You can’t quit

I think almost everyone who writes — barring a rare few — will decide at some point that they’re tired of trying. Statistically, this bears out. In any given writing program or class, only about 30% of the people will have any real success in the commercial world. Everyone else, the other 70%, will eventually lay the burden down and go do something else.

I can grok it. It’s a lot of work to build up and keep up any kind of writing momentum. It takes an almost obtuse level of stubbornness to ignore the setbacks and the roadblocks and the odds, and keep producing and sending the work out. Most writers will, at some point, decide that struggling to become a well-sold, financially lucrative professional fiction author is just too hard. Or, if they actually get to that point, they discover that staying at that level is too hard, and they will either back off, walk away, or lapse into a sparser, less consistent production pattern.

I think this is why I am so attracted to exemplars like Dave Wolverton, Kevin J. Anderson, Dean Wesley Smith, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and so forth. These writers have been through lots of turmoil and changes and ups and downs, and they’ve found a way to keep going and survive as professionals. All of them consistently sell, and all of them consistently say that they have more fun doing what they do, than anything else they’ve ever done. Even with as much work and uncertainty as there can be in the business.

I remember when I went through Basic Combat Training in 2003, our Drill Sergeants told us the first day — as we stood around in our PTs, toes on the outside line of a rectangular area dubbed the Kill Zone — that at least one third of us wouldn’t make it. One third of us would wash out. At the time I didn’t even know you could wash out, but over nine weeks I watched it happen. People got sick. People got hurt. People had discipline issues. And people simply gave up and quit.

I know I wanted to quit a few times, especially since I got very sick at the beginning and at the end of the experience. Trying to do BCT while seriously ill is its own little version of hell. I only kept going because I knew if I didn’t keep going, I would never be able to look at myself in the mirror again, and not feel like a failure. I’d never be able to look my wife in the eye, nor anyone who knew I’d joined the military, without feeling like I’d blown it. So I gutted it out, and I am sure glad I did. The military has paid off big time for me. BCT sucked, but it didn’t kill me — even though I sometimes wondered if it would.

I think writing is not all that different. Those who gut it out, become successful. Those who decide it’s not worth the trouble and the effort, move on to something else. I guess it all comes down to how much each of us wants this thing? How maniacal are we willing to get?

Jay Lake is a guy whose level of writing mania is epic to the point of being scary. I know for a fact if I’d gone through the cancer hell he’s gone through, it would have destroyed my writing, and probably just about everything else in my life too. I’d have curled up in a corner and quietly wished for the world to go away. But with rare exception, Jay kept up his production goals and made progress and kept selling, and never gave up even when the cancer was taking its toll and other things — even his relationships — began to dissolve.

I am not sure I have even half of Jay’s determination. But I admire the hell out of Jay because of his drive.

When I decided to really get invested again in my writing and make a “final push” for professional break-in, I sort of made a deal with myself that I couldn’t quit. I absolutely could not quit, for any reason. It felt a lot like the decision I had to make to gut it out with Basic Combat Training. There was no going back, only going through. And this is still how it feels. Each time something nice happens for me, I allow myself a day or so to feel elated and excited about it, but then I pull my hat back down over my eyes and re-focus. Because there is more writing to do, and it won’t do itself if I let myself get too hung up on worrying if I’ve got what it takes, will I ever really be able to make it, and so forth.

Chances are, if I keep putting my head down and driving forward, I’ll look up some day and realize, hey, I made it! And then, probably, I’ll put my hat back down over my eyes and I’ll push on some more. Because this again is what the exemplars do: they don’t rest on their laurels, they aren’t satisfied with just one successful project, and they don’t slack off. Or at least, not for very long. They put the work gloves back on, pick up the literary pick and shovel, and head back to the creative ditch to dig more stories and novels out of their own particular creative Earth. Like coal mining. The seams are down there, but you won’t ever touch them if you sit around on the surface and waste time.

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Shut Up and Write

Shut up and write. Of all the many, many pieces of valuable advice that bestselling author Kevin J. Anderson distributed at the Superstars seminar last weekend, this was the one that really got under my skin. All week long I’ve been re-listening to Kevin’s 11 tips on increasing productivity, and his first tip is the one that seems to shout the loudest — shut up and write.

The reason this got under my skin is because I am an expert at finding excuses to not write. On any given day I can come up with 50 different things to do, all of which are more important than sitting down and logging writing time. And from a certain perspective — the perspective held by sane people — all 50 of those things really are more important. But as a writer, I have committed myself to what Tom Clancy once described as a self-induced form of mental illness. I shouldn’t be giving myself the option to do something other than write — not before the day’s designated writing objectives have been met. Whether they’re a set number of words, a set amount of time sitting in front of the keyboard, or perhaps a chapter or chapter(s) completed, and so forth.

But I have been giving myself the option to not write. Sometimes, to an extent that’s embarrassing. I’m a semi-pro trying to figure out how to become a full-time pro, and I’m still stuck (in too many ways) in the hobbyist’s mentality. Which basically means I often don’t write unless I’ve suddenly got a sizable chunk of free time that also happens to coincide with me being in the mood. Everybody who is a hobbyist almost always waits until those two conditions are met, before they will sit down and put words on the blank page.

The professionals I pay attention to have learned to move past mood. They’ve also often learned to move past the requirement that they have large pieces of free time in which to sit at the computer and create prose. Ergo, they’ve figured out a way to make use of the small pieces of time in their lives, for writing. And they do it whether they’re in the mood or not. They don’t wait for circumstances to fall exactly into place, because they know that circumstances so rarely do.

Thus the keys to being a professional are not talent or inspiration as much as they’re discipline, being able to ignore silent doubts about quality, and forging ahead with dogged consistency.

All the pros I admire had day jobs, before they became bestsellers. All of them figured out a way to put in the time and the effort, day after week after month after year, on top of their normal working lives, until they’d written what they wanted to write, and achieved the goals they’d wanted to achieve.

I’ve got big goals for 2011. I can already tell I won’t make even half of them if I don’t figure out a way to have some discipline about what I am doing. I’ve said it before to many people: 2011 will be my year of writing professionally. No more hobbyist mentality. I want at least two or three books and a couple dozen shorter works done and out to the markets before the year is over.

But as much as I might have sworn it to myself on New Years, breaking old habits is very, very hard. I am, by nature, the kind of person who likes to take it easy. I am also the kind of person who finds it tough to focus intently on long-term, incremental projects without getting distracted or bored. I have also always desired and preferred large hunks of free time before I’ll sit down and type. Because my emotional writing sense is that nothing worthwhile can get done if I don’t have whole hours in which to drop into The Zone and get cruising.

Well, it doesn’t take an idiot to figure out that I’m going to have to let go of these blocking mindsets if I am going to have success this year, and in years to come.

So I need to take Kevin’s advice and shut up and write. If Kevin’s muse sounds like R. Lee Ermey, barking orders, I need to develop an internal TAC officer who bird-dogs me with my daily goals. Drops me for push-ups when I screw up or slack off. Revokes privileges if I miss my wordcount or otherwise fail to achieve — daily, weekly, monthly — what I have set out to achieve.

It’s been easy to slack on writing goals because nobody punishes me externally if I decide to goof off and surf the internet instead of write a few pages. Which is, according to pros like Kevin, one of the huge problems with trying to become and remain a professional, working fiction author. There is nobody but YOU to enforce the standard. Nobody but YOU to keep yourself on track. Nobody but YOU can make yourself do the hard chore of writing without being in the mood, without having the large blocks of free time, and without having the luxury of spontaneous creativity on a flexible schedule.

The professionals I admire sometimes seem inhumanly maniacal about their writing. They seem to miss no opportunity to put new words onto the white page. They write waiting in the doctor’s office. They write during the commute to work. They write on lunch and smoke breaks. They write for 15 minutes before bed, or for 30 minutes before work. They sometimes do all of the above, and they do these things every stinking day, such that I begin to wonder if you have to be a literal machine to function like that.

Ironically, many writers who do quit the day job and create an open schedule for themselves, discover that they write less because when suddenly they don’t have the familiarity of the structured routine to rely on, they invent all kinds of excuses and distractions for themselves — so that their production almost always takes a hit. Sounds counterintuitive, yes, but that’s what statistically happens, more often than not.

So it’s clearly not about not having the time to write. Clearly, I shouldn’t pine for something which is really just a fantasy anyway. If I am not a disciplined, structured writer now — with the day job — how can I ever hope to be a disciplined, structured writer when I have no boss, other than myself? It won’t work.

