Calling all Moms and Dads: Would you send your kids to colonize Mars? I tackle this subject in my guest editorial in the July-August issue of Analog. Available now. Hope you’ll give it a read. I’m always happy to hear from my readers what you think.
And while you’re at it, check out some first-rate new fiction by my writing buddies, Martin L. Shoemaker and C. Stuart Hardwick. These hot new writers are ones to keep your eyes on, and to read! Here’s the complete Table of Contents for a terrific double issue:
Are you a newish professional SF & fantasy writer? ‘Tis the season to contemplate taking your fiction writing to a new level via a terrific writers’ workshop. What’s that I hear you muttering—you’ll give it some thought after the holidays? That may well be a mistake. You see, one of the premier workshops, Paradise Lost, accepts memberships on a rolling basis. It has a limited number left for both its critique track and its retreat track. There aren’t many left. I’ve been to Paradise Lost three years running and must say that I’ve learned wonderful new things every year. Plus it’s a four-day event set in beautiful San Antonio, Texas at a perfect time of year: April 27 – 3o, 2017.
Paradise Lost isn’t for beginners as you must have a pro sale, or have attended Viable Paradise, Taos Toolbox, or be a member of Codex. But it is way less intensive than those other workshops. At Paradise Lost, you’ll have a few weeks in advance to critique roughly four works of 5000 words apiece. 20,000 words total is doable even if you’re not a fast critiquer, and I’m definitely not. There will also be time to work on your own stories, attend class, and socialize with other writers. What invariably gets shorted is sleep, but yeah you already knew that, right?
In a supportive environment, Paradise Lost really shines at:
1) Providing top-notch classroom instruction by some of the best writers in our field, and for the first time this year, by an agent.
2) Teaching you how to identify what’s working well and what could be improved in others’ stories, which translates into improving your own fiction.
3) Having experienced professionals give you thoughtful critiques of your stories.
4) Removing the preponderance of day-to-day distractions from writing, such as your day job, your family, etc.
5) Fostering genuine friendships with other newish pro writers who know what you’re going through, who can provide moral support and be there for you for years to come.
Nonetheless, a workshop is not a magic potion and cannot:
1) Make sure you keep on writing daily, weekly, monthly, or ever,
2) Force you to finish all – or any – of the stories or novels you began in a burst of enthusiasm,
3) See that you press the ‘submit’ button, and keep doing so each time a rejection comes back.
So back to the question – should you sign up? Keep in mind that-
1) It’s less time away from family, job, friends, and your day-to-day life than other writers’ workshops.
2) There is financial aid, as well as the possibility of sharing a hotel room with another attendee to reduce costs.
3) It can sure give you an injection of determination that can be vital to getting established in the tough field of writing science fiction and fantasy.
One last thought, Paradise Lost stands head and shoulders above trying to muddle through by perfecting your craft in isolation. Anything that can reduce the fundamentally isolating nature of the writer’s job is a remarkably good thing.
Sure hope I’ll see you there.
Years ago at Clarion Writers Workshop, one of my instructors talked about there coming a time when a writer stops writing. For years! Hah, I immediately decided that none of this could possibly be applicable to me. Though he was trying to be reassuring, I tuned him out. I was so wrong. Due to a massively demanding job, I ended up not writing any fiction for about ten years. Now that I’ve taken up the fiction gig once more, I’ve been thinking about my own experience as word comes of several other writers I know who are setting aside their own writing due to work and family commitments and competing priorities.
If you’re thinking about taking a break, it can be scary. Here’s what went through my head during my own writing hiatus.
- Will I ever go back to it?
The answer was yes. Once I left the demanding job and had recovered from a bit of burn-out, I began gradually by pulling out a couple of stories abandoned in progress. After ten years, they didn’t look all that bad. In fact, I could see ways to work with them, which is a compelling reason to never toss any work in progress. This led to my second fear.
