Posts Tagged ‘sfwa’

There is a question that gets tossed around quite often: “What makes a writer a professional?” Most people would think: “A writer who gets paid to write; a writer who sells stories.”

And as far as I’m concerned, that’s fine. In science fiction, you might stretch that definition to, “A writer who has earned enough to qualify for membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).” The same could go for mystery writers (MWA), or romance writers (RWA), and so on. In disclosure, I am an Active member of SFWA, which is the highest level of membership. That level of membership is based on sales, but I by no means making a living writing–which is entirely relevant to the point I’m going to try to make.

According to SFWA, I am a professional SF author. I saw a blog recently, however, that (in passing) strongly implied that SFWA’s standards were too lax, that only someone who makes his living selling fiction should be considered “professional.” So far as I’m concerned, this is just wrong.

First, very few people can make a living writing. It’s like acting; how many SAG members make a full-time living acting? Not many, but if you try to characterize all of those others as “not professional actors,” you’re going to have a real argument on your hands. Same with writers.

Merriam-Webster has a lengthy definition of “professional,” but the relevant sections reads thusly: “participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs.” Personally, I think Merriam-Webster is a pretty good source, and it says you don’t have to support yourself by a particular profession in order to be a professional.

And you know who else doesn’t think you have to support yourself completely by writing to be a professional writer? Me. And, well, Merriam-Webster. One of their other definitions is: “following a line of conduct as though it were a profession.” You see, professional is as professional does. Even if you’ve never sold a story, you’re acting like a professional, and while you may not qualify for the purposes of SFWA, or MWA, or whoever, you deserve that respect. (I have found mystery writers understand this better than many.)

And those of us who make some money on the side doing this job? We’re living our dream. And if we’re not living it at the same economic level as you think we should, then, well, I don’t think that’s very professional.



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Now that I’m about to be published by a small press, it’s got me thinking more about the small press world. Specifically, how small presses are perceived in SF as opposed to the other realm about which I know something, mystery writing. I’ve heard from SF writers that small presses do not carry the cachet of major publishers; I’m not talking about money, which is an obvious discrepancy, but the idea that going with a small press in science fiction is seen as less prestigious, whereas in mysteries…not so much. Small press mysteries have much more chance of receiving awards, for example, than have small press SF or fantasy novels.*

Why is this? Why are mystery readers seem more accepting of non-traditionally published novels? I don’t know; I suspect the answer lies far in the past, but not having been part of the mystery scene all that long, I can’t say. (I’ll have to ask; maybe I can give you an answer in a future post.) But that’s not the only discrepancy between the two (publishing-wise), and perhaps the advantages don’t tilt all the way in favor of mysteries. Because you see, where mystery writers may have more opportunities when it comes to novels, SFF writers are far ahead when it comes to short fiction.

I did a little research, and it was surprisingly easy to learn a few facts: There are approximately 192 publishers on the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) site whose novel contracts qualify one for professional membership. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) web site lists about 53.** (Each of these allows more than the markets specifically listed, because of imprints, etc.)

On the other hand, where SFWA has 54 qualifying short story markets, MWA lists only 22. Now, I happen to know that there are dozens more SF short story markets whose acceptances do not count toward qualifying for SFWA, and there are probably equivalent mystery magazines, but I don’t doubt the former easily outnumber the latter.

Again, why is this? Are there more SFF readers than mystery readers? Is it too hard to write short mysteries? Or is it just that there are so many more novel markets out there that fewer bother to write short mystery fiction? Does that make it easier to break into science fiction?

Beats me. It’s a mystery. And maybe trying to raise the reputation of small press books is a fantasy. But I hope in the future it’s possible, because if it’s possible in the future, it becomes science fiction.

And that’s what I write.


*Yes, there are and have been exceptions. But they are just that, exceptions.

**I am a member of SFWA. I used to be a (non-professional) member of MWA, but their meetings were too far away.




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Why is it, when you go into a Starbucks (it’s not always Starbucks, but they seem to attract the species, like flytraps) in LA (I’m assuming it’s only in LA, but I could be wrong–enlighten me) that you see all these guys (and yes, it’s always guys!) writing screenplays on their laptops, an empty cup beside them like their ticket on the train? (“Look, Mr. Conductor/Barista! I paid to be here!”)

No, I’m not asking why everyone goes to Starbucks to write. I’ve written in coffee houses myself, and found it works a lot better than I expected. I guess if it was good enough for J.K. Rowling, etc., etc. It’s not the writing in coffee houses that I don’t understand, it’s writing screenplays.

Look, writing fiction is a crapshoot. Let’s take science fiction, because that’s the field I know. When I was a “kid,” there were those who (I’m sure from an overabundance of caring) made no secret of the fact that your chances of ever getting a story published were 1000-to-1. Even today, with dozens of markets available for short SF, the odds are about the same. It’s not pretty, but it’s true. (Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try!)

