The (star!) road ahead

Yup, still deployed. Will be through Spring next year. Yup, still largely off the social media radar as a result. Just occasionally popping my head up now and again, with decreasing frequency. Which is a blessing in disguise, because it forces me to work on things that are both more important and more pressing, than who is shouting at who on the intarwebz.

The cosmetic revamp continues. I will keep fiddling with things, as connectivity and time permit. Until I settle on something that feels right. It’s been my habit to re-do my web look annually, but as one reviewer noted, we’re also dealing with “branding” issues, and this includes the artwork for my covers. So, it’s a slow process. Thanks again to everybody for the ongoing feedback. Especially since I switched my WordPress theme from Twenty Ten, to Twenty Eleven. Similar, but also different.

During the “remodel” I’ve been thinking back to when I first set up this blog. 2009 isn’t so far away. And yet, 2009 also seems like an eternity ago. Seven years (on the internet) is practically an epoch! My very first post was regarding my initial Finalist story, with the L. Ron Hubbard presents Writers and Illustrators of the Future Contest. I hadn’t published a single professional word at that point. Being a first-time Finalist was as close as I’d ever come to scoring. Wow. That was exciting! After so many years of rejection letters and disappointment, I was within striking distance.

Which meant being double-plus crushed a few months later, when I found out that my novelette “Outbound” didn’t make it. Damn, was that ever a bummer. The toughest rejection I ever got in my whole life. I sat at the kitchen table and sort of stared off into space, thinking, this is the best thing I’ve ever written to date, and I know it, and it couldn’t even win in a contest where the competition is with other aspiring writers!

How was I ever going to cut it in the big leagues?

Thankfully, I got my answer in January 2010. Analog magazine said, “Yes, we want this,” just 60 days after Writers of the Future told me I’d won, for a different story.

“Outbound” ran in September 2010. It was a hit with readers, none of whom knew me from Adam at that point. I’ve since had a few other hits with Analog. Enough to establish myself as one of that venerable magazine’s top new names, for the new century.

I’m immensely proud of that. More than I can sufficiently say. Because Analog is the cauldron of creation where so many amazing and spectacular names in this field, have first come forth. To include personal heroes like Orson Scott Card. As well as current top professionals like George R. R. Martin. Analog has been home to Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Robert A. Heinlein. Also: Lois McMaster Bujold, Vernor Vinge, Robert J. Sawyer, Frank Herbert, and so many others. In fact, the wikipedia entry lists several dozen notable names of both past and present. I am humbled enormously to see my name tucked away to the side, on that roster. And immensely gratified.

Of course, my track record with Analog (as well as Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show) got me the attention of Toni Weisskopf, at Baen Books. Who would eventually publish my “fix up” book, The Chaplain’s War, which was assmebled and expanded from the bones of two stories which had appeared in Analog.

To frame all of this so that you can understand, it’s a bit like being Charlie from Willy Wonka. One day I am an often-rejected, some would even say failed writer, who’s never managed to do much of anything worthwhile despite years and years of fruitless effort, and the next . . . it’s golden ticket time! Holy crap, sometimes dreams really do come true!

Now, of course, there is the question: what next? What about the seven years ahead? What’s happening between now, and 2022?

I can tell you that Baen has contracted me for the first book in what I am calling my Star-Wheeled trilogy. The launch novel, A Star-Wheeled Sky, is in a seperate universe from the Chaplain’s stories, and focuses on a future human civilization which finds itself at a critical juncture. Restricted for many hundreds of years to a relatively small region of the galaxy, there is finally the potential for first contact with an actual living alien race of unknown origin or power. The various nations of human space will each be in a mad rush to exploit this discovery. They’ve been at war with each other for a long time, dividing and re-dividing the limited worlds of humanity during a slow spiral toward civilizational cataclysm. All three books deal with this initial premise, and I’ve been writing portions of them for months. The first draft of the first book is a bit overdue, so I am going to be focusing entirely on that for the next month, to be sure Toni gets it well before Labor Day. Then? Completion of the remaining two.

Assuming all goes well with the Star-Wheeled books, I will try my hand at alternative history epic fantasy, with a trilogy I am planning (and which Baen has shown a lot of interest in) called Norse America. The setup is like this. The pantheons of the various peoples of Earth are real. Magic is also real, albeit dangerous and not necessarily well understood. The Viking settlers who’ve established themselves in Vinland around the year 1000 find themselves being pushed out by a relentless march of Frost Giants, coming down from the arctic. Retreat to Iceland has been made impossible. Leif Erikson and his heirs — along with perhaps a thousand Viking warriors — must flee to the Chesapeake Bay, where they encounter the remnants of the mound-building civilizations who have been pushed out of the Ohio region by a terrible threat coming up from the Southwest. The gods of the mound-builders and the Norse gods of the refugee Vikings know this is the time for a last-ditch alliance, through their respective peoples. Blood and traditions mingle. But the threat from the Southwest only grows stronger. The Frost Giants are still coming. And the shamans tell of visions of a third, perhaps still greater danger: men in boats from across the ocean, which has remained closed to Viking longships because of sea monsters and cursed storms. The invaders are seeking treasure as well as glory. It’s conquistador muskets against Ulfberht swords! Political alliances being forged, tested, and shattered. Family dynasties born, destroyed, and born again. The one god comes to drive out the many gods. And the chosen sons and daughters of a hybrid nation will rise to claim their destiny, as defenders of their civilization — or see it all burn in bitter defeat.

So, those are the major projects. I’d say they will keep me busy until mid 2017, at least?

Of course, that’s not everything. I’ve also got some collaborations in the works — for both stories, as well as books — in addition to new manuscripts and story ideas I want to pitch at Analog, Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, Galaxy’s Edge, and other venues. Including a planned Monster Hunter International story which I’ve already agreed to do for a book being put together by Bryan Thomas Schmidt, and Larry Correia.

