Monday, May 19, 2014

Blogrise, Blogset

I first started blogging just over eight years ago. In my very first post, I wrote about having realized that without ever planning to do it, I'd become an erstwhile writer. An ex-writer. A used-to. And at that moment, I decided that I wanted to be a writer again -- and that blogging the process might be a good way to help me keep on track.

Over the past eight years, the blogging has been hit-and-miss. I wrote 19 posts in April, 2006, my first month of blogging, a number that I would barely achieve most years thereafter.

But the rest of my writing? That went rather better.

Since the first post, I joined a writers group. I've written two screenplays, and started a third, and realized that I didn't want to be a screenwriter. Xeno's Arrow, the comic I created and published with the inestimable Greg Beettam, appeared on the (sadly now defunct) webcomics hub, Modern Tales. With the equally-inestimable Patrick Heinicke, I created a new webcomic, Cold Iron Badge, which also appeared on Modern Tales and on our own site. That project was not only incredibly fun, it inspired me to write my first novel, which shares a world with the comic (but no characters; it quickly went off in an entirely different direction). I've written a bunch of short stories, stories that I've been confident enough in to submit them to professional markets. None has sold yet, but I'm not giving up. And last November, I successfully completed NaNoWriMo with my second novel, a work-still-in-progress called Nobody's Watching

I'm still not a professional writer (though the definition of professional is pretty ambiguous in webcomics), but you know what I'm not?

I'm not an erstwhile writer anymore.

And as such, I've been feeling, increasingly strongly lately, that where I am, and what I want to talk about, doesn't really fit with a blog called Back From Erstwhile. It's been fun, at least when I haven't felt guilty about my wildly erratic posting schedule, and it's been an important part of the road back. 

But I think, rather than try to re-purpose a blog that's had its day, and it's time to let it end. 

As one blog ends, another begins, the circle of blogging life. Please join me at my new blog, Stephen Geigen-Miller. Yes, I just used my own name, for reasons that I'll get into in my first post over there. 

And please join me in raising a glass to Back From Erstwhile, a blog that succeeded in its mission and can now enjoy a much-deserved retirement. 

Thanks for being here with me and being part of this phase of my journey. Now, it's time for the next step. Onward!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Voting for Diversity with my Dollars: Buying Books and Putting Diversity in SF&F into Practice

In January, I had the opportunity to get a bunch of books. Now, it’s not a big secret that I buy books, kind of a lot. But I don’t usually buy a bunch at once, for obvious financial reasons. But I had a gift card, obtained via Christmas, and I was keen to use it.

I also had a mission.

It’s been increasingly clear to me that I need to do more to support diversity in science fiction and fantasy (I’m just going to abbreviate that SF&F from here on in). That includes opposing sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism and other forms of bigotry where and when I can. And working at being actively welcoming and inclusive of other people in the SF&F fan and creative communities I participate in.

In January, I decided that it also meant making an active, conscious choice to prioritize buying books by women and/or people of colour.

I made that choice for a really simple reason: Women and people of colour are still under-represented in huge swathes of genre (as they are in publishing overall). A really good way to help that change for the better is to let publishers and booksellers know there's a demand for books from a wide and diverse range of writers, bringing a broader and deeper range of experiences and viewpoints to their work.

This is not a perfect approach; there are less visible forms of diversity (like gender identity, neurodiversity, being differently-abled and sometimes sexual orientation) that are less visible and that it’s therefore more difficult to take into account.

But it's a place to start.

I felt uncomfortable with the idea of blogging about this, initially. After all, the publishers have the data on my purchases; they can take it into account when they decide what sells. Would going public about my choice just be crowing? Was I fishing for validation for being a good progressive? And did I really want to risk getting caught up in the ongoing, sometimes very acrimonious debate about these issues in the SF&F communities?

Then I read blog posts by Foz Meadows and Emma Newman. I was reminded of Jessica Strider of Sci-Fi Fan Letter putting diversity into practice and creating a wonderful Special Needs In Strange Worlds  display of SF&F books dealing with issues of ability and disability at Toronto’s own World’s Biggest Bookstore.

