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?

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!

The Torgersen Equation

In many professional fields, there is usually a formula you can follow to become successful: pick a career path, obtain the necessary schooling and on-the-job training, apply what you’ve learned in day to day operations, gain additional experience, learn from mistakes, seek additional career progression training, continue to practice what you’ve learned, et cetera. A doctor therefore knows she’s successful when she’s in her clinic or her hospital doing medicine or surgery, and pulling down a nice paycheck as a result. Similarly, a pilot knows he’s successful when he’s flying airplanes (military or commercial) for a living. And so on and so forth. For dozens upon dozens of careers. It’s usually the same. In each case there has been a prescribed path, navigable with a little talent, usually some brains, but most of all a lot of discipline and hard work.

But is there such a formula for authors? A to B to C to D?

Kevin J. Anderson is fond of telling people his excellent popcorn analogy: wherein hard work and productivity are keys to being successful in the writing business. I deeply love the popcorn analogy, and think it extremely apt. But while I was reading through some commentary today (regarding the changing roles of publishers) I was also reminded of something else: the famous Drake Equation, which is used to guesstimate the number of potential technical civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy.

I’d like to propose a new equation for fiction writers, in the spirit of the Drake Equation.

If we use the letter S to represent total SUCCESS, we can use St for TALENT, Sw for WORK ETHIC, Sp for PROCRASTINATION, Sc for COMMERCIAL APTITUDE, Sl for LIFE SETBACKS, Sa for AWARDS, and so on and so forth. Each of these will contribute positively or negatively to the equation. So, someone who may not be that talented, but who can be prolific, stands a better chance of success than someone with lots of talent, but poor work ethic. Someone with an eye for projects that have commercial appeal might succeed despite poor work ethic and mediocre talent. A talented, hard-working author can overcome a life setback, while awards might offset lack of broad commercial appeal, etc. There are many other factors that can play into it. I am not sure publishers/agents are even the largest or most important factors, though they can be.

St * Sw * Sp * Sc * Sl * Sa * (insert more factors here) = S

My own general hunch is that hard work and being prolific, with perhaps a smidgen of talent and commercialism, will set an author up to have a career. Make it a nice career if this person happens to be a decent chap with a good personality, who can work well with others and is easy to get along with. Harlan Ellison has crazy talent (by most estimations) but has also been notoriously difficult to work with in his career, thus he’s potentially offset his St with the negative Sd, for DIFFICULT PERSON. (Eric Flint cites Robert Urich in this regard: a journeyman actor who always had lots of work, because he was punctual, friendly, proficient, didn’t cause drama on the set, and was easy to get along with.)

To go back to the Kevin J. Anderson popcorn idea: authors who can generate a lot of books and short fiction seem to have a better overall outcome than authors who spend their time investing in just one book, one series, one idea, etc. It’s the single, polished “kernel” versus the whole mess of kernels. The more you have in the popper, the more you will pop. Some will be duds, but many won’t. And with a bit of luck (Su) you might even stumble into the feedback loop wherein word of mouth and publisher interest/push reinforce each other — to such an extent that the project goes viral/exponential, like the Harry Potter books. Your chance of having an exponentially/virally-exploding project get better, the more “kernels” you have in your popper — provided that you use the right oil, and the butter isn’t rancid. (grin)

Now. For a little hard talk.

There is a recent explosion (in the last six years) of writers going directly to self publishing (indie pub) without putting in the hours on their craft. In many cases these people will complain bitterly when the sales aren’t there, despite frantic marketing and networking. To include lots of hours and more than a little out-of-pocket money. In these instances I think the writers are applying boatloads of principles familiar to them in standard businesses or other professions with a set “model” of how to get ahead. But because writing is an entertainment business, I often quote Eric Flint, who says that good writing just isn’t that common. And I think he’s right.

So, we’re witnessing a massive surge in self pub from people who are in love with the idea of being AUTHORS, while not necessarily having the chops to be good writers. At least not right out of the box. (NOTE: In my own case it took over 850,000 unpublished words and 17 years of toil, before I sold my first piece of professional fiction.)

Most readers were not aware of the “iceberg” of a writer’s career (just the top showing what was publishable, and all the rest below the waterline) because the “gatekeeping” system of editors and publishers kept the public from seeing the slush tsunami coming out of the depths of the Aspiring Writer Ocean. Now with indie pub, self pub, e-pub, et al, the slush tsunami is on full display.

