Panel schedule for 2014 SLC Comic Con FanX

Salt Lake City’s inaugural Comic Con in 2013 totally blew the doors off the Utah genre scene. Looks like the con organizers are doubling down on awesome for 2014, and have an amazing roster of celebrities returning for the FanX (Fan Experience) convention happening at the Salt Palace this weekend.

I’ll be doing panels as part of the FanX writer track. And when I am not doing panels, I will be over at Kevin J. Anderson’s Wordfire book table signing copies of Lights in the Deep and being available for chit chat. Do please drop by and say hello. And if you haven’t picked up a copy of the book yet, this weekend is a good time to grab one!

2:00 pm: Religion in Science Fiction and Fantasy.
7:00 pm: How Not to be a “Red Shirt” Author: Veteran Writers Offer their best Advice for Surviving the Publishing World.

10:00 am: Character Creation in Science Fiction & Fantasy for Writers.
11:00 am: The Future of Science Fiction and Fantasy in a Post-Twilight, Post-Potter World.

2:00 pm: Top Things to Do and Not to Do as an Aspiring Writer.
4:00 pm: Self-Publishing, Indie Publishing and Traditional Publishing: Which One is Right for You?
7:00 pm: World Building for Dystopian, Utopian and Apocalyptic Futures: How to Do it Right.

Posted in Conferences & Conventions | 4 Comments

So who gets to be an “Operator”?

I’m wrapping up a five-week stint here at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, so now seems as good a time as any to discuss something I’ve been wanting to discuss for awhile now, but never quite found the handle on.

Preface: This particular blog post has its roots in a comments discussion over at Larry Correia’s web page. And it’s something Mike Kupari and I were discussing on Facebook with some of his readers. And it’s something that’s come up while discussing a similar topic with Michael Z. Williamson and some of his military friends. And it’s a topic that’s come up with one of my best high school friends, who is now a senior officer at the USAF base near where I live in Utah.

The root question is: who gets to be an “Operator?”

Explanation: for those who don’t walk in U.S. military circles, the word “Operator” seems to be one of those internal U.S. military phrases that migrated from a very specific sector of the U.S. military, out into the popular American culture via technothriller fiction and video games, then back into the U.S. military as a whole. Its general usage now connotes “pointy end” experience and/or skillsets. Ergo, the “Operator” goes where the shooting happens, to do some shooting himself.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Only, no, because this is not an MOS nor is it a skill badge. It’s a slang title being adopted (both officially and unofficially) by an increasing number of people who are all too eager (to my eyes) for the credibility they believe this word will lend them — even if they may not precisely be a “pointy end” person by trade.

In other words, “Operator” has become one of those familiar U.S. military butt-sniff words used by people to distinguish “real” military personnel from “POGs” — the latter being the post-9/11 variant of REMF, which was a Vietnam-era acronym for rear-echelon mother fucker; someone decidedly not on the “pointy end” of things. General infantry are using the word “Operator” now. As are F-16 pilots, did you know that? MPs and Combat Engineers? Explosives Ordnance Disposal? Armor too? And so on, and so forth.

Now, there’s obviously bragging rights involved in this kind of talk, and if you get any two dozen self-labeled “Operators” from across the U.S. military — of various MOSs — and you put them into a day room with each other, you’re probably going to have a fair amount of disagreement about who gets to “own” the word, and who doesn’t. To include pool cues being used as blunt instruments, and a lot of harsh language.

My thing is, how come the people (whom I have met, with a lot of actual combat experience) don’t necessarily go for this word, and why has this word become so sexy for people who might not necessarily have a lot of combat experience? Maybe, none at all?

Cards on the table: Larry Correia teases himself for being a “cake eating civilian” but really, I am right there on the couch with him, pounding down donuts. And in point of fact, Larry is far, far more of an “Operator” than I will ever be because Larry literally has thousands of hours of practical hands-on small arms experience. With a variety of different weapons and ammunition. Often in professional tournament environments that make the Army’s standard M16 qualification ranges look like child’s play. “Cake eating civilian?” Larry, please, pass me the knife, the fork, a paper plate, and a glass of milk. I am going to help myself to the baked goods.

See, I’m a cake-eating civilian most of my time too, and only serve as a part-timer: U.S. Army Reservist. I’ve been in 12 years, through 3 different units, and no deployments. Yup, you read that right. No deployments. I am also a paper pusher by MOS — Chief Warrant Officer Paper Pusher, to be exact. So I won’t waste anybody’s time trying to put my hand into the “Operator” cookie jar, grabbing at crumbs. I am a civilian at heart, and I know it, and I am glad for it.

Still . . . I didn’t just step off the bus at Reception. I’ve been around. To include a bit of time overseas, albeit not in a war zone. I know a little bit about soldiers and soldiering.

Opinion: being a serviceman isn’t just about “pointy end” tactical ninja strikes on al-Qaeda strongholds in Outer Buttfuckistan. Being a serviceman means standing in front of a flag, raising your hand, and writing your country a blank check that has the words, “. . . up to and including my life,” written on it. At which point they fucking own your ass. You are a commodity. You will go where you are told, when you are told. Whether you, your family, or your civilian boss, like it or not.

Not an arrangement to be entered into lightly. And not something I’d recommend for people averse to environments with lots of crazy rules, crazy bureaucracy, crazy hierarchies, and crazy structure. You make a very specific kind of commitment when you take that oath in front of that flag. A commitment that will invariably take you far away from your home and your spouse and your kids, to places you don’t want to be, where you will be made to do things you don’t want to do, by people you’d rather not wake up to every morning. Whether it’s in training, a stateside posting, out on the boat, or somewhere out in the big wide world. Peacetime, wartime, Guard, Reserve, or Active Component. It doesn’t matter. Past a certain basement level of experience, all of us are cut from the same cloth.

So what’s the value in separating ourselves out? Beyond chest-beating and dick-waving?

Now, to be fair to the actual “Operators” reading this, POG is as POG does, and I definitely agree with the idea that if you have to wear your “Operator” status on your sleeve, you’re probably trying a little too hard. Speaking from my own personal interactions with people who’ve been places and seen some very real fighting, the actual “Operators” kind of ooze their experience on a subliminal level, and don’t have to talk about it much.

One great example was a guy from my Warrant Officer Candidate School days. His name was George. He’d been an enlisted Marine infantryman who went to Iraq, then he’d come back and gone over to be an enlisted infantryman in the National Guard, and been sent to Afghanistan. None of us (in the cycle) really knew much about this until it came time to put our greens on (the old Class A uniform, before the Army brought out the new ASU, or Dress Blues) and George was a veritable Christmas tree: ribbon rack for days, and all kinds of other sparkly goodies — the sort of stuff they make heroic recruiting posters out of. Only George had worked hard to keep that close to his chest during WOCS, eschewing his Combat Infantry Badge and other ornamentation on his ACU — and no, First Sergeants of the universe, there was no rule in 2009 that forced George to wear that stuff. When I asked George why, he said it was both because he didn’t need the TAC officers singling him out any more than they’d already been singling him out, and also because (in his own words) for the purposes of WOCS, he wanted to just like the rest of us. No more, no less.

