Star Wars, Episode 7

My friend, Don Anderson, is a graphic artist with extensive expertise in Adobe Photoshop. I’ve had the privilege of working with him on numerous creative projects for the last six years. He’s also a Lego enthusiast and a Star Wars fan — the rite of passage for his two boys was the building of the Millennium Falcon out of Legos (an expensive Legos kit with all kinds of awesome extras).

His oldest son, Jake, is about to turn 7, so Don and his wife decided to host a birthday party at the local Rebounderz — kids, trampolines, pizza, etc. Naturally, Don had to create an invitation for the birthday party…

Star Wars Birthday Invitation

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The Writer’s Village

The writer sits in a darkened room, his face lit only by the glow of his computer screen as he madly types on the keyboard. Soon, his latest opus will be completed, so perfect that no second draft will be needed. He’ll submit it to a publisher, who will instantly accept it, and all too soon it will be a New York Times bestseller.

For many people, the perception is that professional writing is done by supremely talented people working in isolation and producing perfectly publishable stories and novels without any additional help from anybody.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it generally works in real life.

Think about it for a moment. Have you ever opened a book and seen an acknowledgement page where the author thanks dozens of people for helping him complete the book?

What’s going on here? Isn’t writing a solitary art? What could all of these people possible do for a writer?

I’m going to tear the veil aside, and tell you who these people are, what they do, and how they help writers produce their stories and novels.

This is, of course, highly relevant to me because I’m trying to jump-start my own encore career as a professional science fiction and fantasy writer.

To that end, I’ve set up, or am in the process of setting up, five basic groups of people to help me.

  1. Mastermind Group: To help with the business aspects of being a solo entrepreneur.

  2. Writer’s Group: To help with the creative aspects of being a writer.

  3. Alpha Readers: To help improve my content by focusing on structural issues.

  4. Beta Readers: To help improve my content by serving as a test audience.

  5. Subject Matter Experts: People who know more than me about key subjects like sword fighting, military tactics, etc.

So, what’s a Mastermind group?

Writing is a business, and I’m pursuing a multi-pronged approach for my writing career. While writing needs to be my primary activity, I’ll be augmenting this with other activities such as workshops, storytelling performances, videos, blogging, marketing, etc. Basically, I’m planning on using my advanced public speaking and storytelling skills as a locomotive to pull me through the marketplace and help advertise my fiction. This is a complicated business plan with a lot of moving parts.

Accordingly, I need a team of people to help me out with the business aspects of being a solo entrepreneur. A Mastermind group provides a collaborative environment where ambitious, driven individuals can meet to discuss business plans and engage in mutual problem-solving. Most importantly, however, a Mastermind group requires members to set goals, and holds them accountable for reaching those goals. The group helps members push their limits.

A Writer’s Group allows me to interact with other writers in my field. We can meet, kick around ideas, brainstorm, solve writing problems, etc. This helps me get better at the craft of writing.

Alpha readers and beta readers help make your content better. Alpha readers are people with industry knowledge who read your story in its roughest form, often multiple times, and tell you what’s not working, where there are structural problems in your story, etc. They also challenge your underlying assumptions. To put it bluntly, they tell you if your story sucks, explain why it sucks, and give you recommendations on how to make it suck less.

The best example of where I thought alpha readers could have really made a difference involves the two Star Wars trilogies. If George Lucas had surrounded himself with the kind of detail-oriented people who make good alpha readers, he would have never perpetrated Jar Jar Binks on us.

Beta readers are your test audience. When you think your story is complete, and ready to be published, you give it to them. By the time they see your story, the basic architecture should already be sound. Beta readers help you fine-tune your story to make it even more effective. They tell you about issues like character motivation problems, clumsy dialogue, pacing problems, and areas where they were jarred out of the story.

Finally, subject matter experts. Have you ever seen a book where key details were wrong? Subject matter experts help prevent this. They are volunteers who give you advice on topics like sword fighting, police procedures, forensics, the possible physics of interstellar space drives, etc.

And you’ll be surprised by how easy it is to find subject matter experts to help you. If you ask nicely, most people would love to answer questions about their profession or hobby. For example, I needed expertise on sword fighting for a story. This past Memorial Day weekend, I attended the Virginia Scottish Festival and Games. One of the organizations present at the event was the Virginia Fencing School, where I met two men who were delighted to answer my questions about fencing, the different types of swords, and different fighting styles.

Writing is not a solitary art. All of these people are essential if you want to be a high-performing professional writer. If you’re writer, or want to be a writer, I hope that I’ve opened your eyes about the writing profession and how volunteers can help you achieve your dreams. If you’re not a writer, well, I hope that I’ve provided you with a better understanding of how stories and books are really produced.

Every writer really does need a village.

