The Basics: Standard Manuscript Format and Mailing

This will be the first in a series of informational posts about the pragmatics of fiction writing and submission. When I was brand new, it was extraordinarily difficult to find definitive answers to even the most basic questions. Such as: in what format do I send my stories when mailing them to a magazine or other short fiction publisher?

STANDARD MANUSCRIPT FORMAT
Even though e-publishing has begun to change the rules a little bit, one thing that hasn’t changed is that most editors still want their manuscripts submitted to them in a format that is a) easy for them to read and is b) immediately familiar. Thus the retention in the business of what is commonly called STANDARD MANUSCRIPT FORMAT. All by itself, this phrase is meaningless, and if you look it up in Writer’s Market or some other book, you’re still liable to be confused because those books seldom actually show you what this is supposed to actually look like on the page.

The sole goal of Standard Manuscript Format is to make your story’s physical and visual format ‘transparent’ to the editor. Ergo, not noticeable, because it’s what the editor is used to seeing. So that your story — not your formatting — is the focus.

That’s where SF writer Vonda McIntyre did the industry a huge service by creating her seminal article, “Manuscript Preparation.” (click here for the link.) I originally ran across this article about a dozen years ago, when I was at the end of a frustrating period of fruitless short fiction production, and wondering if perhaps part of my problem was that I’d been using an incorrect format when sending to the publishers.

SF writer William Shunn has also done his own version (click here for the link) which follows McIntyre’s almost exactly. In both cases — McIntyre and Shunn — we can identify immediate points of format commonality:

1. Use 20 lb. white bond 8.5″ x 11″ paper, which is basically just a standard ream of copier or printer paper from your local office supply or all-in-one store, like Target or Wal Mart. Do not use colored paper or paper that is not 8.5 inches by 11 inches in size. Colorful paper or unusually sized paper marks you as an amateur, and guarantees rejection. Also, do not use heavier bond paper, photo-quality paper, construction paper, butcher paper, etc, etc. Unusual types and kinds of paper are distracting, and are to be avoided. Make it plain white standard copier or printer paper, and you’re good to go.

2. Use a “typewriter” font such as Courier or Courier New. SF writer Robert J. Sawyer excellently suggests using a special font from Hewlett-Packard called Dark Courier, which renders beautifully from most laser printers where Courier New appears too “light” on the page. Dark Courier can be downloaded for free from the HP web site. (click here for the link.) Do not use proportionally-spaced fonts such as Times New Roman or Arial. Yes, a font like Times New Roman is how we’re all used to seeing words on a page in a book or magazine, but this is not what an editor needs or expects during the submission phase. Assuming your manuscript is purchased, it will be re-formatted at a later date. So stick with a “typewriter” font, and keep it at size 12 in your word processor program. Anything larger or smaller is unusual, and to be avoided. Also avoid artful or “cute” fonts, which will mark you as an amateur.

3. Always double-space the body of your story. That doesn’t mean putting a return (‘enter’) at the end of every sentence on the page, like in the typewriter days. It just means that when you’re done writing your story — because, really, you’re going to write the darn thing in whatever spacing and font works best for you — you have to go back through and quick-format all the pages to use double-space. Not 1.5 spacing. Not creatively fudged point spacing. You might be tempted to save paper by hedging on that double-spacing, and if you do an editor will know when they see it, and probably reject as a result.

4. Don’t bold or italicize anything in the body of the manuscript. If you want to put emphasis on a given word or string of words, simply underline them. Like much else about this process, underlining is a holdover format from the typewriter days when nobody had formatting options other than underlining. Again, that’s not how we’re used to seeing stories in print in books and magazines, but how your story is formatted at the point of print is never going to be the same as how it’s formatted at the point of submission. So underline only. No italics, cute or deviant fonts, bolding, strikethrough, or other non-standard appearance.

5. Make sure you have a 1-inch margin all the way around the edge of each page. You might be tempted to save paper by going with smaller margins, but anything smaller than 1 inch is going to be noticed by an editor, and possibly cause problems. Also, don’t make the margins any larger than 1.5 inches. A too-large margin is also liable to be noticed by an editor. When I format my manuscripts I have 1 inch at the left, right, and bottom margins, with a 1.3 inch margin at the top to make room for the page number.

6. Your page numbering should always be the same font and size as your body text, and should always be in the top right corner. Again, this is a convenience for the editor because that is where the editor expects it to be. You also need to put your last name as part of the page number line, and at least one to several words of the story title — if not the entirety of the title itself. Separate these elements with a slash ( / ) as shown, with either one or two spaces. I tend to use two spaces just because that’s my personal preference. The page number lines should appear on all pages of the manuscript, save for the first page which generally has your contact information and word count and is, by assumption, Page 1. Since your manuscript will never be stapled — NEVER USE STAPLES ON A MANUSCRIPT! EVER! — you need these page number lines to ensure that if your manuscript is ever shuffled or spilled, it can be easily put back together again by a glance at the page number line.

7. The first page of your manuscript should contain the title of your story, the “by line,” your contact information, and an approximate word count. Also, if you do not want the whole manuscript returned to you via full-sized envelope, mark the manuscript as “disposable copy” underneath the word count. The exact layout for this can be seen on both Shunn’s and McIntyre’s examples, with your contact info single-spaced in the top left corner and your approximate word count in the top right corner. The story title does not need to be in in quotes, bold, underlined, in a font different from the ordinary size 12 “typewriter” font, or italicized. Nor does the title need to be IN ALL CAPS. Just type the title in what is called Caps Case, with important words other than “and” or “the” possessing an initial capital letter, then double space down and do a “by” followed by the name you will use for the story. This may or may not be your pen name. If using a pen name, put it after the “by” so that this is how it’s printed when published. Your name in your contact info in the top left is always your real name — the name that’s going to get the payment for the story! Also, the “by” name is the same name you will use in your page number line.

8. Scene breaks — those spaces between scenes in stories where time and/or setting alters to some great degree, without having to be described — should be indicated with a pound symbol. ( # ) This is generally going to be centered on the page, by itself, with no alteration in the double spacing of the body of the text. Additional returns (‘enters’) before and after the # will not be necessary. The # indicates to an editor that this is a scene break. Also, at the end of your story, it doesn’t hurt to do a line of three or more # right after one another, as a way to visually let the editor know that the story is complete. McIntyre uses <<>> at the end of stories. Your choice, as this is one of the few areas where the formatting is not rigid. I use five # symbols ( # # # # # ) centered, which seems to work just fine at the end of the stories I have sold.

(whew)

Okay, that covers the manuscript itself. When in doubt, go click on the Shunn or McIntyre links and take a look at the formatting as presented visually. Many beginners tend to make this whole formatting process far, faaaaaaaaaar more complex than it needs to be. As I said at the start, your objective with format is to make the format ‘invisible’ so that the editor gets right to the story, without distraction.

THE COVER LETTER
Some editors and authors disagree as to the value of a cover letter. It might be argued that the presence of the manuscript, all by itself, is a tacit statement of submission when that manuscript shows up in an editor’s in-box. Other editors have stated explicitly that a cover letter is a convenience, as a sheet allowing them to make notes on the story or record other information. I personally use one because it’s the only place I get to mention previous sales, since my name isn’t well known enough yet for it to have become a ‘quantity’ at the editor level.

Beginners won’t have any publication credits, so the best advice I’ve seen is to keep the cover letter as simple and as unassuming as possible. (click here to see my example.)

Now…. There is a huge debate among entry-level writers as to what actually constitutes a publication credit. Does your high school newspaper count? How about a community college yearly? A no-pay or token-pay web ‘zine? Audio or pod casts?

I suggest — and this is just me stating raw opinion here — that a publication credit of any sort does not matter unless it was the kind of publication for which you were paid a decent sum of money. Ergo, no less than 3 to 5 cents (US) per word. Penny per word, fractions of a penny per word,” 4-da-luv,” or “contributors copies” payment is almost meaningless when sending anything to a professional fiction market. Mostly because the markets that pay that low aren’t even going to be on a pro editor’s radar, as a market with standards at least as high as that editor’s own standards.

Which is really all a publication credit does: it tells an editor to whom you have never sold that you are capable of selling at the level that editor requires. Ergo, when sending a story to one of the Dell digests, your unpaid publication in the Upper Skoakokie Valley Tech College Quarterly isn’t going to mean much.

NOTE: I am not saying such publications should mean nothing to you as the writer, I am just saying that an editor at a pro short fiction publication isn’t going to care if you’re listing a track record that isn’t already at that level, or better. When in doubt, reference the SFWA.ORG web site and check out their list of what they consider to be acceptable, professional, ‘stream-of-commerce’ short fiction markets. Anything else… Well, use your best judgment. Did you sell a short story to a rising podcast market for $200? That’s probably a good credit. Did you sell a short story to a reputable small press anthology for 2 cents a word, plus royalties? That too is also a good credit. But the kind of “credit” one gets from an unpaid appearance on Ed Schmed’s Web ‘Zine or Joe McNobody’s Fanfic Blog is liable not to matter.