And buyers are (I strongly suspect) becoming even more reliant on curators/gatekeepers: to help winnow the grain from the chaff. Whether it’s a trusted publishing label, or a reviewer, or even a starred system like Amazon.com uses. Heck, when Oprah was still on television, one good mention from her in her book club could practically guarantee a bestseller. Because a very large number of consumers trusted Oprah to “point the way” towards the good stuff; in an era that predated indie pub.

Which is not to say that the curators/gatekeepers/reviewers are infallible, or always get it right. We all know of books or movies or music that make us cringe, yet these things were/are soaringly popular anyway. We also know of books and music and movies which got huge push in the marketplace (from their producers, studios, publishers, labels, and so forth) but the projects fizzled out due to lack of audience traction: the fish simply would not bite!

Dean Wesley Smith once told me (rather sternly) that just because I don’t like a thing, that doesn’t make a thing bad. A man like Dan Brown obviously found a way to tell a singularly engaging, compelling story without necessarily being an artisan wordsmith. Which is worth (I think) paying attention to. Because there are a ton of very talented, beautiful wordsmiths in the field who will never be able to quit their day jobs due to the fact they are “boutique” writers who haven’t found a way to tap commercial veins; or even openly eschew commercialism altogether as venal or petty or beneath their sensibilities.

In the end, how you define “success” may not match someone else’s definition. Once upon a time the Science Fiction Writers of America was composed strictly of working professional SF and F authors who earned the majority or totality of their income from their fiction — and could prove it with royalties statements and bank receipts.

Now?

Success appears to be a moving target. One author may not be satisfied with anything less than six or seven-figure deals and movie options. Someone else may be content with the occasional short story sale to a critically-acclaimed academic review. The “rules” by which each of these authors operates will be different, and there might not be a lot of overlap in terms of attitude, or outlook.

Me? I think it’s possible to strike a happy medium between art and finance. And I am old enough to have grown up in the era of traditional publishing, thus some of my benchmarks are tied to achievements or accomplishments in that realm.

But I am also young enough to see that publishing is passing through a rather turbulent period — the rules of the game are being overturned by technology. Everyone involved in publishing (from the writer to the consumer, and waypoints in between) are feeling the shift. And how it all shakes out is difficult to guess at this point. Thus I think it pays to pay attention to examples of people finding success via non-traditional models. Not because non-traditional is the new “best” way, but because non-traditional is at least a way that didn’t exist even a decade ago.

Which takes me back to fretting over the sea of new authors putting their work on the indie market before their skillset/talent can sustain the effort. Contrary to popular opinion, writing stories and books worth reading is not easy. Almost everyone who is doing it for five figures (or more) per year (and I am now one of those) had to go through a teething period. The gatekeepers provided a gauge against which to measure ability. I know this was true for me, and is still true in most respects. Passing the gatekeeper test is a good way for me to keep myself honest — and it’s fun, as well as lucrative too.

Thus if your LIFETIME PRACTICE (call it Sr) is shallow or even nonexistent, even a ferocious amount of MARKETING (call it Sm) won’t necessarily get you the results you want. Because sooner or later readers can tell if you’re not camera-ready. You won’t have honed your abilities to the same degree a doctor or a pilot has honed her abilities — through long hours and years of training. Maybe once in a blue moon some fortunate soul can emerge spontaneously, with a gift for writing so sparkling in its wholeness, that no honing is necessary. 98.9% of the rest of us have to slog through the trenches: write, get rejected, write some more, get rejected some more, and write again still.

Indie pub lets you skip the honing as well as the gatekeepers.

And I fear indie pub also lets too many people skip success, too.

So take a look at your equation: what factors are involved, and where do you think you might be weak? Could you stand to improve somewhere? Devote hours or energy to something that maybe isn’t fun or sexy, but which is absolutely necessary? Are you overlooking or ignoring anything that might make you embarrassed? Heck, what’s your real motivation, anyway? Do you love and enjoy the process of writing? Of making stories? Or do you simply want the fame (Sf) and the glory, without some of the unglamorous work?

Hat tips: Hugo/Nebula winner Mike Resnick, Nebula/Hugo nominee Nancy Fulda, Nebula nominee Jake Kerr, bestsellers Eric Flint and Kevin J. Anderson, and Codex members James Beamon and Nicole Cushing.