Which doesn’t mention the extant stories soon to hit print! Including a story for an anthology inspired by the songs of the prog rock band, RUSH, being assembled and edited by Kevin J. Anderson.

So, that’s all of this year, all of next, and much of the following year. Beyond that? I want to get back to my nascent Emancipated Worlds project, which has been in stasis since 2011. I’ve got ideas for an additional space opera type trilogy, as well as an original swords-and-magic fantasy trilogy, plus the brewing seeds of at least two or three dozen other items which may evolve into either novelettes, novellas, or full-blown books. Including sequels to popular stories like “Outbound” and “Ray of Light.”

If the time between 1993 and 2009 was a desert, the time since has been a green field of trees, fruit, and honey. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to do things with my imagination which I only dreamed about 20 years ago, when I was still trying to get my feet under me — as an aspiring writer. The long proto-professional drought (seventeen years?) taught me to appreciate the good stuff, when it finally came. I don’t think I’d have the right perspective, had publication and success come quickly or easily.

I had to work for the shit. You know?

But it’s been worth it. And in many ways, I feel like I am just getting started!

I want to borrow something Geoffrey Lewis said so well, when asked (in story form) what the most pleasurable experience in his life has been.

What’s the best book or story I’ve ever done?

“The best one, is the next one.”

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Speech and Punishment

After reading Dave Freer’s piece, it seemed like today would be a good day to compose my own thoughts in kind. Not because the Charlie Hebdo massacre is singularly horrific, but because the massacre has peeled back (once again) the tinfoil wrapper on a notion I find particularly pernicious: that the artists and writers who died in the Charlie Hedbo office should have known better than to offend Muslims. Incite them. Cause them to get angry. Angry enough to kill. Which is a lot like saying, “You’re free to speak, but you’re not free from consequences!” Doubtless you’ve read or heard some variation on that one too? From people eager to see artists, writers, pundits, and speakers punished professionally for any number of politically correct sins?

Consider the case of Orson Scott Card, who is now the #1 supervillain in a bizarro world comic book called: GAY SUPER JUSTICE WARRIORS. Card’s been kicked off projects for expressing his beliefs. The companies who’ve hired (and then fired) Card, were bowing to pressure from protesters. The activists smugly tell us Card deserves it, because Card is a homophobe. Which is apparently worse than anything imaginable. So bad, that Card’s participation in the marketplace — as a creator — must be challenged. He must be shut out. Blacklisted. Made to economically suffer for his WRONG WRONG WRONG thoughts, which he wrongly believed he could commit to paper.

I mean, Card should have known better!

Consider the (in)famous Ayaan Hirsi Ali, notorious firebrand and critic of dangerous religious dogmatism; specifically, Islamist jihadist dogmatism. She’s had speaking engagements at colleges cancelled (by the colleges themselves) after complaints and protests against her were lodged. As with Card, or perhaps I should say, ironically also like Card, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is accused of being a “phobe.” (Remember: “phobe” is the worst thing ever!) In her case, it’s Islamophobia, which would seem to be code for, “Astute analysis which dares to call the death cult of Islamist jihadism a death cult.” (And if you need to figure out what makes “Islam” and “Islamism” two different things, I refer you here.)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali should have known better!

Freedom of speech really is the most difficult freedom to live with, because we keep finding ways to screw it up. If we’re not banning dirty words, we’re banning porn. If we’re not banning porn, we’re banning religious symbols and the ten commandments. If we’re not banning the ten commandments, we’re banning ist words filled with ism on our college campuses. We kick writers and artists off jobs. We had the Red Scare and McCarthyism. Actors and directors in Hollywood were put out of work for supposedly being commies. Sometimes, they were out of work for decades. It financially and professionally ruined them. We now enjoy the Politically Correct scare and Social Justice Warriors. Again, we see pressure to put people out of work. Ruin them professionally. Or worse. We see excuse-making for events like Charlie Hebdo: they should have known better!

So here’s my contention: you cannot have “safe” speech at the same time you have free speech. You cannot punish a writer or an artist or an intellectual content creator of any stripe, for any reason, without basically admitting that you’re willing to make things unsafe for people you disagree with, in an effort to protect and coddle your own side of the argument. Which means you’re not really in favor of the freedom to speak. You are in favor of your freedom to dispense your thoughts and ideas, just as long as people you don’t like (or who create things that make you angry) don’t get to have the same right.

Because your enemies in the markeptlace of ideas should know better!

Well, actually, nobody should have to “know better” in a society that pretends to prize liberty.

Let me explain.

If you as an individual consumer want to stop financially contributing to somebody who creates products you might otherwise buy, except you think the producer is (insert badness here), that’s your right as the consumer. You must follow your conscience.

But if you as an individual consumer think you have the right to stop other people from buying those same products from that same producer, because you think the producer is (insert badness here), you’re crossing an unfortunate line. And I think you need to strongly reconsider your actions and objectives accordingly.

Ditto for mobbing companies or newspapers or magazines, demanding that Employee X be terminated for (insert badness here.) Again, ditto for waging ideological war on campuses, getting speaking engagements cancelled because the speaker is guilty of (insert badness here.)

And it shouldn’t even be necessary to talk about how no civilized human being should believe (s)he has the right to take another human life, simply because the person you have killed (or wish to kill) has ideas you consider off-limits. Wrong. Offensive. Blasphemous. No matter if they put those ideas down on paper (even if it’s digital paper) you, as a civilized human being, are robust enough to withstand whatever it is you find offensive, or even terrible.

Because trying to silence others — ban them, kick them off jobs, get them cancelled or fired or even killed — is an admission of intellectual and moral cowardice.