Indeed, a string of such appearances on your part — story after story at the token and no-pay level — might hurt you. Because that tells the editor you’re plateuxing at a level that is beneath the needs of that editor, and you’ve just front-loaded that editor’s expectation about the kind of quality you’re able to deliver. So even if you do have scads of token and no-pay publications, resist the urge to trumpet about them in your cover letter when mailing to the professional level markets.

Now, formatting the cover letter is much less standard than the manuscript itself, but I stick to using the same font as I used in the manuscript, as well as a few basic rules.

1. Even though you put your contact info on the front page of the manuscript, repeat this same info on your cover letter — this time in the top right corner. Same name, address, phone, cell, e-mail, what have you. The content of the contact block will be identical to that of the manuscript itself, only its position on the page will be different.

2. Space down, left-justify, and put the contact name and address of the editor/market to which you’re sending. This will be the same name and address you use on the outside of the envelope when mailing to a market. Be careful when using cover letters because it’s easy to forget to change this part — and you will look silly sending a story to Stan Schmidt at Analog SF with Gordon Van Gelder’s contact and market info on your cover letter.

3. Put a date either above or below the editor/market contact info. Useful for you and editor alike, in identifying when a manuscript was sent out. Change this date every time you re-submit a story, and never use it to indicate a story’s date of creation. A story written years in the past might tell the editor that it’s bounced through a lot of markets, and again you’ve front-loaded the editor’s expectations, which is almost always bad.

4. Begin the letter with either, “Dear so-and-so,” or even just, “Mr./Ms. so-and-so.” If you’re not quite sure who the editor might be — and this happens sometimes — then omit this line altogether. Don’t write, “To whom it may concern,” or any kind of generalized opening line like that. Either address an editor directly by name, or don’t address them at all.

5. The body of the letter — especially at the aspirant level — is going to be extremely short. “Here is my story titled such-and-such, it’s this many words long. Thank you for your time. The end.” Lengthy or verbose cover letters don’t matter unless you’re talking about previous professional publication — or perhaps non-fiction publication, or professional education or experience that demonstrates applicability to the story, or which demonstrates your history as a non-fiction professional writer. Again, editors at the pro level won’t care about token or no-pay credits. And they won’t care who else might have read the story, or especially who else might have read it and rejected it.

CAVEAT: The only time a name-drop like this might be worth something is if a Name author or other editor — a ‘quantity’ on the editorial radar — has read the story and has either a) liked it a lot or b) liked it and suggested explicitly that it be sent to the precise editor you’re sending it to now. That kind of thing counts. Otherwise, stating that your mother, your sister, your best friend, your Army buddies or office co-workers, or someone else read it and liked it, won’t be worth anything. These are not opinions a professional editor is liable to consider worthwhile — he or she is wanting previous demonstration of your quality at professional level. All else below that… is not worth mentioning.

6. Put your real name (not your pen name) and a signature — though perhaps not your “bank signature” as it’s become increasingly hazardous to fling your legal signature around. Justify the signature block however you like, according to whatever rules you’re familiar with. Left, right, middle, offset, whatever.

7. Be sure to put an ENCLOSURES block at the bottom of the letter, usually on the left. List your manuscript’s page length — not word length — and whether or not it’s disposable, as well as whether or not you have included an SASE. This again assists an editor because sometimes when a story gets pulled from an envelope, pages can get stuck inside without the editor realizing it, as can the Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope — the SASE. That way if the editor reads the cover letter, but only has 30 pages of manuscript when there should be 32, or has not found an SASE, he or she can go back to the original envelope and search inside for the missing items.

THE MAILING “PACKAGE”
Now that you’ve got your manuscript properly formatted, and the cover letter put together, and you’ve printed both items, it’s time to “close escrow” and package and mail to the market you’ve selected. It’s important to note that unlike novels, it’s considered bad etiquette to mail a story to more than one short fiction market at a time, so for the purposes of this article I’m only going to address packaging in that manner: one market at a time, no more, no less.

1. The Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE) is little more than a standard white paper #10 size business envelope. The purpose of the SASE is not to have the manuscript returned to you — I always advise marking all manuscripts “disposable” in that regard — but to have the editor’s response returned to you. Just write — or print, or sticker — your mailing address on the front of the envelope, as if you were mailing it to yourself — no return address in the upper left corner is required — and use one of the new “forever” style standard first-class stamps that the U.S. Post Office issues in place of the denominated stamps. That way you never need fret over an SASE not having enough postage if you send something out, and the first-class rate goes up while the manuscript is out.

2. Place the SASE on top of the cover letter, and place the cover letter on top of the manuscript. In that order. Then set that entire “stack” aside.

3. Get a standard orange, white, or brown paper manila-type clasp envelope — generally sized at around 9 x 12 inches — and write the exact same market contact and address on the front of it as you used in your cover letter. Generally, editor’s name, then the name of the market, followed by street or post office box, city, and zip code. Do this in fairly decent, legible hand print with a dark pen or permanent marker, like a Sharpie. NOTE: if using a Sharpie be sure to address the envelope before you put the manuscript inside, as the marker may bleed through and you’ve ruined the manuscript. Put your return address in the upper left corner — smaller but neat print — using either a ball point pen or permanent marker. Or, if you prefer, you can print these things on Avery-type stickers, or using a Dymo-type label maker, thereby avoiding hand print entirely. Either way works, as long as it looks clean and neat and legible.

VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: resist the urge to get cute or creative here. Do not “art” up the envelope with little designs, smiley faces, space ships, swords, dragons, fairies, imagery, calligraphic writing styles, stickers, or other un-business-like affectation. This runs contra to the doctrine — preached all throughout this article — of making your submission ‘transparent’ to the editor, so that only story matters. An editor won’t care how artsy or decorative your envelope is. That envelope is just a “shell” that gets ripped off the contents — the package — the moment the manuscript is retrieved from the mail. Often, by an editorial assistant or someone else tasked with doing an editor’s grunt work for him or her. So your effort will be wasted, if not directly counterproductive.

4. Slide the “package” — your SASE on top of your cover letter on top of your manuscript — into the manila-type envelope with the top toward the open or clasped end. Be sure none of the pages get folded, corners crumpled, or anything wrinkled as it goes in. Very-thick manuscripts that are novelette or novella in size, may require an altogether sturdier package, such as a USPS cardboard priority envelope — but for most manuscripts under 12,000 words a 9 x 12 inch manila-type clasp envelope works just fine. Tap the envelope on its bottom once or twice to ensure contents are settled and you won’t bend any pages when you close the flap. Then, lick or moisten the glue on the flap — or peel off the tape to expose the sticky part — and seal and/or clasp the envelope. Rub your fingers along the flap several times and press — always on a flat surface, to ensure that you’re not warping the envelope — to be sure the seal is solid.

5. You’re not done yet. You still have to get the package to the mail box. Small manuscripts in the 2,000 to 5,000 word range might be stamped with standard stamps — presuming you can guess the weight — and dropped into an ordinary blue USPS box, or even sent directly from your home or office mail. Me, I always go to my local USPS location where I can either have the clerk weigh and stamp the mail, and give me a receipt — tax purposes — or I can use the new (wonderful!) automated USPS stations that are operational 24 hours a day and that allow me to use a credit or debit card, will weigh each envelope in turn, and give me a to-the-ounce price on my first-class postage.

SPECIAL NOTE: do not — I repeat, do not — use any mailing options that require a signature at the other end! Making your editor or one of that editor’s functionaries sign for a received manuscript is a colossal hassle and will likely earn your manuscript an automatic rejection. You don’t need to get signatures to ensure that your manuscript arrived. In 17 years I have yet to have any of my hundreds of submissions get lost en route, and the kind of trouble signatures can cause you on the receiving end… not worth it. Just use standard three-day first class delivery, no more, no less. Cheapest, quickest, easiest for all involved.

(second whew)

There, that’s it. You’ve done it. Start to finish. If you’ve followed the directions and used the Shunn and McIntyre examples for clarification, you shouldn’t experience any problems on account of format. Your story will speak for itself. Which is all you really want to have happen anyway.

CAUTIONARY TALES
Many new writers are under the mistaken impression that their stories are vulnerable to plagiarism once those stories go out in the mail. Two of the most common “deterrents” beginners use to ward against this, are slapping the word “copyright” followed by a © symbol somewhere in the header or footer of each page, and printing their work on dark-colored or alarmist-colored paper — one recent example I witnessed involved a writer who had produced a partial novel manuscript on traffic-cone-orange paper — to prevent someone else from photocopying and “stealing” his or her work.

This is simply not necessary. I repeat, it’s not necessary at all. According to United States federal law — as well as a great degree of international copyright law — the moment you pen something with your name on it, you possess copyright. No need to register with the Library of Congress. No need to use scary paper or scary © or ® or ™ symbology. The fact that you wrote something and you have an original copy of that something on your hard disk or even on paper at your house or office, is enough. No more is required. The work is yours. And the likelihood that some editor or other person might “steal” your work — slapping their name on it and selling it somewhere — is about that of the Hubble telescope de-orbiting tonight and crashing into your bedroom while you sleep..

