Award Eligibility Post 2014

written by David Steffen

And now the gratuitous award eligibility post–feel free to skip over it if you’re not interested, but figured there might be someone out there who might want to see it. This post covers works by Diabolical Plots and by me personally.

From time to time people ask me if they can nominate the Submission Grinder. In the past, I thought the answer was “no” because most of the awards seemed to be very publisher focused–so the best way I thought to try to recognize the Submission Grinder would be to nominate Diabolical Plots. But there ARE a couple categories the Submission Grinder qualifies for in some awards, so I’ve listed those two first.

And just to be clear, no I don’t really think we have a shot at anything, but I see no reason why I can’t mention what we’re eligible for.

Writer’s Resource/Information/News Source

1. The Submissions Grinder

I wasn’t aware of this award until this year, part of the Preditors and Editors Reader Poll. Someone has seen fit to nominate the Grinder, so thought it would be worth mentioning.

 

World Fantasy Special Award – Non Professional

1. The Submissions Grinder

Likewise, I wasn’t aware of this award, but it’s another way to recognize the Submission Grinder directly if you want to see it recognized.

 

Best Short Story

1. “Catastrophic Failure” by David Steffen at Perihelion

2. “Always There” by David Steffen at Lakeside Circus

3. “Unraveling” by David Steffen at Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine

4. “A Switch in Time” by David Steffen at Perihelion

5. “The Thing About Analyn” by David Steffen at Stupefying Stories

 

Best Related Work

All of the articles that I’ve written here and in SF Signal are eligible for this category, but I’m not going to list all dozens of them. I’ll just mention the one that I thought was most notable:

1. The Best Podcast Fiction of All Time (at SF Signal)

 

Best Editor (Short Form)

1. David Steffen (for nonfiction)

Note that although we’ve been reading slush for fiction publication in 2014, we haven’t published any fiction yet, so only my nonfiction editing can be taken into account. And Anthony isn’t eligible this year for the same reason.

 

Best Fanzine

1. Diabolical Plots

Next year, instead of Best Fanzine, we’ll be eligible for Best Semiprozine because we’ll be a paying fiction market.

 

Best Fan Writer

1. David Steffen
–For the short fiction listed above, the large number of nonfiction articles here and in SF Signal.

2. Carl Slaughter
–Mostly for interviews

3. Frank Dutkiewicz
–Reviews of Daily SF

4. Laurie Tom
–Anime reviews

 

 

Interview: Andrew Burt

interviewed by Carl Slaughter

Critters,Preditors & Editors, ReAnimus, Advent, Nyx, SFWA, snap books. Andrew Burt is a busy guy.

 

How is Critters different than/better than Scribophile, SF Novelist, Hatrack River Writer’s Workshop, and other critique workshops? Critters is the first workshop on the web. How did that come about?

Critters pre-dates the others you mention, but I don’t know if Critters is fundamentally better or different from any of the others. The more the better! The reason I started Critters was simply that there wasn’t any critique workshop on the web at the time. I was searching for one to join, actually, but, being the early days of the web, there just wasn’t one yet. Before I started Critters someone in a forum suggested we try emailing manuscripts back and forth, which I think half a dozen of us did… once. I submitted my critiques of the others’ manuscripts, but I think I was the only one. 🙂 So I figured, well, there’s this web thing, I’ll hang a shingle and see if anyone comes.

Over time other workshops popped in and out (often off-shoots of Critters, like Critique Circle), and some of them stuck, which is terrific. The more depth of critique an author can get the better for everyone. In terms of differences, Critters’ workload is modeled after a local, in-person workshop I belonged to, begun by the award-winning and awesome Ed Bryant (himself an alum of one of the early in-person workshops, Clarion). With a monthly meeting and a rough average of three manuscripts everyone critiqued, I implemented that as a “three critiques per four weeks” ratio in Critters. That’s seemed to work well. Doing critiques of others is probably half the benefit to one’s own writing, so it’s important to ensure people do critiques. (And in-depth ones; we have minimum critique length limits to encourage people to peer deeply into every story.)

One thing I do think that accounts for Critters success has been our “diplomacy policy,” whereby those reviewing a manuscript are urged to phrase their bad news in ways that have been shown to communicate, and avoid the phrasings that don’t communicate the message but do provoke negative reactions from the receiving author’s “lizard brain.” It’s usually as simple as saying, “The pace was too slow for my taste” instead of, “The pace is too slow”; this really seems to help.

 

Why is your workshop still free after so many years even though many workshops charge?

So this all started in 1995, back when the web was young, and there probably weren’t even enough people around for anyone to make money from a web site yet. I had also been running Nyx as a free service. Nyx was (and still is) free to use, funded by voluntary donations from those who like it. That seemed like the right model, so I started Critters as a free workshop as well. It made sense since the biggest “cost” if you will, is the effort that all the critiquers put into critiquing their fellow authors. Doing critiques of others is also of huge help to improving one’s own writing craft, so we do nudge people to participate, both in quantity and quality of in-depth critiques. You can’t buy that quality; and making people pay for it may even dilute it.

For our modest monetary needs, folks who like it donate as they feel the urge (with some low-key fund drive reminders; I don’t care for the in-your-face, we’re-holding-your-program-hostage-until-twenty-people-donate kind of public TV/radio fund drives, though I understand their necessity). I also added some Google ads to the site to fill in the gaps, though I figure most people run ad blockers and never see them. Critters doesn’t need a huge budget,it isn’t my full-time job and we have a few volunteers to help with questions and such,so we do fine.

 

You mentioned Nyx, the world’s first Internet Service Provider, which you founded in 1987. How did that come about? What made you want to start the first ISP?

I’d been on the “ARPAnet,” the network that later became the “Internet,” for many years, and was active in “Usenet,” the gigantic (for its day) distributed forum system. ARPAnet was only accessible to a small number of people at academic/research/government organizations. It was so cool, though… So when our department (I was a computer science professor at the University of Denver) was donated a behemoth of an old computer,a PDP 11/70, which filled an entire room,and we had nothing really to use it for, it sort of fell to me, because I was the only professor who even knew how to run it. I put the open source operating system known as “BSD Unix” on it (a precursor to today’s Linux), connected it to the university’s network going out to the world at large, hung some modems on it, and opened it up for the general public so everybody could access what was just being renamed “the Internet.”

I’m a fan of capitalism, but it doesn’t always work as well as it should. Before the public had any way to get on the Internet, I could see the writing on the wall that they would be getting on eventually, and I was dismayed at the thought of people being gouged to access all the cool Internet stuff. The culture of the net was/is something special, with (at the time) a high degree of altruism,people helping others just because it was a good thing to do. There were many large, corporate, non-Internet dialup modem services, like “Compuserve”, which were generally extremely expensive; and I could foresee them soon connecting to the net and charging people far too much. I thought it would be a good thing if that altrustic culture could get a leg up. The university itself is a non-profit, and lots of the content on the net was freely available, so it all made sense to open the net up to the public for free to show that it could be done. I also wanted to do what I could to continue the spirit of freedom of speech that permeated the non-public Internet, and avoid the heavy-handed moderation many of the other pay dialup systems showed. (I am a bit disappointed that so many forum sites have again returned to fairly heavy moderation, but perhaps this too shall pass.) So I wasn’t really thinking, “Hey, this will be the first Internet Service Provider for the public”; more it was, “Hey, people ought to be able to get on the net because it’s cool, and they can’t, and I can do something about that.” It didn’t even occur to me until later that I’d started the first ISP, when someone mentioned it. At the time I just figured it sounded like a good idea to get people onto the net. I suppose the experiment was a success! Nyx is still going, now as its own 501(c)3 non-profit corporation, still providing free email, web hosting, etc. and I’m glad to see that the general public now has a lot more choices, with costs of access that are still reasonable (indeed, often still free).

 

How do you keep such a massive site as Critters going with no full-time staff?

Minions! 🙂 In this case, software minions. I enjoy automating things, and seem to be reasonably good at it. (My computer science background is in networking, operating systems design, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity.) So, I’ve created a ton of custom software that handles 99% of what goes on with the site. I have a small number of volunteers who help answer questions, and I fix things when the minions make a mess.

 

You recently opened the workshop to nonfiction, mystery, and a slew of other genres and categories. Give us a list and tell us how this experiment is going.

Originally Critters was just science fiction, fantasy, and horror. That made sense in the early days, given that the people on the net were still largely geek types, who tend to like those genres more than others. I always had requests to broaden the list to include everything, so recently I did. We now have 16 workshops, covering every genre and every form of creative endeavor I could fit in. The list is:

Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror Writing
Mainstream and Literary Fiction
Mystery, Thriller, and Adventure Writing
Non-Fiction Writing
Script, Screenplay, and Stageplay Writing
Kids Books
Comics, Graphic novels, Manga, etc.
Western Fiction Writing
Romance Writing
Adult Fiction
Video and Film
Music and Audio
Photography
Art, Painting, Drawing, etc.
Apps and Software
Website Design

The SF/F/H workshop is still by far the most active, since it’s best known for that. The others are growing, though I think I made a tactical mistake breaking them out into separate workshops at the outset. I should probably merge them back so there’s one large workshop everyone is in, and when I start getting calls to split off a genre then do that.

I had hopes that some of the non-writing workshop areas would catch hold, like video, music, art, web design, etc.; though that hasn’t largely been the case. There’s a long history of writers workshops, whereas there isn’t that depth of history in the others. But we keep trying things, alerting people they exist, so I’m ever the optimist.

 

Don’t you have to be an experienced author or editor to critique someone else’s story? If I can see how to improve your story, why can’t I see how to improve my own story, and vice versa?

Two parts to that…

1) They’re two different skills. I can tell that a computer won’t boot, and I may even be able to diagnose it as a particular blown chip, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I can pull out the board and solder in a new one. In some ways, critiquing a story is easier than writing: I can read it and keep tabs on whether I’m liking it or not. If not, I can, hopefully make some sort of guess what isn’t working for me. Too much boring text? Stilted dialog? Cardboard character? Critiquing is, at the heart of it, about explaining how you felt as you read that piece. All that requires is paying attention to your feelings as you read. But that doesn’t necessarily mean one knows how to fix it, and not break something else. (Add more detail about the character, but if not done well, may create stretches of boring text.) On the flip side, some authors may write well, but have little idea how they do it; or know how to fix what isn’t working. Hopefully as you critique a lot of other people’s work, you gain a sense of what works and what doesn’t, so you can avoid the pitfalls as you write your own stories. Both take practice, and I think both improve the other. Critiquing is often easier to get “right” to start with.

2) The Blind Spot. No matter how good you are at writing and/or critiquing, you can’t see your own work from an outsider’s point of view. You can’t have that “first time” experience, since that was when you put down the words in the first draft. You also know too much about the parts you didn’t write, which someone else won’t know. You know that the your human protagonist’s unnatural love of carrots is because he was raised by gladiatorial jester rabbits (which you never mention in the text); but the fresh eyes of a reader who only sees the text can ask the question, What the heck is it with the carrots?

 

Isn’t it dangerous to post a story for multitudes of strangers to see? What’s to stop someone from plagiarizing a story? And although manuscripts are copyrighted, ideas are not, so what’s to stop someone from stealing my premise?

Actual plagiarism is extremely rare (I can’t think of any actual cases in Critters in all the years and tens of thousands of manuscripts). I suppose it’s because (1) people know they shouldn’t do that; (2) the penalties are stiff if you do and you get caught; (3) the story in Critters is the unfinished product,why should someone want to steal a half-baked cake out of the oven?

As for ideas, right, they aren’t copyrighted. However, they’re not what make a story uniquely yours. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Most ideas have already been done over and over. (A spunky group of rebels fights against an entrenched empire… Is that Star Wars, the American Revolution, Asimov’s Foundation, Hunger Games, V for Vendetta, or… or… or…?) Even if someone has a truly unique idea, (1) without good writing it won’t matter, and (2) several authors could run with the same idea and make completely different stories.

So, nawww, nothing to worry about.

 

Is one week really enough time to read, evaluate, and comment on a story? What if I critique regularly for several members and 2 or 3 post a story at the same time?

Interesting question! Nobody has ever actually asked for more time to critique a short story. (Novels have their own slower-paced program.) I think it’s enough in that the story itself rarely takes more than a few minutes to read, and then it’s a matter of writing up what you thought about it. I’d say for a typical story that takes me maybe an hour tops, and I don’t think I’m particularly fast at it. I may let the story percolate in my brain a few days, but there seems to be time by the seventh day to get the thoughts written down. The emphasis is really on how you felt about the story; what parts worked and what didn’t; not so much about line by line edits. It’s then a matter of relating your feelings.

As for regular authors, I don’t know if I would encourage that. To my mind, it’s more helpful to both the author and critiquer’s own writing to critique a wide variety, not a “stable” of authors.

 

How many critiques might a story receive on Critters?

Historically the average has been 15. That varies quite a bit based on a bunch of factors (length of your story, for example; and middle chapters of novels have a hard time, which is why there’s a program to critique entire novels).

 

What kind of publication success rate do Critters members have?

It’s hard to measure precisely, but I once did a study and it came out that members of Critters were ten times more likely to make professional sales than non-Critters. Of course, it could simply be that the more motivated writers have joined! I can’t attribute cause and effect.

 

Have you had a lot of pro writers participate? Any Hugo, Nebula, or Campbell winners/nominees? Any Writers of the Future winners? Any members who participated in the Clarion or Odyssey workshops? A lot of SFWA members?

Lots and lots… though I really don’t keep a database of them. Pro authors tend to be busier, but many like to “pay it forward” by helping new authors. I’ve noted in many years that around a third of nominees for the Hugo or Nebula awards are Critterfolk. Probably our most decorated author is Ken Liu, who’s won a bunch of Hugos and Nebulas.

 

You’ve proposed that keeping an ebook online indefinitely can eventually bring in as much sales or more as putting a paper version in the bookstore because the paper version is pulled in a few months. But suppose ebook formatting evolves and the old formatting is no longer compatible with the new readers or new software?

