Agent Neepery

So, mystery author extraordinaire, Nancy Pickard, posted some thoughts and questions on agents this morning and it turned out I had a lot to say in response. Here are my comments from over there:

I think you absolutely must be friendly with your agent. I think that it also is a great thing to make friends with them over time, but I’m leery of starting off the relationship as friends because if it doesn’t work out* you have a major problem.

Ooh, I should probably back up one from that, I really believe that having an agent is a huge asset in this business both to sell your work so that you don’t have to do what is a really big second job on top of writing, but also because a good agent will do wonders for you in contract negotiations and long term improvement of both your revenue stream and flexibility**. This is doubly true as more and more publishers stop looking at unagented works.

Multiply submitting…I’m with Miss Snark on this, exclusives suck and should only be entered into when there is no reasonable alternative. Submit to a bunch of agents (though you’ve got to read guidelines and tailor the pitch). Only agree to an exclusive if it’s an agent high on your list and for a finite window and for a full. If you’ve got stuff out with multiple agents and someone asks for exclusive on the full, be honest, tell them you’ve got the partial out elsewhere and that you’re willing to give them an exclusive on the full for a finite period–probably not less than three weeks and certainly not more than a couple of months. Don’t submit multiply to several agents at the same house, but other than that, go for it.

I will say that I think it’s best to send in waves. Maybe five at a time in the first couple so that you can get a sense of the response to your initial query and synopsis and adjust as necessary.

Finally, as I said, Miss Snark is the best thing ever to happen to online agency discussions, and I am eternally bummed that she no longer updates her blog. However, the archives are still there and a while back I went through and read and indexed the whole thing by topic: Miss Snark index. The vast majority of basic and even advanced agent questions have answers in her files and they are both smart and funny.

Okay, going to stop now since I’ve already grabbed a huge chunk of Nancy’s comment real estate. Hope it’s useful.

Oops, I lied. Two last things, I have my doubts about the average value of in-person pitches, but for anyone who’s interested, I’ve sunk some time into talking about pitches and synopses: Pitching and Synopses parts 1, 2, and 3. Plus, what a synopsis should do.

*possible reasons for not working out, they don’t sell your work, you don’t agree on the way your career should go, you change genres into something they don’t/won’t represent, major life changing events knock them out of business for a significant time, etc.

**Mine has a standard contract with all the houses he works with that is much better than the base contract. With that the starting point for negotiations we don’t have to fight over all kinds of things that unrepped authors do. Also, his negotiations for me have a lot of impact on options and no competing works clauses, very important in my case since I write fast.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog November 18 2008, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

A Group Interview of Me

My friend Jonna’s class has been studying WebMage and they sent me a block of questions, so I figured I might as well post the questions and answers here for anyone who’s interested. Also, my friend Dave’s comments made me go looking for the initial description of the WebMage idea and I’ve included it at the very bottom of the post.

L’s Questions:

1. What inspired you to write WebMage and the novels that followed?

I started messing around with the web back in 1997 or thereabouts and one of the things that fascinated me about it was the way all of the pages reminded me of individual worlds linked together by the internet. Parallel worlds stories are a long standing form in science fiction and fantasy, and this looked like a fabulous way for some entity to arrange worlds. That’s where the first glimmer of the idea happened-I think I called it World Diving when I wrote it down. More on that in later questions.

As for the series:

I hadn’t originally intended WebMage as the first book in a series, but along about the time it sold, I came up with the idea of Ravirn hacking into Hades. That led to the second book, Cybermancy, which has its roots in the Orpheus story and a two book deal. Time went by, I finished Cybermancy about a month before WebMage pulled a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and started a sales run that meant a second printing in the first month of release. Since I had a great time writing Cybermancy and the books looked like they were doing well I decided I should think about writing another one or two in the WebMage world. My agent and editor both thought that was a dandy idea, and I sat down to see what I could come up with that would keep me excited about the characters and their world. Out of that process came CodeSpell and MythOS and next SpellCrash which will be the end of the series arc. So that’s the business side of the story.

