Interview: Brad Torgersen


interviewed by Carl Slaughter

Brad TorgersenHugo nominee, Nebula nominee, Campbell nominee, Writers of the Future winner, and Analog regular Brad Torgersen talks with Diabolical Plots about his journey as a writer, the blue chip veterans who mentored him, and his hopes for the Society Advancement of Speculative Storytelling.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: Did you write the proverbial one million words before you got published in Analog? Before you won Writers of the Future?

BRAD TORGERSEN: Just about. When I won the Writers of the Future Contest I sat down and added up everything I’d written to date, and all totaled it came out to be roughly 850,000 unpublished words. So in my case I feel the “first million words” really were an accurate gauge. I know this also goes by the 10,000 hour rule. And I think it’s true. Fledgling and/or aspiring writers need to understand that it can take a lot of work and time to reach what more or less passes for entry-level professional quality. That’s not a bad thing, really. Almost anyone desiring to do a thing professionally,especially an artistic thing,needs to put in his or her practice.

 

Lights in DeepCS: Do you have a first reader?

BT: No. I have in the past used an exclusive reader group. But for the last two years virtually everything I’ve written and sold has gone through one and only one first reader: my editor(s) at Analog magazine, Baen books, etc. I know some writers swear by their first readers. Me? I fly solo these days, and do so knowing that I have only myself to trust when I am sculpting the stories. It’s a little unsettling, until I get that next acceptance letter in my e-mail. Then I breathe a sigh of relief and remember something I like to tell new writers: the point of a writing group or a first reader is to not become dependent on the writing group or the first reader. Your objective should be to eventually get proficient enough to send directly to editors without fretting about whether or not the story has what it takes to impress an editor.

 

CS: Do you use workshops?

BT: I have used several different workshops over the last five years. The first one I ever did was called the “Kris and Dean Show” and it was a weekend event hosted by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith out in Lincoln City, Oregon. “The Kris and Dean Show” was a kind of two-day crash course in how publishing works, and it really knocked my socks off at a time when I was struggling a great deal, and wondering if I would ever become good enough to sell even one story, much less the many stories and book I’ve since sold. I liked the “Kris and Dean Show” so much, I went back (after I won Writers of the Future) to do Kris and Dean’s short story workshops, and a novel pitch/packaging workshop. I sold all of the stories I did for the short story workshops (two of which got covers, and one of which was nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula) and the novel pitch/package workshop was hugely valuable. Needless to say, I am not just a fan of the workshops in Lincoln City, I am a friend of Kris and Dean now too. Lovely, wonderful people.

Speaking of which, I’ve also done Dave Wolverton’s “Million Dollar Outlines” workshop. Which, combined with the Kris and Dean novel workshop, helped prepare me to sell to the book-buying world. Having cut my teeth and proven my worth at short fiction length, I really wanted to zero in on some stuff for my books. I knew the skillsets for writing at book length were different from writing short stories, and I really needed help putting my brain through the outlining process. Because I am a “seat of the pants” man for short fiction. But, having lost several older books to this method in the past, I didn’t want to lose any more books. So I appealed to Dave for help, and his week-long workshop was amazingly informative. Dave’s really got his pulse on the underlying emotional and “legendary” aspects of storytelling. Perhaps more than anyone I’ve ever seen, as writers like Brandon Sanderson (a student of Dave’s) might attest.

Mike ResnickAnd of course, there is the Writers of the Future workshop itself; which is free to all winners of the Contest, and puts a new writer through his or her professional paces. The best benefit I can think of from Writers of the Future was the networking: being able to meet and talk to all these very-successful and award-winning authors. In an intimate setting. Often for hours and hours. I not only left the workshop with numerous contacts in the industry, I eventually became good friends with many of the judges, such as Kevin J. Anderson, Eric Flint, and especially Mike Resnick; the last having become like a father to me in the business.

One thing about workshops: there are workshops for craft, and there are workshops for business. Be sure what you want to do (and where you need the emphasis most) before you sign up. Kevin J. Anderson (along with Dave Wolverton, Brandon Sanderson, Rebecca Moesta, Eric Flint, and several others) runs a stupendously useful and very fun professional business workshop called Superstars Writing Seminars. I took the three-day course at Kevin’s encouragement, following my stint in L.A. for Writers of the Future, and I found Superstars to be chock full of valuable writing business advice, anecdotes, cautionary tales, and encouraging news. A top-notch workshop if I do say so myself; excellent for those writers who, having published a bit, are wanting to bump up to the next level and really start making money.

 

CS: How many times do you revise the same story?

BT: I used to endlessly revise my stories to death. It was what I thought you had to do to become a pro. Dean Wesley Smith disabused me of that notion in 2008-2009 and it paid off: I won Writers of the Future, and have not looked back since. Now I give myself roughly three passes through a thing: the initial creative pass, a second pass to check for consistency problems and emotional impact, and a final pass for fine-tooth-comb stuff like spelling and grammar and occasional sentence or word changes. After that . . . I am done. I know the story or book is as good as I can possible make it (in that particular time and place) and I need to get the story out to the editors, and begin working on something new. If I let a story linger too long, and go for even more passes, I always have a bad time of it. Always. So I try to make sure I don’t get cold feet. I grow more as a writer working on new work than I ever do endlessly “fixing” old work. I think many writers are the same way, but we’ve all been taught this myth that exhaustive revision is the only way to be good. I think it’s not so.

 

CS: Do you write an outline, character profiles, etc?