I will say this again, so there’s no mistaking my statement: banning people from work, kicking them off jobs, or out of magazines and papers, or even inciting or seeking their deaths, is cowardice. It is an admission that you believe your ideas are too fragile to stand on their own in a raucous, polyglot environment. That you believe you have the moral right to decide for others what they can and cannot see, or hear, or buy.

I find it more than a little sad that the ideological children of men and women who battled “right wing” oppression of free speech in the 20th century, now actively and with clean consciences, seek to enforce a decidedly left wing version of same. Because the world must be kept “safe” from ist and ism. The definitions of which have been made so absurdly broad, they can be applied to practically anything or anyone, at any time, for any reason. Just make the shit up. It’s all good. Safety demands action. The badthinkers must be brought down!

Only, you’d best be careful. History has shown us time and again that the treadmill of “corrective action” ultimately eats its own. The agitator yelling for “safing” today, is the victim who will be “safed” into silence tomorrow. Because no matter who you are, there is always somebody who’s going to be pissed off at you for something. Regardless of whether or not you think you’re on the “right” side or you have the “correct” ideas about things. If you open the door for yourself, and give yourself permission to silence others, you will in turn be silenced. And if not you, your friends, your co-workers, your family, etc. Sooner or later, that snake’s going to come back and bite you. And it’s a venomous little son-of-a-bitch.

So please, let’s dispense with any talk about how Charlie Hebdo should have known better. It doesn’t matter if that publication was crude or caustic or deliberately antagonistic. Liberty demands that people be free to be rude or caustic or deliberately antagonistic. Satire (poking fun) is a big piece of the bedrock of Western Enlightenment. You couldn’t do satire behind the Iron Curtain, otherwise the NKVD or KGB or any other dozen “secret” police forces would round you up and shoot you, send your children to the gulag, march your spouse off to be “re-educated” on a rack in some dim-bulb dungeon. Here in the United States, you can make fun of the President six ways from Thursday, and nobody can do anything to you about it. Hell, you can turn your entire stand-up comic routine into a free-for-all political bash session, and you will make good money at it!

Satire in Iran? Satire in North Korea, or China, or Cuba? Dangerous stuff, that. Best be careful. Or brave. The two seem mutually exclusive, when it comes to the arena of thought.

So think twice, oh ye of the Western Enlightenment legacy, before you excuse the slaughter of “Islamophobe” cartoonists. Before you decide Orson Scott Card should be driven out of work. Before you write a nasty e-mail to your college demanding that Ayaan Hirsi Ali be cancelled. It takes guts and maturity to admit that you’re big enough to take it. To take seeing your sacred cows questioned. Perhaps even slaughtered? They’re your cows, after all. Not somebody else’s. And you’ve got every right to return the favor. Which may not be nice. It may not even be good manners. But it is a core component of liberty.

We either embrace and defend that freedom. Or we’re cowards.

We either defend and uphold each others’ right to be “offensive,” or we deserve to live in shackles.

Simple choice, folks. Simple.

When is it okay to quit?

Harshness ahead. You were warned.

There have been a very few instances when I’ve encountered a writer who is clearly wasting his/her time. I know, we’re not supposed to talk about it. We’re not supposed to admit (among ourselves) that any of us could be wasting his/her time. Yet, clearly, there are people in this field who are wasting their time. I know. I’ve met them. They are few in number, but they do exist.

Sure, 90% of the business is work ethic and never quitting. But if you don’t have the other 10% (imagination + style + insight + voice + creativity + ability to learn + yadda yadda) then you’re kind of trying to paddle up the Mississippi with a soggy flap of cardboard.

In each of the these few instances (and they truly are few) the writer in question had been struggling for decades (yes, plural) with no results: no sales, no publications, or at least no publications of serious note (badly formatted, unproofed self pub, with a bad cover, almost doesn’t count.) As a result, (s)he had developed a rather ferocious level of envy towards anybody who had enjoyed some success (YMMV as to the definition of “success”) and there was also a fair degree of conspiracy paranoia happening. Ergo, “The publishing system is rigged against me! The reviews system is rigged against me! Amazon is rigged against me!” Et cetera.

I have come to strongly suspect that such tortured people are far more in love with the idea of being authors, than they are with actually writing stories. No, not in love. Wrong word. Love is a healthy emotion. They are obsessed with having a book (or books, or stories in magazines) with their names on the covers, and with passing through the halls at conventions in the guise of “author”, and with also having fans, and with gathering to themselves all the acclaim and credibility of accomplishment, and warm fuzzies, and all that they believe will come to them, if only . . . if only . . . if only . . .

In one particular instance (because I am sometimes too nice for my own good) I read some of the works proffered by just such a writer. (S)he claimed to have spent the better part of 30 years perfecting them, before putting them up on the internet. In despair. In the hope that someone might read them.

I did. Because I was morbidly curious. And I wanted to see if I could help. I paid my dues. Two decades of toil and effort, no sales. 1992 to 2009. Surely the patient could be cured? Lord knows I’d been brought back from a near-flatlined state myself. I was determined to see what I could do for this despairing individual.

The stories were . . . pale and flat. They were stale. Lifeless. Clearly, they had the abuse marks of having been “polished” into oblivion. And they did not manifest — from story to story — any sign that the author in question was getting any better. Not even a little bit.

I made a few (what I thought) were gentle suggestions; for potential improvement. Not with the stories themselves. They were DOA. In fact, that was the thrust of my advice: let the old stories go, get on with the business of telling new stories. Polishing (or the process most of us call “polishing”) has what I consider to be a rather sharp curve, in terms of diminishing returns. Past a certain point, you cannot improve a thing. You’ve looked at it too much. It’s as good as you can make it. Let it be. Go on to something different. Something fresh.