The writing side starts with having fun hanging around with these characters and playing in the WebMage world. I want these books to be readable as standalone novels, but also to have an arc where the characters grow and develop and deepen across books. That means that what happens in each book is going to have spillover into the next and later books. Especially the things that Ravirn does that are stupid or the result of hard choices.

2. Are there particular conditions or is there a particular place that you like to write?

My ideal writing space is a screen porch with a nice view of the outside world and about 75 and sunny. Failing that, I like lots of windows and temperature control. Oh, and I need a nice comfy chair and a lap desk for my computer.

3. How did you go about creating the world in WebMage? What process did you use?

After I had the initial story idea I started picking at the edges, what kind of story could I tell that would let me really play with the concept of parallel worlds in web type environment? I decided to go with magic rather than a scientific setup because most parallel world stories go the other way and I wanted to do something really new.

That in turn gave me my main character, Ravirn. A hacker/sorcerer was the logical protagonist for that kind of story. Since I like familiars, I gave Ravirn a familiar appropriate to someone who lived in both those worlds, a shape-changing goblin/laptop combo. When I started to think about plot, I figured that I should have a hacking episode gone terribly wrong–this was for the short story that started it all. So, what was Ravirn’s target? Had to be the heart of the web itself if I was going to really get into meat of the idea. Who would build a web to keep track of all these worlds? That stopped me for a day or two until I came up with the idea of the Greek Fates using this new technology to do their age-old job. To raise the stakes I made Ravirn a grandchild of one of them, and bingo, I had the heart of the story that gave birth to WebMage.

T’s Questions:

4. As far as the Greek mythology in Webmage is concerned, what inspired you to take that angle on the story?

My upbringing and early reading was weighted heavily toward the classics. My mother and grandmother started reading me Shakespeare and the Greek and Norse myths long before I was old enough to understand them. Also Tolkien and Asimov and a lot other science fiction and fantasy. Some of my earliest memories are of listening to things like Lear and Lord of the Rings and Oedipus Rex. So a lot of my core storymaking sensibilities are rooted in the classics and f&sf. As I noted above, I was looking for someone who would build a world-spanning magical web. When I thought of the Fates it seemed exactly right and the rest of the mythological structure built from there.

5. Did you have to do any special research or manipulate the traditional Greek stories to make everything fit in with the plot you had originally imagined?

Not a lot actually. I had a very solid grounding in the Greek myths from my childhood and I try to stay true to the archetypes of the Greek gods as much as possible with the books. I did have a couple of copies of the myths around to double check names and minor details but mostly it was all in my head. Likewise the computer stuff. My mom’s a coder and bug checker and my grandmother was a computer test equipment technician in her last job, so I grew up in an house saturated with computer geekery. Then, when my wife was in college, I spent a lot of time messing around with computers to help her out with various classes as an undergrad and grad student so I had to keep up to date on that too. I did make mistakes there, but a couple of my first readers are IT professionals and they pointed out where I needed to make changes.

6. What inspired you to go with a cyberpunk story fused with other areas of science fiction? What are your favorite science fiction or fantasy genres to read?

I covered the first half of this in 1 and 3. As far as favorite genre, that shifts over time. At this point I’m reading mostly fantasy and probably more urban fantasy than other sub genres, but I’ve got about 1,500 f&sf titles on my shelves, almost all of which I’ve read, and there are another 5-600 that I’ve read but not kept. But I really select my reading based more on writers than sub-genre.

And actually, I probably read more non-fiction than fiction at this point in time. I read around a 100 books worth of material a year. Before I was a writer I read more.

7. What was your inspiration for the character of Ravirn?

As I noted in three, his role came out of my thoughts on how best to tell the story. I really needed a hacker/sorcerer to explore the core idea. The specifics of his personality on the other hand is pretty close to mine, probably the closest of any of my protagonists to date, though he’s more of an idealist and I’m not really interested in hacking.

C’s Questions:

8. Why are all of your fates and furies women?

That’s an easy one. Because that’s the way the Greeks thought of them. But I don’t think that’s a very satisfying answer, so let me tackle a related question.

