Correia, Kupari: Dead Six

My friend Larry Correia’s got a new book hitting the stands soon. Larry’s a New York Times bestseller who exploded onto the scene two years ago with his first book, Monster Hunter International. Since then he’s written multiple sequels to the original, as well as new books in new series, including some collaborations, such as the novel below:

I haven’t read the ARC for Dead Six yet, but knowing Larry’s skill this will be one hell of a fun romp. Mike Kupari’s also a USAF vet currently doing time in that very special orifice of the world, known as Afghanistan. I’ve said it before: Afghanistan and Iraq are not fun. They are, in fact, fairly miserable places to be if you’re an American serviceman or woman stuck far from home and family. Everybody who knows Larry is hoping Mike makes it back home safe; all his fingers and all his toes, both eyes, both balls, and his nose.

And what better way to welcome Mike back home than to help Larry ensure that Dead Six is a success right out of the box? Doubtless Larry’s hordes of loyal MHI minions are already on the case, but I wanted to do what little I could to increase the coverage. Because Larry’s a heck of a writer, a heck of a nice guy, and I have a compulsion for helping out fellow servicemembers when and where I am able.

So here it is. Dead Six. Intrigue. Espionage. Blackmailing badassery. And, knowing Larry, some of the most accurate firearms descriptions known to the literary world. It has the word ‘bona-fide explodeygasm’ written all over it. I am ordering my copy! How about you?

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Construction report 2011: Writing Office Progress

My wife and I bought our first house in 2008. After 15 years of renting. It is very likely to be our last. A rambler in need of substantial fixing up, it has the requisite luxuries we wanted when we moved from Washington State: air conditioning, two wood-burning fireplaces, and a quaint kidney-shaped in-ground swimming pool, which we’re enjoying for the first summer in 2011. We’re also making substantial progress on my writing office in the basement — the space for which has been designated since the beginning. Even if getting it remodeled is a project of many years.

Below are some clickable photos of the office as it looked when we first moved in, in 2008. Observe the lovely vintage wood paneling…

…which I happily ripped out. Along with both of the old, single-pane windows. And the studding for the old, too-small closet. We had the north window space enlarged, new double-pane insulated vinyl windows put in, along with an actual window well. Then, in 2009, we set to work studding the exterior — there had been none before, nor insulation either — among other things.

Come 2011, and we’re finally getting the drywall up, after previously doing lights and insulation in 2010.

Through the end of July and into August, my wife and I will be mudding, taping, and sanding the drywall, prior to application of primer and latex satin paint. We’ve got the flooring and closet accoutrement ready to go as well, so after a long wait, it seems we’re poised to finally get the office to a usable state — including a nice new desk from Ikea.

Of course, it’s easier to justify spending time and money on the writing office, now that the office can actually pay for itself. In 2008 and 2009, being a paid author was still just a pipe dream. Now? Well, today I collected two checks — for my most recent Analog sale, and a reprint for a previous Analog story from late last year. Such events aren’t uncommon, and my income spreadsheet tells me I’ve done remarkably well through the first half of the year.

It’s going to be easier once I can sit in that office, however. A space of my own, after living like a hobo for the last 8 years — forever carting everything important around in various Army backpacks, including the all-important laptop, on which every lick of fiction gets written. I will have drawers — drawers! — and a desk — a desk! — and I can close the door — the door! — which will be my signal to the world that I am busy and not to be disturbed. Because, you know, this writing thing is making money for the household budget. Glorious.

Metaphor Alert: The Fine Sport of Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did they do it?

I think it comes down to one word: heart.

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

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

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

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

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

Fear and Loathing at the Awards Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grocery racks and mall book stores

Kevin J. Anderson — guesting on Dave Wolverton’s newsletter — recently pointed out that traditional (paper) publishing has been sort of stuck in a rut, working very hard to sell to the existing book-buying public without trying to reach out to the overall consumer market and pull in what you might call casual or secondary readers — people who don’t buy tons of books and read voraciously, but who still nab a paperback on the way to the airplane or at least go through several novels (or more) per year. It’s assumed that these people may be buying for their Nooks and Kindles now, but when I think about my lifetime buying habits, I realize that the two primary sources I used for books practically don’t exist anymore.