Superstars Writing Seminars 2013

One thing I’ve noticed lately is the proliferation of writing workshops. Everyone and their dog seems to be teaching one. Dozens upon dozens of workshops. So how do you determine which ones are worth their salt? My rule has always been: I don’t spend any money on continuing education unless I am sitting at the feet of the people I most wish to emulate with my own career. This has been true of craft, but it’s also true of business. And to my mind it’s the business aspect that is almost more important than craft. Most new writers will figure out the craft aspect sooner or later, if they keep working at it. But even a very skilled craftsperson can spend an entire career lost at sea if (s)he doesn’t take the time to learn the business. And professional writing is a business, make no mistake about it. Sometimes, six and seven figure business! With so much riding on your business decisions, I think it’s prudent to devote as much time as you can spare to your business plan. But where to start?

I first attended the Superstars Writing Seminar in January of 2011, at the urging of bestseller Kevin J. Anderson, whom I had first met at the 2010 Writers of the Future workshop. I had all of two professional short story publications under my belt, was terribly excited (and terribly nervous) about the road ahead, and felt like I needed to spend a few days immersed in an environment that would help me figure out how I wanted to tackle the rest of my writing career: my 12 month plan, then my 2 year plan, then my 5 year plan, et cetera.

Superstars Writing Seminar did not disappoint. Every single speaker was a top-drawer professional with a proven track record of success — the kind of success I wanted to achieve. I did not want to be a boutique writer. If I’d been satisfied with payments in contributors copies and having only a few dozen friends and family read my work, I’d have never bothered submitting my work to professional markets in the first place. But because I’d decided that any activity requiring as much of a time investment as writing required (to produce the stories and hone my craft) it ought to jolly damn well pay for itself. Or, in the case of some of my writing heroes like Larry Niven, more than pay for itself.

I am pleased to report that almost three years later, everything I learned at Superstars Writing Seminar has proven to be, not only accurate, but prophetic. There is wisdom and practical guidance at Superstars I think has been invaluable to me. So much so that I still go back and review my Superstars Writing Seminars audio files on a regular basis, either to parse out some new detail that wasn’t popping for me in the beginning, but which screams out at me now — or to remind myself of some things I already knew, and just needed to have re-hammered into my brain. Because it’s easy to get side tracked and lose focus.

If you’re a new writer, or you’re a working writer who feels like (s)he could be getting more “bang for the buck” in terms of progress, dollar-per-hour value, and so forth, I can’t think of a better place to go and learn than Superstars Writing Seminars. It really is a special event. Jam-packed with excellent information, advice, anecdotes, things to think about, ideas to take your career in a new direction, or even pick up a career that’s idling or has stalled out somewhere along the line. I feel that even those publishing regularly and doing well could benefit, as there is a synergy at Superstars (between attendees and speakers alike) that tends to generate a unique conversation that I don’t think you can easily get anywhere else.

There’s still plenty of time to sign up. This year’s workshop will be held in lovely Colorado Springs on May 14, 15, and 16. I’ll be there helping out. I’d like to see you there too. My initial investment (of time and money) in 2011 has already paid for itself several times over — and continues to pay for itself. Again, workshops that propose to help you with craft, are a dime a dozen. But workshops that can actually help you with business, taught by successful business-savvy writers who are full-time at what they do, and loving it?

Do yourself a favor and make the decision to commit. Not just because it’s a bang-up fun three days, but because it can literally change your life. I know it did mine, and I am glad I went. Again, the money I invested has more than come back to me — and then some!

Metaphor Alert: The Fine Sport of Writing

When I was a youngster, both my father and my grandfather taught me to fish. For a desert state, Utah has a surprising plethora of lakes, streams, and reservoirs, all loaded with a variety of trout, cat fish, bass, pan fish, walleye, and if you’re into that sort of thing, carp. Below the age of 10 I didn’t give a hoot what it was. If it swam and put up a decent fight on the hook, I wanted to catch it. The bigger it was and the more it bent my fishing pole, the more fun I had. So much so I’d typically spend the days leading up to an expected fishing expedition daydreaming about the kind of fish I’d catch: how many, how large they’d be, and how marvelous a time my father and I, as well as my grandfather, and occasionally cousins or friends, would have.

