On The Matter of Jim Frenkel

I’ll start with this. Jim has no business being a guest liaison for any convention. Full stop.

Now, on to the nuance. I understand the impulse to give second chances to people who’ve done us a good turn, or to ignore reports of behavior we’ve never witnessed when it’s a friend on the grill. I even understand it in the specific case of Jim Frenkel. He was my first agent and, some years later, he was very nearly my editor. He’s bought me dinner, we’ve laughed together, been in business together and for years I thought of him as a friend.

None of that excuses his reported behavior toward women.

None of that is a reason to give him a pass on this.

One of the reasons why serial harassment happens in our society is the tendency to forgive or ignore behaviors that don’t affect us directly or that happen out of sight, if that’s more convenient for us. It’s uncomfortable to call out someone you know and have liked. It feels like disloyalty to turn away from someone who helped you out when they’re in trouble. But, sometimes, that’s exactly what we have to do.

I don’t remember ever seeing Jim make unwelcome advances or any of the other reported behaviors that have given him his reputation as a serial harasser, but I don’t have to witness a behavior myself to condemn it. All I have to do is believe the accounts of the women who were affected, and I do. It’s that simple. So, though it gives me no pleasure to say this about a man who advanced my career and who I thought of as a friend, I will repeat myself.

Jim has no business being a guest liaison for any convention.

ETA: In case it wasn’t clear, he shouldn’t be anywhere else on the concom either.

ETA 2: Corrected “I never saw” to “I don’t remember ever seeing”.

Daily Writing Habits

I was asked when I write and for how long, but there’s no simple answer because time at keyboard has never been my writing metric. So, it can vary quite a bit day-to-day and has varied even more over time.
When I was starting out I wrote mostly in the late afternoons and evenings after my college coursework, from 4-6 hours. While Laura was in grad school I wrote 6-8 hours a day most days while she was at school—basically 10-6.
For the early Blade books I was writing mostly 9-12 in the morning with a second, smaller bite at the apple starting around 2. With the later Blade books and middle grade stuff I’ve often been doing most of my writing 3-5 in afternoon.
Some of the variability is writing speed. When I was starting out I wrote 2-4k words in 6-8 hours, of which maybe 1-2 was ultimately salvageable. Now I typically need to write 1-2k words a day for a deadline and I can use 85-95% of what goes on the page in a session. That can take anywhere from 1-6 hours to write depending on whether I know what happens next or not and if I’m in flow state.
I also used to do most of my thinking about the book while I was at the keyboard and trying to write. These days, that part of the work is quite often a separate step that involves walking and talking to myself. That, and I have a lot more non-writing tasks that are part of my job these days.

How Fast I Write

Someone asked how fast I write compared to other writers. Since I thought that might be something of interest to some of you. Here’s my response:
An average working science fiction novelist can reliably produce something in the neighborhood of one book a year at around 100,000 words. Some, including some of the best, are slower—1 book every 2-5 years.
I can reliably write around 200,000 publishable words a year in fiction and another 50,000 of nonfiction. I’ve written 100,000 in 88 days for deadline, but that’s really pushing what I can manage. I’m considered a very fast writer by most of my peers, but there are a small number of people in the industry who are considerably faster.
I know writers who can produce 1,000,000 publishable words in a year.
Gaming and tie-in writers tend to be on the faster end of things, and, while it’s a slightly different skill set, I respect their work enormously. I can’t do some of the things they do at anything like the speed. I know because I’ve tried writing in other people’s worlds and I find it very hard.
For me that’s produced something like 5,000,000 words in the 25 years I’ve been writing. From there, a guesstimate puts me at something between 15,000 and 25,000 hours of hands on keyboard writing time, which has been something between 35% and 65% of the job depending on where I’ve been at in my career.

Some Thoughts on Publishing Contracts

Dear Writers: You should be reading your contracts at least as many times and at least as closely as you do your prose or poetry. Because that misplaced comma that has you so freaked out in your story? That’s not half as bad as the misplaced comma in your contract.