Grocery store racks, and mall book stores. Does anyone remember when your local grocery had a half-way decent selection of paperbacks on one of the aisles? When I lived in the north of Seattle there was a local grocery called Larry’s Market up on Aurora Avenue that had a superbly-stocked paperbacks segment with a very large selection of science fiction and fantasy books. And when I was a teenager before that, I used to shop almost exclusively at B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, which were mall stores I’d hit on a routine basis while patrolling through the mall with my friends.

Well, the distribution collapse and consolidation of the 90s murdered the grocery story racks, and the rise of the super-mortar stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble more or less murdered the mall stores. Last time I saw a bookstore in a mall, it was a used/discount store that was decidedly NOT set up to pull in the lay reader or the impulse shopper. It was clearly designed for the bibliophile searching for cheap books (used) or rare and/or out-of-print material. Nice store for that kind of thing, but the few times I went in it was dead as a doornail and there was precious little foot traffic. How or why that store stayed open is a mystery I still haven’t figured out.

But the disappearance of these outlets for books explains — for me anyway — why paper publishers have been seeing declining paper sales since even before the Kindle and Nook boom began. If you don’t stock the books where the average consumer can pick them up and find them — grocery check-out stands, hello! — how can you expect to have the kinds of sales figures that you once did 20 or 30 years ago? It can’t all be explained away by diversionary media, gaming, television, or other 21st century entertainment mediums. That’s like hiding the candy aisle at the far back of the store, around the health food, and then wondering why M&M or Snickers Bars sales have suddenly declined. You have to put the merchandise in an easy place for customers to pick it up and make the impulse decision, otherwise you’re just catering to the choir — the hard-core, dedicated readers.

Of course, pricing has a lot to do with it too. I have in my hand a 7th printing of Allan Cole and Chris Bunch’s debut SF novel STEN. It’s a Del Rey paperback from when Del Rey was perhaps the top science fiction publisher in the paperback game, and this volume displays a cover price of $3.95

Okay, yes, it’s been over 20 years since I got this book from a B. Dalton, and there is inflation and the rising costs of various aspects of production and distribution. But when a comparable contemporary paperback — I have a new novel also in hand that displays $7.99 on the cover — that’s a big difference in the calculus of the consumer impulse sale. $3.95 is an easy splurge. You spend more than that on a fast food meal. Even people of modest means can plunk down $3.95 for a book, especially if they’ve gotten hooked into a series they love to read on break at their job, or in between classes on campus. But $7.99 makes people pause. It’s double the price from 20 years back. For the same product. Double! Not such an easy impulse sale anymore. $7.99 kinda makes the average consumer stop and think about it — precisely because there are so many competing (and cheaper?) alternatives to reading.

Will the rise of the e-readers and the ability of independent sellers to low-ball the paperback industry bring overall prices down? I am not sure. I do think e-readers allow some lay consumers to buy on the periphery, but to buy for an e-reader you actually have to have one first. And how many lay readers have one? And how many people are really going to read a book — a whole book — on a pocket device like a Droid or iPhone? For me, those screens are just two damned small. And while I’ve seen tons of people playing Angry Birds or texting on their mobile devices, I haven’t seen anyone thoroughly engrossed in a novel.

Which gets me back to wondering if paper publishing — in its attempt to survive the new era — shouldn’t find a way to go back to its roots? Put the “mass” back in mass-market, with a determined effort to streamline distribution and break down the barriers that eventually locked 90% of paperbacks out of the grocery chains. Put some book stores back into the malls, where people wandering and buying can cruise in and snag some books. Those consumers are still there, and I believe they’d still buy just like they always bought in an earlier publishing era, circa 1990 or thereabouts. Re-entering those lost markets combined with a price reduction could redeem paper publishing from the (much discussed) electronic onslaught.

Or at least that’s my edumacated opinion. Who knows, I could be wrong. But it’s at least worth considering, if you’re a paper publisher eyeing a diminishing bottom line. Bookstores too.

Don’t be shabby, be inspiring instead!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The game has changed?

I haven’t spent much time updating the blog. Been very, very busy. Lots going on at the day job, the Army job, and the night-time writer job. Good things happening all around. So much so that I’m being forced to pick and choose how I spend my hours, because there really isn’t enough time in the day to get all of the important, worthwhile stuff done, and have minutes left to burn on blogging. Still, I wanted to do a general update, if only because I’ve got a lot on my mind concerning what’s been happening lately.