So don’t deviate from the Standard Manuscript Format.

Also, many beginners begin to get paranoid that editors don’t read beginners’ stories before rejecting them. The assumption being that editors are obligated — by some unwritten law of literature? — to read each and every submission all the way through to the end. So beginners employ “tactics” to see if editors are upholding their part of the unwritten “bargain.” For example, a beginner may send a full-sized manila envelope SASE — with full postage — requesting the manuscript back in its entirety. Then that beginner may take a page somewhere in the middle of the manuscript and turn it upside down, or carefully fold the corners of two or more pages together so that these corners need to be un-folded and the pages separated in order for them to be read. Or the beginner puts tiny dots of glue onto page corner(s) to stick pages together, thus requiring separation. And so on and so forth. Again, totally not necessary and will brand you instantly as an amateur, front-loading the editor’s expectation. Any editor encountering these hoary old tricks is liable to be sadly amused if not downright angry, and your manuscript will be rejected without any further consideration.

Which reminds me, the only acceptable way to attach pages together, is with a paperclip. Standard office type, nothing too colorful or too cute.

Staples? Forget it. Never, ever use staples on any manuscript. I’ll blare that in all caps for emphasis. NEVER EVER USE STAPLES ON A MANUSCRIPT!!!! Having spoken directly to editors about this, staples are death. Most editors have scars from having had fingers — and other body parts — sliced open by staples. So if you have to keep the manuscript bundled — and I never do this when I send out short work, as there is no real need that I can see — please, use a paperclip. Staples… probably a straight rejection. And if you’ve managed to injure an editor with your stapling…

Which brings us to the natural fear all beginners have that if an editor doesn’t like a story, that editor will put that writer on a “black list” of writers the editor doesn’t like. This is just not true. Most editors can barely remember the stories of who they buy, much less the countless thousands and thousands of stories from the people they reject. Once a story is rejected — especially from an aspirant — it is forgotten. Never thought about again. It’s off the radar and the editor could care less. There is no reason to let fear of a “black list” stand in the way of sending a story to market. No reason at all.

Oh, to be sure, black lists exist. Piss an editor off by being a jerk at a conference? Argue with them on a blog? Engage in too many amateurish formatting or “don’t steal my work” pranks, and an editor might begin to remember. Especially if you’re a recidivist in this regard, and either ignore an editor’s admonition to follow proper formatting, or put yourself out socially in such a way as to make yourself seem unprofessional, annoying, dangerous, or crazy. The black list exists for these many good reasons. But it does NOT exist because of rejected stories. That is an alarmist fable and the sooner you get over this fear, the better.

Having said that, many markets do track submission titles in a database of one form or another. A beginner who has been rejected — and suspects the manuscript was never even looked at — might be tempted to just re-package the thing and send it right back to the editor in question. Wrong. Once a story has passed through the hands of an editor at a market, unless that editor rejects with a request for a re-write, or some suggestion that he or she might want to see the story again in a modified form, simply re-sending the same old story to the same market over and over, is another excellent way to brand yourself as an amateur who can’t operate at the professional level. So unless you do make significant changes to that story, best to just move it along to the next market on your list, and work on something new.

BUT WHAT ABOUT ELECTRONIC SUBMISSIONS?
Currently, no Standard Manuscript Format exists for electronic submissions. Each market — be it print or electronic in nature — has guidelines. When submitting to a market that requires electronic submissions, look at the guidelines on the web page or wherever, and follow those guidelines. Many — but not all — electronic markets are perfectly fine taking a .doc or .rtf version of a story that is formatted in Standard Manuscript Format, so I keep all my finished short work stored in Standard Manuscript Format for this very reason. Easier to print out when I send to standard slush piles, and easier to submit when I go through the e-slush. Again, follow the guidelines and use the directions, especially if the e-market in question has a slush “engine” of some sort that automatically does a lot of the grunt work paper editors normally do by hand.

BUT WHAT ABOUT CONTESTS LIKE WRITERS OF THE FUTURE?
Sometimes a contest — Writers of the Future being the best example — requires minor but specific deviation from Standard Manuscript Format. Usually this is to make the submission “anonymous” by removing the author’s name and/or contact info from the page number line as well as the first page. As with e-markets, always read the guidelines and pay attention to what the contest wants. For Writers of the Future specifically, there is a comment thread dedicated to formatting. (click here to view the thread.) It’s very straightforward, if you’re already familiar with Standard Manuscript Format, and in no way deviates significantly from any of the major aspects of same.

FINAL THOUGHTS
I said starting out that the objective of manuscript formatting and mode of submission was to make the format/mode ‘invisible’ to the editor, so that only the story mattered. And I stand by that assertion. Formatting is like two plain slices of bread. The slices themselves matter, but no matter how much you dress up or mess with those slices, it’s the contents between the slices — your story — that will matter most to an editor. The more ubiquitous and common you can make your ‘bread,’ the better an editor is able to “chomp” into the story — evaluating the sandwich on the taste of the meats, cheeses, sauces and other ingredients. Make your bread unusual or strange or otherwise off-putting, and the editor might not even want to take a bite. He or she will reject your “sandwich” out of hand.

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Swimming with Sharks 2: Writers’ Values

If you’ve been following Dean Wesley Smith’s “Sacred Cows” series (click here) or his wife Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Freelancer’s Guide” series (click here) then you might know what’s inspired this post here.

In the dictionary, there are numerous definitions for the word values. Some people — cynics, mostly — tend to giggle if ever you talk about values as they apply to people. But I tend to take values fairly seriously. In fact, the older I get, the more seriously I take them because I feel like I’ve begun to learn that values are all we have, all that define us. Strip away the material, and there is who you are. What you are made of. Beyond intellect, what kind of person are you? What is your integrity like? What kinds of rules do you have for the world around you, and more importantly, what kinds of rules do you have for yourself as a human being?

As writers, we often seem to value one thing above all else: publication. We’ll do just about anything to be published. Including giving away our writing for free, or for very little return. Including entering into contractual agreements negotiated by total and absolute strangers — people we wouldn’t let tend our kids or come over for dinner, because we have no idea who they are, but we’ll let them negotiate some of the most important business decisions of our lives.

Yes, I am talking about agents. And yes, I am one of those “renegade” writers who believes that you don’t have to have an agent at all costs, or under all circumstances, to be a successful working fiction writer.

Why? Well, namely, because I’ve concluded that the agent model — as it currently exists, with agents acting as slush readers and asking for re-writes and just generally functioning as bosses of the writer community — is against my values, for myself. Other people feel differently, and I understand that. I even understand that some people feel so differently, they’re liable to be angry at even the suggestion that agents aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, or that an agent is not, in fact, a vital and absolute necessity.

Here’s the thing. While pondering the latest round of agent discussion at Dean’s blog — and enduring not just a little heartburnt backlash in other places for speaking my mind on the matter — it occurred to me that the reason I am so deeply conflicted about the agenting system, is that it contradicts my values as a writer.

Firstly, the current system contradicts one of Heinlein’s key rules: never re-write unless to editorial request. Heinlein didn’t say to agentorial request, he said to editorial request. An agent is not an editor. Editors are people who can cut checks and buy books. An agent is an interlocutor. If ever an agent is asking for re-writes that an editor has not asked for first, that agent is going around one of Heinlein’s key rules. And if I allow an agent to get me to re-write anything, I am therefore violating one of Heinlein’s key rules. And from what I’ve seen so far in my career, Heinlein’s rules prove to be “true” almost all of the time. Thus, for me, this rule is a writing value.

Second, the current system violates another one of Heinlein’s rules: once something is written, send it to someone who can pay you for it. Can agents pay writers? Why must every manuscript written pass through the “filter” of agents before getting to the actual payers in the equation? Especially if the agenting filter is going to “reject” the book? Seems to me it’s functionally impossible for an agent to reject a book because an agent cannot, in fact, buy a book. Yet under the current system that is precisely how we all go about it: we send our manuscripts to agents and we let the agents turn down the books or, perhaps worse, accept the books and sit on them or shop them to a very few markets before declaring the books “dead” and effectively ceasing to get them to market. This not only violates the rule about sending work to payers, it also violates the rule about keeping work on the market until it sells.

Another concept I consider a value: writer as the payer of the agent. No writers, no agents. No agents… There would still be writers. And publishers. And people to buy the work. So how come writers almost always let the publishers pay the agents, who then pay the writers? Here again the agent is placed in the position of “boss” when in fact it is the writer who is boss. But because this practice — of agents getting money first — is so common and so commonly accepted, any suggestion that writers get the money first — or that publishers split payments, sending 15% to the agent on one check and 85% to the writer on another check — is regarded as “rogue” advice from someone who either cannot or will not abide by the system. Me, I believe in the writer-as-boss model. Treating someone else as boss — especially someone making money off my work — is in direct conflict with my values. It seems logically backward, and also functionally backward. When I am in uniform, do I let my subordinates “boss” me?