There is already software that can convert between formats. Calibre is one example. Formats like EPUB are particularly easy to convert in the future, since they are basically a “.zip” file with HTML files inside, which is human readable text that software can easily operate on. Very easy to convert to some other format. Even if there were some difficult file format, since the text has to be visible to the human eye to read it, there will always be a way to convert it, even if it’s taking photos of the words and converting back to text (like ReAnimus Press does for out of print books). It’s highly unlikely anybody buying an ebook today will be unable to read it in the future.

 

Selling ebooks requires using PayPal or a credit card. Doesn’t the author have to pay a fee for these payment services? If a customer buys only one of your books, you still have to pay that fee. If 10 people, 100 people, 1000 people buy only one book each from you, you’ve paid that fee many times. How is that going to work out for you as a business model considering one of the chief advantages of ebooks is reduced price?

First off, the lions share of ebook sales today are through Amazon. They take their cut (about 30%), and that’s that. That includes the credit card fees. Many authors seem to be okay with that 30% figure. Amazon provides the infrastructure (including the payment processing as well as the web site to display and host the books), they provide a reasonably priced ereader device, they provide a sort of central market square where a lot of people congregate,which includes providing a sense of trust, which shouldn’t be overlooked for it’s value,and they provide marketing (“If you liked that perhaps you’ll like this”).

But even for direct sales the processing fees aren’t particularly painful. Paypal for example is around 3% plus 30 cents, or, with their “micropayments” account, 5% plus 5 cents. Not trivial, but for a $5.99 ebook, 35 cents to Paypal leaves $5.64 to the author. That’s a lot more per sale than you’d earn if you published through Random House.

I also imagine, as time goes on, we’ll have even better forms of payment. There are a number of concepts and startups out there to make payments even easier and cheaper. While I think bitcoins are too volatile as an investment vehicle and prone to security issues, they do have one potentially interesting use: An “instant” way to send money, even between different currencies. That is, if I wanted to send $10 to someone in Upper Nowheria, where they use Quatloos as currency, I could use a service where I send in $10, the service converts it to bitcoins at the current exchange rate of that moment, sends the bitcoins to the person in Upper Nowheria, converts to Quatloos, all within a microscopic fraction of a second, and with a very low exchange fee (a fraction of a percent, depending on bitcoin exchange fees). Currency exchanges often cost 5-10%, so this could cut that way down. Or some other virtual currency or system could serve the same function. Someone out of the US made a large donation to Nyx recently using Transferwise.com, which, including foreign currency exchange fees, was at 0.5% in total fees. The tendency is toward zero exchange and transmission cost.

 

Don’t ebooks make piracy easier?

Yes, but. First, you’d have to determine what percent of pirated copies would have actually resulted in a sale if piracy were impossible. I did a survey on that once, and it came out that most people simply wouldn’t have paid. There were very few truly lost sales. Most pirates just wouldn’t have paid, for a variety of reasons. (They may not have the money, they may not have lived in a country where they even could have easily paid if they wanted to, they may not have felt the book was really worth X dollars, etc.)

Second, you have to figure out if there’s any marketing value. I view them much like used books. Authors make no money from used book sales or books passed along to friends, etc., but readers who receive the free/low-cost used book may turn into fans who buy the author’s other books.

Third, copy protection (DRM , Digital Rights Management) software is almost always intrusive and annoying. In order to prevent a few pirated copies, it greatly limits and greatly annoys legal users. DRM can also get outdated, rendering the protected thing inaccessible. (Has happened to me.) As a legitimate user, I hate copy protection.
Many publishers have decided it’s best for their bottom lines to abandon copy protection.

 

You’ve been a strong advocate of ebooks. You’ve gone so far as to predict the extinction of publishers. Can ebook self-publishing replace the massive editorial and marketing apparatus at the disposal of publishers?

I think ebooks are wonderful. I’ve been an ebook reading person since the early 2000s, when I started reading on the old Blackberry phone I had. I would write to the authors of books I wanted to read to request copies of their manuscript (it helped that they were fellow SFWA members and often friends). I also think we’ve just scratched the surface of digital reading devices. (For example, if there were an inexpensive device that looked and felt just like a book, except every page was digital,digital ink on real paper, or digital paper,you would hold in your hand the same thing as a paper book, except it would be an e-reader. At that point, you have all the “features” of a print book, plus all the benefits of digital. We may phase out paper sooner than that, but it represents a sort of upper bound on when we’ll no longer read paper where the words on the page can’t change.)

So publishers have a problem. If they don’t remain relevant, and bring something unique to the table, they will fade away just like blacksmiths and buggy whip makers.

Anyone can now do (or hire someone to do) the traditional tasks that publishers have done to put together a book (editing, cover art, layout, etc.),and do them in such a way that the author earns a lot more of the proceeds from the sales.

I think one key role left for the large publishers is marketing. Unfortunately, publishers don’t do a lot of that for most books. To some extent, getting paper copies of a book placed on tens of thousands of bookstore shelves counts as marketing. (Readers can’t buy what they never see.) Having the economies of scale to print thousands of copies of a book inexpensively is still one of the competitive advantages that big publishers have. (Which dwindles the more people read digitally.) But if that’s substantially all the publisher does in marketing a particular book that an author can’t do themselves, then it becomes questionable if that’s worth the huge cut of the profits that they take. It’s not unreasonable to say a self-published author could sell 5% as many copies of a book and make the same money.

The question is whether the self-published author can sell that number of copies. The average self-published book sells around 100 copies over all. That’s not much. However, the flip side is that same book may simply never sell to any publisher at all, so that’s 100 compared to 0.

If an author is incredibly good at marketing, and is able to do or pay for the production work, they can probably make more money self-publishing. If not, using a publisher may make more sense.

Another factor in the publishers favor is that they put up the money for the production/distribution costs, taking on the financial risk they might lose money; and they pay the author an advance up front. Those may be more important to a given author than overall earnings.

However, the other big hiccup is in the duration: Large publishers may take the rights for the duration of copyright,that’s the life of the author plus 70 years(!). During which a publisher may not do much marketing after the initial push. Not to mention, a lot can change in that length of time. Even a slow trickle of sales could add up. (Let me emphasize that: If an author is, say, 30, and lives to be 90, the publisher will collect the lion’s share of the royalties for 130 years.)

Full disclosure: In addition to my Critters hat, I’m a publisher; I run ReAnimus Press. We specialize in digitizing out of print books for authors, though we also publish some new releases. We do our best in marketing, and we typically work with authors who for whatever reason don’t want to do the production work themselves. (That said, we pay the highest royalty rates of any publisher I’m aware of. We try to do right by authors.)

Bottom line, an author has to carefully evaluate what a publisher brings to the table, today and for possibly a hundred or more years into the future. It’s a hard decision to make.

 

As a former vice president and one time presidential candidate, do you agree with Mike Resnick’s assessment of SFWA?

“The broader the membership, the less clout is has. When I joined SFWA more than 40 years ago, we were a lean fighting machine, boycotting publishers and making it stick, publicizing bad contracts and bad agents, auditing publishers and actually winning hundreds of thousands of dollars in unreported royalties for our members. But we were all full-time writers. Then we stopped insisting on requalification every 3 years, and our membership went from maybe 150 real writers to 1,500, of which more than 1,300 are not full-time writers and do not have the same professional interests as the full-timers. As a result, we are now pretty much powerless to act as an organization whose first duty is to protect its membership, because our membership no longer consists of people who write for a living. We have not conducted an audit in 30 years; we have not publicly evaluated a contract in 25 years; we have not publicly evaluated agents in 25 years; we do not report the average wait time , above and beyond what is contracted for , for a publisher to pay the signature advance, the delivery payment, or to issue the royalty statement; and we have totally disbanded our piracy committee. All this is a direct result of becoming a less professional organization with every passing year and more of a social club, so you’ll forgive me if I think that lowering the standard even more will be anything but deleterious.”

So: Yes, I agree with what Mike says about SFWA having become less effective. I mostly disagree that the cause of this drop in effectiveness has anything to do with who the members are. I think the lack of effectiveness stems mostly from a lack of focus on the part of the leadership. Or a focus on things that don’t necessarily accomplish anything: Such as focusing ad nauseum on rewriting the bylaws and shuffling the furniture around. (The presidents have generally been authors who make a living from their writing, and they’re the ones who guide the ship, so I don’t really think the fault is lack of full-time writers making the decisions.) I think SFWA could easily do all those things it did in the past to help writers,and with 1500 members get more respect from, say, Congress, than if it had 150 members. Not to mention the much larger budget and surpluses in the bank. I’m constantly optimistic that at any moment SFWA could re-awaken as a real force for writers. There are tons of things it could do to help writers, if the leadership wanted to steer that direction.

 

How did you become the editor of Preditors and Editors and what can we expect with you at the helm?

Preditors and Editors fell into my lap mainly because I had worked with P&E’s founder, Dave Kuzminski, since the late 90’s running P&E’s annual Readers Poll. So as time rolled around to start the poll, I emailed Dave to discuss various things. And heard nothing. I kept trying, eventually getting in contact with his wife and learning that Dave had died very suddenly. They couldn’t even access the site, nor had any idea how to do his P&E magic (not being authors), they turned it over to me. My hope is to keep running P&E the way Dave did, helping authors avoid scams, though he left mighty big shoes to fill. We have added a general guide to avoiding scams that encapsulates advice about a lot of what we see.

 

You started ReAnimus Press. Why? What do you publish, and how’s it going?

ReAnimus is going great. We have about 200 titles released or in the pipeline, almost all from well known and award-winning authors. We have a couple dozen from Ben Bova (including his rare first novel, paper copies of which were going for $500 apiece), over 20 from Norman Spinrad, everything by SFWA founder and Grand Master Damon Knight, and a lot more. We just got the rights to do the ebook of edition of DEAR AMERICA: LETTERS HOME FROM VIETNAM, which is a bestselling book and basis for the Emmy award-winning documentary (letters read by Robert DeNiro, Robert Downey Jr., Robin Williams…). So it’s been an amazing ride so far.

I started ReAnimus because I had these huge shelves full of books, most now out of print, and I wished they were all still available for readers, either as ebooks or in print. I had the technical background to do something about it and some author friends asked me for help getting their backlist back out there… so it all just came together. We now have a pretty sophisticated artificial intelligence system to fix the huge number of errors that result from scanning.

While we mostly only publish established authors (where, to be honest, the risk of losing money is a lot less), we also offer the digitizing and layout services for folks who want to do their own thing.

It’s a real blast, and I’m honored that we’ve been able to bring some great books back into readers’ hands.

 

How did you acquire the celebrated Advent Publishers and what can we expect with you at the helm?

Advent Publishers is another story of reanimating books that might otherwise be lost. Because ReAnimus Press specializes in bringing out of print books back to life, one of our authors put me in touch with the publisher of Advent. They had a bunch of books still in print, but no digital files to make ebook editions. We got to talking, and it became evident that the best solution was just for ReAnimus to acquire Advent.

We’re thrilled, since Advent is a Hugo Award winning publisher that’s been around since the 1950s, having published the biggest names in SF (Heinlein, Blish, E.E. “Doc” Smith, et al.). Our plans are to create new ebook and print editions of their catalog, help sell the existing warehouse full of print titles, and, to be sure, acquire new titles that fit in with Advent’s illustrious family.

 

How’s your own writing going? Anything new?

Yes, I recently finished a novel that I’m shopping around, Termination of Species. The biggest problem I have,assuming some major publisher actually wanted it,is the same dilemma as I outlined above: Which way would I be happier with, locking up my rights for a loooong time with a major publisher who doesn’t pay a very high royalty rate, or the potential but much higher risk of self-publishing it? I’m really gridlocked on that! I’m working on my third novel, and making good progress.

 

What other projects are you involved in to facilitate activity within the science fiction community, what is their purpose, how do they function, and where do we access them.

Well, I do try to sleep sometimes. But I toss out various tools for writers, blog about stuff of interest to readers and writers, and fill in cracks of time with other sorts of things that are listed at www.aburt.com.

Within ReAnimus Press, we’re developing and patenting a way to easily sell ebooks through bookstores, called “snap books”,the name coming from the incarnation where there’s a physical, book-like-object sitting on a bookstore shelf, with the book’s cover art and description on it, and the reader snaps a picture of the QR code to buy, download the book, and put the display box back on the shelf for the next person. Has a huge number of applications.

It came into being because I’ve long wanted to find a way for physical bookstores to sell ebooks. I love the experience of browsing in a bookstore. But they’re out of a lot of titles, they don’t have ebooks on the shelf, etc. So the idea hit me how to solve that, and we’re rolling it out. So far people love the idea. (Gratuitous plug: If anyone reading this works in a bookstore, or knows people who do, or, for that matter, any place that could sell physical things, like a coffee shop, convention dealers room, etc.,drop me a line!)

All in all, I’m having a blast! Thanks for choosing me for an interview!

 

Carl_eagle Carl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Interview: Sandy Williams


Sandy Williams
Sandy Williams is the author of the Shadow Reader YA trilogy by Ace. Her next book is a space urban fantasy/science fiction romance due in January 2015. She is currently reading The Wise Man’s Fear, book #2 in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. She has taken the ice bucket challenge.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: The love triangle between McKenzie, Aren, and Kyol created a lot of buzz on Good Reads. Readers spent a lot of time discussing which guy is sexier, which one is better suited for McKenzie, and her decision making process when she chose between the two. Why did you choose to include a love triangle in the story?

SANDY WILLIAMS: Ah, the love triangle question. Readers either love them or hate them. Surprisingly, a good number of readers who usually hate love triangles enjoyed McKenzie’s story. I think that’s because I didn’t write it as a love triangle. I wrote a story about a girl who falls out of love with one guy, and into love with another. When I was writing the story, I tried really, really hard not to make McKenzie go back and forth between the two guys. She’ll always love Kyol, of course, but it’s a different kind of love, and once she made the decision to move on, she moved on. That didn’t erase all the memories she had with him, or the fact that he’s a good, respectable man, but she found Aren, and he lets her be who she wants to be. He lets her take risks and doesn’t protect her from the knowledge of the evil in the Realm. They fit together better.

 

CS: When McKenzie finally gets what she’s been asking for for 10 years, a normal life in the human world, she goes back into the fae world and stays. Was she really happy or did she really at home in the fae world all along?

