15 May

I was recently invoked by The Abyss and Apex, and would like to talk to you about me, dialect, and Caribbean stories

I realize I’ve never talked that often about including dialect in my own fiction right here on this blog. Certainly in panels, and in interviews, and in passing. But I’ve never sat down and done a big post about it.

It was one of the hardest things about writing my first novel, Crystal Rain.

Me and my dialect

In 2004, when working on the first draft, ten years ago now, I was nine years away from living daily on the islands. The words were all still with me. A mix of dialect picked up from Grenada, the British Virgin Islands, and the US Virgin Islands. And also a friend from Anguilla.

Mind you, as much as dialect was always around me, I was a semi-participant. I am a confusing individual. My father is Grenadian, my mother, British. I lived, for many of my years, aboard a boat. So even when growing up in the Caribbean, I often was isolated.

In Grenada, with some friends I would have an accent. With my mom, on the boat, I had an accent as well: received pronunciation, with some New Zealand (my mom grew up in England and New Zealand). With some friends I had that accent. To be honest, from learning how to speak to age 9, I never thought too much about it.

Hanging out with friends in the BVI I would slip into the dialect around me. That was usually happily accepted by my friends, but people would occasionally report back to mother (I saw your son today, I couldn’t understand a word he was saying) or upbraid me for not ‘speaking correctly.’ On the other side, some people in the BVI would give me grief for trying to talk like them.

When I moved to the USVI, I began to switch over to a somewhat mid-Atlantic American accent (I still struggle to pronounce France or aunt with a hard ‘aaaa’). Some friends would get the brunt of my Tortola-learned accent. But no matter what I spoke, many friends had dialects.

In the meantime, I was also learning Spanish pronunciation as well, from my neighbors.

Even to my friends in the USVI, I know that even when I had a slight accent they weren’t hearing it, but my college room mate was doing home work while I was on the phone to a friend back in the islands once, and by the end of the call he had stopped working and started staring at me. “Okay, now I really believe that’s where you came from,” he told me.

So in my head, I don’t know what I should sound like. But in 2004, I knew what I missed hearing: dialect. And I knew what I wanted to try to put to paper. Particularly as each year put me further and further away from the islands I missed and grew up in.

Writing dialect

But I had a few examples that inspired me. Literary fiction, Dickens and Twain, and a little bit of James Herriot.

I was told, in workshops and when reading books about how to write, over and over again that dialect was to be avoided.

But Dickens and Twain and a little bit of James Herriot, no?

In the Caribbean, I wasn’t given a lot of Caribbean dialect. Teachers there gave me canon, mainly.

But Dickens and Twain and a little bit of James Herriot, no?

And what about Clockwork Orange?

And what about…

I read an article where Dante was asked why he wrote in Italian instead of Latin. This when Italian was still called a dialect, a lower version of Latin. And he had a defense. And so did Chaucer for writing in English. And the more I delved into my English major, the more it seemed that, well, language is a big world.

People still used Shakespeare, which read differently to us now. That involved an old dialect that required me to work hard to get through it.

Writing Crystal Rain

As I wrote Crystal Rain, I did my best to bring in some of the rhythms and sound I grew up with. I knew in some ways I was trying to reinvent the wheel, and in some ways failing. Art is so imperfect, and filled with tough choices.

I tested out whole lengthy sections using spellings that replicated what I’d heard for dialect, phonetic spelling, new combinations. And I tested out ways where I used the words as they were, kind of, intended without the accent in the spelling. I tinkered, and tested, and played, and eventually settled on a system very similar to what Shakirah of Get Write covers here:

I attended a workshop were one facilitator was adamant that we should never “bastardise the English”, that is, spell the word how it is pronounced. She didn’t believe that we should use “tuh” for to, “yuh” for you, “de” for the, etc etc. She believed that if it sounded the same in Standard English, there was no need to change the spelling. Another facilitator was an advocate for writing dialect as it is spoken, because he believed that was the only way to make a true representation of the language, for example, “wunna” for you all, “wha” instead of what.

They both made good points.

I personally find it difficult to read full blocks of dialect, simply because there is no standard spelling, and we are taught to read in Standard English. I find it difficult to read newspaper columns written in full dialect like Cou-Cou and Flying Fish – it gives me a headache.

So, I made a compromise between the two. I rarely change the spelling of words that sound the same in Standard English, for example “de” for the, but then I also try to capture the rhythm of the language in how my sentences are structured. So a Barbadian person would read it and naturally hear the accent, and a foreigner would hopefully be able to hear that voice as well, but still be able to easily read the language.

