Friday, 27 July 2012

And I Thought We Were Getting Along So Well

Recently I discovered someone was blocking me on Twitter. Hardly an uncommon occurrence, one that happens all the time to most of us I expect, and one that rarely bothers me.

In this case, though, it was someone I ‘knew’ reasonably well, and I thought we got along reasonably well.

A few weeks earlier I’d even commented on their blog, and received a rather cryptic reply which included ‘I know we’ve had our differences in the past…’. That had me scratching my head because I wasn’t aware we’d had our differences in the past!

I let it go, but when I found out said person had also blocked me on Twitter, I just had to know why.
I’m not going to name this person because this isn’t a rant against them, and I still like and respect them, irrespective of whatever misunderstanding has occurred – rather, you could call this another rant against miscommunication.

So I asked a mutual friend if she knew the gory details of our ‘falling out’, because I certainly didn’t! As I expected, she did. Apparently, I had maligned flash fiction.

More head scratching.

‘I don’t recall ever saying anything bad about flash fiction,’ I said. And I’m pretty good at remembering the things I malign because, well, it’s usually deliberate. I have strong opinions, and I voice them. It’s not really in my character to forget those opinions. And I certainly don’t even have a strong opinion about flash fiction, beyond the fact I suck at it.

Vague niggle. Unless… ‘The only thing I can think I might have said is that flash fiction isn’t a story, it’s a blurb.’

‘That’s it exactly,’ my friend said.

‘But… that’s a commentary on my own inability to write it, not a derogatory comment about flash fiction.’

Which it is. I write epic and high fantasy, which is nearly always multiple, heavy tomes. In the space of flash fiction, I’m only just beginning to warm up. Sure, brevity is a good thing, but the skill-sets required to write flash fiction and the multiple, subtle plot-lines of epic fantasy are very different. I’ve tried my hand at flash fiction, and the outcome was pretty much – don’t bother. But I have a great deal of admiration for people who can write flash, for the very fact I can’t. I don’t much enjoy reading it, as it doesn’t occupy me long enough, but that does not prevent me from admiring the skill with which it is crafted.

What do you mean that's not what flash fiction is...?
My friend assured me she’d had a long discussion arguing my defence with this person, raising all those points, to no avail.

Obviously the end outcome was blocking me.

Which all seemed a little silly to me. A simple private discussion with me may well have completely cleared the matter, and it hardly seems a blocking offence.

The funny thing (or not so funny, really) is a friend and I stopped talking for two years because of a similar misunderstanding. We both assumed we knew what the other meant, didn’t ask, and after 15 years of friendship, nearly lost that friendship.

So I guess there’s a few things to take out of this:
  • I generally leave people in no doubt as to what I think about the things I disapprove of. If I am really going to whale on something, I won’t make one ambiguous comment about it. I do not stint in my disapproval. If I really disapprove of something, it’ll rate on this blog. You’ll notice there’s no flash fiction rant…
  • For heaven’s sake, if you’re not sure what I meant, or you think I was unfair in something I said, ask. I'm not all that unreasonable and I don’t bite. OK, I don’t bite most of the time and then usually only when the recipient deserves it.
Remember, miscommunication is the root of all evil.

If you missed it, check out my discussion of Discovery Writers in the context of A Memory of Light.

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Sunday, 22 July 2012

Aerobics for Your Writing

I'm guest posting today over at Kelly Stone Gamble's blog on the value of writing workshops. A simple writing workshop can really bump your writing to a new level, or help you to clarify a technique that has been tickling away at the back of your brain, almost, almost, almost, but not quite there.

I should know, because I am nearly always doing workshops on areas of my writing that need work, or on topics that interest me - you can check out the full list of the workshops I've done in the last 12 months here on my website. So jump on over to Kelly's blog to read the full post!

If you missed it, check out my review of Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey.

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to check out my previous posts if you haven't already. If you're finding yourself here often, you might as well join as a member, sign up to the blog through RSS or email, or sign up for the newsletter.

Don't forget to share the love and spread the word on Twitter, Facebook or StumbleUpon (or other social networking site of your choice) if you know other people who might also enjoy this. 
Thanks for stopping by and visiting with us!

Friday, 20 July 2012

The Miranda Kerr Controversy – Drug Free Births

So this is my rant of the week. Apparently Miranda Kerr stated she was proud to have had a drug-free birth to give her baby the best possible start in life.

