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“Again with the SPSFC?” you ask? Well, if people were saying these things about your book, you’d blog them too. Just a hint: “5 star worthy.”

#SFWApro

I was lucky enough to be accepted as an entrant in the inaugural Self-Published Science Fiction Competition, which I was going to explain here but the title pretty much says it all. There are 300 entrants allowed, and over the course of the next year they will be narrowed to 30, then 10, then the One Story That Rules Them All. According to the official announcement, “Ten book bloggers, up to 300 science fiction novels, a year of reading and reviewing. We will end up with ten finalists and one winner.” The prize is a big, “Look at me! I won the SPSFC!” For a self-published author, that’s gold.

Anyway, I submitted The Invisible City, and they accepted it. The way this works, the 300 books are split up between teams of reviewers, each team receiving ten books for the initial appraisal. (I was assigned to Team Space Lasagna. Since I love lasagna, this was a good sign.)

The beauty of the system the way they’ve set it up is that we’re getting reviews as the books are read, instead of having to wait until the end of the competition (or the round) to see what’s going on. This also guarantees that each of us gets at least one published review, a benefit that is not to be taken lightly. And now, my first review has seen the light of day.

You can find it here. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the inclusion of words like “fascinating,” “complex,” and “I would happily sit and read a thousand pages,” should give you a clue as to the general outcome. Fortunately for my kind reviewer, the Kindle version of The Stolen Future trilogy does run about a thousand pages, so there’s that.

Further bulletins as circumstances warrant.

#SFWApro

I wrote down a note that I picked up from somewhere: “Write what hurts.” I believe that may be the most incisive piece of writing advice I’ve ever heard. It is also the hardest advice to follow that I’ve ever seen.

When we talk of separating “bad,” “good,” and “great” writing, there are actually two kinds of “writing” involved: There is the act of writing, which is to say everything from the words we choose, the sentence structure, foreshadowing, characterization… all the little bits of skill that go into creating a lucid, cohesive narrative. These are things you can learn over time.

Then there is what you write, the story you tell. It’s “boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl are separated, boy and girl find each other again,” or whatever happens in your particular telling. It’s why boy and girl fall in love, and fall out of love, and whether they do find one another again or choose to run off to Alpha Centauri. It’s your underlying commentary on the human condition, illustrated by your characters and their travails. It’s commonly accepted that the more of this you have, the closer to “great” your story is.*

And the way to get to this is, “Write what hurts.” “Great” books show us that we’re not alone, and the thing we want the most is to share our pain. We want to share our joy, of course, but that’s easy to do, because everyone wants to share it. Pain, on the other hand, tends to be private. We hold it to ourselves. In books, in stories, we can see that others have the same pain, and we can be comforted without having to venture outside our comfort zone.

But how do you do this? How do you write what hurts, and why can’t everyone do it? Certainly everyone knows pain…

The obvious answer would be that you need a measure of insight to understand that pain, but insight and understanding aren’t enough. If they were, the world would be flooded with great literature (and we’d all understand each other better).

So insight isn’t enough; you need outsight. Seeing what’s inside yourself won’t do the job if you can’t express that feeling outside of yourself. Which is what “great” writers have, the combination of wisdom to find what is inside the human heart, and the courage to set it out on the table in front of them for everyone else to examine. “Outsight” is the ability to write what hurts, and be brave enough to let others see it.

In a sense then, the act of writing encompasses both skill and courage, because the act of writing includes not only creation, but publication. And to be honest, there’s a little ego involved, too. Why else would you believe anyone would care what you think?

But once you’ve achieved your greatness, a little ego can be forgiven.

*It’s certainly possible to write “good” stories without a lot of underlying commentary, and depending on your definition, even “great” stories. And it’s equally possible to write “great” literature based primarily on the act of writing (e.g., Shakespeare). But exploring those questions would require at least a book, if not a library. And a lot of insight.

#SFWApro

Navigating the publishing industry is not easy. There are lots of predatory practices out there, charging fees for publications that promise editorial and marketing support for your book but deliver nothing, agents who charge fees and also do nothing (basically anyone who charges the author a fee to be published), rights grabs for all rights to a story, or even contracts which assert that you have given permission to take your rights simply by submitting a story. (You can learn all about these at Writer Beware.)

But there are other practices which, while not predatory, should be a red flag. For example, editors routinely acquire the right to edit your story, and reserve the right to make minor changes for typos or style without consulting you. Note these are “minor;” most changes should and will be cleared with you prior to publication, but exceptions do occur. It’s something to look out for in your contract. Today, however, I ran across a new wrinkle, something I had never imagined, and I personally find it quite disturbing.