That last paragraph is basically my approach. Trying to create something that allows both my readerships to plug in, with my Caribbean readers ‘getting’ an accent that I’m hinting at.

I don’t always succeed for either side, I’ve had some Caribbean readers feel I missed the mark. I’ve had non-Caribbean readers complain I make things too hard (they should see the drafts I first created).

I came to this decision after almost two years of playing with drafts of Crystal Rain, and folded it into my general approach. But let me tell you, it was not made lightly or easily, nor am I fully convinced I got it perfect. It was the best, and is the best, that I can do. It works with me, my fiction, and the stories I’m trying to tell. It’s one way of doing it.

In some ways, I know using any dialect lost me readers. I know it’s made it harder to sell books (I know this particularly for translation sales, I’ve had some very honest discussions with people who’ve read the books overseas but say they can’t buy them to translate because of the dialect). I know in some ways, I’m not quite capturing the Caribbean just so. It’s an imperfect piece of art…

…but it’s *my* imperfect piece of art. I made all the decisions in Crystal Rain, for better or worse. I made the calls. I bear all the responsibility. And even though it was hard to sell, I’ve made a career on the books and my mission of adventure and characters from varying backgrounds. I wanted to see a book *just like this* exist, and now it does. And the proudest moments of my life have been reading these books on Caribbean soil to Caribbean readers, and talking to readers of diverse backgrounds who saw what I was doing and got in the game.

On Being Invoked

It became important to write all this because recently my name was invoked in an article titled ‘Authentic Voice, or Clarity?’ at The Abyss & Apex.

…1) the author they acquired a story from, Celeste Baker, is someone I’ve read before and so recognized the name. She has two previous Caribbean stories with fantastic elements in them.

The first one is from the Caribbean Literary magazine Calabash, based out of NYC, Jumbie from Bordeaux (and if you’re from the Caribbean you can see the fantastic right in the title). A snippet:

I strut off to find everybody, hands in me pockets like a big man. Plantation quiet quiet. Even though I don’t like to get up, I like de morning cause de air smell like it just bathe. We high up from de sea but when de morning breeze blow it bring de sea smell.

More recently, Celeste also published a story that I linked to on twitter called Single Entry in Moko Magazine:

Carnival time come, and I a single entry. I not in any troup or nothing. I just parading in me costume, all by meself. Everybody asking me what song dat is and where me music coming from. I tell dem I write de song, which is true, and it coming from a iPod and dese little speakers ringing me North and South Poles, which not true. I projecting de song from me core, but dey ain’t need to know dat.

So, I hope a few more people read Celeste’s stories and get to see what she’s doing with dialect there. I really dug it, I hope she continues writing more and that she contributes more to our field.

My next reaction is to this phrase in the editorial:

We looked to Grenadian author Tobias S. Buckell (Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, Sly Mongoose) as an example of an author who used authentic island patois without overwhelming the story to the point where he alienated a large portion of his non-Caribbean readers.

2) I am *an* example. That’s it. *An.* And an imperfect one at that. I hope I’ve made that clear via my history, my explanations above, and showing you my compromises.

Because the way I do it is not the only way, nor is it the right way, or the best way, or more commercial way. It’s just my middling negotiation with my art and my career and my own path.

If there’s one thing I hope to get out of this, is that I don’t want to see myself invoked as the ‘safe’ or ‘smart’ or ‘best’ way to be any kind of Caribbean writer. I’m *one* path and that’s it. It was only because other people took risks and departed from the usual paths that I had the courage to do what I did. I hope to show the same. If I’m held up like this, it subverts that.

Please do not hold me up in this way. For one, it is dangerous to other writers seeking to find their voices. It’s dangerous to me, as you sell me out as a brick in the wall. And it adds to a potentially dangerous view that there is a proper way to do dialect at all. I’m one way, and I’m always flattered and humbled when I’m held up as an example. But only that. *An* example.

Please, please do not ever use me as an excuse to change dialect or the way someone speaks. I’m a suggestion. A possibility. A way.

And that is it. That is all I can say for myself.

Is dialect too much for science fiction readers?

My first reaction is always back to Junot Diaz:

“Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over.”

But also, are science fiction readers now fragile, trembling people with such delicate sensitivities that some dialect is going to ruin them? Mainstream readers are completely able to handle this. As assistant editor Tonya Liburd, herself of Trini background, ably points out, mainstream readers today currently are able to handle Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting.

Here’s Trainspotting, which is written in Scottish dialect:

Trainspotting

That’s entirely a valid choice. And in now way does it invalidate the novel in question, nor has it hurt the novel’s accessibility or readership.