I re-injured my bad knee in WOCS. Could barely walk on it, much less hump a ruck on it. Hobbled around the final week. Managed to drag my ass back without being disqualified in the field. When we were all flying out after graduation, George came to shake my hand in the airport, and he saw me struggling to get up. He said, “Man, you don’t have to stand on that thing for me,” to which I said, “I am absolutely standing up for you my friend!” At which point we said our goodbyes, and both George and I vanished back to our respective units of assignment, as freshly-minted WO1s.

Why do I think all of that’s important?

Simply this. The lesson I learned from George was: be who you are, not who you think you should be, and not who you think others think you should be.

As I noted before, I’m a paper pusher — and I am damned happy as such, because my tactical abilities are piss poor, and I was never going to be an infantry rock star, even if I had tried. Which I did not. My objective was humble: following 9/11/2001 I merely wanted to participate (however I was able, to the extent of my limited abilities) in the defense of my great nation. That was it. To pass through the initiation crucible of Initial Entry Training, and serve. Thus far, my career has allowed me to enjoy my civilian life and see and do some pretty cool things while in uniform; to include meeting some pretty cool people — like George.

A lot of this pays off for me with my fiction because I can write military science fiction (Mil SF) from the “inside” to a degree I never could have done, when I was writing stories before 2002. But I am not chained at the ankle to an endless series of PCS relocations (nor my family chained with me) nor do I have to deal with the brain-dissolving idiocies of military life on a full-time basis. By choice.

So I don’t make anything more of myself than what I am. And I don’t think any less of myself for not being an “Operator.” I will even go so far as to self-deprecate with the self-labels of POG, or even REMF. (Though if you call me either of those things, we’re liable to get sideways in a hurry. And if I have to explain how that works then you’re not nearly as military as either one of us thinks you are. Copy?)

But back to the main question — who gets to be an “Operator” and who doesn’t?

To me, a special designation only has real military value if it connotes actual practicing competence in a given specific expertise. Something I wish the Army would remember, and at which I think the Marines get it right, because too many times the Army’s various badges, patches, and tabs, have little or nothing to do with whether or not the person wearing them is present-tense proficient in the manner the badge or the patch or the tab ought to signify present-tense proficiency. More often than not these tend to be trophies: you went to a place and you did a difficult thing and you got the Boy Scout award for it.

But when everybody starts having these things on their uniform, just as when everybody starts identifying with and using the word “Operator”, the word (and the badge, and the patch, and the tab) sort of loses its meaning. Because when everybody is an “Operator” basically nobody is an “Operator.” Copy? And as much as I think people who have been down-range and seen fighting have a right to feel set apart from the rest of us POGs in that regard, I also think a big thing driving the urge to stick hands into the “Operator” cookie jar, is that lots of people are tired of being looked down upon and/or treated like second-class troops just because they aren’t “Operators.”

I am probably hoping in vain when I hope that “Operator” quietly goes back to the Special Forces community (or wherever it truly originated from) and that we (as a whole military) can spend a little more time focused on actually being good at our various jobs, and respecting one another in our various roles, without feeling the need to drop our zippers and hang our military cred out for comparison. Yeah, okay, so maybe this kind of shit is inevitable when you get a bunch of jock-minded people together. So what? No matter how awesome you think your cred is, someone down the line is going to have bigger, more impressive cred. And that guy you were laughing at because his cred’s maybe smaller than yours . . . in a few years (often through little choice of his own) he’s going to have way more cred than you, or more rank, or both — and won’t you feel stupid if/when you see that guy again?

My personal policy is much the same for military as it is for writing: the big tent. It takes lots of different people to make the military world go round, and it’s far easier to admire my military brothers and sisters for what I think they do well, than to trash-talk them or become engaged in cred comparisons. Maybe that stuff had a degree of attraction for me when I was still a new enlisted man and hadn’t seen or done much myself. But after I passed the decade mark and had spent I don’t know how many cumulative months away from home — that whole one weekend a month two weeks a year thing is bullshit — I concluded that posturing and dick-waving was for people who had something to prove. Which, after making CW2, honestly didn’t matter to me anymore. Not giving. And definitely not receiving.

“Operators?” My hat is off to the men and women charged with doing dangerous jobs under dangerous circumstances, period. My job? My job is a comfy job. It’s awesome because I basically get to smile and help people, and everybody loves Chief, no matter what branch or rank. The folks doing dangerous stuff, even if it doesn’t involve direct combat, I think they’re doing something special. And I can respect anyone from those MOSs and those roles who does that work, and doesn’t let it go to his or her head, and can be under the big tent with me at the end of the day.

Posted in General Writing Stuff, Military Stuff | 8 Comments

Why publish with Baen?

I am among Baen’s newest authors. My first Baen novel, The Chaplain’s War, was contracted in July of last year and will see print in October of this year. It’s got a cover from Dave Seeley and it’s got a release date listed on, so I think I can safely say a few things about the decision-making process that went into my choosing to work with Baen:

1) Industry expectations.
2) Word of mouth.
3) Company culture.
4) Face time.
5) Business model.
6) Author fit.

Industry expectations.
One of the things I found most unsettling about the novel publishing landscape were the numerous first-person accounts I was getting, from authors not too much further down the tracks from myself, about how it was a feast or famine business. You either hit home runs immediately, or you got dumped. It didn’t seem to matter who you published with, if you couldn’t show a substantial profit for the publisher, and do it very quickly, you were done. Likewise, if you were on the midlist and you weren’t showing bottom-line numbers indicating you were trending towards bestseller status, you were done. And not always explicitly either. Often people knew they were dumped simply because responsiveness from editors dropped to little or nothing, and contracts which had been previously promised, never showed up. There was no door being slammed, rather the dumping was done quietly. Sort of like having your utilities turned off at the street.

Word of mouth.
There was one publisher, however, who was getting consistently good marks: Baen. Authors — even new authors — were reporting that this publisher didn’t expect immediate grand slams. Instead, this publisher would work with new authors over time to grow and develop an audience. Not having landslide sales your first time out of the gate was not going to ruin you. Likewise, this publisher had a very respectable and healthy midlist, while also having very good brand label loyalty among readers. The latter being rare in an era when almost all readers are either loyal to a specific author, or loyal to a specific series and/or franchise. Thus it would be easier (for me as a new guy) to develop an audience, and I wouldn’t necessarily be doomed if I wasn’t cracking the top ten on the New York Times list with each subsequent book. There was the promise of breathing room!