2. Will I forget how to write fiction?
Nope. In fact, my demanding job had required much writing and editing. That made the resumption of fiction writing easier than ever. Those half-finished stories were a great starting point, as I could see immediately how to improve them starting with the title. In fact, I’ve sold a couple of them.
3. What can I do to help myself get back into writing fiction?
First, I resolved to write only what really interested me, like dinosaurs, and not what I thought was trendy. Second, I resolved to write about cool stuff even though I hadn’t spent decades researching a particular topic. Fact is, there will always be someone who knows more about paleontology, or many other subjects, than I do. So what? Even if I spent time learning a ton more, that would still be the case.
Second, I decided to attend a terrific writers workshop–Taos Toolbox–to get back into the swing of things. I recommend it highly.
Third, I wrote down my specific, measurable objectives in terms of words written, completed stories, etc. I started a spreadsheet to track my output on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis.
Now I’ve received word in the last month that no fewer than THREE other writers who had taken lengthy hiatuses have returned to the pen monkey gig. What’s more, they are all older than me. Truly, there’s no time like the present.
What can a non-dinosaurphile learn from a journey, however brief or prolonged, into the Mesozoic? How many dinosaur species existed? How can we extrapolate so much about dinosaurs and so much about the history of the Earth based on, well, a handful of decayed carcasses? Or do we have other clues? What do we not know about dinosaurs and need to know and why do we need to know?
These were a few of the thought-provoking questions that Carl Slaughter asked when he interviewed me for SF Signal. While I pondered my answers, I learned a couple of things, myself. First, it’s a lot more fun to be interviewed about a topic that you love, particularly when the interviewer’s comes at the subject in a way that you hadn’t quite considered before. I hope you’ll check it out, particularly if you’re like me in that you’ve never lost your love for dinosaurs. And while you’re at it, I hope you’ll read Diamond Jim and the Dinosaurs in the April 2016 Analog.
I figure five is a manageable number, right? It isn’t betting everything on just one or two all-important resolutions. Nor is five so overwhelming that you can’t even commit them all to memory. So here goes:
- Resolve to set some realistic goals — daily, weekly, monthly/quarterly, and yearly. By this, I don’t mean the vague and perennially popular “finish a novel.” Instead, resolve to COMPLETE certain component tasks in the project-management sense. It could be to complete research by X date, to have an outline done by the end of Feb., to reach 20,000 words by the Ides of March, to spend the month of April editing, to prepare query letters, etc.
- Memorize your resolutions. Repeat them to yourself in the shower, on your way to work, or at some point every day. You’re apt to feel silly, but they’ll be more on your mind. Plus, you’re more likely to do what you said you’d do.
- Build your goals into your calendar, to-do list, and whatever organizational system you use. While a sticky note next to your laptop seems to be one approach, maybe it would be better taped to the TV remote.
- Get accountability. By this I mean tell your writing buddies, or friends or a trusted family member or two precisely what it is you intend to achieve. See if they’re willing to ask you how you are progressing from time to time. Even if they don’t ask, give them regularly scheduled progress reports. Don’t expect to be perfect, as we all get derailed for all sorts of reasons. But do expect to show them demonstrable progress.
- Keep a written record charting your efforts. There are word-count spread sheets out there, not to mention all sorts of time logs and journals for noting what you’ve achieved periodically. I think it’s important to have annual totals to give you a sense of what’s realistic given everything else in your life.
Lastly, for those who’ve read this far, make sure to celebrate your ability to do this thing.
Why no, you shiny, seductive story idea, I am not–repeat NOT-about to chase after you, forgetting my vows to work faithfully on my current story all the way to the end. Because I’m all about finishing. I don’t need my laptop cluttered with yet more folders full of partials.
Ah but what if I forget about this latest intrigue? Will this idea be lost forever? What if it’s really better than all the rest? OK, so I’ll take a very few minutes and jot down the basic concept. Well, and maybe an opening paragraph. Hmmm, I may as well expand this into the opening scene since I know how it goes and getting it down won’t take very long. Plus the ending because I do know how it ends.