SW: She definitely wasn’t happy with a normal job and life in the real world. After ten years, she’d built too many relationships to be able to say goodbye to the Realm. When she gets a taste of normal, she realizes that she’s permanently changed, and that she doesn’t need to be like everyone else on Earth; she can be herself.

 

17211803CS: At the beginning of the series, McKenzie is a Nancy Drew type, using her gift to analyze the scenes where fae transported. By the end of the series, she has learned how to wield a sword and uses it in battle. So she’s become a sort of warrior princess type. Why the transformation?

SW: I love the transformation! McKenzie has always been a strong, brave person, but in a world where everyone else has wielded a sword since they could walk, she’s never stood a chance against her enemies. She’s always had to have a protector. I wanted her to be able to take care of herself. She has the courage for it, and because of a certain event at the end of The Shattered Dark, she starts developing the skills. I love how that changes her character.

 

CS: If “Shadow Reader” is turned into a movie, who would you want to play McKenzie? What about Aren, Kyol, Lena and the other characters?

SW: This is one of the hardest questions I’m asked. I can point to actors and actresses who look similar to the characters in my head, but they’ve never been in a role where they acted like my characters, and a person’s movements, expressions, posture, etc. make up such a big portion of a character in my mind. But, if I’m forced to identify specific actors and actresses, I can do that. 🙂 For McKenzie, if the model on the cover of my books has any acting ability at all, she would do phenomenally. She looks EXACTLY like McKenzie. I’m so lucky my cover artist found the perfect match. I’m not a huge Brad Pitt fan, but Brad from the movie TROY totally works as an Aren. Kyol is probably the hardest match to find because there’s so much in his personality that makes him unique. Gah. I seriously can’t think of any actor that comes close to Kyol, but I’m going to say Stephen Amell, just because I love ARROW and he can be intense.

 

CS: What’s next for Sandy Williams?

I’m planning to release a sci-fi romance early next year. I’m excited about it. Both the hero and heroine can kick some serious butt, and they have a fun history. You can read an excerpt of the first chapter here . I can’t wait until it releases!

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Interview: Mur Lafferty

Mur_lafferty_headshotMur Lafferty is one of the pioneers of podcasting – founder, producer, host, voice, editor, author. She has won the Parsec Award several times. Her Shambling Guide comedy-horror series is available from Orbit.

MUR’S RAP SHEET:
Member of the Podcast Pickle Hall of Fame
One of the Top Ten Savvy Women in Podcasting, 2006
Tricks of the Podcasting Masters was named one of the top reference books for 2006 by Amazon.com.
2007 Parsec Nomination for Best Speculative Fiction Story (Short Form): I Look Forward To Remembering You
2007 Parsec Award for Best Writing Related Podcast: I Should Be Writing
2008 Parsec Award for Best Speculative Fiction Story (Novella Form): Heaven – Season Four: Wasteland
2008 Parsec Award for Best Speculative Fiction Story (Long Form): Playing for Keeps
2010 Parsec Nomination for Best Speculative Fiction Story (Novella Form): Heaven – Season Five: War
2011 Parsec Nomination for Best Speculative Fiction Story (Novella Form): Marco and the Red Granny
2012 Nomination for John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer
2013 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

 

Lafferty_ShamblingGuide2F8-1-200x300CARL SLAUGHTER: You’re one of the pioneers of podcasting. Geek Fu Action Grip, Wingin’ It, I Should Be Writing, Mad Science with the Princess Scientist, Angry Robot Books, Pseudopod, Escape Pod. Did I miss any?

MUR LAFFERTY: Almost! I did the Lulu Podcast and This Day in Alternate History back in 2007.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: How did you get involved in each of these projects and what significant happened while you were there?

MUR LAFFERTY: I’m not sure what significant things happened- I was simply interested in podcasting and I became part of the podcasting community where I met Michael and Evo of Dragon Page, and Steve Eley of Escape Pod. My communications with them had me working on Wingin’ It and the Pseudopod and Escape Pod, and editor Lee Harris was a listener of mine for I Should Be Writing and he asked me to do the Angry Robot show.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: You recently returned to Escape Pod. In what capacity?

MUR LAFFERTY: I’m Editor at Large for Escape Artists, which means I am co-editing Escape Pod with Norm Sherman, but I have some other duties that will be apparent in future months.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: I Should Be Writing is your longest running podcast. How many episodes have there been? What topics have you discussed? Who have you interviewed?

MUR LAFFERTY: Probably around 400 to 500 total. I have video, special eps, and some premium content for people who have supported me for years. I talk mainly about the anxieties that can stop new writers, and how to work past them. I’ve interviewed Connie Willis, Neil Gaiman, NK Jemisin, and, coming up, Seanan McGuire and Charlaine Harris.

 

Mur_lafferty-300x198CARL SLAUGHTER: Who is the Princess Scientist, what are the science topics, and how mad is the science?

MUR LAFFERTY: She’s my 11 year old daughter, we do science experiments around a theme via video. We’ve done sun science and baking soda science.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: Whose idea was it to launch the Parsec Award? Who was involved?

MUR LAFFERTY: I thought SF podcasting needed an award, since podcasting awards started coming on the scene in 2005, but no one was recognizing the geeky section of shows. I got together with Michael R. Menenga and Tracy Hickman and we launched the award.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: You carved out a fiction career for yourself in podcasting before you broke into print. How does an author get podcasted without getting published first? Is it easier to get a story published after it’s been podcasted? Is it easier to break into print after you’ve been podcasted?

MUR LAFFERTY: Publishing fiction via podcast is a DIY endeavor – an author doesn’t “get” podcasted, she does it herself. As for easier, I don’t think so. Like all self publishing, if something is a huge hit, publishers may take notice, but if it’s not, then publishers will consider it already published and not worth their time. One thing podcasting will give you is an audience which can make you more attractive to publishers, but ultimately you have to have a good book.

 

Lafferty_GhostTraintoNOLA-TP-200x300CARL SLAUGHTER: Suppose someone wanted to launch a podcast. How much money would they need to raise? What would they need in the way of recording equipment and web resources? What would they need in terms of personnel?

MUR LAFFERTY: I think you’re thinking bigger than I’ve ever been! You can launch a podcast with a $20 mic and some web space, which can be $120 a year. You don’t need a group to do it, the biggest thing is make sure you have a host with plenty of bandwidth so, if you get popular, you don’t get hit with a huge server bill.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: Anything else an aspiring podcaster needs to know?

MUR LAFFERTY: You will hate your voice and your first few shows will likely suck. It happens to everyone. Don’t let it stop you.

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Laura Resnick on Cover Art

MisCookLaura Resnick has authored 6 fantasy-detective-comedy novels (the Esther Diamond series from Daw), 3 fantasy novels (the Silerian trilogy from Tor), 15 romance novels (from Silhouette), many short stories (mostly in DAW anthologies), several essays on print and screen fiction, and “Rejection, Romance, and Royalties: The Wacky World of a Working Writer.”

She won the Campbell award for best writer and was a finalist for the Rita award. She won the Romantic Times Magazine award 3 times. She writes “The Mad Scribbler,” a monthly opinion column for Nink. For the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America’s bulletin, she wrote a quarterly opinion column, “The Filthy Pro.” She wrote a monthly column, “The Comely Curmedgeon,” for Nink. She has served as member of the board of directors, president elect, and president of Novelists, Inc.

Laura Resnick has done extensive research, including interviews with authors and art directors, on how cover art is developed and how it has a drastic affect on sales and careers. Her current artist, for the Esther Diamond series, is Dan Dos Santos, a 5 time Hugo nominee and Chesley winner.

In this interview with Diabolical Plots‘ Carl Slaughter, she provides the inside story on cover art.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: You’ve done extensive research on how cover art affects sales figures and author careers. Give us some examples of cover art that tanked sales and delayed careers and some examples of how cover art moved a book off the shelf and fast tracked a career.

Laura Resnick 1LAURA RESNICK: An editor once cited Barbara Michaels aka Elizabeth Peters to me as an example of a writer whose career was held back for years by bad covers. Peters died last year (peacefully at home, at the age of 85) after a career which included many New York Times bestselling novels. But that success came some 20 years and many well-reviewed books into her career, and there was a noticeable shift in packaging that accompanied her well-deserved success. For years, publishers were giving her muddy, generic covers that conveyed nothing of the tone of her books, and she developed her audience strictly on her own merits via word-of-mouth, with no help at all from her dreadful packaging. Then if you look at the packaging she started getting around the mid-1990s, you can see a definite shift in quality of the covers, which accompanied her rising sales. In particular, the eventual packaging of her Amelia Peabody series (the early books, poorly packaged, were also repackaged with the new look) was a winner, and the series was commercially very successful for years (she was working on another Amelia Peabody book when she died).

In my own case, my Esther Diamond series had a disastrous launch with (among other problems) a hideously inappropriate cover from Luna Books. Esther Diamond is a comedic urban fantasy series. To give you some idea of how off-target that cover for book #1, Disappearing Nightly, was: The year that book was released, I held that cover up for an audience at a workshop on book covers and packaging, and I asked them what kind of book they thought this cover was for. The two audience members who got the most agreement form everyone else? One thought it was a 1970s showbiz memoir, and the other thought it was a thriller about a hooker. When no one looking at an Esther Diamond cover can tell that it’s (1) urban fantasy, (2) comedy, or (3) a series, that represents a very serious cover problem. The book tanked and Luna dumped me (and so did my fourth literary agent,don’t even get me started on agents). Fortunately, DAW Books was willing to take a chance on book #2 of this badly mishandled series. They packaged it wonderfully, revived the series, subsequently acquired and repackaged book #1, we’re about to release book #7, and I’m contracted through at least book #10,of a series that crashed and got dumped after one book because of disastrous packaging at its previous house.

I think Charlaine Harris (author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, aka the “Trueblood” series) is an example of someone who got a boost from good packaging. Harris was a longtime midlist career writer who developed the idea for the Sookie Stackhouse novels in an attempt to use her strengths as a writer to achieve the commercial success which had so far eluded her. (Obviously, she succeeded, becoming a #1 hardcover NYT bestseller with this series.) Ace Books launched the first book in the series, Dead Until Dark, with a very distinctive cover. I remember picking up that book years ago because of the cover (which was impressive packaging, since I don’t read vampire novels). Harris was doing good work on a very commercial project, but the distinctive packaging really helped that series stand out early on.

 

CARL: Who makes decisions about cover art and who should be making those decisions?

PolterheistLAURA: At large publishing conglomerates (ex. Hachette, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, MacMillan, and Simon & Schuster), too often the people making decisions about packaging are unfamiliar with the book or the author’s work,and therefore also unfamiliar with the author’s audience, who are the people the cover needs to attract. I have even been told anecdotes by wearily amused art directors about book covers being directed by senior people in the corporate hierarchy who don’t read books and who have no art or design background whatsoever, but who, for one reason or another, want cover control. To give just one example of how truly absurd the process can get, one art director at a major house told me that for a year or two, most of that company’s major releases had red covers because the Chief Financial Officer’s girlfriend liked red, and he wanted to make her happy.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, depending on just how small a small press is, art direction may be in the hands of one person who is also editor, marketer, publisher, and business manager. This can go well if that person is brilliant at art direction,and badly if he’s not.
Ideally, what you want in your cover artist/illustrator, designer, and/or art director are people who know art and design, know the book or the author’s work, and understand what look attracts the author’s audience. Art directors and cover artists have told me that the more people that get involved in the process, the harder it is to come out of the maelstrom with a good cover. It’s a basic “too many cooks spoil the broth” issue,especially if most of those people don’t know the book and don’t know design.

Which is not to say, however, that no one else’s input is ever valuable. One senior editor who was directing her own imprint, for example, told me about an instance where someone on the publisher’s sales force contacted her to object to a cover, and his advice was probably career-saving for the author (he had good reason to believe that a major retail chain would refuse to carry that cover, and so the package was rethought). On the other hand, the same editor also had numerous incidents of sales reps emphatically offering cover advice on the basis of what would appeal to them,rather than (and in direct opposition to) what would appeal to the audience whom the books in her imprint were aimed at.

 

CS: Are art directors qualified to make decisions about marketing? Are authors qualified to make decisions about art?

DN Cover DAWLR: Well, “marketing” is a broad term, involving a lot of areas unrelated to the book cover. It is, in essence, the question of how to get lots of people who are likely to enjoy the book to pick it up in the first place.

For the past few decades, book covers (and everything else in the publishing process) tended to be aimed at middlemen,distributors and retailers,rather than at readers. Booksellers, distributors, and head buyers for the major chains are publishers’ customers (particularly big conglomerate publishers). So decisions about manuscript acquisition and cover design have tended to be made with those type of businesses in mind. eBooks and internet shopping are now affecting this process by eliminating some of those layers and elevating the importance of the reader’s reaction to a book cover. Additionally, covers online have to catch the reader’s eye in a much smaller format (thumbnail size, rather than physical book size), which is also affecting design decisions. So the cover world, like the entire book world, is in flux these days.

That said, an art director can package a book brilliantly if she’s a brilliant art director for books, and she can only do a mediocre or poor job if she’s mediocre or poor at packaging books. Additionally, any art director is packaging a lot of books every year, on a tight schedule,and no one is brilliant all the time, for every book, especially when she has limited time to work on it; this is why even companies with mostly good covers nonetheless release some frogs-and-dogs every year.

Authors have typically been omitted from participation in the traditional book cover process at most publishing houses. This is an example of the dismissive contempt that most publishers exercise toward writers, who are usually treated as something between a tedious encumbrance and a mutant sewer rat.

Admittedly, in some cases. omitting the author from the cover process is understandable. There are authors who fixate on irrelevancies (the heroine’s hairstyle isn’t right; the hero is too muscular; the dragon doesn’t really look like that; etc.) or who have One Sole Idea for the cover and are angry at any deviation from it (even if the idea is unworkable or just plain bad).

A book cover is supposed to be an effective advertisement for your book, not a perfectly detailed representation of a scene exactly as it appeared in the author’s head. An author can only be productive in the cover process if she understands that and acts accordingly.

