Five Questions: D.F. Lovett, author of The Moonborn

The Moonborn cover

The Moonborn is the debut novel by D.F. Lovett.

I’m excited to welcome to Five Questions Minneapolis-based author D.F. Lovett, who released his debut sci-fi novel, The Moonborn, in 2016. David the head editor and writer for the blog What Would Bale Do, and he writes the acclaimed Reddit novelty account /u/DiscussionQuestions. He has also collaborated on several film projects with the production studio Corridor Digital.

The Moonborn is the story of Ishmael, who lands on the Moon to ghostwrite the autobiography of Adam Moonborn, first man born on the Moon. Ishmael soon learns the job is not as straightforward as it seems. In an adventure tale inspired by Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, they embark on a mission to destroy all of the Moon’s rogue robots, whom Adam Moonborn holds responsible for the death of his family and the impending downfall of civilization.

Here are the author’s answers to my Five Questions.

Do you remember the first character you created? Tell me about him/her/it. Not specifically, but it would probably be the personality assigned to one of my action figures. For most of my childhood, a lot of the writing I did was inspired by stories that my brother and I first invented with Star Wars and G. I. Joe action figures. I know this isn’t very specific, but a lot of those characters blended together or would evolve over time.

D.F. Lovett

D.F. Lovett

How did you feel when you saw your work in print / electronic form for the first time? The same way I feel now: a mixture of pride, excitement, and self-consciousness. I wrote for the junior high newspaper in seventh grade, which was the first time I encountered the frustration of an editor changing my words. I remember specifically some negative criticism I got from a classmate over a review I wrote of The Phantom Menace where I referred to Jar Jar Binks as an “alien.” My classmate told me that was incorrect, as most of the movie takes place on his home planet, so he’s not an alien. I guess that got me started early at learning how to respond to criticism, although it frustrated me at the time. I think I have a thicker skin now because of it. Continue reading

Meeting Don McQuinn and the sound of indie publishing

Don McQuinn

Don McQuinn

Author Don McQuinn is a perfect example of a sci-fi and fantasy writer who made it into the big time and then took control of his own destiny. Don and I met earlier this month at a Greek restaurant in suburban Seattle, not far from his home and mine. The vigorous former Marine and octogenarian has been a published writer since 1980, and he found fame with his Moondark Saga (Warrior, Wanderer, Witch) and his Captain Lannat series (With Full Honors, The Prisoner Within). But the world of books is cruel, and after a few bestsellers, his work fell out of print, and income dried up. A heart attack in 1998 took its toll, as well as other family-related health crises.

Once a writer, always a writer, and Don applied a Marine’s “gung ho” attitude to the emerging opportunities of digital media. With the help of supportive family, Don dived into electronic publishing, acquiring the rights from his former publisher and issuing ebook versions of his Moondark Saga, including a repackaging of the books into bundles. He’s also written well-regarded women’s fiction focused on post-traumatic stress disorder. Though he describes the income from these efforts as modest, he’s living proof of an established author’s ability to rescue himself/herself from midlist hell and out-of-print perdition through independent publishing. Continue reading

Should you hire a sensitivity reader to scrutinize your novel?

meme

When you write about things outside your experience, do you know what you’re talking about?

You’ve just finished a novel certain to win a Pulitzer Prize, and you’re particularly proud of one character, an individual not of your race, sexual orientation, and gender. You’ve struck a blow for diversity in literature, one of your core values. Blogger and consultant Mikki Kendall has a suggestion: If you think you’ve done a good job, get a second opinion. Hire a “sensitivity reader.”

Her idea is timely, given the national debate over transgender issues, racism in the justice system, and the possibility of a woman getting elected as president. And publishers want fiction with non-traditional characters, judging by literary agents’ Twitter postings with the #MSWL (manuscript wish list) hashtag.

A self-described “diversity consultant for fiction,” Kendall is a black woman in Chicago who identifies with the gender she was born with, that is, “cisgender.” In her post, she thunders against writers who perpetuate gender, racial, and other stereotypes and refuse to recognize what she believes is the harm they do to individuals and communities represented in those characters. “Art” is not an excuse to hurt people, deliberately or accidentally, “[b]ecause your bigoted depiction of them is a key component of the kind of gatekeeping that locks marginalized communities out.”

Kendall does not cite examples, but the point is on target: Writers, like all humans, have blind spots, and even well-intentioned writers can screw things up for people they may be trying to help. To mitigate the danger, she advises hiring or at least showing the work to someone from the community you attempt to portray to ensure you haven’t encouraged the thing you’re combating.

On the surface, it’s a fine idea, but on reflection, I find it troubling.

Full disclosure: I’m a white, middle-aged male from lower middle-class background living in a privileged, rich, two-thirds-white city. I fit the stereotype of The Man pretty well. While I have libertarian sensibilities, I also vote almost exclusively Democratic, caucused for Bernie Sanders, and I’ve served on two non-profit boards, one of them as president. Maybe I don’t fit the stereotype as well as I thought.

Kendall’s first advice is Fiction 101: Do your research. If you don’t come from a perspective you hope to portray, or at least have significant experience with it, then read, talk, learn. Failure to conduct due diligence is simply lazy. However, a writer doesn’t have to hire a diversity specialist to check their work. In the modern publishing world, writers, particularly new writers, should hire a trained, experienced editor before self-publishing or submitting the work to agents or legacy publishers. I’m always amazed at the crap my editor finds, beyond stereotyped, one-dimensional, hackneyed characters, though you can’t assume an editor is automatically sensitive to these things. Again, due diligence is the key.

