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I’ve been engaged in some long-term strategic planning. When you’re a writer, no one assigns you tasks the way your boss does at work (unless you’re a freelancer, different system); you have to determine for yourself what you’re going to do after you finish the project you’re working on. (Assuming you do finish. It’s okay sometimes to put a story aside because it just isn’t working, but one of the hallmarks of a writer is that you finish what you’re working on. If every project is being set aside half-done, that’s a problem.)

And now I’m concentrating on novels, so it’s even more important to have some idea of what’s coming up next. Writing a novel for me can take anywhere from a couple of months to a year (although I’m working to bring that down). You would think that this would allow plenty of time to plan the next one, but you’d be surprised. So I’m doing a little strategic thinking: A possible trilogy cut to one book, a half-done book to be revisited, a long-time thought experiment moved to the starting lineup.

The thing is, all of these are speculation. Any of them could change because a book sells better than I think (or worse), a publisher changes his mind about me or goes out of business, a new and exciting idea comes along and crowds out everything else. This is solely a thought exercise designed to make me believe that I have some idea of where I’m heading. Uncertainty is a momentum-killer. It’s the outside force that acts on your career to slow you down.

Then again, nothing is certain, even uncertainty. It’s bad when it slows you down, but “uncertainty” is just another word for “potential.” If you can’t predict your next project because nothing speaks to you, that’s bad–but if you can’t predict your next project because you didn’t know that a TV producer was going to offer to option your book and your agent calls you to demand a sequel, that’s good. Or there could be other factors delaying or derailing your Plan, either good or bad. Writing is not a linear occupation.

Which is why, when I see people complaining that certain Big Name Authors haven’t come out with a new book as fast as they’d like, I think, “Well, obviously you’re not a writer.”

Books are not mass-produced like cars or toasters. First, writers move at different speeds, and no one moves at the same speed every day. Second, writers are people, and they have lives. Sometimes those lives interfere with writing (ironically often because of what we have to do to support our writing, like editing, book tours, convention appearances, or just sitting around Planning).

This doesn’t just apply to Big Names with huge series. This applies to all writers, published and pre-published. Just as there is no schedule for writing a book, there is no schedule for moving from publishing short stories to novels, or just publishing. There’s no requirement that you have to move from short stories to novels (or vice versa) at all. Writing (and having a writing career) is not done according to a recipe.

If I ever become sufficiently well-known that someone asks me, “How did you become a writer? How did you get published?”, I’m going to say, “I wrote. For many years. Sometimes I think I didn’t write enough. Sometimes I think I just needed time to grow into the right person. None of which has anything to do with you. Now go write something.”

Because there’s no secret handshake, there’s no schedule, there’s no recipe. You may sell the first time out, or collect 500 rejections in a row. You may sell the first time out, and then collect 500 rejections in a row. The best you can do is make a plan. Which probably won’t happen the way you wrote it.

But you will have written something. And that’s where it all starts.

#SFWWApro

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(Note: This has nothing to do with “The Virtues of Keeping Your Pants On.” Different subject–although it is a valuable piece of advice, particularly in public.)

I was recently informed by a publisher that a short story was not quite what he was seeking in his magazine, an unfortunate event which occurs both more and less often that we’d like. More, because stories are often rejected for this reason, and it’s frustrating if it means a good story just can’t find a home–and less, because usually you have no idea that the problem wasn’t your story but just a bad fit, and it’s nice to know that. This interaction, however, went a little further.

The editor asked me if I would consider allowing my story to be used in a parallel venue, one which does not pay. This is known in the business as “exposure.” Because the story in question is a reprint, I considered the matter, but eventually decided “no.” I have turned down opportunities for “exposure” before and quickly turned the story around for money. If I allowed even a reprint to be published for free, I wouldn’t be able to peddle it again for some time. I’d rather take the chance on a payday.

This is not the case for everyone. Many authors, particularly new ones, jump at such a chance. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but one should always look before leaping. I have offered stories for exposure before, but each time I had a reason: I was new and thought any publication was worth seeing my name in print, the story was a reprint that I submitted to an audio magazine simply to hear it read aloud, or (in one case) the anthology was for charity and featured a Very Big Name that should actually generate sales, meaning the opportunity for exposure was real.