That said, the function of the book cover is to attract the author’s audience (her existing readers and readers who’ll like her work if they can be convinced to pick up and open the book),and who knows the author’s audience better than the author herself, for goodness sake? She is the person who is attracting that audience with her stories, book after book,not some random bystander who has no idea what her audience is interested in! She probably also is her audience, since most writers are writing books they’d like to read.

There are authors who don’t want to be involved in the cover process (though they are increasingly rare). But any author who wants to be involved should be given that chance (and at most publishing houses, is still not allowed that opportunity), because she understands her audience better than anyone else in the publishing process.

 

CS: How can an author get involved in the art process and ensure their books get good covers – or at least don’t get bad covers – without alienating relationships at the publisher?

UnsympMagLR: Not alienating relationships at the publishing house is a matter of professionalism in all things, not just covers. And, frankly, I’ve worked with a couple of publishers in the past which are so unprofessional and so contemptuous of authors that there’s really no way to get anything done without alienating them. (Also, in retrospect, I don’t regret the instances where I alienated publishing staff in order to protect my books. I regret the few instances where I foolishly backed off on protecting my books in order to try to preserve relationships with publishers; this turned out to be the wrong decision in every instance. When a book is handled badly, sales suffer, and so the relationship is destroyed anyhow,because publishers publish for money, not love, friendship, loyalty, or honor.)

In terms of the cover process, some general practical tips for writers: Inform your editor at the start (and with occasional reminders along the way) that you want to be involved in the cover process. (If you’ve done this before, present examples, so that they can see you actually wind up with good covers when you’re involved.)

Present a shortlist of cover artists (3-6) as suggestions for your cover art; and ask the editor who the publisher is thinking of. Try to establish a dialogue about who will do the cover, because getting the right artist will eliminate a lot of potential problems.

If they’re going to bypass art and go strictly with design (or design and stock photos), then present a package (ex. 4-8) of sample covers that convey the sort of style/tone you think would suit your book, and ask their opinion, feedback, or counter suggestions. They may ignore you but, again, work on establishing a dialogue, on presenting yourself as someone who should be kept in the loop and with whom ideas should be discussed.

Ask to see the artist’s sketches (and you should probably ask fairly often, if it’s a house or editor likely to omit you) or the designer’s early concepts. This is crucial, because this is the stage at which you’ve got the best chance of having your input included,while they’re planning the thing. (Too many writers just wait until they see the final cover and then object; this is way too late to voice an opinion, folks. It’s like saying after the house is built that you’d like the kitchen to be in front, not in back; at that late date, everyone’s just going to ignore you.)

After sketches or concept have been approved, ask to see the preliminary art (an artist will usually do some minor revisions to the art, as requested) or near-final design, which is another stage at which you can make suggestions.

Always be constructive and make suggestions. Just complaining and telling them what you don’t like doesn’t give anyone in the process anything to work with.

If there’s an artist, give him an e-file or Pinterest link (early on, before sketches) with lots of images. Artists are visual people, so don’t bore him with tons of text, show him visuals. I provide cover artists with all sorts of images that represent the “look” of my books, a visual portrayal of the world that’s inside my head, imagery that’s related to the text, pictures and covers that convey the tone I think would suit my cover, etc. For example, for the cover of Unsympathetic Magic, I sent artist Dan Dos Santos loads of images from my research on Vodou; for The Misfortune Cookie, I sent him the photos I’d taken on my research trips to Chinatown and copies of the Chinese calligraphy I’d been researching for the book. If you don’t have direct connection to the artist, then pass this material to him through your editor,and follow up to make sure the editor gave it to him.

Always remember, the final cover is a done deal. If that’s the first time you’re looking at it, it’s too late to change anything. So get into the process early. (However, if you hate the final cover so much you want to kill yourself, then make some design suggestions; they won’t change art at that late date, but they might change design, which is an easier fix. Might, I say.)

 

CS: Can authors afford to commission their own art? Should they? Can they find free cover art on the Internet, and if so, should they use it?

VamparazziLR: Authors are doing this in the self-publishing world,and in many cases, very effectively and successfully. In the traditional publishing world, though, you don’t want to do this. One, your publisher won’t go along with it; two, why on earth would you sign a contract that funnels the majority of the income to a publisher if they aren’t going to pay for the packaging? If you want to do the packaging yourself, then self-publish. (For some examples of great self-published covers, check out some awards sites for “best of” indie and self-published cover art.)

 

CS: “The original cover art for your romance novels has lovers in passionate embrace. Later covers have a large heart shape and no people or people silhouetted. Why the big change?”
LR: The romance market changed a lot over time, and is still evolving,as all book markets do. The covers of couples passionately embracing (in which the woman is usually half-naked and the man is mostly shirtless) was a trademark look for the genre that was largely developed by an artist named Pino (an Italian immigrant, classically trained artist, and lovely man who passed away a couple of years ago) and Kensington Books (founded by the late Walter Zacharius). The half-naked babes on the covers were popular with the truckers and jobbers who stocked a lot of the wire-rack outlets where mass market paperbacks where sold 30 years ago, and it was a new, glamorous look that became very successful. However, by the 1990s, cloth covers for these books were very popular with readers, many of whom were uncomfortable being teased or smirked at for reading novels with these prurient covers, and the look was becoming less popular. Meanwhile, the superstore phenomenon (ex. Barnes & Noble) was coming to dominate bookselling, and romance novels needed shelf space in those stores as shopping/buying habits changed among readers. A more “bookstore-ish” look became desirable. So publishers gradually started experimenting with romantic looking covers that still visually identified the genre of the book, but without a semi-clad couple actually fornicating right there on the cover.

Some years after that, though, erotica became a big market. And then ebooks came along, and no one actually sees the cover of the book you’re reading on your e-tablet. These are two factors that have led to a portion of the market moving back toward more sexual covers,while other writers and subgenres in romance have adopted more mainstream looks, images that wouldn’t have appeared on a “romance novel” 20 years ago (ex. A beach chair by the ocean; a cafÃ’ table; two hands clasped; etc.) So the whole look of the genre keeps changing as the market continues evolving.

 

CS: I was captivated by the cover art for your Esther Diamond series. Particularly the cover of “Misfortune Cookie.” So exciting, so intriguing, so dramatic, so vivid. It looks a puzzle with pieces for the reader put together. I count at least 4 hands sticking out of that giant fortune cookie. And Esther is portrayed as being perpetually on the move as she solves the case. The cover of “Unsympathetic Magic” is also particularly eye catching. So who is your cover artist? Because, if I don’t succeed as a writer, I could always kidnap them and make a fortune selling their art!

DopplegangsterLR: The Esther Diamond covers are illustrated by the brilliant Dan Dos Santos. He’s a Chesley Award winner, a five-time Hugo Award nominee, and has won or been nominated for numerous other awards for his art. He’s also prolific, so you’ve probably seen his art on numerous other book covers.

DAW Books publishes the Esther Diamond series, and they’ve been terrific about including me in the cover process. We discussed artists early on, and Dan was top pick for each of us. He’s extremely creative with cover images, very imaginative, and he captures a perfect combination of menace, comedy, and sexiness in these covers. I typically review the cover sketches and the preliminary art with the publisher, and we develop a consensus on the feedback that my editor gives him. Dan also communicates directly with me about various specifics or questions. So the cover process for the Esther Diamond novels is a pleasure for me, rather than an exercise in helplessness and frustration, and the results have been consistently excellent.

 

CS: “Book #7 in the Esther Diamond series, “Abracadaver,” comes out in November. Any more lined up? Will you continue the series indefinitely?”

LR: There are three more unwritten Esther Diamond novels under contract at this time, and I hope to do many more after that. (I’m currently tearing my hair out trying to come up with a title for book #8.)

 

CS: Any advice to aspiring writers?

RRRLR: The market and the book/publishing world have changed a great deal during the years I’ve been writing professionally, yet I find that the two most common mistakes that aspiring writers make have not changed at all: not writing enough and not educating themselves about the business. And so my advice hasn’t changed, either. It’s still:

1. Write a lot. Practice your craft. Keep writing. And write still more after that. This is a craft, not divinely-inspired magic. It requires practice. Genius does not automatically flow forth from your muse-blessed fingertips. If you don’t expect to play a sonata perfectly the first time you ever sit down at a piano, then why would you expect to write an excellent story or novel the first time you sit down to write one? Talent is wildly romanticized and overrated, and the unglamorous qualities of plain old hard work and perseverance are perpetually underrated.

2. Educate yourself about the writing/publishing business and keep educating yourself. This is a competitive profession and a complex industry. You need to treat it as such if you want to succeed.
CHECK OUT LAURA RESNICK’S ESSAY ON COVER ART:

http://www.sff.net/people/laresnick/About%20Writing/Book%20Covers.htm

 

CHECK OUT LAURA RESNICK’S ESSAYS ON LITERARY AGENTS:

http://www.sff.net/people/laresnick/Excerpts/RWRexcerp.htm
http://www.ninc.com/blog/index.php/archives/author-agent-business-model

 

CHECK OUT LAURA RESNICK’S TESTIMONY ON BREAKING INTO WRITING::

First Book Friday: Laura Resnick

 

READ EXCERPTS OF LAURA RESNICK’S ESTHER DIAMOND SERIES::

http://www.sff.net/people/laresnick/Excerpts/ManMattExcerp.htm#MCexcerpt
http://www.sff.net/people/laresnick/Excerpts/UnsympMag.htm#Polterheist

http://www.sff.net/people/laresnick/Excerpts/Doppel.htm

 

LAURA RESNICK’S NONFICTION WRITING::

http://www.sff.net/people/laresnick/Other%20Writing/NonFic.htm

 

LAURA RESNICK’S HOME PAGE::

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Mike Resnick on “No Heavy-Lifting Sales”

interviewed by Carl Slaughter

Mike_ResnickGordy Dickson told me close to half a century ago that if you were good, and prolific, and an aggressive marketer, there would come a point 25 years into your career where you received a pleasant surprise (which is to say, a reprint or foreign sale) in your mail box every week, all for writing just those two words, ‘Mike’ and ‘Resnick’ on a contract.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: WHAT IS “NO HEAVY LIFTING” SALES?

MIKE RESNICK: It’s my term for sales that require no writing, which is to say: reprint sales, foreign sales, audio sales, movie options, graphic novel sales, etc.

 

HOW MANY NO HEAVY LIFTING CHECKS ARRIVE IN YOUR MAILBOX PER YEAR?

Better than 100 a year, if you include royalty checks on self-published reprints (which is to say, once a book is out of print and reverts to me, if I can’t sell it for what I think is a good price, I’ll convert it into an e-book and sell it on my web page, and through Amazon, Barnes, Kobo, and the like.) Otherwise, probably 50 to 75.

 

HOW PROLIFIC DO YOU HAVE T BE TO REAP THIS KIND OF HARVEST?

Over the past 30 years I’ve probably sold 3 books a year (excluding anthologies I’ve edited), and anywhere from 8 to 10 stories a year on average.

 

HOW MUCH ADDITIONAL INCOME ARE WE TALKING ABOUT? POCKET CHANGE? CONVENTION EXPENSES? MORTGAGE PAYMENTS? COLLEGE FUND? RETIREMENT ACCOUNT?

Depends on your expenses. In 2008, my no-heavy-listing income came to $33K; in 2009, $50K; in 2010, $43K; in 2011, $51K; in 2012, $73K; in 2013, $31K; and for the first 6 months of 2014, $18K. This, I should add, is the gross amount, before paying fees to my domestic agent (where due) and various foreign agents (where due).

 

WILL THIS STRATEGY WORK FOR EVERY WRITER OR ONLY THE BIG NAMES?

It’ll work for most writers, and of course it’ll vary wildly, not only with the writer’s name and prestige, but also with the writer’s themes and styles, with how easy he is to translate, with whether his themes appeal to other nationalities. But in general, if he’s good enough to sell here, he’s good enough to sell in most places.

 

HOW CAN A WRITER APPLY THE NO HEAVY LIFTING STRATEGY TO NOVELS?

Novels require agents, so the writer will want an agent who is known to have a top-notch foreign desk. (I should add that “foreign desk” is an industry term which translates as “working relationships with top-notch foreign agents”.) You learn about this by asking, not the agents, but the writers.

 

HOW CAN A WRITER APPLY THE NO HEAVY LIFTING STRATEGY TO SHORT STORIES?

There you don’t need an agent, any more than you need one to sell to the top domestic magazines. You start studying the market, you find which countries have viable magazines with viable rates, you check to see which of them buy from American writers (and, like novels, these are invariably reprints). Most of the foreign editors are on Facebook or Google+ and most of the writers are happy to share information with you: “This one wants names”; “That one won’t take novelettes or novellas”; “This one looks like it may be folding soon”; etc. In other words, you network and exchange information, preferably with those writers who know what they’re talking about, just the way you do for domestic markets.

 

HOW CAN A WRITER APPLY THE NO HEAVY LIFTING STRATEGY TO FOREIGN MARKETS?

I think I just answered that. 98% of your foreign sales are novels and short stores. True, I’ve sold a movie option to France, and they’re actually turning one of my stories into a movie in China as I write these words, but it both cases the sales were precipitated because they came across my translated stories in France and China, stories I had sold as described above.

 

HOW CAN A WRITER APPLY THE NO HEAVY LIFTING STRATEGY TO AUDIO?

There are a number of podcasts and podcastzines , Escape Pod, Starship Sofa, many others , that specialize in short stories. Some only want nominated stories or stories of a certain type, and they’ll contact you once they know you have one. With others, just listen to the shows, talk to people who have sold them, and find out what their submission guidelines are. The real money comes in audio sales of your books. The 800-pound gorilla in the room at the moment is Audible.com, but there’s also Blackstone Audio, Brilliance Audio, and a handful of others. Again, find out who does the buying, make contact, and offer to submit your work.

 

HOW CAN A WRITER APPLY THE NO HEAVY LIFTING STRATEGY TO SCREEN?

Most of the time it’s entirely up to Hollywood. One of their execs sees something he likes (I almost said “reads”, but no one out there reads) and contacts you. You don’t need a Hollywood agent, but you must have a Hollywood attorney, and you get one by asking writers you trust who have dealt with Hollywood to recommend their own. Once you’ve made a sale , which is invariably an option and not an outright sale , you start befriending as many people as you can meet in the industry, because this industry exists via personal cachet more than any other. Every Hollywood sale I’ve made , and that includes 11 options and 3 screenplays over the years , stems from the very first contact I made (and, as the saying goes, his friends had friends who had friends, etc.)