Let’s just add in a quickie outline and character sketches for the protagonist and antagonist. Wouldn’t hurt to add some notes about the setting. Oh and a snippet of terrific dialog just popped into my head. I can’t be expected to let that vanish, can I? So while I’m at it, I may as well write the second scene.
And now my writing time for the day has been consumed. But tomorrow is another day for getting back on track.
I got word that I’ve resold a short story that came out last year, which means it’ll be reprinted in a different publication. This marks the first time that two different editors have bought the same story of mine. While I’ll have more details after the publisher announces the forthcoming volume, I do have some thoughts about reprints, particularly for writers of short fiction at the early stages of their careers.
When first starting out, the conventional wisdom is to focus your efforts on producing one story after another, and on submitting them to prospective markets one at a time, beginning with the top markets looking the sort of thing you write. Eventually, an editor starts snapping up your work. Maybe several editors do so. That is as it should be. Keep on writing new stuff. However, don’t treat your first few sales as ancient history. This is the time to look into reprint markets. There may well be more of them around than you realize, including several top markets. Make a list for each story you already sold as to where you might get it reprinted. Don’t forget to review your contracts so that you know what rights you’ve retained when you contemplate reselling your stories.
Next, be prepared for rejection all over again. Just because one editor published your story, odds are that others may well turn it down. This does not mean that your sale was a fluke or that it was a poor story. Keep trying. While it’s never a sure thing, reselling that story is probably easier than making the initial sale. Plus, a resale is one of the best ways I know to dispel your qualms about the first sale being a mistake, or about your writing not being good enough. Reprints are incredibly validating.
Now here comes the fun part. There is something utterly delicious about the prospect of a second check arriving when you’ve already been paid once for the hard work. It’s a freebie. To be sure, reprint markets typically pay lower rates per word than first sales, and the rate for that first publication wasn’t exactly astronomical to begin with. No matter, that check is terrific.
Still not persuaded? Then consider that here is the opportunity to get your fiction before new readers, most of whom likely did not read your story when it was initially published. Come to think of it, maybe this point should have come first. After all, isn’t the first and foremost reason why you’re trying to get published precisely because you want people to read your story?
Here comes a block of time taking you away from the regular routine. Certainly a writer can carve out a slice of it for working on the story or the novel, right? How hard can that possibly be?
You aren’t alone if it proves almost impossible. Fact is, many writers dread the interruptions, scheduled and unscheduled, intruding upon their writing time from now until the end of the year. I can attest that momentum vanishes faster than one’s favorite holiday dish. Progress is sporadic at best. What’s a writer to do?
Two words: be flexible. You can make progress, just perhaps in different ways than you would normally do. Here are some possibilities:
1. Keep your phone or a small note pad and pen with you always to make notes. If you prefer, send yourself voice mail or email or text messages so that you can capture a few ideas or sentences right when they strike you. If you go for a walk after a big meal, be sure to take your notepad or phone along.
2. Set the alarm for just 5 or 10 minutes earlier than need be. It’s not so very much sleep to give up and you can use those precious minutes jotting down whatever first thoughts come to mind about your work in progress: things like what a character might do next or if a scene would be better shown from a different POV, or if more needs to be made of a certain event, Whatever it is, it’ll help keep the story alive in your mind and give you a place to pick up again when you do have the time and solitude you need. I suppose you could do this at night right before you turn in, but only if you are a night owl. Besides, the intuitions that come to you first thing when you wake up are frequently the most valuable. For one thing, they don’t have to compete with all the pressing needs of the day that start pounding at you all too soon.
3. Whether you travel or have people come to your place, you’re likely to happen across new names of people and places. Write them down. The same goes for noteworthy turns of phrases you don’t hear every day. It’s almost guaranteed you’ll forget them if you don’t. You never know when you can use them in your fiction.
4. Speaking of travel, that’s when you want to be on the lookout for new experiences—especially tastes and smells. Particularly the less palatable ones are what you’ll want to make a note about for later use.