Why did I focus on the female members of the Greek pantheon? It’s really about the characters I find interesting. To me the female portion of the pantheon seems much more complex and real, and besides that I’ve always liked strong women, both in real life and in my reading and writing. More specifically, given a choice between writing about Fate, Discord, and Vengeance on the one hand or War, Storm, and the Sun (Mars, Zeus, and Apollo) I’m much more interested in the former. As the books go on you’ll see more gods (Zeus, Hades) and goddesses (Persephone, the Muses, Nemesis, Necessity, Athena) but as you can see, I still tend to favor the goddesses. As a counterpoint, MythOS, which comes out next year, takes Ravirn off to meet the Norse gods and there I deal pretty much exclusively with male members of the Pantheon, Odin, Loki, Thor, Tyr, Fenris, Jormungand, Hugin, and Munin. That’s because in the Norse myths I find the guys got all the good roles.

9. What gave you the idea of webgoblins and why would they turn into laptops…instead of some futuristic item?

I like familiars as I mentioned above, and I was looking for one that would fit with Ravirn’s dual nature of sorcerer and hacker. I’m not entirely sure of why a goblin popped into my head rather than a pixie or an elf except that I wanted someone snarky and that triggered goblin for me. As for laptops, I wrote the initial story in ’97. I wanted the story set in a sort of moving window of the now and I suspect that laptops will be with us for at least another decade or two–it depends on how fast certain technologies are moving. If you want an idea of where I think laptops are going, you can see it in Loki’s tech toy in the forthcoming MythOS, something the size of a cellphone that will use projectors and lasers and sensors to give you a virtual keyboard and screen. I think we’ll have keyboards in some shape for writing at least for quite a while to come yet, though they will probably eventually give way to voice recognition.

10. Why put Ravirn in the family of fates rather than another family?

That was dictated by the idea of making the mweb a tool of the Fates. As a writer, one of the things I always try to do with any story is keep raising the stakes. Another is to try to show the inherent complexity of relationships between people. Interfamily conflict is a great way to do both of those things. I wanted Ravirn’s relationship with the bad guys to be more complex and painful than just white hats vs. black hats. Putting him in a situation where his ideals were in conflict with his sense of family and belonging made all of his choices harder and more costly and it let me show the Fates in a more complex way too. I find the ideas that Atropos expounds in a couple of places to be morally abhorrent, but I can also see how someone could believe in them strongly and feel that what they were doing was the right thing to do. I think antagonists need to be every bit as three dimensional as the protagonists and this helped get me there.

11. Why Lachesis as his grandmother?

I wanted him to have a relationship with the Fates that was both close enough for complexity and far enough away to make him seem more human. Also, the Fates have been around for a really long time and I wanted Ravirn to be a child of the modern era, someone who grew up with computers, and I felt that meant some distance in the blood line. Why Lachesis as opposed to Atropos or Clotho? That’s tougher. I felt that Atropos’ role as the cutter of threads naturally made for a harder harsher character and a logical antagonist for the story. That left Clotho and Lachesis and I honestly don’t know why I chose one over the other, though I’m very glad I went the way I did, as it gave me some lovely dynamics to play with with Clotho later in the story and the other books.

E’s Questions:

12. What are your main influences of your writing? How did you come up with WebMage specifically?

I’m a lifelong fan of sci-fi, fantasy, and the classics. My education favored those and the greats of theater (my degree). Everything I write is built on those foundations. Tolkien, Asimov, Shakespeare, Greek and Norse myth, Norton, McCaffrey, Cervantes, Molière, Niven, Heinlien, Zelazney, etc. As for the how, see 1 and 3 above.

13. What prompted you to include Greek mythology into your writing of WebMage?

See 4.

14. Have you dabbled in any other genres besides Science Fiction? Who are some influential authors to you?

I’ve written horror and memoir shorts, and poems as well as co-written short plays, but I’d have to say that it’s all been pretty close to f&sf. As well as the folks mentioned in 12 I have to give a nod to Tim Powers, Mercedes Lackey, Terry Pratchett, Marion Zimmer Bradlley, Garth Nix, Colleen McCullough, Anne Rice and the group of folks who did the Wild Cards series. Also, for their wise council and mentorship: Dean Wesley Smith and Kristin Katherine Rusch, and to a lesser extent Raymond Feist, George R. R. Martin, Kevin J. Anderson, and Tim Powers (again).

