I entered the publishing world — officially — in November of 2009. When the Writers of the Future Contest phoned me up to tell me I’d won. $500 would shortly be arriving in the mail, and though I didn’t yet know it, so too would additional acceptances from additional editors at other publications. A lot has happened since then. If you’ve seen the December 2011 issue of Analog Magazine, you know that I’m not exactly a virgin author anymore. My little rocket ship for the stars continues to gain momentum. Good Things continue to happen. And along the way, I think I’ve learned a few things. None of which are new to people in my position, or senior to me. But they might be new to you, if you’re still climbing The Wall, so I want to offer a few thoughts as I look back over the past 24 months.
Rejections never stop. If you’re still sending your work to New York (or anywhere else an editor is residing, and offering coin-of-the-realm for unpublished fiction) you’re familiar with rejection. Contrary to what I dreamily imagined in 1992 (when I first conceived of becoming a pro science fiction writer) there is no such thing as having “made it” in this business. Oh, the type and quality of rejections do change. And the sales, once you’ve begun to establish yourself as a popular and/or reliable commodity, do come more often. But the “no-thank-you” notes don’t stop. What has stopped is my feverish tracking of same. My mentor and collaborator Mike Resnick put it to me best in one of our (now frequent) exchanges: why on Earth would any author care about how many times (s)he failed?? So, I file, and I forget, and I send the work back out into the world. This appears to be the only sane way to operate — at least for me.
The publishing world is enduring an upheaval. I was one of the very last new Analog Science Fiction and Fact authors to sell my first manuscripts to Stanley Schmidt on paper. This, after having vigorously argued with John Scalzi (and a few others) about the wrongheadedness of declaring paper submissions outré. Poof! The paper manuscript is (almost) no more — barring a very few holdouts. Stan’s now reading slush on his Kindle, and I’m only going to the post office once every other month. It is easier this way, no question. But I am proud to have been among the last of the Analog Men to have sent mine in the way Herbert and Pournelle and Card and Bujold and Asaro and all the many, many accomplished Analog alumni first sent theirs in. Meanwhile, I am e-publishing — just like everyone else. I like that e-publishing offers me a way to keep my expanding backlist in print. To say nothing of offering a safety net for books which might not find a home with a major publisher. The truly mystical part of the equation is that nobody really knows how to quickly cut through the “noise” of the e-pub universe; much less retain an audience, once you have. I rather suspect that many readers still prefer a vetting process of one sort or another. Deluged with arf! arf! dogs, the consumers may yet cling to editors (or agents?) as a reliable filter.
Productivity cannot be overemphasized. Publishing is like all the other “glam” art industries: all of us are only as good as our last story, or book, or album, or movie. Go too long without something new on the market, and you’re at risk of slipping back off the radar. There are 100,000+ would-be authors eager to take your place. Standing pat and riding on your inertia is — at any stage — a poor recipe for continued success. The trick for me has been to find and keep a schedule that results in regular, consistent progress — while I am doing all of my “real world” stuff at the same time. Day job, Army job, the wife and child, church, these things demand my time. And since I am a bad multi-tasker I too often allow them to shove the writing to the back burner. Because I still cling to the wistful idea that writing, as a creative process, must be performed sans time clocks, time limits, interruptions, or other distractions. Well, it just ‘aint happenin’. My life is like a giant merry-go-round of competing demands. Days disappear into weeks, or even months, with little or no writing accomplished. It’s just not possible to unearth whole-block increments of silent time. And until I am truly supporting myself 100% with fiction, such blocks aren’t going to exist. So, I have to make do as best as I am able. And the honest truth is, whether I’ve managed to find 2 hours to write, or 20 minutes to write, after the first 10 minutes of hesitant, cold, perfunctory typing, things heat up and I’m on my way.
Professional person-to-person relationships are priceless. Before 2009 I had gone to very few conventions, no professional workshops, and if I “knew” anyone in the business — editors, or writers — I could count them on one hand, and our interactions were strictly limited to e-mail and blog exchanges. As soon as I actually began to invest my time and my money in professional activities — workshops especially — I began to see dividends. Mainly because I was learning more in a few business trips than I’d learned from all the years of reading, “How to write,” books. But also because I was coming face to face with many, many professional writers and editors. And lo and behold, getting to know and like these folks — and be liked by them — has proven extraordinarily important. Case in point: Mike Resnick is a made man in the business, whose awards and accolades and reputation need no introduction. Until he met me at Writers of the Future, we didn’t know each other from Adam. Since then we’ve struck up a conversation, then a dialogue, then a professional exchange, and now we’re becoming good friends. That Mike helps me out, goes without saying. But I’ve been able to help him out, too, and it’s evolved into a delightfully cooperative and collegial partnership. If I’d made an effort to get out of my little “silo” from which I was writing and sending stories — 1992 to 2008 — sooner, maybe my career would be much further advanced? I didn’t know then how much the industry relies on “face time” among professionals. But it’s been a revelation discovering how fun and productive “face time” can be, now that I’m working in the field.