But screenplays? I have no numbers to go by (and I’m too lazy to look), but I have to figure that your chances of selling a screenplay are about 1/10th as good as selling a short story. Yes, the rewards are vastly higher, but so’s a winning lottery ticket. So why write screenplays when your chances of succeeding at straight fiction are ten times better? I made more on my last sale than most of those coffee-jockeys will make on whatever they’re writing, if they push it from now until they die. (And believe me, what I make isn’t a lot to brag about. The pro rate for magazines as defined by SFWA has about doubled since the 1960s.)

I guess it’s the same mentality that plays the lotto. And I play the lottery, too, occasionally, though I stay with the small tickets. I guess I’d rather win a little every so often rather than play for the big pay-off that may (probably will) never come.

If you’re the other kind, and you hit it big, good for you. Go back to Starbucks and buy a round for the house.


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With the onset of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is no longer quite so embarrassing to admit that one was reading comic books all through one’s youth and beyond.* I quit about 20 (!) years ago now, but I still follow the genre (and watch the movies). So it’s not surprising that my mind still goes down those roads on occasion (okay, all the time). And that has lead to the following question:

In that world, with superpowers, mutants, AIs, self-contained battle suits, aliens, time travel, superweapons,  and everything, how does anyone write science fiction? SF consists of stories that extrapolate from known science, or at least scientific theory. But if you know that mutants and superweapons and aliens exist because you can see them fly by your window, what is there to extrapolate? By definition, everything you’re writing is simply “fiction.”**

Does that mean that writers like me would be in Fiction & Literature at your local Barnes & Noble? Would there be a reason for a SFWA to exist–and would I not have to regret the fact that I’m not at Nebula weekend right now?

And what about the liability issues? What if some hulking green guy comes up to you and says you’re defaming him in your latest story–which just happens to have a large, green character? What if he claims you’re appropriating his image? And if you write a story about the Skrulls invading the Earth, will the real Skrulls take umbrage and actually invade the Earth out of pique?

Even if you started with the concept that none of the above existed, and then created an SF story, would anyone read it? Science fiction isn’t supposed to be about a world more boring than your own. The only choice left would be alternate history, and that field would get crowded fast.

What would happen, I think, is that all those writers would migrate to another genre, like romance, or mystery. Mystery would be a fertile field in that world, with questions like: What’s with those capes, anyway? How do those young sidekicks explain all those bruises without social services investigating? And why are there so many super-powered people in the world, anyway? How did they get that way?

Oh, wait, that veers into science fiction. And then we start all over again.

*The same thing happened to science fiction with Star Wars, and fantasy with Lord of the Rings.

**Fantasy writers would have the same problem.

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Once upon a time, writers were known for their stories–and from their stories. In this benighted past, there was no Internet (yes, well may you shudder, children). There were no blogs, no e-books, no online magazines, Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook…there wasn’t even any e-mail. And the people toiled through snail mail and telephones that did not take pictures and did not even know that they were technologically poverty-stricken. For only in comic books were their portable telephones with vliewscreens, and only in stories did men and women communicate by computer.

So how the heck did a writer ever make a name for himself? It wasn’t easy. (Not that it’s easy now. But back then it was harder to become famous just for being famous.) Ironically, like today, there were many magazines available as markets, but back then, so many people read them that you could actually become famous that way. Astonishingly, you could even make a living selling to magazines. Like much of history, it was full of inconsistencies.

Flash forward to now, when all you need to become world-famous is a blog. (Assuming that your definition of “world-famous” is that your work is available all over the world.) And every writer’s marketing plan–heck, every writer’s publisher–is in his own hands. So if fame (or notoriety) is so easy to grasp, why isn’t every writer famous? Why is true fame still as elusive as ever?

It used to be, even with the plethora of markets, that you had to have a modicum of talent to sell to a (magazine or book) publisher. That isn’t true now, because you can publish yourself. Yet self-publishing success is at least as difficult as traditional publishing success, because there is so much competition, and so much (to be honest) garbage out there. Collecting fans is a full-time job. (So in that sense, a robust social media presence is necessary. It’s the only way to stand out from the crowd. But for some, it isn’t that easy–if you’re over 50, particularly.)

Traditional publishing can accomplish the marketing for you. But look at the field now: With e-publishing, short fiction venues have exploded, but like self-publishing, it suffers from two problems: (1) the quality varies. There are markets you almost have to try not to get published in, but who’s going to read them? (2) Declining readership. More venues and fewer readers means even the top-flight markets suffer from “genre fatigue.”

It is no longer possible to make a living writing short fiction. It simply can’t be done. (The minimum professional rate established by SFWA is six cents per word. An average short story may run around 5,000 words. Do the math.) But it is possible to build a career by publishing short stories, even if you don’t have any other publicity machine. You just have to hit the biggest markets, consistently.

Can your social media profile help you climb the ladder toward fame and success? Doubtless it can, particularly if you understand that every rung is an accomplishment, and not everybody can climb high. Can simply writing great stories get you there, without the social aspect? Sure; there have been lots of reclusive writers, and I don’t see that changing. Writers are weird.