Over the past few days I’ve been going over novel contracts for a new project. I’ve been posting notes on how I think about contracts and why reading them carefully is so important. This post gathers all of that information in one place.

We (writers) tend to focus heavily on craft to the occasional detriment of the business side of publishing. Contracts are vitally important and signing a bad one can be deeply harmful to both your career and your psyche. So far, I have been lucky in that I haven’t yet hit a bad clause in a contract that I couldn’t live with or get changed. But part of that “luck” is knowing that there is a point at which walking away makes more sense than signing, and being willing to push on stuff you don’t like. This is one of the reasons why I’m glad to have an agent, and why my first criteria for an agent is contract comprehension and negotiation. It’s much easier if you’ve got an agent to do the bad cop side of things.

Without further ado some random thoughts while reading contracts:

Just finished the third pass through the new contracts. This one was quickly cross comparing clauses with previous contracts. I.e. have I signed something like this before without it blowing up. If yes, hooray! If no, lets double check that bit there. Next up, close read of the whole thing with notes. Whee.

Beyond the important who gets paid how much for what stuff, one thing the boilerplate part of a publishing contract represents is a sort of archaeological record of previous author flame-outs. Also, previous publisher flame-outs, rights grabs, etc. It’s instructive reading in that way as well.

The how have things gone wrong with this publisher’s past deals portion of the reading is especially critical for smaller houses. (Catherine Lundoff reminded me of this bit)

Finished 4th pass (close read) through new book contracts. Brain melty now, so, I’m off to kill orcs for a bit (Shadows of Mordor). Next up: Reeading critical bits (things I’ve flagged on this or previous passes). Hopefully by this time tomorrow I can actually sign the things.

Finally, in response to a question about whether my agent shouldn’t be taking care of this:

Rule 1 of agents and contracts: No matter how good your agent is and how much you trust them, it’s still YOUR contract and your work on the line.

I like and trust my agent. I’m very happy with my publishing house and I adore my editor. Verifying everything is still part of my job. If your book is truly successful, that contract could be a big part of your life for the next 20 years. If it’s a smash hit, that contract could be a part of your heirs lives 20 years after you’re dead. You want it to be solid and as favorable as you can get it.

Post Script: This time I’ve done six passes through the latest contracts. Now I just need to briefly discuss two paragraphs with my agent to verify my reading and I can sign them and get them out the door.


George Scithers RIP (2010)

On this date in 2010 I posted a farewell to George Scithers. As part of my ongoing efforts to get copies of all my various bits of creative centralized or mirrored on my own website I am posting it again here:

George Scithers has left the building and it makes me very sad. He was one of the editors who bought my first story along with Darrell Schweitzer at Weird Tales. He’s also the editor who is a part of one my all time favorite writing anecdotes which I call: Same story same editor different day.

You see, I was an idiot once (well more than once, but I’m just talking about in relation to George here). At World Fantasy a number of years ago George asked me why he hadn’t seen anything of mine recently so I hallway pitched him a story called FimbulDinner and he asked to see it.

The problem was that he had already rejected this particular story a couple of years previously, but I’d forgotten that, and apparently so had he.

Anyway, I sent it, then realized a week or two later that he’d rejected it, and sent a note apologizing for the mistake. My note crossed the acceptance in the mail, and the story was published by Weird Tales.

There are two lessons in that anecdote. First, don’t do this if you can possibly avoid it. Second, all that any rejection means is that that editor didn’t buy it on that day.

George was a splendid old fellow and I’m going to very much miss knowing he was somewhere in the world.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog April 19 2010, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

A Part, Yet Apart

So, I’ve been thinking about the science fiction convention experience and wondering if I’m alone in my relationship with cons or whether it’s something more general to writers attempting to make their way up the pro ladder. Because, as a professional genre writer I find that I feel both a part of the convention community and apart from it.

