Lorna Toolis – A Celebration

a photo of Lorna Toolis smiling as she was inducted into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame

The following eulogy was delivered by Allan Weiss at a recent memorial service for Lorna Toolis. Allan was kind enough to represent all of SF Canada at this event, and generous enough to allow us to publish his words here for posterity.
 

Lorna Toolis was a cherished member of our community, and she will be greatly missed.
 

___
 

I would like to thank both Mike and SF Canada for the honour of asking me to speak at this event; I am here to represent not only myself, but also the organization of which she was a long-term member. I can’t say as much about her as others among you, those who knew her better—that is, those who joined her in weekly battles against Cthulhu (or whatever you folks did on Tuesday nights). I knew her well enough to confirm what others have told you about her remarkable intelligence, sense of humour, and fundamental decency. She was a delight to know and to talk to whenever I had the opportunity.
 

I can speak about her best in terms of what she meant to those of us who write and study fantastic literature. I knew her as a kind of associate member of the Cecil Street Irregulars, a group unofficially led by Mike Skeet and that benefited from her support, both overt and covert. She was a welcome addition, for example, to our retreats at Hart House Farm.
 

Lorna was deeply involved in the fan and writing community in Edmonton, participating in the Edmonton Science Fiction and Comic Arts Society and acting for a time as the editor of its newsletter, Neology. When the summons went out for someone to head the Spaced Out Library in 1986, she answered the call. To say that she was needed is an understatement. My first encounter with the library was in 1984 or so when I was doing research for my bibliography of English-Canadian short stories. While the collection Head at that time was well-meaning, she was more of a fan than a librarian. I appreciated the way she had separated out the Canadian texts, but not so much how she shelved them—or to be more precise unshelved them. The books stood in a row, spines up at least, on the floor before one of the shelving units. I didn’t think that was how the Faculty of Library and Information Science, as it was then known, would have recommended handling archived material.
 

Lorna arrived and immediately put the collection to rights. She brought a degree of professionalism to her job that could not be surpassed. In fact, in all my dealings with her she was the consummate professional. You may be aware that the Canadian SF community includes a number of, shall we say, unique and challenging characters, including some who thought nothing of walking off with desirable items from the library. She handled the real-life characters with all the class with which she handled the fictional ones, putting both in their proper places wherever necessary.
 

In my research, I have visited many repositories, from the Bodleian Library at Oxford to the Salvation Army Archives. Frequently, those who were in charge of specialized collections did not entirely know what they had or put up pointless roadblocks to my access. Lorna knew when to direct me to what she had and when to get out of my way. I never felt less than welcome. Above all, she knew her stuff. She was more than a librarian or collection Head; she was an expert. She helped make the Merril Collection a third home, after my small book-packed apartment and my parents’ larger chocolate-packed one. One day, when nobody else was around, the phone in the Collection rang. Rather than let the patron be disappointed, I answered the phone with “Toronto Public Library, Merril Collection; may I help you?” (Don’t tell the union!)
 

One of the scholarly projects of which I am most proud was co-curating, with Hugh Spencer, the National Library of Canada’s exhibit on Canadian science fiction and fantasy, mounted in 1995 in collaboration with the Merril Collection. Hugh and I found the Collection and Lorna herself invaluable sources of information. To this day, if you look around the Merril’s periodical collection, you’ll find some folders bearing the abbreviation “CAN” in my handwriting, denoting the fanzines and other magazines published here at home. I can’t thank Lorna enough for giving me the opportunity to work on that wonderful exhibit.
 

In association with that exhibit, the first-ever academic conference on Canadian science fiction and fantasy was held in Ottawa. I later took over the conference as Chair, and in 1997 moved it to the Merril Collection, where it, like myself, found a supportive and comfortable home. Lorna offered not just her space but also her personnel and volunteers with the Friends organization, including and especially Annette Mocek, and for that I am truly grateful.
 

