Monthly Archives: May 2013

No Magic

Tobias Buckell did a post this week about survivorship bias, which then pinged around the writing world. It’s a good post, and you should poke that link over there and read it. If you don’t though, here’s my particular interpretation of the gist– Most writers don’t make much, if any, money selling ebooks. However, since we only hear about the few that do, it’s easy to believe the hype that epublishing is the golden road to success in our modern inter-tubey age.

In my opinion- yeah, what he said. Very well and with charts.

Epublishing has been a very successful, very lucrative path for very few people. A slightly larger group has managed to be mildly successful at it- not enough to get rich, but they can support themselves. A slightly larger group than that makes some nice pocket money, but they are no where near quitting their day jobs. And finally, in by far the largest group, are the people that have made almost nothing or lost money putting out ebooks.

Which is a pattern that sounds strangely familiar.

In traditional publishing, that great old dinosaur, there are a few authors who make lots of money. Mostly though, there are the mid-list authors, who manage to make a living (note: definition of a living is highly variable) through their writing. Many of them still have day jobs though, or partners who help support them. Then there’s a bigger group of writers who feel lucky if they make enough to cover the cost of all those visits to the coffee shop (who, me? I sez to no one).  And finally, again, there’s the horde beating on the gates, trying to get in.

What am I trying to say here? Nothing new, nothing revolutionary.

Traditional publishing can be a path to fabulous success. But only for a very tiny minority of writers.

Ebook publishing can be a path to fabulous success. But only for a very tiny minority of writers.

I’m not trying to be discouraging- hey, look, there’s two paths now. There used to be only one. That’s better, right? If slightly more confusing.

Still, the annoying truth remains– there is no magic path to being that writer, the one with the bestsellers and the movies and the theme parks. Writing is still, and always will be, a long slog through a wilderness of rejection and obscurity. Choosing to follow the traditional publishing path or the newer ebook one isn’t going to change that. So choose one, or the other, or both. Explore! Have fun! It will be a grand adventure!


Well, whether you’re waiting for some slush minion to reject your precious baby or constantly refreshing your Amazon ranking, you need to keep repeating something to yourself. And ‘I’m having fun!’ may be the one magical thing you do need for success. Because it’s an utterly nonsensical phrase that can help you persevere, and persevering is really the only thing that brings success.

Besides starring in a shlocky reality TV show, of course.


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The longer I do this writing gig the more I think that’s true. Pay attention the next time you read a book or watch a movie or check out a TV show everyone’s talking about. It’s going to be full of conflict. In my mind there are three levels: world conflict (macro conflict), interpersonal conflict (micro conflict), internal conflict (sub-micro or maybe metaphysical conflict). Yes, character development and worldbuilding are important–if readers don’t care about the characters they won’t give a shit if they fall off a cliff or not–but an argument could be made that those elements aren’t as important as conflict. Two like-able characters become boring if they’re never at odds with each other, a third party, or the Big Shit that’s about to hit the fan. A really, really great story finds a way to tie all three together.

Here’s an example of what I mean.

Norma and Jean are mortal enemies because Jean is married to Norma’s ex-husband Marty (micro). Not only that, Jean and Marty had an affair while he and Norma were still married. (Still micro–edging into macro, here, depending on the circumstances of the affair).

Jean feels guilty about being the other woman so much that she hates herself a little. A lot, actually (sub-micro).

Marty happens to be the President of the United States who is in the middle of WWIII and is deciding whether or not to turn it nuclear. (Macro)

How do we tie ’em all together? Maybe Jean’s a spy who’s been charged with becoming the President’s mistress in order to get his secrets but finds herself falling in love him. And Norma is her sister.

See? Juicy! Interesting! I wanna know more about these characters. Hell, I wanna *write* about these characters now.

It’s important to remember that conflict isn’t the same as “action”. A story doesn’t need to be wall-to-wall bloodshed to be full of conflict. There are various degrees of tension and part of learning the craft of writing is learning the nuances of conflict.

If you’re not familiar with Brad Beaulieu, well. For one thing, you should be, because he’s a hell of a writer.  For another, he’s great at teaching tension. He gives seminars on tension at Gen Con and Origins–if you’re able, try to attend one. He’ll break down a popular book to show you how the author put tension on every page. A few years back he wrote an article for the SFWA bulletin, and I leave you with a bit of his advice:

… a successful novel needs not only to vary the tension level, but it needs to combine a variety of tension, and the most successful will combine them in different ways to create a symphony of anxiety within the reader to keep them turning the pages. Just take a look at mysteries like Sherlock Holmes. There are still action-packed sword fights and times of suspense and dread. And within sweeping tales like The Lord of the Rings, there are still times where Frodo pines for the life in the Shire, bringing in sharp relief the arduous and danger-filled path he’s taking toward Mount Doom.

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The Glorious Long Weekend

Every time I have a holiday, I feel like I should use it for writing. Big chunks of unscheduled time, right? What else are they for?