So if mainstream readers can read that, are science fiction readers somehow less courageous? Less literate?

To be honest, I think that’s a bit unfair to science fiction readers. Probably, it would be best to let them decide.

Back to this editorial

So back to this Abyss and Apex article, which people keep asking me about.

The assistant editor, Tonya, who is Caribbean, has editorialized her experience of trying to birth a story from a writer of Caribbean and trying to navigate Wendy’s confusion with the accent. There are some interesting exchanges in the narrative here:

I found myself completely code-switching when I had to talk to Wendy while reading the submitted story for inconsistencies and nitpicks. But we got it done. And then this controversy arose.

I talked to Wendy about the point well made with Shakirah Bourne’s GetWrite article “On Dialect – How Caribbean people supposed tuh talk in a story, eh?”

Wendy then promptly mentioned the example of George MacDonald, which she goes into detail in her section, above.

So the chief editor put on the brakes with this example of a Scottish novel from 1900, 114 years ago, to demonstrate that making the dialect ‘more accessible’ helped the novel sell more copies than when it first came out.

This is a horrible example, because this happened 114 years ago. At the height of a time when dialects were looked down upon, nay, even suppressed. But the more recent example of Trainspotting is ignored when Tonya points to an article that references it.

That’s… pretty awkward.

Tonya didn’t initially want to be included in the editorial. Again, the awkwardness comes across here:

She started talking about a judicious use of spice in food as an analogy for accents; I said, “But then spice is seen as an ethnic thing isn’t it?” So again…

Then Wendy got frustrated. “I’m feeling like a failure (about handling accents and racial issues).”

I said, “Yer not a failure! Why are you feeling like that?”

“Because I don’t seem to be quite getting the cultural context of what you’re saying.”

So, I wasn’t a fly on the wall when this happened. But if Tonya is representing this exchange fairly, it’s another extremely awkward moment. Because I believe the focus is all wrong. This isn’t about Wendy. This is about the story, and the dialect. Can it work, is it worth the (possible, but I think entirely surmountable based on Trainspotting’s success) ‘challenge’ of the dialect? Are they committed to publishing the piece, yes or no? Instead, Wendy is upset because she feels like a ‘failure’ but that’s not the point of all this.

Some people refer to this as White Womens Tears phenomena, when a white woman gets uncomfortable and begins to get upset about a tricky situation (or outright racism).

Please do not read this as me calling Wendy racist. I’ve only met her a few times and barely know her. The Abyss and Apex folk, as far as I can tell, have been cool cats about building up some careers of writers of color and international voices. However, the tactic of getting frustrated and making it all about your pain, and your feelings when trying to get through a complicated conversation like the above: that’s not fair to the work or the person of color trying to educate you.

But to be honest, I wouldn’t have fixated on it, if it weren’t for Wendy’s introduction:

Would you accuse me, a woman with the maiden name of Campbell, of “racism” because she found the thick, authentic Scottish accents in the original novel obscured the story? Then let’s not complain that a reviewer felt that over-using phonetic dialect in a story was, in her opinion, a flaw.

So, there are two things being conflated here. Wendy is trying to pre-empt accusations of being a racist for asking the story have the dialect watered down, and she’s trying to defend a reviewer at Strange Horizons who was recently taken to task for being dismissive of dialect.

So now we’re looking at a mess of an editorial that really isn’t an editorial, really, but a defense against being called racist and a defense of that other review.

Make of that what you will. Mostly I feel very awkward for Tonya getting caught in the middle and being asked to change the story. She seems to have tried to do her best in an awkward situation. I’d hate to see Tonya take heat, as far as I know she’s the only Caribbean assistant editor in the field. I also am curious to see how the author felt about all this, and whether this was a positive experience or as awkward as it looked. The power differential for both Tonya and the author is unbalanced, as the author is trying to get published and make the sale, and Tonya trying to be an assistant editor.

Mostly I see a train wreck that could have been avoided by focusing on making the story be the best it could be, and not focusing on whether it was ‘accessible.’ Abyss and Apex, after all, publishes poetry, which is often not ‘accessible’ and requires work to be read. Sometimes art is a little challenging. And that’s okay. We don’t need to buff out the diamond’s edges for it to be worth something. We need to cut it to let it shine.

And those are my thoughts.