For short fiction? Almost never. For books? I lost six books writing by the seat of my pants, and swore I’d never do it again. I went and sat at the feet of professionals with dozens and dozens of novels to their credit, and forced myself to learn how to outline. I used to think working with an outline was stifling and would kill the creative juice of the story. But I was wrong. An outline (for book length) is the only way I personally know how to do something that long, and not get lost in the sub-plots, let the small characters grow and take over the big characters, etc. Outlines can be anywhere from a few pages, up to as much as 50 pages. Depends on how much world building and character development I want to do before I actually begin writing the prose. And there is always a *lot* of that behind-the-scenes stuff that doesn’t wind up in the book verbatim. Because while I may need to know a character’s eight-paragraph bio in order for her to make sense to me in the overall plot, the reader may only need to know a few details dispersed here and there; as the action moves along.

 

Analog 2CS: Are most of your stories primarily premise-oriented, character-oriented, plot-oriented, or theme-oriented?

BT: All of the above. I have written stories based purely on a suggestive title, a nugget of a plot, a single interesting character premise, or a theme that’s rolling around in my head and which I want to explore. Usually I wait for two or three of these things to collide in my unconscious before I decide I have enough material to put together an interesting and engaging story. One of my best-known stories, a novelette called “Outbound,” actually began as a kludging-together of two previous stories which had, on their own, failed to gel. One of them had a good theme and a decent plot, but no compelling character or situation. The other had a compelling character and situation, but no theme or plot. Throwing these elements from these separate stories together, and making a brand new story from the bones of the old, made all the difference.

 

CS: Do you make major changes at an editor’s request or hold your ground?

BT: I am easy-going. Toni Weisskopf, Stan Schmidt, Edmund Schubert, Bryan Thomas Schmidt, Trevor Quachri, they all have valuable feedback, and there is almost never a time when I can’t improve a story with some experienced feedback from the editor. That’s what they’re there for, after all. And no editor, especially book-buyer like Toni, ever gets a book from a new author which cannot use at least some commentary and feedback. I look at it like a perpetual learning process, and as long as the editor seems to see the same (more or less) story that I am seeing (and this is almost always the case) then I am perfectly happy making whatever changes work best. Or which might be required to take a decent story, and make it into a good story. Or take a good story, and make it into a great story.

 

BradConCS: How many stories has Analog bought and how many have they rejected?

BT: Before Stan Schmidt bought “Outbound” in January 2010, he had rejected two or three dozen previous stories. Since then Stan (and his successor, Trevor Quachri) have bounced a tiny handful. All of which found their way to homes with other markets. One of the nice things about cracking the professional glass and gaining entry-level proficiency as a story teller, when a story gets rejected these days, it’s almost always a matter of taste for a given editor; someone else (with a different taste) will almost always like the story and pick it up. I often go to Analog with my stories first because Analog’s needs so closely match my particular style and content; of story subject, theme, protagonists, etc. But not always. Analog has taken things other editors could not use, and vice versa. Again, a perk of being pro level.

 

CS: Now that Analog has a new editor, will the magazine, or you, have a fundamental shift in MO?

BT: Nope. I’ve sold two big stories to Trevor Quachri (“The Chaplain’s Legacy” was a massive novella, and “Life Flight” was a substantial novelette) which I believe would have easily sold to Stan Schmidt when he was editing. In fact when Stan Schmidt did the intro for my short story collection LIGHTS IN THE DEEP he noted that his wife had already read “The Chaplain’s Legacy” in the magazine, and gave it very high marks. And he tends to trust her taste, so I think Analog and I will continue to have a mutually beneficial relationship. It’s a lot of fun being able to publish in such a well-known and venerable magazine. I am pleased that Analog’s readers have continued to respond so well to my work. I hope that’s always the case, and I endeavor with each story I send to Analog to match the bar I set for myself with the last Analog publication.

 


CS: How long is the “Unpublished But Hopeful Stories by Brad Torgersen” list?

BT: Difficult to gauge, as I generally have several dozen ideas rolling around in my head at any one moment. I have on occasion gone back to the “trunk” an unearthed an old story which got rejected at all the markets previously, then reworked the story from the ground up, and sold it contemporarily. In those cases it’s a total rebuild, almost always using the character or the idea as the skeleton around which the new, re-drafted (Dean Wesley Smith’s phrase) story takes shape.

 

DP: Do you anticipate ever breaking into novels? Anthologies? Editing? Full time sci fi work?

BT: Full-time writing would be great, but give the vagaries of the marketplace and the needs of my family, it remains to be seen if full-time ever becomes truly feasible. I have spoken to several of the elder statesmen in the Utah spec fic writing community, and among them is a fellow named L.E. Modesitt, Jr. who says full-time writing (pre-retirement) isn’t even a necessary goal, as long as I keep putting the hours in at night and can produce fresh work on a regular basis. So, for now, I live with late nights. Yes, I’ve sold my first novel, a “fix up book” (in the vernacular of Mike Resnick) called THE CHAPLAIN’S WAR to Baen Books. It’s based on my two Analog stories “The Chaplain’s Assistant” and “The Chaplain’s Legacy,” both of which appeared in print previously. I’ve had several stories reprinted, and have also put fresh work into anthologies on request from the editors. I am not sure I can afford the time to edit right now. Though if a choice editorial opportunity came along (and I felt it was my chance to really make a statement and/or affect the field) I might try to take it. But only provided that I could work it in with my other jobs: full-time healthcare nerd, part-time Army Reserve soldier, and night-time sci-fi writer.

 

CS: Give us the background on Society for the Advancement of Speculative Storytelling?

BT: Lou Antonelli came to me shortly after I broke into print, and he proposed the idea that the spec fic community needed a new organization that could not only focus on bona fide advocating for established authors, but which might also help foster the growth and development of aspirants as well. Now, I knew then as well as anyone the heartache of the aspirant, and I like a lot of what Lou had it mind, so I signed on. Unfortunately, because my three jobs still have to take precedent, I wasn’t able to do much more for SASS at the start, than serve as a hood ornament Vice President while Lou got the word out and tried to attract new members. I think SASS is definitely something that will gain speed and momentum over time, whether I am able to lend it much credibility or not. Right now I am a dues-paying member and I like (again) what Lou is trying to do with the organization. Spec fic really could use a group capable of bona fide professional advocacy, combined with grass-roots growing and fostering of new talent. Too often sometimes (at least in my perception) the existing bod(ies) get tangled up in personality disputes or political bickering that’s got nothing to do with anything important to me as a professional. Can SASS be the answer? I would certainly like to think so. I hope Lou continues to gain traction and that SASS moves forward.