It has not always been this way for me. I am a 3rd generation fan, my mother and grandmother were part of the effort to save the original Star Trek series and somewhere around here I have a typewritten note from the series producers thanking them for their efforts, along with a black and white publicity photo. OTOH, they were not convention going fans. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I first went to a convention, the old MiniCon, when it was huge.

I had a blast. And for about a decade I went to MiniCon every year. Then, for various reasons I stopped going. It was about the same time that I got really serious about my writing and decided to make a career of it, but the two events were largely unrelated. Then for maybe 6-8 years I didn’t attend a con. I finally started going to conventions again in my early 30s with WisCon, which I first went to for the combined allure of a writer heavy convention and a feminist/academic convention. Since my wife is an academic who does research on women in science from within the physics department she now chairs, it made for a great twofer.

Because WisCon is much more professional and academically oriented than MiniCon was, it took me a number of years to notice how my relationship with conventions had changed. It wasn’t until I started going to MarsCon and CONvergence in the Twin Cities that it really hit home.

I used to go to cons as a fan/actor and make costume/clothes changes every couple of hours. I never went to panels. I always went to parties. I wanted to make a certain kind of splash and I often did. I certainly gave the concom people reason to roll their eyes at me on occasion, like when I was playing in the pool in 30 pounds of chainmail or sliding down the steel slope between the escalators. I felt completely immersed in the experience and as though I was surrounded by my people.

When I returned to the convention scene I did so in professional clothes (I even wore a suit coat from time to time, though I draw the line at ties). I attended and was on tons of panels, mostly about writing. I rarely went to parties. I went out of my way to not stress out the concom folks. I was shooting for a very different kind of splash.

Now, some of that is simply that I did an enormous amount of growing up between the two phases of my convention-going, but a lot of it had to do with my changed relationship to the genre. I no longer saw the creators of the various f&sf media as people apart from me, people whose job it was to entertain me. I had come to think of them as my peers and, in ever growing numbers, my friends. Andre Norton was no longer ANDRE NORTON! She was someone I shared an agent with. Instead of seeing NEIL GAIMAN, I see someone I’ve had tea with. The concom was no longer a mysterious entity whose radar it was best to keep off of. Rather, the people running the convention are long time friends and  acquaintances.

At the same time I’ve grown closer to the people making things run at conventions and the creators of the field, I’ve grown more distant from the general population of fans. That’s partially because you interact differently with someone who is a fan of yours than you do with someone with whom your primary point of commonality is a shared fandom of someone else, and partially because knowing more creators and more about the process makes me much more reluctant to indulge in some of the more nasty sorts of criticism I once might have made. It’s not so much that I don’t have strong opinions about whether I like something or not as that I’m much more reluctant to think of my taste as being the same thing as good taste or to claim that there is one true standard of quality. Again, a lot of that is simply growing up, but not all of it.

So, while I find that I go to many more conventions than I used to and that I still love the experience I have in some ways stepped out of my old role as a part of the clan and into a new one that holds me at least a little bit apart from the clan. It’s role that I am proud to have assumed, but it is not always a comfortable one.

(Originally published on the SFNovelists blog Aug 2009, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Building a Writing Career—The Real Secret Handshake

There is one thing you can do to build your career in this field that will help more than anything else, a secret handshake of the writing biz. You know what it is, though it may not occur to you immediately. Who wants to take a swing at it?

*a hand shoots up*

Write the best story you possibly can, every time?


Okay, two things. But really, writing the best story you can is the ante you need to pay just to get into the game. Without that you don’t even get to play. Anyone else want to guess?


I see some hands up and I’m pretty sure some of you know the answer, but since this is a pre-canned essay, I’m going to have to type it myself anyway.

Be professional.

I’m letting that sit out there all alone because it’s really really important. Science fiction and fantasy publishing is a business, and it’s actually a very small one at the professional level. If you were to take every single SFWA eligible writer in the entire world and put them together in one place you’d have a group roughly the size of my wife’s high school student body. Admittedly, it was a large high school, 2,000 plus students, and the group gets bigger when you add in all of the agents and editors, but due to agent-writer and editor-writer ratios that still doesn’t take you outside the large high school range.