A few other values to go along with the one above: not tolerating tardy royalty statements or checks. Now, that might seem like a cart-before-horse statement coming from someone like me, but again I have to ask: why is it accepted, as common practice, that agents will a) get the money before the writer and then, often b) sit on that money for weeks, or even months? In his post, Dean talks about float: the ways in which agents can and do make money off writers’ money while that money is in the agents’ bank accounts. So far as I am concerned, an agent deserves precisely that 15% stated in the contract, and not a gottdamned penny more. Yet an agent very good at pooling multiple income streams from multiple writers in a single account, then sitting on the money for a period of time, can make quite a bit of interest on that money. To say nothing of the smaller and less able agents who simply need the money as “shuffle” money to pay the bills and keep the utilities on. Here again, an agent’s inability to manage his or her finances is not my concern, but the current model — agents getting and keeping writers’ money — fosters and enables that very kind of activity. BZZZT! Values violation. My money is my money and nobody should have my 85% but me. Including whatever interest that 85% might earn once it leaves the publisher’s account.

At this point you might be asking why I, Brad R. Torgersen, would even bother with an agent, and that’s a question I ask myself a lot too. And the only logical answers I can arrive at are: an agent can possibly get through doors that I can’t get through yet, and an agent can possibly work foreign markets for me and grab foreign sales opportunities that I am not aware of or might not know enough about to even begin working the deal on my own. So I am inclined to say, yes, on these two specific matters, an agent appears valuable.

But is there an agent who is willing to NOT ask for re-writes and ALWAYS send my work out ALL the time without questioning me as producer of product? At the same time would this agent agree to split payments AND never asking me to sign for anything beyond a single contract at a time? How about vigorously pursuing foreign sales? Never bullshitting me about the contents of a contract? Never bullshitting me about conversations had with editors? Never dealing against me when in talks with an editor about a bigger or more important client? Ergo, sacrificing my deal in order to make someone else’s deal better? Never acting as first reader BUT always going to editors with vigorous enthusiasm about my work?

Yeah, I don’t think such a creature exists, either. If such a creature does exist, someone please e-mail me, I will be the first to sign up. But since my fantasy agent does not, probably, exist, and likely never will, what’s my recourse?

Stick to my values. Especially the most important value of all: if ever it is suggested that I compromise a value in order to secure publication of any kind, have the courage to walk away. Even if it means walking away from a big publisher, or big money. The older I get the more convinced I am that once you sell out — once you let your values become compromised because your desire for something, or for a certain outcome is so great — it becomes wickedly difficult to backtrack and protect yourself from the repercussions. Plus, there is the self respect issue. I know from personal experience what happens to your self respect when you let values go by the side of the road. It’s a tough thing to live with yourself if a value that is central to you has been fracture for the sake of short or even long-term gain, because what have you got then?

Writers’ values are ostensibly designed to protect writers.

By refusing to accept publication for little or no pay, you are establishing the value of your product and you are establishing for yourself the internal value that you are a professional and that professionals are paid for their labor. Amateurs work for free. Professionals work for money.

By refusing to let an agent get paid for your work and then pay you — and all that goes with that — you are establishing for yourself the value that you are the boss, and it’s your work that is earning the money. Either all of the money comes to you and you pay the agent — funny how no agent would ever go for this, even though almost all of them would happily go for the reverse — or the agent can be satisfied with a separate check from the publisher, containing only their 15% of the deal.

Likewise, by refusing to allow an agent to demand re-writes, you again establish the boss-to-employee relationship. An editor might ask for this, because the editor can pay. But an agent? How many bosses let their employees tell them what to do? Any agent skilled enough to actually instruct a writer how to re-write, should probably be writing themselves. And yes, I know that flies utterly in the face of everything experienced by every writer who has a “creative collaboration” with their agent. Again, my blog, my values. You might not like it, but you don’t have to like it. I take re-write requests from payers only, not employees.

As writers, I think we have to ask ourselves in the mirror: how much do we respect ourselves and how much do we respect what we do. Is it all just hack work and do we not give a damn how we get to print, just as long as we get there? I imagine some people might feel that way. But as much as I am in this for the money — oh yes, the money is a key motivator — there are still some things I have decided I am not willing to do, even for the promise of a great deal of money. Because I suspect I will be trading away far more than rights in a contract. I’ll be teaching the system itself — the agents and editors and the other parties — that I am a writer who can be compromised. Work on me enough, offer me enough, and I’ll break. I’ll cave. And then what leverage do I have?

Not much, I think. Not with the industry, and not with myself, either. And me is who I have to get up and live with every day.

Swimming with Sharks?

Since I pointed at Kris Rusch’s posts on freelancing and surviving the slings and arrows of jealousy, I should also speak a bit about her husband Dean Smith’s equally fascinating posts on agents. Click here to see post two, click here to see post three. Especially the comments. Laura Resnick has been dive-bombing the comments all throughout the week and it’s like getting fantastic wisdom from several professionals, all in one blog.

1) I’m much too much of a noob in the industry to have bothered with an agent. Yet.

2) Conventional wisdom implies that I must absolutely, positively, at all costs get an agent if I am to have any hope whatsoever of having a career as a novelist.

But is that the only path? Get an agent, or else?

Seems like a good deal. For agents. As the default gatekeepers, agents stand to come out on top if they’re the only aperture between writer and market. They will always claim a cut, and they will always claim they know more about what the publishers want than any writer working for them, because the agents have access to the publishers and editors that most writers do not.

Still, the power dynamic of the agent-writer relationship — as it currently exists — hasn’t sat well with me. From an entrant’s standpoint. Agent as boss? Agent as teller, not doer? Agent as editor-before-the-editor? Agent as payer?

Dean Smith is fond of pointing out that writers — not agents, not editors — are at the top of the money pyramid in publishing. Without authors to provide the material, neither agents nor editors have anything to work with, hence nothing to sell, and thus the business seizes up. So agents and editors depend on writers to supply product. So how come the people at the top of the pyramid are so often relegated to the bottom, in terms of power and authority? Authors, groveling for contracts, groveling to get an agent, just generally letting themselves be walked on and walked over because, “This is the way it’s done,” and most authors are too desperate to get published and keep publishing, that nobody stands up and calls bullshit.

Mind you, I am not an agent-hater. I am also not an editor-hater. I just hate how both agents and editors have allowed the submission process — the slush funnel, as it were — to deteriorate to the point it’s at right now.

Once upon a time, the editors did their own heavy lifting. The slush came to them, they parsed it, picked what they liked, made offers, and writers either cut their own deals, or brought in people to cut the deals for them, and that was how it worked. Now, the editors have erected the additional barrier that they won’t accept unagented novels, thus much of the slush has been pushed off onto agents, who are now acting as editors without pay, demanding re-writes or flat our refusing books — again, without pay.

Which basically defies Heinlein’s Rules, if you follow those, in that the writer must not re-write unless to editorial order. Note the emphasis on editorial. Not agentorial. Why spend time or waste effort re-writing something to the tastes and preferences of someone who cannot pay you? Especially when no agent can guarantee anything. All agentorial re-write requests are guesswork: they suspect a novel might do better if the author re-writes it the way the agent suggests. And for many cases, the agent(s) might be right. But I also suspect that, as in Hollywood with its producers, the agents are half wrong as much as they are half right. How can they be sure a given editor will or will not like something? Especially when editors so often don’t even know themselves what they will and will not like, until they see it first?

So, in a nutshell, the “system” is broken. Too many agents getting in the way of the writers, instead of doing what they ought to be doing: pushing the manuscripts forward to the editors, and letting the editors edit. Let them make the call, if they like it or not. The agent is there to work out the deal after the editor buys. Or so a logical model would seem to dictate. But the way it is now, agents seem to be doing all the unedumacated guessing and since most agents aren’t writers anyway — if they could write, they would write — how do they know how to “fix” a manuscript, especially if their suggestions are of the Aspirant Wank variety: suggestions based purely on personal taste and preference, not caring at all about the actual intended story goals or plotting of the writing who did the work.

Ergo…

WRITER: Here is my book, “Space Babes from Planet G-String.”
AGENT: I don’t like it, re-write it.
WRITER: How do you mean?
AGENT: This novel won’t sell unless it’s about Orcs and Wizards.
WRITER: But I didn’t write about Orcs and Wizards.
AGENT: Editors only want books about Orcs and Wizards.
WRITER: Maybe they’ll like a Space Babes book too?
AGENT: No, they won’t. Re-write it.
WRITER: What if I don’t want to?
AGENT: Do what I tell you to do or you won’t get in front of an editor.
WRITER: Look, I write about Space Babes!
AGENT: I don’t like Space Babes. Space Babes are sexist. Orcs and Wizards please.
WRITER: Isn’t your job to help me get the best deal, at time of signing, instead of telling me what you like?
AGENT: I like Orcs and Wizards. They are awesome. I’ve sold five clients’ novels to editors, all about Orcs and Wizards. That is what sells. Re-write the book!