You see, the problem with most “exposure” markets is–you don’t get a lot. Most authors aren’t going to sell stories for nothing, so a market that doesn’t pay is less likely to snag first-rate stories, so fewer people are going to see your story in print. And while any publication is better than none, as far as credits go, most markets don’t really care where else you’ve been published anyway, unless you’re famous, in which case they already know.

Of course, when you’re new and you haven’t sold anything, the idea of “taking the chance on a payday” feels like trading a bird in the hand for the chance to shove that same hand into a thorny bush. And my own first couple of publications were for free, so I know the thrill of simply seeing your name in print.

It all comes down to what you want out of your writing. Think about it, though. If your name on a book is all you need, write a novel and self-publish it. (Again, I know how good that feels.) You’ll save yourself the time and anguish of submitting to magazines. But if you ever want to see your name on a magazine in a convention dealer’s room, or have someone ask for your autograph, or (!) make money… then resist the temptation to give your work away. If no one will pay for it, call it a “learning experience” and shelve it. Someday, when you’re finally published and you’re looking for more stories to send out, you’ll dig through your old files and come across that piece again. You’ll glance at the title, smile indulgently, and think, “You know, it wasn’t really that bad a story. Maybe I can fix it.”

And it wasn’t. And you can. And then you’ll sell it. I know; I’ve done it. I exposed my story to the world.

And it paid off.

#SFWApro

 

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I think there’s a law that says you have to recap your year in a blog post, but even if there isn’t, this has been (ahem) a pretty big year, so what the heck.

Stories submitted: 57, fewer than other years, because my inventory is being whittled down by attrition, meaning they’ve sold. (One story was returned with an invitation to re-submit should that particular anthology merit a sequel.) This is an awesome problem to have. There are seven stories out at the moment, a number I’m comfortable with.

Sales: Eight, of which two were original, three were reprints, and three were republications. So what’s the difference between reprints and republications? Read on…

Publications: Here’s where it gets interesting… 12–nine short stories and three novels!

Yes, not only is this the most stories I’ve ever had published in a year, the highlight of 2018 unquestionably came at the end of September when I accepted an offer to re-publish the Stolen Future trilogy under the Digital Science Fiction imprint. I had previously self-published all three volumes, but they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Convention appearances: One. I made my third appearance as a panelist at Loscon, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the Hugo shortlist for Best Panelist will have my name on it. (I’m sorry, what? They don’t have a Hugo for Best Panelist? Why not?)

Current projects: Two… one short story and one novel. (Which is a lot, as I’m typically a one-at-a-time kind of guy.) There are other things in various stages of incompletion which could see the light of day next year, but nothing I’m actively working on.

And that’s all I can think of. Could I have done more? Sure, I could’ve worked more diligently and suffered fewer writer’s blocks, but honestly, this was my best year ever on more than one front, so I’ll cut myself some slack. Besides, it gives me a chance to make some New Year’s resolutions…

Resolved: Propose a Best Panelist Hugo!

#SFWApro

 

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You know that Mercedes Benz commercial they run during December where the kid wakes up every Christmas morning to run to the window to see if there’s a Mercedes in the driveway? Every year he’s disappointed, until finally, one year, when he’s just about given up on the whole idea, he sees his car. I have my issues with the commercial, but I identify with that kid.

For years, my wife would ask me what I wanted for Christmas, and I would say, “Oh, X would be nice, or Y would be cool… Of course, what I really want you can’t get me–a publishing contract.” Although my wife is many wonderful things, she is not a publisher. And so, year after year would pass without the one present that, in reality, I could only give myself.

And now, behold:

 

This is my car, and it’s in my driveway. But wasn’t a present; it was the result of years and years of hard work and being in the right place at the right time.

So this year, when my wife asked me, “Did you get what you wanted for Christmas?” I said, “Unfortunately, you can’t get me what I really want.” And she said: “Why not? Because I’m not a publisher?” And I said, “No, because you’re not a producer.”

Why do they say living with a writer is so hard?