15. How did you get started in writing? What would be some advice you have for prospective authors?

From the ages of 11-22 I pursued theater with great passion. I was dead certain I was going to work in the industry and even landed the occasional paying gig in acting or tech theater. Then I met the woman I’m now married to—we’ve been together for almost 18 20 years—and realized that theater and anything resembling a normal home life aren’t terribly compatible. The hours and the travel are both deadly for relationships. About that same time I got my first computer and decided to try my hand at writing a novel. I fell in love with the process inside of a week and haven’t really ever looked back. The funny thing is that I think theater probably prepared me better for writing what I do than an English degree would have. I did renaissance festivals, stunt work, slapstick, makeup, stage combat, lighting, all sort of things really. I got a feeling for story and scene that has served me very well, and developed skills like fencing and dancing that map directly onto writing fantasy.

The advice question is always a tough one. There are a million and one business things I could tell you*, none of which would be the least bit helpful when you’re starting out and all of which are critical once you start selling. The single most important thing you can do if you’re interested in writing is simply to write.


Write more. Write again. Revise. Send out. Write more. All of those things are predicated on the initial writing. You achieve success in this business by the expedient of writing, improving your writing, and not giving up. The formula is a simple one to lay out but it can be awfully hard to follow, especially the not giving up part.

This is something I’ve blogged about extensively:

*I will give you one business note. Money always flows to the writer. If you start submitting your work around and anyone who see it asks for money for development or anything else, run, do not walk for the exits. That is the sign of a scam artist. The only person who ever gets money from a writer is their agent and that comes only as a percentage of money paid from the publisher after the publisher starts sending checks. I actually blog a lot about the writing craft and business at and much of it has been indexed.

M’s Questions:

16. Were there writers from your childhood that inspired you?

See 4 and 12 above and add: Richard Adams, Eve Titus, C.S. Lewis, Margery Sharp, Kenneth Grahame, A.A. Milne, Michael Bond, and E. B. White.

17. Do you base your characters on people from your own life?

Not really. There are bits and pieces of people I know or have known scattered through my characters, but mostly my characters are little bits of my personality split off and played against each other. I have occasionally likened it to being professionally schizoid, in that I spend my days breaking my brain into multiple pieces and assigning personalities to the various bits so that I can spend several hours being a bunch of different people. It can make me a little strange at the end of the work day as I slowly come up out of the world of the book and its characters and reassemble myself and reground myself in the real world.

18. Which character in WebMage do you identify with most?

Ravirn and/or Melchior. People who know me well see both of them in me and have argued on more than one occasion over which is closer to my core personality. Unfortunately there’s little doubt that of the two I look more like Melchior. The character that I have the most fun writing is Eris. I love her attitude and even more I love her problems.

19. How difficult was it to get published the first time?

It took me eight years and around a hundred rejections before I sold my first short story. Then another six years and fifty or so rejections before I sold a novel. I was also writing and selling shorts in there, so my total count of rejections is around 450 for 5 novels sold and 20+ short stories. I do much better with poetry, but it doesn’t pay enough to justify the work involved.

On the other hand someone in my writers group sold her first book to the first editor it was sent to after having it picked up by the first agent who looked at it. On the other other hand, I’ve got a friend who’s been doing this longer than I have and who, despite being a good writer with dozens of short stories sold, has never managed to sell a book in America.

For more general purposes it looks like this: For every novel that is published the editors have looked at and rejected between 500 and a 1,000 other books. That number is both much better and much worse than it sounds. Better, because for every hundred books submitted 90 of them are so poorly written as to not really be in contention. Worse, because that 500 to a 1,000 includes books by already established authors. So, I’ve got 5 novels either in print or forthcoming and that means that 2,000-4,000 of those rejected books were competing with the 4 of mine that sold after Penguin had already invested time and effort in making me a success story. It does get easier after that first book but it’s not a sure thing. My editor rejected 4 books of mine after she bought the first pair.