 

HOW DO ELECTRONIC EDITIONS AND PAPERBACK EDITIONS FACTOR INTO THE NO HEAVY LIFTING STRATEGY?

As I said, I create electronic editions , it costs next to nothing , of any reverted novel that I can’t sell for the price I want, and put them up for sale. These days I also find ways to bundle them with books by other writers; usually it comes to a 30-day sale at a reduced price , and being in a bundle with, say, Kevin Anderson and Rob Sawyer and Misty Lackey and Nancy Kress and Robert A. Heinlein helps all of us. Paperback (or hardcover) implies an outlay of money, and I have believed from the start that money is supposed to flow to the writer, not from him, so I never print/publish hardcover or paperback copies of my books.

 

WHAT ABOUT GRAPHIC NOVELS?

I wrote a Conan comic for Marvel back in 1971, and that is the full extent of my knowledge about the industry. I never asked for another assignment, and was never offered one. But a fellow I’ve collaborated with has all kinds of connections, and asked if I’d be willing to collaborate on graphic novels of a novella and a four-book series of mine, I said yes, and we’re in business.

 

WHAT ABOUT NONFICTION? WHAT ABOUT ANTHOLOGIES? WHAT ABOUT OUT OF GENRE MATERIAL?

My non-fiction tends to be articles about science fiction. Whether I write them for pro markets or for fanzines, every couple of years I collect a bunch of them into a book , I’ve got ten such books so far , and once in a while I can sell one to one of my foreign markets, but in truth I make very little money off that, hardly enough to warrant more than a couple of e-mails per country. I’ve just recently started writing mystery novels , I only have three out , and it’s too early to tell how they’ll do overseas compared to the science fiction. Anthologies tend to be owned by the publisher, and are not mine to re-sell (with very few exceptions).

 

HOW MANY REPRINTS BEFORE THE REPRINT INCOME EXCEEDS THE ADVANCE FOR THE ORIGINAL?

That presupposes that all reprint sales are for the same amount, and of course they’re not. (My top for a foreign novel sale is $19K; my bottom is $500 from a country I probably couldn’t find on the map.) It also presupposes that all advances are identical, and ditto. I’d say in general I make more from the rest of the world (combined, of course) than from America five times out of six. I found out 30 years ago that, while no other country ever pays you as big an advance as you get in the States, 5 out of 6 books will earn more in the rest of the world than here.

 

EVERY GOT MORE FOR A SHORT STORY RESALE THAN FOR THE ORIGINAL SALE?

No, though Japan has come very close a few times. And we won’t count Hollywood, which plays with Monopoly money.

 

YOU’VE SOLD 27 STORIES 10 OR MORE TIMES, 4 STORIES 20 OR MORE TIMES. HOW DO YOU FIND SO MANY MARKETS FOR THE SAME STORY?

You just keep looking, and remembering that a story is never done selling, which means you’re never done finding new markets. You also try to sell them with a five-or-seven-year term of lease, so that if the book is still doing well they have to put it again from you when the time period is up. Anyone who’s interested can hunt up my bibliography on my web page. It changes every few days, but it’ll give you a pretty thorough idea of what I’ve been talking about. And, for the record:

Novels:

Santiago , 22

Ivory , 18

Stalking the Unicorn , 13

Soothsayer , 13

Kirinyaga , 12

The Widowmaker , 12

The Soul Eater , 11

Walpurgis III , 11

Eros Ascending , 11

The Dark Lady , 11

Oracle , 11

Prophet , 11

The Widowmaker Reborn , 11

The Widowmaker Unleashed , 10

Starship: Mutiny , 10

 

Short fiction:

Kirinyaga , 30

For I Have Touched the Sky , 28

Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge , 22

Travels With My Cats , 19

The Last Dog , 15

The 43 Antarean Dynasties , 15

Winter Solstice , 15

Hunting the Snark , 14

Beachcomber , 13

Stalking the Unicorn with Gun and Camera — 12

The Elephants on Neptune , 12

Old MacDonald Had a Farm , 12

Robots Don’t Cry , 12

Down Memory Lane , 12

Article of Faith , 12

Me and My Shadow , 11

The Manamouki , 11

Hothouse Flowers , 11

Distant Replay , 11

His Award-Winning Science Fiction Story , 10

Frankie the Spook , 10

Bully! , 10

Malish , 10

The Pale Thin God , 10

Mwalimu in the Squared Circle , 10

A Princess of Earth , 10

Soulmates (collaboration with Lezli Robyn) , 10

All the Things You Are , 10

Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders , 10

 

Now, some of those, like “The Last Dog”, have been around since 1977, and have been selling and re-selling for 39 years†but some, like “Soulmates”, appeared first in 2009 and had its 10th sale by 2011. It’s a crapshoot, but if you do your homework and stick with it, eventually you’ll decide that it was worth it (and on some days, like when you get a handsome offer for a twenty-year-old book, it actually feels like stealing).

 

DO YOU HAVE TO DO ANY CUSTOMIZING OR REVISING WHEN YOU SELL THE SAME STORY TO A DIFFERENT MARKET?

No. If it’s an English-language market, the story’s already copyrighted and can’t be changed; and if it’s a foreign-language market, they’ll hire a translator.

 

ANYTHING ELSE WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT NO HEAVY LIFTING SALES?

Like anything else, it’s a business. You run it in an orderly, businesslike manner, you never hold a grudge if someone doesn’t like your submission or doesn’t offer what you think it’s worth, and you use your brain. Here’s an example of what I mean by using your brain.

Back at the 1991 and 1992 Worldcons (in Chicago and Orlando), the Iron Curtain had just turned to tissue paper, and a bunch of magazine editors from former Soviet countries came to the cons, looking for stories. So did the Germans, who were starting some new publications. None of them had any money to speak of, but I met with each of them, and sold them a bunch of stories, usually for about $25 apiece, even gave away a pair of Hugo winners to destitute magazines†.and late one night, toward the end of the con, two of my friends took me aside and read me the riot act. You’re a pro, they insisted; and pros don’t sell quality reprints to anyone for under $100. That’s usually true, I replied; but these guys have no money, their countries just became free, and they have no book publishing industry†but they will have book publishers before too long, and I think those publishers are going to look with favor upon writers who have already established an audience through their local magazines.

OK, move the clock ahead almost a quarter of a century. I’ve sold 41 books to Poland since that day, plus 29 to Germany, 24 to Russia, 10 to the CzechRepublic, and 8 to Bulgaria. And my friends who were too proud to do business with the cash-strapped magazine editors? I believe they’re all still waiting for their first book sale from any of those countries. Like I say, you gotta use your brain.

And there are games you can play if you know what you’re doing. One I mentioned in one of my dialogs with Barry Malzberg is playing the exchange rate. The example was “Ivory”. I sold British rights in about 1989 or 1990, I’d have to check which year, for 10,000 pounds. On the day payment was received, in England, the pound was $1.53. The Wall Street Journal was convinced that the pound was undervalued on the world marker, so I had my British agent deposit my check at Barclays, where I had an account…and when I sent the money to my US account 12 weeks later, the pound was $1.92…so that $15,300 became $19,200 (minus agents’ fees) just by sitting in a British bank for 3 months, a tidy profit of $3,900, which is more than I sold the damned thing for in Hungary, Romania, or Spain.

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Interview: Rhiannon Held

written by Carl Slaughter

R-Held-230x300Rhiannon Held is a frequent panelist at writer’s conferences. She is a archaeologist by profession. She is the author of the Silver series, an urban fantasy published by Tor. In this interview, she answers questions about character development and world building, then wraps up by sharing her take on critique groups.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: Before discussing writing advice, let’s give writers a peek at your own stories. Especially the premise and the setting. I’m particularly interested in the fact that the werewolves in your Silver stories don’t involuntarily transform on full moon nights and are werewolves by birth rather than conversion. Isn’t that like a vampire that doesn’t suck blood, a witch that doesn’t cast spells, a dragon that doesn’t breathe fire, a mermaid that can’t swim, a zombie that’s not dead? Aren’t bite infection and involuntary transformation the age old curse of the werewolf?

RHIANNON HELD: You underestimate the diversity of the source material! If you look up the origins of the werewolf myth, you find a variety of different causes and symptoms in stories spread over time and geographic area. A werewolf could be a witch, murder, sorcerer, sinner, someone risen from the dead… They could transform with a spell, drinking from a wolf’s footprint, wearing a wolfskin belt, wearing an entire wolfskin, a Satanic ritual, rubbing their body with a salve, or†you get the idea! Basically, it was a monster that was whatever the culture adapting it needed it to be, based loosely on the idea of a combination of a human with a powerful predator. Most mythological monsters are like that,compare Eastern dragons with Western dragons, for example. Both are dragons, but they are different based on what their cultures wanted them to symbolize.

So when I decided to write about werewolves, I thought first about what I wanted them to symbolize, and built their characteristics from there. The infected, involuntarily-transforming werewolf has been used so often to symbolize the animal side of human nature, I felt like there wasn’t much more to say about it. In creating werewolves who were a species with their own culture, history, and religion, I wanted to symbolize the stress of belonging to one secret culture at home and one public culture at work and school, as has been the plight of immigrants and persecuted minorities all over. Essentially, I’ve done what storytellers have done through the ages: I adapted a familiar monster to tell a new story. That’s what monsters are for!

 

Q: The vast majority of creatures in fantasy novels are the classic creatures that have long since been incorporated into our culture, and therefore, unfortunately, well developed creatures. Are there any more new angles on vampires, werewolves, etc? Or is the reader appetite still strong enough authors don’t need to work at developing original fantasy creatures any time soon?

A: The seeds of half this answer lie in the one above. There are always new angles on old creatures, if you dig deep enough to make them symbolize new things. I personally think that’s the key: not trying to tweak a few of the usual characteristics of a creature, or to find a new situation to put the creature into, but really creating a new purpose for the creature. Take vampires, for example. In their current form, they tend to symbolize the temptation of pleasure weighed against the immorality or evil of gaining that pleasure. If you stay with that symbolism, and try to put the vampires in a mall instead of a castle, or have them drink blood from suckers in their hands instead of using fangs, you’re still not very original if they remain young, beautiful, and sexy. Those are the things that make the temptation symbolism work. If I decided instead to make vampires symbolize dementia and the trouble of prolonging human lifespan without also extending mental acuity, I might do something like make the vampires drain chi and memories along with it. Then they’d start to lose their self-identity as they become overwhelmed with other people’s lives. Which sounds like an intriguing idea, actuallyâ€

The other half of this answer is that I think adapting old creatures and making up new creatures are apples and oranges. If I want to adapt an old creature, I want to adapt an old one, and if I want to make a new one, I want to make a new one. They’re completely different processes, that you’d do for different reasons, not simply because the other one had failed. An adapted old creature allows you to use a shorthand with your reader. You don’t have to explain the whole creature, you can just explain the creature’s differences from the standard set of characteristics. Having saved all that time, you can use it build your characters, or your intricate plot, or whatever else instead. If you make a new creature, on the other hand, you’re making a choice to spend some time at the beginning of your story or novel making sure your reader is comfortable with it. Neither is a bad thing, but different stories are paced differently, and if your story idea is based on snappy, exciting action from the first page, you run the risk of killing it by doing a lot of explaining of your creature. It also often varies by sub-genre: I’ve noticed more traditional fantasy and science fiction novels, both of which are known for their immersive, detail-oriented world-building, often have their new creatures visible from the very beginning. Urban fantasy, better known for fast pacing, often has its new creatures discovered by the characters over the course of the novel. That way, the reader finds out about the creature with the characters, rather than needing all of the creature’s characteristics at the beginning.

 

Q: When do you use a fantasy creature as a metaphor, when do you use their inherent nature to develop to create a crucible or dilemma or conflict for the main character, when do they just contribute to the world building, and when are they just for fun? Does every story have to have a humanoid character or would readers respond to a story that’s all creatures? How do you develop fantasy creatures that human readers can relate to?

A: Everything’s a metaphor! Well. Most things. I happen to find metaphors fun to embed, but I don’t think they’re usually enough in and of themselves to justify a story element. So I like to write creatures for the purpose of conflict, world-building, or other story structure, and include the metaphor as a bonus Easter egg. I think if your creature is a protagonist, they do have to have internal conflict, but that’s what makes a good character in general. Their creature nature doesn’t necessarily have to be the thing providing the conflict,but it’s a useful tool for the job. Creatures can certainly be important for world-building, especially in urban fantasy. When you’re using the real world as a basis, the points of difference, like creatures, can be especially important. Finally, “just for fun”: I think fun is a category much like metaphor, in that it piggy-backs with something else, but isn’t necessarily a strong enough reason on its own. There’s a certain amount of “it’s there because it’s cool” a writer can get away with, but not a lot.

In the case of creature protagonists, I think that it’s generally a good idea to have at least one that’s human enough for people to relate to. That doesn’t mean they have to be physically humanoid. What they have to have is a set of emotions or motivations the readers would recognize. If they recognize the emotion or motivation as something they’ve felt themselves, they can relate to it and through it, the character. If your protagonist is emotionally recognizable, I think you could certainly have a story entirely about creatures. In fact, that can open up a whole suite of new plot possibilities, when you don’t have to spend space on “how does the human protagonist relate to the creatures?”

 

Q: What’s the difference between an urban fantasy and paranormal romance and does it really matter?

A: I think the difference between urban fantasy and paranormal romance is a useful one, because they provide different reading experiences. In PR, the plot elements support the romance. In UF, the romantic elements provide a little spice to the plot. A reader who wants to read PR will probably be focusing on and rooting for the romance. A reader who wants to read UF will probably be focusing on and rooting for the plot to be resolved. That sounds fairly straight forward, but now imagine swapping those two fans’ books. The PR reader gets a UF, and is disappointed and angry because the romantic couple hardly have time for a single kiss what with all the plot crises and they don’t even get a happy ending. The UF reader gets a PR and is disappointed and angry because the plot is set aside for pages at a time while the couple flirts.