Today while I was making a “trophy” out of my latest story in Analog — I razor off the cover of the issue, then razor out the interior art and/or title page, plus perhaps as much as one page of text, to be laminated broad-sheet style, and tacked up in my office — it struck me that ‘landing’ a publication in a major venue like Analog is a lot like landing a nice big rainbow trout. Takes knowing the bodies of water (the markets) and which lures or bait to use (types and kinds of stories accepted) as well as knowing the seasons and the conditions (reading issues to get a feel for what’s being published) and, finally, going out on a boat or casting off from the shore, over and over and over (submitting stories) until you get bites (personalized rejections) or catch something (sale!)

Having a physical copy of the book or venue in your hand — seeing your words rendered in the pages — is one of the most supremely satisfying moments of being a published writer. Not that different from bringing a massive cutthroat or bass into the net. The level of satisfaction is off the charts.

But the analogy holds for other sports as well. Getting a story sold and seeing it published professionally is like bowling over 250 or making an eagle at the golf course or getting a home run at the ball diamond. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of work to get to the point where you can see yourself sold and published professionally on a regular basis. The level of gratification is tied — in my opinion — directly to the energy, time, and effort devoted to building up one’s craft or skill. Anything accomplished easily, or as a fluke, just doesn’t feel the same. But seeing yourself in print, after long struggle, and knowing that you’ve truly earned your hour in the sun, that’s one of the most magical moments in a writer’s life.

The September 2011 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact came to my mail box about ten months after the November 2010 issue — which was the first time I got to see myself in print, even before Writers of the Future. I was a little nervous from January of 2010 (when I sold my first story to Analog) to September of 2010 (when I sold the story that’s now in the September 2011 issue) because I’d not yet established a true “track record” and was painfully aware of the fact that fledgling writers appear and disappear all the time. It happens constantly. The only way to become a known quantity is to keep selling — again, and again, and again, until your bibliography expands accordingly, and your level of recognition grows.

Selling “The Chaplain’s Assistant” was, therefore, a huge relief. I’d been sort of holding my breath up until that sale — wondering if the previous two sales hadn’t been flukes. Was I going to be the one-hit-wonder boy? I’d definitely been getting a better quality of rejection since being able to list pro publications in my cover letter, but then I’d been getting some nice rejections anyway, even before I won Writers of the Future. Was I doomed to suffer what many Writers of the Future winners encounter: a sophomore slump? Months or maybe years spent toiling between the initial break-in sale(s) and those more regular, ‘establishment’ sales that are the hallmark of a functional industry professional?

But now that I’m sitting here with my laminated “trophy” of the September 2011 issue of Analog — knowing I have two more stories coming in subsequent issues later this year — it seems to me that another way in which writing is like sports, is that you’re only as good as your last game, your last day on the water, your last match, your last event. True professionals don’t just accomplish a handful of things, they make a habit out of going back to the course, the court, the range, the lake, the slope, the track, and putting themselves out there again and again, over and over. Regardless of results. Oh yes, the sales I have had are incredibly nice for a guy at my stage of the overall writing game, but when I look at the people with decades under their belts, they all seem to have had the same kind of determination to simply keep doing the work.

When my Dad and I fished regularly, I’d wager we caught fish on just half the occasions we went somewhere to put our lines in the water. There were a lot of way-too-early mornings where we got out of bed at oh-dark-thirty and drove an hour or two to some dam, some bend in a river, some lake shore, and spent the whole day casting, never to catch a thing. I remember trying to introduce fishing to a few friends who didn’t do it much, and they gave up quickly because they didn’t like how much non-success was involved in being a successful fisherman.

Writing is a lot like that. You have to be prepared to keep going to the spots, hitting the water, and not bringing back anything. Again and again. You have to find other ways to make going-through-the-motions meaningful or enjoyable, until, at last, you get those amazing days when the fish come fast and hard, one right after another.

If you’re in the writing game strictly for the fame quotient, or the notoriety quotient, or just because you think it will be impressive to tell other people that you’re a writer — a published writer! — then I suspect you’re in for some rough years. Yes, the end goal is a marvelous thing to reach. But you have to find some satisfaction in the process too — in the small and subtle ways you can slowly teach yourself to get better. “Better” being one of those subjective things that’s tough to nail down, but you know it when it’s happening, because you go back and read something you wrote last year, or two years back, or even ten years back and you recognize how far you’ve come.

And then, bam, it happens. That day (those days?) when the hard work and the tedium and the frustration pay off. And boy, do they pay off! Tangibly, and economically. Suddenly, it all seems worth it. More than worth it, in fact. Because the money is real, and the words in print are real, and you can sit there on your couch or at your desk or curled up in your bed with a copy of your book or your story in your hand, and realize that for the rest of your life nobody will ever, ever be able to take that accomplishment away from you. Ever. It’s yours. The fruition of everything you’ve ever worked for.