And it became clearer to me that being a passive voice for diversity wasn't going to cut it. 

I forget, sometimes, how lucky I am to live in Toronto, where we have great bookstores like Bakka-Phoenix and World’s Biggest. In Toronto, diversity is part of the fabric of our lives (our mayor notwithstanding), and I forget that not everyone is a privileged as me.

And so I forgot that what reactionaries and haters might think of me is less important than the support I can offer by adding my voice and speaking out.

Because the writers, booksellers and publishers out there who are working for diversity or are themselves diverse need to know that they’re appreciated and supported. If I want to truly affect the conversation, I need to participate it, not just hope that the data resulting from my purchases is correctly interpreted by a huge and complex system full of variables.

I support diversity in SF&F. I do so actively and consciously. I do it by being welcoming and inclusive, opposing bigotry, speaking out – and I also do it by voting with my dollars.

I did that by buying four books:

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie, published by Orbit. A smart space opera that explores some interesting ideas about colonialism and about gender and language.
Between Two Thorns, by Emma Newman, published by Angry Robot. An urban fantasy about class conflict between powerful Faerie rulers and their human servants.
The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust and Skyler White, published by Tom Doherty Associates. A secret society of sort-of immortals who make the world a little bit better, very slowly. 
The Lives of Tao, by Wesley Chu, published by Angry Robot. High-energy science fiction about martial artist superspies and a secret war between factions of aliens.

(You may have noticed Angry Robot did well by me. They deserved to.)

The result? Four books, with a total of five authors (since The Incrementalists was co-written). One of the writers was a white dude. Not bad; I give myself a 3.5 out of 4. I did pretty well from a gender standpoint, but I could do more with regard to other kinds of diversity. That’s something I’ll keep in mind for next time.

I was reticent about naming the books I chose at first. It felt awkward and I was afraid that it might seem patronizing. It’s not my intention to impose my own labels or definitions on anyone or to try to put them in a little identity box.

But the point of practicing diversity is that, as Emma Newman points out, we don’t have a level playing field. Society puts people into those little identity boxes whether we like it or not, and we need to do more to reach into boxes that differ from our own.

One final thought: Another reason to practice diversity in book-buying is that it gives us another way to seek and find great things. Three of the four books were by authors I’d never read before (I’m a long-time fan of Steven Brust). All of them were books that, based on my reading about new books in SF&F, sounded really interesting. And all of them were well worth it.

In other words, I never had to resort to second-tier choices. In fact, if I'd had the resources, I could have bought a dozen more books by women and/or people of colour and still not have been going with second-tier choices.

You don’t have to give anything up to practice diversity. It doesn’t subtract. It adds.

Of course, there are books by white dudes that I really want too. And I'm going to continue to support those authors as well (I'm not going without getting caught up on the Gentlemen Bastards series for much longer, that's for sure). This isn’t a boycott and it’s not either/or; it’s a reminder to myself to expand my definition of being inclusive, and putting it into practice via the books I buy.

(And really, as an aspiring SF&F author and life-long white guy myself, I’m pretty sure we don’t need to worry. The white dudes are going to be okay.)

This was an experiment, and from where I’m sitting, a successful one. Worth repeating. Diversity will continue to be one of the lenses I view my book buying through.

Working to be inclusive. Speaking out. Opposing bigotry. And voting with my dollars.

It’s a place to start. 

Monday, February 03, 2014

Standing on the Ramparts of my Castle of Perseverance. Well, my Fort of Perseverance. Okay, my Small Cardboard Box of Perseverance

One of the things that they don't tell you about trying to break in as a writer is that it frequently involves a number of concurrent processes, many of which are totally outside your control, and that all unfold in their own time*.

And that sometimes, those unfolding processes intersect in ways that aren't much fun.

By early January, I had four short stories out on submission to four different markets at the same time -- that's my most ever, and I’m pretty proud of that.

By late January -- as I mentioned here -- I had started the process of querying my novel and seeking representation by approaching eight literary agents.