Think about that for a moment. A large high school. If you went to a big school think about how fast information moved through the student body. Think about the way that if you did something notable as a freshman it stayed with you for the next four years because everybody knew everybody at least a little. Even if you went to a smaller school (my graduating class was 17) you probably still have a feeling for the scale just from being immersed in pop culture.

So, in terms of community size and reputation building, professional science fiction and fantasy, is basically a large high school. The plus side of this is that everyone knows everyone else, and at its best the community functions like a tight-knit village with lots of mutual support. The minus side of this is that…everyone knows everyone. If you have a public hissy fit (and the internet counts as public) when you get a particularly brutal rejection letter it may hang there in the background of your reputation for the rest of your career.

Fortunately, there’s an easy fix for reputation management. Be professional. Remember that if you want to make writing your career, it’s just that—a career. Remember whenever you post something online about writing that you’re pretty much posting it on the wall labeled “my professional reputation.” Don’t punt deadlines unless you absolutely have to, and then manage the fallout in a professional manner. Tell your editor what’s coming as soon as you can see it. Apologize. If you’ve got a fan base that you interact with online, make sure to keep them as up to date as possible.

Above all, treat people with respect and kindness as much as possible. Personally, I’ve found that this is a good idea in general for managing my life. Your millage may vary there, but it’s really important for your professional interactions because those will have a huge effect on your career over time for a very simple reason. Editors are people, and they buy stories for a lot of reasons.

Primarily, editors buy stories because they believe they will sell, but after you get over that basic hurdle (see writing the best story you possibly can every time above) other factors start to come into play and right up at the top of the list is how they feel about the writer as a professional. Does the author produce a reliable product? Do they do so on time? Is the author easy to work with? Can they be trusted not to do anything that will alienate fans? Etc.

Now, I will admit that if you sell 100,000 hardcovers every time your name appears on a dust jacket you can get away with all kinds of crappy behavior—though many will think the worse of you. But if you’re underselling and so is captain-difficult-to-work-with, I can tell you who is going to be the first cut from the list and it’s not the writer who acts professionally.

So, yes, Virginia, there really is a secret handshake. It’s called professional behavior, or more simply, being polite and meeting your obligations.

(Originally published on SFNovelists June 11 2009, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Covers and Credits (like D&D only it stings more when your characters die)

I just wrote this in regards to a question about queries and not having any professional writing credits:

It’s always incredibly difficult to land an agent. But the writing credits issue has very little to do with it. I know that’s something that’s very hard to believe when you’re first starting out (I certainly had enough trouble getting it into my head) but credits have almost zero impact on acceptances. 99.9999 percent of the time the story gets accepted or doesn’t based on its own merits and the current needs of the editor or agent and nothing else really matters. The only exception to that is if you’re at the stage in your career where your name sells lots of copies all by itself and that’s only true of a very small portion of the folks at the top of the field.

What a writing credit does is tell the editor or agent that you’ve done this successfully in the past, which has the effect of resorting your place in the submissions stack. I still get rejected by editors all the time–far more often than I got accepted in fact. I just get rejected much faster than the new writer because when I send something in I go to very close to the top of the stack of things to get looked at. Considering the pace of publishing, that’s a distinct advantage because it means I can get my work in front of more editors faster, which in turn means that I’m more likely to find the right editor for a piece sooner, but it’s an advantage of time-to-response, nothing more. Every pro that I know gets rejections, and mostly lots more than they get acceptances.

Okay, that’s the bad news. The good news is twofold.

First, agents don’t expect to see a whole lot of submissions with credits listed on them. The period in time when a writer is most likely to be looking for an agent is when they are at the beginning of their career and they have no writing credits. Any agent who is actively taking slush is expecting that the vast majority of what they see is going to come in with no credits attached to it and is expecting to make decisions based on the query and the writing. That’s just how things work at the beginning of careers, so don’t sweat it. Really.