So I keep re-listening to my MP3 from the Superstars seminar, and paying attention to the wisdom which I have heard from so many professional writers so many times before: don’t wait for inspiration or mood, and don’t wait for large blocks of time. If you can only write a few sentences in a short span of time, then dammit, write a few sentences. And every chance you get to write a few more sentences, write a few more sentences. And then a few more, and then a few more…. Do that consistently across days, weeks, and months, and that’s how books get written. Sometimes, bestselling books. No magic to it. Only effort and discipline.

Just… shut up and write!

I got 3 rejection slips for Christmas

You know what I got for Christmas? 3 rejection slips from major short fiction publishers: two paper, one electronic. Oh, and I also got the rest of the DVD sets to complete my collection of Star Trek: The Next Generation — major happy dance, that — but I wanted to point out those rejection slips, along with a statistic, to drive home the point that even when you’re professionally published, rejection never stops.

The 2010 statistic: 68 rejection slips, 4 sales.

I know, I don’t want to think about it either. I used to subscribe to the fiction that once you broke in — got your foot in the door of the publishing world — the contracts and sales would fall on your head. You’d be able to sell everything and anything. Sadly, ‘taint so. Yes, those rejection slips will become more detailed and more nicely worded, with specifics as to why a story didn’t work for a particular editor, and best wishes on the next try.

But a rejection is a rejection is a rejection, and they don’t stop coming just because you have a bit of success. I think that’s worth noting, all of you out there in Aspirant Land who are still working hard for your first professional fiction sales. Please gird your loins for the truth: even after that break-in sale, you’re going to have to keep working, keep expecting rejection, and you absolutely must not let rejection slow you down, stop you, or fool you into thinking the first sale was a fluke.

2011 approacheth. That is all, carry on.

Oh, and get your gottdamned manuscripts in for Writers of the Future. Deadline is this Friday! There are 12 empty seats waiting for you in Los Angeles. Volume #28 awaits. Get to it. Miss no opportunity.

On Writing and Skiing: Dare to Ski Bad!

My mentor Dean Wesley Smith is again taking aim at the myth that in order to be a good writer, you have to re-write your work over and over and over, or must somehow slave away at each page like someone will shoot you in the face with a bazooka if every line is not crystal perfect. Down in the comments of this thread I made the observation that writing is a lot like learning to ski — something Dean is well acquainted with, as a man who is a self-described skiing addict.

Having been asked to expound on this comparison, I’m going to import what I wrote at Dean’s blog, and take it a few steps further.

NOTE: it’s been awhile since I got on skis, but when I was a teenager my Dad and I used to frequent the usual Salt Lake City spots: Brighton, Solitude, Park City, and especially Alta. Being both a purist and a technician, Alta was and is my father’s most favorite of all the Utah ski resorts. He and I spent many a Friday — from December through March — playing hookie on the groomed (and not so groomed) runs up Little Cottonwood Canyon. Later this year I’ll be taking my daughter up on the mountain for the first time, so lately I’ve been contemplating my teenaged learning curve — and have been surprised at how similar it is to the learning curve I experience with writing.

Like virtually every sport, skiing has as much to do with muscle memory and unconscious reflexes as it does with deliberate, calculated decision-making. How you proceed down a given slope thus becomes a combination of keeping your eyes on the hill and deciding which paths to take, and letting your body do the rest — according to the accumulated physical stimulus it’s received over however long you’ve been engaged in the sport.

But when you’re very new and you first go up on the hill, regardless of how expensive or newfangled your equipment, you are going to fall on your face. A lot. Over and over and over. It might take you hours to get through even a single run on a modest slope, and you’re liable to come away discouraged and dismayed. What seems effortless in a Warren Miller movie winds up proving near-impossible when you’re doing it for the first time. Second time. Even fifth or sixth time.

So how do you improve your skiing? By reading books and magazines on skiing? By talking about how great it would be to ski, if only you had the time? Or the money? By putting on your bib and parka and boots and standing in the snow in your front yard, imagining yourself skiing? By sitting in the lodge forking out too much money on overpriced, bad lodge food? By complaining to the other lodge denizens about how your boots are too tight, the bindings on your skis are too loose, the snow conditions suck, it’s too cold to be any fun, and so forth?

Naw. You hit the hill! And when you biff it — all skiers biff it, it’s part of what it means to ski — you pick your ass up out of the powder, clear the snow out of the neck of your parka, find the end of the line for the ski lift, go back up to the top of the run, and do it again. And again. And again. And again. And you go home and you rest and heal up — skiing the first few times makes you work muscles you never knew you had — and you come back for more. More runs. More turfing it, sometimes in spectacular style when everyone is watching. Only, they’re not. It just feels like that as you trudge shame-faced across the width of the slope looking for gloves, goggles, poles, skis, and everything else that flew off when you went ass-over-teakettles.

Do this for a whole winter. Maybe take one or two ski classes from the surfer dudes — most ski instructors seem to share 90% personality overlap with their wave-riding brethren — running the hill’s resident ski school. But past that, just keep going up on the mountain as often as you’re able. Don’t worry about looking dumb or feeling dumb. Make yourself get over the fear of doing it bad and looking stupid. Nobody goes magically from beginner to advanced. Everybody has to learn by doing.

In other words, dare to ski bad! It’s the only aperture to improvement!

Keep hitting the hill. Half days. Full days. As often as schedule and other factors allow. Even if you don’t consciously try to improve, you will improve if you do it regularly. I guarantee it. It’s like the body — all on its own — begins to remember what works and what does not work. The more you allow your body to experience the act of skiing, the better you will get at it. Your body remembers, and adjusts all by itself without your having to make much overt effort. Just like riding a bicycle.

Do this for even a couple of seasons, and you’ll start to ski like you belong in a Warren Miller movie. You’ll get ambitious and graduate from green beginner hills to the blue experienced hills, maybe even the vaunted “black diamond” stuff that looks suicidal — at least when you’re brand new. Again, without any real deliberate effort. Let yourself go through the motions again and again and again, and it’s automatic.

But because writing is a largely intellectual exercise we tend to think we won’t get any better at it the same way we get better at a sport like skiing. Bullshit. To get good at it you have to do it. A lot. And not be afraid to biff it in front of the crowded lift line where hundreds of folk can all see your colossal blunder. No big whoop. The experienced ones know: they did it too. And still do it. You just get up, collect yourself, and get back in the queue for another ride on the chair.

Writing is a project of critical mass. It takes time and effort and constant accumulation, until one day **POOF** the contracts start coming in. But you won’t get that critical mass if you don’t do the constant exercise: writing fresh prose. Dean hammers this, and so does every other pro I’ve met who is working and making a living, yet this seems to be the hardest lesson for everyone to accept and internalize. Everyone gets wrapped up in one of several traps.

What are the traps?

Fear of rejection is a big one. This is the same fear that people will think you’re dumb if you biff it on the ski slopes. It’s an empty fear. Nobody on the slops cares if you biff it, and no editor or other writer will care if you get rejected. Rejections mean nothing about the story, are not personal in any way, and trying to read these tea leaves for insight on how to “fix” a story is a waste of time. Rejections also happen to everyone, high and low. Even bestselling authors. Even people with tens or a hundred books or more under their belts. I know this for a fact because I’ve talked to these writers working at that level and they all get rejected. So it’s not like rejection only happens to new people or the aspirant unpublished. I certainly get rejected, all the time, and I expect it will always be like that — even though I am also selling now too. So put away the fear about rejection, it’s a waste of time. And will stop you from mailing your writing to the editors — and you can’t sell or break in without an editor going, hey, I like this. Remember critical mass! You write enough and keep sending it out, some editor will eventually nab you.

Fear of being “bad” is another. Which is where endless re-writing (aka: polishing) kills people. I used to be in this group. I never had much fear about rejections — though I have let them erode morale in the past — but I absolutely bought into the idea that for a piece of work to be good, I had to re-write the f*** out of it. Every writer is different, but every successful writer discovers a threshold at which they say to themselves, “This is as good as I can make this book or this story at this time, so I am calling it ‘done,’ and sending it to an editor.”

Hence the old adage that stories and books are never finished, merely abandoned. To be successful you have to realize when revision — of any sort — has become an exercise in diminishing returns. For me, it’s usually the third pass. I write to a stopping point or reasonable place of conclusion, and go back through the story twice more: once to look for gross errors in grammar, spelling, bad sentences, etc, and once more to make sure the “feel” satisfies me. But even if I am not overly thrilled with the product, if I can “feel” that it’s as good as I can make it — in that time and place — I wrap it up and send it out.

And surprise, surprise, some of the stories I’ve had the least confidence in, have sold. Imagine that! A piece of work you don’t think is “good” rang true for an editor, and suddenly that editor is having his or her accountants send you a check. Sometimes, it’s a flipping nice check. And if you’d let fear get in the way of you a) declaring the piece complete or b) mailing it to someone who can buy it, that check would not exist. I have experienced this first-hand, as someone who was once badly, badly stuck in the re-write myth.