Company culture.
Having met and befriended a few Baen authors, I really got to see (from a keyhole perspective) what it might be like if I were to become a Baen author. If other publishers operated very much according to corporate sensibilities with a corporate mindset, Baen still retained something of the personal touch. A smaller, almost family affair. Editors were congenial and approachable. You could converse with the editor-in-chief on a personal basis. The contracts were straightforward and possessed minimal legalistic jargon. Thus you could work successfully with Baen without relying on an agent or an IP lawyer to run interference for you. The company had absolutely no political or ideological litmus tests. And once you had been accepted into the fold, as an author, the company would really work with you to help you become successful. Not just because it was good for the company, but because the company really did care (as a company ethic) about what it was putting out into the world. Ergo, the company wanted to do right by the fans who had given the company their loyalty for many years.

Face time.
And so I got to meet Ms. Weisskopf at the 2011 Worldcon in Reno, Nevada. Larry Correia introduced us; Larry being my roommate for the con, and a friend from the Utah science fiction scene, where we’d become acquainted. Toni was likable from the first moment I shook her hand. We took an hour-long stroll around the immediate area close to the convention hotel. We talked about everything but business. Which suited me fine, as there were several other authors, aspiring authors, and other editors following the same route. And we all sort of mingled in and out of different discussions about different things, while logging some solid exercise for the day. If it was a job interview, it was the most informal job interview I’ve ever experienced. And it was also a two-way window, in that not only was Toni getting a feel for me, I was also getting a feel for Toni. Her extant authors had always spoken highly of her, but getting some face-to-face time sold me on the idea that Toni was not just a good businessperson, but a good person in general. Meanwhile, Toni herself (I am told) had some face-to-face time with my then editor at Analog magazine, Stanley Schmidt. Who gave Toni a glowing estimation of my abilities, based on my work he’d bought and published; including one piece that had gotten a readers’ choice award, and another piece that went on to be nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula award.

Business model.
Having returned home from Worldcon in 2011, what remained for me then was to put a book together that would display my craft at its best. I started working on several different ideas, scratched a few of them, and ultimately settled on developing a project built from the bones of two short fiction pieces that were connected: a short story that had previously been published in Analog and a sequel novella that would, I was sure, also be published in Analog. (And I was right about the latter, too.) Meanwhile I began doing more research on Baen’s precise business model, to see what I’d be getting into in the eventuality that Baen picked me up. The runway lights were certainly lit, and I had my plane in the air. I just had to land the plane. After that, what would happen next? The answer was that I’d be seeing modest initial advances for my first books, but with greatly increased potential for sell-through. Sell-through being that percentage of books which actually goes to print and which are eventually purchased. In the industry as a whole, 50% sell-through is considered good. Baen, meanwhile, tended to report a much higher sell-through rate. Even for authors who were not lead authors. The key dividend being that it wouldn’t be impossible for a new or relatively fledgling novelist to make good on his first few contracts. Indeed, Baen’s whole approach seems predicated on the idea that the easier it is for an advance to be earned out, the better it is for author and publisher alike, because then it’s a question of raw royalties; and royalties are where the publisher and author both make money. I liked this very much, because it explained — in business terms — why Baen had such good word of mouth from new authors and also from Baen’s midlist. You didn’t have to be an instant rock star to be making money; either for the company, or for yourself.

Author fit.
Ultimately, I was offered a contract. And as expected, the advance was modest. Which was not a problem for me, because I’d already become acquainted with the Baen business model, and I agreed with its logic. Saddling new novelists with disproportionately large advances is a bit like putting elephants on our backs: it’s going to take a miracle for us to earn back that money, even if our first (and second and third) books do well. Thus our editors aren’t going to want to keep investing, because the bean-counters — especially in corporate publishing — have the final say. Rare is the author who can survive one or more significant red ink baths, even if (s)he’s got a significant reputation. Baen, on the other hand, takes what I call the “slow burn” approach: modest initial advances, with an eye to growing audience and developing an author into a commodity. Tortoise, to the corporate hare. Set the author up for success, not for failure; as so often happens with other companies. This jives completely with my own personal approach, which has been to focus on publishers which match my taste and sensibilities (in extant editorial output) then get my foot in the door, and produce work that doesn’t just meet expectation, but grows above and beyond expectation. For both editors, and readers. Having done it previously with Analog, I plan to do it again with Baen. I believe I have the chops. All I have to do now is keep writing the books.

Which might, of course, sound like I am counting my chickens before they hatch. But I don’t believe in hoping against failure as much as I believe in planning for success. I know I can write, and that my writing has touched the lives and minds of worthwhile readers. I know also that the kinds of stories I enjoy telling, are the kinds of stories Baen likes to publish; and Baen readers like to read. As with Analog magazine, I believe firmly that Baen Books and I can do right by each other. I think Toni Weisskopf believes this as well, and my intention is to not let her — or myself — down.

Getting back to company philosophy, Jim Baen’s spirit remains in the publisher he founded. David Drake penned this very thoughtful coda after Jim Baen died. I think it says a lot about what kind of company Baen remains, despite the ever-shifting sands of the publishing world. I never met Jim, but I remember the first Baen book I ever bought. It was in 1993, from a bookstore in Park City, Utah. A paperback edition of the first Man-Kzin Wars book, featuring Larry Niven’s Known Space universe. I was barely 19 years old at the time. But I’d already determined that I wanted to be a professional writer. And as I read The Man-Kzin Wars and other, subsequent purchases from Baen, it became very apparent to me that I was on Baen’s wavelength, and vice versa. This was a publisher that could speak to me, as a fan. I’d like to think I can keep the Baen flag up, in this regard. Speaking to still more fans.

As Toni herself said so well:

In a time when the cultural divide in our country seems only to be growing, it gives me great pleasure to publish Baen Books, where readers and writers are united behind one idea: that science fiction is, and ought to be, fun.

Amen to that, Toni! And thank you for inviting me aboard the ship!

Posted in General Writing Stuff, Personal Thoughts, Science Fiction related, Tornadoes in Teacups | 15 Comments

Whence fandom?

My editor at Baen Books, Toni Weisskopf, made some very cogent and interesting observations regarding 21st century English-speaking fandom’s fractured condition. I agree absolutely with Toni that some of these fault lines can be traced directly to the social and political fault lines in the wider English-speaking culture; out of which a good deal of fandom springs. But I also think that much can be explained by examining where people come to fandom from–and through which doors they walk when they enter.