Earlier in June I had the pleasure of watching the Dallas Mavericks win the National Basketball Association’s championship, before a packed and hostile crowd. Dallas was the underdog in its showdown with the Miami Heat — especially since the Mavericks had previously folded up and melted down in a prior Finals match-up with the very same team, five years earlier. Dallas was old, while the Heat were relatively young. Dallas had but one big star, the Heat had several. In a certain sense, Dallas reminded me — just a little bit — of my beloved Utah Jazz from their Stockton-to-Malone days. My Jazz of yore never got their championship, but it was a real treat watching the Mavericks get theirs. The underdog, less talented, older team, had won — against the odds, and the predictions of the popular press.

How did they do it?

I think it comes down to one word: heart.

I think writing is a lot like that too. I think it takes heart to be a successful, long-term professional writer. Heart being that somewhat nebulous combination of will-to-win plus the stamina and determination necessary to outlast all setbacks, fight through and jump over all roadblocks. Beat the odds. And just like the Mavericks, it doesn’t just happen for one game. It takes an entire season of games. Or in the case of veteran players like Jason Kidd, numerous seasons stacked on top of each other: the accumulated experience, wisdom, and gut-level feeling a person gets for a thing they’ve been doing relentlessly for a long time.

2011 is half over. I’ve had a string of very nice things happen for me in the last 6 months. Indeed, the last 10 months. But the game keeps on going. I’m only as good as my last sale, and as more time creeps up and adds on — between the last sale and that next, elusive sale — I feel the old familiar suspicions begin to stir. Am I good enough? Can I keep going? Will I run out of heart and wind up on the sidelines of the game while other people keep playing? When that starts to happen I know it’s time to re-tie my shoes, get up off the wood, and dribble back out into the lanes. I may not be the fastest, nor the quickest, nor the most talented. But I think I’ve made it so far with a refusal to quit. That, and having a good support system of family and friends who support me in my dreams. It’s for them, almost more than myself, that I want to keep going. Because I’d hate to let everybody down.

Which is an oft-heard refrain of many sports figures, when asked how or why they keep doing what they do. Everybody’s got mentors, coaches, mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sisters and brothers and buddies and comrades, all pushing and cheering and hoping for success. With that kind of momentum, it’s almost a sin to quit or walk away.

So I haven’t. And I don’t. Even when other stuff interferes with the expected flow of events, as it has several times now in 2011.

Gotta get back to the lake. Put another line in the water. The fish won’t catch themselves!

Fear and Loathing at the Awards Table

As long as I’ve been paying attention to the pros in this business, I’ve been warned against giving too much credence to literature industry awards — of any sort. The systems used to bestow those awards are not perfect, and the reasons why a given voter in an awarding body may elect to show favor on a particular candidate writer or story may have nothing at all to do with the merits of the fiction itself. Both jurists and voters can and do cast their ballots using all sorts of subjective criteria, from whether or not a given writer belongs to the ‘correct’ political party, to how the jurist or voter happens to feel on any particular day, to whether or not the jurist or voter is cordial with the person who is up for an award, or whose work is getting noticed enough to be placed on any number of “short” lists, prior to final elimination. Unless a given award is “blind” — such as with Writers of the Future — it’s almost impossible to tell how or why a given author or a given story wins.

Still, the awards are part of the fabric of the business. From in-genre awards such as the Nebula (voted on by members of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) and the Hugo (voted on by the members of the yearly World Science Fiction Convention) up to the elite prizes coveted by the entire fiction community, such as the Pulitzer or the Nobel. Whether we like it or not, we pay attention to awards, and even those cynical of the awarding process tend to be tickled if ever an awarding group or body happens to favor them. Lord knows I got a true kick out of my Writers of the Future award, not to mention my AnLab award — mainly because I feel both of these were fairly given on the merits of the stories themselves. Because in the case of one, it was impossible for the judges to know who I was, and in the case of the other I was so new to the venue that it’s almost impossible for my name to have swayed votes.

Perhaps because we can never really know how or why a given story or a given author wins an award, the awards can also generate controversy. Frequent award-winners are often accused of merely having a sufficient number of friends among jurists or voters to bring in the trophy, while winners who seem to defy expectation or come out of left-field, similarly generate suspicion of “gamesmanship” on the part of jurists or voters.