Let me repeat again, because this is too important for beginners and new writers to miss: if you let the fear control your actions — fear of being bad, of getting rejected — you will never make it. You have to ignore both of these fears because you will be cheating yourself out of opportunities to sell. Moreover, with re-writes especially, you won’t be doing the work necessary to improve. Like skiing, you have to ski to get better. You don’t get better at writing by re-writing. Lots of people will debate that, but it’s been my experience that it’s true. Re-writing is a different chore entirely from writing, and if you find yourself spending more time on re-writing than actual, fresh writing, you’re doing it wrong. And I will nail my butt to the wall on that one.

If you’re spending more time on re-writing than actual, fresh writing, you’re doing it wrong.

Once you learn to work through the fears, though — once you make working through the fear part of your paradigm as a writer… WHOOSH! You’ll be scooting down the mountain, accumulating unconscious writing experience at a cheetah pace! Your writing legs will be humming like the well-tuned shocks on a baja buggy — you’ll be zipping by the beginners and marveling that it ever seemed so hard. It will be liberating. A far cry from the first time you angled downhill, panicked, crossed your tips, and fell forward with arms and legs tied up like a pretzel.

On being a Professional

Having made my 4th professional sale over the weekend– that’s officially four sales inside of 12 months, after 17 years of no sales whatsoever — I am again faced with the question: what does it mean to be a professional in this business? Because the honest truth is, all the professionals I’ve talked to have an opinion on this, and seldom do all of these opinions square with one another. Especially on matters of craft or other issues that are taste-related. However, pooling the data points I am pretty sure I have a base-line.

#1 — A Professional writes regularly. Not blog writing. Not jabbering on Facebook. Not chat rooms or message boards or texting. Writing. Fiction, as applied to the empty white page. To be mailed frequently to editors. 5, or 6, or even 7 days a week. This is probably the biggest thing that separates pros from ‘amateurs’ and this is the one area where I think I need the most fundamental change in my process, as well as my attitude. I’ve gotten much better at applying discipline, but I still let too many days slip under the bridge without having done any fiction wordcount, and that’s something which will kill me in the long run and prevent me from attaining many of my goals.

#2 — A Professional reads regularly. Again, not blogs or Facebook or texting. Other fiction. Sometimes books or articles about writing, and then only those written by well-established, working professional writers. Books on writing by people who have never published anything besides books on writing? Forget them. I threw out a trunk-full when I decided to get serious. Be especially careful about what I call “empty calorie” reading, which these days usually means blogs by well-known (and not so well known) writers who spend a great deal of time talking about everything besides writing. I’m guilty of that too much myself — as reader and as writer — and need to get more disciplined as a result. Healthy reading involves lots of fiction, with occasional ‘learning’ non-fiction. ETA: Kris Rusch reminds me that healthy reading is also recreational reading, not critical reading. Thanks, Kris, as this is something I still struggle with. Leaving all my Internal Editor instincts behind, and just enjoying someone else’s work, without always breaking it down and analyzing.

#3 — A Professional sets and keeps goals. Just wanting to write is not enough. Sitting down and pecking at keys is not enough. Professionals set goals for themselves, and keep them. I will finish X story by Y date, and mail it out. I will have completed X number of chapters in my new novel by Y time this year, etc. In this sense writing is exactly like every other job in the world. Writers have product that must go out the door. Unless you make production goals and work to meet and/or exceed them, you’re still fooling around in the ‘amateur’ scene. Best question I’ve ever heard a pro ask himself — hat tip to Dean Smith — was: if you were your boss, and you looked at your production, would you fire yourself? Too often my own answer is, yes. And it’s a bald fact that not making and keeping goals is one of the big reasons it took me so long to break in. Not craft. Not skill. It was failure to make and keep regular goals.

#4 — A Professional attends professional events. This mainly means workshops attended and run by other professionals. This was the biggest change I personally made — along with my ‘business manager’ wife — when I decided in 2007-2008 to crack back into gear and get super-serious about getting professionally published. After long years of never doing conventions or workshops, my wife and I mutually decided I’d have to start doing them. And so I did. It takes money. In fact, this is the only area I’ve seen where it’s advisable to break the ‘money always flows to the writer’ rule. Check your local writing scene. Go to the local conventions. Find out who is on panels. Attend the panels with the pros, and which discuss brass tacks of writing. Invest time and money in seminars or other learning events, taught by working professionals. Travel if necessary. Burn vacation days at work if necessary. For most of my aspirant history I stayed in a solitary cocoon and never went out to mix with or spend any time directly talking to pros. Mistake. Get out there and talk to and learn from the people who are doing or being what you want to do or be too.

#5 — A Professional doesn’t become a learning junkie. I think a lot of people at my level fall for this, and I can see why. Once you begin doing workshops and cons, and reading informational books on writing by pro writers, and having a little success along with it, it’s easy to fall into the trap of spending all your time and energy on these things, and not on writing itself. Workshops especially can be addictive because if you happen to find a good one that works for you, you tend to want to go back and recapture that experience over and over and over. Don’t replicate workshops. Once you hit one workshop that covers one area of learning, make sure the next workshop covers something different. And don’t be afraid to stop doing workshops for awhile, once you’ve covered most or all of the bases. Next year I plan on doing my final workshop for this “beginner” phase in my career, having already done the Writers of the Future workshop — which doubles as a prize for winning the Contest — and three different workshops by Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch; those are highly recommended. Next year’s is the Superstars Writing Seminar, which promises to be all of the ‘business’ aspect of the Writers of the Future workshop, only distilled and concentrated into 3 days, taught by proven bestselling writers of advanced skill. After that, I don’t see myself doing any workshops for awhile. It’ll be time to produce, produce, produce, produce.

#6 — A Professional is humble. That’s just my observation. The best professionals — the ones you can learn the most from — seem to be the ones who still remember just how hard it is to break in, and won’t spare any expense telling you how hard it is to stay in. They don’t puff themselves up as super-talents, and are almost always the first people to admit that it was persistence, not talent, which got them to where they are now. I’ve heard that from the lips of new and old pros alike, including people who make millions. It’s the self-absorbed suckers you need to be careful with. The come-to-me fan horders and cult-of-personality types who glory too much in being adored, that you need to take with a grain of salt. By its very nature, writing is a game for egotists. But the professionals — the ones who last — usually find a way to keep that in check. Runaway egotists eventually fall off the radar, then spend all their time mitching and boaning about why nobody thinks they’re awesome anymore.

#7 — A Professional remembers where (s)he came from. This ties back to #6 and is part of the whole, “paying it forward” thing that gets talked about a lot. Barring trust fund babies, almost everyone who is writing bestsellers right now, came from modest or otherwise unremarkable beginnings. A professional remembers his or her roots, and does not begrudge other writers being further down the ladder (or further up the ladder) nor does (s)he pretend that (s)he appeared fully-formed at the height of his or her success. A professional will patiently help aspirants who are willing to listen, and who abide by the unspoken rules of aspirantdom: be thankful, be courteous, never be pushy, always be patient.

#8 — A Professional speaks no evil. This is a very hard one for me because I am a scrapper and I like on-line arguments especially. But it’s almost uniformly true. Professionals don’t publicly take dumps on fans, aspirants or other professionals. I’ll say it again, because this one is very telling: professional writers — the real, long-lasting professionals who are worth their salt — don’t take public dumps on fans, aspirants or other professionals. Things might get said privately, or in confidence, but a professional will not deliberately set out to publicly crap on other people, however justified (s)he may feel about it. Again, I cite myself as probably the worst offender I know of, and this is one area I’ve been thinking about a great deal. I’m still at a point with my career where I can go down a lot of different roads. What I say and do now will affect a lot of things for me, and I’ve had some very nice people I trust to know what they’re talking about give me a lot of feedback on this one. So it’s not something to sneeze at.

That’s it. 8 fairly simple — yet not always simple to follow — maxims. Write and submit. Read a lot of fiction besides. Set and keep goals with the work. Attend professional learning events, but don’t get hooked on them. Be humble and appreciative. Remember who you are, and don’t be an ass to people. Pay it forward. That’s it. A very abbreviated version of the most important things I’ve learned in almost three years of going to places and talking to the professionals — the bestsellers, the people living the life.