In the old days (meaning, prior to 1960) it was entirely possible for most people who called themselves “fans” to have read many or even most of the same books, seen the same television programs and films, and read much of the same stories in many of the same magazines. Science Fiction (and Fantasy, though it was not quite yet its own distinct thing yet) was a small place with numerous touchstones that fans and editors and writers could all identify readily on their separate maps of the intellectual landscape. There was a commonality of experience as well as consumption, and while not everyone agreed about which course the future would take (the so-called New Wave certainly threw the Campbell era for a loop!) most everyone could at least talk to each other about things the field (et al) deemed worth talking about.

In 2014?

Let me paint you a picture of what I think fandom looks like in 2014.

The above is a Venn diagram, as I imagine all the many separate fandoms might appear if you were to sit down and actually draw them out. One circle represents people who came to fandom through the Harry Potter books. Another circle represents people who came to fandom through the HALO video game franchise. Another circle represents people who came to fandom through Star Trek. Another, for Star Wars. And so on and so forth, across dozens or even hundreds of different games, movies, television series, books, book series, and so forth. In fact, were the diagram above to be rendered in total, it would likely comprise thousands of different circles, and the picture would be so jumbled as to be unintelligible.

The point I want to make (with the diagram) is that, in 21st century fandom, there aren’t any touchstone movies, books, or other properties which every fan, writer, or editor can rely on being known to every other fan, writer, or editor. There is no longer a central nexus for fandom. Oh, to be sure, there are some properties (like Star Trek and Star Wars) which enjoy such overwhelming cultural ubiquity that it’s difficult to find anyone who is not at least aware of them, aware of the characters, the general conceits of the franchises, et cetera. But even here, you can (if you dig beneath the surface) locate veins of fandom which are largely oblivious to these “big circle” properties with their millions upon millions of adherents.

For some fans, the gaming world is where it’s at. They are gamers to the core, not precisely readers per se, nor perhaps even watchers of television and movies. But even among gamers, there are traditionalists (tabletop, pencil-and-paper players, writers, and developers) and there are video gamers. Their two circles can and often do overlap. But among younger players especially, the circle for video games is going to be very large, in comparison to the circle for tabletop.

And we see this pattern again and again: manga and anime fans having overlap to a large degree, while not necessarily having any overlap at all with Cthulu-themed Lovecraft horror fans. Steampunk fans having great overlap with cosplay fans, but perhaps not nearly as much overlap with interstellar Hard Science Fiction fans. And so on and so forth. Depending on where you walked into the “room” you might be on the other side of the floor from someone else who entered opposite you. The things you’re interested in, and the conversations you have with different people, might not share any elements in common. The touchstones simply aren’t there. Different things will matter (or not matter) to different people, and the various circles will often float past one another without there being much rub-off or blending.

The internet accentuates this because you no longer have to go to a convention to meet and greet your like-minded dwellers of your particular circle(s) which interest you. The internet also allows mini-cons and specialty cons to reach out and attract a very fine-tuned sector of the broader consumer audience, much as Star Trek conventions of yesteryear used to attract a very specific kind of fan for a singularly specific franchise.

Now, the one thing pushing back on the “balkanization” of fandom, is the rise of the super-con: DragonCon in Atlanta, and the many Comic Cons, such as Salt Lake City Comic Con or San Diego Comic Con. Events that will literally draw tens or even hundreds of thousands of people. And not just the hard-core fans, either. The super-cons bring “mundanes” from beyond fandom who are still fans, they just do not identify with fannish culture or history, nor do they even necessarily recognize what it is they enjoy; as Science Fiction or Fantasy. For these “fans outside fandom” they are purely attracted to a popular mass-appeal product, such as a comic book line or comic book movie, a popular television show, and so forth. Things that are explicitly SF/F in context but which have sprung entirely from the mainstream media outlets, drawing more or less mainstream fans.

It’s at the super-cons that one can again get a vague sense of wholeness: all fans of all things merging together for a weekend of intersectionality across innumerable interests.

But even then, the tendency (among attendees) is to focus mostly on what their main interests are: a particular movie, television show, the actors of same, or perhaps a beloved video game line, etc. They will wander through the convention center noting the spectacle of the mass aggregate without necessarily stopping to notice any one thing in particular. Just ask genre bestsellers who lack a presence in television or film how it feels to sit at a book table in the dealers hall while thousands of people wander past, not even recognizing your name, nor your books, nor your face.

As Toni noted so well, “It is possible to be a science fiction fan and have absolutely no point of connection with another fan these days.”

I believe this is both good, and bad.

It’s good (to me) because it means the marketplace (for people producing product) is a bull marketplace. Depending on what your goals and aspirations are, you have a potential audience of hundreds of millions of people. Science Fiction and Fantasy are not the closeted industries they were in 1960. Science Fiction and Fantasy have (as I noted in this space before) grown up, moved out of the basement, gone to Hollywood, and taken over the popular culture. Fandom “won” the culture battle because now you can be a fan and not even know you’re a fan! There is nothing odd or distinguishing about you, because everybody likes Star Wars and Star Trek and Harry Potter, right?

It’s bad (to me) because it also means that at the same time people can be fans without realizing they’re fans, there are also plenty of people who have only a dim awareness of the fact that all the other fannish circles exist; much less have validity as a coherent group of like-minded enthusiasts. This tends to breed a lot of cliquishness, clannishness, turf wars, and worse. Ergo, you’re not really a fan unless dot, dot dot. This even manifests within circles as the “hard core” fans at the center resent the dilettantes and the passing fans at the edges, or those fans who like to mix and match their fandom: various interests and enthusiasms rolled into a million and one hybrid flavors.

It also means that professionals (by whatever criteria we choose to use to define the word “professional”) inevitably form prejudices too. Based either on whether you’re traditional published or indie published, which publishing house or agent you work with, whether you write for games or movies or television or magazines, and so on and so forth. Creative people tend to be competitive (often on an unconscious level) so whatever we can do to get one up on each other, we inevitably do. Especially now that there are so damned many competing forms of SF/F entertainment. It’s not possible for any one writer, director, or game company to completely monopolize the marketplace. And there are thousands of people who try to cross over (from fan to professional) each day, through a variety of conduits. With that much competition and so much turmoil caused by so much jostling in the marketplace, to say nothing of larger cultural political concerns, it’s easy to see why the wholeness of the old days has dissolved into the present thousand-countried continent called Science Fiction and Fantasy.