#SFWApro

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Over time, I have been trying to develop a more studied and consistent method of writing books, largely with the goal of writing them more quickly. For this purpose, I have attempted to outline more before I write.* While my efforts have been semi-successful (I typically outline the first quarter of the book and end up winging it from there), it has contributed greatly to my speed. Ironically, however, it is the latter part of the process, where I don’t have but the vaguest idea of where I’m heading, that I’m enjoying the most.

I’m finding that outlining is good for getting me started on a story (which can be very tough), after which, with luck, I will be so into the flow that I can continue by the seat of my pants. This does lead to some hiccups, but when it works… When it works, there is nothing like it. It’s the joy of discovery.

What am I discovering, you ask? Why, the same thing you are when you read the book. I like to keep my readers hopping, never knowing what’s coming next. It’s not always possible, of course (particularly with the class of readers I attract), but it seems to me that the best way to keep all of you from knowing what’s going to happen next is if I don’t know what’s going to happen next. And believe me, I don’t. Sometimes I don’t even know what’s happened already.

Take my latest hiccup. I finally resolved my dilemma by doing what I should have done at the start: I went back to find the point where the story went off the rails, and as is usual with me, I found it in the first chapter. It wasn’t so much that the narrative had gone awry, as I hadn’t told it right; there was far more backstory to my main story than I had given credit for. So, 3000 words later, I prepared to return to whence I had left off–when I had another inspiration and realized that until I made a proper go of the beginning, nothing that followed would feel right. And tonight, the story is 730 words longer–at the beginning.

Which might never have happened were I a strict outliner. Which is part of that joy of discovery, for me and I hope for you, too. But there’s another part.

I was re-reading some of my manuscript the other day, and it suddenly dawned on me (not for the first time), that what we writers do is really damned cool. We literally make up universes. I mean, yes, we all know that we’re gods to our characters; they live and die at our whim. But it’s more than that; we make stuff up out of nothing and spin it out for fifty, a hundred, three hundred thousand words. I re-read these stories, and re-visit the trials and the triumphs that I wrote, and I ask myself: “I did that? How the hell did I do that?”

And the answer is, sometimes I know what I’m doing, and sometimes I just go along for the ride and watch the scenery. It’s not always beautiful, but there’s a surprise around every corner.

*I actually tried to outline my very first novel start to finish, but I abandoned it pretty quickly. This is probably for the best, since my grasp of narrative structure left a little to be desired.

#SFWApro

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Sometimes you just have to drop a name.

Nebula Award winner Walter Jon Williams just listed The Invisible City as one of his recommended books from graduates of his master class workshop, Taos Toolbox. As much as this excites me, it also allows me to plug the Toolbox, which I am always happy to do.

Taos Toolbox is an advanced two-week seminar held in the mountains of New Mexico every summer. In addition to intensive tutelage from Walter and co-instructor Nancy Kress, you also get guest lectures from Walter’s friends. (This year it’s some guy named Martin.)

This is not a class for beginners; it is for serious writers with publication credits who want to move up in the field. I was there in 2008; one of my fellow students had already won a Hugo, and I roomed with a guy who won his own Hugo a couple years later. So yeah, these folks are serious.

I loved my two weeks in the mountains, and I would go back if I could. When you qualify, you should go, too. If I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t have anything for Walter to recommend…

#SFWApro

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Gallery of Curiosities #4

Very happy to be able to announce that Gallery of Curiosities #4, featuring my story, “How to Murder a Corpse,” is available on Amazon. That doesn’t sound like holiday reading, you say? Au contraire, it’s all about surprises…

“How to…” is the second adventure of my nameless detective/mail-order necromancer who originally appeared in “The Quick and the Dead” in Buzzy Mag. This is the first time I have published a short story featuring a continuing character; I’ve got more… This time, the hero finds a dead body in his office, with a bullet hole in its head and bite marks on its neck. The strange thing is, he’d already raised this man from the dead the week before–so who would go to all that trouble to murder a walking corpse?

The trail leads to an underground vampire club, betrayal, murder, and an old rival with a reputation so evil he is shunned by the undead…

How to Murder a Corpse.” You know you want to know.

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