27 May

Survivorship bias: why 90% of the advice about writing is bullshit right now

I love this quote from the recent marketing guide that Smashwords published:

“we cannot promise you your book will sell well, even if you follow all the tips in this guide. In fact, most books, both traditionally published and self-published, don’t sell well. Whether your book is intended to inspire, inform or entertain, millions of other books and media forms are competing against you for your prospective reader’s ever-shrinking pie of attention.”

(From Smashwords — Smashwords Book Marketing Guide – A book by Mark Coker – page 7.)

This just does not get emphasized nearly enough. And it’s something I’ve been thinking about a great deal since I published The Apocalypse Ocean. One, because so many rah rah eBook advocates have been indicating to me that if I’d only just publish digitally first I’d keep 70% of the profits and *obviously* make more than I would with ‘traditional publishing.’

Since 2001, I’d been involved in selling eBooks. I initially began with stories being sold through Fictionwise. I did this to test the waters, and begin understanding what I felt was going to be a new way of reading. I also have been reading eBooks since the same year. I’ve since switched to selling a portfolio of short story collections, individual short stories, novellas, and a novel via various eBook outlets.

I lay down my bonafides, because usually the first thing I get is a lot of ‘booksplainin,’ by which I mean people lecturing me about what to do as if it’s self evident, obvious, and usually based entirely on their own anecdotal experience.

In fact, the self assured expertise of anecdotes drives me nuts.

Here’s the data. Mark Coker, looking at sales of *all* the books self published at Smashwords, points this chart out in a recent slideshare of information and best practices (for all that he’s been an initial booster, I’m grateful to him for sharing some raw data, unlike the other venues which highlight, boost, and act as if the superstars’ stories are average):

NewImage

The problem, right now, in eBook direct sales, is that everyone is paying and listening to people in the green area. They’re listening to everything they say, and sifting everything they say as if it’s a formula for success.

Like in most cultish behavior, if you follow the rules and don’t get the results, you’re either ostracized, ignored, or it’s pretended you don’t exist. Many who don’t get the same results just shut up and go away. Thus creating an environment where people are creating massive amounts of confirmation bias by continually listening to the top sellers.

In an interview recently, David Kirtley pointed out that in business school there’s this point made that if you interview rich people who have won the lottery, you might come to believe that playing the lottery is the only way to become rich. I thought that was interesting. One of the things I’m constantly trying to point out is that we’re not doing nearly enough to highlight both median and failure modes, because that’s where the real lessons lie. As for myself, I find message boards where new writers struggle to sell more than a few copies interesting, and where I harvest data about the low end.

That survivorship bias is useful to understand, and I just read a very large article that I think should be required reading for authors.

If failures becomes invisible, then naturally you will pay more attention to successes. Not only do you fail to recognize that what is missing might have held important information, you fail to recognize that there is missing information at all.

You must remind yourself that when you start to pick apart winners and losers, successes and failures, the living and dead, that by paying attention to one side of that equation you are always neglecting the other.

and

Survivorship bias pulls you toward bestselling diet gurus, celebrity CEOs, and superstar athletes. It’s an unavoidable tick, the desire to deconstruct success like a thieving magpie and pull away the shimmering bits. You look to the successful for clues about the hidden, about how to better live your life, about how you too can survive similar forces against which you too struggle. Colleges and conferences prefer speakers who shine as examples of making it through adversity, of struggling against the odds and winning.

So here’s how survivorship bias affects people. Here’s a chart from Smashwords of how all the books do in their system:

NewImage

Guess where on this tail-like chart above the books and authors with the most articles, blog posts, and largest followings sit?

Mark helpfully takes out the top 100 so we can get a better look at it. But remember, the people in the top 100 are the ones that everyone points to as if those results have some meaning for the rest of everyone else.

NewImage

Does this mean I’m somehow against direct digital publishing? No, obviously I’m a hybrid player and have been for over a decade now. But my refusal to damn either version of publishing means I don’t get lauded by certain parties, ink isn’t spilled over me, I’m not some vanguard. I’m just a working stiff, a mid list writer with a decent but passionate audience. Both methods have benefits and drawbacks, and I’m fully aware of both and try to communicate that.

I am trying to say ‘please approach this with some rationality.’ I’m slowly building up a portfolio over time of work that I hope will offer me an additional income stream. There are some benefits to this form of publication that I like, but to be honest, in a direct apples to apples comparison, I’m making more off the much despised traditional publishing still. By a large margin. This piece of anecdotal data means that the formula for each writer is different, and the constant ‘us vs them’ battle going on is harming artists who are losing a chance to make more money, or get a larger audience, who are being led astray.

It is only by trying lots of different methods, and paying attention to real data, not cherry picked anecdata, that you will best succeed.