My personal approach (generally) is to celebrate the vastness of the ocean while acknowledging all the islands upon it. I did not come up through traditional fandom in the pre-1960 sense of the world. I came in “sideways” as a child of the 1970s and 1980s who knew SF/F mostly through movies and television and imported Japanese anime. It wasn’t until I began reading Larry Niven (when I was an older teen) that I became aware of the fannish culture and its roots, tracing back through the decades to the first Worldcons and all that went with them. This knowledge was rather revelatory, and I’ve enjoyed very much sitting at the feet of genre historians and super-fans-become-authors like Mike Resnick, who can speak to fannish history: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

As Toni notes, SF/F tends to thrive when the circles can find excuses to talk to each other. Nobody is really alone, nor does any one voice (or group of voices) control what is and is not fandom, or what is and is not worth caring about, when it comes to the circles. It’s bottles being hurled into the surf at a rate of one thousand per second, and ten thousand Captain Cooks sailing forth every hour to visit previously uncharted (for the captain and crew at least) waters. Not undiscovered, precisely. Just, places said captain and crew have never been before. And across the distance, healthy commerce and an exchange of ideas can occur.

Presuming the sterilizing forces of conformity aren’t allowed to gain overwhelming traction. Even the best of intentions can pave an unfortunate road. And sometimes the concepts, thoughts, and ideas which disquiet us the most, are the very same concepts, thoughts, and ideas which can be necessary for a) truly understanding all those different fans and creators out in those circles, and b) learning to harness the wild nature of the marketplace for fun and profit, as opposed to launching siege engines designed to batter the many circle(s) into line with a given doctrine, principle, or precept.

Posted in Conferences & Conventions, General Science Fiction & Fantasy, Personal Thoughts, Tornadoes in Teacups | 12 Comments

Embrace your day job!

Aspiring and pro-am writers utter it as gospel: I can’t wait to quit my day job!

Or, for those who’ve made the jump: I was so happy when I finally quit my day job!

But is quitting the day job really everything it’s cracked up to be?

I stumbled across this rather dreary piece from the UK. It paints a sad picture of life for established authors in an economically troubled world, where the rapidly shifting sands of publishing—and the entertainment landscape overall—have undermined what were once burgeoning careers.

It got me to thinking. There is nothing about fiction writing that guarantees a full-time income, much less a lavish or luxurious full-time income. Last year I made a decent pile of cash from my writing. The most ever, in five years. Enough for my wife and I to raise our eyebrows and say, “Wow!” But it’s not even close to enough to replace my full-time job, nor my part-time military job. Well, okay, maybe the part-time military job; but I won’t be quitting that any time soon either.

I understand that for full-timers, especially those who’ve done it longer than a decade, the specter of being forced back into the “mundane” workplace, must be pretty ghastly. Especially older writers for whom re-entering the punch-a-clock universe is going to be problematic; due to ageism and outdated skillsets. It’s a complete drag to think that once one is “made” in the author world, one does not necessarily stay made. I have met a lot of writers in the last five years and this reality is haunting the lives of many people.

But . . . I also think this is just how the world works.

“Eat his bread by the sweat of his brow,” the Bible says. True then, true now, and true in the future too. Even if you don’t believe in the Bible. Everybody has to work. Very few of us get to have silver spoons in our mouths. And not all work is accorded equal value. Especially in the arts, where everything functions (as Eric Flint will often note) on a star system. There is a long-tail curve that spikes sharply for the perennial bestseller set. All the rest of us are living way down on the shallow part. And unless you’re young and single and can literally live on $15,000 to $25,000 US a year, or live with your parents, or have a spouse who pays the bills, life on the flat side can’t be lived without some form of mundane work that supplements or augments the writing income.

This is not a tragedy so much as this is simply what life is. And yes, I get it, trying to reach one’s full potential as a creative artist (in any capacity) while devoting hours each week to mundane employment, is difficult. Believe me, I know. I’ve not only wrestled with a salaried, thankless, high-stress, usually way more than 40 hours a week day job, but also a military job that takes me away from home a lot and is way, way more of a commitment, than merely one weekend a month, two weeks a year. Usually during military days (I’m doing them as I write this) I still have to tackle projects from the day job (in my profession, there really is no such thing as leaving work at the office) while also trying to stay productive with my writing. So I know all about this aspect of The Struggle™ in painful detail.

So what’s a new writer still trying to break into the field supposed to think about all this? Is it even worth it? Why bother, if it’s so hard?

My thoughts on these questions.

1) If your only goal is to make money, there are easier and more respectable ways to do it. The artist life does have an aspect of glamour to it, sure, but it’s a haphazard life, and as the cited article (at the top of this essay) notes, it can sometimes be a garret life: feast, and famine. If you want actual stability, you have to be willing to hitch your wagon to a career field that is similarly stable. Which is hard to do in a tough economy. But the vagaries of the mundane marketplace are positively rock solid compared to publishing. So if it’s rock solid income that you want, fiction writing is not the way to get it.

2) If you find you simply can’t stop dreaming about writing, and telling stories is in your blood, then you need to be practical and pragmatic with your expectations. Your first book or story is unlikely to make you famous or wealthy. Heck, even your tenth story or book is unlikely to make you wealthy. So take Kevin J. Anderson’s and Rebecca Moesta’s advice and don’t quit your day job. Not unless you really, really hate it, in which case you might be trying to flee the hell of your present day occupation for the seemingly sunny fields of authorland. Don’t do it. Find a new job that you can tolerate, or even enjoy somewhat, but don’t unplug yourself from the surety of that weekly or bimonthly paycheck. Especially if you have a family depending on you.

3) Teach yourself to have set writing hours that fit around your other commitments. Could be an hour at night, or in the morning, or maybe you use your lunch break, or the train or bus ride to and from work. Make sure this happens three to five days out of the week, no less. And absolutely do not allow yourself to give in to the temptation to fill those hours with video games, television, movies, or other entertainments. You’ll be surprised how productive you can be once you move past the idea that you must wait for the muse to strike, or you simply cannot write unless you have a half day or more of quiet time in which to sit and work at your computer.

4) Teach your family and friends to leave you alone during your writing hours. This only works if your family and friends support you in what you want to do. And I hate to say it, but there are spouses who can and do sabotage their writer husbands and wives. Either out of uncaring, or feeling like the writing is competition for couple and family time, or because of simple jealousy, or perhaps some other misguided emotion. You should definitely have that hard conversation with your wife or husband, and establish some kind of formal understanding. This is not your hobby. This is an enterprise. In my experience, transactional agreements work best: before I get my two hours of writing time at night (usually 9 PM to 11 PM) I devote an equivalent amount of time to my wife and daughter, for after dinner family stuff. Whether it’s sitting by the fire and talking, watching a television show or movie we all want to watch, playing cards, playing a board game, etc. Some writers think being a writer gives them an excuse to ignore their families. I’ve found it works in the reverse: make sure your family gets your time when they need it, and your family will make sure you get your writing time when you need it.

