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I am very pleased to announce that Stories for the Thoughtful Young is available on Amazon as of today. It includes my short story, “Migration” (which in my view is worth the price of admission alone, but I digress). Check it out!

There’s an insidious syndrome affecting creative people of all sorts: Covid Brain. In fact, this syndrome is so bad that it’s affecting everyone, not just creatives. People are forgetting what day it is, forgetting how to do their daily tasks, forgetting how to relate to others because they haven’t talked to another human being in person in months. (Grocery store baggers are becoming our new best friends.)

As writers, we are more used to this sort of malaise because we know it by another name: writer’s block. Writer’s block is the same problem, just more contained; it only affects our creative output. But now it’s worse, like everyone has writer’s block. Sharing this experience, however, does not make it any better.

The first question, of course, is how do you tell Covid Brain from writer’s block? Answer: Who cares? It’s the result, not the name, that’s important. And more critically, what do we do about it?

I recommend you just go with the flow. This will end, sometime. And we will adjust. I remember that in late 2016 and early 2017, many writers (those who tend toward liberalism) found it extremely difficult to write because of the election results. It wasn’t writer’s block, but it was just as bad. (Sound familiar?) With time and self-therapy, they began to work again.

Writing is like exercise. You need to do it regularly, but too much too soon can burn out the muscles you’re trying to develop. I’m trying to work a little more each day, after having been in a slump. It’s not as much as I’d like, but I’ll accept progress for what it is. This is a tough time, with many of us having been on semi- or full lockdown for over six months. Expecting to jump from first gear to fourth in one go is simply unrealistic.

And what if you’re not a writer? Well, if you’ve got time on your hands… Don’t let the size of a project scare you (first to fourth, remember?); try to break it down into manageable pieces. Even if nothing comes of your attempt, it’s something to do, and that’s the best way to beat Covid Brain: Find something to occupy your real brain.

And when you’re on your way, and you feel the clouds lifting, drop me a line and remind me what day it is.

#SFWApro

Time to Be Serious

There’s this ridiculous idea that’s been going around for I-don’t-know-how-long, that unless you’re actually earning your living through your writing, you aren’t a serious writer. How many ways is this idea is completely moronic? Let me count them. Oh, wait, I can’t.

First of all, what defines “serious”? In my book, you’re a serious writer if: you treat your writing as a professional obligation, i.e., you do it to the best of your ability on the principle that the customer should get value for his money; you do it consistently, because it is an obligation to yourself to improve and produce; and you submit your stories, because publication is your ultimate aim. Where and how you submit is unimportant, so long as you intend for your work to be read by the public.

Second, there are so many factors that go into making a living as a writer that are beyond your control, it’s stupid to say that being unable to affect them bars your admission to the status of “serious.” To be a published writer requires talent, of course, and (in all but a few cases) persistence. But it also requires that you match your story to an editor who likes it enough to pay for it. There are, nowadays, dozens if not hundreds of paying markets for short fiction. (It was not always this way.) Even so, selling short fiction to a market that will afford you a living is, well, it’s impossible, since no short markets pay a living wage. But beyond that, the competition is incredible, and even if your story is the best the editor has seen that week, it still runs the risk of being: too similar to a story he bought yesterday/too long or short/featuring a heroine who reminds him of his ex/read right after the editor had a big lunch and he’s too sleepy to finish it.

Sure, there are other editors out there, but maybe this was the only market that publishes your kind of story and pays decent money. And even if you sold that story, you’d be a long way from a living wage. See how hard it is to “make a living”? And that’s only talking about short fiction.

If you really want to make a living writing fiction, you have to write novels. Which means you have to get past all of the barriers above, as well as everyone else in the publishing house who has a say in acquiring your book, and then all you have to do is hope that your publisher will put some money behind your book and persuade a mere hundred thousand or so people to buy it. Again, this has nothing to do with how good your book is.

And yet there are yahoos out there saying you aren’t serious? You spent three years writing that book! And what if you don’t ever get that far? What if you write ten novels in ten years and send them each to a dozen publishers and every one of them falls flat? What if you really do suck at this and no matter how hard you work and how many classes you take, you simply can’t write a publishable novel (even if you have some short story sales)? Does that mean you’re not serious?

Brother, you are more serious than the best-selling author who writes two books of a trilogy and never finishes the third. You are more serious than the author of the Great American Novel, who never writes another.

