Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Theses and Dissertation Writing Strategies

I finished revising and have now posted my 32 page guide to writing strategies for theses and dissertations to the Essential Edits site.

I argue that one has to unlearn undergraduate writing skills to learn a completely new skill set to survive.

Research suggests attrition rates of between 50% to 65% for PhD candidates and thesis-route master's programs. Interestingly enough, most drop out of the program after completing all the course work and all the data collection and analysis for thesis/dissertation, which suggests that the problem is in the writing stage—though this is seldom recognized in the literature, and often not even by the students themselves! Reorienting graduate students to the different nature of sustained writing projects could assist many more students in completing their graduate degrees.

The guide is available free from

Saturday, August 5, 2017

H. A. Hargreaves, PhD (1928-2017)

H. A. Hargreaves, the grandfather of Canadian science fiction as a distinct genre, passed away July 27, 2017. This is more or less what I said at his funeral yesterday:

I have to confess that I didn't know Hank all that well. I'd only ever met him in person five or six times. But as H. A. Hargreaves, the author, he had a profound influence on my life.

I first met Dr. Hargreaves in 1977 when I was helping to organize an open house for the campus science fiction club (ESFCAS). A club member I didn't know well said, "Hey my English professor has just had a collection of his science fiction published. It's actually pretty good. Let's get him to do a reading." I was skeptical, because in 1977 sf was not widely considered appropriate subject matter for a professor of English literature, so who knew what an English professor might think of as SF; and I had frankly never heard of Hargreaves. But I didn't have a better idea, so we invited Dr. Hargreaves to read.

He read "Dead to the World", his most famous and most widely reprinted story, to a crowd of about 50. That story—and the rest of the North by 2000 collection, which I then rushed out to buy—changed my life.

First, Hargreaves showed me that there could be a distinctly Canadian science fiction. Hargreaves' was the first collection ever explicitly marketed as "Canadian science fiction", which was itself a new idea for me. I think everyone assumed that SF was a strictly American genre, exemplified by John W. Campbell's Analog magazine. Before hearing "Dead to the World", I had been slowly reading my way through the Hugo and Nebula award-winning novels (mostly American and British writers), but after hearing "Dead to the World" it occurred to me to search instead for Canadian SF. "Dead to the world" was charming, oddly engaging, and completely different than anything I had ever encountered before. Here was a new version of the genre that resonated with me in a way I couldn't completely put my finger on. So I tried to nail that down, and ended up spending the next 40 years of my career lecturing on the nature of Canadian science fiction, as distinct from the American and British versions of the genres.

Second, Hargreaves was a major influence on my own writing. (Well, by "major influence", I mean the opening scene in my novel is a direct steal from the opening scene of "Dead to the World".) As a reader, reviewer, and editor, I must have read thousands of short stories over my career, but the stories that most often come floating into memory are those from Hargreaves' collection. There is something strangely compelling about his story-telling that makes these quiet stories about TV repair, bureaucracy, or a college classroom so uniquely memorable. I never took a class from Professor Hargreaves, but he was certainly one of the people who taught me how to write.

More than that, his writing from a distinctly Canadian perspective gave me (and the other Canadian SF authors emerging in that period) permission to do so also.

I mentioned the American editor, John W. Campbell. Campbell was immensely influential, not least because his was the highest paying SF magazine, which meant everyone tried to match their style to Campbell's tastes in hopes of selling to Analog. Hargreaves was a great fan of John W. Campbell as well, and always sent his stories first to Analog, for as long as Campbell lived.

However, in contrast to Cambpell's preferred alpha-male, engineer heroes—who always won the day by dint of superior character and scientific knowledge—Hargreaves' protagonists were ordinary people caught up in sort of mundane events. Instead of a Captain Kirk or a Captain Picard heroically defending Star Fleet, Hargreaves wrote about the spaces station's TV repairman. Whereas Campbellian fiction was about winning through to one's goals, Hargreaves heroes often failed to achieve their goals. Instead, if they got their happy ending, it was by suddenly realizing that they had been pursing the wrong goal, and now choosing something different. The protagonist of "Dead to the World" for example, fails in his attempt to correct the computer error which has listed him as dead. After several attempts to be reinstated, he comes to realizes that he's actually way better off (listed as) dead.