…yeah, I know. My saying that isn’t going to make a lick of difference in the worries department when you’re looking at the query and trying to figure out how to make it look better. But try to keep it in mind anyway.

Second, and this is the part that’s really really hard to internalize. The agent/editor is on your side. The only people in the whole world who want you to succeed more than the agent or editor does are members of your immediate family. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s not. Most agents and editors don’t make a whole lot of money and they work horrible hours. They’re in the business for the same reason that writers are. They love books with a passion that’s very close to unhealthy. There is nothing that makes an agent or editor happier than pulling a book out of the slush, starting to read, and not being able to stop. Every agent or editor I’ve ever heard talk about finding those gems in the slush pile just lights up. There’s actually a thread about it on Making Light right now.

One final note. I started in short stories. The cover letter that I sent with the WebMage short story which started my career was built on top of a blank that Steve Brust showed me when I was starting out. It looked pretty bare and I was nervous about it, but the story sold, and here I am. Here’s the letter minus my no longer valid contact info:

<Address line 1
Address line 2
phone number
email addy
July 21, 1998>*

George Scithers,
Editor, Weird Tales
123 Crooked Lane,
King of Prussia, PA 19406-2570

Dear George Scithers:

I am enclosing the Contemporary Fantasy short story WebMage for your consideration. I hope that you enjoy it.

Please write or call if you have any questions.


Kelly McCullough

That’s it. Really, don’t sweat the credits. At the beginning of the game they just don’t matter.

*portion within <> was top right rather than top left

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog April 21 2009, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

On Writing and Sanity

So, at the last several talks I’ve given I’ve found myself repeating something that I don’t know that I’ve said here. It’s about how you balance your mental attitude and stay sane in a fundamentally irrational business.

First, the way you should feel about whatever book or story you are writing this very minute, is that it is absolutely your best work ever and will be irresistable to readers.

Second, whatever book or story you are revising or getting critiqued at this very moment, is a solid piece of work that can and will be improved if you work at it and learn from comments.

Third, whatever work you have just finished, is ready to go out to agents or editors and you’re excited to get it in the mail.

Fourth, whatever work has been bought or is being shopped around, no longer exists until and unless a decision is called for on your part.

Fifth, whatever work has been published or set aside is complete and an example of your work at the time, not something that reflects the writer you are now.

Sixth, whatever work you are going to embark on next will be made better by what you will learn from the completion of what you are working on now. So much so that once you have finished the current work, this new project will be the best thing you have ever written, bar non.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog November 20 2008, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Author/Reader Interaction and Dumbledore’s Sexuality

Much ink has been spilled over J.K. Rowling’s revelation that Dumbledore was gay. I’m personally glad she said it for a number of reasons, one of which is a writing reason.

She showed respect for her readers. Giving an honest answer to an honest reader question is a matter of simple authorial courtesy. As an author, my default response to reader questions is to answer them to the best of my ability, unless answering them will create spoilers for later books.

Quite a number of people seem to disagree for various reasons political and literary. On the former I will simply say that I disagree vigorously. On the latter however, I am going to go into a little more detail as it is relevant to the core reasons for this blog’s existence.

The essentials of the literary argument are that the text is everything, and that authors should simply shut up about anything beyond what is on the pages in black and white because many readers don’t want the author messing around with their version of the empty pages that lie beyond the borders of the text.

My biggest problem with this it that it gives more weight to the readers who don’t want to know the author’s thoughts on something than it does to those who do, and it does so at a disproportionate cost to the curious.

J.K.Rowling was asked a direct question by a reader who really wanted to know Rowling’s answer. If Rowling had the answer in her head, should she really deprive those who are interested just so that those who aren’t don’t have to hear about it?

It seems to me that if an author doesn’t answer questions, it penalizes those who want to know the answers far more than answering penalizes those who don’t want to know. With the exception of a few very big names it is astronomically easier to avoid author answers to reader questions than it is to divine those same answers if they’re never given. If they stay in the author’s head, no one will ever know the author’s opinion but the author.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog October 25 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)