I also said (s)he might think about trying a new style of voice (1st person to 3rd, or was it 3rd to 1st? I can’t remember . . .) and branching out into a new arena of speculative storytelling, etc. (“Instead of near-future contemporary, try off-world, or maybe even a cyber-fantasy?”) It seemed to me this author was trying very hard to write what (s)he thought the markets wanted; without much consideration for what the author wanted. I of course cited my own trials and tribulations, to make him/her aware of the fact that I knew from personal experience how this kind of uncomfortable change — turning over the writer’s apple cart — had helped me grow, get better, and break through.

Yet, I was rebuffed. (S)he got defensive. Started up with the victim stuff, and the paranoia stuff. I was accused of being both lucky, and knowing how to “game” the system.

So I gently withdrew my interaction, and allowed him/her to return to his/her dark closet of creative despair. I could not help him/her. (S)he did not want help. Even from a fellow traveler who knew his/her struggle in intimate detail. Having secured for myself a life preserver, when I offered to show him/her how to also obtain a life preserver, (s)he preferred to stay submerged.

How do you (gently) tell such a person, that (s)he is running him/herself over the proverbial cheese grater for nothing? That perhaps (s)he simply wasn’t meant to do this thing we call writing? The mantra is that (s)he who never quits, gets published. And it’s true. Especially now that Amazon and CreateSpace have made it easy. But what can you say to a person who has dwelt in a personal wasteland of disappointment for so long, over failing at a thing (s)he was clearly not given any gifts for?

It’s a bit like seeing a cellist who has no musical ear, nor any finesse with the instrument, saw painfully at the thing day after day, over the same dog-eared sheets of rote music, all the while despairing of ever joining an orchestra or getting to play solo at the concert house.

The noble response is to simply smile and say, “Keep trying, you can do it eventually!” The professional arts world is replete with examples of failures who simply pushed one step farther, and the light went on, and success was had by the truckload. We adore and love these rags-to-riches examples. They inspire us all to keep after it. To keep putting our butts back into our chairs. Because we need to believe that we too can be that rags-to-riches (“riches” being defined any way you please) person.

But sometimes . . . sometimes I wonder if we’re also not just enabling a person’s further descent into a paralyzing spiral of fruitless time consumption — for the sake of a dream that probably should have been set down at the side of the road long ago. Really, not everyone who wants to be a writer (or a concert cellist) was given the gift.

That’s blasphemy, I know. And as someone who went the better part of 20 years without any success, it may be wrong of me to suggest that somebody else may not have what it takes to make it. How dare I?

But there ought to be a point of clarity. A realistic look in the mirror. A limit past which sanity tells you that you’re doing something self-destructive. That the void you’re trying to fill (with Passion A) is actually just a process of digging your hole deeper. When what you really need is to go discover Passion B (or C or D or E, ad infinitum) and allow those seed(s) to sprout, and blossom, in the soil of your soul.

Misery, bitterness, paranoia, for years on end . . . these things are just not worth it. There are other ways to be successful. To leave a meaningful impact on the world. There are even better, quicker, more lucrative ways to achieve fame and fortune, if fame and fortune are what you truly desire in the final analysis.

I didn’t quit, because I ultimately couldn’t stop telling stories. To myself. In my brain. On the bus, or while driving, or even at night with my head in the pillow. I couldn’t stop the puzzle-assembly fun of putting characters and situations and settings together, like a cookie dough mix, and imagining where the mixture might go. On the “movie screen” of my mind. Even when the rejections were piled up and the thousands (yes, thousands) of hours spent, seemed waste. I couldn’t help myself. My mind would find excuses to go back to the stories. To the mental bijou. And (ultimately) wanting to share my mental bijou with the rest of the world.

If you don’t have your own mental bijou — if your favorite thing is not getting a soda and a bucket of popcorn, and sitting alone in your personal theater to watch the imaginary movie(s) of your own making — I suspect that you might be trying too hard at the wrong thing. That writing may not be what you were cut out for. Especially if the exercise has lasted for so long, with so much disappointment, that all you have left for the affair is pain and sorrow. It might be time for a divorce: kick your “dream” out of your life, and go find a new dream. Something that actually makes you happy and which brings you joy. Something that makes your spirit light up like fireworks on New Years Eve. If writing doesn’t do that for you, take a close look at what it is you truly need from writing.

And maybe you can fulfill that need somewhere else?

Fear and Loathing at the Awards Table 5: Sad Puppies 2 post mortem

Snipped from a comment I made to David (“Trouble with Tribbles”) Gerrold, on Facebook, during a remarkably civil discussion about this past year’s Hugo award drama . . .

The maxim, “Never complain, never campaign” is ostensibly noble. I admire it. It’s what’s been preached to me since the inception of my (young) career. Alas, I think the reality falls far short of the ideal. Because campaigning is clearly happening right under our noses every year. I’ve seen the e-mails, read the threads, observed the electronic conversations. Social media has “liberated” the Hugos and the Nebulas from the notion that campaigning is uncouth. For adept operators who can run a non-campaign campaign (aka: stealth campaign) or who simply have a dominant web presence (“Name brand, everybody knows me!”) they get to have their Hugo/Nebula cake, and eat it too. They can win while simultaneously exclaiming, “Campaigning is uncouth, and I would never do it!” So while I agree that in a better world campaigning would be poor etiquette, a good many authors clearly no longer agree. If they ever agreed.

Larry Correia’s sin (with Sad Puppies 2) being: he was honest about what he was doing.

Though I can think of few people publishing in the SF/F genre who care less about awards. Larry is a six-figure writer in an era of plummeting advances and hardscrabble business practices. He’s got nothing to prove. What Larry does care about is ensuring that the Hugos are not a “liberals only” club. You may deem his perception wrong, or even pernicious. But it’s a perception shared by many other authors (myself included) as well as a great many readers to boot. Baen, or not. Analog, or not.