Fruits and Labor

The first year that my wife and I were together, we made — between us — less than ten thousand dollars. We had no health insurance, her asthma put her into the hospital several times, and we were scraping along with dead-end part-time jobs. Things were pretty bleak back then. We had to rent some pretty crappy apartments in some of the crappier areas, and after getting fired numerous times, we even had to do an emergency move in the span of a single weekend — one town to the next, when we were flat broke. No friends or family to help us. We were all by ourselves. It was rough. I am still amazed we got through it, because as those of you who are married no doubt know, that first year is often tough in all kinds of ways, even if finances and other matters are going smoothly.

Last weekend, as my wife and I approached our 18th anniversary, we opened our backyard swimming pool for the first time since buying our first house here in northern Utah. It’s not a huge pool. It’s a rather plain kidney-shaped private pool, like so many in the U.S. But by our standards, it’s an almost obscene luxury! For three years it’s been dormant, the cover slowly shredding and the original heater, filtration system, and pump having long since been carted away to the dump. We had to put roughly $10,000 into the thing, and we got both a top of the line cover and top of the line equipment. Because we’re at the point in our lives where we figure, if you have to spend that much money on something, why not make it the best stuff money can buy?

When the midnight swim was over, we walked into the house and lounged in front of the living room fireplace. Late September isn’t too early to burn a few logs at night, not when you’re in the north of Utah. And as we sat there enjoying the warmth and the flame, I thought to myself, we’ve certainly come a long damned way.

All it took was work.

I sometimes think this is lost on Americans in the 21st century. Between the new kids who think they’re entitled to everything — because nobody every taught them work ethic or told them “no” in our era of Self-Esteemism — and the younger Boomers who live hand-to-mouth in their McMansions as part of the Debt Economy, it seems like nobody is willing to work hard or make sane financial choices or wait for anything anymore. Everybody wants everything now now now now and they want it BIG and FLASHY and if they don’t get it, it’s time for a crisis.

My wife and I know a bit about the Debt Economy. We learned a few years ago to carve up our plastic and live within our means. It was hard. We learned to do without big and flashy. But it can be done. And as recent events have proven, for those who work hard and know how to plan their finances, even luxuries — like swimming pools — are still attainable. You just have to know how to bide your time, put in the effort, make a plan, don’t let the setbacks stop you, and be ready for the hard knocks when they happen.

Which is why I have never, ever, ever understood the “glass half empty” mindset that many Americans seem to harbor — that America is somehow this charade of a country, with promises aplenty, and never any delivery on those promises. Hey, nobody ever promised it would be easy! My Dad certainly never did. And his Dad didn’t either. I came from a family tradition and a cultural religious tradition of effort. No effort = no dividends. Obstacles? Part of the plan. Dig under them, slide around them, jump over them, or dynamite them out of your way. People being jerks or hampering you? Also part of life. Work around it. Ignore them, if you can. Move forward on your own steam. Don’t wait for someone else to do your heavy lifting for you, because God helps those who help themselves, etc.

That’s been true of almost everything I’ve ever accomplished. The pool in the backyard? Home ownership? Not possible 18 years ago. Hell, not possible even 3 years ago. I had to bust my butt. And so did my wife. But we’re reaping the rewards now, and it’s satisfying to enjoy what we have, and know we eaaaaaarned it, as John Houseman used to famously say.

It was true in every job I ever had. It’s been true in my rise to Warrant Officer in the Army Reserve. It’s true about fixing up an old home, never renovated by the previous ownership. And it’s true in writing too. Rare is the writer who just leaps into success on the first try. Almost all of us who are selling and publishing professionally, had to eaaaaaarn it with lots of rejections and lots of frustration and waiting. In my case, as I’ve noted before, it was approx. 17 years and 870,000 unpublished words of ‘waiting’ before I got in with Writers of the Future.

Now? Now it’s not so hard. Oh, plenty of rejection and plenty of obstacles left. But I can sell. And I can have confidence in my craft, enough so that sitting down to a fresh story these days doesn’t feel like the agonizing exercise in indecision and doubt it used to be, even two years ago. I’ve gotten enough market validation — those checks are so nice! — that I can move forward with at least a base-line confidence in my ability; and an eventual positive outcome.

But it took work. Lots and lots and lots and lots of work. And the results, so far, have been worth it. After so many years, oh yes, worth it indeed. I’m an Analog recidivist! Analog Science Fiction & Fact is the oldest — and perhaps most respected — major short-form Science Fiction market in the world. I’ve got major book publishers back East asking to see my novel manuscript. In the next five years, if I keep busting my ass, I foresee some nice things happening for me in the publishing world. But it won’t happen if I slack off or start being entitled about what I think should be coming to me. The effort never stops.

But the fruits — when they come — are mighty sweet.

Hey, it’s rather hot out today. Which means when I get home after the commute, I think it’ll be a good evening for a swim.

When are you ready to e-publish?

When are you ready to e-publish?

That’s the big question that came up recently over at Dean Smith’s blog.

I’ve wrestled with this question for at least ten years — because in the not so distant past, e-publishing was the same as vanity publishing, only less expensive because anybody with an ISP and a home page could take their stories and stick them up on the web to read. No guarantee of any money coming in, but also no New York hurdles to jump through and no pain and anguish of constant rejection letters. And also nobody to take you seriously, because back in the day, vanity publishing was a joke among professional publishing circles.

So what’s the difference between today’s e-book and electronic reader publishing — perhaps most loudly exemplified by Joe Konrath and his adventures in lucrative self e-pub — and the disreputable vanity publishing of old?

If I had to pick just a single word, that word would be: practice.

The reason vanity publishing — writers paying a printer to produce copies of their books — had such a bad name was because so few people doing vanity publishing were any good at telling stories. Vanity became code for ‘crappy writing’ because most vanity stuff was crappy. The author hadn’t worked hard enough on craft issues, the book was painful to read, and anyone who’d spent any time honing their skills could tell the difference between a professional author and a vanity author in probably one page or less. Proficient readers could tell this too. So vanity was relegated to the same side of the publishing business as for-pay “agents” and for-pay “editors” and book doctors and everyone and everything else that is a no-no in the world of bona fide publishing.

But now comes e-publishing and the various electronic book platforms, such as Kindle and iPad. Reputable midlist authors (such as Konrath) actively exploit the new mode, turning heads and softening the wall between the “badness” of self-publication and the “goodness” of traditional New York publication.

Is vanity publishing finally going to have its day?

According to Dean Smith, no. Because new writers who jump immediately to e-publishing as a way to shortcut around New York are also liable to shortchange themselves when it comes to the so-called Million Words rule — that all writers have to produce roughly one million words of fiction before they’ve practiced enough to be “entry level” proficient at writing and telling stories in a manner comparable to professional publication standards.

I tend to agree with Dean, and I am glad I resisted the (sometimes, very strong) urge to throw my fiction up on my web site(s) and give New York the middle finger. It sucked waiting so long for my craft to get up to pro snuff, but being able to say I’ve broken in via “traditional” mode is a big kick in the pants, and I do think the struggle and the work was good for me, from a proficiency standpoint.

To quote Dean:

You are [ready to e-publish] when [traditional New York] book editors start giving you personal rejections regularly, and when you have sold some short fiction to good markets, meaning [Ellery] Queen or Asimov’s or Analog or major mainstream markets. Then your overall writing is up to craft quality … But if you get just form rejections from short fiction editors, have never gotten a personal rejection from a book editor, and have only written in your entire life less than 500,000 words total, I’d say stay away from self publishing. You are not ready. — Dean Wesley Smith

Me: Personal rejections from New York book editors? Check.
Me: Sold to mainstream short fiction markets? Check.

So, as I’ve said for a few weeks, beginning when I get back from Writers of the Future at the end of this month, I’ll be launching a serial novel through this blog and my regular web page. To be published weekly. Both as a way to maybe drum up a little e-cash, and also as a way to begin sticking my toe in the electronic publishing game which seems to be rapidly rising in importance and prominence. If nothing else it will allow me to “flex” on the kind of project I’ve been dying to do for a long time, but am never sure any New York sci-fi house will touch right now: good old fashioned operatic military action science fiction. The kind of stuff I devoured when I was a new reader, and the kind of thing that still seems to grab readers; presuming such a project can be pushing through the doors in the Big Apple.

Oh, no question, I am still going to be sending to the traditional markets and editors. Right now I plan to have at least three books circulating through New York by the end of this year, and a total of a dozen new short stories. Next year? More of the same. Three new books for the traditional mode, and another dozen new short pieces. Plus, I will e-publish my completed serial to Kindle and iPad and whatnot, and probably begin work on another web serial; possibly even a sequel to the first, if reader reaction and traffic indicates it’s a good idea.