If you will indulge some science fiction and fantasy right now, I can tell you about other proud moments. I was there when the photographer from the Oxford English Dictionary came to take her picture to use as their definition of “Reader, Voracious.” I was there when John Clute sent his techies to digitally upload her mind in order to create the revised editions of the Encyclopedias of Science Fiction and of Fantasy. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there when she finally conquered Cthulhu’s tentacled minions, but others can speak to that.
 

Lorna was a deeply valued friend, colleague, supporter, mentor (I still have the lists of absolutely essential F&SF she compiled for me), and guide. I was shocked by her passing, but proud to have known her. Thank you for everything, Lorna. And I know that if there is a heaven, it is wall-to-wall-to-sky books.
 

Allan Weiss, October 23, 2021

New Releases: Write Faster with Your Word Processor, by Geoff Hart

Cover of Write Faster With Your Word Processor by Geoff Hart

 

SF Canada member Geoff Hart has released a new non-fiction writing manual with Diaskeuasis Publishing of Quebec.

Write Faster With Your Word Processor is a problem-solving guide to help writers improve their efficiency. Although the text uses Word 2019 for most of its examples, the same techniques and recommendations can be applied to almost any writing software.

 

“Word processors are tools of the writer’s trade, and like all professionals, writers should master their tools. Whether you’re happy with your current writing approach and productivity, or have grown frustrated with the limitations imposed by your current skills, there’s always room for improvement. In this book, I’ll teach you how to improve your existing skills and learn new ones. As you master these skills, you’ll find yourself focusing more on the craft of writing and less on the tools themselves. That means you’ll write better and faster, with less need for revision. But I’ll also teach you the skills you need to revise your manuscript effectively and to work with editors and publishers once your manuscript is ready to meet the world.”

 

Members of SF Canada will receive a 33% discount if they purchase the book via THIS LINK. The same discount is available to Students and members of other professional associations.

 

Writers’ Craft 13: Marketing and Promotion

A tricky subject

There’s a reason I’ve left the subject of marketing and promotion to one of the last articles on the subject of writers’ craft: it’s a tricky and often highly individual decision, dependent on personal preference, budget, and influence. I don’t think there’s any one perfect strategy. Sure, there are alleged experts who are going to sell you there version of the holy grail of marketing. But I’ve been at this for 40 years, not just in literary arts, but as a business partner in the home renovation industry, and having experience in both the construction and arts, I can assure you marketing is essentially a crap shoot.

So, should you market?

Well, yes. Because even though there’s no one perfect strategy for marketing, the flip side of that is no one will buy your widget if they don’t know you have a widget for sale. So, when devising your marketing strategy, it’s important to understand what makes up your market. Who is interested in what you have to sell? What age group? What income bracket? What related interests? What geographic region? All of that goes into the mix.

But what avenue to choose?

Certainly today there are myriad choices available. Myself, I opt for what’s going to cost me the least, allow me the greatest exposure to my target market, and take up the least amount of time and effort on my part. Allow me to list some of the tools in my belt:

Website

I think this is an essential tool in this age of global telecommunication. The website should be clean, optimized to operate across all platforms (desktop, tablet, mobile), an user friendly. However, having your own website is another whole world to explore and learn, and can be fraught with unexpected frustrations, like when your site gets hacked, or spammers discover you’re a target, and the way to deal with any of that is by dumping a another load of cash into apps and services to protect your site. After awhile you start asking yourself, just how economically sound is having a website? Am I actually selling more because I have a website? And with 4 million books published last year worldwide, you start to realize your voice is just one very small blip in the noise of our universe.

And aside from having a blog and putting out blasts of periodic pontification, news and features, are you then going to use your website as a shopping portal? Ecommerce, anyone? And then what kind of secure payment gateway to use?

You see what I mean?

But even so, despite the funds I plough into this website to keep it secure and free of hackers and spammers, little say the lack of sales through the site, I still think it’s an important tool. That’s why I keep it going. Should you? Only you can answer that.