No two professionals are doing it the same. That’s another myth I’ve been disabused of — that there is a Royal Road to success. Every professional I’ve become acquainted with, or have developed a true friendship with, has a career trajectory which is unique to him or her. None of them have followed a straight A-to-B-to-C-to-D path. And especially in the current climate of shifting markets, evolving markets, dying markets, emerging technologies, etc, no two professionals are agreeing on what’s the surest, safest bet for new writers. Is it to grab an agent by the lapels and not let go? Ditch agents and go right for the editors’ lapels? Skip agents and editors and go for the readers’ lapels, via self-publishing and e-publishing?? All of the above??? Ideas and theories abound. Most confusing, what works for one professional, isn’t guaranteed to work for another professional. Sales vary. Experiences vary. About the only constant I can discern is that there are no constants. Not anymore. And probably, not ever, if anecdotal evidence of the Good Old Days (which weren’t always so good) is to be believed. It’s a chaotic and uneven landscape. Best policy seems to be to be prolific, write a lot, put a lot of work out there in front of whoever can read it — agents, editors, readers — and hope that something takes off. An idea, a series, a character, something. Might not be the thing you (ubiquitous “you” here) envisioned as your gravy train. But the market is not always going to ask us (ubiquitous “us” here) which stories or books we’d like to go down in history for. Thus I am trying to be humble, work hard, and be thankful for whatever success I can manage. There truly are no guarantees.
Lots of readers seem to miss happy or uplifting stories. I had suspected this for several years. It’s probably a leftover from the New Wave, that the science fiction culture has absorbed a great deal of the nihilism of contemporary literary culture (“Life is meaningless, all is without hope, despair, despair!”) without realizing that what makes science fiction truly different from its learned betters is that sci-fi is a genre ready-built for hope. Hollywood has not forgotten this. Find me a blockbuster science fiction or fantasy film — of any description — and I will show you how the themes developed have been almost entirely life-affirming, devoutly positive, even spiritually fulfilling. Yet a good deal of written sci-fi adores the “downer” ending, the anti-hero, the morally ambiguous and ultimately meaningless stories that my friend and instructor Dave Wolverton expertly analyzes in his Rant Fantastic. There is a time and place for “downerism,” but I personally do not believe this is what science fiction is best at. Which perhaps explains why fantasy — the once kid brother of sci-fi — has become the cash cow? The dozens of nice letters I’ve gotten from readers in the last two years have confirmed for me that the readership — fatigued by “downerism” — is ready and eager for a return to happier themes, happier times, and that good old Sense-O-Wunda™ which attracted most of us to the genre as kids and as teens.
Blogs, Facebook, and the Net culture have their bad sides. I was something of an “early adopter” when, in 1990-1991, I first began to get on-line via dial-up bulletin boards. The identifiable “blog” was still years away, though Jerry Pournelle rightfully claims first dibs, for his Chaos Manor “day book” (which is still one of the best and most interesting reads on the web, and I think the web will be the poorer when Chaos Manor — and Jerry — are gone.) Back in the BBS days, it was a new, fun way to interact with people — thoroughly geeky, thoroughly not mainstream. Which was part of the appeal. Now? I find myself slowly and almost imperceptibly turning away. And not just because of the massive crush of blogs which have propagated over time. A lot of it has to do with my simmering suspicion that social media have, as an unintended side effect, sparked a sharp rise in narcissism and narcissistic behavior. “Look at me! Look at me! No, I said, look at me!” If all a blog or web site or FB page was, was a tool for keeping up with real friends and family in the Real World — aka: meatspace — it probably wouldn’t bother me so much. But social media have turned into a competitive stewpot of people, all trying to be popular because… that’s what you do when you run a blog, or a FB page. Cleverness and one-off one-liners substitutes for real content, and eventually the whole enterprise has come to represent for me a pernicious waste of time. And yes, savor the irony of my complaining in this vein, using a blog with my name emblazoned at the top. You’ll notice I don’t post multiple daily updates blathering about the laundry, posting random pictures of my pets, or engaging in my favorite e-social sport: political bickering.
What the !#*^%$@#! Is a blog for? I’ve come very close a few times to just shutting mine down entirely. Because if I’m not combating the problem(s) outlined above — by ceasing to engage — I’m contributing to them, right? Alas, I think social media are here to stay. And I am not necessarily a Luddite. I think there must be a way to use a blog or FB or social media For Good, as opposed to the growing and tending of chattering, genuflecting cults of personality, or shouting endlessly past the neighbors as we all scrap at the virtual fenceline over whether or not President Obama is, in fact, a born American citizen. I went round it a bit with some other Writers of the Future winners, and their feedback has gotten me to thinking carefully about what I post, and why, and when. Which explains why it’s been over a month since the last update. If 2012 will be “about” anything, for me, it’s going to be about developing a personal philosophy for this space. One which will be healthy and cooperatively engaging for me as the owner and you as the reader. Not just a honey trap where you come and waste your time reading me as I write about how awesome I think I am. Those blogs do exist — we’ve all seen them — and as was noted by someone better versed in the matter than I am, the era of the personality-driven SuperBlog is probably about 5 years past. No point in trying to become one of those now. So, I shall endeavor to become something quite different.