5) But this makes for drastically reduced production, doesn’t it? In my experience, no. As my mentor Mike Resnick has noted, often times when someone does finally break out and go full time, that writer’s production does not magically spiral into orbit. (S)he might manage another hour or two more than usual, per day. But there is often a practical limit to how much creative juice can be squeezed out of our mental lemons in a 24 hour period. After that, it’s all about recharging. So not being able to be full time isn’t a production disaster. For myself, it usually takes me about 15 to 20 minutes forcing myself to sit in the chair, before I am warmed up and clipping along. In a two-hour block I can usually do between two and three thousand words. And this was true even before I began publishing. Two thousand words times three to five nights a week times fifty-two weeks a year is a lot of prose. Enough to fill at least two or three novels. And two or three novels a year is considered fast by the standards of even the full-time set!

6) Something else that deserves attention, is having some kind of space at home that is your writing space. Could be an actual office. Or it could be a bedroom converted to an office. Or it could even be a walk-in closet converted to an office, or a loft space, or an attic, or a corner in the garage. That’s where my writing desk was for two years: in the garage. Now my writing office is a converted small bedroom in the basement. It’s not huge, but it’s not a dungeon either. It’s fully refurbished and has brand new walls, lights, flooring, electrical, a nice desk, plenty of shelving and cabinetry, a good comfortable chair, and there is even a little day bed for reclining and reading, taking a nap, or even occasionally sleeping through the night. Whatever your situation, I think having that space for yourself—carved out of your mundane life—can help you stay concretely focused on your projects, your goals, and the idea that you are not just an artist, you are also a professional. Which is something even full-time writers struggle with, since unchaining oneself from a mundane schedule can sometimes lead to too much freedom, which is the opponent of keeping rigorous, disciplined writing hours.

7) Assuming you don’t loathe your day job, and have found something that you can do part-time or full-time without hating it every moment, you may just discover that your day job helps your writing in all kinds of ways you might not notice on a conscious level. Especially if your job forces you to travel, or interact with lots of new people. Almost every successful book or piece of short fiction has a human story in it—even if the story is not about humans. In my experience, going to my day and military jobs has been a great way to soak myself (like a sponge) in the human experience. Both good and bad. This unconscious soaking then comes out when it’s time for me to sit down at night and work on characters, predicaments, reactions, and the other meat and bones of storytelling. When I was younger (and failing spectacularly at storytelling) I believe it was because I had not matured and lived enough life yet—not enough soaking!—to be able to successfully render the human experience on the printed page. So while younger teenaged writers especially might be enthralled with the idea of transitioning directly into a writing career, from high school or college, I think it’s actually a good thing for every writer to go out into the world and work. Get your hands dirty. Yes, even, get fired a few times. Hard teaching. The stuff that sticks with you and makes you grow. Things you might not choose to do voluntarily, but having done them, you’re glad you did it. Because who you were on the front end of the experience, is not who you are now on the back end.

Anyway, this is my take.

I know it’s scary watching the publishing world change. It probably is much more difficult now, than 25 years ago, to successfully embark upon a full-time writing career. There are lots of people who see an endless number of clouds dominating their otherwise blue sky, and despair.

I look at those clouds, and I see a healthy challenge. I like challenges. The tougher the challenge, the more satisfying the victory. However one chooses to measure success, or establish goals. The thing hardest worked for can often be the thing most treasured, once attained.

And there is also this. Beyond the perceived glamour and prestige of publishing, and being a writer, all of us who scribble our words for money are just doing what everyone else does: putting food on the table. Look at your life and how you actually live, and ask yourself: what do I really need to be comfortable and happy? Not: what do I desire most and which would be ideal and perfect? Just: what do I really need to be comfortable and happy?

My wife and I did that, when I sold my first stories. We took a look at our situation and what we wanted to accomplish—how we wanted to be living in ten, twenty, and even thirty years—and we made our plans accordingly. At present, those plans do not include me quitting my day job. And that’s not a terrible thing. Oh, I might move jobs. Switching seats and changing careers several times seems to be part of the new adult American normal too. But unless I am literally making millions of dollars and my wife and I are able to stuff millions of dollars into various kinds of nest eggs, there won’t be any quitting of the day job happening at Casa del Torgersen.

Which actually works well for us. Because instead of biting our nails while we ride the financial roller coaster of publishing, the day job (and military job) income provides us with a very solid, very reliable baseline.

Allow me to put it in visual terms.

This is what an average publishing author’s annual income stream can look like:

One month you make almost nothing from your writing, the next month, boom, you make a lot of money from your writing. (With definitions of “almost nothing” and “a lot” being relative, depending on your particular standard and cost of living.) Now, this jagged line is not conducive to financial stability in a 12-month period. You have to artificially flatten it out on your own: save during the spikes, so that you can spend during the troughs. But if the average between peaks and troughs is trending downward—or was never that high to begin with—you’re going to be living very close to the bone. And speaking as someone who has lived very close to the bone, I don’t think that’s the kind of life that’s preferable.

Now, factor in a steady job:

Suddenly you’re not nearly as close to the bone, because there is a relatively stable floor beneath which your income will not drop. Your mundane work is your financial foundation. Yeah, maybe you hate your particular day job right now. I consider it almost tacit among writers that half the reason they want to be pro authors, is because they hate their day jobs. Allow me to suggest that the key is not suffering through a terrible day job until you score big with writing. Rather, the key is to find and keep a day job you can tolerate, or maybe even enjoy. Then your writing income turns to cream: a wonderful layer of bonus income on top of your bedrock income. Suddenly you have surplus! Suddenly you have options! Pay down or pay off credit debt. Begin packing money away for a rainy day. Take care of those overdue car and house repairs. Get your kids some nice Christmas presents. Take the family on some trips. Expand and make your lifestyle more comfortable.

Meanwhile you’re producing more or less the same amount of work (writing) that you’d be producing, even if you did quit your day job. Assuming you are disciplined and diligent with your time. One or more books a year. Maybe some short works too. An actual career. Something you can be proud of from a personal and prestige standpoint, but also from a standpoint of income too. Because you will have invented for yourself a whole new stream of influx from something that was probably a hobby for much of your life; or in the minds of others. And believe me, once the money comes in, even the doubters in your circle of family and friends, will begin to change their tune.

Plus, for me personally, I need the security of being able to know my wife and daughter aren’t going to be suffering if my writing career takes a prolonged dip. This is something else I’ve talked to a lot of pros about, and it’s evident to me that all authorial careers have peaks and valleys, a lot like the peaks and valleys on the charts above. If it were just me worrying about myself, I am sure I could learn to live in a crummy studio apartment eating nothing but ramen noodles and riding my bike—or the bus—everywhere I needed to go. When you’re single you can get away with that. But when you’re married with children? Steven Barnes once said, on a Norwescon panel, that suffering for your art is noble, but making your wife and children suffer for you art is not noble; it just makes you an asshole. And I think he’s right. I don’t want to do that to my wife and daughter. They deserve much better.