 

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.

His training is in journalism, and he has an essay on culture printed in the Korea Times and Beijing Review. He has two science fiction novels in the works and is deep into research for an environmental short story project.

Carl currently teaches in China where electricity is an inconsistent commodity.

 

 

 

The State of the Grinder: Year One

written by David Steffen

Can you believe it’s been a whole year since we officially launched The Submission Grinder? At that time the Grinder only had its base functionality , the minimum required feature set to make it basically useful. We had just launched, so of course we didn’t have any submission data yet apart from the data of its founders. The Grinder site was pretty unreliable as well, down almost as often as not. And the choice of Courier font for everything on the site, while chosen with the intention of giving a nod to the typewriter-based standard manuscript format that is somehow still used today, managed to almost universally annoy everyone who visited the site.

These days the site is stable, we’ve changed the style to be more aesthetically pleasing, our user base is growing and with it our collection of data. We continue to hold to our commitment to never charge anyone for any feature. And our feature set is continually improving.

A concern oft-cited in the early days was that the site would be just a flash in the pan, here today gone tomorrow. To which we responded “The only thing that proves longevity is longevity”. So here we are a year later and still going strong, still improving. And we plan to stick around. So what’s gone on in the last year since the launch?

Statistics

Markets: 2642 (1165 open)
Users: 2033
Submissions: 34,403
Total site visits: 244,963
Unique visitors: 28,013
Pageviews: 1,444,035
Page per visit: 5.89
Largest contributors of site usage
1. Organic (Google)
2. DiabolicalPlots.com (Main Site)
3. Codex
4. AbsoluteWrite
5. Facebook

Shiny Features

We have implemented a wide variety of features that we feel are shiny and useful, too many to want to list them exhaustively here. But here are a few of the ones we are the proudest of.

1. Response Time Chart

GrinderFeature_ResponseTimeChart

 

A histogram on each market page of the response times for that market. The red bars represent rejections, the green are acceptances. The higher the bar, the more responses on that particular number of days wait. You can see in this example that this particular market has a nice bell curve of rejections centered at around 20 days, with a long tail and acceptances scattered all over. You can get a lot of information at a glance.

2. Response Recency Chart

GrinderFeature_ResponseRecencyChart2

GrinderFeature_ResponseRecencyChart

Another histogram, this one represents how long ago the responses were reported, with today being on the left side of the graph and one year ago being on the right. From this you can glean different kinds of information. For instance, you can discern an expected period of response,such as the Writers of the Future snapshot here where you can see their quarterly submission cycle pretty well. And you can also tell if a market just stops responding for some period of time, like you can see at intervals in the Analog snapshot.

3. My Market Response List

GrinderFeature_MyMarketResponseList

 

It’s common to want to look at the recently reported responses just for the markets where you have pending submissions, but before this feature you would have to visit each page manually and look at that list. This list provides a single list which lists out the recent responses that only includes those markets where you have pending submissions.

4. Post-Acceptance Tracking

GrinderFeature_PostAcceptance

Acceptance of a story is one of the goals of writing a story, but it’s not the ultimate goal. After the story’s accepted, you need to deal with the contract, payment, and publication of the work. That is all an important part of the process so we let you track that information as well.

 

Upcoming Shiny Features

And we have plenty more coming down the pipeline, including:

1. Newsletter
Among other things, you will be able to customize the newsletter to suit your exact interests. If you only want to hear about updates to pro-paying romance markets, that’s what you’ll get. This will also include other sections like a Fundraising callout which will provide links to newly announced publishing-related fundraising drives.

2. Poetry and Nonfiction Markets
We don’t yet have full support for these,you can track your submissions to them, but the full listing and search engine is being worked on.

3. Publication Brag.
Users who opt-in can already see their name on the site when they get that rare acceptance, but this will also help you spread the word when that story actually gets published.

4. Dean Wesley Smith Submission Score
The author Dean Wesley Smith has published a suggested system called the Race for encouraging writers to submit which has proven itself extremely useful. The Grinder will calculate this number for you, to help spur you on to send that story out.

To Critique or Not to Critique: Kristine Kathryn Rusch Weighs In

interview by Carl Slaughter

KKRWorkshop instructors Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith take a different approach to coaching writers:

“We do critiques at first because people want them. We time the critiques and give rules:

  • If you liked this and would have bought it as an editor/reader, then say that and nothing else.
  • If it’s not your genre or your kind of story, say that and nothing else.
  • If you would like it and would buy it if x, y, and z were fixed, then say that.
  • And say what you believe is strong about the story. No grammar nits.
  • You have only one minute in which to say all of this. If you go over, you get cut off. If you’re under, that’s good.

Then we teach them how to read like editors/readers. If they don’t get caught by the beginning, they don’t have to keep reading.

They’re done. They can move onto something else.

From that point, the “critiques” are this:

  • “Stopped at page 1, paragraph 2”
  • “Read until page 10, liked it, then stopped on paragraph 3 because the character did something unbelievable.”
  • “Read it, liked it, not sure I want to buy it.”
  • “Read it, liked it, but not enough to buy.”
  • “Read it, loved it, will buy it.”

And that’s all.

Dean and I will then interpret,if everyone stops on paragraph two, there’s clearly a problem with the opening, but if people fade out,some stop on page 10, some on page 5, most on page 7, then the pacing is off, etc.