I still worry that such a project — either via serial on the site or when published to e-book next year — will sink out of sight due to massive influx of ‘crap’ from all the vanity writers who see e-publishing as the big end-run around the mean old editors with their mean old rejection slips. But as Dean pointed out, audience reaction doesn’t lie. The crap from writers who aren’t ready, will not sell. Sooner or later the readers will figure out who produces good work, and who does not, and word of mouth will be its own best insurance against e-novels getting buried in the junk rush.

So I’m a little nervous, but mostly excited. 2010 has been by far my most productive writing year in my life, and 2011 is setting up to look twice as good. Assuming the serial picks up a little attention and I sell a bit more at the short fiction level, or maybe even get a New York novel deal, I’ll be doing quite well. And if after five years I’ve managed to make all my goals and hit all my different “lanes” of opportunity in the expanded world of 21st century publishing, won’t it be interesting to see which projects have paid dividends?

But you out there, you brand new people. Yes, you know who you are. Please go back and read the Dean Smith quote, because I think Dean has it right. There is no shortcut around practice. You will be doing yourself a disservice if you think your first book or your first story is “camera ready” and rush it to e-market before your skills are at the point they can make you shine, as opposed to making you look foolish. Trust me, lancing at the New York windmill can be frustrating, but when those traditional publishing wins comes, they are enormously gratifying — and a real-world way of telling whether or not you’re finally ready to branch out a bit on your own.

Writing thoughts for Monday

On who will make it [as a writer] and who will not…

The people who won’t make it are the people who won’t do the work. Period. I am not sure you can ‘see’ this in a person, it’s just a reality. Take something very difficult to do, and 90% or better of the population will throw up its hands at some point and quit. The other 10% (or less) are the ones who stay on “The Wall” (as I like to call it) for however long it takes and however much work is required, until they get over the top.
So what is work in writing terms?

Work is daring to do more than just write fanfic for personal fun.

Work is writing, even when you don’t feel like it.

Work is writing, even after you’ve gotten 10 rejections. 50 rejections. 100 rejections. 150 rejections. And so on, and so forth, because rejections never end, even after you break in.

Work is relentlessly creating new fiction, not endlessly “polishing” the same old piece(s) in your inventory. I think tons of new writers get hung up here, because they are afraid to let go of what they’ve created previously and move on.

Work is going to cons, workshops, retreats, and learning from pros. Again, I think lots of new writers get hung up here because they’re scared to expose themselves to a potentially tough environment and/or the examining eyes of people with more experience.

Work is realizing it may take many years to gain even a little success.

Work is realizing even a little success does not guarantee still more success.

Work is not getting jealous when other writers succeed.

Work is continuing to write, even after 10+ years of rejections and not a single break-in sale. How many of you can say you’ve been writing for a decade with no sales, and are keeping at it?

Work is continuing to write, even after 15+ years of rejections. Had enough yet? If you have, you will not make it. If you can keep at it even after this many years, maybe you have what it takes to succeed.

Work is never giving up.
No matter what.
Always striving.
Never quitting. EVER.

The vast majority of writers are not willing to do the work. The above is a small roadmap of my “new” writing career. It took never giving up to break in, and it takes never giving up to stay in. I’m just a “baby” in the SF & F authorial community, but this doesn’t reflect the years and the effort I had to put in — the many hundreds of thousands of words of dead stories and dead books, all “practice” that will never see print — for my quality level to rise to the point where it’s now “entry level” by professional standards.

Having topped “The Wall” I can see a whole new range of peaks to climb, challenges to overcome. You all still on the “wall” need to be ready: the work never stops. If you can’t handle the idea of working — constantly, for the rest of your career — then get off the “The Wall” and go do something else.

Otherwise, commit yourselves in your souls to doing whatever it takes, however long it takes, to make it.

On being ‘stuck’ or falling into hopelessness and/or cynicism…

Cynicism is an unfortunate and seductive retreat, once the rejections pile up past a certain point. Especially if you’re piling up rejections on the one hand, and reading what you consider to be crap from the pros on the other. I just finished the majority of an issue of a certain (intentionally name omitted) market, and I had to admit that I too thought the bulk of what was in it was sub-standard. Plot holes, lack of plot, confusing or contradictory character motivation, stories lacking sufficient endings, and so forth.

It would be nice if the pro-SFWA-rate markets got it right all the time, but as in television and movies, not all stories suit all tastes, and even the major networks and movie companies churn out a significant number of duds, for all kinds of reasons which aren’t really worth worrying about.

I don’t know that I have a magic bullet for cynicism and/or being marooned at a certain sub-professional level, other than to cite my own experience. There have been several times in the last 17 years when I’ve wanted to just throw up my hands and conclude it was a fruitless and awful waste of time, but I could never quite do it. What I did do — with spousal encouragement and a little fire-under-the-butt talk — was look for ways to get outside my comfort zone.

For instance, switching viewpoint, from 3rd person to 1st person. I’d noticed that lots of short work was being written in 1st person, and while this “voice” was awesomely awkward for me at first — because I was so used to reading novels which are very often 3rd person — I made myself to do it, and after a try or three I felt almost liberated because writing 1st person allowed me to bring an immediacy to the story and the character that I’d never been able to effect before.

I also noticed that lots of stuff being published really did hurl a reader directly into the middle of the story. Much of my inventory (aka: “The Practice Papers”) spends a great deal of time on set-up and explanation and world-building. So since 2008 I’ve made a concerted effort to chop the fronts off of my stories, pick and choose the salient data to layer into the later text, and search for the point at which the critical change takes place — because the change is also always where the story starts.

As with switching viewpoint, it was awkward and I still don’t think I am thoroughly comfortable with how abrupt my story beginnings have become, but I do think the proof is in the pudding: I’ve managed to lure at least a few editorial eyes to their doom (rubs handlebar mustache while observing publishing contracts lashed to the railroad tracks) and I am both nervous and anticipatory, regarding reader reception. There is every reason to suspect my stories, too, will come across as the “crap” so many see in print these days.

Back to my point, about going outside the comfort zone: I think a lot of us also get into the habit of writing “familiar” stories that are always about a given thing: space stations, robots, monsters, urban elves, urban anything, etc. If you’re “stuck” and feeling worn down and tired by it all, I propose that you’re quickest fix would be to go in a totally new direction and tackle a totally new aspect of your chosen genre. Adore outer-space adventure of the far future? Try writing a couple of near-future, Earth-based stories. Or vice versa. Prefer fantasy alone? Try some SF. Even if it’s just to get out of the “room” you’ve been in too long, go outside and get some fresh “air” and get some different exercise.

And definitely don’t limit yourself to a tiny number of markets. SF and F has dozens of available markets, and a story that skips across the pond five or ten times, might score on the next try. You won’t know if you trunk the story in discouragement.

My rule for trunking is not whether or not a story has been rejected, but whether or not I’ve progressed far enough away from it in ability and time to see it with more objective eyes, and I can tell what it’s problems are. I can think of one of my stories right now that I wrote in 2008 and liked very much, but it has not sold and when I re-read it, I realize it’s basically a first chapter to a novel, not a complete short work, so I may expand it into a novella or I might mine it for the core character, and try an entirely new story from scratch.

Finally, extra sets of critical eyes can always been useful. Not everyone is equally capable of giving good feedback, but it can be useful to identify a body or bodies whose opinions do seem valuable, and have them look at your stuff once in awhile. Better still, when reading any fiction, pro or aspirant level, if you find yourself not liking something, identify why you don’t like it, and remember this next time you write something on your own. You might be surprised to discover that what drives you nuts in others’ stories, you are unconsciously doing in your own.

These are just some of the ideas and things which have worked for me, and helped jump me from unpublished aspirant to baby SF author. I have a whole new mountain range of challenges ahead of me, and the work seems to have begun anew all over again — yikes! — but I don’t think anyone is doomed to stay “stuck” forever, unless they simply refuse to go outside their comfort zone.

On the sticky topic of luck…

I think it’s absolutely true that you can’t get lucky if you don’t give yourself lots of opportunities. Ergo, if you only write a handful of short pieces every year and only mail them to a handful of markets, your opportunities are not nearly as numerous as they would be if you wrote numerous stories and mailed to numerous markets.

Put more simply, you can’t win if you don’t enter. And in the case of writing, enter early and enter often!

Right now I count over 20 markets on my tracking spreadsheet which all pay pro-SFWA-rate or better. Not all of them are explicitly SF or F in focus, but I send to those anyway if the story in question seems like it might have half a chance. You never know.

Writers of the Future — check out the awesome new web site! — should, of course, be the #1 market on any aspirant’s list. If you haven’t been picked up for a WOTF volume yet, and if you’ve not yet had three stories published in pro-SFWA-rate markets yet, then you should — without exception — be submitting to WOTF every quarter. No market has bigger “bang” for the aspirant buck, and no playing field is more level for aspirant works competing for recognition.