If you’ve been successful, good on ya. I’m thrilled when any artist breaks out to making a living. But genuinely understand that survivorship bias means there are plenty of people plugging the same formulas and not getting results that look even similar.

This is not bitterness on my part. I’m actually thrilled with where I am, which is far ahead of many. Over half my income comes from writing fiction (and if I weren’t in debt from having a medical crisis in 2008 I’d likely be able to make a living just on my fiction). I’ve been slowly building my career since 1999, since my first tiny sale. Each year my readership grows, my blog audience grows, the money I make off my fiction grows. I use eBooks, traditional publishing and crowdsourcing all as tools to survive. I’m playing the long game. And maybe I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m pretty open to that, but I’m always happy to report on what’s going on. Each successful career I’ve seen, though, requires a ton of hard work, and many people I see trying any method with a focus on shiny and new and ‘beating’ some system often flame out and fall away. Lots of people who’re doing the right thing and working hard flame and fall away too.

Making a living off art is hard.

But that isn’t a sexy sell.

That isn’t to say you should give up. Fuck that. But I am going to say: get ready to work, don’t expect riches. Focus hard on the art.

And pay attention to those charts and adjust your expectations accordingly.

There’s a lot of snake oil sales going on. And a lot of well meaning people who won the lottery telling everyone to go buy lottery tickets while financial advisors shake their head.

Pretty much the same as its always been…

PS: this survivorship bias also works for writing advice about ‘how to write’ if you think about it…

09 Jan

I told my intern… (thoughts about being a writer)

I have a new intern, joining the team with another intern I already have been working with from the local college. They do cool things for me that help with some outreach, PR, admin tasks that I struggle to keep up with.

New intern came with a notebook and lots of questions for her first meeting, and for some reason I was quite willing to talk on and on. And I wrote on twitter that I’d wished I’d recorded the little monologues. I then began to tweet what I remembered. Here’s a pseudo reconstruction of all the tweets I made:

I told my intern, it’s so hard to predict who’ll sell enough books to make a living, or make a splash. Or which books will react…

So you need to focus on doing what Neil Gaiman said, the art. The book. The story. Not whether you’re owed a living or success…

The success may come. It may not. But if you did work you love are proud of and don’t come at [the job of being a writer] with entitlement, you’ll always be proud of it…

I’ve seen a lot of writers get twisted up and bitter about that entitlement. They’ve worked so hard (and they have) and didn’t sell X… [I let expectations and bitterness sabotage me on my second novel, a hard but valuable lesson among many I learned on that book]

But in art, sometimes the hard work on a specific project doesn’t translate to success…

And that is hard [it really is] to take. But if you focus on the love of the work, then you have that. It can’t be taken away…

And if you work really hard for a very long time, you increase the chances of breaking out. Almost all overnight success is after long work… [if you look hard enough, you almost always find years of prep. I can only think of a small number of true overnight successes I’ve met. Many of them often faded away because they didn’t understand what they’d just done, or got frustrated by the next level of hard work ahead of them]

I told my intern refuse debt. Live as simply as you can b/c if you want to be an artist there are no regular paychecks…

…if single, consider exploring another country where exchange rate helps you, or do the tiny apartment thing. Minimalism. [is your ally]

I told my intern there’s nothing wrong with not making a full living off art. Amazing art comes from long time part timers…

If you part time your art, don’t resent it’s inability to make your living. Remember it’s importance, maybe even over job. But don’t resent…

I told my intern everyone around you is not an artist. They will pressure you, out of good will and love, to make bad decisions for an artist [it’s not their fault, they mean well, but they’re not doing what you’re doing]

I told my intern if you want art to be your job, it needs to be your job now. You need to spend time on it like it’s your second job.

I told my intern once you write the work, and loved it, and created it, then you become mercenary. Put on small biz cap.

…once you’ve lovingly crafted widget, you try to sell it. But don’t assume your first widget will work, entrepreneur. Maybe next…

I told my intern go out and start trying to make art, and make money off it right now. There’s no certificate, no formal hiring process.

I told my intern you will hear no a lot. It doesn’t mean anything other than ‘not right now with this.’ I still hear no all the time.

07 Apr

How I write a novel… revisited

One of the more popular items on my website is the article ‘how I write a novel.’ It was written in September of 2006. Plus, in my ‘Ask an question’ thread back from January/February this question was asked again. I was working my way down the questions and ran out of time to put this together to answer Christopher Weuve asking this question, as well as Ken McConnel.

So here is the answer, Chris, a month later!