I’m not going to identify the market except to say that it publishes both short stories and novels. To give the company credit, it makes no secret of this clause in its contracts, but that only means that you have the chance to run screaming in the other direction before you spend any time waiting on a submission, only to find that this is a deal-breaker.

I found this company in the course of searching for potential publishers for a novel I’ve written. When performing such a search, after determining that they (1) exist, (2) are interested in science fiction/fantasy, and (3) are accepting submissions, I dig a little further into their website to try to find out what they want and how they want it presented. In researching this company, I saw they advertised a “code of conduct” for their authors. While not a red flag, it was certainly a yellow flag, and prompted further investigation.

Under the guise of inclusivity (which I support), they declare that they are against any expressions of ill will toward any party by their staff or their authors. Well, so am I for the most part; authors don’t get far insulting people (with a few notorious examples whom I do not wish to emulate). However, this declaration leads to their Social Media Policy, which states, in sum, that while your personal social media site is your own business, your professional site (which is the only one with which they will associate) must adhere to their code of conduct on pain of severing any contracts you have with them. Not only must your site not present any personal opinions which do not represent the corporate opinions of the publisher, but cannot make any comments which negatively impact any person or group.

For me, this is a hard “no.” If the publisher and I entered into a contract, we would be partners, in effect, in the production and promotion of my book. I would not be an employee of the publisher. I might, in fact, have relationships with several publishers. There is no rational reason why anyone would attribute my comments to the publisher (although I realize that rationality often does not enter into it), no more reason than anyone would have attributing the publisher’s comments to me. I refuse to limit my speech to please them.

And what would please them? How am I supposed to know what represents their “corporate opinions”? Their language prohibits any comments which would, in my paraphrase, “negatively impact any person or group.” I have made such comments (short of insults) in my blog in the past–I made them in this post. Would I not be able to rail against fraudulent agents? Or would the constraints be proscribed by the publisher’s own viewpoints?

Many authors make political/social comments on their blogs, some limited to the SF field (e.g., the “Sad Puppies“), some expanding to real-world concerns (e.g., climate change). The very nature of fiction is that someone is always portrayed negatively, if only fictionally–but often the real person/group/cause behind the veil is clearly discernible. So will this code of conduct be expanded to cover the fiction that they publish, or haven’t they thought it through that far?

For any author, a blog is like his/her/their fiction, except that instead of being a product to be promoted, it is the promotion tool. It makes no sense to tie my hands in promoting my work in the name of better promoting my work. It also sets up one publisher as the arbiter of what’s best for me over the entire field of my work. Other publishers might not take well to that.

So I won’t be submitting there. Other authors may not have a problem with it; that’s their look-out. But if I can’t express my viewpoints without worrying about someone looking over my shoulder, then why am I doing this in the first place?

Besides, this blog portrays the publisher negatively–anonymously, but negatively. So I’ve already violated their Code; they wouldn’t want me anyway.

#SFWApro

I’m one of those people who, if he can’t make up his mind, will flip a coin just to see if what I really want is what the coin decides. The theory is that if the coin confirms my true desire, then I will be pleased, and if it doesn’t, I will be disappointed. Either way I’ll know what I really think.

Great theory. I wish it were so simple.

Anyway, I’m between books. Actually, I’ve started a new book, but after the first chapter, I’m stuck. See, the book has three point-of-view characters, and the first chapter was about the one I know the best. Unfortunately, I now have to start chapter two with another character, and her I don’t know so well. (Which is my fault.) Getting to know her is proving a difficult task, perhaps having something to do with her personality. (Some people are harder to get to know than others, and spies in wartime are notoriously tightlipped.) So it’s like starting the book again.

In the meantime, this short story has been banging against the wall of my brain for a few weeks now. I scribbled down an opening, I know the theme and the moral dilemma my character faces, but I’m at a loss how to proceed. This story is meant as an allegory (it is science fiction, after all), and the theme is timely and fraught with relevance. It’s the kind of story that could take my career to a new level–if I had any idea how to write it.

So I’m faced with two choices: Writing novels is more lucrative; short stories simply don’t pay the rent. But even I can write more short stories in a year than I can novels, which gives me more chances to sell pieces and perhaps raise my profile. A year spent on a novel that doesn’t sell isn’t terribly rewarding, but really, even if you write a half-dozen short stories in that time, you can’t sell them for as much as a mediocre advance on a novel. What to do, what to do…?

Yes! Flip a coin! But this being the 21st century, we will flip a 21st century coin: We will put out a Twitter poll. We will ask a world of total strangers with no personal knowledge how we should navigate the rest of our career. “Should I write novels or short stories?” What could go wrong?

Oh, silly writer.