That said, if you write well and are persistent beyond all reason you have a good chance of selling a book. Publishing is about 15 percent talent, 15 percent luck, 20 percent craft, and 50 percent banging your head against the wall until you knock it over. The thing to remember is that your forehead heals and the wall doesn’t.

H’s Questions:

20. What made you decide upon creating a story that infused both ancient Greek mythology along with new age technology?

See 1, 3, and 4 above.

21. Did you place any of your attributes into the characters within your story/stories?

I did and I do. As I noted earlier Ravirn has a lot of me in him. Particularly his snarkiness and pigheadedness. His adrenaline junky, wild man tendencies owe a lot to my younger self. Melchior’s sarcasm and tendency to be a bit on the cynical side are mine as well. Cerice’s almost OCD level of organization is rooted in my own. You can also find chunks of my philosophy and world view scattered all around the books, sometimes in very unlikely places. For example, Eris’ comments on uncompromising idealism (refusing to choose between the lesser of two evils) being responsible for some pretty bad results has a lot to do with the way I felt about Ralph Nader in 2001. I’m all through the books in many ways, but I also have characters, even my heroes, say and do things that are 180 degrees from what I think is the right answer.

22. What originally inspired you to take up writing science fiction-fantasy?

A big chunk of your answer can be found in 15 above and in 4. Basically I was raised to be a fantasy and sci-fi author. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the intent of either my mother or grandmother but it was the result–I didn’t spend much time with my dad as a kid, though he is also an f&sf fan and a good friend.

I’ll add here something my wife calls “leaking weirdness.”

I’m pretty much wired for creating stories out of thin air. When I was little I did it as part of the elaborate scenarios that constituted much of my playing–I used to build Asgard out of blocks and use my toys to act out the final battle of Ragnaroc. I also used to vanish into the woods around the farm where I spent summers for hours, playing Robin Hood and other scenarios. Later, I channeled that energy into theater, and especially improv at Renaissance Festivals and the like. Then I quit theater and wrote my first novel and my second and so. It turns out that I don’t do well when I don’t have something like that soaking up the creative energy. If I go too long without writing I will begin to have vivid dreams and wake up spouting off about things like “llamaflage” or a “Connecticut Buffalo in King Heifers Court”–leaking weirdness. My wife’s normal response to this is to give me a very patient look and tell me to go write something.

C’s Questions (Being a rebel, C didn’t write any questions but instead made statements inviting comments.):

23. The use of magic in WebMage was interesting and different.

Thanks. I tried and try to create something new with each world I build, whether it’s magical or sfnal. I sometimes call myself a world-driven writer since creating logically framed magic systems or science-fictional futures is what really interests me as a writer. The story and characters almost always come after the place and mode for me.

24. The plot of WebMage has lots of hooks to keep you reading.

Again, thanks. I would probably write travelogues of places that never were if I were just writing for myself. Writing for others makes me think about story and what makes it interesting: high stakes, characters the reader will identify with, interesting circumstances, cost, reversal, betrayal, things hidden from the characters and thus the readers, lulls to allow the reader a chance to breathe, chapter structure that leaves the reader with questions at the end of a scene that will draw them on to the next one, and resolutions that satisfy the reader’s desire for closure and sense of justice while not glossing over the complexity of life or the idea that nothing worth having ever comes cheap.

Original description of WebMage, verbatim from my notes: World-Amberesque family of mages. Responsible for creation of www, internet, and cell phone net. This is actually the material component of spell that allows them to communicate worldwide and across the dimensions. They create webspiders that drop through alternate realities and report back to them via the web. Each mage has a familiar that is essentially a walking talking laptop with a built in cell phone. They travel from reality to reality via Decision locuses. Each locus is a location where a decision was made. Thus, if you want to get to a world where reagan didn’t win you would go to a voting booth and follow one of the decisions to vote against him into the appropriate world. They call it world diving.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog November 8 2008, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Whistling in the Dark-On The Pace of Publishing

As a writer, part of my job is to answer questions about my current, past, and future works and what I was thinking when I wrote this or that. We do this for interviewers, classrooms, talk audiences, and fans. If you happen to notice that I or another writer pauses for a long beat before answering some questions, there is a reason for that: we don’t know the answer. Or, at the very least, we have to dig deep to get there.