Occasionally I get emails along the lines of ‘dude, you should totally check out X, it’s way better.’

Chances are I’ve tried and downloaded X (although I always welcome the comments, you never know…), but I’ve been pointing people towards my choice of writing tool for a year now, and it’s Scrivener. I’ve been playing with it since it was a beta.

I wrote Sly Mongoose on Scrivener, and I quite credit it with making the whole process a lot easier than normal, as I was able to keep all my various notes, outlines, and files together in one organic manner. It also, however, didn’t lock up my chapters in some strange format, they were saved as RTF, so I felt really comfortable about using Scrivener.

The initial stages of writing a novel are still the same as before.

We begin with this:

As I wrote, almost 2 years ago:

First off, I spend time lying upside down on the couch with a pillow over my head. This is called “˜plotting,’ although I understand that *sometimes* it can look like I’m actually napping.

Sometimes that does happen, but usually if the pillow is over the face that indicates plotting.

After that comes notes that I write on various scraps of paper:

This is the early stage of Sly Mongoose, scraps of various pieces of paper that I put the ideas down on.

As I wrote in ’06:

Some of those pieces of paper are actually stacked (there is order in there, I didn’t want to randomly shuffle them for you all) and are usually laid out across my desk, not on the floor. It’s about 100 pieces of paper.

Next up comes compression. I take these pieces of paper and write a 2-3 page synopsis to capture the idea of the book and try and sell it.

Once I have the go ahead the next stage rolls out. Writing the damn thing.

Not much has changed. Until we get to these next few paragraphs, where I’ll indicate the change using the ‘strikeout’ tag and inserting the new program I use:

I’m not much of an outliner, I’m what I call a “˜bucketer.’ I take all the pieces of paper and use a program called Omnioutliner Scrivener and retype all the bits of information into it. Sections are created like Setting, Characters, Thematic fun, Plot. All the writing gets dumped into a category.

I take the synopsis and paste that into the plot area of Omnioutliner into a top level area of Scrivener.

Then I split Omnioutliner’s Scrivener’s plot area into subsections by rough parts to help me figure out where the &*%^ to put the information.

By this time I have a very good idea of how the first 3-8 chapters will run, so I put in everything I can think about them into the first part subsection’s outline. I add a different color for each POV, and write a rough 1 line description of the chapter. Omnioutliner Scrivener will let me add another field that can collapse out from under it that contains detailed chapter notes if I want.

So then I start writing the first chapter. As ideas occur to me, I type them into Omnioutliner the appropriate areas of Scrivener.

For example if I write that someone picks up a gun to shoot someone later in the story, I’ll pause, click on that chapter in Omnioutliner and type “Y shoots X with found in chap. Z.”

So I have a rough outline, a place to slap ideas as they occur to me, and a nice balance between “˜by the headlights’ writing and the safety of an outline to keep me on track.

Some examples, using some screenshots of Sly Mongoose in progress, show you how I use the notes areas, the corkboard features, and the hierarchal sorting features to let Scrivener easily handle the complexity of a whole novel.

Smscriv

Smscriv2

Also of note is the full screen feature, where I let it take over my entire screen with nothing but text. Text in any color and a background in any color. It allows one to focus. Pretty slick.

And that’s the mechanical side of things. There’s a lot more going on in terms of the specifics of the outline, chapters, the day to day mental tricks, and so on.

01 Aug

What does it mean to be this Caribbean writer?

I hope it’s no secret to many reading here that I don’t consider myself wholly white. Some of you reading since 1998 may know a thing or two about me, but since I’ve become published in novel form more people are coming to the blog and reading and finding out about me online and express confusion about this point.

A number of people have emailed me or stopped me to ask me “what does ‘caribbean-born’ mean?” and others are curious as to why I constantly point out things about diversity in SF. What they may not know is what others around me know: I consider myself multi-racial.

I jokingly have been called ‘an undercover brother.’ Vin Diesel calls people like me ‘shadow people,’ neither one race nor the either due to circumstances and self-identity, and considers himself one, yet another reason for my close attention to his career.

Things came to a head a couple days ago with a few emails challenging me to prove that I was actually multi-racial and not just a ‘poser’ who wanted the ‘advantages’ of being hip and multi-racial.

For some people, any attempt to identify in ways that they can’t control are troublesome.

One reason I’m private about my past family life is that I had a complicated family life and my biological parents are radically split for reasons that are none of anyone’s business except those I choose to share that story with. Growing up was not all fun and smiles on the beach, as people assume.

