Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Do as I say... not as I don't

So what do you do when someone asks for your advice on something, you give it, and then you realize that you yourself do almost NONE of the things you have just advised this person to do?

That's exactly what is happening to me at this very moment. Last night, I was invited to the house of a friend to talk with her father, a wonderful writer, about how to enhance his online profile, to improve the presentation of his existing blog and to attract more readers to his beautiful prose.

We had a wonderful discussion and I believe both my friend and her father felt they got good value for the time they invested in speaking with me.

The problem is, although I believe very firmly in every suggestion I made to them, I have come to the realization that I personally implement almost none of these excellent suggestions in my own work. It's really quite amazing: do as I say, not as I do.

In preparation for the discussion, I had read over most of the entries on his existing blog site, which has not been updated in some time. I was impressed with just how beautifully this man writes, how broad and creative is his vocabulary, how vivid his descriptions and how expansive his literary knowledge. This is wonderful writing and well worthy of a broader audience.

I also studied the site itself and how his work was presented. And I came away with a deep respect for his work as well as a number of suggestions on how to present it more effectively.

Among my comments and suggestions:
  • Don't change your writing style to attempt to attract a larger audience -- write what and how you love and have faith in the quality of your writing to attract the right audience, an audience that can appreciate what you already do so beautifully;
  • Include more images -- several of his posts include photographs and others include simply wonderful examples of his wife's creative endeavours (sketches and pastels) to complement the subject matter of his post. I think it is no coincidence that these posts, in general, attract the most attention and the most comments so I recommended that he try to include visuals consistently with each post, especially at the top of each entry;
  • Add new entries on a consistent basis, at least once per week, so that, as readers find and enjoy the blog, they can get into a pattern of visiting on a regular basis, confident in the knowledge that they will find something new to read on each visit;
  • Create an email list, to which he can send the link to each new entry as it is posted, and ask people to add their name to that list when they first visit the site;
  • Be active on Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media in order to build a network, make more contacts and give himself more avenues to promote his blog;
  • Use the front page of the blog site to promote the fact that he hopes someday to produce a book of his writings -- create interest in that project early and see if it helps propel the book into reality;
  • Promote himself (and his artist wife), both on the blog site and in social media, since people will often want to read your work if they feel they know, like and/or respect you.
I think theses are all good suggestions. I just wish I myself followed more of them.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Write your own story, Herr Loser

I have achieved a milestone reserved only for accomplished writers and it has made my weekend: I have, through one of my blogs (my Harry Potter blog), been trolled.

I woke up this morning, checked out my Blogger homepage, and found the following comment posted on a blog entry from a year or so ago in which I discussed Harry Potter fan fiction, including my own Harry Potter novel: "write your own story dont steal other peoples work. loser".

For some reason, this comment brought me great joy. Thank you, Himmelfahrstrasse Stormalong, for this delightful surprise.

I honestly don't understand my own raucous response to this little piece of trolling -- why something that was apparently intended to be nasty has made me so happy I'm not sure. But it made me laugh out loud... and I've already shared it on Facebook and on Twitter.

The underlying issue, however, is an interesting one. Is there a problem, moral, philosophical, creative, with writing what is commonly known as "fan fiction".

The timing of this comment, and this discussion, couldn't be better. Just yesterday, I sat in a sandwich shop with my new writing partner on my historically-based children's stories and discussed the challenge of creating something entirely new, whether that involves introducing a new character to an established set of stories, introducing a new location or creating an entirely new novel.

In every such situation, the writer must make an almost infinite number of decisions, from the smallest detail to the largest strategic question, from what detail to include to what the detail entails.

And my troll has a point, one with which I have wrestled for some time. I have written three hard-boiled detective fiction novels, a creative task made somewhat easier by the fact that the genre has so many conventions that a significant number of creative decisions are already made for the writer. I don't have to make a decision on narrative point of view: the genre demands a first person narrator. I don't have to worry about tone: the tone of voice is acerbic, witty, dry. I have to follow certain rules of plot and characterization that are standard to the genre. Yes, there are still millions of creative decisions for me, as the author, to make but some decisions, at least, are made for me.

I have written and published a series of children's stories, set in a real location in the 1940s. I deliberately chose to pattern the writing style for these stories after the old Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy books -- stories that were written in my target time period, for my target audience. Again, setting my stories in a real train station and hotel in a real town saved me from having to make an infinite number of decision relating to the setting. And deciding to pattern them in tone and narrative style after an existing set of stories meant I had a strong base from which to work.

But fan fiction is another step along that road entirely. Fan fiction involves using the characters, settings, situations, relationships, the entirety of another author's work as the base from which to build your own story. It's almost like creating an app for an iPad: someone else did all the very difficult, creative work of conceptualising the device, designing it, building it, creating the proprietary software that runs it and you just come along and add a little piece of new software and claim to be a creator.

Is that wrong? Is it stealing, as my apparently German troll has suggested?

Fan fiction is something of an industry in and of itself. Dozens of writers have fashioned very nice careers for themselves writing fan fiction novels using the original Star Trek material created by Gene Roddenberry and others. Is that theft? Is it morally wrong?

I agree that writing fan fiction is, like writing fiction that is set in a real place, involves taking something of a creative short cut. I also agree that it is a significant creative achievement to create your own work from scratch and even more significant to create a fictional world, as Rowling has done, that is not even based on our current reality.

But I don't know if I would go so far as to agree that writing fan fiction is theft. Or even wrong. As long as proper attribution and credit is part of the process and as long as no profit is made without the permission of the original creator.