“Serious” is not about making a living, or even making money. “Serious” is not a result. “Serious” is an attitude.

And if you want to be a writer, then you seriously better have an attitude.

#SFWApro

One of the most obvious effects The Current Unpleasantness has had on the science fiction and mystery communities is that conventions can no longer be held in person. They have all either been cancelled or moved on-line. I’ve been to a couple of these virtual gatherings now, and I’m forming an opinion about them.

My opinion is that we need to get back to “normal” as soon as possible. This is not a reflection on the quality of the conventions I’ve visited. I was a member of the Nebula weekend a few months ago, and under the circumstances, it was well-handled. Granted, the only interaction I had with Worldcon was to watch the Hugo Awards ceremony, but it was enough to inform my views. (As to the ceremony itself, I am not going there, but if you want to dip your toe into the controversy, be my guest.)

The problem with virtual conventions is that there is no “convening.” For me, a convention’s programming is not a major draw. Most of the panels I’ve seen before. I know how hard it is to program a convention; I’ve run one, so I know firsthand how difficult it is to be creative.* But facts are facts, and panels (for the most part) are panels. And I don’t run to a con to see the guests of honor; at most Worldcons, at least, I rarely even see the guests of honor. It’s not like I’m going to have a chance to talk to them.**

I go to conventions to be around people like me. (Which is weird, because like most writers I’m an introvert.) Sometimes I go so I can be on a panel. (Again, weird.) Sitting at my own desk for three days, when all I do all week is sit at my desk for work, get up, eat dinner, and sit down again to write, is hardly the same thing. Nor does it satisfy my urge (more pronounced than ever) to go somewhere different.

I used to look forward to going to conventions. Truthfully, I don’t look forward to virtual conventions. For some reason (gee, I wonder why), they don’t feel real to me. I can’t be on a panel (well, I could, but it wouldn’t feel the same), I can’t browse the dealer’s room, or wander around looking for friends I only see at cons, or seek to get (and give!) autographs. (Aha! Now we know the truth!)

There are, of course, benefits, such as people being able to attend conventions they never could have afforded. Like, say, in New Zealand. Or if I wanted to attend Eurocon, I could do that now. And no matter how this all turns out, that will remain an option. Every convention is going to be available virtually from now on. But if something isn’t able to be done so that in-person attendance can be resumed, I don’t think they’ll continue the same way. Even with lower bars to attending, fewer people will take the trouble, because regardless of whether they realize it now, virtual conventions will not satisfy the deep-seated need we have for community.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe the digital generation will embrace the new, virtual, reality. Or maybe VR technology will allow you to attend a convention in Stockholm as though you were really in Stockholm, walking the halls hoping to see your favorite author sitting in a holographic chair in the lobby, waiting for his next panel and so bored he will talk to any fan. (Answer: Yes, I will.)

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*I’m proud of the innovative programming my crew came up with. Some went over well, and some nearly caused rioting. Our weapons policy, while criticized, became SOP at cons for years.

**At my con, I did get to talk to the GOHs. But not often.

#SFWApro

Being a writer is hard. It’s not a job for the easily-discouraged or thin-skinned.

Being the spouse of a writer is even harder, because you don’t get paid for it (assuming that the writer is being paid, which is not even close to being a sure thing). If you’re thinking of marrying a writer, following are some of the things you can look forward to…

You will learn to identify your spouse by the back of his/her head, because that it is the only part you will ever see.

You will learn to identify other writers simply by the odd monitor-induced sun tan they get on their faces.

When you’re with your children, you will watch SpongeBob over and over and over. When you’re with your spouse, you will read the latest draft of “Star Masters and the Fate of the Universe!” over and over and over.

You will learn that the third person in your marriage really is only a writing partner.

You will come to understand that your spouse thinks any day where a sale is made should be a national holiday, and cease to ask why.

You will be expected to learn that there is a difference between “I’m not listening,” and “I’m writing a story in my head,” although both are just blank looks.

You will come to understand that “I’m working,” may mean writing, doing research, or simply playing a game set in a similar universe as your spouse’s work-in-progress (also research), and you will realize that they all mean dinner is going to get cold–again.

You will wonder if you should check “desertion” on the divorce papers because your spouse is always in another universe.