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John Hemry at Capclave

John Hemry and David Keener Saturday night at Capclave 2013, I decided to avoid the preparations for George R. R. Martin’s mass signing — he just about doubled the size of the conference, and the line for his signing wrapped around the interior of the Hilton. I checked the schedule and noticed that there was a John G. Hemry reading, so I decided to attend that session.

I got there a few minutes early, and there was another man also waiting outside the room for the previous session to end. So I joked around with him for a few minutes before I finally looked down at his badge. I’d been speaking to John Hemry for more than five minutes without realizing it, which just shows how observant I am.

Stark's War by John G. HemryWe both laughed when I explained to him that I had just realized who I’d been speaking to. Then I added, “By the way, I saw you speak the first time you were ever a panelist. You’d signed a publishing contract, and your first novel, Stark’s War, was due to be released but wasn’t out yet. So they added you as a panelist for the Baltimore Worldcon in 1998.”

Hemry said, “I bet I was a lot thinner, back then.”

“Well, me too.”

In fact, it was the 56th Worldcon, which was held in 1998 in downtown Baltimore. I remembered picking up his first novel a few months after the convention. So, I’ve been reading Hemry’s books for the last 15 years.

His career has had a very interesting trajectory. Like a lot of midlist SF writers his sales over his first seven books (the three books in his Stark’s War trilogy and the four books in his JAG in Space series featuring military legal expert Paul Sinclair) either diminished over time, or didn’t grow fast enough to suit the publisher. So he began publishing his Lost Fleet series under the pen name of Jack Campbell.

Henry / Campbell BrandingThat six-book series proved to be extremely successful, and allowed Hemry to “graduate” to hardcover releases. Hemry is now publishing two new series set in that universe, The Lost Stars and The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier. Plus, all of his backlist books have been re-published with better cover art and re-branded with both his regular name and his pen name.

This is actually a pretty big deal. Most writers who are forced switch to a pen name are fortunate if they subsequently achieve success under that pen name. It’s even less common for such a writer to resurrect their entire backlist or re-brand themselves back under their original name. So kudos to John G. Hemry for this feat.

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless - by John G. Hemry Anyway, his reading was scheduled for thirty minutes, and about twelve people eventually showed up for his reading (which is a respectable number). Hemry opted to read a chapter from his latest hardcover, The Lost Worlds: Perilous Shield, featuring an incident in which a commanding officer had to remove another officer from their position.

What I like about Hemry’s work is that he leverages his own military experience to provide thoughtful military fiction that isn’t just about the glory to be won in battle. His stories show not just the battlefield, but also the behind-the-scenes problems of leadership, discipline, political maneuvering and strategy that all effect the outcome of conflicts. In short, if you like military fiction, you should check out his books — you won’t be disappointed.

I recommend starting with the Stark’s War or Lost Fleet series, both of which are shown on this page and conveniently link over to Amazon for you.

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Charles Stross Hates Microsoft Word

Author Charles Stross has produced an excellent blog post about Microsoft Word called “Why Microsoft Word Must Die.” It’s dead-on accurate, with in-depth commentary that betrays Stross’s technical origins — he was a computer programmer before he was a successfully published writer.

As someone who has produced a lot of large documents in my time, I personally hate Word’s Master Document and outline features, which have never actually worked well enough to use for production purposes, and which have never been improved in twenty years. Microsoft Word really is a lowest-common-denominator product.

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Capclave 2013

Capclave 2013 I had a great time attending Capclave 2013, which was held this past weekend in Gaithersburg, MD (at apparently the world’s oldest Hilton Hotel). The image to the left is a dodo, Capclave’s “mascot,” which is usually accompanied by the tagline: “Where reading is not extinct.”

According to the WSFA (Washington Science Fiction Association – the group the runs the convention) folks that I talked to, the presence of George R.R. Martin at the con more than doubled the expected attendance from 400 people to about 850 people, including a lot of Saturday walk-ins. Nevertheless, it never felt crowded to me…unless you were one of the people waiting in line for a George R.R. Martin signing, where his line wrapped around the interior of the hotel.

One of the funnier moments of the convention occurred Saturday night when George R.R. Martin, the Guest of Honor, accepted his gift from the con for being a guest. He mentioned a real-world project that aims to resurrect extinct species using reconstituted DNA. He noted that the mastodon was first on the list, but that the dodo was in the top ten — this drew some laughter from the crowd. Then he said, “Screw the dodo, let’s bring back the dire wolf.” This got a huge wave of laughter from the crowd, since everyone knows that the dire wolf features prominently in his novel, “The Game of Thrones,” as well as subsequent volumes in the series (plus the TV series).

I was only able to attend the convention on Saturday and Sunday. Since the convention was (relatively) local for me, I ended up driving to it each day. So I spent a good amount of time commuting through pouring rain.