Complaining clearly doesn’t carry the stain it once did either. Otherwise we’d not have the near-perpetual moaning about “There aren’t enough (insert minority here) on the ballot!” Or, conversely, “There are too many (insert majority here) on the ballot!” Because the genre seems to have a spiritual hangover from the bad old days when straight white men wrote all the straight white man stories and won all the straight white man awards (perception, not saying it was fact, that is the backwards-through-time perception) the genre is in more and more of a hurry to correct the perceived error, via affirmative action.

And yes, discussion of affirmative action sets my teeth on edge too. Because affirmative action introduces what I would consider to be irrelevant criteria into the “Only the story should win, on its own merits!” equation.

Which is not to say I think affirmative action voters are being deliberately pernicious. I’ve done a fair bit of affirmative action voting in my own life, where political office is concerned. Much of it in my (more idealistic) youth. When I thought it actually did more good than bad. Affirmative action is well-meant push-back against perceived systemic biases and prejudices. I get it. I really do.

But at what point does the affirmative action go too far? Almost becoming a mockery of itself?

I noted with unhappiness the “squee” that erupted from some individuals when an all-female Nebula list hit the internet airwaves earlier in the season. As if merely ensuring all the winners had vaginas was a triumph unto itself? So, do we oscillate? For fairness? One year, it’s all penises, the next, back to all vaginas again? But wait, what about trans people who have neither penises nor vaginas? Clearly the frontier needs to be pushed again. And so on, and so forth.

One might get the sense that in this kind of affirmative action environment, the merits of the story proper are definitely riding in the back seat. One might be correct about that, too.

Larry Correia could care less if a Tongan gay socialist Democrat wins a Hugo. Just as long as being Tongan, gay, socialist, or Democrat, aren’t the primary factors in the win. Story first, you know.

But here again, the reality can’t meet the ideal. Because clearly being gay, or socialist, or trans, or black, or Chinese, or female, or many other identitarian labels, does matter in the Hugo selection process. It matters if you (author) are any of these things, and it matters if you (author) insert these things into your stories. It’s mattered more and more every year since at least the late 1990s. A bad story can’t beat the odds no matter what, but a comparably well-done story (in relation to the field as a whole) has a distinct advantage if it comes from the keyboard of a sexual or ethnic minority, or features characters who are in a sexual or ethnic minority. If said minority author has a good-sized web footprint and is popular in the social media, so much the better. All of this attracts votes and voter sympathy. Well-meant, well-intended. All of it.

But then, not everything well-intended has a positive consequence.

So perhaps it’s ironic that if the maxim “Never complain, never campaign” were in truth the rule at the Hugos, Correia would be happier than anybody. Because Correia believes in it too. He just doesn’t believe in being silent while a lot of what he considers to be bullshit, goes on — without question from very many people in established positions of prominence.

My personal opinion is that we need more of Sad Puppies, not less. Regardless of who launches it or who is on the slate. There are dozens of men and women who have devoted their lives and careers to building this messy, often combustible enterprise we call Science Fiction & Fantasy. Some of them dwell at or near the bestseller level with each release. Not all of them allow the affirmatively-minded to check a box. Not all of them write quaint or prosaic literary stories better suited to the pages of The Sun or The New Yorker, than a SF/F magazine. Almost all of them can’t buy a Hugo, for various reasons which perplex and sometimes infuriate me. Despite the fact that their fan bases are what prop the genre up from a financial perspective. When the so-called “most prestigious award” in SF/F never finds its ways into the hands of a Kevin J. Anderson or a L.E. Modesitt, Jr. or a David Farland (Wolverton) this sends a strong signal: the voters at Worldcon are anti-success. Pro-affirmative action. But anti-success.

So let’s see more, please. Let’s get some of these deserving souls onto the ballot. If affirmative action is warranted, let’s begin a new brand of affirmative action: lifetime contribution from successful authors who have never won a Hugo. Did you know that Tad Williams has never even been nominated for a Hugo award? Tad Williams?? As I have often said of the Congressional Medal of Honor (“You shouldn’t have to die to get the damned thing!”) so too do I say of the Hugo: a writer or editor should not have to retire or pass from the field, in order to get the award. Stan Schmidt was worthy of a Hugo at least a dozen or more times in his career. How come Worldcon couldn’t give Stan an award until he was out of his editing chair at Analog? What was so impossible about acknowledging Stan when he was still sitting in that chair??

It won’t be Larry carrying the load next time. Larry is a strong man, but not bulletproof. Having mortgaged his reputation (among those who espouse “Never complain, never campaign”) he can’t be expected to bear the burden each time. There were some remarkably cruel and unfair things said about Larry in the last year. Speaking as his friend, a compatriot, a fellow Baen author, and someone who has been proud to be all of the above every step of the way, I think everyone who went out of his or her way to character-assassinate Larry, should be ashamed. Especially those who mewled neutral or even cordial words in public, yet stabbed coldly at Larry in private.

But it will be somebody picking up the torch. Maybe me? Maybe some of my friends who have agreed with and applauded Larry’s efforts? Maybe if all of us do this often enough — if we refuse to allow the Hugo awards to be an exclusive “club” for a certain brand of politics or a certain literary taste — the drama will die down. People will adjust to the new reality: that the SF/F genre really is a big place, populated by every type and kind of professional, and that merely displacing one type or kind for another (in the quest for perceived justice or fairness; or just raw political pique) is an unworthy goal.

Fear and loathing at the Awards Table 4

Following up from the last installment in this series, I wanted to talk about a few more things regarding the 2014 Hugo ballot.