How. Dare. She. Can you believe her audacity?

Or at least, some mothers seem to think it’s totally outrageous and unbelievable for her to make such a statement about her labour. Some mothers think she is criticising mothers who didn’t have drug free births. Some mothers apparently think it’s OK to choose drugs, but not to not choose drugs. 

The most appalling comment I saw was from an Australian mother on an online forum, who stated ‘Perhaps Miranda Kerr should stick to what she knows, and limit her opinions to modelling’. 

Uh... excuse me?

So, being a model qualifies her to have an opinion on modelling... but being a mother doesn’t qualify her to have an opinion on mothering?

I don’t know if this was the result of ‘tall-poppy syndrome’, stupidity (OK, my favourite explanation for just about anything), or just insecurity. 

I support a mother’s right to choose her birth, and all too often in Western countries in particular, mothers are not sufficiently informed or involved in their own labour to exercise real choice. Often what is needed most is empowerment, and this kind of reaction from women is undermining our own efforts to empower our births. 

I wanted a drug-free birth. I didn’t get it, due to factors outside my control. I was induced (also not my choice) and my labour assessed as three times worse than the usual labour. I had overlapping contractions – that means no break between contractions, and I wasn’t even in what the medical profession considers ‘established labour’.  9 hours of incredible effort and unrelenting pain achieved pretty much nothing. 

I asked for pethidine (a mistake on my part, but by that point I wasn’t thinking clearly), fell asleep, and while I was asleep, they cranked the drip inducing my labour, which meant I pretty much woke screaming. I then asked for an epidural – which I didn’t get, because no anaesthetist was available. In the end, I had an emergency c-section with spinal block. I was so exhausted and drugged up when my baby was born I barely even noticed when my husband left to have her weighed. 

Is that the birthing experience I wanted? No. Was it the start in life I wanted for my baby? No. Is there any shame for me in it? No – because I knew what I wanted, what was best for all involved, and I tried. The things that happened were simply the natural result of the way my labour progressed. 

Miranda Kerr chose a drug-free birth for the same reasons I wanted one – she was just lucky enough to get it. I don’t think there is any criticism of women who don’t have drug-free births in stating the reasons you chose to have a drug-free birth. The point is choice. Women need to be empowered to make informed choices, as far as their labour permits (emergencies, of course, deprive us all of choices). 

And to make a choice, one needs to be informed

So to all the women vigorously defending their right to have births with drugs – yes, you have that right, but there is some information you should know when you make that choice. This is not to say drugs may not be an appropriate choice for you (as they unfortunately ended up being for me) but the choice needs to be made in the context of all the relevant information. 

So here are the valid reasons Miranda Kerr chose to have a drug-free birth:
  • Breast-feeding may be affected by the use of drugs during labour – here is an article that talks about the limited studies available in this area, and the difficulties in interpreting data. More research is needed.
  • The use of drugs during labour can prolong the labour and have other adverse effects on the mother – this article lists them, and it’s a significantly long list 
  • There are no long-term studies into the effects of drugs on babies, but animal studies don’t show promising results. I always find it astounding that we use drugs when we don’t know what they do to us or our children! Even recent studies on the effects of newborns are unreliable because they compare epidural babies with opiate babies. Uh, hello, shouldn’t we be comparing babies from drug labours with babies from non-drug labours, not two different kinds of drugs? You can read more here 
  • The fact is there is no maternally administered drug that has been proven safe for the foetus. WTH?? Read more here
  • The cascade of intervention – the more interventions you have, the more likely you are to need more. So having an epidural increase the risk of a forceps or vacuum delivery (greater risk for the baby), episiotomy (long-term bladder control problems for mother) and c-section (greater risk for mother and baby). More information here.
I had ALL seven of the outcomes listed on the first three levels as resulting from induction.
So, I’ve used drugs. I didn’t want to, but it was just the way my labour went, and I used them knowing the above because I felt I had little other choice. An induction is, itself, an intervention which starts the cascade of intervention, and mine cascaded badly. I knew that, but I didn’t choose the induction. It was the reason I didn’t want an induction. But that choice was taken from me. 