But WOTF is only the first. There are [Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Fantasy & Science Fiction], plus Realms of Fantasy, Dreams of Decadence, Interzone, and numerous on-line markets such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and TOR.COM, as well as Clarkesworld and Intergalactic Medicine Show. Before you trunk a story, you should trot it down a list such as this, trying all the possible outlets. Even a story rejected many times, might find a home on the next try.

On why I only submit to pro-SFWA-rate markets…

Once I passed 15 years with no pro sales, and only one or two token publications, I discovered that I had lived so long with rejection and disappointment, it didn’t bother me to restrict my market list. I decided — for me — that it was okay to leave most of the semi-pro markets off because I had concluded that the only kind of publication I really desired at that point, was bona fide professional-level publication. Preferably, print. In a venue of repute, with long-standing in the industry. Because this was the type and kind of publication I had esteemed to for the better part two decades.

Besides, most of the stuff in the trunk, belongs in the trunk. This defies one of Heinlein’s rules, but really, stories I wrote in 1994 and 1995 are not even close to publishable and could not be revived; not without a wholesale burn-down and re-draft using only core concept(s) or character(s). Something I do do from time to time, as projects and interest permit. Ergo, creating entirely new stories from the ashes of the old stories. So in a sense, nothing stays in the trunk forever. Each trunk story has “phoenix” potential.

In the end, I am sooooooooooooo very happy I didn’t set my sights low. Winning Writers of the Future — and landing a sale to one of the Big Three digests within 60 days — was a terrific and very rewarding couple of events which made the long wait worth it.

Writing SF&F military: rank and rank systems

Over at the Writing Excuses web site (see the link on my right-hand side bar!) they have the Q&A session with L.E. Modesitt, Jr., wherein I asked Lee to talk about some of the things he thinks are often done wrong, when writers write about the military or do military stuff in their fiction. Lee had some very insightful commentary regarding discipline and insubordination. Go listen. If you’re writing military and need to get a veteran’s eye view on the subject, Lee is an excellent resource. I wish we’d had the entire episode — or more — to have Lee talk about it.

One thing Lee’s comments bring to mind, for me, is rank. Many, many people tend to get rank all mixed up. Not surprising, given how steeped in military folklore our Western fiction tradition has been for at least the last couple of hundred years. So I want to try and demystify the issue a bit, for those writers who don’t have any first-hand military experience. (FYI, for those who don’t know my own experience, I’m a Warrant Officer, United States Army Reserve.)

Don’t get Naval officer rank confused with the officer ranks employed by the Air Force or the Army or the Marines. Here are two web sites and do a very good job showing how the different rank systems compare, one for U.S. officers, and one for U.S. enlisted personnel, to include Non-Commissioned Officers. Notice that a Captain in the Army is not the same level as a Captain in the Navy. Nor is a Lieutenant in the Army equivalent to a Lieutenant in the Navy. Notice also that there is no such thing as a Commander in any other branch besides the Navy, and that a Commander is equivalent to Lieutenant Colonel in the other branches — while the Navy Captain is the equivalent of what the Army calls a ‘full bird’ Colonel.

Don’t get the ‘E’ confused with rank, either. In modern U.S. military lingo, we too often tend to use E-this and E-that to substitute for Private or Sergeant, but the ‘E’ merely stands for enlisted and it refers to a person’s pay grade. Thus a person’s rank could be Staff Sergeant in the Army or Marines, but their pay grade would be E-6 for either service. Notice again that the Staff Sergeant for Army and Marines is not the same pay grade as it is for Air Force, and an E-6 in the Navy is a Petty Officer First Class, while the E-7 pay grade — arguably one of the most respected and feared Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) positions across all branches — has a distinctly different rank titled for each of the four branches: Sergeant First Class for Army, Gunnery Sergeant for the Marines, Master Sergeant for the Air Force, and Chief Petty Officer for the Navy.

The word ‘Chief’ gets thrown around in all the branches, which itself can get confusing because a ‘Chief’ in the Navy is very different from a ‘Chief’ in the Army, and different again from a ‘Chief’ in the Air Force, etc. In the Army, a ‘Chief” is a Warrant Officer — me — and the actual word Chief is used as shorthand for Chief Warrant Officer. Army and Marines ‘Chiefs’ are actual commissioned officers at CW2 and higher, who have a commission from the President of the United States but are technical specialists in a given field. Such as electronics, computers, piloting, personnel strength management, etc. A ‘Chief’ in the Navy or Air Force is most often a senior Non-Commissioned Officer, or NCO, which may have the same general technical expertise and experience as other senior-level NCO ranks in other branches, but does not have an actual Presidential commission like the Army or Marine Warrant Officer.

Don’t confuse Warrant Officers with either NCOs or Lieutenants. Most Army, Marine, and Navy Warrant Officers were prior-service enlisted personnel — most often NCOs — who opted to attend one of several Warrant Officer accessions schools — sort of like going back to ‘boot camp’ all over again. The Warrant Officer must also pass through the bowels of a graduated series of technical schools, as (s)he progresses through his/her career, ensuring that the Warrant Officer is the subject matter technical expert in a given field of military-applicable technology. The Warrant Officer outranks all enlisted personnel, to include all NCOs but does not outrank even the Second Lieutenant or the Ensign. Still, in practical application, the Warrant Officer — especially CW3 and higher — is given remarkable deference by both NCOs and higher officers, due to the senior Warrant’s usually great experience with technology and systems in his/her given specialty.

Speaking of which, virtually all ranks — beyond the pay grade of E-4 — must go through a series of professional development courses in order to be promotable. Thus getting promoted is not simply about having the time in service or doing something heroic on the battlefield. Once you try to become an NCO, or a Warrant Officer, or an Officer, you have to go back to school in order to earn and keep rank. At each new level of rank, Sergeant to Staff Sergeant to Sergeant First Class — or Petty Officer 2nd Class through Chief Petty Officer and above — there is a school waiting for you. This means that in your fictional setting, even a character promoted on the battlefield, for heroism or other acts, cannot simply skip this step. In order to keep that new rank, he or she must go back and complete the requisite level of professional development coursework, or (s)he might lose the rank.

Nobody automatically jumps from being Enlisted to Officer unless they’ve got an education. Remember in the new Star Trek movie how they made Cadet Kirk into a Captain at the movie’s end? It was fun for the purposes of that movie, but the reality is that nobody makes a jump like that. Nobody. Not unless they already have a significant body of education under their belt. Which is why it was odd that McCoy had to go to Starfleet Academy at all. As a fully-licensed and schooled physician, McCoy should have processed through an officer accessions school — academies are college equivalent, and McCoy didn’t need college — thus entering Starfleet as a Lieutenant Commander. Anyway, too many people often write their Privates “earning” Lieutenant rank — or higher — without understanding that such jumps can only occur under very special circumstances, and only if the person making the jump has some kind of university education. Privates become Specialists or Corporals first, and might eventually become Warrant Officers or Officers — but not at the drop of a hat or due to a single act of heroism or bravery.

In additional to professional development schooling and time in service — TIS being the total length of a time a person has spent in the military — gaining rank is dependent on a point system. This system can be complex, depending on the needs of a given branch, suffice to say that when a troop wants to get promoted, he or she can’t even be on the list for promotion unless he or she has accrued the necessary points. For your fictional or future military, this can pose a number of interesting problems because your protagonist (or antagonist?) might find themselves ‘stuck’ at a certain rank or in a certain occupation, because the points system tends to favor or disfavor certain jobs over others. Your character(s) thus might have to re-classify — go back to school to learn a new job — to get additional rank. This happens a lot in the modern U.S. enlisted scene, and it’s not uncommon for many senior enlisted NCOs to have re-classed several times in their careers. Future militaries might be the same.

Ancient or archaic militaries weren’t necessarily as structured or regimented as the modern military. Officers especially were officers, not because of skill or schooling, but because they were rich or because they were born into a noble family. Even as recently as the U.S. Civil War, a rich man could “buy” a commission, thus posing leadership problems which are still with us today. Ergo, how can a young man with money or family connections, thrust into war, be expected to ‘lead’ a group of typically older, typically tougher and more experienced enlisted personnel? The stereotype of the green Lieutenant is not unearned. Thus the green Lieutenant can and should pose potential problems in any fictional military scenario.

Officers who attain a certain rank are unlikely to see direct combat or be permitted — in their daily duties — to participate in ‘line’ operations. Typically, the infantry Captain or Major is the lowest officer rank that is likely to hold a weapon and fire it at an enemy in ordinary ground operations, while Colonels and Generals are almost exclusively administrative and organizational people — they run the fight without actually participating in the fight.