More important, however, is your motivation for hiring or recruiting a reader sensitive to portrayals of non-traditional characters. Are you doing it because you care about accuracy and moving society into a more tolerant future? Or are you afraid of defending your choices as a writer, and hope a reader can scrub your text of offense? Or perhaps you are crass enough to seek out an editor to squash text bugs because they might hurt sales?

Success at handling characters with backgrounds alien to your own starts with your inner voice. Is your choice for this character essential to the narrative? If I make this man Hispanic, or this individual trans-gender, what difference does it make in their lives and their relationships? If you do it just because you think its smart or popular, you’re pandering to the market. If you do it because it’s necessary to your ultimate storytelling goals, then go for it.

It’s too easy, I think, for writers to chase publishing trends or the issue of the day, instead of trusting their instincts about what they want to say. Employing a sensitivity reader might result in wise perspective, but it may be a reflection of a writer’s lack of self-confidence, or a fear that readers might reject controversial ideas, or trepidation at the prospect of swimming against the cultural tide. A writer should accept that he or she WILL offend somebody sometime. It’s the world you’ve chosen.

The new emerging hierarchy of publishing legitimacy

Unexpected still

A still from Kris Swanberg’s film Unexpected. Has she reached the top of a legitimacy pyramid?

A new hierarchy of legitimacy is emerging among independent writers and authors. It’s a direct consequence of the self-publishing revolution, and the growing realization that the most they can expect is satisfaction with seeing their dream in print without riches or fame. A similar hierarchy has already emerged among filmmakers, and I’d bet musicians as well. The facts crystallized for me in an interview of independent filmmaker Kris Swanberg, who premiered her film Unexpected at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

I made the movie to be seen in a theater. I would love for that to happen. It’s important to me. And I think it legitimizes the film, and I also think that it — it finds a new — a theater-going audience that doesn’t necessarily buy things on [video-on-demand].

In other words, the hierarchy for Swanberg is theaters in general, perhaps art houses in particular, followed by video-on-demand, e.g, Netflix or Amazon Prime, and then direct to DVD, which still exists. If given a choice between a traditional distribution deal and self-distribution via video-on-demand, Swanberg would pick the former, because it conveys the status and artistic validation that VOD cannot.

I’m hearing more and more writers–and I think I’m in this camp–that view traditional or legacy publishing, especially by the Big Five, as the top of a pyramid of legitimacy. This attitude is in part a function of how difficult it is to get a publishing contract. Agents and editors are pickier than ever as a 300-year-old business model is squeezed harder and the process of finding high-quality books that sell grows more difficult. In contrast, the ease of publishing a book on Amazon or Smashwords carries no long-lasting sense of accomplishment, that is, the feeling that you have arrived somewhere after a painful rite of passage. In traditional publishing, you find a world inhabited by Hemingway or Austen. In independent publishing, you enter a world populated by a million shmoes who’ve strung 90,000 words together into a Word document.

The truth is not quite so black and white. Many indie authors–among them Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe–have achieved artistic immortality, and failed authors published by the trads are legion. Neither am I making a moral or value judgment on either legacy or independent (self) publishing. Writers write for a variety of reasons, and for many, the main reason is public acceptance and recognition of their artistic vision. Traditional publishing offers this, while self-publishing does not, by and large.

In economic terms, the scarcity of traditional publishers and the limited distribution network (bookstores) increases of the social value of what they offer, certainly to writers and possibly to readers. Rational authors would choose self-publishing first because of the far higher royalty rates. Instead, they mail boxes of paper manuscripts to agents and editors on the 1% chance of avoiding the slush pile. As the traditional publishing industry shrinks (the Big Five was the Big Six not long ago), their value as artistic gatekeepers rises. Amazon, Smashwords, and a dozen other platforms are to Simon and Schuster or Penguin Random House as Wal-Mart is to Nieman-Marcus. In the best of all possible worlds, where would you rather your product be sold?

10 omens that auger self-publishing for your novel

Crystal ball

Look into my crystal ball and learn if self-publishing is for you.

Authors new and established face a question unthinkable a few years ago: Should I publish my book myself? Some writers finish a novel and go right to self-publishing. Others go the traditional route to see if an agent or publisher will take a chance on their work. For the latter group, here’s 10 omens that auger self-publishing your novel.

  • The volume of rejection emails from publishers and agents forces your email provider to suspend your account.
  • The pile of hard-copy unpublished manuscripts on your desk falls over and crushes your cat.
  • On your 54th birthday, your mother asks you if you’re ever going to make something of that masters in English you got in 1983.
  • You’re the only person in your writing group who hasn’t had his/her third novel published. Or second. Or first.
  • You measure success by the ratio of actual rejections by agents and publishers to no-response whatsoever.
  • Your royalty checks fail to cover your checking account’s overdraft fees.
  • You realize that three of your unpublished novels have the same ideas as A Time to Kill, Wool, and Fifty Shades of Grey.
  • The rejected manuscript the UPS guy delivered was typed on the IBM Selectric you owned before you bought the 1999 iMac you use now.
  • Your collection of rejection letters would paper the outside walls of the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum combined.
  • A museum curator asks to use your early rejection letter for an exhibit on obsolete publishing models.

What signs and portents foretell self-publishing for you?