For what it’s worth, I use WordPress, host through GoDaddy, and use PayPal for my payment gateway. I run a theme called Tilt, which I like because of its ability to allow me lots of diversity. I don’t allow unmoderated comments on my blog. I also pay for a security system through GoDaddy. After my initial sticker shock, I was pleased because the hackers and spammers pretty much disappeared. Previous to that I was getting hacked on a regular basis, and spammers were hitting the site on a daily basis.

Reviews

I would say gaining reviews, and reader awareness through reviews, is a good idea, because if nothing else it boosts your signal. So, best and easiest is to offer ARCS (advance review copies) or freebies to people and writers you know of influence from whom you can beg a favour. It also helps if those individuals have some influence in the genre in which you’re writing, which hopefully is an obvious sort of statement. And then take those positive reviews, or at least steal a few positive key phrases, and use them on jacket promotion, interior reviews, on your website, blog, social media, and so and thus.

I have regularly used LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewer program to garner reviews. Helps somewhat. But you do have to bear in mind you often get pretty stupid, ill-considered reviews whether good or bad. Helpful things like: this book sucked; or equally helpful: this book was great. Having said that, there are some very good reviewers on the site, individuals who post their intelligent, considered reviews not only on LibraryThing, but Goodreads (which is owned by Amazon now), Amazon, and other bookseller sites.

If you can manage it, only send out digital copies. Saves you a ton of money.

You can also take advantage of Publisher’s Weekly Canadian indie book galley tracker platform. However, it’s important to remember that in 12 years of operating Five Rivers, I only ever once had one of our books reviewed, and that was Joe Mahoney’s A Time and a Place. Kind of a disappointing return on investment, even if the book received a glowing review. Did that help with sales? Not so much.

Blog tour

Another good step is to see about setting up a blog tour, or at the very least a few guest appearances on other writers’/reviewers’ blogs. There are services which will set this up for you, charging escalating scale, with varying degrees of success. Being a really cheap individual, I baulk at paying for this service, because the few times I did invest cash into a credible service, it resulted in little to no follow on sales or interest. So, again, your mileage will vary. Which is why I choose free whenever possible, because while it’s very important to get the word out there, you also don’t want to lose your shirt paying for promotion. No point selling two books that cost you hundreds, even thousands, in promotion.

Promotional placement

Paid promotion/placement through ebook sellers can be another avenue for you. Kobo is the best of these through their Writing Life platform, and usually in the give your book away for free category. You can sell hundreds of books for free (I know, I know, I’m aware how ridiculous that sounds) through these placement campaigns. Do they result in follow on sales? Not so much. But, again, it does get your name out there. And if you’ve been very clever, you’ve placed several pages of advertising in the back of your book, promoting your other works, even having the first chapter to read. It’s a good strategy, Or at least it’s supposed to be. Again, I’ve rarely been able to track follow-on sales.

Amazon offers this sort of thing as well, but only if you sell your soul to them and publish exclusively with them. I know a lot of authors do that. I never have, because it strikes me as not a good idea to give everything to such a huge monopoly, because in the end they own you. There are many indie authors, however, who do this sort of narrow marketing and seem to do well with that strategy.

PPC

Then there’s PPC (pay per click) advertising. It’s a lot more expensive, and for it to be effective you have to be willing to set a considerable budget for the lifetime of the campaign you’re going to run, with little to no expectation of return. So, if you have some cash you really don’t need, then go ahead.

The best of the PPC strategies, I feel, is through Facebook, believe it or not. They have the same dynamic, targeted marketing tools as Google, but focused within Facebook’s platform, so you can tailor your demographic quite specifically not only by way of genre, but age, interest, geography. Just be sure to set your parameters to clicking through to a targeted site where they can purchase the book, otherwise you’ll burn through your budget in no time at all. And you can set your daily spend limit as well.

