smashwords.com/

Smashwords is a distributor, and kind of a one-stop shop for taking your book from humble Word document to an ebook for sale with Apple, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and more. Be aware that they take an additional royalty on top of the royalties each of those stores takes (as I understand it). However, they make ebook publishing dead simple, and do a lot of the book-creation and distribution legwork for you. Marketing is still your problem, though.

Barnes & Noble PubIt!

http://pubit.barnesandnoble.com/pubit\_app/bn?t=pi\_reg\_home

Barnes & Noble’s direct sales channel for the Nook. It looks like it’s available via their website as well.

J.A. Konrath’s Blog

http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/

J.A. Konrath writes a lot about ebook and self-publishing at his blog. He’s gone from $40,000 salary midlister to being, in his words, “in the top tax bracket.” So it’s only one data point, but you can learn a lot about the game from reading his blog.

Calibre Ebook Software

http://calibre-ebook.com

Calibre is a free ebook reader. It also does conversions among various ebook formats. For those of you who are programmer-types, you can bypass the GUI and script calibre using the command-line interface.

Writer Beware

http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/

Finally, the SF & F writers of America (SFWA), which is sort of a trade organization for traditionally published writers, has a page up that has lots of useful links about scams and so forth, basically a signpost for what to avoid. They’re biased in favor of traditional
over self-publishing, but that is where their membership comes from, after all. Still plenty of interesting and useful information there, though.

[Image courtesy the_pale_side_of_insomnia under Creative Commons license.]