The relationship between Officer and Enlisted is not always a harmonious one. In the modern U.S. military, the NCO — the Non-Commissioned Officer — operates with tremendous autonomy compared to the NCOs of many other world militaries. In fact, the U.S. NCO is often at or above — experientially, professionally, operationally — the officers of many smaller nations’ militaries. An Officer — especially a junior officer — who fails to properly respect the experience and ability of the NCO senior leadership — is liable to expend whatever leadership capital (s)he might have, thus becoming an Officer in ‘figurehead’ position only. Yes, the enlisted personnel still answer to that junior Officer, but if the senior NCO leadership has lost faith, that junior Officer will find him or herself hamstrung in all kinds of ways.

Fictional, archaic & futuristic militaries don’t necessarily have to look like modern or historical militaries, but if you’re going to intentionally deviate from modern or historical tradition, you owe it to your readers to do so with great care. This is especially true with rank. As noted at the beginning, don’t mix your Naval and non-Naval rank willy nilly. Have some coherent structure. You might not have rank titles as recognized today, but you will still need leadership and chain-of-command. How will people be promoted? What does it take? Who will answer to whom, and why? The fastest way to lose credibility with readers — especially military-experienced readers like me — will be to treat rank as a trifling detail in any fictional war or military scenario. Instead, do your research, apply some forethought, and use rank in ways that will enhance the travails and adventures of the characters you write. It’s okay to bend or even break a few rules — if you know what you’re doing — but if it becomes plain you don’t know what you’re doing, the readers’ suspension of disbelief is liable to pop like a bubble.

Work and Effort versus Luck and Talent

Of all the topics that Dean Wesley Smith has been hitting at his blog, this post (click here to read!) might be his most controversial yet. Like the fictional Obi Wan Kenobi, in Dean’s experience, there’s no such thing as luck. Dean also doesn’t think much of the notion that people have “fixed” inborn talent that is either there, or not there, and that we can’t do much about it either way.

Rather than fill Dean’s comments with a huge post of my own, I thought I’d spin a bit on this subject, here at my own blog.

On luck…

Certain things have happened to me in my life which make me believe that, sometimes, it really is just a matter of being in the right place at the right moment. What I’d add to the conversation is that ‘good luck’ very often seems to be a dividend of constantly and consistently putting yourself in the right “places,” over and over, so that when the right “time(s)” arrive, you are there to take advantage of them.

Consider fishing. If all you ever do when you fish is walk to the lake’s edge, cast your lure once, reel it back in without a bite, shrug, and walk away, you could conclude you just have no luck with the sport. Well, anyone who has fished successfully for any length of time knows that’s nonsense. You have to cast tens or hundreds or thousands of times, until the fish bite! And you have to try different spots on the lake, or different lakes, or different streams versus lakes, or maybe go out in a boat, or try pop gear or different kinds or lures or bait… get the idea? Casting once, coming up empty, and saying, “bad luck,” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. Likewise, casting once, landing a fish, and declaring, “good luck,” doesn’t mean anything either. The successful sport fisher learns through experience that “luck” is a matter of knowing the lakes and rivers, knowing the lures and baits, knowing the seasons, and casting over and over and over and over, until the fish come in.

Consider, also, dating and marriage. Tons of people endlessly complain that they can’t find the right person, or that people who have found the right person are lucky.

Again, I think much of it comes down to “casting” in the right “lakes” and knowing the lures, bait, and perhaps most importantly, which fish to keep and which fish to throw back!! You don’t reel in a ten-pound carp and call it a perfect match. Carp are trash fish. A carp will eat anything you stick in front of it. They are the ugly cousins of koi, and if you settle for being with a carp as opposed to a koi, when you’d probably be happier with a beautiful rainbow trout, well… Don’t blame luck. Blame the fact that you “fished” with the wrong lure or bait, and in the wrong place, and when you caught the carp, you didn’t throw it right back.

My meeting my wife Annie — a ‘total package’ woman if there ever was one — is something I often describe as lucky. But when I think about it, half the ‘luck’ was in me being involved in a creative project that she was also involved in. We each intersected while doing something we enjoyed a great deal anyway — as creative individuals — and this forum allowed us to display parts of ourselves and our personalities that we’d have never seen at a singles bar or a church or party or some of the other, perhaps more traditional places where men and women meet. Which is why — for my hard-luck friends who never find the right person — I always lobby hard for them to get out of the house and go get involved in some sport or creative thing that they love anyway, and then start paying attention to the men and women around them. Ergo, put your line in the right kind of “pond” where the “fish” are likely to be your kind of catch, and chances are much better than they’d otherwise be that you’ll find someone you’ll be happy with, and vice versa.

Applied to the writing world, my own limited experience is that getting published is 100% analogous to fishing.

Your story is your lure or bait, the markets are the ponds, streams, rivers, or even ocean, and contracts (aka: sales) are the fish.

At first, you won’t catch anything at all because you’re brand new and your lures and bait aren’t the kind of thing that make the sport fish — trout, not carp! — bite. Also, your casting technique is raw. Has anyone reading this blog ever tried to fly fish? Fly fishing, especially with a traditional creek or stream kit, is a highly practiced skill that takes a ton of patience and work to even begin to get good at. So chances are slim that you will land the gorgeous brook or rainbow trout on the very first cast, the very first time you put your line in the water. You are probably using a poor lure or poor bait, are fishing in the wrong spot — trout aren’t found in every place in every lake or stream — and your casting is as likely to dredge up moss or a stick — or break the line on a snag — as it is to land you a fish.

Now, you could cast once, bring up a stick, throw your rod down and stomp off, declaring, “Bad luck!” You could even do this for an entire day — nothing but moss and sticks, ergo, rejection slips — and declare the project hopeless. You just can’t get lucky so why try? But again, the real fishers know: you can’t just throw out one cast, or fish in one lake, or spend a single day. You have to keep trying new lakes and streams — markets — and you have to keep trying different lures and bait — stories — before you get the bites and land the fish — contracts and publication.

If you’re not willing to put in the time or the effort, the “luck” is not liable to be there for you.

Now, on talent combined with luck…

Many, many years ago I remember going with my father to a little pond out in the sticks of central Utah, and when we got there the pond had numerous men fishing from its limited shoreline. Too many people fishing in the same spot is a bad sign — small ponds especially can get fished out fast — but we sat down anyway and my father helped me go to work. Fairly quickly, I was yanking them in. And not trash fish either — no carp or catfish, but rainbows. Healthy sized too! Soon we had a stringer of lovely fish, while many of the other men on the pond were catching nothing.

Was it because I had some sort of talent, as a child, for fishing? I seriously doubt it. I loved to fish when I was young — it was my favorite of all possible pass times — but I don’t think I had much talent. I think on that day, the only thing in my favor was that Dad and I had fished that pond many times before — we knew what the fish in that pond usually went for — so we rigged me up with what we knew tended to work, and as you might expect, the fish were mine for the taking. Had we fished a different pond or lake, or stream, the same bait or lures probably would not have worked. We might have gone home skunked. But we knew that particular pond and we had experience with that particular pond’s fish population, and we had better results than some of the other people who hadn’t been there as often as we had, thus they kept casting and reeling in with nothing on the hook.

I think markets are a lot like that. If you’re not familiar at all with a market, your stories — the lure or bait — might not work for that market. And you could “cast” a hundred times — submit stories — and never get a bite. Bad luck? No talent? Wrong. Chances are probably that you’re just not familiar with that market, and your stories — suited fine for a different market — won’t ever hit for the one you’re submitting to.

When I sold to Stan Schmidt at Analog Science Fiction & Fact, was it just pure luck, or was I the most talented guy in the slush pile? I doubt it. Probably there were many younger, more naturally able writers in that slush. But many — most? — sent in work that was either not a good fit for Analog, or was not of the quality that Stan needs — the people “fishing” in Stan’s “pond” weren’t using lures and bait sufficient to stir Stan’s interest, either because the writers were too raw, hadn’t practiced enough, were doing worn-out tropes that Stan has seen too much of, etc.

But I’d read Analog for years. Not every issue, no, but enough issues here and there to have a fairly good idea of what Stan likes to buy. I’d also had a ton of practice — many stories written, over many years — and I’d thrown my line into Stan’s “pond” and gotten enough rejections — a few of them personalized — to have a fairly decent grasp on what Stan might want. So when I had my non-winning Finalist novelette back from Writers of the Future, I looked at Analog and thought of Stan and said, you know what, I bet this story would be a good fit. Probably a better fit than at practically any of the other magazines. And my hunch was right.