I had no idea how long it would take to hear back about any of these. Sometimes you put your work out there and hear back within days. Sometimes it’s months.

I knew that not all of these attempts were going to pay off. Between the short stories and the agent queries, I was expecting to get some rejections. That's par for the course.

I wasn't expecting to get four rejections in a single day.

But on Friday, January 24th, I got four "thanks, but no thanks" emails -- from two different agents, and two different publications.

I posted an update on Facebook when I got my second rejection that day, (less than) half-amused and (more than) half-pained, noting that it was a "personal best"**.

I was, and I'm not even kidding, still in the process of doing that when I got the third rejection, which actually made the whole thing even funnier, although not really less painful. The fourth came later and was just icing. I mean, I actually, literally laughed out loud when I got that one, because one punch in the gut from the universe is awful, but four of them is comedy. 

And it did feel a bit like a punch in the gut from the universe. Rejection hurts. I've gotten more used to it for my short stories -- I have yet to have anything accepted for publication -- but the agent queries were new and a bit sharper. I was feeling really good about my query letter, good enough that I was expecting to get at least some requests to read my manuscript before potential agents made their decision to say yes or no. And my novel... well, it represents more work, and I'm more deeply emotionally invested. It's closer to my heart.

So yeah, by the end of that day I was feeling raw and bruised. I understand that it's not personal, that the folks sending those emails weren't rejecting me, but one more story or query among the dozens or hundreds they receive, that didn’t match what they were looking for. But in the moment, not being personal doesn't make it easier.

Rejection hurts.

So what did I do?

I fought the impulse to try to analyze the rejections to death. I'll look at my query letter again when this process is over, and consider how to make it better, but trying to sift through the entrails in a more specific way is just rejectomancy, and that's an exercise in both frustration and futility.

More importantly, I started researching. More agents to query. More markets to submit stories to. How to keep moving forward.

There's an old idea in writing*** that success is based on some combination of talent, persistence and luck. By definition, I can't do anything about my luck. I'm already doing the best writing I can, and striving to improve, and that's all anyone can do about talent.

That leaves persistence. Persistence is the thing I can really control. I can decide to not give up.

I am not going to give up. Even when it hurts. Even when I get rejections. Even if I get four of them in a single day, I am not going to give up.

More on this process as it continues to unfold. Until then, I persevere, and I hope that you will too. Onward!

* Or possibly they do tell you that, and I wasn't paying attention.

** Yes, I was fishing for sympathy. C'mon, people, that's what Facebook is FOR.

*** And, I imagine, in other endeavours, creative and otherwise, where success is partly dependent on gatekeepers.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

This is What I'm Doing: The January 2014 Edition

I kind of went heads-down over the last few months of 2013, more than I intended or expected to. Between family and work, the holidays, the extreme weather adventures (I know I'm not alone there -- for a while it seemed like the entire continent was snowed in and frozen solid), I was pretty engaged in other things. 

Oh, and there was winning NaNoWriMo, but I kind of feel like I bragged about that one enough, on Twitter and Facebook, when it actually happened. It's worth mentioning, but more because obviously it was taking up a lot of my time and my writing energy in November. 

(It left me with a post-NaNo hangover, too. It was hard to buckle down and write in December. I spent a lot of the month feeling wrung out and like I needed to recharge my creative batteries.)

The important thing is that I used NaNoWriMo to kick off what appears to be my next novel, a science-fiction story with the working title Nobody's Watching

So, what am I doing now? 

Nobody's Watching was on hold while I shook off the post-NaNoWriMo doldrums, but I'm about ready to resume work on it. It helps that it's the work-in-progress that I've been taking to my writers group, because I do get motivated by deadlines. 

I've been continuing to take my short fiction to market, so far without success. I currently have three stories out on submission (with a fourth that just got a rejection, so I really need to get it out there again as well). More news on that as it happens. In terms of time and project management, short stories tend to be one of two things for me: the short, sharp idea that gets stuck in my head and won't go away until I write it; and/or creative palate cleansers between long stretches of working on a novel. 