Anyway, I spent most of my time at the convention in workshops. I’ll have separate posts about the workshops, since I have some good notes that I think might prove useful for other writers.

The workshops were obviously a highlight for me. More than one person told me they viewed Capclave as a “writer’s con” more than a “fan con.” I attended the following workshops:

  • Allen Wold’s Writer’s Workshop (2 sessions, totaling 3 hours)
    — David Bartell, Andrew Fox, Allen Wold and Darcy Wold

  • Area 52 Military Science Fiction – Getting it Right (2 sessions, totaling 4 hours)
    — Ron Garner, Brian Shaw and Janine Spendlove (all active or former Marines)

  • Creating Your Ebook (1 session, 2 hours)
    — Neil Clarke, Hugo-winning editor of Clarkesworld magazine
    — (2013/11/06) Some of his CSS from the session is now up on his blog

Plus, I attended some conventional panels that were also useful to writers, including:

  • Online Writing Tools
    — Jaime Todd Rubin and Bud Sparhawk

  • Aircraft Carriers in Space!
    — Christopher Weuve

  • Self-Publishing and You / DIY Publishing
    — Jennifer Barnes, Andrew Fox, Jason Jack Miller, Betsy A. Riley and Steve H. Wilson

I also ended up having my picture taken with John G. Hemry, author of the Lost Fleet series, and Carolyn Ives Gilman, author of award-nominated novelettes like Arkfall (which I got her to sign) and last year’s The Ice Owl. I promised both of them that the picture would end up on my blog, and so they both will by the end of this week.

Overall, an excellent convention. I had a great time, got to work on my writing skills in a workshop, absorbed a ton of useful information for writers, bought some excellent books, and met some sterling people. Plus, the Philcon and Kansas City parties were very welcoming, and the Dark Quest Book Launch was a lot of fun, too.

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Badass Unicorn

Badass Unicorn My friend, Gretchen Schutte, posted this on Facebook. I just thought it was absolutely hysterical. Anyway, she says that a badass unicorn is what she wants for Christmas.

I’m tired of vampires and werewolves. I think it’s time to re-work a new creature from mythology. Maybe it is time for badass unicorns.

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Colonizing a World with Dean Ellis

In my Forgotten Gems series of blog posts, I try to highlight older works that are still worth consideration by current-day readers. Previously, I’ve focused on fiction. This time, I’ve decided to do something different. There’s a cover painting that I first saw about 40 years ago that I’ve never been able to forget.

Star Born, by Dean EllisArtist Dean Ellis (1920 – 2009) was one of the top SF cover artists in the 70’s and 80’s, noted for realistic space scenes. He produced the painting below for the 1970 edition of Andre Norton’s Star Born (click on the picture to see it in full size).

This is one of my favorite cover paintings of all time. It is, to the best of my knowledge, in the public domain, because copyright laws were different back when this painting was produced.

When I was a kid, first discovering science fiction, Andre Norton was the author, producing four squeaky clean adventure novels every year without fail. She was YA before YA was ever a category for books. Star Born was one of the first books I discovered (and devoured). Even at the time, I was mesmerized by the cover, which was literally the most striking cover I had ever seen.

Most covers that featured star ships showed them in flight, with some fanciful flame shooting out the back, or in mortal combat with laser beams flashing. This looked like a working ship, newly landed on some alien planet, with no spaceport or support infrastructure anywhere in sight.

It’s journey done, the crew begins unloading the newly landed colony ship, which towers over the surrounding plain like a 40-story building. There are cranes to assist in the unloading of the equipment and supplies. A separate shuttle is being assembled from parts stored in the larger vessel. Passengers who have been allowed to leave the vessel gather around and watch, while others still aboard the ship view the scene from windows.

I like to think of a painting as a canvas for the imagination, not just for the artist but also the viewer. The artist has a vision and tries to communicate that vision as best he can via the medium of paint. A viewer looks at the painting, sees the details the artist has provided, and imagines the scene in their own mind, augmenting it with details from their own imagination.

Start Born, the novel by Andre NortonFor me, this painting evokes many emotions. The sense of accomplishment in successfully reaching, and landing on, an alien world. A sense of sadness, in that this is probably the last journey of the colony ship, it’s probable fate to be dismantled in order to provide materials for the new colony. The excitement of a new beginning, with all sorts of possibilities ahead. The fear of the unknown, because who knows what dangers lie in store for the colonists. The determination to succeed despite all obstacles; if you don’t have this, then you’re not really suited to be a colonist. A sense of opportunity, because new challenges breed new solutions.

If I could say something to Dean Ellis about this painting, it would be this: Bravo!

I hope that someday I have a cover this great for one of my books.

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