“How in the world did THAT ever win an award??”

“How in the heck did HE get the prize??”

Familiar refrains. I think we’ve all said more or less the same things, at different times. Much as we often find it hard to believe that a movie we didn’t like, is earning hundreds of millions at the box office. When a thing jags badly against our individual tastes, I think we have an almost unconscious tendency to want to find the “real” reason for that thing’s success. Because we ourselves struggle to appreciate how or why a given thing may be appreciated by others.

Certainly I couldn’t easily grasp why a film such as, say, “Avatar,” went on to become the top-grossing movie in history. Even with the magnificent visuals and special effects. To this day, I still struggle with that one. Though I must admit, as the saying goes, it’s difficult to argue with success.

But people do argue with success, and especially on awards, those arguments can take some unfortunate detours. Often by people — experienced professionals — who really ought to know better than to take their own subjective tastes and peccadilloes, and pass them off as if they are the dividend of purely deductive reasoning. I suspect this comes of the high-IQ demon, because the very-smart have an unfortunate tendency to assume (based on their smartness) that their emotional and intellectual process is somehow ‘elevated’ above that of other people.

Or, as also happens, a person may not in fact be rippingly brilliant, but he or she has expended a great deal of time and energy becoming (in their own estimation) a “subject matter expert” on a given thing, thus they will make pronouncements couched in the vernacular of authority. Literary analysts and critics often fall into this bunch, as the very-experienced reviewer may assume that because (s)he has read and reviewed X number of stories, this automatically gives his/her reviews greater relevance or validity, compared to the average consumer’s viewpoint.

I would like to offer a voice of caution against this kind of intellectual hubris. The main reason being that writing, like music or art, is a thoroughly subjective endeavour. Lately when I’ve been asked by newer writers to take a look at their stories, I’ve had to preface my critiques with many caveats — because I am uncomfortable claiming any degree of authority on what may make a story “good” or “bad.” I don’t think I am qualified to make that sort of claim, and neither is anyone else for that matter.

Which is not to say we can’t each of us — for ourselves — make value judgments about the artistic products that surround us. I certainly don’t place much artistic value on the works of, say, Andres Serrano, and for me it’s perfectly valid to look at something like the infamous “Piss Christ” and declare it crap-o-la. But I am humble enough to realize that this is my value judgment for me. Others may not share it. In fact, any value judgment I make against a piece of art is liable to have just as many (or more) people making positive value judgments in favor of the same item.

The same is true for books and stories, though I have to admit being dragged by the ear to my conclusion that it’s simply not fair for me to call a book, a story, or an author, “crappy,” as if the value judgment were self-evident for all to see.

It took a seasoned pro to pull me aside and say, “Look kid, author X or novel Y may not be to your taste, but they obviously work for somebody. Instead of getting mad about it, stop and think about how or why a given writer or a given book, or series of books, is speaking to an audience that large. There’s something deeper going on, and it’s worth considering. Maybe even respecting — though you personally may not like what author X puts out.”

That stern-but-friendly advice really got me to thinking. Because before that, I’d tended to do what we all do — pick on this or that award-winner or bestseller and wonder (loudly or sarcastically) how a person or product so obviously poor had managed to gain as much traction with audiences and/or critics and/or jurists and voters.

I have made it my personal policy since then to pay very close attention any time I start having a negative reaction to someone else’s success. Usually that’s a train signal for me, to stop and consider more carefully why that reaction is happening — to pull it apart and dig down to the root of the thing. Almost always it’s because I either think the work itself is “substandard” or because I have a personal issue with the person who created it. In both cases, these are 100% subjective, emotional reactions — and I’ve got no business parading these opinions as if they’re anything other than what they are.

Unfortunately, lots of other people have no such filter mechanism. And subjective opinions are asserted as objective facts, sometimes for vain, silly, shabby, or otherwise underhanded reasons. Jealousy can fuel sniping disguised as critique. Bruised egos can infect evaluation. Friends may attack the competitors of friends, or take the stance that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Where awards are concerned this can get especially nasty, since there are a lot of people who simply don’t want “that kind” of writer or “those kinds” of stories to receive any sort of literary accolade. Snobbery is alive and well — especially among the well-educated in the business — and any sort of accolade that is awarded “out of the natural order of things” is liable to generate controversy.