Google is the king of this sort of marketing. I have used Google for our glass business, with some very modest success. But it is very cost prohibitive, so I have only ventured into those waters a few times. Thousands of dollars for Google as compared to hundreds for Facebook.

Podcasts and vidcasts

Again, worth the effort if for no other reason than to get your name and product out there. I’m only just beginning to break into that strategy, having done an interview for MinddogTV, and for Gordon Gibb’s Kawartha Oldies radio podcast. So, researching those is a good idea. Can’t hurt.

Awards

Awards as promotion: basically that’s what they are — a promotional vehicle. There is a perceived aura of gravitas that comes with having been shortlisted, or winning, a literary award. Does that mean your book is going to sell more copies? Most likely not, unless that award happens to be one of the really prestigious awards like the Booker, or GG, or Giller, and even then that can backfire. Five Rivers had quite a number of books shortlisted for various awards, the most prestigious of those being the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, and that was for A Town Called Forget, by C.P. Hoff, which was longlisted. There were zero bump in sales, despite promoting the stuffing out of those accolades.

Virtual Launches and readings

And of course that brings us to a new and developing strategy: the virtual launch/reading. That seems to be gaining interest, and strikes me as a potentially good strategy to get your name out there for very little cost and effort. Basically the idea is to create a venue through any of the social gathering platforms such as ZoomGoogleMeet, and such. This is a strategy I am going to explore further in 2021.

Staying organized

I have found setting up a spreadsheet so I can track what promotion for what book of use, as well as keeping track of promotional venues. It can get as complex as a submission spreadsheet.

And that’s about the extent of my playbook. Hope there’s some information there that’s useful.

Writers’ Craft 10: Revision

So, you’ve written a thing

You’ve just keyed in the final word, placed punctuation, and the sense of accomplishment that settles over you is profound. You’re done.

Or are you?

At this point it’s all too easy to think there isn’t another thing that needs doing to that piece of writing. You’ve been careful throughout, not only with the mechanics of good writing — punctuation, spelling, grammar — but with plot, literary devices, character development, research. It would be all too easy to pull the trigger and fire it off to an agent or publisher, or the editor of that magazine you’re trying to crack, or hit the upload button through a self-publishing portal.

Don’t.

Time develops perspective

Good writing is like good wine. It needs time. What you really should do at this point is close the document, walk away, go do something else for a week, or four, or a couple of months. Do something completely different. Even write something completely different. But whatever you do, do not pull the trigger on the freshly-finished manuscript. Why? Because, and trust me on this, when you do come back to the piece you’ll come back to it with a fresh perspective. It always astonishes me, in my own work, how much tighter, cleaner, cohesive I can make the story by simply allowing myself time. I get to review all the plot inconsistencies, all the opportunities for development, all the missed conversations or descriptions or research which would have furthered not just the plot, but character, tension, the entire foundation of what I’ve created.

And if I can benefit from the boon of time and perspective, so can you. So walk away.

Create a new document

You don’t have to, but I have found it useful to save my revision as a new document. Not that I’ve ever had to go back to the original draft, but it just strikes me as a good failsafe in case things go awry. And they can. Mr. Murphy, who always likes to exercise his law, may just pull up to your document have tea.

Once that bit of housekeeping is out of the way, then you can set to your revision. What you’re doing at this point is coming at it from a distance, as an editor with a critical eye. Some writers set about their revision through Track Changes in Word (or whatever equivalent tool in your word processing program). Myself, I don’t bother.

Other writers print out a hard copy of the document and make their changes pen to paper. Again, this is something I don’t do personally. But if you find any of these methods works for you, then do it. As I’ve said before: there is no single, correct way of writing. You have to find your own method and your own rhythm.

But what I do know is that a second or even third revision may be called for, because after each pass you should again step away, allow yourself time in which to think about the story. When you are utterly comfortable, when you can’t think of another point or opportunity you’ve missed, then go back over the manuscript once or twice with a spelling and grammar check. I would caution you not to hit the universal change button. I’ve done this a few times, much to my despair, only to discover some horrendous changes which took me days to undo.