The time I see PR and UF most confused is when people are observing them from a great distance based on their familiarity with fairly unrelated genre, like military SF. From a distance, smaller details are hard to see. But though cozy mysteries and police procedurals are both mysteries, that doesn’t mean your Miss Marple-loving grandmother wants to read the gory descriptions of multiple victims of a rapist serial-killer. It’s less about the specific elements than the reader experience those elements promise. Is the novel optimistic or pessimistic? Is it humorous? Is the humor cerebral or slapstick? Do we get deep into the characters’ heads? PR and UF offer fundamentally different reading experiences on that level, whether they both happen to feature vampires in the modern day or not.

 

Q: Do all female characters have to be a kick ass heroine, high priestess, chosen one, or a wicked witch? What about mothers, scientists, BFFs? Ender’s sister played a crucial role in his life, to such an extent his commanding officer appealed to her to exercise her influence over him, yet she wielded neither sword nor spell nor badge nor political authority. Do all main female characters have to be strong?

A: Who ever said those were the only choices for female protagonists? Really, any discussion of female protagonists could be greatly simplified by deleting the word “female.” Are the only possible protagonists fighters, religious leaders, chosen ones, or magic users? Of course not, even in D&D! Do all protagonists have to be strong? It depends on what you mean by strong. They have to be active, and do things instead of sitting around while people around them act. They have to be compelling to make the reader want to keep reading. They have to be well-developed so they’re like real people, instead of cardboard cut-outs reciting lines based on their single personality trait. In the past, female characters frequently fell down on all three of those things, especially the first and last. If a damsel waits to be rescued, that’s passive, not active. If she has no personality beyond the fact that she loves a man and cries a lot, she’s not well-developed.

Where I think people sometimes run into trouble is that they equate “strong character” with “physically strong character.” Male characters don’t have to be physically strong either,they can be physically weak and wily, diplomatic, charismatic, clever, persistent†All of those characteristics and many others can lead to an active, compelling, well-developed character, male or female.

 

Q: How do you make characters realistic but interesting? Or does every character have to be exceptionally wise, intimidatingly sinister, remarkably intelligent, unusually skilled, etc.

A: I think it’s realistic to say that every well-rounded real person has a thing or two they’re good at. Not “the best at,” mind you, but good at. In character terms, competency in at least one area makes for a better character as well. If they’re competent at something, they can apply those skills to the problems the plot is throwing at them, which draws the reader in as they cheer the character along. I think there’s even a sweet spot, which you may have noticed if you’ve watched the Olympics. Obviously people who are completely untrained can’t even begin, so there’d be nothing to see, but people who are the best make a feat look too easy, and finish it too quickly. People who struggle at little at it but triumph in the end make us watchers realize the true scope of what they’ve accomplished. Characters who are competent but not the best struggle at the problems of the story and draw readers in.

I think the trouble beginning writers get into is equating “reasonable level of skill” or “high competency” with “best ever.” Why does a character have to be the best archer in the seven kingdoms when they’re the best archer in a castle at seige? Or the third best, while the first two are covering other gates? Being the prophesized one, or the only magic user of a certain type born in ten generations, etc. is in some ways even worse than being the best ever archer. Then the character is the best ever by virtue of being the only, yet they so often have no skills at all to have earned it. I think that method of making your character special can ring hollow very easily.

Confidence can be part of a compelling character as well. Justified confidence, that is. False confidence can come across deluded or arrogant, and make the character harder to relate to. And if a character is centered and confident about every aspect of their life, they probably don’t have much room to grow over the course of a story. But if the character has some of the reasonably good skills I was talking about above, and is confident about those skills, if not other areas of their life, you have a recipe for an interesting character.

 

Q: How does a female writer get inside a male character’s head for the reader to explore and vice versa? How does an emotionally and psychologically whole author develop a broken character?

A: By remembering that, underneath it all, we’re all human beings. Any character built from a foundation of “male” or “female” or “broken” rather than “human” who happens to be male, female, broken, pessimistic, optimistic, snarky, sunny…is destined to run afoul of stereotypes. After that foundation, I think research, keen observation, and empathy definitely help. When researching, you can read people’s accounts of their own experiences, or ask people about them. Then in your daily life, if you watch how people who differ from you react to a given situation, and then imagine how they must be feeling as they react, you’re well on your way to creating a character who differs from you in a similar way. Empathy also means that you understand someone’s emotions by casting them in your own terms, rather than dismissing those emotions as strange or alien. And casting others’ emotions in your own terms can be as simple as a manner of degree. Maybe you’ve never been broken, but you’ve certainly been bruised. That means you have an in to imaging what that feeling intensified might be like. When you’re finished, you can also always get a reader like your character to look it over and tell you if you’ve missed anything.

 

Q: Can religion play a significant role in a fantasy story? Doesn’t religion take away from the inherent creature-oriented nature of the fantasy genre?

A: Is fantasy creature-oriented? I’d argue it isn’t, even urban fantasy, and especially traditional fantasy. It’s as people-oriented as all the genres, and perhaps creature-decorated, though not always. I’ve seen as much magic-decorated traditional fantasy as creature-decorated.

That aside, what’s the role of religion? Personally, I think that every culture in any genre, fantasy or not, has to have an explanation for why the world exists and why it functions the way it does. That explanation doesn’t have to be religion, it could be science, or it could be something based on the particular magic system of the world, but it’s basic human nature that we need an explanation of some kind. I think that’s what writers sometimes forget: they remove religion but they don’t put anything in its place, leaving you with a culture of people who apparently don’t care what happens when they die, for example. As an anthropologist, I simply don’t believe that. Fantasy opens up your possible explanations, though, because instead of figuring the world was created by some invisible divine force, people could know the world was woven by the spirits that everyone’s seen flitting around in the depths of the woods. The explanation can be tangible.

That said, I don’t think any part of religion or the alternate explanation has to be the focus of a story. Real religions vary through time as well as space in how much they’re part of a particular culture’s daily life. If you want to tell a story that doesn’t have much to do with religion, you can set the religion or world explanation in the background. If you want to make religion a large part of a character’s daily life but not really impact the plot, you can do that too. There’s no reason not to use it to its full potential.

 

Q: What makes a good critique group? What makes a bad critique group? Do you even need a critique group?

A: I’ll start with the last part of that. I think every successful writer needs other eyes on their work to provide another perspective. Who those eyes belong to can vary. Beta readers, first readers, leaving it up to your editor…a critique group is an excellent source of other eyes as well as brainstorming partners, but I don’t think one is necessary if you can get thoughtful perspectives elsewhere.

What makes a good critique group are primarily the same qualities that makes a good person to critique your work in general. You want them to be able to quantify their initial reactions when reading, and start the process of figuring out what caused those reactions. Sometimes their suggestions for fixing problems might be useful, sometimes they might not, but the process of identifying the problems in the first place is the really key part. A beginning critiquer might say “chapter two bored me.” A more experienced critiquer might say “chapter two bored me and I think it’s because they’re talking in one room the entire time and they never disagreed.” Any reader can react, but figuring out a cause takes skill, and either that skill or the ability to develop that skill is what you want to look for in a critiquer.

A less helpful critiquer,I won’t necessarily say bad, because even advice that’s unhelpful can be offered with the best of intentions,can be one who either praises too much, or is too harsh. Saying “everything’s good” doesn’t help a writer improve, even if it makes them feel good to hear it. Phrasing problems harshly can make the writer shut down and not hear anything the critiquer says. In that case, it’s not a matter of them “not being able to take it,” it’s a matter of failed communication. The goal is to communicate a way to improve, and the best way to do that is to phrase the critique tactfully rather than letting your frustration or negative emotional reaction run rampant. That’s the difference between “this sucked so hard I wanted to burn the manuscript” and “this had some serious weaknesses that made it difficult to read.” The former is just bleeding off the critiquer’s frustration. It’s not giving the writer any additional information.

There are a few additional considerations when it comes to critique groups versus single critiquers. A good personality mesh is necessary among everyone, which is a more complicated proposition than finding a set of beta readers you can relate to individually. I’ve seen groups that cracked jokes all the time upset someone who didn’t use humor that way. I’ve also seen groups founder because one writer was prolific and no one else could ever finish anything. None of that’s about a right way or a wrong way, just about finding people who are a good fit. And a group that’s a good fit can be worth its weight in gold to your writing.

 

I thought I’d finish off with a little bit about what I’m working on right now, in case you were curious. I’m working on revising the first book in a new series. It’s urban fantasy once more, but leaving aside the creatures this time and focusing a magical system arising from myth.

 

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Interview: David Edison

interviewed by Carl Slaughter

David EdisonSome stories are so crossed genred and so distinctive, they defy category. Try David Edison‘s richly imaginative debut novel: “Welcome to the City Unspoken, where Gods and Mortals come to die. Contrary to popular wisdom, death is not the end, nor is it a passage to some transcendent afterlife. Those who die merely awake as themselves on one of a million worlds, where they are fated to live until they die again, and wake up somewhere new. All are born only once, but die many times . . . until they come at last to the City Unspoken, where the gateway to True Death can be found. Wayfarers and pilgrims are drawn to the City, which is home to murderous aristocrats, disguised gods and goddesses, a sadistic faerie princess, immortal prostitutes and queens, a captive angel, gangs of feral Death Boys and Charnel Girls . . . and one very confused New Yorker. Late of Manhattan, Cooper finds himself in a City that is not what it once was. The gateway to True Death is failing, so that the City is becoming overrun by the Dying, who clot its byzantine streets and alleys . . . and a spreading madness threatens to engulf the entire metaverse.” The Waking Engine, the first in a series of 4, published by Tor, is not only richly imaginative, it is richly descriptive and richly detail. Edison shares his vision for the story.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: WHY DEATH AS A THEME?

DAVID EDISON: I’ve always been disappointed with how little attention we pay to the end of our lives: we’re all born, and we all die. Birth gets so much celebration, but for most of our lives we live in collective denial, pretending that death happens to other people, and is not something we’re encouraged to talk about, let alone confront. I was raised in a pleasantly travel- and death-obsessed family, and so it was a taboo I’ve always been interested in transgressing.

 

CARL: WHY REINCARNATION AS A PREMISE? OR IS REINCARNATION THE CORRECT TERM?

DAVID: Following on the previous question, I’ve also always been disappointed with humanity’s overly-simplistic views of the afterlife,as I perceive them. Angels and harps and clouds? Bring a book. Lakes of fire? Hardly energy efficient. Reincarnation as a cockroach? No thanks. I wanted to imagine an afterlife that was as rich and complex and full of possibilities as life,or more so. Reincarnation is a fine term,but reincarnation as oneself, which gives one more time to explore and develop one’s identity than our short span on Earth.

 

CS: WHY SO MUCH ATTENTION TO THE INHABITANTS AND GEOGRAPHY AND ARCHITECTURE OF THE CITY?

DE: The City Unspoken is the biggest character in the series, and fleshing it out was a joy. Worldbuilding, character development, and immersion are all important and, ultimately, what’s the point of imagining a bizarre, baroque, filthy-beautiful city-at-the-end-of-all-worlds without exploring it? When you find yourself writing a story about a city, you best write about the city!

 

CS: WHY A HAPLESS EARTHLING AS A PROTAGONIST?

DE: I am a hapless Earthling, as are my readers! The story was always about Cooper finding the city, and coming to terms with the nature of the metaverse. From the beginning, this was a story about adulthood, about Cooper coming into his own in a world bigger and scarier than anything he’s ever known. I very much wanted our universe to be a part of this larger multiverse, which I call the metaverse,I knew from the outset that it would be a much stranger place than a traditional secondary universe.

 

CS: WHY A NEW YORKER?

DE: In many ways the City Unspoken is the spiritual antithesis of New York,if New York is the city where you can make it big, the City Unspoken is the place where you go to cease to be, in a big way. There are threads of my own experience as a New Yorker, and of New York during and after 9/11, so New York was as baked-in to the story as Earth and Earthlings. Lastly, if anyone has the skills to navigate and survive a strange new city while still remaining essentially hapless,at least at the outset,I imagine it’s a New Yorker.

 

CS: WHY SUCH A LARGE CAST OF CHARACTERS?

DE: This is the first book in a series of four,I knew that with a world this big and a palette so varied, the story would demand more depth of character development and breadth of action than I could fit into a single volume. I didn’t know it, but I was essentially writing “Epic Weird,” and the world needed to populate itself to support that arc. Take George RR Martin, for example: we’ll probably never get a huge amount of detail on the green-apple-Fossoway vs red-apple-Fossoway split, but that level of world-building makes the story so much richer.

 

CS: WHY SO MANY EARTHLINGS AMONG BEINGS THAT HAVE ASSEMBLED FROM THE VAST UNIVERSE?

DE: Well, there are only a handful, but when you’re writing about a city at the end of all worlds, and Earth is one of those worlds, then having Earthlings present is a gun that needs to go off,having set up such rich possibilities, some of them have to be fulfilled in what are, hopefully, interesting ways. I won’t go into too much detail for fear of spoilers, but Earthlings are also the ones that Cooper notices: the same way I can go to Stockholm and my eyes will find the one person wearing a Brown University sweatshirt. Sure, there are more Swedes around than Rhode Islanders, but I’ll still go home and talk about the guy wearing the sweatshirt I recognized.

 

CS: WHY AMERICAN HISTORICAL FIGURES?

DE: Following the threads of New York in general and post-9/11 New York in particular, this story shaped up to be something of an American fairytale, or nightmare. America plays a role in the story throughout the books. We read so much European-inspired secondary-world fantasy, and there is plenty of primary-world fantasy set in America, but I wanted to play with the idea of America in a semi-secondary world. Without spoilers, the narrative of America has changed and morphed and corrupted itself in some ways over the course of history, and American historical figures can speak to that directly.

 

CS: RICHARD NIXON IS THE MOST NOTORIOUS FIGURE IN AMERICAN HISTORY. WHAT’S HIS ROLE IN THIS STORY?

DE: Without spoilers, he shows the possibilities that await us in our future lives. Some other familiar faces have stayed the same, but Nixon has taken the idea of starting over and ran with it. And milked it. Once I got the image of Nixon-as-occasionally-adorable-street-urchin into my head, I couldn’t resist writing it. Who could?