Laura Resnick made a super-outstide-the-box suggestion: instead of letting the agent be the ‘aperture’ piece, go directly to editors yourself, and when it’s time to sign the deal, bring in a literary or intellectual property lawyer. Someone who will have no conflict of interest — relationships to editors and houses trumping relationships to authors, as is the case too often now — and will take a fraction of a percentage, compared to agents. And offer — quite possibly — far more sound advice, at time of signing, than an agent could. Because the lawyer is trained to understand contracting, and will know how to modify language or explain conflusing clauses, where agents have no training — indeed, there is no bar exam to be an agent — and you have no clue whether or not the advice you’re getting from the agent is good, bad, so-so, or pulled entirely from the agent’s ass.

I know, I know, I am hitting the agents pretty hard with this talk. I am borderline rude about it. But really, if I were a good agent — one who correctly understands the relationships between agent and publisher, editor and writer, agent and editor, etc, — I’d not be too thrilled with the many, many, many, many bad stories many pro writers can tell, about agents et al having their heads lodged in what we in the Army like to call, the Fourth Point of Contact. I would consider it a blemish on the profession. I would be doing all I could to distance myself from these kinds of things — these kinds of derelict agents — and I would be doing all I could to prove to writers — not editors, writers — that I was a professiona, I knew what I was doing, the writers’ business was valuable to me, and I had a professional interest in protecting and keeping that business.

As it stands, agents appear to be trying to do too much, and in the wrong ways, and acting not only contrary to the best interests of writers, but editors as well. Not sending material to editors that editors may want to buy, in spite of how the agent feels. Sometimes even refusing to send something even the editor and the writer have both agreed the editor wants to see, because the agent thinks he or she knows better. And so on, and so forth.

As a noob with two pro-level fiction sales, my opinion matters not a bit to the Players in the industry. But I just want to go on record and say that I’m not a fan of the “broken” aspects of the editor-agent-writer triangle. Yes I am sure many editors and agents have seen so much awful slush they are convinced that writers — as a group — are the worst people in the world to be making judgments about how things ought to work. I am sure when you’ve seen one poor manuscript too many, it’s a natural instinct to just assume that writers et al don’t deserve to be in the drivers seat. How could they? When they are so clearly inept??

But what about the agents’ ineptitude? Who holds the feet of agents to the fire when they’re lacking information, making bad calls, acting contrary to best business practice, or otherwise doing poorly by the very people they ought to be helping get ahead?

I think Dean — and Laura — are right. Agents are not the only way. I personally may request the services of one some day. But I am not going to treat agents as the Single Path to publication as a novelist. And I am certainly not going to allow an agent to think of him or herself as my boss. Any money the agent makes will be because of my writing, and my writing is what I am most interested in. Not the ego of the agent. Not the agent’s narcissism, nor kleptomania, nor overinflated sense of importance — indeed, vital necessity — to the industry. There was a time in publishing before agents. People still made wads of money. The books still got to the readers. As Dean and Laura have emphasized several times, the flowchart of publishing goes like this:

publishing flowchart

That’s how it’s been, going back to the bestsellers and commercial fiction writers of the 19th century. Nowhere in there has the job of AGENT every been vital to the business. And there is no reason that I, as the top person in that flowchart, should allow someone who isn’t even on the flowchart to stop, halt, hinder, manipulate, or deny my career. As Dean and Kris and Laura and others preach: every freelancer is their own boss and their own manager, nobody else should do it for them. In fact, any time writers let someone else manage their careers for them, it’s like playing with fire, and the examples of people getting burned are so numerous, it just seems like common sense — to me — that writers of the 21st century ought to do a little more to “take back” what is theirs, put down some business practice guidelines for themselves and how they operate, and basically not rely on the “broken” system to help them. Because it won’t. It hasn’t, if the horror stories are any indicator.

Thoughts on jealousy, negativeness, and the necessity of abundance!

Kris Rusch has been doing her wonderful Freelancer’s Survival Guide for months now, but her latest posts on dealing with jealousy have me literally brimming with tangential thoughts on the matter.

Firstly, what’s at the root of it all?

I believe that many jealous people suffer from a misperception that fame, or money, or success, can only be had in finite quantities. Therefore if someone else is being successful — especially very successful — then that automatically means the successful person is taking away from or ‘stealing’ their success from other people. As if there is only so much fame, money or success to go around, and when one person succeeds or makes money or gets famous, that robs other people of the ability to succeed, make money, or get famous.

In the case of men being jealous of successful women, especially male partners in marriages or relationships, I think it boils down to penis ego. Many men — my wife would argue most men — are insecure to one degree or another. If ever their wife or girlfriend begins to succeed — money, fame, rising at the job, whatever — this threatens them if they don’t seem to be experiencing similar “upward” activity in their lives. And suddenly it’s on. Some men will passively sabotage, others will actively ridicule or combat their more-successful wife, GF, partner, etc.

Even in the professional fields, penis ego seems to be very much at play. Any woman who has ever managed anything or been the boss probably knows all about dealing with difficult male counterparts, employees, even superiors. Some men — unfortunately — just can’t stand it when a woman is in charge, has the best ideas, is the go-getter, or is otherwise doing well and succeeding, where the man/men is just sitting put or otherwise not doing so hot.

I’ve also seen this in the military — male soldiers who have a very antique sensibility about gender roles. It’s occasionally great theater watching such men get taken to task by a competent female superior NCO or officer, especially if she is clever or creative about it. And they usually are.

The worst of the penis egotists — be they co-workers or husbands/boyfriends/partners — are the ones who take it so far as to believe that anything the woman does which isn’t automatically furthering his own personal ambition or goals, is therefore automatically detracting from his efforts by default. And frankly I don’t know how any woman survives in a relationship like that, because either she’s got to let her ambition get crushed so the male can feel OK about himself, or she’s got to kick him to the curb and move on.

Anyway, not to turn it into a gender-bash, that’s just my quickie take, especially having read Kris’s stories.

Probing more deeply…

I was brought up in a religious doctrine where jealousy, gossip, backstabbing, etc, are viewed as literal tools of The Evil One. Now, while I don’t expect anyone to believe in my version of Biblical Voldemort, I do think it’s safe to say that this kind of malice is evil from a pragmatic standpoint. It wastes time and energy, hurts feelings, hinders or destroys careers, and contributes positively to NO ONE: not the one doing it, not the one receiving it, and certainly never anyone who happens to overhear it or be a third party to it.

As Kris notes, often, people who perpetually engage in this kind of thing almost always end up hurting themselves the most, because nobody trusts a person who demonstrates over and over again that they cannot be trusted. And people who are habitually jealous usually find ways to act out that jealousy against others, even loved ones and allies, and pretty soon it’s apparent who the “problem” is, even if the jealous person is successful — for a time — making it appear as if the target of their venom is the problem.

One of the more difficult things any human being can do, I believe, is to train themselves to operate on a presumption of abundance. That the world is overflowing with opportunity, love, money, chances to get famous or be successful, etc. It might not be apparent to the naked eye because the ‘surface world’ is very much a place of finite resources. But some of the happiest, most well-adjusted people I have ever known have always approached life as if the entire world and everything in it was like the loaves and the fishes: the more you pass the basket, the more there is for everyone, and everyone can share. Nobody has to go hungry.

Such people also seem to have really good karma. Again, not even a mystical thing, just the ramifications of all those little choices in the chain of causality. People who live abundantly tend to make choices that circle back around and create yet more abundance: for themselves, for their friends, for everyone in their lives.

I am striving very much in my life to remember to live abundantly, though I cannot say I am always successful.

Which brings me to the topic of e-squabbling. Net fighting. Wank, as it’s often said on the internet these days.

My biggest problem — by far — is that I too much enjoy electronic squabbles. Going all the way back to my Citadel dial-up BBS days in 1990-1991. My wife is at the point with this where she openly — and rightly — ridicules me if ever I start up an evening dinner conversation with, “So there was this argument on the internet today….”

About two and a half years ago — when I decided it was time to either really take a dump, or get off the can, with my writing — I started to take a long, hard look at my e-social life: where I spent my time, around whom, and in what fashion.

I was uncomfortable to discover that the bulk of it was on blogs and message boards, bickering with people — almost always over politics. Politics, politics, politics. Hour after hour. At work, at home, whenever I could get to a computer. Nothing but political dickering and back-and-forthing.

What alarmed me most was how I’d let this behavior potentially harm my writing aspirations. I was actively arguing with people and pros in the field, even editors — notice I name no names. I therefore looked in the mirror and asked, “What the hell is my problem??” Of all the things to sour a potential editor or professional ally’s opinion on me over, politics seemed about the worst, most stupid thing imaginable.

Even last year I couldn’t keep my e-yap shut, as many of you saw: I plunged into several of the so-called “Fail” debates and told myself I was doing it because someone had to do it. Someone had to speak up and represent a minority or otherwise unspoken side of a given debate. Especially if it seemed like common sense was being overlooked. But really, in hindsight, it was mostly just my bad electronic addiction getting the best of me. I do so love a good e-argument.