But I was born on the island of Grenada, West Indies, and is one of the two Caribbean islands that shape what I think of as home. Grenada, with it’s spice and colorful flowers and deep jungles and people, that is my first home. No matter how split my parents are, my cousins and aunts and uncles are all Grenadian and that is the blood that runs through my veins because of my father. I can’t deny or wish to change that, it’s simply who I am. And I’m proud to have been born there and lived there for the first nine years of my life.

People want to know something for sure, then it’s easy as clicking this link here, to see my father’s business still in Grenada. He’s the brown-skinned man in both the pictures at the bottom of the page. He’s my father that I haven’t seen or talked to in almost 20 years. Judge for yourself whether I’m multi-racial, fine.

Even better, here to the right is a crop of the one of the rare pictures I have of my Caribbean side of the family. My grandmother, two cousins and me (with my mother and father cropped out) standing on the tallest hill of Carriacou.

And yet, I’m one white looking dude. Genetics is wild. Some 7 different genes code for skin color, and when parents get together it’s a crapshoot. In this case, my sister got tan looking skin tone and I got fairly white. But that doesn’t change the fact that my father is who he is, as are my cousins and aunts and uncles. It doesn’t change the fact that I grew up playing cricket on Lance Aux Pines beach, that most of my friends until I came to Ohio were usually not white, and that I often spoke with a patois when I needed it, or a British accent if I chose. It doesn’t change that I played football, the one where you actually kick the ball, and that I had textbooks with a full complement of races in them, or that my obvious skin color meant I was the one who was not normal, but yet, I never had any trouble maintaining I was mixed until I moved to the US. My childhood was Caribbean in its nature, essence, and impact on me. Most people from the Caribbean understand where I come from (with some rare exceptions of some assholes near Grand Anse who would always yell ‘yankee go home’ at me), most grant me this without my having to fight for this. I should merely have to state it.

So, as for my identity: I’m Caribbean. An English mother and a Grenadian father. By blood, by birth, and by spending 15 and half years of my life in the islands, I can’t imagine calling myself anything else but.

Why not pass? The idea of passing is an interesting concept that tells me more about the person who asks that of me. The implicit assumption for many is that passing as white confers the easiest route, their astonishment at my not choosing that is a often an interesting hangup.

So what is up with two Caribbean Science Fiction novels? My fiction plays with a wide variety of people and genre tropes. I don’t write exclusively “Caribbean SF” but I am a Caribbean-born SF/F writer. But some of my stories are rich with the Caribbean.

Since I was in sixth grade I’d been drawing spaceships taking off from island harbors, rather than gantries. I even used some early island settings, but a lot of my early SF aped the SF I was reading: galactic empires, etc. But somewhere in ’98 when I was in college, I decided to really focus on becoming a writer. And part of that involved what I was going to write about.

I began to add pieces of Caribbean background to roughly a third of my stories. A character, a place, and certainly inspiration from island history and anecdotes. But I was nervous about using it, aware of the fact that by Caribbean readers I may be thought of as stealing the exotic for my fiction, and by other readers as some sort of fraud.

It was later in that year, however, that I sat down to write my story ‘The Fish Merchant,’ feeling that I wanted to bring together the things that I wanted to write into a short piece: one ‘Steppin’ Razor’ like badass (Pepper), a non-Caribbean but non-Western locale (China), adventure genre action, and a twist on a traditional SF trope (first contact).

When I finished my first piece that drew this all together, it was a heady rush: this was the sort of thing I wished I’d been able to have to read on the shelf. And yet, as I got accepted to the prestigious Clarion workshop on the story and started submitting it, I kept on writing more ‘vanilla SF.’ One because I didn’t want to risk screwing up another Caribbean inspired piece of SF, and another, because there was a growing feeling that I’d lost the Caribbean. A white looking Caribbean multi-racial expat, who grew up on a boat, both identifying with, but in many ways, living on the edge of, Caribbean society, who was I to write this stuff? I had a huge impostor syndrome issue. And I was still worried that even though I adored ‘Fish Merchant,’ others would not find it interesting as I did.

That changed at Clarion, when not only did many students enjoy the story, but I met two instructors who really encouraged me to take the instincts I had with ‘Fish Merchant’ and go further. Authors Tim Powers and Mike Resnick both felt that the story was something interesting and that played to my strengths. So did Scott Edelman when he visited Clarion, and it was he who later purchased the story for Sci Fi Age shortly after Clarion and gave me my first professional short story sale.