 

CS: WHY THE POV OF A ROOKIE WHO IS LOOKING FOR ANSWERS RATHER THAN A VETERAN WHO IS LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS?

DE: The Waking Engine is very much a story of adulthood and finding-one’s-way, and while I do enjoy stories with super-competent protagonists, I don’t think that would have worked here, in a world that needed so much boot-strapping and relied less on established tropes. As the first book in a series, a super-competent protagonist would have less room to grow, whereas our boy Cooper has nowhere to go but up. It’s probably not coincidental that this was my first novel, and having only published a single short story before writing The Waking Engine, I was likely more aligned with a rookie looking for answers!

 

CS: IS COOPER A CHOSEN ONE CHARACTER WHO IS DISCOVERING HE’S THE CHOSEN ONE, DECIDING WHETHER HE WANTS TO BE A CHOSEN ONE, AND FIGURING OUT HOW TO BE A CHOSEN ONE, OR IS THERE MORE TO HIM THAN THAT? FOR MOST OF THE STORY, HIS EXPLORATION OF THE CITY AND HIS PURSUIT OF ANSWERS IS PASSIVE. WHY IS HE SUCH A SLOW BREWING HERO?

DE: Cooper is figuring himself out at the same time as he’s figuring out the world into which he’s been dropped. I think the pace of his development is pretty realistic,if I were dropped into another universe, it would probably take me a few days to adjust. Given the range of time the book covers, Cooper’s development is ahead of the curve. And with any multi-book story, character development is a bit of a long con. A bonus from that decision is that the reader gets to adjust to the world more naturally, alongside Cooper.

 

CS: I CAN EASILY SEE THIS BOOK ADAPTED TO THE BIG SCREEN. IT HAS TIM BURTON WRITTEN ALL OVER IT. WHO WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE PLAY COOPER? SESSTRI AND ASHER? LALLOWE THYU AND PURITY KLOO? SOME OF THE OTHER MORE INTERESTING SPECIES?

DE: Thank you! I certainly won’t disagree! My dream cast: Tilda Swinton as the Cicatrix, Kerry Washington as LallowÃ’ Thyu, Emily Blunt as Sesstri and Alexander Skarsgard as Asher, Oliver Platt as Oxnard Terenz-de-Guises, Kristen Bell as Purity Kloo, Tori Amos as Alouette, and Chris Pratt or John Krazinsky as Cooper.

 

CS: ANY SEQUELS? ANY OTHER FICTION PROJECTS IN THE WORKS?

DE: Yes! The Waking Engine is the first in a series of four books. The sequel, for which the working title is The Noonday Plague, is scheduled to be published in May of 2015.

 

CS: A FREQUENT COMPLAINT AMONG GOOD READS/AMAZON READERS IS DESCRIPTION OVER PLOTTING, TOO MANY SUBPLOTS, AND TOO MANY CHARACTERS. SIMILAR EARLY COMPLAINTS ABOUT ANOTHER AMBITIOUS NOVEL. HERE’S A SAMPLE: “The author started out with a chess board, and he started moving a few of the pieces. You were hooked on to the story thinking that a winner was going to emerge through some breathtaking gameplay or at least, sleight of hand. What has happened is that the chess board has started falling off the table. All the pieces are moving uncontrollably and at random as they fall towards the ground. The author may contrive to have the board land flat on the floor with one of the kings standing all alone on the board while all the other pieces scatter and break when they hit the ground. I only wish the chessboard had fallen off a short table instead of falling off the edge of the grand canyon!” THE TITLE WAS “GAME OF THRONES.” SO YOU’RE IN GOOD COMPANY.

DE: Two things I love: good company and weddings. 😉

 

Check out what Library Journal and Booklist have to say about David Edison’s “The Waking Engine”.

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Interview: Anatoly Belivosky

anatolybelilovskyAnatoly Belilovsky is a rising star in the steampunk subgenre. He was born in a city that went through six or seven owners in the last century, all of whom used it to do a lot more than drive to church on Sundays; he is old enough to remember tanks rolling through it on their way to Czechoslovakia in 1968. After being traded to the US for a shipload of grain and a defector to be named later (see wikipedia, Jackson-Vanik amendment), he learned English from Star Trek reruns and went on to become a pediatrician in an area of New York where English is only the 4th most commonly used language. He has neither cats nor dogs, but was admitted into SFWA in spite of this deficiency, having published stories in NATURE, Ideomancer, Immersion Book of Steampunk, Daily SF, Kasma, UFO, Stupefying Stories, Cast of Wonders, and other markets.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: MOST WRITERS STRUGGLE TO BREAK INTO DAILY SCIENCE FICTION. YOU’VE SOLD STORIES TO THEM. WHAT APPEAL DO YOUR STORIES HAVE?

ANATOLY BELILOVSKY: A story unlocks its market the same way a key opens a door, by lining up its bits with lock pins. Some bits must match the publication’s needs , length, style, subject matter; some must, in some ineffable way, tickle the editor’s fancy. I’ve had excellent experience with DSF; they tend to publish what I like to read more often than not, and also more often than not they like what I send them. In fact, if you look at my bibliography, NATURE, Kasma, Stupefying Stories, Toasted Cake, and DSF bought 3 or more of my stories, each. That’s half of my entire output in only five markets. Granted, these are the five most flash-friendly publications, but there is also undoubtedly an excellent match between my sensibilities, and their editors’.

 

WHY STEAMPUNK? WHAT OTHER SUBGENRES DO YOU SPECIALIZE IN?

Steampunk is basically 19th century fanfic, and my homage to authors of that era who shaped my own writing: Poe, Verne, Pushkin, Gogol, Chekhov, Conan Doyle. And I’m a history buff, too, so it’s a natural fit. Other subgenres , alternate history, magic realism, humor. Or combos thereof. One of my own favorite stories will be reprinted soon by Fantasy Scroll magazine: “Hither and Yon,” wherein a nexus of alternate realities converges on… but why spoil it?

 

“KULTURKAMPF” HAS BEEN SELECTED BY THE IMMERSION BOOK OF STEAMPUNK. WHAT IS IT ABOUT “KULTURKAMPF” COMPARED TO YOUR OTHER STORIES THAT BROKE THE ANTHOLOGY BARRIER?

Must have been that immortal phrase I had my fictional Richard Wagner utter: “Fools! They seek to defeat me with Bizet!” Although at least one editor fell in love with the military rank I invented for the story, “Timpanenfuhrer.”

 

 

WASN’T “KULTURKAMPF” YOUR FIRST STORY? OR AT LEAST ONE OF YOUR EARLIEST STORIES? AGAIN, VERY FEW WRITERS SELL ANY OF THEIR EARLY WORK. HOW MUCH PREP WORK WENT INTO YOUR FICTION CAREER BEFORE YOU HIT THE PRINT BUTTON FOR THE FIRST TIME?

Not quite the first, but yes, very early. The editor of IMMERSION BOOK OF STEAMPUNK was actually one of its critiquers on the Critters workshop and asked for it specifically. “Prep work” — this reminds me of a literary agent I met once at a con almost 30 years ago. I told her I wanted to write, and about what was going on in med school – I had just started clinical rotations then. She nodded and said, “It’s all copy.” So here we are, 30 years’ worth of family, career, and other experiences later. Yes, from the viewpoint of my writer side, it’s prep work. From every other viewpoint, it’s life. A bit farther down I mention my favorite line from a Chekhov story – but it didn’t hit me how brilliant that line is, until I actually saw enough undemonstrative people under overwhelming pressure, and saw how small and subtle and poignant are the ways of their display of these pressures.

 

 

MOST OF YOUR STORIES HAVE BEEN FLASH PIECES. ANY PLANS TO INVADE THE NOVEL MARKET?

Yes! Of this I dream: to crank out my novels, see them sold before me, and hear the lamentations of their copyeditors. One of my literary heroes is Georges Simenon, he of the novel-a-week school of writing. I can pretty much manage a thousand words a week, two thousand if inspiration strikes. Now if only there were a niche for flash novels…

 

 

YOUR PROFESSION IS IN THE MEDICAL FIELD. ANY OF YOUR STORIES INSPIRED BY YOUR MEDICAL KNOWLEDGE/EXPERIENCE?

Inspired, yes: in the footsteps of Chekhov, Bulgakov, Conan Doyle (the usual physician writer suspects) in drawing upon that experience for knowledge of how people act under pressure. But I rarely write medical fiction: too many biomedical ideas get discarded because I know they wouldn’t work in real life, and can’t get past the shame of perpetrating a palpable falsehood in the one subject about which I may never be intentionally misleading , “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” (As you can see from QUANTUM MECHANICS, I have no such trouble with other sciences.) Two exceptions – NOR CUSTOM STALE, in NATURE, and DON’T LOOK DOWN, in Daily SF and Toasted Cake, both touch upon medical aspects of aging. A lot of what happens in medicine is a lot less exciting than it sounds. As a resident, I oversaw a voodoo exorcism of a dying boy in an intensive care unit. It was a last-ditch measure that the parents asked to try, and they brought their own practitioner, and everyone agreed that it could do no harm but no one wanted to be there when it happened, so I volunteered. So this quiet, unassuming gentleman in a business suit came to the ICU, whispered a prayer, sprinkled something on the child’s forehead, thanked me and left. That was that. Total anticlimax.

 

FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NOT READ ANATOLY BELIVOSKY’S LATEST DAILY SCIENCE FICTION STORY, SPOILERS IN THIS QUESTION AND ANSWER. In “Quantum Mechanics,” a man’s life is rewritten by, guess what, quantum physics. Was it the Mexican restaurant cook or the mechanic across the street who rewrote the main character’s life? Based on the implications of the next question, I’m guessing the cook. Why is the cook’s girlfriend alarmed when the customer asks about the shark bite that took the cook’s hand, and later, sad when she manned the cash register to take the customer’s money? Did the cook lose his hand saving his girlfriend’s life? Does he practice quantum mechanics on people who ask about the shark bite and the lost hand to prove to them that their life isn’t as bad as they think, ie, he lost his hand but it was worth losing and his life is still good because he has his girlfriend?

No, I was actually thinking of the mechanic: the unseen offstage presence, the actual hand that closes the lid on Schroedinger’s box, then opens it again to reveal the new reality – or at least “good as new.” Then again, once the story is out it belongs to the reader: one interpretation is as good as any other. Subject to the same caveat, this is my interpretation , and, again, not speaking ex cathedra: Here is the cook who, yes, lost his arm saving a woman from a shark. He lives across the street from “quantum mechanics” who, for a very modest fee, can rebranch the reality to where he got to keep his arm , good as new , and the shark got to keep its breakfast. Her anxiety, in part, is from her triggered recollections, and in part perhaps from a sense of insecurity , will he, or won’t he, reconsider his decision? He knows that will never happen; the answer to: “Did that hurt?” , is for the woman’s ears: “Not that much. Not really” , meaning: I’ve no regrets about the bargain I’ve made. And maybe for them, this is the second branch? Perhaps the cook first watched her die, then, with the mechanic’s help, went back to save her, and both of them remember both realities? And, knowing this, both look upon the story’s narrator with “countenance more in sorrow than in anger?” If you will allow a small digression, let me mention what I believe to be one of the most brilliant sentences ever written. It’s from Chekhov’s “A Lady with a Dog,” from the scene where the narrator sees the eponymous, and quite attractive, lady, with the eponymous dog, and approaches, ostensibly, to look at the dog. At which point: “He does not bite,” she said and blushed. I may be reading too much into it, and be wrong, but it’s my prerogative as a reader: I think this gives a wide-open view of her state of mind, of her desire to get the narrator to come closer, of her longing for, imagining, and blushing at the thought of the touch of the narrator’s hand. Analyzing my own line in retrospect: “Not that much. Not really.” It feels like it’s treading the middle ground, between: “Not in the least!” – which would have been a palpable lie, and: “Hurt like hell!” – which would have given the woman grounds for feelings of guilt on her part, or for thinking he might trade her back at some point when the sacrifice might seem not worth the outcome. Here he is both acknowledging her feelings, and tries to assuage her. This is all in retrospect, of course. Ultimately, it seemed the right thing to say at the moment and so I wrote it.

 

YOU’VE HAD A LOT OF YOUR STORIES PUBLISHED BY PODCAST SITES. THREE QUESTIONS ABOUT PODCASTING: WERE THESE ORIGINALS OR REPRINTS? DID YOU SUBMIT STORIES TO PODCAST SITES OR DID THEY TAP YOU ON THE SHOULDER? DO PODCASTS PAY MORE, LESS, OR THE SAME AS ZINES?

One original (NIGHT WITCH to Tales of Old,) the rest reprints. I love podcasting; my writing runs to storytelling, I have to hear the story in my head before I can write it, and the podcasts I’ve been on so far have done magnificent jobs with narration and sound engineering, and given both the higher expense of audio production, and the lack of revenue stream endemic to all Creative Commons endeavors, payments have ranged from token to low-semipro. But to hear the perfectly timed musical punchline to KULTURKAMPF as produced by Cast of Wonders, or Tina Connolly’s sublime Toasted Cake interpretation of LAST MAN STANDING, a zombie story that quotes Sartre and Camus, is a pleasure that overrides all other considerations. All stories audio produced so far have been submissions; the one “shoulder tap” was for a sequel to a story previously podcast. The sequel is written and first rights sold to its original market, but the publication of that anthology is woefully delayed, and so the podcast waits for its availability.

 

 

ENGLISH IS NOT YOUR NATIVE LANGUAGE. I have a degree in journalism and 25% of my freshmen class failed their first English department writing course. So I know from experience that even most native speakers don’t have good writing skills. I teach English as a Second Language and I’ve taught several writing classes to ESL students. So I also know from experience that most ESL students, even most of the English majors, can’t write a complex sentence completely and correctly, much less a polished, understandable, interesting manuscript. Even the English majors who specialize in translation make a lot of minor mistakes. You were not raised in America and it’s much harder to learn a second language as an adult than as child. How then did you not only master English but also master fiction?