So how important is social media to a writer’s career? I don’t know–how long is a piece of string?


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It will come as no surprise to pretty much anyone that writers think of their stories as their children. I have discussed this metaphor myself; I would find it hard to believe that any writer doesn’t feel that way. (If you’re a writer and you don’t feel that way, please let me know in the comments, because I’d love to have that conversation.)

And as we all know, parents want their children to do as well in life as they can. In people terms, it means a good job, or placing your child in the best college. In writer terms, this means placing your story in the best venue. “Best” may mean most highly regarded, most visible for awards, or highest-paying. In SFF circles, these priorities overlap until they are almost the same. Whether this is a good thing is open to debate, but it is undeniably true.

Personally,  I aim for the high-paying markets that accept stories somewhere in the neighborhood of what I’ve written, which is pretty easy because most magazines have open guidelines. In other words, besides maybe only accepting SF or fantasy, they’re pretty receptive to however you interpret the genre (short of some rather horrific line-crossing exceptions that I won’t go into). I also like markets that respond relatively quickly (but then again, who doesn’t?).

Now, there are two kinds of markets I submit to (except in special circumstances), and they are defined by pay rates: “pro” and “semi-pro.” “Pro” markets are those paying $0.06/word and above (this being the minimum rate set for qualification by SFWA). “Semi-pro” markets pay $0.01 – $0.03/word.* I typically do not submit to markets paying less.

I start, of course, with the pro venues. But what happens when you can’t sell a story, and you run out of pro venues? Do you move on to the semi-pro markets? Therein lies the problem…

Writers can get very attached to their stories, and unlike with children (we hope), writers have favorites. And every writer can tell you about “my favorite story that I just can’t sell.”  I have one, but it’s in submission right now (I believe for the 46th time), so I can’t tell you which it is. I used to have a second favorite, but it sold (to a pro market) after 35 rejections. I could sell my favorite story any time I wanted, but I refuse to sell it for less than pro rates. I will not send my baby to anything but an Ivy League college.

Nowadays, new markets pop up all the time, some paying pro rates, so I can keep sending this story out with hope in my heart. But I can’t do it with all of my stories, and some I’m not that attached to. But when you’re selling to semi-pro markets, and you’re talking about one that pays 2 1/2 cents per word versus another that pays 3, you have to weigh other considerations. Is one better known in the field? Paper versus electronic? How quickly does the editor get back with rejections? (Once you’ve had a story sitting at a market for a year without a word, you get wary.)

Since I am unfortunately not in a position to sell everything to pro magazines, this is a frequent argument in my head. Depending on the story, the state of various markets (some are only open part-time), and how long it’s been since I’ve made a sale, the argument ends differently every time. Sometimes I even change my mind after a few submissions, adjusting my expectations up or down.

There are those children who will never leave the house, and you just have to put them away. (And by that I mean stories, not real children!) But even they can surprise you. I have sold stories that I thought were out of options.

And you know what? I’m proud of them too.

*When Asimov got his start in the 1940s, he was making up to $0.01/word.


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They Won’t Bite

There’s a blog post on the SFWA blog that I just read that gives writers advice on how to ask for book blurbs. Being as interested in having a high-powered author ruin his career consent to give me a boost as the next guy, I read it. It was interesting, informative–and mostly consisted of common-sense advice about how not to be a jerk to someone when asking him (or her) for a favor.

Now, this is valuable intel, because I don’t know of a thornier question in all of writerdom than how to approach someone you don’t know, or may know only slightly (or even someone you know well, who has probably been dreading this moment for years) to ask him or her not only to read your book, not only to say something nice about your book, but to do it in public and put his name on it. In short, to tell his fans that they should read your book. But at the same time, there wasn’t anything that you shouldn’t know on your own: ask politely, don’t be a pest, do take no for an answer, that kind of thing.

That could be a handy intro to a rant on the decline of manners, but that’s too easy, and besides, no one who reads my blog needs that kind of lecture. So what’s our takeaway here?

It’s that writers are people. Treat them right and they’ll return the favor (if they can). Maybe a blurb is a lot to ask for, but most people aren’t looking for one. You’re a lot more likely to ask for an autograph. Unlike actors, most authors will sign autographs for anyone who asks, and they don’t charge for the privilege. Just be polite in asking. If it’s a formal signing, just a smile will do. If you meet an author at a con, don’t intrude on her conversation, wait for her to be free, and she’ll gladly sign your book.

That’s not to say that every author is Santa Claus, or has been waiting all his life for you to ask him to sign your book (although if he’s new enough, he really has), or even that he’ll be nice to you. On the other hand, if you exercise a little judgment, and don’t sit down next to him while he’s having breakfast, you’ll probably find that your favorite author is just like you. You work in an office, he works at home.

The difference is that, hour for hour, you probably get paid better.

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