You will take nothing from this experience because your next spouse will be a musician.

#SFWApro

Now that all of the titles have been taken down and re-posted, and all of the links have been re-set, it’s time for me to face the fact that my first publisher and I are no longer in partnership. It was an amicable parting, if reluctant, but I felt it was best for my brand and they did not disagree, so we are going our separate ways. I am grateful for the help and support I received while I was there.

And now I’m on my own again, a purely self-published author, not a hybrid. I’m not going to list all of my books here because links are available on this site, and that’s not the purpose of this post–I’m writing it because that’s what I do, and this is a big move for me which will have long-term consequences, the most obvious and immediate being that (once again!) I have to pivot and take a new road.

At the beginning of the year, I started a stand-alone SF pastoral/space opera/mystery/gothic novel that I was going to try to pawn off on some unsuspecting publisher. When that stalled, I decided to go back to the Stolen Future universe, where I had already finished the first novel of a spin-off that I thought my then-publisher would be interested in. If one project is going nowhere, I thought, why not start on the second part of my spin-off, whose ultimate publication is highly probable, if not guaranteed?

Well, of course, nothing is guaranteed, and as the chances of that second trilogy (should I finish it) being published are now slim, I put aside that book to return to the space opera. (I now have three unfinished novels in my computer, all from the past eight months.) I actually allowed myself a small vacation to get my thoughts together and perhaps work on a short story between asking to be let out of my contracts and having to re-publish, but things turned around faster than I thought, so now that the work is done, it’s time to turn from time travel to space travel.

And that’s where I stand, working on an old new novel while waiting to see how self-publishing experiment #2 works out. It’s been interesting so far, learning to use art programs to make some limited alterations to my covers. And if I can’t fly on my own, there are a few other venues that I can pursue.

If this year has taught us anything, it’s that next week could look entirely different than today. Writing-wise, I hope that’s not true. All this spinning from project to project is making me dizzy.

#SFWApro

For those who are into it (and those who should be but don’t know about it), I wanted to take a moment for self-promotion by pointing out that I have an entry in Who’s Who in New Pulp, a charity project designed to help increase the visibility of the Modern Pulp movement and those who are participating, “222 … of the finest New Pulp writers, artists, reviewers, editors and publishers.”

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“New pulp” is a continuation (and perhaps a revitalization) of the pulp fiction of the 1930s and 1940s. Named for the cheap paper upon which the magazines were printed, it was the successor to the infamous dime novels of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and predecessor to the comic book and the paperback. Its most famous character was undoubtedly The Shadow (ironically invented for the radio, not magazines), but it included such colorful names (and movie heroes) as Tarzan, Zorro, Doc Savage, and dozens more (including my own Nemesis). Its influence on Batman, Superman, James Bond, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones cannot be disputed.

All proceeds from Who’s Who in New Pulp will go to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

#SFWApro

I was asked a question by a friend recently that made me stop and search for an answer. It wasn’t, “Where do you get your ideas?” (That’s easy; there’s an online store on Internet B running a special on novellas right now.) It was: “Which of your books are you most proud of?” On reflection, I chose How to Know if Your Stockbroker is Ripping You Off, because it’s designed to be of use to people in their financial lives, and in a way, it took me 30 years to write. My friend, however, was not about to let me off that easily, and came back with: “Which of your novels are you most proud of?”

Ooh. Okay, now we’re entering dangerous territory. I had already demurred to picking my “favorite,” but this was perhaps even more difficult. It wasn’t merely a matter of which book was the most accomplished, or sold the most. It wasn’t a matter of which book had the most positive reviews. These things make me happy, but pride in a project is more than simply pride in success.

My novels are entertainment; should I be proudest of whichever is most entertaining? Judging them on that metric isn’t really my job, but the job of my readers. Perhaps it should be the longest, since that represents the greatest effort. But that’s not fair, because every story has its best length. I could just as easily be proudest of the book I wrote the fastest, because it represents the most focused effort. Or maybe I should be proudest of the book that was hardest to write, but none of them was what you’d call easy.

The truth, of course, is that I am proud of all of them. Each time I set out to tell a story, and each time I succeeded. Sometimes I wasn’t able to pull off a story with quite the panache I’d hoped, and more than once the story I told varied significantly from what I set out to do in the beginning. But I am proud of the accomplishment each stands for, that I was able to string together several tens of thousands of words (in one case more than 100,000), into a coherent narrative, something which many strive for but few achieve.