Nabokov may have been too modest (or falsely so) when he wrote, in the preface to LOLITA: “My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian language for a second-rate brand of English.” Nabokov, of course, gets the medal for best literary command of English as a second language, with oak leaf clusters for French and German in which he had also wrote published stories while living in Europe. Starting in another language can make one more acutely aware of the fine structure of English, of how English sentences work, of how it compensates for lost declensions and abandoned conjugations; of how our first language’s classics had been translated (or mistranslated) into English, and vice versa. It certainly has not deterred the many amazing multilingual writers working now , I know for certain that Ken Liu and Alex Shvartsman both acquired English far later than they did their respective first languages, but the same is probably true of a number of others. Ken Liu, Alex Shvartsman, and James Beamon belong at the top of another relevant list – writers whose advice, encouragement and critique, all dispensed with unstinting generosity, brought me much farther than I ever would have gotten without them. To quote your question — “How then did you not only master English but also master fiction?” If “master” even remotely applies, as a verb, a noun, or an adjective, to any of my writing, it is to them that the credit is due. And then there is the subject of literary translation which a whole ‘nother bag of skills altogether, which I am trying to break into with variable success – the “uptick” of “variable” being my translation of WHITE CURTAIN by Pavel Amnuel, out in the May-June 2014 issue of F&SF to very encouraging reviews (all of which say nothing about the translation, a fact I find most flattering as it means I succeeded in making the translation seamless and invisible.)

IF ENGLISH IS THE 4TH MOST OFTEN SPOKEN LANGUAGE IN YOUR AREA OF NEW YORK, WHAT ARE THE FIRST THREE?

In my neighborhood, Russian, Spanish, and Urdu. In which I say, respectively, Spasibo, Gracias, and Shukriya.

 

Note: One of Anatoly Belilovsky’s Daily Science Fiction stories is a collaboration and was published under the pen name A.J. Barr.

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Interview: Michael Swanwick

interviewed by Carl Slaughter

swanwick 3

CARL SLAUGHTER: Common misconceptions aspiring writers have about crafting a marketable story and how to deliver ourselves from those misconceptions?

MICHAEL SWANWICK: The idea that there’s some kind of secret handshake involved in getting published. The idea that you have to trick an editor into buying your story. The idea that if you write in imitation of some successful writer’s work, his or her fans will flock to you. The idea that there’s a new movement or school you can hop aboard like a train that will take you straight to the top.

You deliver yourself from these by writing something good enough that an editor buys it and publishes it. When the book or magazine finally comes out and you hold that glorious, professionally edited and printed item in your hands, you will realize that you earned this moments. No tricks, no stunts, no politics. Just good writing. By you. That’s a terrific feeling.

 

Common manuscript mistakes aspiring writers make and how to recognize and correct these mistakes?

The very commonest is to open a story by “setting the scene” or “establishing mood” or giving background information that the reader is expected to memorize in order to understand the story to come. On those rare occasions I teach writing, I begin by going over the student submission stories and crossing out everything that should be cut before the story actually begins. Finally, on page two or five or eight, I’ll draw a line and write: START HERE.

This can be prevented by making sure you start at the beginning of the action. Or, better yet, in media res.

The least obvious common mistake, however, is not making sure your first and last pages are compelling and crisply written. I’ve watched editors reading slush back in the days when the slush pile was a physical heap of paper, and they would read the first page of a typescript and then flip to the last page. On the basis of that cursory glimpse, they would then put almost every submission in the reject pile and one or two stories aside to be read all the way through. “When I was starting out, I thought that was terrible and swore I’d read every story from beginning to end,” an editor told me once. “But I found out fast that you only need to read the opening and closing to know if there’s any chance the story will be good.”

 

tales of old earthIs there such a thing as style rules (see below) or is that conventional wisdom / dogmatism? Shouldn’t the story determine the style rather than vice versa? “Yeah, but famous author X breaks the rules all the time and the editors don’t challenge him on it.”

(Is show inherently better than tell, is activity inherently better than dialog? Are activity and dialog inherently better than narrative, are first, second, or third person inherently better than the other two? Is changing the POV in the middle of the sentence inherently confusing? Do you have to open with the most dramatic scene and then rewind? Do you have to list the contents of a room or describe a character’s physique or clothing? Does the story have to be organized like a 3 act play? Are dream sequences and info dumps inherently weak tools?)

Write as best you can and as simply as you can. That is the whole of the law. Sometimes a story can only be told in an extremely ornate or flashy manner. In those cases, it should be told in as simple an extremely ornate or flashy manner as possible.

Editors will let you get away with anything you can make work. When they challenge you on matters of style, they’re saying that you haven’t made it work and that the style is getting in the way of the reader’s comprehension.

Addressing your examples: Showing is usually better than telling, but not always. Action is usually better but dialog reads faster, so you can use the distinction to speed up or slow down the story as needed. Narrative can work brilliantly but if it’s just synoptic, it’s going to be boring. Third person past tense is what readers are most comfortable with, so you should only move away from it when you have a compelling reason to do so. In short fiction, you should have only one point of view, unless you have a compelling reason for more. The only POV shifts within a single sentence I can recall reading were in Finnegan’s Wake, which is not an easy book to read but one that rewards the extraordinary investment it asks of the reader. Flashbacks, particularly flashbacks occurring immediately after the opening of a story, are almost always a bad idea. A room or scene can be described in two perfectly-chosen details (in John Cheever’s notebooks, he recounted sitting in a friend’s living room while the man chained smoked and talked about his impending divorce, trying to think of the two details that would pin the scene; he kept looking down at the ashtray, overflowing with cigarette butts, and out the picture window at an achingly blue sky, back and forth from one to the other). Unless the story is about a character’s appearance or clothing, they can be dealt with in three or four details, tops (Marilyn Monroe: blonde, zaftig, a birthmark to one side of her lipsticked mouth). I’ve never used the three act play as a model for any of my fiction. Dreams are only rarely used well in fiction. Info dumps are to be avoided if it can be done efficiently, but sometimes a well-placed info dump saves you three or four pages of dancing about the subject and in those cases it should be embraced.

There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all pantyhose. Almost every rule of thumb has exceptions. But as a rule of thumb, the exceptions are harder to write well.

 

Use an outline and character profiles or wing it?

Whichever works for you. There are many kinds of writers, some of whom cannot begin writing until they know every twist and turn of the plot and others whose creative processes shut down the instant they know how a story ends, with the vast majority of us existing somewhere in between. The thing is that there is not one single skill which we can call “writing”; there’s a large family of related skills which result in superficially similar end-products. What works for one writer will stop another one dead.

 

Strategies for plotting swanwick 4and developing characters and reinforcing themes?

I can honestly say that I’ve never given a moment’s thought to themes, much less reinforcing them. Here’s an insight into plotting, though: As a general rule, a story requires at least three characters. With only two, the conflict ends with the protagonist either winning or losing. As fiction, this is about as interesting as tug-of-war. With two other characters pulling her in different directions, however, she ends up being pulled in a new and, one hopes, interesting direction.

Some writers base characters on real people and those times I’ve done this, it worked well. Mostly, I hold up my characters against real people to see if they’re complex enough. When I was writing The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, I taped a picture of the Sex Pistols to my monitor as a reminder that the monsters in my book should be at least as scary as them.

 

To revise or not to revise, that is the question.

There comes a moment when putting more work into the story just makes it worse. Stop just before you reach that point.

 

To workshop or not to workshop, that is the question.

Pretty much all unpublished writers workshop their fiction, so there’s no point to arguing against it. At the very least, it provides reassurance that you really are a writer and that you really are doing something to make progress at a time in your career when you need those reassurances most.

Keep in mind, though, that a workshop is only as good as its component members. That not all advice is good. That over time workshops tend to impose a house style on their participants. That they favor those who write quickly and in a conventional voice over those who are painstaking and quirkily original. That if their advice doesn’t make your story any better, the problem may not necessarily lie in you.

 

 

 

243859

To agent or not to agent, that is the question.

When you have a completed novel that has a chance of being published, you need a good agent. For some reason, publishing houses keep putting unreasonable clauses in their contracts which an agent knows how to remove. (But don’t count on your agent to have read the contract. Educate yourself, read before signing, and if anything looks puzzling get on the phone right away. Your agent should know if a clause is standard or not.) Also, unagented writers almost invariably get paid less for their work. The exceptions are those who know the industry so well they can do the negotiations on their own.

Notice, however, that I specified that the agent be good. Anyone can be an agent; there is no accrediting agency. And a bad agent can do horrible things to your career. Luckily, agents aren’t interested in taking you on before you’ve got a finished book to offer, so you have time to do research. Use this time wisely.

 

To self publish or not to self publish, that is the question.

Are you good at marketing? Do you have a business plan? Do you have a clear idea of how you’re going to let people know your work exists? Have you worked out how many units you have to move to move to cover your costs? Are your numbers realistic or just wishful thinking?

Everything depends on your situation. A conventionally published writer with a decent following and enough free time to do it right can put his or her out of print back list to work and earn†well, not enough to live on, but a pleasant little supplemental income. Somebody who’s really good at the business end, is willing to work hard, and can write at least three novels a year can make a career of it. Somebody who’s been published conventionally and experienced push-back (you only get so many chances before the publishing world gives up on you) can make a comeback attempt by self publishing and sometimes it will work.

Writing is a tough business. Publishing is a tough business. Self publishing is a combination of the two. If you’re going to do it, put in the research before you spend a penny. Writer Beware is a good place to begin.

 

 

10170242To ebook or not to ebook, that is the question.

If you’re self publishing, you pretty much have to go with ebooks. If you’re not, go with whatever deal is best , but make sure the contract includes a clause reverting e-rights when payments to you go below a clearly defined level.

 

To write fan fiction or not to write fan fiction, that is the question.

When my son was a teenager, he and a friend spent a summer writing a fanfic mashup of two incompatible gaming worlds, and for a year they received more fan letters than I did. So far as I can tell, there was no downside. Except for the part about not getting any money for it and not having a physical book to put on the shelf.

 

To join the SFWA or not to join, that is the question.

I’ve been a member for over thirty years, so obviously I believe in the value of the organization for the community of genre writers. If you’re expecting individual career benefits rather than the satisfaction of promoting the common good, it’s probably not going to do much for you. The social element, the sense of community, and the SFWA Directory full of addresses for writers you may have cause to contact are all nice. But SFWA’s chief function is to encourage a set of conditions within publishing such that someday you won’t ever need to call upon their help.

Writer Beware is a SFWA site, incidentally, and it’s available free to everyone.

 

243855True or false: The system is rigged against the rookie and in favor of the veteran.

Not true, and in the case of short fiction extremely false. Most successful writers abandon short fiction after they make a name for themselves and so the magazines are always on the lookout for new writers. Also, editors take pride in the talents they’ve discovered.

Publishers will always prefer a new Stephen King novel over something by a complete unknown. But they also like being able to snap up The Next Stephen King at bargain rates.

 

True or false: An editor should have enough editorial instinct to recognize an awesome premise based on a synopsis and commission a novel rather than defer judgment until reading the entire manuscript.

Times are changing. For most of my career, I was an oddity because I finished my novels before trying to sell them. Everybody else sold by fragment-and-outline. (The sample chapters were required so the editor could get a sense as to whether you could write commercially viable prose.) More and more now, I hear, editors are willing to look at the fragment-and-outline but requiring a full novel before making a final decision. This has nothing to do with their editorial instincts, and everything to do with in-house policies set by their corporate masters.

 

An editor asks for a change in the story. It’s a seemingly small change, but it fundamentally alters the story. Stand your ground? Explain your vision for the story and ask the editor to yield? Politely withdraw the manuscript?

Polite is always good. Whether you politely stand your ground, politely ask the editor to yield, or politely withdraw the story depends on your honest opinion of what’s at stake.

First, however, take a deep breath and try to be objective. It’s hard to be reasonable about your own work and God knows, every time I go over a copy-edited novel, I find myself defending every quirk of phrasing and oddly-placed comma with all the emotion of a mother bear defending her cubs. But it’s important to think of the proposed change not as a moral challenge but as a well-intended suggestion that might conceivably improve the story.

Whatever you choose to do, remember that the editor hasn’t requested the change out of malice but from the simple (possibly misplaced) belief that it will improve the story. So play nice. Remember that you may find yourself working with this human being again.

 

I’ve interviewed more than one author who sold their first novel without getting even one short fiction byline in the magazines. Are they the exception or is this the new order of things?

It’s always been possible, and reasonably common as well, to sell a novel without selling short fiction first. The advantage of making a name in short fiction first is that it creates a following for your fiction and some name recognition for you. But not all writers are good at both lengths. Go with your strength.

 

Michael_Swanwick 6You described Gardner Dozois as a manuscript doctor genius. What exactly did he do to fix a manuscript?

One very small example: When he read the typescript for “The Feast of Saint Janis,” he said to me, “Congratulations, Michael. You’re the first person ever to write a story about rock and roll without once using the word ‘fuck.'” I immediately thought: Oh drat, and rewrote the dialogue.

Gardner has an uncanny ability to spot whatever it is that makes a story not work , whether it’s too wordy, or needs expansion, or requires a new character or rethinking an existing one. What makes him a great story doctor is that in doing so he doesn’t impose his own style or preferences upon the work. He looks at what the story itself wants to be and what you want to accomplish with it, and advises accordingly.

Most importantly, he’s a minimalist. He restricts his advice to those parts of the story that aren’t working. He doesn’t try to improve what’s already functioning.

Early in my career, I wrote the first chapter of a novel that was going to be about a parallel-worlds traveling con man, most of which was taken up by a clever con game I’d invented. Two pages into the second chapter, I decided that I didn’t like the protagonist or the premise and gave up on it, but not before leaving a chapter with Gardner. One day I dropped in on him and said, “What’s new?”

“Wait a second,” he said, and finished typing a page. Then he trued up a typescript, handed it to me, and said, “You’ve just finished a story.” And I had! He’d removed the first and last pages, made the story about time-traveling drug dealers, and changed it from the non-functioning opening of an abandoned novel into a witty and entertaining novelette. All the stuff in the middle was unchanged. “Snow Job” sold to High Times, was reprinted in Asimov’s, and taught me a lot about the extreme malleability of fiction.

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.