Thing is, nobody in an e-argument ever changes their mind. Ever. I can’t think of a single time in 20 years where my most brilliant, most electric points ever made a single person in an e-argument stop and go, wow, you are right. Usually everyone in an e-argument just says eff you and walks away. Myself included. So what is the point?

I am forced to conclude that there is no point. The ‘fun’ is in the ‘sport’ of the back-and-forth. But too often this kind of ‘sport’ gets nasty, people get hurt, angry, and why in the world do I want to partake in something like that? Especially with pros and editors and authors and people I want to be supporting me, collegial with, or buying from me? That’s just madness!

I hope I’ve not too badly damaged myself. But I wish I’d reached these realizations much sooner. Would have saved me a lot of time, and I’d not have ruffled a lot of feathers that I probably should not have ruffled. Which is not the same thing as apologizing for some of the things I’ve said, because I still think I’ve made some great points. But how much of me making great points in an e-argument is me failing to live abundantly? How much negative energy am I spreading around — which can come back and bite me — during these exercises?

Also important: how am I hurting myself when I e-hang with people who are also spreaders of negative energy? Too often I’ve let myself get wrapped up in a blog or something I’ve read on-line from someone who is speaking or being negative. And I don’t mean poofy magic crystals negative. I mean people who are cunningly or otherwise smartly negative, up to no good, deliberately trying to start trouble and foment discord. People who feed of this kind of stuff, agitate for it, use it for their amusement or worse?

Anyway, Kris’s comments on jealousy are flat-out excellent. This is one of those thorny topics that too seldom gets discussed among writers. Everyone in the aspirant community is obsessed with craft and defeating The Wall that few of us stop to consider the darker side of ‘making it’ in this business. Thanks, Kris, for the illumination and the provocation.

Don’t quit your day job, stupid!

I was lurking at a different author’s blog recently when I found myself becoming profoundly angry. Not because the author’s politics pissed me off — though this does happen a lot — but because the author was whining about how they couldn’t seem to get any grants, now that they’d “committed” to their writing full-time, and suddenly all the bills were due and there was no money to pay them.

Let me just say that if you’re a writer of any description, and you have a spouse and/or children and/or others who depend on you to win bread for the household, it’s near-criminal for you to toss your day job in the toilet before they’re ready. Notice I said before they are ready. Because when you personally think you’re ready is never as important as whether or not the household is, in fact, financially well-off enough for you to gamble the household’s well-being on your freelance ambitions.

Now, the author in question is single — so far as I know — with no children, so you might be saying, hey Brad, how a single person decides to throw their life in the toilet is their business. And you’d be right. What got me was how this person complained about being unable to get grants, and how this person felt severely cheated because somehow they’d come to believe that there was all this government money laying around, just waiting for fledgling authors to swoop in and snatch it up.

Can I just say right now that I don’t think it’s the job of government to be giving tax dollars — money earned by us middle class folk, the people who pay more taxes than any other income bracket — to artists who can’t afford to do their art on their own dime?

If the author in question had simply complained about how tough it was to survive sans day job, with no mention of grants, I’d not have batted an eyelash. But the author in question was seriously upset that getting grants was difficult, that this money wasn’t falling out of the sky on this person’s head, and somehow this amounted to yet another “injustice” against this person by a cruel and imbalanced society.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this author can shove it up their whining, entitled ass.

Very few Americans love their day jobs, author or no. Left to our own devices, I think most of us would do about a hundred other things, every day, besides showing up at work. Work is tedious, boring, often offers little in the way of emotional reward, and very many times we wind up working around or for people we’d rather not have to deal with, even outside of work. The day job leaves many of us in tears, and just about everyone daydreams of that magical future time when, through accident or design, they can quit the day job and spend their time doing what they really enjoy.

So I am not faulting any writer or author for desiring to escape day work. Not even the author I am citing here.

I am going to fault this author — and feel perfectly justified doing it — if this author thinks they are owed tax money so that they can escape their shitty day job, and do it on my dime, well before their actual professional artistic income justifies their quitting. Because that’s just bullshit. Nobody owes this person — nobody owes any artist anything — without their first having produced a product which someone is willing to buy.

Harsh on my part, I know, but I’m kinda sick of the whole entitled and tortured artiste thing right now. There is nothing about being an artist — of any description — which says that we, as creative people, are somehow immune from the realities of the world. Our bills have to get paid just like everyone else’s bills. Those bills ought to be paid from the fruits of our own effort, not from hand-outs taken from a public cash pool towards which all of us are forced to contribute. If you can get a private grant from a private organization which does not rely on taxes, then OK, good for you, and I hope you make the most of it.

But if you can’t get private grants, and you can’t survive on your own creative merit, then how the hell do you get off being angry or feeling like an injustice has been done? Nobody told you to quit your job. You did that of your own free will, and you ought to not be surprised — in this economy especially — when things get rough. My suggestion would be to get a damn job and shut up. Imagine if all of us who are less-than-thrilled with our day work just up and quit, then cried about how the government wasn’t throwing checks in our mailboxes, because, you know, we’re just so freakin’ speshul, like we deserve it.

Again, profoundly angry.

It reminded me of a how I felt after seeing a TV news piece from a few years back, covering a Midwestern family who had been picked up from their comfortable Midwest existence, and dropped into the meatgrinder of New York City because the dad had nursed this Big Dream of being some kind of stage or broadway star, and as he’d entered his midlife crisis, decided it was time for him to just throw everything to the wind and pursue his Big Dream.

I don’t fault the father for having a Big Dream. Not one damned bit.

I do fault him for having the nerve to think that he was entitled to basically destroy the lives of his wife and several children, all for the sake of his creative and artistic ambitions.

And no, I don’t give the mother a pass, either. My wife and I agreed that the first response of the mom — upon learning of her husband’s Big Plan — should have been to say, “OK honey, you go do that! The kids and I will stay here in the house while the lawyer serves you with divorce papers. Have fun paying for us with your sparkling new stage career.”

She didn’t. She went with him, as did the kids, and it was evident that most everyone was miserable to one degree or another. The father had forced several of the children into the entertainment business too — so that, you know, they could help pay the astronomical rent on their tiny little New York apartment because, you know, his plan to become this big star was hitting some laughably predictable road blocks.

Again, if you want to be crazy and throw your life down a toilet, do it on your own time. On your own dime. That’s what having individual liberty is all about.

But you can go to hell if you think you’re entitled to take other people down with you — especially family — or if you think taxpayers owe you anything in the way of a free paycheck.

Please, don’t quit your day job. Because it might not just be you who has to “pay” for that mistake, if you quit too soon. Which most writers tend to do, sadly, because as John Scalzi recently pointed out, most of us — writers, that is — are horrible with our money and are prone to making terrible personal financial decisions.

I’d gladly argue that no writer — who has a spouse and children and is the primary financial component in their home — ought to quit the day job before a) the mortgage has been totally paid off, and b) there is the equivalent of the full mortgage in the bank, as cushion.

Single writers also ought to not quit the day job until they’ve paid off all their debt and have a significant reserve in savings. Because if you’re not financially stable and protected before you go freelance, it’s highly, highly unlikely that you’ll magically become financially stable and protected after you go freelance. The odds are tremendously in your disfavor, in this regard. And no, it’s not someone else’s job to pay your bills or bail you out if you decide to freelance before you’re financially prepared to do so.

OK, soap box session over. Just felt it was worth saying.

How to win the Writers of the Future contest

To quote one of my favorite old movies from the 80’s:

CHARLES DE MAR: I’ve been going to this high school for seven and a half years. I’m no dummy.

I originally put this up on the Writers of the Future phpBB forum, but I wanted to repost it here for everyone who doesn’t visit that forum, but is still curious about what it takes to get called up to the WotF ‘majors’ and, ultimately, get a base hit — or a home run!

These are just my opinions, of course. But seeing as how I never got a rejection — four Honorable Mention and two Finalists, one of which won — I do think I have my finger somewhat on the pulse of the contest.

NOTE: Please read recent volumes of the contest anthology. I’d recommend vol. XX through XXV, if you can get them on-line or at your local Big Brick store. My first three entries were all Honorable Mention, but I didn’t crack Finalist until I’d begun purchasing and reading the anthology. Each one has a minimum of 12 good examples of what it takes to succeed with the contest. If you do nothing else, this is the one thing I’d recommend most. Not all of the stories will be to your liking — and I suggest you ignore totally which stories placed where in which quarters — but pay very close attention to the ones you do like. Re-read them if necessary. Let them percolate across your creative unconscious for awhile. Think on what it was about those stories which tickled your fancy, and ponder for a moment what you might want to do with your stories to get them to the same place of impact, with your readers.

Here are some things I noticed, for myself.

1) Put your Science Fictional or Fantastical element right up front. Don’t play around with this, or reach for too much subtlety. Granted, the stories in WotF books run the gamut on this. But contemporary stories where the SF or F element is too subtle, or very abstract, or very under-the-radar, might still be good stories, they’re just not wearing their SF and F credentials on their sleeves enough to make the WotF cut.