But I support women who want drug-free births, because they have good reason to want them. And to women who want to shout them down, belittle them, and grind them under the heel of their collective boot – I say, do your research. Find out why they want drug-free births. Then think about if maybe you do, too.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Four Stages of Learning and What This Means In the Era of Self-Publishing

I am all for self-publishing. It gives writers a viable alternative when publishers say things like ‘We’d like to publish your work but...’

But it’s too risky.

But it’s too hard to market/we don’t know how to market it.

But it’s not fashionable right now. 

There are a lot of buts, but... the one thing they have in common is all these type of answers imply (or expressly state) the quality of the work is good, and there are other commercial considerations in play. We all know publishers have acted as gatekeepers in the past, and sometimes they were gate-keeping excellent work for business reasons, and self-publishing neatly solves this problem. 

If the publisher no longer acts as gatekeeper, for any issue, including quality control, it falls to the writer to act as their own gatekeeper for their own poor quality work – self-regulation is required.

Now I know what you’re likely to say next – but publishers do publish badly written books. There are a couple that spring to mind at the current time, and I bet you’re thinking their names right now.


50 Shades of Grey.

Both hugely popular books that, from a technical standpoint, aren’t all that brilliantly written. And yet they were published.

But there is just as much a business reason behind publishing these books as there is behind the excellently written books that weren’t published. Because a publisher is, first and foremost, a business. A commercial enterprise. We as writers, as artists, like to conveniently forget this fact when it suits us. But they are. And if you’re a self-publisher, you are now a business.

Usually what makes money is good books, and a good book is a well-written book with a good story. Excellent writing won’t make up for a bad story. But publishers also know that sometimes a really good story will make up for mediocre writing - although not really bad writing. And if you think either of those books is really badly written, go check out the first draft of a first book by someone who has just picked up a pen to write fiction for the first time, then come back and we’ll talk. I still remember my first book. It made Twilight look like a Pulitzer Prize winner.

So in the traditional model we get mostly well-written books and some mediocre books which, for reasons that are hard to finger, really set fire to the imagination of readers and go viral.

In the self-publishing model, each writer gets to decide what he or she will publish.

The problem with this is the Four Stages of Learning.

The Four Stages of Learning is a model for learning suggesting individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, or unconscious of their incompetence – in more colloquial terms ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ which I’ve always considered to be a fairly inarguable piece of wisdom.  

Unconscious Incompetence
The first stage is when a person doesn’t understand how to do something, and doesn’t even know they should be doing it. If I go back to my very early days of writing, this includes just about everything. I had an idea about plot and characterisation, but I didn’t even know what POV stood for, never mind what they were, how they differed, or how to use them.

Sometimes this stage is characterised by the person denying the usefulness of a skill if it is pointed out to them. Again, an excellent example is POV. May new writers head-hop, and use defences like ‘But I want to know what everyone in the scene think’ or ‘But Stephen King does it’.

Well, I wish I could do what Stephen King does, but I can’t. Most of us can’t. Most of us never will.

At this level of ignorance, the person doesn’t even know enough about the skill (POV) to know why it’s important, or how to intelligently break the rules (like King does) or why intelligently breaking the rules is even different to just breaking through them like a bull at a gate.

Conscious Incompetence
The second stage begins when the person begins to realise there is something they need to know – and don’t. There is some self-awareness that the person’s work isn’t particularly great, and a writer is more likely to learn from their mistakes.

Conscious Competence
At the third stage, the person has learned how to do something, but the process is laborious and requires concentration. The skill may need to be enacted in conscious steps.

Unconscious Competence
At the fourth and final stage, the person is so good at the skill it has become ‘second nature’ and can be performed easily, or even while carrying out other tasks. The person may even be able to teach it to others.

So, what has this got to do with self-publishing? I believe it affects the quality of what is self-published.

Not many writers in the fourth stage will be self-publishing, except for business reasons. Most of these writers can (and will) be traditionally published – and in fact the process of getting traditionally published is a learning process in itself, equipping the writer with a thick skin. Not many writers in the second stage will self-publish either, because they are painfully aware of their own shortcomings and don’t wish to expose them to the light of public scrutiny.

Some writers from the third category may self-publish, some may be working to improve further (into stage four) before they publish under any model, and some will still be pursuing traditional publishing.