If we hated the story, but 3/4 of the class loved it, we don’t critique it in depth, because all that writer has to do is mail the story, and 3/4 of all readers who like that kind of story will probably like this story.

We have great success with this method because it mimics the real-world way people read.”

 

Carl Slaughter: Much if not most of this is in direct contrast to other workshop strategies and rules. For example, at Critters, the largest and oldest online speculative fiction workshop, the minimum word count for getting full credit is 200. Longer critiques and detailed critiques are encouraged. They even offer a Most Productive Critter Award for people who crank out the highest volume of feedback. Clarion, the Harvard of onsite workshops, devotes a large portion of its schedule to peer critiquing. At Odyssey, 50% of classroom time is peer critiquing: “Everyone in the class learns to become a top-notch critiquer, providing insightful feedback on your work. Workshopping sessions are designed to maximize their helpfulness.” How did you arrive at conclusion that brief peer critiquing is better than the longstanding and almost universal practice of extensive peer critiquing?

Kristine Kathryn Rusch: I am an editor, and I know what an editor’s job is. The editor must find something that readers will like and buy. Readers don’t care if a comma is missing on page 64. Readers want to know if the story is good, if the characters are memorable, and if the book pulls you all the way through to the end. When you reach the end, do you want to read the next book. If not, then your book failed. It’s really very simple.

If you look at the history of peer critiquing, you’ll see that it came out of the university system. The man who “invented” it later repudiated it. It’s a way to keep students busy without doing much work yourself. Now it’s become this monster that destroys writers and builds up critics rather than helping writers.

If critiquing were so important, then great writers of the past would have come out of workshops rather than out of their own practice and enjoyment of great fiction.

 

CS: Jeanne Cavelos, former senior editor of Bantam Doubleday Dell, is director of the Odyssey workshop. She says, “You should not apply unless you are ready to hear about the weaknesses in your writing and ready to work to overcome them †We target those weaknesses one by one and work to conquer them †In critiquing stories, I give the same unflinchingly honest, concrete, detailed feedback that I provided as a senior editor.” But you were an editor too. You were the editor of a leading magazine for 6 years. You said you shared that view back then, but now you believe in emphasizing strengths. How did your view evolved?

KKR: I have spent the last ten years teaching professional writers how to save their careers. Most careers fall apart for two reasons: 1) a lack of understanding of business and 2) a lack of belief in your own voice. Workshops destroy voice and make a writer doubt. I have “repaired” so many writers who went through decades of peer critiques. Those writers stopped listening to “what’s wrong,” started learning what they did well, and began to sell their work again. Hell, most of them started writing again, because peer critiques had frozen them and made them stop writing altogether.

 

CS: OK, so you’ve got a system for establishing popularity. What about recognizing literary value. From “War of the Worlds” to “Harry Potter,” many classic stories were initially rejected by leading editors. Some were rejected several times, “Dune” being the most famous example. Suppose the census of the workshop critiques is to pan what turns out to be the next “Flowers for Algernon.”

KKR: Oh, the art question. It’s so silly. Readers determine literary value. They always have. They pass memorable works to their friends and then to the next generation. If you don’t have readers, your work will never have literary value. It’ll never get passed on. So popularity and literary value are related. Do most popular novels get read 100 years later? No. Were all novels we read 100 years later popular in their day?

Most workshops do pan works that will become popular, because those works are based on voice and vision, something peer critiques destroy. You cannot write by committee. You cannot learn to write from a committee, particularly one that reads critically.

Readers read for enjoyment. Writers in peer critiques do not. So they automatically misread a story when it’s presented to them.

 

CS: Your workshops are 4 days and 8 days, whereas others are several weeks. Why only a fraction of the usual time?

KKR: Because working writers (and people with day jobs) don’t have several weeks to devote to a workshop. Only students and retired people do. When Dean & I teach workshops, we look for people with drive. People with drive generally can’t take a summer out of their lives to sit around and chat about literature. In fact, people with drive get bored at such things.

We structure our workshops to appeal to people who have the drive to succeed, the willingness to work hard, and the ability to learn.

By the way, even though our workshops are shorter than the other workshops, we force our students to write more. They write tens of thousands of words at our workshops. At the others, they might write a story or two.

 

CS: Do you and Dean provide verbal or written feedback or both? How long are your written critiques? How long are your written critiques?

KKR: We provide some verbal and written feedback. We tell writers they can ignore everything we say. We never write more than a paragraph on the back of a manuscript. We also write and mark what’s good about the manuscript.

 

CS: How much time do the workshops devote to feedback versus revision?

KKR: We don’t believe in revision. That’s a waste of time as well. Write the next story. No musician becomes good by going over the same piece of music at the expense of all others. We move the writers forward, asking them to write new material while keeping in mind what they learned about the old material.

We spend a lot of time debunking the “revision” myth. You cannot fix a broken manuscript. The manuscript is not the story. If you like the story and it didn’t work, then you must start from scratch and write it all over again.

 

CS: What portion of your feedback is devoted to structure, clarity, character development, etc? How much macro focus and how much micro focus?

KKR: All of it focuses on the story, character, and voice. None of it focuses on the words.

 

CS: Stanley Schmidt once said, “The first sentence of a story usually tells me whether I’m in good hands.” Sheila Williams said, “Get my attention in the first paragraph.” Mike Resnick said, “Put everything you’ve got into the first page.” The cutoff for the Hatrack workshopis 13 lines. How much of your workshops are devoted to opening sequences?

KKR: We don’t waste time on sentences or words. I really can’t emphasize that enough. Nor are the above comments from Sheila, Stan & Mike about words. They’re about how fast the writer takes the reader into the story and away from the real world.

 

CS: Is this practice even a good idea for editors and authors alike? How many good stories have been rejected because the first impression wasn’t awesome?