Again, I am not sure talent had much of a factor in that success, beyond me just having a natural affinity for science fiction. Everything else depended on me having done a lot of homework — reading the market, writing many previous stories — and keeping my line in the water. I’d had dozens of rejections from Stan, prior to that win. It just happened that on that “cast” the story was right, and the “fish” did indeed bite. Which could not have happened if I’d concluded that only lucky writers sell to Analog, or that I’d never have the talent to sell there either.

The same me who was submitting stories to Stan in 2000 — and getting soundly rejected — was not the same me who sold in 2010. Did I magically become more talented? Luckier? Probably, no. I probably had the same exact aptitude in 2000 as I do now. What’s happened since 2000 is that I have written many hundreds of thousands of words of new fiction — practice and work! — and I’ve learned to make that practice and work learning-centered. I’ve not tried to tell the same stories a hundred different ways. I’ve told different stories and experimented with different ways of telling them — examining what seems to be getting promising results versus flat rejection, and reading a lot of other peoples’ fiction to boot, trying to figure out what worked for them.

I was listening to a story with my daughter the other morning — not sure if it’s apocryphal or not — about baseball player Marty Marion. According to the story, Marion had zero baseball talent while his best friend Johnny had loads of talent. Both of them played for a little Atlanta company team (pre-WWII) and when Johnny got called to the minors, he insisted Marty go with him. Eventually — and over the objections of many who thought Marty couldn’t last — Johnny convinced the St. Louis Cardinals to sign Marty and he both to one of the Cardinals’ minor-league farm teams.

According to the story, Marty Marion eventually went to the majors and was a big star for the Cardinals during several World Series runs, while his friend Johnny never got out of the minors. Even though Johnny was, by all accounts, the far superior, far more talented player.

So what happened? Again, according to story, Marty had more determination that Johnny. He was so determined in fact that he willed his way to baseball excellence. Talent wasn’t a factor. He improved his game from poor to passing to good to great, all through sheer determination. Now his legacy is written in baseball history. Johnny? Talented, but didn’t want it the way Marty wanted it. So Johnny didn’t last.

Basketball hall-of-fame inductee Jerry Sloan is another good sports example. And not just because he’s coached my favorite professional ball team longer than many of that team’s fans have been alive.

Jerry Sloan comes from hardscrabble country in Illinois. Raised on a lean diet of hard, hard work, he took what little natural aptitude he had for the game of basketball, and turned it into both a successful career as a professional player, and one of the longest-running and most-successful coaching stints in the history of the game.

Not surprisingly, Jerry Sloan takes a dim view of talent for its own sake. Show Jerry a hundred young, talented players, and he’ll look for the one guy in the bunch who knows how to work hard. Because that’s how Jerry did it. Never the fastest runner or most natural shooter, Jerry came up through the game as a hard-nosed defender who took a piece out of any team or player he went up against. Jerry’s entire basketball ethic revolves around work — in the gym, on the court — and he would sooner bench a very-talented player than see that same player lollygag his way through practice, or a game.

Two of Jerry Sloan’s most famous players — Karl Malone and John Stockton, also hall-of-fame inductees — were of a similar mindset. Malone especially, who couldn’t do much more when he went into the NBA than run and dunk. But Malone, and Stockton, were slavish with their work ethic, expecting more from themselves than anyone they played with. Relentless drive, a refusal to quit, and maniacal determination to improve and play better, were the hallmarks of both Stockton and Malone, much as these are the hallmarks of Sloan himself.

It’s probable that Jerry — and John and Karl — would never have been able to play in the NBA unless they’d been so willing to work. To improve. To get better. To compete at ever-higher levels.

Meanwhile, during all this time, players — often amazing — came and went. Why?

Talent — that raw aptitude for a thing — was never as important as work.

Because writing is lumped in with the arts, nobody ever talks much about work. Talent, as a word, gets flung about nine thousand different ways, and any time someone has a successful book, suddenly that writer’s talent becomes a hot topic, either for praise or derision. Ergo, “Writer Joe is so amazingly talented, I could never write like that!” or, “Writer Joe is such a talentless hack, how can he sell a million copies of that awful book?” Chances are better than excellent that “Writer Joe” has already spent years and hundreds of thousands or even millions of words, practicing and developing his craft and determining for himself that he’s going to get better. He’s also probably been sending that big-time successful book around to all the markets, refusing to let the rejections get him down. Because no mega-selling book makes it without a substantial rejection history first. That’s been proven endlessly, by every mega-selling author who is working. They’ve all been rejected — and get rejected — and they simply refuse to quit.

Which brings up another point of Dean’s: is it illegal to encourage someone to quit? I’ve seen at least a couple of writers who — if their stories are to be believed — have worked for decades to get published, and never get anywhere. How to explain these people who work and put in the hours and send out all the time, but never see any success?

I think the key there is, all the work in the world doesn’t do you any good unless it’s the sort of focused — Dean’s word — work that actually yields visible improvement. Again, as I noted before, when I did my writing between 2000 and 2010, it wasn’t just me telling the same story or the same kind of story, over and over and over. It tried new directions, new kinds of characters — I switched from third-person to first person, and wow was that a huge shift for me as a writer! — and I kept looking at each of my stories as a stepping stone towards something better. I wanted each new story to be better than the last, so with each story I tried something new — a technique or an action or adding new descriptive or whatever felt like it might be a bit beyond the usual.

Writers who get stuck — I suspect — halt their progress on the learning curve because they cease focused work. They relax into a mindset of thinking they’ve arrived — I know I’ve done this many times, and I expect I will do it many more — and that’s where learning stops. They might be producing a great many words, but those words don’t account for much because they’re not “growth” words.

Consider tree rings. Cut down a large tree, and the tree has tens or hundreds or even thousands of rings. Each year, the tree grows just a little more. Or a lot, depending on species and conditions. The rings mark the tree’s overall progress. If ever there is no growth — for any reason — the tree is liable to be in danger of dying. Or at the very least, the tree isn’t keeping up with the trees around it, and might get overshadowed in the forest by trees better able to make the most of their growth, getting taller and stronger as time passes.

Kids are a great object lesson in the value of work and determination, versus luck or talent. This past weekend, my daughter begged to go for a bike ride. She’ll be 7 years old this October, and she’s had the same little bicycle since she was 5 years old. We’d not ever taken the training wheels off, so when I told my daughter Olivia I’d take her out and let her ride, I told her this time she’d do it sans the training wheels.

Olivia was scared to death of course, and really didn’t want me to do it, but I knew from my own experience as a boy that if I — and my Dad before me — didn’t take the training wheels off at some point, Olivia — me — would not get any better. She’d never know the joy and speed and heady confidence of riding around on just the bike’s two wheels alone. So much to her chagrin we went next door to the church parking lot, and we began the slow and painful process of teaching her how to ride without the training wheels.

Olivia had some spills, yes. Nothing major. And she’s nowhere close to being proficient yet. But even in the 90 minutes we spent toiling our way back and forth across that parking lot, her skill improved a great deal. On several occasions, she was able to ride unassisted — meaning, I was not holding or touching the bike in any way, just running alongside — for many seconds. And the look of sheer surprise and joy on her face during those moments is one of those things I don’t think any mother or father would trade for all the gold and silver in the world!

The point for me was, Livie started out with no ability to ride unassisted whatsoever. None. But in 90 short minutes, of me making her go through the motions of pedaling, using the handlebars to steer, practicing balance, practicing getting off to a good start without tipping over, etc, she got better. She’s got a long way to go, but she got better. And I think now both she and I are excited for the next sunny day — it’s raining right now like the Salt Lake area has been transported to the Olympic Peninsula — when we can go back to the parking lot, and she can get better still.

Enough times like that — probably two or three I am betting — Livie won’t need my help anymore at all. She’ll be riding proficiently and autonomously, and it won’t have been a function of either luck or talent. It’ll merely have been a function of work and practice — the focused sort that turns on the neurons and forges the new brain pathways that allow Livie to mentally and physically “remember” what she’s doing, and enhance and develop her technique almost at an unconscious level. She won’t even realize she’s getting better.

I am betting by the end of the summer she’ll never remember having needed training wheels, and I doubt she’ll recall how terrified she was to go without them, though I could be wrong.

In a few days I am going to be at CONduit XX, the 20th iteration of the Salt Lake City based science fiction and fantasy convention. I’m on two writer panels for Friday, both focused on topics pertinent to new writers. I’m glad Dean brought up the talent “myth” because I believe largely as he does, and I want to pass that on to the people attending those panels: that talent or luck aren’t just things that happen. Nor are they things that will rescue you from poor work ethic. I know this from experience, because I had abysmal work ethic. Just horrible. It’s taken me so long even to break into publishing because my work ethic has sucked and I’ve not put in the focused work or the hours like I should have before now. Not because I don’t have enough luck or talent.