Recently, a friend of mine had his well-deserved award questioned in just such a manner. Because his award was “out of order” with the assumptions and predispositions of a certain few people, it was concocted that he could have only won with the help of a loyal phalanx of friends, voting as a unified block. The problem with this assertion is that it cannot be proven — nobody can read hearts nor minds — and it automatically devalues or impugns the worth of the story itself. In this case, I think the story is quite a good story. Perhaps even the writer’s best? That it won is not a surprise to me, but then again I don’t have the biases against “these kinds” of stories and “that kind” of writer that certain other people appear to possess.

In the end, I have to conclude that, as flawed as awards systems can be, they still arrive at a nominally positive outcome, more often than not. Yes, sometimes, the systems can be gamed. But also, sometimes, the systems work exactly as the spirit of their creation intended: to honor and acknowledge truly exemplary or important accomplishment in the enterprise of literature. Those of us on the receiving end should be thankful and humble — especially for those awards granted directly from the readership — and those still hungering for awards should remember that energy expended on sour grapes is probably better expended on writing new books and new stories. Crying foul or otherwise trying to besmirch the accolades of others not only makes you, the complaining party, look small, it also seldom has any lasting or negative impact on the award-winner.

Don’t be shabby, be inspiring instead!

My teacher and award-winning collaborator Mike Resnick is right: I’m having a damned good rookie year. I broke in with the top break-in market in the genre — Writers of the Future — and I went on to publish in and sell repeatedly to one of the top professional markets of all-time: Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

More than that, though, I managed to earn the appreciation and respect of the Analog readers, as confirmed by my getting the Analog ‘AnLab’ Readers’ Choice award for my novelette, “Outbound,” a story which continues to surprise me in all kinds of unexpected ways — from stirring up interest in Hollywood, to generating some of the nicest fan mail I may ever get as a writer.

Which is why I found myself quite troubled today when I stumbled across a link on Facebook that pointed to a guest blog by a writer who seems to have made it his business to look down upon not only the venues he sells in, but also the editors who edit those venues, and the readership that reads those venues.

I won’t link back to the article or name the writer — because I’ve long considered this person to be a shabby fellow with shabby pretensions, who is the way he is precisely because he seeks the attention it gets him. Suffice it to say that his apparent contempt for his entire audience — markets, editors, and readers — dripped from the article. I wasn’t surprised. I’d seen that contempt before. Contempt — distilled, purified — is what this particular writer hangs his hat on. So I wasn’t particularly put off if only because I expect nothing less from this guy.

I was bothered, however, because I knew there would be other writers — aspiring and established — who would look at the article and say to themselves, “Yeah, yeah, that’s ballsy! That’s the kind of writer I want to be!”

Allow me to propose to you that contempt of this sort is cheap. Any idiot can color vigorously and loudly “outside the lines” and then pretend to despise the very eyes that view his artwork. When you sneer at your audience like that you are breaking what I consider to be an implicit contract between fiction writers and fiction readers: that we the writers are obligated to provide an emotional and mental experience that is provoking, yes, but that also has positive, redeeming value, told truly.

Let me emphasize the words positive, redeeming value, told truly here, because this is very often what separates explosively popular fiction like the Harry Potter franchise from, say, the brilliantly-written yet obscure works foisted upon MFA grad students. The academic, critical and literary communities — in a centuries-long effort to refine their tastes — have more or less abandoned the simple knowledge that in order for a story to have life, it has to have positive meaning for the readership.

Bestseller and fellow Utah writer and teacher Tracy Hickman is quite emphatic about this. That story must have meaning and that this meaning will impact and change lives. Tracy has the war medals from a wounded veteran to prove it — that veteran saved the lives of his squad-mates precisely because a story by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis inspired the veteran to action in the heat of battle. A fact that Tracy finds humbling to the point of tears, but which he points out to illustrate to his students that this stuff we’re all typing away at on our word processors — these tales we tell — aren’t just bullshit. They’re potentially going to be read and pondered by people long after we’re dead. A ripple effect of unimaginable proportion.

Such potential should not be handled lightly, nor should it be handled with cynicism.

It doesn’t matter what you write. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror. Westerns, Techno-Thrillers, Spy, or Mystery. When you set out to put your stories in front of other people, you are making a promise to them that the stories will have meaning and value. That you take this promise seriously. That your fingers are not crossed behind your back. You might not succeed in being entertaining — which is a whole other Oprah, and requires a synergy of craft, writer taste, and reader taste together — but you’ve at least made an honest effort to acknowledge that your readers — and the editors, and the venues to which you sell — are themselves deserving of respect. As the consumers, if nothing else. But more, I think, as kindred souls: because all writers must be readers first, and all writers should be able to remember the days when books and stories were truly magic that enthralled, enraptured, and ultimately uplifted.