Campbell always wrote back with a two-page critique, saying he loved the story, but that it would have to be changed to be an Analog story, fit for Campbell's American audience. Hargreaves, however, always chose to stick to his own vision, and sent it instead to British editor Ted Carnell—who always printed the story exactly as is.

(There was one exception. On the last story Hargreaves submitted to Campbell, Campbell made the usual demands for revisions, but then ended by saying, 'or you could forget all that and instead take this other suggestion for when you send it to Ted.' Hargreaves took that one, greatly pleased that Campbell had apparently understood Hargreaves' vision all along, and had approved of the stories going to Carnell instead.)

By modelling one version of what Canadian SF might look like, and sticking to his vision rather than trying to conform to the American market, Hargreaves became the grandfather [Phyllis Gotlieb is the grandmother] of a distinctly Canadian SF. He was consequently inducted into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Associations Hall of Fame in 2015.

Hargreaves next to display of Hall of Fame Trophy, at Fish Creek Library, Calgary.

Third, it was not lost on me that although Hargreaves wrote only a single story every other year, he still managed to create a significant canon—both in terms of size and importance—over his lifetime. Busy with life as literature professor and father, teacher and opera singer, he devoted only a single week of his holidays to writing that year's short story. As a professor and dad myself, I look to Hargreaves' as my model of a successful writing career. I often hear people claim they need to quit their day job to become full-time writers, or that anyone who claims to be a professional writer who does not make their entire income writing is a fraud. Hargreaves' example puts the lie to all of that. No one can dispute either the quality of his work or his place in history of the genre, yet his writing life was squeezed into a corner smaller than that afforded to many of those who complain that they cannot manage with less than full-time. Full-time is great if you can get it, and even half-time would be privileged, but no time is no excuse. Writers should check their sense of entitlement when embezzling time from parenting, familial, or day-job responsibilities. If Hargreaves could do it, so can the rest of us.

Similarly, although I recognize the existential threat presented by the writing hobbyist to those professional writers trying to distinguish themselves from those engaged in vanity self-publishing, Hargreaves' writing career demonstrates that percentage of income may not be the best measure of 'professional quality'.

* * *

After lecturing about Hargreaves place in history for two generations, I was confronted by an audience member who pointed out that North by 2000 had been out of print for years, and nearly impossible to find.

"I'm surprised no one has thought to reprint it," I said. "It really deserves to be available to the current generation."

"Aren't you Senior Editor at a small press?" my questionner asked.


So I did take the manuscript to my publisher, who developed the expanded edition, North by 2000+, which include every SF story Hargreaves had ever written. She loved Hargreaves writing so much, she asked to see what else he had. Thus was born Growing Up Bronx Hargreaves collection of autobiographical stories.

* * *

Meeting Hank, the person, was always an honour and a pleasure. He was always kind, generous with his time, and soft-spoken. I can't imagine him ever shouting in anger, though I know that injustice angered him. He was the archetypal 'nice' Canadian, though as demonstrated by his refusal to compromise his vision, 'nice' should not be confused with a lack of strength or character. I suppose I should count this the fourth dimension on which Hargreaves has had a significant influence on me. I hesitate only because I spent so few days in his actual presence, but reading Growing Up Bronx makes it feel like I have known the man from childhood.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Starting a Writers' Group

Here is a link to a reasonable column on starting a writers' group.

I have been a member of a local writers group several times and found it helpful. The trick is to find one (or start one) that works. The two biggest problems plaguing writers groups are the dangers of becoming either

  • a mutual admiration society:
    "My but that is a wonderful story!"
    "Oh thank you! And I love your story too!"