But somehow that’s rarely what happens, and I’m ok with that. Take this weekend–four days. Surely I could spend eight hours a day writing for at least two of those days? Ok, one day?

I did get plenty of writing done each day–more than a normal Saturday. (And less than a normal Sunday.) I think that since my normal schedule has so much writing crammed into it, when my writing brain sees a long weekend it wants time off too.

So what did I do this weekend? Made a trek down to the outlet mall (I have a new pair of brown sandals, no paperclips required to hold them together). Saw Star Trek: Into Darkness (good action movie made by fans of Star Trek, bad ST movie). Went to crit group (hi guys). Finished sewing a pair of pajama pants and started planning my next project while watching some tv. Caught up on a bunch of reading. Wrote half a month’s worth of blog posts. Extra laundry. Caught up on some online classes. Extra running. Did some stuff for my Toastmasters club. Did a bunch of little things I’d been putting off. Cleaned out my email.

And yes, writing: continued on with the planning of my current novel (now with cool government in place), revised a short story that’s been sitting around for a while, plus boring stuff like checking market guidelines and backing up files.

The upshot is that while I didn’t get a ton of extra writing in, using the extra days off to finish up other projects and catch up on some tasks lets me dive back into my normal schedule with fewer other things hanging over my head. I can’t complain about that.

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Art in writing

I’ve been thinking a lot about art and illustration, specifically my utter lack of drawing skills.  Normally, this is not a problem.  I accepted a long time ago that I wasn’t destined to be the next Picasso or Dali, but lately, as I work on the world of The Mark of the Dragonfly, I wish that I had enough skill to do some basic sketches of some of the locations in my head.

I did manage to draw a very bad map of the world that came in handy while writing MotD.  At the time I drew the very bad map, I only showed it to my writing group, swore them to secrecy about the extent of its awfulness, and rested peacefully in the knowledge that no one else would ever look upon it and mock.

Until one day my editor asked, innocently enough, did I happen to have a map of my world for reference?

So yeah, only my writing group, my editor at Random House, and possibly everyone else in the office have seen the evidence of my shame.

Ah well….

So, as I continue to develop the MotD world, I’m realizing I’m going to have to make some more bad maps.  I can’t say what they’ll be maps of–and let’s be honest, even if you saw them, you probably still wouldn’t have a clue–but the locations look very cool inside my head, trust me.

But there are other reasons I wish I could draw, and that I had a better sense of color and depth.  I think it would help me to better visualize certain locations and describe scenes if I could draw them.  I know there are other authors out there who are very talented artists.  James P. Davis is one, and Erin Morgenstern is another.  It makes me want to take an Art 101 class, start from the beginning and maybe pick up just a bit of skill.  I never really considered before how learning to draw might improve my writing, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about more and more.

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WisCon Schedule

It’s Memorial Day this weekend, which means I’ll be heading up to Madison for WisCon.

My schedule is pretty light this year-

Bodies Politic– Sunday @ 2:30, Conference 2.

Description- Speculative fiction about political bodies and bodies political.

Five people, reading. Not all at the same time.

Fight Scenes for Women in Spec Fic– Monday @ 8:30, Senate A.

Description- Fight scenes are an almost essential element in SF/F (both in film and print media); they have the potential to bring a lot to a story. Both adult and YA spec fic include strong female characters who fight, some as a means of survival and some as a way of life. Do/can women fight the same as men? Given the biological differences in size and strength, how can we be true to the real experience; what excuses can we use to negate these (and which excuses have we seen too often)? How do we avoid making these heroes unrealistic (and essentially men dressed as women)? Who does this well?

We’ll be talking about people hitting each other. There will be no practical demonstrations. Hopefully.

Not so much this time around, because I’ll mostly be networking. By which I mean hanging out with cool people and eating tasty things.

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Mommy, where do ideas come from?

One doesn’t need to be a mom (or dad) writer to get that question. I’ve only been asked it a handful of times, always by non-writers, and I’m grateful. It’s a hard question to answer. For one thing, ideas are everywhere, and people don’t seem to accept the “ideas are the easy part” answer. But there it is. I’ve said before that the fact that I’ll die before I get to tell all the stories I want to tell pisses me off. It’s not hyperbole. The hard part is fleshing out that idea and making it so real someone will not only read it but believe it.

That’s not really an answer, is it?

(My husband wants me to say that ideas come from spouses, so I will. That’s sometimes true.)

Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll through out a few of my short stories and talk a little bit about where I got the idea.

CAKE AND CANDY–My first pro sale and published story. In it, the protagonist is a young widow (she’s in her early 20’s) and is understandably distraught. Her grandma gives her a pair of earrings that allow her to hear the dead, specifically her recently deceased husband. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure where I got this idea–I was given the theme of the anthology (magical clothing) and instantly thought about a pair of earring that acted as a conduit to the other side. The idea that the dead never truly leave us is a comforting one, and I liked exploring it in this story.