Like most other writers the first book I sold was not the first one I had written. It was in fact the 4th. It sold with a sequel, which I wrote shortly after getting the contract. That book was my 9th. It was followed into print by my 11th, and my 12th was next published.

At the time of this writing I had written 12 novels and portions of 5 more. Of those, 5 complete books are out being shopped around along with 9 proposals. I currently have three books that I am actively working on, none of them sold. In all I have roughly 4 years worth of potential future work spread across seven different series that is out under consideration and that could land in my lap at any time. 2013 update: now working on my 20th novel, with nine in print and three forthcoming (not counting book club and foreign editions), of which 1-1/2 are written. I have six completed novels out looking for homes, possible extensions of current series to think about, various editions out of sequence, etc. That gives me a bit over a year’s work contracted and 2-5 hanging in space that may or may not ever land.

This is occasionally nerve wracking, to say nothing of confusing. Both because I don’t know what among my various projects should be priority one, and because of things like the interviews I am doing as part of the promotional effort for book 11, CodeSpell.

When I am asked questions about my latest book and my next book I always have to remind myself that they are talking exclusively about the books currently in print or announced. When I am asked about process stuff from WebMage, I have to reach back past 15 complete novels, umpteen proposals, something like 25 worlds, and several dozen plot outlines to try to recapture what I was thinking at that time. That ignores the complications of short stories, major life events, and stuff I’ve read in other people’s novels that may also be blocking the spigot of authorial knowledge.

This is not a complaint. I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk over my work with people who are genuinely interested. It’s just that, as an author, it can be a little bit intimidating to know that person asking me a question is often more familiar with the  book they’re asking about than I am.

(Originally published on the SFNovelists blog June 11 2008, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Self-Promoting Authors Anonymous

With apologies to the original: The Twelve Steps for self-promoters:

1. We admitted we were powerless over sales—that our careers had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that surrendering to a marketing machine greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity–our publisher’s publicity department.

3. Made a decision to turn our books and our careers over to the care of the marketing department as we understand it.

4. Made a searching and fearless sales analysis of our self-promotional efforts.

5. Admitted to our readers, to ourselves, and to another author the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have marketing remove all these defects of shameless personal promotion.

7. Humbly asked our publicists to gloss over our marketing shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all the readers we had disappointed* and became willing to make amends to them all**.

9. Made direct amends to such readers wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were marketing ourselves again, promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through blogs and other direct means to improve our conscious contact with readers as we understand them, asking only for knowledge of their will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a promotional awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other authors, and to practice these principles in all our impulses toward self-promotion.

*by promoting ourselves when we should have been writing

** by writing instead of trying to do the jobs of our publishers and their marketing departments

Hi, my name is Kelly, and I’m a self-promoting author.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog February 27 2008, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

The Affordable Care Act & Making Your Living In The Arts

Despite Republican politician feet being stamped and Republican politician breath being held and Republican politicians shutting down the government, Obamacare begins to go into effect today and a lot of people who had no insurance or junk insurance are now going to have the opportunity to sign up for real insurance.

The Affordable Care Act will almost certainly save the lives and/or livelihoods of people who are my very dear friends. Lives is obvious. Livelihoods a bit less so. Let me elucidate: medical bankruptcy, like all bankruptcy, treats copyrights as assets. Get too sick without proper insurance and you lose control of your life’s work. Further, I have friends who have died because of things that might not have killed them if they’d had this level of insurance.

I am a very fortunate artist in that I am married to a women whose insurance carries us both. If I were not, I would not have functioning knees, and I’d be down a number of teeth. That or I would have had to give up on writing to find other work. This isn’t an abstract partisan argument for me. This is personal and it is life and death.

The Other School Dream

The School Dream

You’ve all had it. Where you find yourself back in school with everything going wrong. Either you’re naked, or you’ve got a test in a class you don’t remember signing up for, or some other horror of adolescence. My recurring variation is one where someone at the St. Paul School Board realizes I failed to take some vital cluster of courses and contacts me to let me know that if I don’t come back and take another year of high school they’re going to revoke my entire education including college. I had this dream at least a couple of times a year from graduation through selling a book, almost always when I was worrying about something or feeling insecure.