Last week I was down at the bottom of Utah learning from one of the great teachers in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Dave Wolverton. Dave has his fingerprints all over the careers of several dozen professional writers, including Brandon Sanderson and Stephanie Meyer. Dave’s genius lies in the fact that he has an uncanny grasp of story — the psychology and emotional underpinnings of what makes a blockbuster stand apart from average or even good novels. He’s also the guy who, as judge for Writers of the Future, sent me priceless personal feedback on my very first Finalist in the Contest. That story, “Outbound,” eventually went on to sell to Analog Science Fiction & Fact, as well as Esli magazine (Russia) and is still paying dividends — some of which I’ll be able to discuss in a couple of months once the news is officially public.

Basically, Dave knows what the hell he’s talking about.

So when I appealed to him — in some degree of frustration — about my repeated failures with novel-length projects, Dave said, “Come on down, I’ve got just the workshop for you.” And I was not disappointed.

But first, a bit of background…

As a discovery writer who writes all of his short fiction in the make-it-up-as-you-go mode, outlining for stories has always felt like an artificial and inhibiting process. Part of the magic of writing — for me — has always been that even I don’t know what happens next. I may have a general idea of where I’m headed, but for the most part I’m uncovering fresh soil as I move along. And the outlining process — the few times I’d tried it — destroyed my enthusiasm. Such that when I got done outlining a book project, I no longer felt the rush of excitement to write the book. Because I already knew in my mind what happens and how it all works out. And what’s the fun in that?

But discovery writing at lengths beyond 20,000 words is its own form of hell. I have four different current projects I’ve tried to tackle in the last 18 months and all of them have been enormously frustrating — because stories that long involve so many characters and so many different plot threads, it feels almost impossible to keep track of them. Much less keep them all moving forward with the necessary degree of action and emotional oomph that’ll keep readers interested. I was facing the very real possibility of losing these projects the way I’ve lost too many books in the past, and I’m rather sick and tired of spending months getting a book completed, only to be unhappy with finished product.

Dave Wolverton’s outlining workshop was revelatory. Suddenly I am seeing how to have my cake and eat it too. I can keep the magic of the discovery phase and the tightness and coherency necessary for the structure phase. And I can do it with an eye towards deeper emotional resonance with a broader audience. Something I am afraid I may have been unconsciously shying away from in past novels, if only because I’d gotten stuck on the idea that being very, very different was the key to standing out. When in fact, as Dave pointed out, difference is just the superficial first step. Like frosting on a cake. In order for readers to arrive at the final page of a novel and feel like it was a worthwhile journey, there have to be certain promises made and fulfilled along the way. There are very good reasons why mega-books like Stephanie Meyer’s novels sell in the numbers that they do. And it’s got nothing to do with the prettiness or delicacy or art of the prose. It’s all about story. Story is king. Beautiful language all by itself is meaningless without story. Story is the difference between “small” books that sell a few hundred or thousand copies, and “big” novels that sell millions. Marketing cannot sustain a poorly-storied novel, while an excellently-storied novel can become a blockbuster even with very little push from the publisher.

So, I am diving back into my projects with renewed enthusiasm — and the realization that I’ve got a lot of renovation to do. Like an episode of This Old House. I know what the projects look like — on the outside. But I’m going to have to do some ripping up and tearing out on the inside, with an eye towards reinforcing certain characters, certain plot lines, and certain themes. And if I do it in the top-level outline form — where discovery writing can remain free — it’s far, far easier than trying to do it in re-writing, where whole chapters have to be scrapped, and it can often be maddening trying to re-link chunks of a book back together using entirely new chapters or passages. Which may or may not be coherent with the whole, and which may or may not completely change the tone and pacing of the project. Which is what I’d often wound up doing in the past, and eventually gave up on when it became apparent that the book had become a mess.

So huge thanks to Dave Wolverton for opening my eyes to a new level of long-length storytelling. For those of you who have done Dave’s classes — click here to see all of Dave Wolverton’s workshops — I am sure you know what I mean. Anyone else who’s still interested? I’d say Dave’s workshop was as valuable for me as anything I’ve ever done, including the Lincoln City workshops with Kris Rusch and Dean Smith. It was time and money well spent, and I look forward in a few years to pointing to my books and saying, “Dave Wolverton taught me how to do this!”

An interview with The Host

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

You can’t quit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shut Up and Write

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just… shut up and write!