But first, did you hear that the cast of Star Wars: Episode VII has been announced? A lot of old names, a lot of new ones, and some genuine surprises (Serkis! Sydow!) in the mix. I am therefore cautiously optimistic about the new movie and its chances with Star Wars fans. There are probably one billion of us at this point, give or take a hundred million. Some of us liked the prequels. Many of us (most of us?) felt the prequels were a letdown. Without launching into an unfair tirade against George Lucas, the magic (for me) simply wasn’t there. In fact, the magic was so not there I haven’t devoted any time to the prequels, beyond an initial screening, whereas I’ve seen the original three films (the middle chapters) hundreds of times each. Does JJA actually have the right touch — to restore the Star Wars franchise to its former place in the hearts of all of us who grew up on the middle chapters? I hope so!

Okay then. Back to the Hugos.

But, some of the stuff on the Hugo ballot is only there because a bunch of Larry Correia’s people blindly put it there!
Now that I can publicly talk about my story “The Chaplain’s Legacy” having won the Analog magazine Analytical Laboratory (AnLab) readers’ choice award for Best Novella, I want to point to the AnLab (and Analog readers) as an independent source of verifiability. See, Analog is the oldest and most widely circulated science fiction magazine in the English language. Its readers are both a social and political panoply. Not the kind of readers who pay a lot of attention to in-genre stunts or shenanigans. Yet they voted “The Chaplain’s Legacy” as their favorite, for its category. And at least some percentage of those readers also voted during the nomination period for the Hugo awards. So while it’s understandable that many plaintiffs will see Larry Correia’s suggested slate (and its uncanny replication on the Hugo ballot) as proof that the works in question didn’t earn a place on the Hugo ballot in an honest fashion, I think the AnLab is fairly bulletproof. In that it confirms that “The Chaplain’s Legacy” is not just good, it’s good by the standards of a shrewd and non-connected body of readers who vote explicitly for enjoyment, not name recognition, nor political affiliation, nor because of any kind of campaigning on the part of authors.

“The Chaplain’s Legacy” also forms (along with its partner, “The Chaplain’s Assistant”) the backbone to my forthcoming Baen Books novel The Chaplain’s War. When Toni Weisskopf at Baen decided to buy The Chaplain’s War in 2013 she didn’t know that one of the components of the novel would be an AnLab winner and a Hugo nominee. But she had seen some of the enthusiastic reader comments I’d been collecting since “The Chaplain’s Legacy” hit the streets this time last year. I felt strongly then (as I do now) that the entire project was representative of me operating on full thrusters; and I think both the AnLab win and the Hugo nomination are strong signs that I am right about that. Plus, it’s not even the first time I’ve been on either the AnLab list or the Hugo ballot. This is my second time winning the AnLab and my second go-round on the Hugos; the first time being 2012 (for Worldcon, when I was also a Nebula and Campbell award nominee) and the first AnLab came to me for my novelette “Outbound” which was my first ever Analog story, published in 2010.

But, the Hugos should be about art, and “fandom” gets to choose which kind of art it wants to see representing “fandom” to the world!
Art arguments are an eternal road to a destination that does not exist, because art arguments ultimately revolve around questions of taste. And as one of my mentors once told me rather sternly, taste cannot be wrong. Just because a given book or story isn’t to your (the reader’s) fancy, that doesn’t make it bad. It just means the book or story was not written to your taste. Which is perfectly understandable given the fact that no book or story can possibly be written to please all tastes, all eras, for all readers. I personally think I happen to suit the taste of the same readership that enjoys Orson Scott Card, Larry Niven, Robert A. Heinlein, and so forth. Generally, I am right about that. And this means my work won’t be to the taste of readers who prefer different authors — though I always invite any reader to at least give me a try, with my short fiction. A novel is an investment. But a short story or even a novelette is quick, and will generally give a prospective customer a decent idea about me and my work.

If “fandom” is as diverse as it prides itself on being, then I think it stands to reason that many different kinds of work and many different kinds of authors will be represented on the Hugo ballot, year in and year out. In point of fact both the Hard Magic and Wheel of Time readerships are a) very large and b) very loyal. Shouldn’t it be that they too get to have a voice in what’s chosen for the year’s supposed best works? Or do the Hugos only deserve to go to “literary” works which are not necessarily having impact on a consumer audience as much as they’re being advanced by academic circle(s) which believe they have a responsibility to advocate for what they believe is their standard of merit? My personal thought is that it’s readers (especially lay readers, not academic readers) who should count the most. But this is a personal bias on my part, since I am a lay reader who discovered authorial ambition in his teens, and worked his way up to pro-level craft.

But, popularity has nothing to do with what’s good! Good fiction is utterly unconnected to what people are buying! In fact, the more popular a thing is, the more likely that thing is to be bad!
Remember what I said, about how Star Wars has a billion fans? Once upon a time Star Wars was this little low-budget sci-fi picture from a little-known director/producer named George Lucas. The movie debuted at the tail end of the 1970s when “people pictures” were something of a rage at the box office, and outside of disaster movies (like the Airport franchise and The Towering Inferno) there wasn’t a lot of effort being put into spectacular filmmaking that was deliberatley science fictional in nature. Then comes Star Wars and an unexpected, monumental success is born. Three films over six years transformed the motion picture industry forever, and moved science fiction out of the proverbial parental basement and into the penthouse executive suite on Hollywood Blvd.