2) Avoid doing “downer” stories. We all know it’s become chic in the literary field to write “down” fiction, because “downer” stories are basically code for realism, because as every good emo knows, life is pain and suffering and you can’t write real fiction and be a real writer if you don’t write about pain and suffering. Especially on a quasi-existential level. Pah! I say, pain and suffering are fine, but they must serve a purpose in the story. A positive purpose. They must either drive your character towards a more positive outcome, or they must be crucibles that transform your character into a better person(s) than they were before. Pain and suffering — for their own sake — aren’t what WotF is interested in. So have your story and your protag(s) follow a more or less positive arc, or at least end up somewhere that, when you read between the lines, appears to be taking them in a positive direction.

3) Don’t go bashing religion. Here again it’s chic — in SF especially — to get up on a soap box and lecture the unwashed about the evils of Belief. This might be fine for other markets or contests, but it’s my inexpert opinion that you hurt yourself doing this. In fact, I’d suggest taking the opposite road. And I don’t mean bible-thumpin’. I mean, explore a religious theme, make a character or characters sympathetically religious, etc. Religion, as an artifact of human behavior and society, can be endlessly fascinating. It can also be a tremendous informant of a character’s ideals, thoughts, motivations, etc. Doesn’t even have to be a religion we’d recognize from modern day. Make it up! But make it relevant. Delve into what it means to Believe. Or, have your character torn between the secular and the theological. Make this part of the character’s inner journey, either away from an incorrect spiritual perception of the universe, or towards something that seems more consonant with a fundamental truth or otherwise defining aspect of the character’s perception.

4) On that note, your character(s) ought to be going on a bona fide voyage. A trip. A journey. Current literary cant dictates that Good Fiction is a talking-heads, painfully self-absorbed thing. Grand journeys are soooooooo passé. Everything has to be angsty and happen inside the character’s head, or it’s no good. Again I say, pah! Take the reader — and your protag — on a grand ride. Go places. At the risk of sounding corny, dig out that box of “kids cereal” SENS-O-WUNDA™ that you put in the closet long ago, and shovel a few scoops into your next WotF entry. Grand vistas. Big places, with big people and big ideas. Get large with your perspective and your characters. Then, dovetail this Big Adventure Thing® with an inner voyage (see #3 and #5.)

5) Your character needs to be going on an internal quest at the same time he or she is going on an external quest. And no, angsty navel-gazing is not a substitute for personal evolution. Have the events and the travels and the exploits of the story change the character(s) on some level, so that they’re not the same at the end of the story than when they set off. This might actually be the most important part of all, beyond everything else I’ve already mentioned earlier. Because this is where you’re liable to Hook The Reader© with the emotional and psychological and spiritual development of the character(s) as they surmount or face down the external challenges you set before them. In the end, your story won’t matter to the readers if your story doesn’t eventually matter to the character(s) in the damn story.

To recap, I am not an expert, and these are just my theories. If you have been struggling with rejections and rare HM — but no semis or Finalist stories — or if you’re brand new to the contest and would like to have a Cliffs Notes on success, then give my advice a shot. Try it out. Take it for a test drive. See if it makes a difference. It might.

CAVEAT: Of course, if you’re literally brand new — meaning you’re truly a Fresh Aspirant with very limited experience writing anything at all — there is no replacement for homework. You’ll have to write a lot of words to improve, and probably none of them will score you a win — or a sale — right out of the chute. Take it in stride. Do the homework anyway, and enjoy the teaching and the exploration of the words. Don’t fret, just work. And when the rejection(s) come, don’t let it go to your heart or your head. It’s not personal, it’s just business. File them and get back to work on the next story. You can’t win if you don’t enter, and you can’t enter if you don’t write, print, package and mail.

In the U.S. Army we’ve got a Soldier’s Creed. I often think there are aspects of the Creed which can apply to life as well — not to mention Big Dream Pursuits, such as getting published and having a writing career.

To quote the Creed:

I will always place the mission first.
I will never quit.
I will never accept defeat.

That is all. Carry on.

Kris Rusch’s Freelancer’s Guide

Most books about writing focus on writing.

Very few of them focus on the logistical, emotional, and financial concerns that surround writers at all levels.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s ongoing webinar, The Freelancer’s Survival Guide, is just such a book.

If you haven’t been reading it — or aware of it — please go take a look.

There are almost two dozen installments now, with more to come, and they all deal with how to live your life and run your business when you’re supporting yourself strictly on your writing.

Fascinating, and overdue IMHO. Go. Now.

Nova Science Now

Carl Sagan used to be America’s best-known science popularizer.

Now, I am wondering if it’s not Neil Degrasse Tyson?

Along with Bill Nye — perhaps best known for his childrens’ Science Guy program — Tyson has become a very visible face for science, through numerous guest appearances on popular cable programs, an appointment during the Bush administration, and as host for the excellent Nova spin-off series: Nova Science Now.

Unlike its parent, Nova Science Now does not focus down on a singular topic during each episode. Instead, each hour of Nova Science Now is broken up into several different topics, many of them entertaining or otherwise geared towards humor and/or everyday experience.

Due to my weekly time crunch, I am often unable to read many of the good science publications, like Scientific American, with the regularity I’d prefer. Which is a drag for me because this is how I like to germinate the seeds of SF story ideas. However, Nova Science Now nicely fills that gap. Moreover, because the topical spectrum of the series is aimed at a common audience, you don’t have to be a PhD. to take what you’re seeing on Nova Science Now and weave it into a story.

I’m not sure how much say Tyson has in the kinds of stories covered, or if he’s actively working to guide production. As host, he’s a pretty engaging guy and isn’t afraid to play around; with props, with himself, with other people. It’s a little bit like Good Eats and Alton Brown, only instead of cooking food, Tyson is cooking science. And making it a lot of fun in the process.

He’s also spotlighting a lot of other scientists, engineers, and fascinating people around the country and around the world. In an era where one wonders if America can get dumbed down any further, it’s heartening to see so many bright, talented, disciplined people working on all kinds of projects, from the new NASA Ares system, to robotics, computer intelligence, medicine, you name it. These are the people working on it. Humbling and inspiring, all at once.

Nova Science Now is a PBS production — yay PBS! — so I believe it’s available even if you don’t have cable. Check your paper or the internet for listings. A great show, with a good host.

EDIT: Neil appears to have lost a good bit of weight since last season. Good for you, Neil! Never capitulate to the spare tire!!

Caveat Scriptor

I don’t know about anyone else, but when I was brand new at this, I more or less put all authors on the same plane. Didn’t matter what genre they wrote in. If I had a novel in my hand, I assumed that the person who wrote it was more or less in the same mystical pantheon as all the rest of the authors. I’d never heard of the mid-list, didn’t understand anything about bestsellers versus blockbusters, wasn’t aware that genre existed apart from ‘mainstream,’ and was blissfully ignorant of the fact that very few people ever get rich on their first novel. Or their fifth. Or their tenth. In fact, very few people ever get truly rich — as in, independently wealthy for the rest of their lives, with money to burn — working as fiction writers.

To me, the perception was that all fiction authors were rich. They had to be, right? Their books were on the shelves at B. Dalton — dating myself, I know — and only rich ‘n famous people have their books on book store shelves, right?

Also, I didn’t understand that there is a big difference between a “young” writer who has published a handful of novels or stories, and an “established” writer who has tens or hundreds of novels and stories, going back over a career that spans decades. To me the “young” and the “established” were mashed together in one nebulous pile of “famous” names that were all equally impressive because they shared space on the shelves.

I didn’t know books could die, along with authors’ careers. I also didn’t know that not all authors are equally equipped to dispense good advice to aspirants.

Tangent…

I remember in my teens and early twenties, I hero-worshipped Carl Sagan. So much so that I was devastated by his death. It really upset me, emotionally. I created a memorial web site in his name, wherein I praised the man wall-to-wall as one of the true greats of our age.

Until I read Keay Davidson’s biography on Sagan.

Wow, talk about having the scales fall from one’s eyes. Sagan was hardly the man I’d imagined him to be. In fact, when I got done with the biography, I gradually pruned down my memorial web site until it vanished entirely. Because I felt like I’d been deluding myself: the Sagan I’d been hero-worshipping didn’t exist. And most of what I wrote in praise of him, actually looked quite foolish.

I still love some of Sagan’s products. His COSMOS series is something I proudly own on DVD. But I no longer put Sagan on a pedestal.

Back to the topic….

Published authors aren’t any more special than Sagan was. Yet we was as aspirants often perceive them to be: enlightened, wise, set apart, elevated. They are what we wish to become, so we gobble up whatever they throw at us, seldom stopping to wonder whether or not what we’re being told is, in fact, good information.

In the last five years I’ve gradually become aware of the fact that published authors exist on a very large spectrum. There are tiers within tiers within tiers. The mere fact that a person has a novel in print does not automatically make that individual an expert. Not at writing. Not at publishing. Not at anything. Heck, even having several novels in print doesn’t make that person an expert. It just means that person has been successful at selling stories to a publisher. Anything else coming out of that person’s mouth — or from their pen, or their word processor, or their blog — is their opinion. Trust it if you feel like it.