So don’t be down on the day job. If you take the right approach, it can be a boon, not a ball and chain.

Posted in Advice, Personal Thoughts | 3 Comments

How to fix the SFWA

Because you’re all just dying for yet another post about the never-ending carnival of hair-pulling that is the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, right? Right. Or if you’re not, go read Sarah Hoyt’s post. Which is, arguably, the greatest post about SFWA in the histories of the forevers.

But, assuming you’re still with me, allow me to post my own opinions on how SFWA might be fixed. (And why these things are unlikely to ever happen.)

1. Set the bar high!
No membership for people not earning the greater bulk of their annual income through fiction writing. Also, impose an annual fiction writing income floor, below which members cannot fall without being placed on the inactive list, and therefore losing the ability to vote and/or participate in the org. Sounds harsh, right? Well, if you want to “professionalize” your org, it’s not a bad idea to force it to be composed strictly of professionals. Not amateurs. Not even pro-am. Professionals. SFWA most likely will not do this because the majority of voting SFWAns are amateur and pro-am, some of whom only ever make sales irregularly, and almost nobody presently in SFWA will vote himself/herself off the island. Even if it means improving the org’s professional clout.

2. Hire people to administer the org.
Elections get messy because elections introduce politics and petty side-taking. Plus, no member on a board or in an officer’s chair will likely risk his or her reputation with his or her publisher by launching an investigative audit and/or lawsuit. The people doing these things should not have publishing skin in the game. They should be hired to run the org and be business-minded, without having their income dependent on the business model itself. Who picks and hires these front men (front women?) is something the org would need to figure out. Maybe a randomly-selected body of 7 members would annually review the performance(s) of the front men and/or hire people on an as-needed basis? The front men would also be empowered to kick out members who don’t pay dues, don’t meet membership requirements, etc. This is unlikely to happen because there are many SFWAns who covet SFWA office and/or would cry foul if ever SFWA actually began to prosecute their publishers in court. And because they get to vote, such a sweeping change in org governance is liable to be voted down.

3. Get rid of the Nebula Award.
Like elections, the award introduces politics, pettiness, grudges, etc. Thus division in the ranks. And for what? At present, the award carries very little value — outside of prestige. And then, it’s a limited prestige, because very few people beyond the ghetto walls of SF/F even know what the Nebula is, much less consider it a hallmark of storytelling quality. Scrapping the Nebula will never happen because there are a great many current SFWA members for whom attaining a Nebula nomination and/or win is a treasured, highly emotional goal. If the Nebula went away, these people would die a little bit inside. So, because they get to vote, they will never vote away the Nebula.

4. Jack up the annual membership fee.
As with Item 1, this has the intended effect of keeping the bar high. Anyone capable and willing to contributing $500 or even $1,000 U.S. dollars (or more) per year, is unlikely to be an amateur, or a pro-am. Plus, it forces members to have actual skin in the game. Presently, the SFWA dues are a minor trifling that earn each member “achievement unlocked” bragging rights, but little else. What is there to hang your hat on when the great majority of the group are not precisely Name Authors? It’s a true arrival moment if/when you can meet Item 1 and Item 4. Then you know you’re Somebody. This won’t ever happen because (again) the bulk of present SFWAns will not vote themselves out of the club. Especially for the sake of a hugely increased membership price tag. Even if it enables SFWA to effect Item 2.

5. No politics, no politics, no politics.
SFWA should not, as an org, concern itself with who is sitting in the U.S. White House, nor the U.S. Senate, nor the U.S. Congress. It should not concern itself with overseas military operations, nor domestic social welfare programs, nor city and municipal elections. SFWA should also not concern itself with social studies and humanities department theory, to include sex and sexism theory, transgender theory, race and ethnic theory, and so forth. The SFWA ought to be a business org dedicated to protecting and expanding the business opportunities of its members. Anything outside of business concerns, would be strictly off the table. Something for individual members to pursue on their own time, outside the walls of the org. This will most likely not ever happen because the present SFWA body is increasingly dominated by amateur and pro-am voices who want to make SFWA into an explicitly political organ with explicitly political doctrines, to include the org’s own magazine — its content, its editorial slant, etc. Ideally, the SFWA Bulletin would be neither Mother Jones nor The National Review. Alas, the reality is that the Bulletin is going to reflect the loudest opinions and voices in the present org, regardless of whether or not these opinions have anything to do with businss, or whether the voices have any qualifications to speak on business matters.

There could be more done, but I think these five items cover it. Until or unless one or several of these items are implemented, I think it unlikely that I personally will renew my SFWA membership. Which is not a swipe at those present SFWA members and officers who have labored very hard (sometimes for many years) to make SFWA into an honorable body that does right by its authors. Rather, I have to look at SFWA in terms of its actual effectiveness in the field. For me, there is almost no function SFWA might claim to be able to carry out, which I could not carry out for myself. To include legal protection, health insurance, and me being my own best business advocate, where entering into (or severing) relationships with publishers is concerned.

Now, this might just be me being a self-starter who has independent access to things, via my military Reserve job and my full-time private sector job. And if you’re thinking it might be odd for me to want to see the SFWA bar raised to such an extent that I personally might not ever qualify for membership, I would point back to my military career. High bars don’t scare me. High bars are good. High bars make you work for a thing, and work to keep it after you’ve gotten it. I see no downside to a high bar, even if it means reducing the SFWA ranks to a couple hundred people, who all pay a lot of money to be members. I believe firmly that this would transform SFWA into an org capable of taking on almost any publisher, in court or out of court, and doing for authors what SFWA has, in its present form, been mostly unable or unwilling to do.

Posted in Science Fiction related, Tornadoes in Teacups | 35 Comments

Debunking ten common “always/never” suggestions for writers

Brandon Sanderson is often quoted as saying, “in this business, you will never lack for advice.” And he’s absolutely correct. There is a veritable mountain of advice being pushed at authors—usually by other authors—every year. Many times this advice falls into the never/always mode of absolutes. Because absolutes make for good pulpit-pounding. But a lot of these are (to my mind) worthy of criticism. So let me do a little off-the-cuff debunking of what I think are some of the ten most common never/always suggestions made to authors, by authors.

1. You must never self-publish.
This was gospel when I was plowing through my proverbial first million words of “practice” fiction. And at the time, it was good advice. Self-publishing invariably meant vanity publishing, which is a form of publishing where the author spends hundreds or even thousands of dollars of his/her own money, to put his/her book into print. Vanity presses tend to be scams as often as not, and with the advent of widespread electronic book platforms (Kindle, Kobo, Nook, etc.) as well as print-on-demand options like’s CreateSpace, vanity presses are also wholly unnecessary. Plus, self-publishing doesn’t carry the same stigma it used to. Once upon a time self-publishing was a warning flag to the rest of the genre—hey guys, I couldn’t cut it with editors! These days, not so much. There are good writers who are self-publishing, and making a decent amount of money. You have no doubt heard of a few.