Will my manuscript ever be perfect?

Probably not. What in life is? When I was publishing other authors’ work, I can remember agonizing over errors we’d let slip through, even after two, sometimes three different editors, plus the author, would have a look. One of my own novels is out there, and I still grit my teeth because I know there are spelling errors I didn’t catch after nine — yes, nine! — revisions and edits.

But do take encouragement and pride in the fact you’ve done your level best to polish your story to the best of your ability. Sure, you can churn out six novels a year. But do you really want to? Will those six novels be works you can look back upon with pride? If you’re writing just to create pulp, then fine. But if you’re writing because of a different calling, or as a journalist who cares about correct detail, then time and an exacting nature will stand you in good stead.

When Words Collide 2021

Save the dates this August 13 through 15 2021 for When Words Collide (WWC) the annual Canadian literary festival based in Calgary, AB. This popular event for fiction readers, writers, artists, and publishers is open for registration.

As with last year’s online event, WWC 2021 will be both online-only and FREE to attend with most panels and workshops taking place via Zoom. WWC is an inclusive event with programming covering a broad range of commercial and literary fiction, poetry, and more.

WWC has grown to become one of Canada’s largest literary events and is now celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2021.

Learn more about WWC at: whenwordscollide.org/About_WWC

Register to attend this year’s virtual conference here: whenwordscollide.org/Registration

Writers’ Craft 9: Research

A good writer is an informed writer

I remember interviewing biographer and historian Marian Fowler for The Canadian Author and Bookman, back when the Canadian Authors Association published that wonderful writers’ periodical. She was particular about her research, always digging for accuracy and primary sources, and because of that her work rang with truth, a fact which sometimes garnered her a bit of trouble as was evidenced when she wrote her history on Blenheim. Seems the Duke of Marlborough took umbrage to Marian referencing some of the interesting escapades and traditions established by Consuelo Vanderbilt, who became one of the legendary American heiresses to marry into British aristocracy, and thus the Duchess of Marlborough, and rescue heritage estates. Marian had a love of discovery, of unearthing facts and history around the subjects about which she wrote. I remember her saying she was so very glad not only for her extensive education, but the fact she had a lifetime of immersion into reading, often esoteric reading, and thus a broad knowledge. She said something to the effect of having a head full of interesting trivia. That paradigm stuck with me. And while I’d always had a love of discovery, I realized it was important to encourage and cultivate that love in order to enrich the articles and stories I wrote. The fact it has always been fun for me was an added bonus.

Blenheim: a Biography of a Palace, Marian Fowler

So if you’re going to venture into writing, whether as a journalist or creator of fiction or non-fiction, the love of research is a work-paradigm you need to embrace. Sure, there are lots of writers out there bashing out novel after novel, book after book, spouting pseudo expertise and consumable, forgettable work. In and of itself there’s nothing wrong with that. Escapism is perfectly fine. However, if you want to write a really good book, or a memorable fiction, then you need to gather around you an arsenal of information which will allow you to write with authority. Do that, and your work transcends because it is believable. You have infused your story with plausibility, and it’s that plausibility which will have readers returning to your stories both familiar and new.

How far do you take that research?

As far as I’m concerned, and this is only my perspective on the window of writers’ craft, there is no limit on how far you take your research. Myself, I’m often guilty of doing too much research, because I find myself frozen with uncertainty regarding what is sometimes minutia. But it matters to me, because if that Norseman in my story is spooning down a plate of rutabaga (neeps or swedes), I need to know rutabaga was available in the 2nd century. In fact, I’ve recently learned rutabaga wasn’t available until the 16th century, and is a hybrid cross between turnips and cabbage. So, no, that character in my 2nd century story won’t be macerating a mess of rutabaga. He would, however, chow down on turnip. And, yes, turnip is a different vegetable to rutabaga.