THE LAST BREAKFAST–A woman wakes up to discover that she’s become a zombie, which in this world is caused by a genetic mutation. She goes to a feeding ground where zombies eat each other so as not to destroy humanity. It’s flash fiction, and it’s creepy. This idea came to me in a dream, believe it or not, and it’s the one of the only times that’s happened to me. I dreamed I was in college and my roommate was a zombie and had to go to a feeding ground. I watched what was happening from outside the building. The dream had a visceral, hypnotic quality to it, and it stuck with me for several weeks until I wrote the story.

VANESSA MCAVOY’S STATEMENT–Another themed anthology, this one “predator and prey.” The editor wanted were-animal stories that weren’t were-wolves. I immediately thought about a school for were-children, mostly because of how fun it would be to write about were-eagles and were-ferrets. I structured it much like Stephen King’s “Delores Clairborne,” where the protagonist is giving a statement about a crime that’s happened. There’s lots of were-children acting like predators. I’m really happy with the way it turned out.



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Deadlines and Habits

I’ve been thinking about Gary’s post on deadlines from last week. There are two types of things that I get done: things that have deadlines, and things that are habits.

Deadlines are great motivators. I use the Writers of the Future quarterly deadline to motivate myself to write four short stories a year. I’ve entered contests on a writing forum to motivate me to write more stories. I am only writing this blog post right now to meet my weekly deadline.

But I don’t have many “real” writing deadlines, and I have never been good at making up deadlines for myself. My brain is smarter than me, it knows those are fake. That’s where my habits come in.

A few days ago I hit 100 days in my chain of writing at least 250 words a day. That is a very small amount of words, and some of them will never see the light of day. Others, though, helped me finish five short stories and one novel and develop the settings and characters for my next novel. I considered stopping after day 100, but it felt weird, so I’ll keep that habit up for a while longer. It’ll help me make progress on things even without deadlines.

More important than the daily words, though, is my schedule. I write on weekdays at lunch and after dinner, and on weekends right after breakfast, because…that’s what the schedule says to do. Sometimes it’s writing and sometimes revising and sometimes it’s planning, but there’s always something I can work on in those time slots. Writing at lunch has definitely become a habit, and writing on weekend mornings works pretty well most if the time too. Evenings are a bit of a struggle because of all the other things that have piled up during the day, but most days I put the time in. (I am not getting up at 4:30 a.m. to write before work. I’d fall asleep at my desk, and it’s a standing desk so that would be painful.)

This was a long way of saying: Deadlines – useful if you have them. Habits – useful whether you have deadlines or not.

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Catching up

I’m just back from a small vacation, though I did manage to see a couple of movies over the weekend, so instead of a lengthy post, I’ll leave you with two brief observations.

The Great Gatsby was not–as I had been led to believe–a bad movie. In fact, husband and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Star Trek was a really good sci-fi action movie, but not as enjoyable (for me) as a Star Trek movie.

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Promo whore moment!

The table of contents has been announced for CHICKS DIG GAMING, a non-fiction book of essays written by women in sf/f about–you guessed it–gaming. It’s edited by Jean Rabe and Jennifer Brozek, two ladies who know a thing or two about throwing some dice around. I have an essay in it, as does Jaleigh, and we’re joined by several great ladies. I would post a link to the toc, but I can’t seem to rustle it up at this moment. Sigh. So, right now you’ll have to take my word for it. It comes out in November 2013, and it’ll be awesome.

This is the essay I struggled writing for several weeks last winter. In general, I can bang out a short story in a week, but that’s fiction. Non-fiction is a whole ‘nother beast. And when it’s about a personal topic–as I chose to make gaming–well. It was tough. I’m really proud of this sale, and I’m excited and a little nervous for it to see the light of day.

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Last week I made an oblique comment about wishing I had deadlines. Which I actually really did mean, for two reasons.

The first, as implied by the previous post, is that it means someone already wants that piece of writing. Most of the writing I’m doing now is on spec, which means I have no idea at all if the work I’m putting into it will actually result in a sale. Getting rid of as much of that uncertainty as I can is a major goal.

Second, deadlines are motivating. Right now, writing tends to be something that I have to fit around the rest of my life. There are kids to keep alive, dinners to subdue, and big messy houses to poke at warily with cleaning supplies. All of these things demand constant attention, and then there’s all the incidentals that keep cropping up. Like my wife, seeming to think we should spend time together occasionally.

The writing has to compete with all that, and deadlines help. They give me a concrete reference that says work on this NOW. So I tend to make them up, even when they don’t really exist. For example, I decided that the outline I was working on for my current project had to be done before the end of this week. Wednesday at best (which I’ve already shot past), Friday absolutely. Well, it’s Thursday afternoon and I think I’m just about done. But only because I took a pass on three other things that were demanding my attention this morning.

Because I had a deadline.

Which reminds me, time to do another proofreading pass. I swear, those commas are out for blood.


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