Which leaves us with the first stage. People who don’t know what they don’t know. I’m betting a lot of people in this group are self-publishing, and what they are publishing is bad.

I’m not criticising their ignorance. I remember how great I thought my first book was. And my second. And my third. And hey, even my fourth. I didn’t have the lure of self-publishing to tempt me, for which I am grateful, because I look back at that work now and I cringe. I cringe, and no one but me can see it. How much more would I cringe if it had been made public?

But I wonder, how many self-published writers will look back at the first book they published and regret it? I know one or two who have pulled books from the market for exactly this reason.

So if you're thinking about self-publishing, maybe stop a moment, consider which stage you think you're at, and ask yourself seriously if this work is something you'd be embarrassed to admit to in the future.

If you missed it, check out the latest in my Mythical Creature series - the truth about the vampire myth.

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Friday, 6 July 2012

Miscommunication Is the Root of All Evil - Take Pride in Pedantry!

A writer’s job is communication. We traffic in conveying meaning, using words. Our job is not to use the fanciest word available, or the most obscure, or to use a technically correct but little understood definition of a word. 

Short and simple, our job is to get the reader to understand our meaning. 

If a writer means one thing, and the reader interprets another, the writer has failed at their job. 

There is, of course, some flexibility – we do allow the reader some latitude to use their own imagination to fill in the detail of a scene, but the details you do mention, the elements critical to the plot, must be understood as intended or events may not make sense. If you’re writing non-fiction, getting this right may be even more critical! As a lawyer, I know the finest nuance can mean a big difference in the end result!

Why is it, then, that I get so much push-back from people when I am particular about the meaning of words? I expect this from non-writers, but not from other writers, who should understand the critical difference in meaning that may be conveyed by choosing one word over another. 

Yes, you got me, I wrote this post because someone annoyed me. Again.

I was having a conversation on Twitter when someone suggested I could ‘ask Hemingway’. Now of course, he is dead, so I took it as a joke, and replied in a humorous vein with something to the effect of I’d like to if only he wasn’t dead (because, let’s face it, who among us wouldn’t want to sit down and pick Hemingway’s brain?). 

Well, apparently this person wasn’t joking, because they replied with the very snarky comment ‘And it’s too hard to read his books’.
I was a bit put out, because I never said I wouldn’t read his books, or that I didn’t respect his work. But talking to the man, and reading his books, are two totally different things. Sure, you can learn a bit by reading an author’s books, but what that author can tell you may be something very different. 

As an example, I very much admire Brandon Sanderson’s prose, especially in The Way of Kings where it is spare, elegant and efficient. And yet, when I met Brandon Sanderson, he said prose doesn’t come easily to him. So from his books I may learn technically good prose. From the man, I can learn that even if it doesn’t come naturally, you can still learn to do it, and how. Two very different lessons.

So what this person on Twitter said to me, and what they meant, were two very different things. So I pointed this out, gently I thought (or as gently as one can in 140 characters).  In return, I was called a pedant. 

Yes, yes I am. Are you? Are you a writer? Then you should be a pedant. 

How much would it affect your story if something you said in earnest was taken by your reader to be a joke? It would depend on the moment I expect, and could range from puzzling to downright shocking. What about if a critical plot element was misunderstood? It may cripple your story, rendering it nonsensical. 

Writers are wordsmiths, expert in words. Make sure you choose the most appropriate words to convey your meaning. Aim to be as clear as possible. Avoid obscure words. Avoid obscure definitions of common words. Be aware of ‘perception’. Does a word have a colloquial or slang meaning more predominant than its technical definition meaning?  An example is ‘author’. 

Technically if you have authored a piece of writing, you are an author, but tell someone outside the writing community you are an author and they will think you are published with a Big 6 publisher and living off your royalties – I almost guarantee it. Be aware of these types of issues and, yes, cater to them! 

Your purpose is to convey your intended meaning, not to look ultra-sexy or secret-spy smart while doing it. And if you write something that can be misread in some fabulous fashion, the only thing you will look is stupid. 

And don’t even get me started on the problems caused within families, friendships and marriages by miscommunications. 

Writers, you should know better. Get it right. Take pride in your pedantry.

Or woman...

If you missed it, check out my review of Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson here.

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to check out my previous posts if you haven't already. If you're finding yourself here often, you might as well join as a member, or sign up through RSS or email!
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