I instituted the poll. I didn’t have to follow the consensus, just see if it confirmed or denied what I really wanted. Clarity, that’s all I needed, an objective criterion against which to measure my wants and needs. A quick check of my own reality. Advice that I could take or leave without offending anyone. And I got…

A coin that landed on its edge: Fifty percent “novels,” fifty percent “short stories.”

So the world told me exactly what I needed to know, and that is that I am utterly ambivalent. Or ambidextrous. Plainly I should pursue both simultaneously. Or else abandon both and set out on something new.

This, I believe, is the best option. I will set aside my current problematic projects and start fresh. A complete reset. A new approach.

So let’s see–should it be a novel or a short story?

#SFWApro

My story “Rights and Wrongs,” about criminality, the justice system, trial by television, and civil rights for everyone, is live now at Escape Pod.

When people ask you, “Where do you get your ideas?” I always assume that they’re talking about the initial idea, the inspiration that leads to writing a novel (or a short). But what they should be asking is, “Where do you get all the ideas you put into your books?”

The truth is, for me at least, that the original inspiration for a book is likely to have been an accident: a misheard word might give rise to an odd phrase that forms the basis for a story. For example, “erectile disfunction” becomes “a reptile disfunction,” and off you go. It’s usually no more magical than that. What’s far more interesting is all of those ideas you add to the story to make it–a story.

I’m in the middle of editing one of my novels to prep it for publication. This is a book I wrote a while ago and set aside for various reasons, so I’ve forgotten many of the small details, such as the chapter endings, which I try to make interesting enough that the reader won’t be able to put the book down for not knowing, no matter what else needs doing. (This is where the word “potboiler” comes from.) I am repeatedly surprised, therefore, by my own inventiveness. (I realize this sounds self-serving, but I strive for accuracy.)

This particular book runs over 40 chapters, and a lot of them end with some kind of surprise or cliffhanger. Where did I come up with all these surprises? Unfortunately, at this late date, even I couldn’t tell you. But I can tell you that successful fiction has its roots in truth. Honestly, if you’ve ever known me and you think that a character sounds vaguely like you, or your last name comes up as a character name, it’s not an accident. A couple of my books have even featured characters based on friends whose names and likenesses and personalities I have stolen wholesale (with their knowledge), and exaggerated or combined for effect. (All of them have been heroes. My villains have no idea.)

The same goes for the situations my characters experience. While I’ve never been catapulted 800 centuries into the future, or fought proto-Nazis in the Amazon, I have walked down roads that my characters walked, or pined away for the girl in French class, or crossed an icy snowmelt stream. It doesn’t matter that my characters performed these acts under wildly different circumstances, only that I was able to describe those experiences with verisimilitude.

So that’s where these ideas come from: Sometimes from nowhere, and sometimes from real life. It’s nothing special; anyone can do it, if you just pay a little attention to what’s going on around you and are able to imagine the same facts in different circumstances.

It’s really just lying, except that you’re not trying to fool anyone for longer than it takes to read the book. And with luck, you get paid for it. Now there’s an idea where I’d like to know how someone came up with it…

#SFWApro

It’s a funny feeling. The book is drafted–not finished, it’s never “finished”–but the vast bulk of the creative work is done. Now I’m editing, trimming excess words, polishing rough phrasings, bringing old ideas into line with what the book finally turned out to be, and ruthlessly excising all of those odd sentences that I wrote three months ago and now exclaim, “What was I thinking?”

The answer, of course, is that I wasn’t thinking, I was creating, which is an entirely different process. If you think while you’re supposed to be creating, you slow yourself down a lot. If I’d been thinking less and creating more, this book could have been out the door six months ago.

Or maybe not. I started it in January 2020, and by March it was still taking shape–and we know what happened then. Is it coincidence that the book started right before lockdown and ended just about the same time I got vaccinated? Probably. But life is a lot different now than when I started, and the book process has changed, too.

As I said, thinking has taken over for creativity. The editor has stepped into the writer’s shoes. And it’s an odd place to be, because the writer keeps wanting to come back and reassert himself, which is okay so long as it’s a collaborative process, but it’s still not pure creativity, and that makes the writer uncomfortable. He doesn’t like rules, and the editor is all about rules and limitations and making things a bit neater.

So I’m in an in-between space, and the world’s in an in-between space (at least where I live). We’re about to go all-out open again, and that’s going to be weird. It already feels weird just to walk into a grocery store again. Eating in a restaurant? That’s going to be fun.

The book, too, is getting ready to go out into the world. It will get its feet wet by flirting with beta readers, but then things get real: submissions. Agents and editors and publishers, oh my.

In some ways that in-between space is comforting–all of the protections of staying home without any of the worries about getting the job done. But “comfortable” doesn’t get the job done. It doesn’t give you a chance to see the world again, or the book a chance to find it place on a reader’s shelf. So that in-between space can only be that: an interval. And all intervals have to end.