KKR: None. If the opening isn’t good, the story isn’t good.

 

CS: Are your workshops for short fiction, novels, or both?

KKR: It depends on the workshop.

 

CS: What are the most common misconceptions writers have and how do you address those misconceptions?

KKR: That words and critique are important. Story and business will give them a career. Focusing on one manuscript won’t help at all. Most workshops teach writers how to write one beautiful story. Most do not teach writers how to have a career. Yet writers want a career, and they’ve just wasted their precious time learning stuff that will hurt their careers rather than ever help them.

 

CS: What are the most common mistakes writers make and how do you address those mistakes?

KKR: They don’t learn how to write fast, how to write a lot, how to practice, and how to tell a story. That’s craft. But the biggest mistakes they make are ignoring and refusing to learn business. It doesn’t matter how well you write. If you can’t tell a story, your work won’t sell. If you can tell a story and don’t know business, someone will take advantage of you. It happens all the time.

 

CS: Do you advise writers to submit stories indefinitely or do advice them to put a story on the shelf after half a dozen or so rejections?

KKR: Keep submitting. Or self-publish.

 

CS: Do you ever tell a writer to adopt a different vision for a story? As in, “This story would be better/more marketable if you took it in a fundamentally different direction?” At what level of revision does the story cease to be the writer’s story and become the instructor/editor’s story?

KKR: Never. Never, never, never, never. That’s horribly destructive.

 

CS: Do you ever completely rewrite a passage or scene for a writer?

KKR: No.

 

CS: Is there a place for telling an author, “This story is fundamentally flawed. It has no hope. Abandon this project and move on to something workable.”?

KKR: God, no. And anyone who says that should never be allowed near writers again.

 

CS: Is there a place for telling someone, “You’re not cut out to be a writer.”?

KKR: Who voted that critic God? No!!!! That’s horrible. Again, that person should never ever ever be allowed near writers again.

 

CS: What about your new online workshop for beginners. How will that be organized? What skills do you teach? How many stories do they submit? How many times do they revise the same story?

KKR: They’re craft workshops. The writers learn new tools. They become aware of the tools. They do not submit stories. They do not revise stories (see above). They certainly do not waste their time revising the same story.

 

CS: The Clarion website says one third of participants get published. Odyssey cites a success rate of 56% of graduates. Critters has an announcements page for critiqued stories that get published. Do you keep statistics for stories that got critiqued in a workshop and later got published, or writers who participated in a workshop and later got published? How do you, and potential students, know your new approach works?

KKR: We don’t take credit for our students’ successes. We provide information. If they want to use that information, that’s their business.

 

CS: Now that you’re conducting your own workshops and now that you’ve adopted a different workshop philosophy/MO, does this mean you won’t be participating in other workshops?

KKR: No one asks any more. We tried teaching our way at Clarion in 1992 and got banned. I suspect others don’t want us either.

 

CS: What do you recommend for writers who can’t afford a workshop, can’t travel, can’t take time off from work, haven’t been able to beat the competition for a workshop seat, and so on, and therefore don’t have the advantage of personalized feedback from experienced writers and editors?

KKR: Stop stressing about it. You’re probably better off not going. Write a lot, practice new techniques, mail everything you write even if you think it’s bad, and keep at it. Learn business. You’ll be a success eventually if you do all those things.

 


Carl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he hCarl_eagleas 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.

His training is in journalism, and he has an essay on culture printed in the Korea Times and Beijing Review. He has two science fiction novels in the works and is deep into research for an environmental short story project.

Carl currently teaches in China where electricity is an inconsistent commodity.

Interview: Dean Wesley Smith

interview by Carl Slaughter

Most people who comment on the changing publishing landscape concentrate on the problems. Bestselling author and blue chip workshop instructor Dean Wesley Smith has a can-do make it happen attitude and concentrates on solutions. And unlike self proclaimed experts, he’s a proven success. The business model he blogs about on his website and teaches in his workshops isn’t theory. He sells books with that business model. Lots of books. At a profit. In this interview with Carl Slaughter, he plays myth buster for writers who have reservations about making the transition from print publishing to electronic publishing and from traditional publishing to self publishing. At http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/, he dispels conventional wisdoms on a regular basis.

 

MYTH: How can an author sell books without the massive marketing apparatus of a publisher? It’s logistically impossible to make contact with bookstores all over the country. Nor can they afford advertising in national magazines.

 

FACT: Well, that’s a huge myth. Of course any indie publisher can get into bookstores and actually, it’s fairly easy and not very expensive. And no, it’s not impossible to make contact with bookstores all over the country. In fact, it’s easy. One way to even find out about how to do that is just go to the ABA (American Booksellers Association) website and you can download their bookstore lists state by state for free. And by joining the ABA as a publisher (about $300 per year) you can join into their programs such as the different box programs, get electronic proofs to bookstores and so much more. But of course, this takes doing print books as well as electronic. And Kobo will be going into all the indie stores with electronic books shortly. Also, you can get to the major chain stores as well, just takes a little more research. But first a publisher has to get past the myth that it’s impossible. It’s far from impossible.

 

MYTH: With a SmashWords type strategy, there are editors, no reviewers. No vetting or evaluation process. This means every author could post every one of their stories. With such a massive number of stories available, how can readers find my story, how can my story stand out among so many others?

 

FACT: It’s a bogus fear. In fact, it’s now easier to find books online than it ever was when readers had to go into bookstores. The key for writers is just to keep writing better and better stories and let the fans spread the word for you. The more quality stories you have available to readers, the more they will find you. But it takes time to build that kind of readership. If you expect it within a year or less, you will be setting yourself up for disappointment.

 

MYTH: To sell books online, you have to use a credit card or PayPal. These services charge per sale. If one person buys 10 books, that’s not a comparatively steep service expense. But if 100 people buy one book each, you’re paying that fee 100 times. How does that factor into the ebook/self-publishing business model?