The confidence given me there led to many more stories being written over the next six years that drew my interests, backgrounds, and love of genre together:

The Fish Merchant -Science Fiction Age
In Orbite Medievali – Writers of The Future
Spurn Babylon – Whispers From The Cotton Tree Root
Trinkets – The Book of All Flesh
Death’s Dreadlocks – Mojo: Conjure Stories
In The Heart of Kalikuata – Men Writing SF As Women
Four Eyes – New Voices in Science Fiction
Necahual – So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy
Anakoinosis – I Alien
Toy Planes – Nature Magazine
The Silver Streak – Space Cadets
The Duel – Electric Velocipede #11
Manumission – Baen’s Universe (upcoming)

This represents about half of my bibliography (not including the two novels).

When it came time to write my first novel, Crystal Rain, I considered all the concepts and ideas I had, and the most compelling ones drew from many of the same sources as these stories above. As in Toy Planes, I felt that Caribbean people had a place in the future, and that if humanity were to populate the stars, that Caribbean people would immigrate in that great diaspora, and that they should have stories as well. And yet, even as there is the Caribbean take, the Caribbean’s proximity to the cultural West means that a great deal of my influences are still very much recognizable to anyone.

The reason I read genre fiction is entirely different than any other literature. I find the action, high concepts, and sense of wonder the amazing element that separates it from anything else I encounter. I like to think, secretly and to myself, that literature is the soul of humanity, its dreams. Feverish, bizarre, reflections of its processing what has happened to it so far, and figuring out how to store that, remember it, and experience it.

But the genre I work in is something different, it’s the imagination of humanity, its daydreams, its nightmares, its pleasant fantasies, it’s hopes and its inventions. It’s not like the other literatures. And I want people like me to look into the imagination of humanity and see people like himself looking back at him. I may not be perfect, but I am excited that it is something that I’ve been managing to publish and gain a readership for.

Hi, my name is Tobias Buckell, and I am Caribbean. And I’m an SF/F writer. I’m proud of both the genre I write in, and my identity.

19 Dec

Survey results: how many novels did you write before selling one?

The results of my survey concerning how many books a published writer wrote before they sold their first are in.

This survey came about because not too long ago I overhead a newer writer talking about the fact that he had been submitting his first novel to publishers and was growing quite discouraged by the sheer number of rejections he’d received. The writer he was talking to asked him what he was doing while waiting for the first one to make the rounds.

“Trying to write a better query letter,” was the response.

“So you’re not working on another novel?” the other writer asked. “Because you realize you’re probably not going to sell your first.”

On the surface that sounds like a pretty harsh response, but talking to any given novelist and you’ll probably find that for a great number of them they did not break into the field with their first novel. In conversation with other novelists I found all sorts of experiences and paths to publishing, with first book written being first book sold more the exception than the rule.

However I was recently challenged when I stated that, so I decided that there was one way to get some raw data (and also reminded again by John Brown in an online discussion when he asked if anyone had ever done a survey of this): a quick and dirty survey. It’s not a perfect survey. There was slightly confusing language, a repeated question, and I’m aware of all the reasons a survey can go wrong, but I still found it interesting, nonetheless.

I received 150 responses from a variety of authors, most of them SF/F, but thanks to Diana Peterfreund and others, a large number of Romance writers.

Of these published novelists, 65% did not break in with their first novel. 35% did.

I asked, in the first question, how many novels a writer wrote before selling their first. Here is the breakdown of that with percentages rounded.

32% wrote one novel
13% wrote two
11% wrote 3
8% wrote 4
9% wrote 5
3% wrote 6
13% wrote 7 or more novels
6% wrote some short fiction first
5% wrote a ton of short fiction first

What does that tell us? Out of a group of 10 writers who will go on to be published (we can’t guess at how many are turned away unpublished, right, this is a self selecting group), 3 will sell the first novel they write. 1 will write some, or a lot, of short fiction before selling their first novel. 1-2 will sell their second. The other half will write 3 or more novels before breaking in.

This is not intended to discourage. It is intended to encourage writers to keep busy after the first one is done. Also, many of those writers who wrote multiple books were able to sell their later books. They’d grown and gotten better, and could rewrite them.

With this in mind, having heard some novelists who noted that selling a first novel could be a bit stressful, I also asked the following question. Would you recommend starting your career off by selling your first novel?

5% picked ‘hell yes!’
15% picked ‘yes’
9% picked ‘no’
9% picked ‘hell no’

62% picked ‘don’t know’ or ‘sold a later novel.’ Presumably the ‘I don’t know’ selections were later novel sellers.

So those who sold their first seemed almost evenly divided between the experience. There were a lot of comments, so I’m going to provide sample of many of them here after the jump.

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