Our stay-at-home interval is ending. It’s time to go out and greet the day, walk in a meadow, lie on a beach. And if you want something to read while you’re lying on the beach, I have a book to recommend…

Which I will do as soon as I come up with a title.

#SFWApro

And Now to Rest

It’s finished. The latest book. I’d always planned to bring it in at 90,000 words, but I failed in that: The first draft is 90,369 words. Well, maybe I can shave 369 words in editing.

How do we do that? How do we predict the length of a book before we write it? I know that this time I really wanted to get to about that word count, but in the end it’s the story that dictates length, not my vague concepts of marketability. So while I had that number in mind all along, I never did anything simply to lengthen or shorten the novel to keep it on track. In fact, I wouldn’t have made it to 90,000 words if I hadn’t found a new character who required an entire additional section, and if the ending hadn’t gone a little longer than I anticipated. (On the other hand, I finished two weeks before my deadline.)

But I got to within 0.41% of my goal, so I guess that’s close enough. When I market it, I’ll round it down to 90,000 words anyway… Book marketing is one area where size really does matter.

Still, it’s not the most important aspect of the book. (The cover is.) It matters whether the reader enjoys it (although not as much as the cover). I’m still working on my elevator pitch. It’s a picaresque planet-hopping space opera inspired by the novels of the late, legendary SFWA Grandmaster Jack Vance. Loosely inspired by. Trying to emulate his style left me exhausted after half a page.

This was a different book for me, different subjects, different style, different structure. I think it worked out okay, although the ending does seem a bit problematic. But that’s what edits are for. The point, as it always is, was to get the first draft done. And I did.

The count now stands at 13 novels and one non-fiction book written. A total of 14. I think I’m due for a vacation.

#SFWApro

“A journey of a thousand Hugos begins with a single fan.”

When you’re sitting in your chair for years on end, sweating out story after story, trying to bear up under the weight of repeated rejections, wondering–and sometimes despondent–about your chances of ever becoming a published author, you dream of that (far-off?) day when you will open your email and find that Golden Ticket, a magical missive from an editor that says, “Thank you for sending us ‘My Fantastic Story.’ We would very much like to publish it.” And when you’re not having that dream, you’re having the other one, the one where you are a successful author with a bookshelf full of published work, a trophy or two on the mantel, a full-time writer making his living lying to people.

What you don’t realize then, as you’re thrilling to that first hypothetical sale and then basking in future glories, is the vast gulf that lies between the two extremes. It is true, of course, that for a select and fortunate few, that gulf does not exist, but this essay is not about them (and they have other problems anyway. So there, you “overnight successes” whose decades-long struggles nobody saw.)

Not being what you’d call bestseller material, most of my writer friends are swimming through that same gulf that I am. Quite a few are further ahead, some have novels out with major publishers, some are even award-winners. But nobody I’m personally acquainted with is so high in the pantheon not to remember what it was like to be dreaming of the least crumb of success that is the first step on the ladder–or the riches of bestsellerdom.

When you taste that crumb, that’s when you begin to appreciate the size of that gulf. It doesn’t help that you can’t see the other side (even if it’s at your feet). But there are signposts. For example, I have managed to wangle my way onto a few panels at a local convention, and when the World Fantasy Convention was local to me a while back, I used that experience to get on a panel. At the World Fantasy Convention. We’re talking big-time! And after one of my panels, a couple of fans approached and asked me for autographs.

At WFC, part of being panelist is that they have a mass autograph session, and you can plunk yourself behind a placard holding a pen, and await the eager hordes of fans desperate to score your autograph. So, emboldened, I threw my hat into the WFC ring, found my name at my table, and sat my butt down like I do most nights except this time instead of writing long passages of soon-to-be-edited fiction, I’d be scribbling my name and a few choice salutary bits, smiling a lot, and doing it all over again for the next happy fan.

Well, yeah, that’s the idea. And I was absolutely correct when I foresaw my role, except for the “fans” part. There were none. Didn’t sign a single book. I still enjoyed myself; the con brought refreshments to the authors, and I was treated just like everyone else, so that was cool. But no autographs.

I was reminded of that today by a fellow writer who had an author meet-and-greet at a con, and no one came. Kind of surprising, because that author’s a lot better known than I am. But there you have it. That’s some gulf.

I’m not a best-seller. I may never be one. The gulf stretches ahead of me and I still can’t see a thing. But I’m trying my best not to be discouraged. After all, a few people have asked for my autograph, I’m still selling stories, and most of all, I can remember what it was like when I didn’t know how wide that gulf was, or the doubts and fears that go with being a small-time author instead of a “pending” one. I remember dreaming those dreams.

And I’ve already seen one come true.

#SFWApro