  • OR
  • a cesspool of negativity:
    "Your opening sucks!"
    "Oh yeah? Well at least my story isn't homophobic/racist/politically incorrect/fake news like yours!"
It doesn't take much imagination to see how bad either of those scenarios could get. The mutual admiration society ends up publishing each other's work in a self-published anthology that nobody outside the group and their mothers will hear about, let alone buy, instead of focusing on improving to the point where they are selling their work to objective editors in professional paying markets. The downward spiral of the overly negative (people who don't know how to give constructive feedback, or who think being 'honest' means saying whatever pops into their heads) is that one or more members end up stopping: not just coming not coming back, but giving up writing all together. Getting the right balance requires designing appropriate structures; having ground rules (e.g., give three positive comments and three areas in need of refinement); having good leadership (rotating chair? elder statesman chair? guest editors as invited chairs?); and/or recruiting the right people in the first place.

The blind leading the blind is not that helpful, but finding one's way into a professional writers' circle can be difficult. I have seen writers getting terrible advice from other group participants; writers getting shrugs from other members who don't understand the writer's genre, or style, or purpose; and writers so intimidated by their more experience or more advanced peers that they give up. So writers' groups can easily go very, very wrong.

But I've been a member of at least two that worked very well. The first dissolved when too many members graduated university and the group lost critical mass (in the days before the internet); and the second is still going 20 years on, but without me because I moved away for my day job as a professor. (That group has the best writer group name ever: "The Cult of Pain") In both instances, the majority of members have ended up getting published. Similarly, two of the novels I've edited for Five Rivers Publishing this year thank writer's groups in their acknowledgement, groups that have routinely produced professionally successful writers. On the other hand, Lorina Stephens, the publisher at Five Rivers, has sworn off writers groups because of her negative experiences. So...your mileage may vary.

Note the not all writers' groups are critique groups. Some just get together for coffee once a month to commiserate on how hard it is to find time for writing; how relatives do not understand; how hard it is to work in isolation (in contrast to working in a workplace); how unreasonable editors are; and so on, or to celebrate successes. A writers group as water cooler social group can be surprisingly helpful, giving a moral boost that can last a month or more. Just knowing that others 'get it' and that one is not crazy for feeling what one is feeling is often really helpful. Another possible approach for a writers group is the educational workshop that invites guest speakers (editors, successful authors, representatives from the regional writers guild, publishers, book designers, cover artists, etc) each month on topics of interest to the group. Online groups can similarly go beyond offering each other critiques to organize private Facebook groups, cooperate on a blog or podcast, or organize webinars.

It is surprising how helpful a writers group can be, but one needs always to keep one's activity in the group balanced against one's own writing priorities. I have known aspiring writers who became so focused on participating in the group's activities that their writing time suffered. As writing superstar Robert Sawyer recently said at a WWC presentation, it's important that one doesn't get distracted by pseudo writing activities, such as participating in workshops, marketing oneself through social media, and other professional activities that take time that might be better invested in actually writing.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Aurora Award Voters' Package available until Sept.

The Prix Aurora Award 2017 voter package (e-copies of most of the nominated novels, short stories, etc) is now available at…/voter-package-download/. The package is free to members of the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association so they can read nominated work before voting.(Seems like a pretty sensible idea to me!)

Membership in CSFFA is $10/yr and open to any Canadian, and includes the right to nominate and vote for the Auroras.

My short story, "Age of Miracles", was nominated for a 2017 Aurora in the short story category, so is included in this year's voters' package. I'm really pleased because that means more people will likely have the opportunity to read the story, though the anthology it's from, Strangers Among Us is a good one (six aurora nominations in all!) and well worth buying.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Essential Edits at When Words Collide 2017

Essential Edits will be at When Words Collide at the Calgary Delta South August 11-13, 2017. Elizabeth McLachlan has had to cancel, but Robert Runté will still be making the Essential Edits presentations and sitting on various panels. Below is Robert's schedule, updated with rooms and times, as of July 5:

Scheduled talks:

Friday 1 PM: Live Action Slush - Early Bird Edition (Panel) in Fireside room

Friday 4 PM: Common Manuscript Problems (Panel) in 1-Parkland

Friday 6 PM: Writers’ + Editors’ Speed Mingle (Interactive) in A-Waterton

Saturday 10 AM: Pantsers vs Plotters (Panel) in 2-Bonavista

Saturday 11 AM: Managing Sustained Writing Projects (Presentation) in 9-Rundle

Saturday 1 PM:Dyslexia, Dysgraphia and the Experience of Writing (Panel) in B-Canmore

Saturday 2 PM: Five Rivers Publishing Presents (Book Launch/Social) in Fireside room

Sunday 10 AM: Live Action Slush – YA Edition (Panel)3-Willow Park

Sunday 11 AM: The Publishers Panel: Novels (Panel) in 2-Bonavista

Sunday 2 PM:Working with an Editor (Presentation) in Rundle

Sunday 3 PM: Blue Pencil (Workshop) 6-Heritage

At 750 attendees, WWC is already sold out for this year. It's always a great writers' convention, so I highly recommend it to anyone for next year.

If you have a membership and are coming, let me know and maybe we can get together in the evenings or between panels (when I have more than a five minute break).

Monday, June 19, 2017

Will Social Media Kill the Novel?

Fascinating article in the Guardian by Andrew O'Hagen on the end of private life, that asserts, "Writers thrive on privacy, not on Twitter" and asks, "What does a world in which our interior lives are played out online mean for the novel?"

link to article

I have certainly seen authors get so caught up in the myth that one has to promote oneself on Twitter and other social media to succeed, that they end up having no time to write. (Or, more prosaically, just end up procrastinating on social media because getting likes is more fun than working on one's book.) And I'll concede that for some, telling their online audience the events that might have otherwise found their way into the novel could be depleting. But on the other hand...I have not infrequently had to edit out long passages from a novel that don't belong there and told the author, "stop venting! If you need to vent, go on Facebook. Rant all you want on social media, but keep this off-message rubbish out of your novel." When the space-suited hero puts down his blaster mid-battle with the alien hoards to complain about how the grade 3 teacher is assigning too much homework to his kid, I feel we may have allowed the intrusion of extraneous material...

Though, that's probably not the novel O'Hagen was referring to... :-)

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Interesting review essay on the role of the editor in a book's success:

Red Pens and Invisible Ink by Colin Dickey.

Essential Edits takes the stand that we work for the author, so do our best to follow and bring to fruition the author's vision. We will from time to time, point out issues that might impact the book's commercial success—such as scenes in a YA that might be objectionable to teachers and parents, or content that might be negatively reviewed—but our job is just to flag potential issues, not to censor them.

This is different than the role of acquisition editors and agents, the people to whom one is trying to sell the book if not self-publishing: the job of the acquisition editor or structural editor at a press is to alter the book to fit the vision of the press, which usually translates as 'make it more commercial'. There is nothing inherently wrong about that, because they usually won't buy a book unless it is already (mostly) consistent with the publishers vision of its books; and most authors have no objection to making changes that will increase sales. Most publishers will not initiate the complete rewrites spoken of in the article above, because it is too time consuming and expensive for them...they will just look for another manuscript closer to their own needs.

Still, authors sometimes feel editors have gone too far. If you are an author and you are unhappy with the changes the editor is asking for after you have made them, then there is something wrong. Every author naturally hates making changes insisted upon by their editor—it's just human nature to resist the effort and ego-bruising that changing even a comma implies—but usually, after the author has calmed down enough to actually fiddle around making the change, they come to see that the editor was right, and that this revision is in fact way better. If you don't feel that way, you are either working with the wrong editor or misunderstood what the editor was asking for. (Or, I suppose, there are who simply do not believe that there is a single flaw in their writing, and that every editor who fails to recognize their genius is an idiot, in which case they probably haven't gone to an editor in the first place. Self-publishing has its share of those.) If you like your book less in the edited version, then stop, go back to the original. The freelance editor works for you and does not get to dictate their vision. A good freelance editor can help you realize your vision for the book. It is okay for them to make suggestions, and it is usually a good idea to at least give it a try to see how that would look, but if the editor/agent is telling you to change the gay character to straight, the black character to white, or to add pointless sex or whatever, time to walk away.