After that first sale, the school dream changed. Now when the person at the school board calls me into their office, I will bring a copy of my university diploma and a couple of my books, drop them on their desk and either walk out or offer to teach a seminar or two. I usually have this version after some sort of writing milestone. Apparently getting to the place where I can see the end of MythOS counts.

Last night I dreamed that I was back in school looking for my home room. I was late, but unworried about it. When I finally showed up, the teacher asked me if I was always going to be so late. I told him yes and explained that I was back for the year because it was a cheaper way of picking up some college course I needed for research for my books. The teacher challenged me on the books front and I upended my backpack spilling out something like thirty books under five names, all of which I had written. The pile included the WebMage stuff, several of my books under submission and, for reasons known only to my subconscious a couple of Star Wars tie-ins.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog February 15 2008, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

15th Publishing Anniversary

I sold my first short story 15 years ago today. The story was WebMage and went to Weird Tales, then edited by George Scithers and Darrell Schweitzer and published by Warren Lapine—I still remember the magazine’s address: 123 Crooked Lane. That short later became the 1st couple chapters of the novel. I started writing fiction in 1991, so in terms of my career, I have now been a professionally published writer twice as long as I was an unpublished one, which is surreal beyond all words.

Story Submissions and Anxiety

So, I’ve been corresponding this week with a writer who is about to make her very first story submission. It’s something that is far enough in my past that I’d essentially forgotten how it feels, and it’s been educational to see it again through fresh eyes.

There are two prototypical writer responses to the idea of submitting a story, particularly a first story.

1) OMG, OMG, OMG, does this suck? Do I suck? Should I give this all up? This story is never going to be read? What’s the point? Why did I ever set out to do this? Etc.

2) I am a writing god and they would be fools not to accept my story.

Neither of these is particularly sane, but then of course neither is the average writer.

#1 is probably going to serve the writer better in the short run as it lends itself very naturally to working to improve one’s craft. On the other hand, it also makes it easier to crash into depression and ruin when a rejection arrives, and lets face it, everybody gets rejected sometimes, and most of us see far more rejections than we do acceptances.

#2 has its pluses and minuses as well. It can lead to a stubborn insistence that all editors are either evil or idiots and can cause a pretty hard crash too, if the writer is forced by repeated rejection to reassess their confidence. On the other hand, belief in yourself can carry you through hard times if it is tempered with an understanding that even though you already rock, you could rock more with practice.

In the end, neither is the best frame of mind for submitting stories. That would be: This story meets my current standards as a writer. I will send it out and see if it meets editors’ standards for what they are currently looking for. If it does, hooray. If it doesn’t, that’s simply a reflection of the wrong story for the given editor on the given day, I will send it to the next market. Of course, even the most experienced pros hit this mental state only some of the time, and spend most days much closer to 1 or 2.

Ultimately all we can do as writers is trust the process:

A-Start the story.
B-Finish the story.
C-Polish the story to a reasonable degree.
D-Send the story out.
E-Start the next story.

That’s all that you control as the writer. Everything else is a roll of the dice. This is terrifying. It can also be empowering.

Look at the process again. Writing is all about the story. Your story. Publishing is the medium. Your story is the message. Remember that. Believe it. If you can do that, it will see you through all the anxieties and dark times.

In the meantime, breathe, relax, send the story in. Lather, rinse, repeat.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog Dec 12 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Good Writing Trumps Everything

The purpose of the Wyrdsmiths blog is to share what we as writers have learned with those who are interested and might benefit. Since we’ve got a pretty good publishing record collectively it’s safe to assume that we’ve learned a bit that’s worth sharing.

This often takes the form of things that sound a lot like rules or commandments, and at some time I’m even going to write a Kelly’s rules of writing post. But an important note from that is that rule one is to do whatever it takes to get you writing. If that means violating every single bit of advice we give, do it, without hesitation or concern. The writing is what it’s all about, everything else is garnish.