5. Don’t fret about what you are not accomplishing if you are using your time to refill your store of experiences and ideas. Do be sure to capture at least one or two of them–even in rough form–every day.
‘Nuff said. I now return you to your regularly scheduled holidays.
I recently sold a short story to the 19th market I tried. I first submitted this story to an editor almost exactly three years before it finally found a publisher. Why did selling the story take so long? There were two markets that had it for five months each before turning it down. Another one took four months, So that’s 14 months just for 3 magazines. After the first 4 top markets said no, I took it back and spent a couple of months intermittently revising it. Plus, there was another 2-month period when I didn’t send it out when I was ill. Apart from those times, this story has been steadily making the rounds.
During these three years, my opinion of the story fluctuated. At times, I thought it was one of the better stories I had written. On other days, I was ready to banish it to the bowels of my word processor. Interestingly, now that it has been bought and will see print, I find that I simply don’t know what to think of its merits as a story. I’ve lost all perspective. This isn’t unusual, as my opinion about most of my stories fluctuates radically over time. I’m not the only writer who experiences this.
But here’s the important point: While I might no longer be able to judge the quality of this little story of mine, if I ever could, I never gave up believing in it enough to keep searching for an editor who would like it so well that it would find its way into print in a fiction magazine. And so it’s time will soon be at hand.
The delays, rejections, and rewrites that befell this story are not so very different than what many well-published writers have experienced. If there’s any conclusion to be drawn from all this, it’s that persistence—or more accurately, stubbornness beyond all reason—can pay off. Not always, of course. I do have at least two other stories that have been circulating for longer and have collected more rejections than this one. I’m far from giving up on either of them.
Nevertheless, rather than have you conclude that submitting stories inevitably goes like this, let me tell you about a different work that I sold two days after finally finding a good home for the story that collected 18 rejections in three years. The first editor who read this other piece bought it three weeks after I sent it to him. You just never know.
Once upon a time, it was enough for the hero of a science fiction book or movie to want to save a few people in a space ship from, well whatever was endangering them. That soon morphed into the whole space station, or town or city, needing rescue. Then the stakes got raised and the hero had to save the nation or space colony. That became the world/planet. Eventually the galaxy. Ultimately the entire universe. These days, the situation’s no better in fantasy where the rightful ruler’s life is at stake, oh and also those of the common folk, plus those of generations yet unborn, and that goes for every other country on the map adorning the frontispiece. No pressure or anything.
But not all SF or fantasy stories have to go that way. [Warning: mild spoilers to follow.] The Martian is a smashing success built upon a plot that turns on one astronaut’s efforts to rescue himself, and only himself, with no more than what he has on hand, which he must use to produce everything he needs for a long time. Yes, several others at a great distance try to come to his aid. And yet it remains a tale of one person’s survival against long odds. It helps that both the book by Andy Weir and the movie focus on a resourceful, likable character, one who is brave, smart, resourceful, and curious. These qualities are precisely what brought a character such as the protagonist to Mars in the first place. He needs every one of these characteristics if he is to prevail in his life-or-death struggle.
You see? You don’t have to raise the stakes to galaxy-spanning, or even global, levels. Not convinced? What if I told you that one person’s fight to survive with minimal resources in an incredibly hostile environment happens to be a plot that has been enthralling us since Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe in 1719?
Still not persuaded? Have you seen the You Tube video that opens with one turtle lying on its back, legs waving uselessly, and then another turtle comes along and manages to right it? How about the video in which a baby polar bear tumbles into the water and Mama Bear plunges in and rescues it? Have you noticed how many jillions of views those clips have racked up? Truly, your character doesn’t need to set out to do anything more than to save himself or herself or one other character, who doesn’t even need to be human.
Sounds easy enough to write a story like this, you say. Well, there is a trick to it. Namely, not just any protagonist will do. Like many newbies, I went through my share of whiny and worthless characters before some really terrific protagonists turned up at my casting call, ones who had what it takes to save themselves. Or to save others. The right stuff. Let ’em have at it.