2. You must always self-publish.
A lot of bogeyman-mongering has been going on the past few years, where traditional publishing and publishers are concerned: that they will always rip you off, that they don’t abide by their own contracts, that the editors suck and don’t know what they’re doing, that anyone who signs with a traditional publisher becomes a “slave” to that publisher, and so on, and so forth. Frankly, it’s up to you to know your markets. Traditional publishing is still the best bet: to make money and get exposure. And it’s also got a degree of branding power that’s tough to argue with. Why? Because writers who make the editorial cut have at least survived one kind of significant professional filter. There are lots of readers who pay attention to this. So scope out those houses beforehand, talk to writers already under contract, and do your homework. An educated writer with a bit if business savvy can do well in trad pub.

3. You must never use a familiar trope or story.
Once upon a time in Science Fiction there was this notion that once a particular concept or idea had been explored by a given author, then it was “used up” and nobody could ever go to that pocket of the SF universe again. Not without being labeled an imitative hack. Thing is, as of 2014, there have been many decades worth of Science Fiction and Fantasy stories and novels published. The chances of you actually coming up with a wholly unique and original idea, unlike anything every done before, are remote. So don’t worry about it! It will be your voice—your style of telling stories, and how this translates on the page—which will win audiences over. Not the idea itself. Yes, an interesting combination of conceits is always a great thing to work for. But I wouldn’t let lack of originality stunt or halt me writing something I really wanted to write.

4. You must always use a familiar trope or story.
It can be rightly said that certain types of stories are classic to the point of being ingrained in our Western cultural sensibilities. Taking a familiar path can often be the key to securing verisimilitude and thus winning over readers. Still, it doesn’t hurt to put your own particular spin on a thing. And not necessarily by just re-labeling all the familiar furniture and props. What is it about your particular story or book that fascinates you and how could that aspect, or character, or combination of events, be spiced up or magnified or explored, such that your particular tracing of a well-worn path suddenly comes alive in your hands?

5. You must never offend anyone with what you write.
There is a growing and well-meant trend among certain SF/F writers and editors to step tippy-toes around matters of ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, and other hot-button subjects which invariably take on a political tone. To the point that a young writer just getting started in the genre can feel barraged by a laundry list of thou shalt nots regarding characters, character-creation, stereotypes, hero-and-villain juxtaposition, worldbuilding, etc. The truth is, almost nothing anyone publishes can ever possibly be inoffensive to everybody. Publish long enough in the biz and you will offend someone. So here again, I say, don’t worry about it! Write the story you want to write—in your heart. Let the story speak to you in the way it needs to speak, and chances are good you will find an audience who responds. Not every book or story can be written to every sensibility or taste. Avoid allowing fear—especially of condemnation or judgment from other writers—block you from telling your truths as your stories demand that they be told.

6. You must always offend people with what you write.
The flip side of offensensitivity (hat tip: Berkley Breathed) is shock-jockitude. The idea that you’re not writing “real” SF/F unless you’re challenging or defying something, or someone, or some kind of prevailing notion or conventional wisdom. The in-your-face breed of SF/F has a long and somewhat (in)famous history in the genre, and there are many writers who are proud in the extreme to have shoved whatever it is they felt needed shoving, into the faces of the audience. I’ve always thought that being deliberately confrontational, shocking, grotesque, rude, or otherwise setting out to smack readers in the face with your prose, was a cheap way to gain a reputation without having to invest much effort in deeply exploring a controversial subject. Anyone can be offensive. It takes an actual artist to know when and where it’s worth pushing a button, and when and where it’s best to just tell a story readers can actually enjoy.

7. Short fiction is dead, you should stick to writing novels.
I’ve heard this one a lot in the last 20 years, and if your objective is to live solely on your writing income, yes, short fiction alone is a very difficult way to try to make a living. But, short fiction is a terrific way to build your resume and your audience at the same time. Lord knows I wouldn’t be anywhere without my short fiction! Plus, if you can develop a relationship with one of the editors at one of the major short fiction markets, you can make a nice bit of money while fleshing out and developing ideas, characters, and universes which can later be harvested for longer works. Plus, it’s much easier (statistically) to put a short work onto the awards ballots, than a full novel. And awards wins/nominations too can be a great way to build both a resume and an audience.

8. Self-publishing has unleashed a new golden age of short fiction.
I’m going to put myself down as a doubter, on this claim. Readers still seem to prefer book-length works, when they browse on-line at the major e-book retailers. In particular, series are what’s liable to earn and keep the interest of fans. So while you can certainly use the short fiction angle to give readers an inexpensive taste of what’s yet to come in a book or series of books, as noted in the last paragraph, trying to make your way on short fiction alone is liable to lead to a lot of disappointment. The market just isn’t supporting self-published short fiction to the same degree as self-published novels. The possible exception being short fiction collections and anthologies, culled from short fiction previously published in magazines or other paying markets.

9. Your writing group is your life, never go without it.
Since writing can be a somewhat neurotic and lonely profession, writers tend to clump together in groups where they can talk to like-minded people about like-minded things. Stuff boring or even incomprehensible to people working in other arenas. Naturally, these groups become proving grounds where we all seek to hone our craft and our works. Yet, I would propose to you (strongly) that while a good writing group can help you strengthen yourself and your stories, the point of the group ought to not be self-perpetuation. It should be to foster the members to eventually grow skilled and confident enough to fly solo. Too many writing groups become places of dependency. Dependency, ultimately, won’t help you reach your goals, nor make you a better craftsperson, nor a better storyteller. If you want constructive feedback, get it from an editor who can pay.

10. Your writing is always camera-ready right off the bat.
I see this sentiment emerging mostly in the self-publishing realm, where people spend so much time fixated on being prolific and/or marketing, that they don’t give themselves the time to develop their abilities. That first million words I talk about at the start? That’s no joke. It’s part of the so-called ten-thousand-hour rule: that it takes about this much time for any artist or athlete to reach what might be called entry-level professional competency. Writers, figure skaters, painters, violinists, etc. Nobody (or almost nobody) is born with so much shining, innate ability, that (s)he can skip the practice stage, and emerge into the professional world fully-formed. It generally takes a lot of hard work, and, yes, a lot of waiting and disappointment. Rushing to self-publish without having devoted sufficient time to craft and personal skills development is a bit like (and I am going to paraphrase my friend and teacher Kevin J. Anderson on this) buying a football jersey from the sports store, putting the jersey on, then thinking you’re qualified to go play in the Superbowl. Publishing has now been made easy. But success? Success is hard.

Posted in Advice | 4 Comments