 

FACT: It’s called a “cost of doing business” and it’s very, very minor. And only comes into play if you are selling off your own web site, which most should not do at first.

 

MYTH: How much can you charge per customer for a short story? 50 cents? One dollar? At that rate, can you make as much as selling the same story to a magazine or anthology?

 

FACT: You get 65 to 70% of all money from any distributor like Amazon or B&N. And most of the people I know sell short fiction for $2.99 per story.

 

MYTH: All that time spent formatting your story is time spent clicking on a browser instead of time spent typing on a keyboard. All that time spent on bookkeeping is time spent tapping on a calculator instead of typing on a keyboard. A writer who isn’t typing is a writer who isn’t making money. How do you weigh routine maintenance time against the time spent writing 2, 3, 4 stories?

 

FACT: This is a serious question that all writers must deal with. Before the electronic world, there was always business time sending off manuscripts and dealing with editors and agents. But the key is always go back to writing when in doubt. My friend, Scott William Carter has a great test when he looks at doing production vs. writing. He calls it his WIBBOW test and he asks it about everything. (Would I Be Better Off Writing?) When you ask that, you tend to do the business and production stuff at odd hours when you wouldn’t be writing anyway.

 

MYTH: How much are customers willing to pay for an ebook if they know the production cost is only a fraction of print books?

 

FACT: What does production costs have to do with anything? If you sent a book to a publisher, they must pay overhead, they must pay editors, they must pay copyeditors, and production for the electronic and for the covers. The only production you are talking about is printing and shipping costs. Those are the only things that vary at all. A $15.99 trade paper should have about a $7.99 electronic book. That feels fair to readers and works fine for authors as well. And covers publisher’s costs just fine. It is a huge myth that there are no costs to electronic books. A huge myth. Costs are less, yes, but there are costs.

 

MYTH: Suppose the next electronic book display technology goes through a revolution and the Kindle type gadgets go the way of 45s, 78s, reel to reel, 8 track, and floppy? Then you’ve got to reformat all your stories for the new technology. If you ¹ve got a publisher, you just keep writing and let someone in New York handle format issues.

 

FACT: Even if there isn’t a formatting revolution in the near future that renders your current formatting obsolete, doesn’t every website and ever gadget have its own formatting requirements? This question would take an entire class to answer. It’s called staying up with the field of changes. Nature of the beast of being a professional writer. Things are going to change. If you don’t stay on top of the changes, you end up not selling and getting left behind. And also your question assumes that traditional publishers would stay up as well, and that has been proven false in the last three years.

 

MYTH: Suppose my name isn’t Dean Wesley Smith and I therefore don’t have an established reader base. How do I draw traffic to my site?

 

FACT: Why would you want to? I tell writers who come to workshops here to have a static web site and only change it when they have a new book or story to tell their fans. That’s all you need. Blogging and all that crap is far too much work.

 

CARL: Share some success stories. Writers who followed the advice from your blog, seminars, and books and became commercially successful.

 

DEAN: Oh, wow, I don’t take credit for anyone’s success. Success in this business comes from writing and keeping at it for a long time and working to keep learning. Anyone who got successful from anything I said was because they worked hard and wrote hard. My advice is just more of a suggestion to go in a direction. The writer must go and do that work. And no writer is the same, no career the same. So I would never, ever think of taking credit for anyone’s success.


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.

His training is in journalism, and he has an essay on culture printed in the Korea Times and Beijing Review. He has two science fiction novels in the works and is deep into research for an environmental short story project.

Carl currently teaches in China where electricity is an inconsistent commodity.

The Importance of a Thick Skin

written by David Steffen

This post was originally written up in response to after-story discussion on Dunesteef Episode 108 on their forum, speaking about how to take rejection.

A thick skin doesn’t come naturally. You have to cultivate it. One of the biggest ways that I did this when I started writing fiction is critique forums. My particular favorite is Baen’s Bar. Post some stuff there in the Baen’s Bar Slush, get some feedback, post feedback on other people’s stories. Yeah, the negative comments can be hard to take at first, but you learn to extract the useful parts of them. If you critique enough stuff from other people you can learn to take that cold critical eye and apply it to your own writing, and then when someone comments on your stuff, even when they don’t like it you can decide objectively “Yeah, that makes sense” or “No, that advice is absolute crap”. I wrote up an article a while back suggesting some rules for critiquing and receiving critiques. Some of it has to do with this subject, especially the rule “This Is Your Story”.

I don’t follow Dean Wesley Smith a great deal, but one concept he has that I really found useful is The Race. In that, you keep a score for all the stories you have submitted. 1 point for each short. 3 points for a partial novel manuscript, 8 points for a full manuscript. I mostly submit short stories, but I do have one old dog of a novel I occasionally send out. I have one children’s book going out occasionally that I count for 3 points, on the grounds that it has more monetary potential than a short story but is not as bulky as a novel. I have about 50 stories completed by this time, and I typically keep about 30 of them in submission at any given time, rotating the other ones in as I get rejections. With that and the children’s book, my Score’s hovered around 33 for quite a while, not too bad of a score.

One thing that helps is if you can find a way to not put too much anxiety into any single submission. Submitting in bulk really helps this a lot, because if you have only ONE submission out, it’s hard not to obsess over it. You send out one submission, and then when you get one rejection you are back at square one. If you have 30 stories submitted though, a rejection for one is just a scratch on the surface, not that big of a deal. I assume any given submission is a certain rejection, but that I have some chance across the board. Pessimism in specific, optimism in general. :)

And for tracking submissions, I keep an Excel spreadsheet for now. In which I do happen to do some obsessive stats tracking. The way I have it set up the file has gotten ridiculously large and it’s hard to update with new markets. I’m trying to work my way to a database system. I’ve got the basic database tables set up along with some forms to fill them and get simple reports, but I want more complicated stats reports and haven’t figured out how to do those yet in OpenOffice. If anyone wants it you can download a free copy of it at.