As an aspirant, what to do?

1) It’s okay to conclude that a published author — even someone who has won awards — is full of shit. Give yourself permission. Not all authors are created equal, when it comes to dispensing advice or information. Since many authors are flaming egotists who love a rapt audience, they sometimes get used to not having anyone walk up to them with a bullshit detector that is loudly pinging.

2) Your bullshit detector is simple: contrast what one author is saying versus what other, even more prominent or long-experienced authors are saying. If the less-experienced author’s words don’t jive with what several other, more-experienced authors are saying, chances are that’s your answer.

3) Realize that every author’s path to publication and/or success is a unique experience. There are parallels, but when viewed in detail, no one author’s experience will duplicate another author’s. Thus what worked for one author won’t necessarily work for another author, or for you. Also realize that you emulate an outlier at your own risk. Authors who took a truly unusual or exceptional path to get where they are, will be the toughest to follow. In fact, it might be impossible to follow them.

4) Beware of the fact that outliers are sometimes the ones who talk the longest and the loudest. Can’t blame them. They’re proud of having gotten over, under, around, or through certain barriers the rest of us are forced to sit and gnaw on for protracted periods. Again, emulate an outlier at your own risk. Certain problems are just going to be par for the course. If an outlier makes broad statements to the contrary, whip out your bullshit detector.

5) Look widely at who is going places and doing things in the publishing world. Be prejudiced about who you get tips and advice from. Some authors love to tell aspirants what to do because they get off on telling aspirants what to do. Other authors are genuinely interested in helping aspirants and aren’t in it for their own ego as much as they’re in it because they remember how tough it was, and they think they can help. Again, use your bullshit detector. And never take any single author’s word for it. Especially if that author insists that they — and they alone — have unlocked the secret mysteries of publishing.

6) If you must have a “hero,” make it several “heroes” and make them people who have been writing and publishing successfully for a long time in the area(s) where you also want to be published and successful. Careers rise and fall. And rise again, if the person is adaptive and can work within the changes. Authors with ten years or less under their belts aren’t necessarily bad sources of advice, but if you can get access to successful pros with two or more decades under their belt, chances are they know what advice to give, and when, and have plenty of cautionary tales.

In the end, you are your own businessperson. Your writing is your single-employee, single-boss business. Set your own goals and benchmarks. What do you want to do with the business, and where do you want it to go? How hard are you willing to work? People who have successfully run similar businesses — aka: other authors — are where you go to ask for information on how to run yours. Don’t be fooled by a fancy wrapper. There is no replacement for age or experience. If you feel you’re being used or abused, don’t be afraid to dip your cup in different pools of knowledge. Cast your net widely. Compare and contrast.

And remember that there will always be some chump — maybe a little further down the road than you are — who will be ready to call you an idiot because you’re not doing it the way he thinks you should be doing it.

The world is full of people who all think they know how to do everyone else’s job better than it’s already being done.

Did you ask for advice, or was it forced upon you?

Chances are high that there is another author, even further down the road from the chump, who will refute the chump on all counts, and call the chump an idiot for being arrogant enough to call you an idiot.

Following the Rules

Ever since she turned 5 years old, my daughter has been kvetching about the rules. Daddy, why do I have to follow the rules? Daddy, when do I get to not follow the rules? Daddy, rules are dumb and don’t let me have any fun. Daddy, I hate rules! I hate them!

She’s absolutely correct. Rules are a bummer.

Alas, rules are usually rules for a reason. Especially household and personal rules. Look around at the successful people in the world, and you will almost always find that they abide by a significant set of personal rules, business rules, ethical and moral rules, etc. Then look at the losers and the jerks and the going-nowhere people. Notice what’s missing? Yup. Rules. Boundaries. Discipline.

I’ve been working towards professional publication for a number of years. For the bulk of that time, I’ve suffered from a lack of rules. I’ve not required myself to put in the regular hours. I’ve not required myself to do the necessary homework. And I’ve also not required myself to make sacrifices, in terms of time: how it’s spent, and on what.

How about you? How have you been doing, and what kinds of rules — if any — have you made for yourself?

Today as I was driving into work I realized that over the last two years especially, I’ve been gradually building a set of unconscious rules. I thought it would be a good self-exercise to put them here, as a reminder, and also as a way to make myself accountable.

So, here we go. Brad’s Five Personal Writing Rules.

Rule #1: Limit idle internet use
This is my top rule because this is the one I consciously and unconsciously violate most often. Therefore it’s the one I’ve really been paying a lot of attention to lately, because if I go back and think about all the hours I’ve wasted since 1996 playing around on the internet, it makes me ill. Those are hours I should have spent writing. I could have written a dozen or more novels in the time I’ve spent fooling around on-line. And don’t even get me started about political blogs and web sites. I’ve wasted more time on political arguments with faceless InterToob denizens than I care to admit. And it’s never changed anyone’s mind. And in fact it’s just pissed a lot of people off — myself included — so what’s the point? My conclusion is that there is no point to this kind of internet activity. And I have reached a place in my life and in my soul where I don’t have a lot of room for pointless activity. I’m 35. The average male lifespan in the U.S. is just above 70. I’m technically middle-aged. There is not enough time in my life left for pointlessness.

Rule #2: Make the time for the work
This is my second rule, and is equivalent to Rule #1 in importance. It’s also the one I violate almost as often as I violate Rule #1 — because I am my own best excuse-maker. Oh, I didn’t have the time. Oh, I was too busy at work. I’m too tired. I have all these house chores to do. I have to go to the gym. I have to spend time with my daughter and family. I have to, I have to, I have to… There is a thing in many time management classes where they warn you against “busy projects” that keep you occupied and make you feel like you’re actually doing something, when the reality is that the “busy projects” are just distractions so that you don’t have to focus on the stuff you know you really should be focusing on. I do this all the damn time. Combined with idle net surfing, this is where all my minutes go. And I’ve reached a point where I know I have to force these kinds of things to the side for at least a portion of my day, so that I can devote the necessary minutes to the writing. The words won’t put themselves on the page. I have to put them there. And I can’t put them there if I keep giving myself excuses to go and do something else, when I should have my ass in the chair and my fingers on the keys.

Rule #3: Set and keep goals
This one is so elementary I am embarrassed to have to mention it. But it’s crucial. I can’t function unless I have solid, incremental flags waiting for me along my route. At the end of the week, at the end of the month, at the end of the year. I will have produced x-amount of work and mailed it. I used to try and do daily word goals, and discovered that my ever-changing schedule simply doesn’t allow me to set hard daily word goals. But I have had a good degree of success setting and keeping both weekly and monthly goals. Right now I have some very ambitious goals for the rest of the year. I can’t make those unless I make the smaller, short-horizon goals first. In order to walk a mile, you have to go the first ten yards. Etc. The key for me has been to set realistic goals that are challenging without being utterly out of reach. I’ve also learned to revise goals as life has gotten in the way — and sometimes you just can’t help that. So I pick myself up, try not to fret missed goals, revise future short-horizon goals to try and still make the long-horizon goals, and move forward.

Rule #4: Seek knowledge from the current professionals
This is a fairly recent rule, but it’s a very important one. When I started out I used to read and buy all the writing books and look at all the writing articles from any old Tom, Dick, or Harry. I’ve slowly realized over the years that it’s somewhat contradictory to take advice from a book on writing that is written by someone whose only publication credit is having written a book on writing. So I got rid of all such books, canceled my magazine subscriptions, and devoted both time and money to attending conventions and workshops where I can get information and ask questions of currently working professionals. Best-sellers. Names. The kind of people I want to be someday. I can tell yah, some of the information they put out flies in the face of everything that the other, non-Name people have been saying for years. Why trust it? Because it’s coming from people who are currently working professionally.

Rule #5: Work within the Heinlein 5 as much as possible.
I’ve detailed Heinlein’s Five Rules on my TA-50 web page. I’ve heard them emphasized so often from currently working professionals that I have to believe them. Also, with some of the knowledge I’ve most recently gotten, they force you to keep moving forward. Too many times I think I’ve sat down and dwelt on a single piece of writing for too long, thinking I can “perfect” the thing, when in fact I am a) probably the worst person to be judging my own work, and b) doing that kind of nit-picky re-writing never feels like it teaches me the same way writing a whole new piece teaches me. I know lots of professional writers who have written many books that never sold, but who went on to eventually sell new books; and sell well! I can’t say I’ve ever met a pro writer who sat down and re-wrote the same book many, many times, until it was just right, then sent it out and made a career from it. The evidence seems to indicate that you can’t get better if you aren’t doing new stuff, and you can’t do new stuff unless the old stuff is in the mail so that you can forget about it and move on.

Those are my rules. The Big Five, if you will. Oh, there are other, smaller rules. I don’t think I’ll list them, because they’re really just sub-rules of the Big Five. I’ll probably put a link on my main web list page — which is my own personal home page when I first open my browser — to this post. Just so that I can remind myself every time I open the browser and even feel like I might be breaking one or more of them.