The result of this is that I have a backlog of short fiction pieces in addition to the ones that are currently out to market -- about six or eight, I think, in various states of readiness between "just needs a polish" to "oh my FSM what was I thinking this calls for a page-one rewrite". 

My plan is to work on revising and finishing these stories over the first half of this year, in between working on the big ticket projects -- Nobody's Watching, until it's done. I have a pretty good sense of what the novel after that will be, too, but I'm going to keep my powder dry on that one until Nobody's Watching is actually a finished draft.

In other news, I spent a lot of the fall polishing All That Glitters, and my other big initiative for the New Year is going to be using it to query literary agents and seek representation. I'm not sure how much of this process I really should go into -- certainly I'm not going to name any names, that's just unprofessional. So let's just say that the manuscript is ready, and I've been honing my query letter and, more painfully, my synopsis. And now I'm as ready as I'm going to be. It's time to see if my first novel is ready to fly. 

Nervous? Ha. I'm feeling a combination of heady excitement and stomach-curdling anxiety that reminds me of nothing so much as when I was in theatre. It's exhilarating and terrifying to be confronted with the prospect of taking a step that could lead to either success or showing my ass in public (which has actually literally happened to me a couple of times, but that doesn't seem to make this any easier).

For now, let's just say there'll be more news on that when I have something I can share. 

I'm also continuing to focus on home and family, work and on my own health, the latter of which I sort of lost the thread of over 2013, and need to get back on top of. And there are other creative projects on the horizon, including some interesting potential ones relating to my comics work. Again, more on that when it's less nebulous. 

2013 was a remarkable year, full of peaks and valleys. I did some of my best writing last year, even if it has yet to see the light of day. I also had a personal health crisis that literally could have killed me. The peaks were high. The valleys were real nadirs. All in all, I'm glad it's a new year. 

It's January, 2014 and on reflection, it seems like I've got rather a lot I want to do. It's time to do it. It's time to move forward. I hope we can all move forward, together. And I look forward to telling you about the steps I take in my journey -- and hearing about yours. 


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Because Really, Don't We All Want a Party in a Can?

Years ago -- the early 90's, I think -- Sprite ran a fun, subversive little ad campaign that involved mocking the tropes of soft drink ad campaigns. They turned the tropes up to eleven and then contrasted the overblown hype with Sprite, and the slogan "Image is nothing. Taste is everything. Obey your thirst."

I enjoyed those ads. They were fun, clever and aimed right at my cynical, media-saturated Gen X heart.

My favourite was a commercial within a commercial. Two slacker-types watching TV see an ad for a soft drink called "Jooky". "Jooky: It's a party in a can!" A beach party, girls in bikinis, everybody happy and dancing, a totally over-the-top jingle actually explicating all the implicit promises of commercials -- "Jooky make you really kooky, Jooky make you manly man!"

Then the two slackers, with expressions of great anticipation, pop the tabs on their cans of Jooky. Nothing happens. No beach party. "Aw, mine's broken," says one. Cut to the Sprite slogan: "Image is nothing," etc.

Much as I loved the ad, it didn't work as intended, at least not on me. I don't drink citrus-based pops -- they upset my stomach. I was never going to buy Sprite. So what was my take-away?

Well, I understood the intent, and I appreciated the satirical sting of the commercial-within-the-commercial. I loved seeing the strings of advertising's ridiculous subtextual promises laid bare.

And I didn't care. Because after I saw that ad, all I wanted was a can of Jooky.

To this day, I still want a can of Jooky.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Blogsticuffs? Blogmageddon?

The inestimable Mr. Beettam, having upon further reflection determined that the only winning move is not to play, or something of that nature, has advised all and sundry that Blog War is not for him. 

Thus endeth the Great Blog War of 2013, in a state of status quo ante bellum, which is a fancy-pants way of saying "dammit, now all the work of motivating me to update this thing is going to be on me again". Thanks a lot for foiling my plan to outsource my motivation to you, Greg.

