I did a talk at Word on the Street last week tailored to a general, writing-interested Toronto audience. Ramón Pérez did live sketches that illustrated the talk, which were amazing considering the scant minutes each was allowed and the not-terribly-visual subject matter.
Other than actually writing, the most important thing to do as a writer is get your writing out to readers. You get feedback from readers, connect with fellow writers who share your sensibility, & you get a sense of closure that allows you to move on to your next project.
Some people think that getting published by a traditional book publisher is the only way to get your writing out to readers. There’s a real bottleneck here — even though there’s some benefit to the publishers in this circumstance, I would argue that writers don’t benefit from it, readers don’t benefit from it, and neither does our writing culture. This perception of the editor-gatekeepers just creates a tense and risk-averse climate.
So, I’m going to detour around the bottleneck and focus on the diversity of methods writers can use to get their writing out there. The ten things I list are often considered different mediums and require collaboration and/or different skillsets, but writing can be central to them.
I started publishing my work almost 20 years ago, when I was 17. I photocopied my stories and rants in an independent magazine or zine and sold them at punk shows and through the mail. I moved from that to publishing short story collections and a novella, digest and saddlestitched (folded and stapled 8.5×11). It’s cheap, it’s immediate, and it’s tangible.
-there’s a vibrant, fun community: hundreds of zinemakers and zine readers meet at the annual Canzine (Oct 26th)
-print still rules: you can give a copy of your zine to someone at a party or on a bus and they can read it right away
-the great thing is that they’re easy to start and easy to find; but almost because of that they almost have less weight. Because you have to seek zines out, and people have had to put a lot of work into them, they engender a more loyal and more responsive readership. Hypothetically, it should be much easier to get thoughtful feedback via online comments, but you’re more likely to get it in an actual postal letter.
-there’s a neat project by a local called Monster, Monkey or Spaceman? that allowed people to choose what kind of story he wrote via an online poll, which is obviously easier to do on the web.
3. WEB COMICS
While not that many people read prose fiction on the web, comics are entirely a different story. While in my opinion it’s just as good to photocopy your writing as it is to post it online, I wouldn’t say the same for comics — going online with your comic allows you to do something that’s still too costly for most indie publishers: full colour.
-you get an inkling of Ramon’s talent here in b&w but if you check out the colourful lush dreamworlds of his online comic Kukuburi you’ll be in awe
-obviously this is an easier option for you if you can draw, but there’s many examples of really popular comics that get by without drawing talent — XKCD and Dinosaur Comics are two that have cultivated huge readership on the strength of their writing, the latter by local Ryan North
4. AUDIO DRAMA
So did you ever listen to Theatre of the Mind on CHUM FM? Audio drama was really big in the ’40s and ’50s when radio was king and beyond its retro appeal has developed into an art unto itself .
-they’re easy to distribute nowadays via podcast — there’s some folks nearby that keep the oldtime spirit alive at Decoder Ring Theatre, which alternates new serials on the Red Panda, Canada’s Greatest Superhero, and Black Jack Justice, private eye
-audio drama is a great way to bring your writing to a different audiences and work with actors in a less complicated way than with…
5. LITTLE MOVIES
Making little movies is really fun — get Celtx, a free open source script writing application, pound out a five or ten minute screenplay, borrow a camera and make it happen. There’s tons of online and indie festivals that are running all the time.
-notice I say little movies — start small and make it something you can produce. I wrote and produced a lo-fi sci-fi feature last year but it was seven interconnecting shorts, so it only depended on each of the directors for 12 minutes
-writing scripts that never get made sucks, so make them scripts you can make
-having stuff online is fun, but seeing people watch your movie at a screening is even funner — try both
-but don’t go spending money on upgrading/gadgets/”enabling tech” — that’s a mug’s game. Borrow until you wear out your karma, and then barter. Every dollar you save translates into time to make stuff.
6. TEXT ADVENTURE VIDEOGAMES
Anyone out there play Zork as a kid? Or any text adventure games? Go west, Take sword? They were a type of videogame that was entirely text, and is also known as interactive fiction. IF is an amazing thing: a videogame you can make without programming or graphics skills.
-there’s a community of people who write and play these games, and they have a competition each year that often attracts more than 50 new games (one’s happening now! Download and vote!)
-and thanks to this community, there are now tools that make it possible for non-programmers to write these games, one in particular is called Inform 7
-the audience for text games is small but intense
-it’s kind of like poetry in that there’s no money in it, and the audience for it is small, but if you were affected by it in your youth you keep coming back to it — some people had a slim volume of poetry and I had The Lurking Horror
Talking about poetry, I’m not much of a fan of it except when it’s sung. My favourite poet is John K. Sampson of Winnipeg’s the Weakerthans (listen!). It’s a little extra effort, to learn how to rhyme and get an instrument, but it definitely makes poetry more accessible.
8. STREET POSTERING
I did a talk at Active Resistance, an anarchist gathering that happened in ’98, about whether it was possible to combine a political activism with science fiction writing. From that, Nalo Hopkinson, Emily Pohl-Weary, me, Renee North and David Findlay formed the Science Friction Action Heroes. We put one page stories on poles – Kensington Market 2020, Queen St. W 2020 and U of T 2020. It was a way to directly become a part of the city in a very tangible way.
9. INDEPENDENT BOOK PUBLISHING
But at this point, you might be saying to yourself, putting stories up on poles? That’s what crazy people do. Jim, I want a book. I want to hold a book in my hands that I wrote. I totally understand, I have five books myself so obviously I think it’s a good way to get your writing out there.
-I have a ton of information on every aspect of do-it-yourself publishing here
-My one piece of general advice to everyone publishing for the first time is to do a print run of 500 books. It’ll be tempting to do 1000 because it won’t be that much more expensive, but it’s better for your ego and the environment and your storage space not to have ten extra boxes lying around. It took me a few years to sell my first book’s print run of 500
10. CORPORATE BOOK PUBLISHING
Obviously this is an option, but I wanted to put it in is proper context among one of many way to get your writing out there. For many writers it really is a good fit — so long as you don’t feel like it’s your only option. Getting a book deal with a big publisher is like Las Vegas. For some people, Vegas is heaven. I found that although it had a few surreal charms, the legendary free food and drinks were nowhere to be found, and I don’t get excited about gambling, so I don’t think I’ll be going back any time soon… but it was good to see what it was like for myself.