And, after that, just perseverence is the only advice I have. When I get one back i just send it out to the next available market I haven’t sent it to and work my way down the line. And just because it’s been around the block a few times doesn’t mean it’s doomed. 1 of my recent stories that I sold for pro rates had been on its 20th submission. And then finally it found that editor for which it was just right.

As part of those obsessive stats, I keep a count of my submission responses, and the number at which I receive rejections. I started submitting in June of 2008. In that time I have had 675 resolved submissions:
489 negative/neutral rejections
167 positive rejections
5 rewrite requests
14 purchase at normal rate (for 8 different stories).

To show how long the stretches were between selling those eight different stories, of those 675 submissions those were numbered #s 126, 129, 210, 232, 572, 591, 599, 626, 637. That gap between 232 and 572 was soooooo long for me!! But I made it, and now have had pretty good luck for the last few months! Here’s hoping my luck continues. As it is, with the sales I’ve made this year, and if the neo-pro markets I’ve sold to get listed by SFWA as pro markets, then I could be eligible to apply for SFWA’s “Active” status around June 2012, which is one of my major milestones I’ve set for myself.

Technology and Writing

Technology is constantly changing the way we do so many things, and writing is no exception. How exactly? I’ve broken down the answer to that question into a set of categories. Keep in mind that all of this is through my own perspective on writing, which has been primarily speculative fiction short stories.

Is there anything I’ve left out, related to any sort of writing? Leave a comment!

1. Revising/writing

a. Spell Check-Many would be lost without spell check. Many programs, including Microsoft Word, even do a spell check as you type, and immediately mark an incorrectly spelled word the moment you type it. The spell check program can suggest alternative spellings, provide dictionary look-up. Still, spell checks could be improved–if the program could recognize a name through context this would prevent a lot of false alarms. Word also comes with a grammar check, but that is less useful because its grasp of grammar rules is shaky at best.

b. Revise and print-You decided you want to add a new paragraph on page one of a five hundred page manuscript? Or you discovered that all of your pages need a 1.5 inch margin instead of 1 inch? No problem! All you need to do is open up the document in your word processor, make your changes, and it’s ready to print. If you wanted to do this with a typewritten manuscript, it would not be fun at all.

2. Backing up your work

Imagine that, after putting weeks, months, or years of work into creating a masterpiece of prose, you suddenly lose your only copy of your manuscript. You remember the major plot points, but you’ve lost all the little details, and all the beautiful sentence-level work. It’s a terrible thought! Well, these days, there’s no reason to lose all your work if you just take a little time to prepare. Email is a convenient way to back your documents up. Many email services provide large storage banks for each account. I have a Gmail account that I started for free that makes a great aid to backing up documents. While I’m working on a new document, I email myself every couple of days. If I ever lost my other copies, all I would need to do is dig up the saved email. In addition to that, if someone plagiarized your work in the future, the timestamp on the email could help prove that you had a work in progress of the story long before it was in print. In addition to email, it’s always a good idea to back up a file in several places, each at different physical locations (so that a disaster like a fire doesn’t destroy years and years of hard work).

There are even programs designed specifically to help you keep your stuff backed up. Anthony recommend Carbonite.

3. Learning the craft

a. Interaction with pro authors-When I was younger, professional writers seemed to be a race of distant and otherworldly beings that I could never hope to interact with, lest my head explode (like when humans hear the voice of God in some belief sets). But now that illusion has been mostly dispelled. Don’t get me wrong, I still admire my favorite writers greatly for the amazing worlds they’re able to pull seemingly out of nowhere, but it turns out that quite a lot of them are quite nice people, and I’m even pretty sure that some of them are at least mostly human. Lots of them have blogs where they freely give writing advice to anyone who’s interested in listening. David Farland, for instance, has an email blog called Kick in the Pants–you can sign up for it at his website. Dean Wesley Smith is another favorite, providing great advice on his blog, including ideas for self-motivation like The Race. I’ve even added quite a few of my favorite authors as friends on Facebook–I enjoy hearing their writing updates and hear when they’re coming through my area for book signings.

No single writing method works for everyone, so if David Farland’s advice doesn’t work for you, don’t be discouraged. Just keep trying different methods until you find something that really clicks. Check out the sites of a few different authors. At the very least, their perspectives are entertaining. And if you have any questions, drop a comment to one of them. Keep in mind that they’re busy, but it’s not at all rare for them to take some time to reply to questions or comments.

b. Peer critique forums-Once I decided to start writing I spent more than a year writing a novel, mostly in isolation. I had just a few people who were willing to give me feedback on my stories, but these people tended to be inclined to tell me that they really liked the story, but not tell me much else. This was good for my ego, but not so useful to improve my writing skills. After that year, I decided to start writing short stories, and while doing market research I came across Baen’s Bar, a peer critique forum that doubled as a submission vehicle for Jim Baen’s Universe. You can post a story to their forum, and it is available immediately for feedback from others registered on the forum. Staff members of JBU often gave their comments, as well as other aspiring writers. Not only can you get feedback on your own work, many of whom are very experienced and have a good eye for picking out what’s missing in a story, but you can critique the writing of others. Of all the ways to improve your own writing, critiquing others is the best way, in my opinion. It allows you examine the stories of other aspiring writers and examine them with a cold eye without any emotional attachment to the story. You can decide what you like and what you don’t, and the real trick is to learn how to apply this to your own writing.