Why does that matter? Well, because there is assuredly some person out there who is going to read my story and come across this passing, one line sentence and nod with approval because they know I have my facts straight, and that, in turn, deposits further proof of plausibility of the story, and credibility of the writer. Which, hopefully in turn, will mean that reader will put me on their list of writers they want to read. So, in a way, good research is good marketing.

As an editor — and you will forgive me for reiterating an oft-stated example — if you’re going to have your character trekking about at night, be aware that unless it’s a brilliantly moonlit night, in open territory, there isn’t a hope in hell that character will be able to see colour, let alone details like, oh, that big mucking ravine in a dense forest they’re about to pitch into. Or, if you have that character going into an inn there isn’t going to be some great massive beastie roasting over the fire in the main room. Inns, in any time period, in any culture, were the masters of fast food. So the fare would range through soups, stews, pottage, pies both savoury and sweet, bread, cheese, cured meat, fish either fresh or salt, and small fowl. And no there isn’t going to be peacock, because in most European cultures that was a royal bird. As was swan. Even venison, rabbit, pheasant, grouse or other game procured by the common folk could have you either mutilated or executed. The royals were mighty particular about what could and couldn’t be taken from their land, and they owned most of the land. So you, as a weary traveller, had to rely upon what was readily available in the common market, legal for trade, and easy to keep, prepare and serve. Unless, of course, this is some sort of underground inn serving the illegal and perhaps even dangerous. That’s another whole interesting story.

And you also need to be aware of what was available in season. So, you won’t be having fresh asparagus served with roasted potatoes, because the former is a spring vegetable, and the latter an autumnal. Unless you’re dealing with a culture which has access to food preservation in the modern or future world. But those methods of preservation have to be plausible and credible.

If you’re looking for some excellent visual examples of, say, British Regency, there are some superb British films in which the details are perfect and delightful. Comes to mind one of my personal favourites, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion done in 1995, staring Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds. From the salt stains on the naval uniforms, to the mustard seed crust on a baked ham, the correct shoulder seam treatments in garments, to furnishings in homes from peasant through gentry, it is an intimately researched film which remains utterly true to the time period and the author’s vision.

These details matter. Always.

But what kind of research?

Primary source is always your first, best reference. What do I mean by that? From the horse’s mouth, as it were. If you can find it, an extant text from the period, and it doesn’t matter whether that text is a print book in your hand, or available digitally through a well-annotated Wikipedia entry or website. Secondary sources are fine, but you want to reference the bibliography to see if the writer(s) used primarily primary sources for their research.

For example, in my current novel in progress, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to access, and be in correspondence with, archeologists who are curating and researching the sites about which I’m writing. So, wow. I’m in historical writers’ nirvana.

If you’re writing science fiction, then you want to be sure you have solid research regarding whatever subject you’re discussing, whether that’s space travel, an alien invasion, or alien world. It has to be plausible. And it’s plausible because you have the research right.

The Expanse, by Amazon Prime

To refer again to film, one of the most startling and plausible science fiction series I’ve had the pleasure to view was The Expanse. Not only was it great writing and world-building, but it was utterly plausible because the research and science were so tight. Sure, the series isn’t going to be everyone’s bliss, but the fact they made space travel difficult, that they made living in space have physical consequences, that the political intrigue had the ring of humanity’s truth, all went toward giving the series absolute credibility. This is no Star Trek, “Give me warp nine,” let’s sit in comfy theatre chairs science fantasy. This is good science fiction, because the science is real and credible.

Do my homework?

So, yes, do your homework. Get to know the world about which you’re writing, not just the characters. Make that world come alive, and you infuse life into that work because you understand all the minutia of that world and how it functions. Cultivate an encyclopedic mind and let that spill out into your story. It is my belief it will make a better story. And the adventure you have along the way may turn out to be something completely engaging and rewarding, because, after all, what is art but an expression of self and vision?