Well, in fact, I've been feeling pretty on top of the motivating-myself aspect of blogging lately. What I was really looking forward to in an unfolding Blog War was not only having a partly externalized motivation to actually post here more regularly (and on a broader variety of subjects), but also the idea that as posts volleyed back and forth, inevitably we'd end up responding to not only the fact of one another's posts, but also the content -- and an interesting discussion might then emerge. 

So, to that end, I'm going to put this out there: If anyone is interested in some form of at least vaguely-organized blog-based discussion, let's set something up. It doesn't need to be a Blog! War!!! It could be anything. It could be a Blogstravaganza!

I don't know exactly what a Blogstravaganza would be, but then, I didn't know what I thought a Blog War was either, until I started typing it, so I'm sure we can figure something out.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Reviewed -- TT: Full Throttle, an excellent debut YA novel

I'm not terribly into sports -- it's great if people enjoy playing them, and hey, if you're a passionate sports fan, there are way worse things you could be excited about. But left to my own devices, I don't follow any organized sport beyond having a sense of what's in the headlines. I particularly am not into motorsports. Not a sports fan + environmentalist = some serious apprehensions about watching motor vehicles drive around in a circle.

All of which is to say that I am so not the target audience for TT: Full Throttle, the debut novel by my friend Nicole Winters, set in the world of motorcycle racing and specifically, at the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race. A YA novel about motorcycle racing? Yeah, so not my usual thing.

I love this book.

Nicole has achieved something really rare, special and admirable in this, her first published novel -- she has created a window into the world and the passions of a group of very believable characters, and she has done it in a way that makes me, someone who would normally disdain motorcycle racing for all sorts of reasons, deeply interested and invested in the outcome. 

TT: Full Throttle is the story of Scott Saunders, a young man in his early twenties who lives for only one thing -- to race in the annual Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, the TT. Scott comes from a racing family, and planned for years to travel to the Isle of Man with his father for the race. His father's untimely death has changed all that, and now Scott eats, sleeps and breathes the TT, intent on travelling to the Isle with his friend Neil so they can race to honour his dad's memory. 

Scott shares his home with Neil, Mags, a gifted motorcycle mechanic who Scott is attracted to, and Dean, a former juvenile delinquent who Neil has taken under his wing. The story begins as Scott and Neil are moving forward with their training for the TT, but when tragedy strikes again, Scott must decide whether to go ahead or give up on his dream. With the help of his friends, who join him on his journey and act as an ad hoc pic crew, he travels to the Isle of Man. There, however, the pressure mounts as Scott struggles to qualify for the race with limited resources, no sponsorship, and his amateur crew of well-meaning but not always skilled friends. Together, they must all work to rise to these new challenges if Scott's dream is ever to come true.

I'll let you read the book to learn how that works out, and read it you most definitely should. Nicole has a remarkable ear for dialogue, and every single one of her characters pops off the page. Scott, Neil, Mags and Dean are more real to me now than some people I've met in my real life. In the abstract, I don't care much about motorcycle racing, but I care about these people, their struggles, their tragedies and their triumphs, and I was deeply invested in following them on their journey and rooting for them to succeed. 

And if that was my reaction, I can't even imagine how strongly a younger reader, especially one with an interest in sports, would react to this book. This excellent novel is primarily aimed at YA readers, especially boys and reluctant readers generally, but there's plenty going on here to catch and hold the interest of an adult -- even a sports-indifferent one. 

TT: Full Throttle is available from online booksellers everywhere in print and ebook versions. I recommend it unreservedly.


In the interests of full disclosure: I originally posted this on Goodreads -- but a) I'm still figuring out how to integrate Goodreads with the rest of my social media activity and I didn't want this to get lost in the shuffle and b) it's past time for another volley in my Blog! War!!! with Greg Beettam. Mr. Beettam, the ball is in your court now.

And also in the interests of full disclosure: I did mention this in my review, but it merits repeating. Nicole is a friend, and I am in that sense not at all unbiased here. That being said, I think I would love TT: Full Throttle just as much if I didn't know the author at all.

And finally, if you still need convincing, why not check out the book trailer here?