Jim Baen’s Universe will be closed as of mid-2010. There are no official plans to close Baen’s Bar critique forum, and the newsgroup it exists on will probably still need to be maintained for Baen’s Books and the Grantville Gazette magazine, so i hope the venue is around for a good long time.

c. Easy sharing-If you want to share a copy of a story with a friend, all you have to do is drop them an email. It’s free, and it’s quick, and a great way to share your work for feedback or just for fun.

d. Autocrit-Autocrit is a subscription-based service which provides automated tools to help watch for trouble spots in your manuscripts. It can look for potential flaws such as overused words and phrases, cliches, and overused dialogue tags. No tool is the end-all be-all of revising your manuscript, but this tool in combination with other techniques and tools can make a big difference.

4. Research

The effect of the Internet on research is obvious. Anyone with Internet access has nearly endless banks of information at their disposal, but one must always keep the source in mind. Wikipedia, for instance, is good for finding quick, interesting information, but because it is created by users, information provided there may not be correct. If a writer decides to write a story about doppelgangers, a quick Google search can provide a plethora of information in a fraction of a second.

5. Market info

1. Sites like Ralan provide submission information for a wide variety of publications.Â

2. Most markets have submisions page which describes exactly what they’re looking for, including any special formatting they require, required length, and preferred themes. Be sure to check out this page each time you send out a story to that market. You never know when some of their requirements will change. Many markets close to submissions from time to time, also, and it’s best to check here to be sure the market is still open as well.

6. Electronic submission/staff interaction

a. Save money-It costs nothing to send an email. That’s a major perk! Mailed submissions usually cost something like 2 dollars domestic within the US, including the SASE, and that’s not including the envelopes or the printing costs. Email submissions cost nothing. When you’re just getting started, those postage costs add up fast!

b. Quick interaction-An electronic submission arrives nearly instantly, ready for perusal by the magazine’s staff. My record fastest response was only 47 minutes (from Fantasy Magazine). That one was an outlier, but a few magazines consistently respond within 24 hours such as Fantasy, Clarkesworld, and Podcastle.

c. Geographically separated staff-A magazine’s staff members no longer have to be located anywhere near each other. In many cases, staff members may have never met in person, but members can interact easily with technology like email and online forums. This makes it much easier to find staff members, if you have the entire net-connected world to filter for candidates.

d. Competition fiercer every day! A downside to the recent ease of submission is that when submissions are both free and easy, more and more people will try it, which means more competition!

7. New publishing mediums

Printed words (either in magazine or book form) are no longer the only way to publish fiction. In fact, print may be the hardest one to maintain profitability with, and is probably the hardest method to start a new magazine with. Even a few years ago, print publications were generally considered to be more prestigious, but minds are opening a little bit more every year. SFWA recognizes professional markets based on pay and the circulation level, regardless of the medium.

Both of my sales to date have been to non-traditional publishing formats.

a. HTML-text format on a website. This can be provided for free (like Fantasy Magazine or Strange Horizons) or on a fee-based system (like Intergalactic Medicine Show or Jim Baen’s Universe).

b. Podcast-I’ve recently discovered audio fiction and I honestly don’t know how I’ve done without it. I can load up many stories on my iPod and I listen to them every day on my commute. Now I look forward to driving to see what the next story is! My first fiction sale was to Pseudopod, so I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for podcasts. And, even better, audio rights and text rights often do not overlap, so there is a large potential for resales for audio markets, as they are providing a substantially different product.

c. Print on Demand-Even just a few years ago, POD wasn’t really a viable option. Nowadays, if you have a good idea for a book or an anthology, you can publish it through POD and if you can find the audience for it, you can really do well. POD is not as risky as doing a huge preprinted print run (the traditional method), because you only print copies of the book that you have already sold. This means that once you’ve covered your artist/design and other upfront costs, each sale holds a share of profit. This is particularly appealing if the level of interest is uncertain or expected to be low.

Northern Frights Press was the publisher for my second sale. This was NFP’s very first anthology, provided via POD. Despite it being POD the printing is of a high quality that you could find in any bookstore, and it’s available to order from Amazon just like any other book. I’ve been very impressed with POD so far.

d. E-books-E-readers like Kindle are just starting to gain more widespread popularity. For a small fee, you can download books right onto the e-reader. With this technology you can grab new books instantly for less than what you would pay at the store, and you can carry your whole library with you wherever you go. I’m not sure that they will ever replace real books entirely–there’s just something I love about holding a physical book in my hand, the smell of the pages, the feel of the binding–but there are a lot of advantages to e-readers.

8. Social networking

In decades past, writing was generally considered to be a pretty lonely profession. Long hours alone with your typewriter were the norm, making a writer feel isolated from the very world she’s trying to write about. But if you’re writing on a net-connected laptop, you no longer need to be isolated. The importance of social connections in writing cannot be understated. There are many forums focused solely on writing, some geared towards particular genres, and they’re a great place to meet fellow aspiring writers. You’re not the only one struggling to be published. Together you can celebrate your successes, console each other for your failures, swap critiques, discuss writing techniques, and maybe just unwind a little bit.

#8 is closely related to #9 and #10. Read on!

9. Self-promotion

This overlaps somewhat with social networking in methods and tools, but the intent is different. Rather than meeting people for the sake of meeting people, this is working to spread your work to as many people as possible. Site like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit work as very powerful promotional tools. With each of these you can share links with huge amounts of people with minimal effort, and they’re all free. Most of the hits for this article were probably generated by these tools. With a little careful promotional work, like book giveaways, traffic can be driven to your site to advertise your writing and help with name recognition.

10. Availability of distractions

The flip side of the coin of all these advantages is that with the whole web at your fingertips, distractions are easy to find. If you’re stuck on a story, staring at the word processing screen, it is far too easy to pop up Facebook to go read your friends’ statuses, to hop on an online forum to discuss True Blood vs. Twilight, or to go read (or write) a blog post about writing. Those things all have their time and place, but if you want to write, make sure you get your writing time in too!