I think it’s safe to say that three generations of avid consumer support have verified that the original Star Wars films are good by most standards that count. Star Wars will therefore outlive its creator, just as Harry Potter will outlive its creator. There is something in these franchises that resonates (over and over again) with audiences. Whether those audiences enjoy the movies, the television spinoffs, the games, the tie-in books, the toys, or whatever. There is a lot of there there. And I think you could say the same about successful fiction juggernauts like the Wheel of Time. Past a certain saturation point, critical or academic acclaim isn’t necessary for a given story or book (or series) to be deemed timeless. And shouldn’t the Hugos be about recognizing the timeless (or potentially timeless?) as much as they are about recognizing literary and academic esteem? Can there not be room for both the literary and the commercial, from year to year? Why does the entry of a big thing onto the “small” Hugo ballot cause so much unhappiness for some people? I honestly don’t know.

What I do know is that I am proud to be sharing the Hugo ballot with my compatriots in the Utah SF/F scene, and I am proud to have delivered (for readers) a product that those readers find genuinely enjoyable. Worth their time. And worth their money.

Which lets me segue into a conclusion I’ve been hesitant to address directly, but which I think needs to be addressed — because clearly a lot of people are talking about it under their breath but not a lot of people are talking about it openly.

What is a Hugo award really good for? Bottom line?

Meaning: does having a Hugo win (or a Nebula win or a Campbell win, or nominations for same) make a substantial difference for you when you take your book manuscripts to the marketplace and attempt to interest an editor or an agent?

The answer is — so far as I’ve been able to discern, after asking this question around the industry — nope.

Oh, to be sure, any accolade which can boost PR will be welcome. But the difference between whether or not you get a good agent or a not-so-good agent, or a good contract or a not-so-good contract, won’t be decided by how many times you’ve been on the ballots or have taken home trophies. The most well-known awards in SF/F aren’t well known beyond the field. And even in the field, they’re not well known to most readers. These awards are therefore talismans of prestige among the “insider” group. And while it’s a gas to be nominated or even win, there are limits to how much good these awards can do for you when it comes time to do business, as a creative businessperson trying to make a living.

This reality came as a shock to me when I was still relatively new to the field. I’d always thought of the Hugos as being roughly equivalent to the Oscars, which do have significant punch in the motion picture industry. Alas, the venerable Hugo (and Nebula) cannot take a somewhat small book and make it into a big book, as the Oscars occasionally do for films. Nor will slapping the words HUGO WINNER (or NEBULA WINNER) on the cover of a book cause a significantly large number of prospective customers to pick up and buy the book; if they weren’t already going to buy it before.

Why is that?

Some have argued to me that writers tend to look at the Hugos all wrong — that the Hugos were never intended to be professional awards given out professionally the way the Oscars (and to a certain extent, the Emmies and the Grammies) are given out. And I think (in light of the fannish roots of Worldcon) this is an argument that makes a lot of sense. From a certain fannish point of view.

But I think it also has to be simultaneously argued that unless or until science fiction gets an award that is roughly equivalent to the Oscars (NOTE: my personal opinion is that the Writers of the Future award is the only thing that comes close; but this is an award for new pros, not for established veterans) then the Hugos (and to a lesser extent, the Nebulas) are what there is. And if we’re going to put these accolades forward as being meaningful to the field, then it’s worth it for the consumers and the practitioners to both think long and hard about how these awards are selected, and for what reasons.

Maybe if the Hugo (and Nebula) voters didn’t shun tie-in novelists and media fiction, consumers would pick up on the fact that things they like to read are being recognized by science fiction’s top awards, thus the awards would attain greater significance for those beyond the halls of the “inside” SF/F group?

Maybe if the Hugo voters did not react (as some of them have reacted this year) badly to an “outsider” such as Larry Correia, bringing his popular series and the fans of same, into the selection process, then the Hugos (and the Nebulas) would have a little more cachet — as awards that truly recognize not just literary achievement, but commercial achievement as well?

I know, I know: the Hugos (and the Nebulas) aren’t supposed to be the spec fic equivalent of Gold and Platinum albums. Raw sales all by themselves shouldn’t be the only thing that earns a work (or an artist) acclaim.

But it just seems uncanny to me that the Hugo (and the Nebula) are this field’s most sought-after prizes, and yet they transfer so little to their recipients (in the way of direct professional benefit) that I’ve struggled since 2012 to wrap my head around how or why these awards are still regarded with such overwhelming awe by those of us who work in the genre.

Which is not (I think) a sentiment (on my part) which is likely to endear me to that core demographic within “fandom” that prides itself on thumbing its nose at commercialism, the publishing industry, and authors, and simply wants to keep the Hugos an “insider” thing for insiders who care. I knew before I wrote this series that examining any of the genre awards with a critical eye was liable to cause some controversy. But as I said elsewhere, I didn’t get into the science fiction business to be a prestige man. I got into the business because I was a reader who discovered authorial ambition as a young adult, and when I bumped my chops up to professional level I decided that giving readers a good time and making money were the first and second best reasons to do this.

And no, I am not putting down the awards or the nominees or the winners. Nor am I trying to say the awards are worthless. I have not advanced that argument here and I am not saying anyone should advance that argument elsewhere. This is not a “let’s trash the awards” festival.

I just want to look critically at what the awards are, and at what they are not, and maybe spark a little introspection as to the nature, purpose, and ultimate destiny of these accolades. Because when we put them forward as signposts for what we (collectively) deem worthy in the genre, we are sending not only messages to ourselves, but the world at large. Right now I think I see a lot of mixed signals going on — fandom, to big audience, to arists, to publishers — and as long as those signals stay mixed, I suspect the Hugos (and the Nebulas) will remain both controversial and devalued on the larger playing field of consumer culture.

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.

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 Amazon.com, 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!

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.

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 Amazon.com’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.

Boost your writing business acumen with Superstars Writing Seminars

It’s January, 2014. Time to put my cards on the table, while talking about the business of writing and publishing. Because it is a business. Yet business is one of the things that often seems to get covered least, when people discuss their writing. In fact, great whacks of “How to Write” literature focuses on different aspects of craft, and craft only. As if merely honing craft were the whole of it.