This includes the things we have to say about what will and won’t sell. Collectively, we’ve learned quite a lot about the business of writing. The F&SF community is a small world and one where agents and editors mingle pretty freely with writers. The tropes and conventions of the genre are often discussed (go figure).

I can say with some authority that a present tense book is going to be a harder sell than a past tense book. That in-scene POV switches will be an issue. That 150,000 words is much harder to sell than 95,000. That a book with seven protagonists will be tougher sledding than one with a single protagonist. That its easier for someone with a big name to get away with any of the above. But none of that matters as much as A) getting words on paper, and B) the quality of those words.

If writing a 150,000 word, 7 protagonist, present tense, in-scene POV switching, time-travel, cyborg, political, Southern Gothic is what really gets you to put words on the page, then get out there and start writing it. Will it be hell to sell? Absolutely. Will it sell anyway if it’s good enough? Likewise, absolutely.

Good writing trumps every marketing rule. And it trumps every other writing rule but one: Write.

Write. Write well. The rest will follow.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog Dec 04 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Writing Short Fiction

The major magazine markets for short F&SF are dying. Pretty much everybody agrees on that. The reactions range from please help save them (slushmaster) to so what (Scalzi). People have talked about causes, among them: the writers aren’t stretching enough (VannderMeer) and the short markets have become a bunch of writers writing for other writers who edit and put out stories for writers who read writerly stuff–see point four here (Bear). I tend to favor the club scene theory Bear is talking about plus a dash of the idea that the internet has really changed the way people digest small chunks of content, i.e. substituting blogs for shorts.

2013 update: Though the print magazine continues to decline, the online market for short fiction has really expanded into a much more viable scene in the years since I originally wrote this post. Many authors with an established fan base have also started publishing shorts either stand alone or in micro anthologies via Amazon and other ebook venues. At this point, only six years on from the original, I am no longer giving advice on what to do with shorts in terms of publishing, as my focus on novels has left me hopelessly out of date. OTOH, my main point about shorts from the writing/learning to be a writer point of view still stands…I think.

I give you all of that as a sort of background to what I really want to talk about, which is why I write short stories and I why I think any F&SF writer who can* write shorts should. Sarah Monette talks about some of the same things here in terms of why she writes them, and that’s definitely worth a read. One place where I disagree with both her and Scalzi is in terms of what shorts can do for a career, so I’ll start there.

Both Scalzi and Monette mention that there are better ways to raise your profile for readers–blogging is mentioned–and I agree on that. The thing that shorts can do for you career-wise that blogs and many other venues don’t do, is establish you as someone who has been vetted by some sort of serious professional editorial process. While that may not sound like much, it means a lot in terms of bona-fides for agent queries. And getting an agent is becoming ever more critical in breaking into the novel biz via the large houses, which necessity is something I’m going to talk about in its own post later. Beyond that, Monette’s point about learning how to be a professional writer through the short story markets is a great one.

Monette also talks in brief about the risk-taking element, the fact that you can try things in a short that you wouldn’t dare try in a novel. I’d go beyond that to say that short stories are one of the best venues a new F&SF writer has for learning the craft, because in addition to being daring you can afford to be mundane–to practice the simple things.

You can write ten or dozen shorts where you focus on mastering a single aspect of craft like plot or character and let the rest of the stuff go hang. The brevity of the form allows for a lot more of the try/fail cycles an artist need to master the craft.

A short also forces the writer to pay attention to things they might not have to in a longer piece. If you’ve got a 5,000 word cap on how long the story can go, you have to make the hard choices about what elements of the story are important enough to keep on the page. You have to go for late entry and early exit. You have to make damn sure that every single word is important. You can’t have extraneous scenes that don’t advance the core of the story. In a short a writer knows that they must catch the reader’s attention right now and hold onto it–there’s no time to do anything else.

And, guess what? Those things are all true for novels as well. Sure, in the longer form you can get away with earlier entry and later exit and longer chunks that don’t do anything more than show off some cool side bits, but the question is: Should you? The answer: Maybe, but you should never do it unawares or unweighted. Short story writing helps teach the balancing skills a writer needs to decide when and where to go long.

*Some writers simply aren’t suited to the medium, and that’s fine.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog October 29 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)