So which of my books am I most proud of? With any luck, it’s one haven’t written yet.

#SFWApro

One of a series. Maybe.

I saw today, as I do often, where a writer is asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” Aside from its inherent non-answerability, this is not a bad question–it is just the wrong question. The difference between writers and non-writers is not that we get ideas, it’s what we do with them. And the difference between writers and those who would like to be writers is how we do what we do. As Inigo Montoya said, “Let me ‘splain.”

You read a short story and it has a twist ending. You think, “Wow! I didn’t see that coming!” Maybe you didn’t, but the writer did. And the trick to a successful twist doesn’t lie in the twist itself; it lies ten pages back where the author laid down a subtle hint of what was to come that you won’t see until you read the story again.

Nor is this limited to surprise endings. The success of any story’s ending lies in its beginning and its middle (I would say, particularly the middle). I was once asked to rewrite a story to strengthen the ending, and it wasn’t until I realized that I had to start the ending half-way through that I was able to re-write it properly. (I’m doing right now with another story, and it ain’t easy.)

Think of it like a judo throw. To watch, you’d think it was all hands and arms, but in reality it starts down in the hips. Until you learn to use those muscles down in your roots, you can’t do the moves. Until you learn to root your ending deep in your story, you can’t carry off the twist. Yes, you can write it, and it will be surprising, but it won’t be elegant or satisfying.

To paraphrase Master Kan, “The writer is at one with his universe. Between the opening line and the writer’s block, there is only harmony.” Well, he may have been a wise man, but he wasn’t a writer. Still, like Kwai Chang Caine, if you stick with it, you’ll get it–even if it takes ten years…

#SFWApro

It’s fair to say that the last couple of years have seen an increase in my word output, doubtless because I’ve been working on novels and not short stories.* They have also seen an increase in my visibility as an author, thanks to my friends at Digital Fiction Publishing, who have seen fit to publish several of my novels. All of this should be good news, right?

Note the use of the word “should.” Well, it is and it isn’t.

What does up, must come down, and for every upside there is a downside. Every silver lining surrounds a dark cloud. Kung Fu taught me that in every transaction, each side gains something, and each side loses something.** And so it is with success–in this case, writing success. In one area of my life, I’m losing badly.

I no longer have any time to read. (I don’t have time to watch TV any more, either, but that’s less of a problem.) The thing is, creativity is not a one-way street, with product gushing out in an endless stream of brilliance. (If it were, I could’ve constructed a better metaphor.) Creativity is a system, and like any other system, what you get out depends on what you put in.

Unfortunately, my output seems to be pre-empting my input. (Note: This is not me complaining. Far from it; this is me “discussing.” If you want to hear me complaining … well, you don’t.) Let me illustrate. When I’m stuck for a story idea, I’ve been known to go to my bookshelves and devour an entire anthology or two, then turn out a story very much in the vein of that anthology. Plainly, I require mental sustenance or there will be no production.

But (just in case you’re not dizzy yet) there is an upside to this downside, as well, in that writers can be working even when we’re just sitting around staring at the ceiling. As recently as last night I tested this truism by sitting down (away from desk, in a nice comfy chair), and thinking my way through the next section of my WIP. (Okay, actually I was in telepathic contact with one of my characters, who literally took my story to an entirely new level by telling me something about my world that I did not know.) My point is that if writers can be working when we’re ostensibly doing nothing, we can inarguably be working when we’re reading, which, although a quiet occupation, is an activity.

Ironically, it’s not that we need to show someone else that we’re working, it’s that we have to prove it to ourselves. It’s drilled into writers’ heads that to be working, you have to be writing. This is completely untrue.

Any plan must be balanced. For literature to come out, literature must go in. “Remember what the Dormouse said … ‘Feed your head!'”

Good night, Gracie.

#SFWApro

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*I can write and edit a novel in the time it takes me to write and edit a short story. That is the best argument I know for proving that the two are separate skills.

**If they ever put out a poster that says, “Everything I know about life I learned from Kung Fu,” I will buy a lifetime supply. Had I been a father, I would have sat my kids down with the DVDs, said “Watch this,” and left them alone. They would have turned out beautifully.