But unless your sole objective is to get published in college literary journals, then you owe it to yourself to study and understand the business history, underpinnings, trends, and realities of the publishing marketplace. Because the moment you sell your story or your book (be it through traditional or independent means) you are officially “in the stream of commerce” to use the vernacular of the trade.

It’s a bit like merging onto the freeway. You can get off at the nearest exit and go back to being a hobbyist.

Or you can depress the pedal and change lanes to the left, picking up speed and getting ambitious with your planning.

For me, things got off to a modest start in 2009, when I cashed my first ever check for writing: my Writers of the Future prize money, for having won a spot in Writers and Illustrators of the Future, volume 26. At that time I was so desperately focused on merely proving my (prose) chops to editors, I had not thought much about business; though I had attended one brief weekend workshop during which business had been a significant component. Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith each had a range of opinions on various business topics, but without having received any compensation for my work (yet) these topics were a little abstract.

Everything changed when that first check rolled in.

Suddenly, I had a third career blooming under me. To compliment my primary career (healthcare IT) and my secondary career (U.S. Army Reserve.)

I realized fairly quickly that I had to begin devoting time to business planning and goals. But without more information, I also felt like I might be stabbing in the dark. Kris and Dean’s weekend workshop had been a good start. The Writers of the Future workshop in 2010 was an even better follow-up.

But I didn’t feel like I had a solid business footing until I attended Kevin J. Anderson’s Superstars Writing Seminars three-day event in January 2011. Just four years ago.

So, what did the Superstars Writing Seminars do for me?

Allow me to post some raw data, in the form of a graph.

In the four years since my first story saw print, I’ve managed to double my writing income almost every year. To the point that my (formerly tertiary) writing revenue stream has now displaced my (formerly secondary) military revenue stream. A not insignificant thing, considering the fact I am a CW2 with 10+ years behind me. And there’s every sign that things will continue to improve.

How?

Because Superstars is the kind of forum where successful professionals are infectiously enthusiastic about sharing their experiences, and have a genuine desire to see others succeed as they, the instructors, have also succeeded. Dave Wolverton, Kevin J. Anderson, Rebecca Moesta, Eric Flint, Brandon Sanderson, and excellent guest lecturers like Tracy Hickman, all devote themselves exclusively to pouring forth their hard-won experience. Offering both statistical and anecdotal proof that writers with a little bit of talent, a lot of patience, and a lot of work ethic, can turn their writing into a lucrative enterprise.

For me, the single biggest key has been production. As a hobbyist, I could afford to take time off whenever I wanted, because I had no skin in the game. Bills didn’t get missed if I didn’t feel like writing that week, or that month. But Superstars hammered home (at numerous points) the idea that a vocational writer writes. Every day, or several times a week, in whatever hourly chunks possible. Eschewing television or games or other distractions. Work first. Work always. And while it might have been easy for me to overlook or ignore this truth when I was unpublished and still wondering if I’d ever break in, spending time at Superstars greatly impressed upon me the fact that every single instructor — and they are all full-time writers with significant publishing track records — has managed the trick of putting production at the top of his or her priorities list.

Also, each and every instructor has formulated a strategy, replete with sound business practices, for not only breaking into publishing, but staying in the game; post-break-in. None of them has a career that looks like anyone else’s. But all of them have made very explicit business decisions while selecting and pursuing specific agents, specific editors, specific publishers, as well as specific projects for development. There is art involved, no question about it. Each Superstars instructor is very much in love with storytelling, if not also craft and prose. But each of them is also very much focused on the art as a component of an overall livelihood, and it was supremely beneficial for me to spend time talking with so many pros for whom details of the livelihood were paramount in their minds.

Such as: deciphering novel contracts, understanding the agenting process, understanding how money flows to the author from various sources, when to recognize that a deal may or may not be worth walking away from, how to approach editors and publishers with new material, how to handle questions of taxation, how to be your own best salesperson, what kind of marketing an author can or should pursue to help boost sales, and perhaps most relevant for today’s emergent electronic publishing market, how to be your own publisher and publicist in the event that you take your work directly to the consumer.

Again, very little of any of that was ever covered in my many “How to Write” books that I’d read over the years.

Thus I found Superstars to be a revelation.

The kind of thing I believe is best experienced live. Because half or more of my personal learning took place off-hours. Not as part of the official agenda, but as part of conversation with the pros and other students in attendance. Because Superstars offers you the kind of intimacy that you need to ask detailed, candid questions. So that you can get detailed, candid answers; the sort not always available during in-between-panel chats at conventions.

So, a great deal of my own success can be tied back to Superstars to one degree or another. That graph (see above) has Superstars written all over it. And the best part is? I am just getting started. The informational web of contacts, associates, and mentors from Superstars still pays dividends. And each year I am in the business, I learn a little bit more, push myself a little bit harder with my goals, and (as the graph shows) manage to make even more money.

All while getting to do what I originally dreamed of doing back when I was barely 18 years old, and reading authors like Larry Niven, and fantasizing of one day getting to be a “for real” writer.

Now, to the matter of cost. It is rightly said by most competent pros that money always flows to the writer. The one reasonable caveat that I can attest is true, would be continuing education. Dean Wesley Smith emphasized that for me right up front: with publishing changing so rapidly, it’s not a bad idea to try to stay on top of the latest ideas, thinking, innovations, and direct-from-the-marketplace experiential data. So that you can keep up with the trade, in the same way so many other professions and vocations must stay current on the “state of the art” as it were.

Personally, I feel the investment has paid for itself a hundred times already.

Maybe yours will too?

The next Superstars is coming up quick. February 2014. I hope to see you there!