Thus it is forbidden to cheat on your audience. And by “cheat” I mean it’s grossly unprofessional to at any time move your hand out from behind your back and reveal your crossed fingers, and say, “Ha ha, just kidding!” As a reader, I’ve had that happen to me a time or two. There are still dents in the drywall under the putty and paint I’ve had to use to cover up for how furiously-hard I’ve flung such books across the room. This is a cheat. A falsehood. You might be a fiction writer — perhaps, even a brilliant fiction writer — but there can be nothing positive said about a story that is told strictly for the sake of putting off, putting down, duping, fooling, or insulting the audience. You’re lying to your readers when you do that, and lying to your readers is just about the worst sin there is in the creation of fiction.

I know that sounds oxymoronic, but I am not sure how else to put it.

As a fiction writer, your job is to tell the truth.

This applies to award-winners and the famous, just as much as it applies to brand-new people just beginning on their very first original stories.

You will occasionally run across “boundary-breaker” writers who gloat that they deliberately set out to write a certain story which “broke the rules,” precisely because they wanted to see if they could sneak it past a certain editor, a certain market, a certain readership — and then pat themselves on the back for such literary sleight-of-hand. I say to you without reservation that this kind of literary burglary is a gross violation of the contract. It’s dirty pool! Your job is not to evade the sniff-test and then, having successfully published, point and laugh at your editor or your audience and say, “Ha ha, I did it, you rubes!”

I sometimes suspect that the only reason we have writers who keep attempting this, and think it fun, is because such writers are not required to physically stand on-stage and take the cat-calls, cries of anger, and the splattery of rotten fruit that would surely ensue. Being a literary scamp is easy because you never have to face up to your actions in public. Especially in the era of the Internet, where being a literary scamp has been elevated to a very high platform indeed. Whole blogging careers are made on this stuff.

Which probably explains why I am not a terribly voracious consumer of such blogs. Snark and cynicism being the chief tools of the scamp.

I think there are better ways. Certainly I’ve tried very hard — so far — to tell the truth. Not every story I write is clean, with clean language, but I like to think every story I write is “true” in that the tale is told honestly, with a whole-hearted desire to provide both positivity and value to the readership. I did it with “Outbound” when I originally wrote it in late 2008, and I continue to do it with stories like, “Ray of Light,” which I am told will be forthcoming as the showpiece in a future issue of Analog — with a Bob Eggleton cover no less(!!)

Had I kept my fingers crossed behind my back when I wrote “Outbound,” had I viewed my editor Dr. Schmidt or his venue with contempt, I am sure I’d have written a very, very different story. One that I am 99% certain would not have passed Dr. Schmidt’s discerning sniff-test, and even if it had, I am sure the readership would have balked. Or simply flipped past the story, upon detecting that the writer doing the story-telling was grinning and snickering like an 8 year old who’s just slipped something nasty into his friend’s school lunch when the friend isn’t looking.

The bottom line is that most people don’t like putting up with jerks. When you’re sitting down to do your stories, resist the urge to have any fun at the expense of the audience. Treat them with the respect they deserve. Give them something that will stick with them long after they’ve read the words, THE END, and which will provide for them — as it did for Tracy Hickman’s veteran reader — moments of inspiration wherein the story truly grows beyond the story, and becomes something altogether new, more meaningful, and more alive than might otherwise be.

That’s your job, as plainly as I can put it — and without bursting into four-lettered tirades.

ETA: Hat tip to my friend and associate Eric James Stone for suggesting the word “cheat” as opposed to “trick.” The article has been modified accordingly, as “cheat” fits so much more nicely.

An interview with The Host

My fellow Lincoln City recidivist Annie Bellet was nice enough to do an interview with me. You can see it now over at her blog, click here to jump to the page. There were some thought-provoking questions in the list, some of which were just juicy from a reminiscence standpoint, and some of which sparked answers which I suspect may be of value for people trying to break into science fiction and fantasy commercial publication. Like I say in the interview, breaking in was just the first mountain I had to climb. Before me now stretches the vast, Himalayan landscape of the professional fiction world. (gulp) Do I really want to keep doing this? Yes, apparently so!