This came up recently on the Facebook page and the timing was pretty good as I’d been thinking of writing about this topic anyways.
Up until recently I didn’t track my daily word counts. Didn’t really see the need. I knew I needed to write everyday to get the kind of production I needed to hit the publishing schedule I wanted. What I want to do is pretty expansive. Lots of series, lots of releases.
And to do that I needed to up my production levels.
I knew that but it still wasn’t coming. I’d always say “let the words just come” and that is true but to meet my goals, I needed consistency.
So I went through everything I had written since publishing my first book The Skeleton Stone (May 2016) and tallied it up. Lots of writing, not that high a word total.
No wonder my production was so slow.
I saw people churning out books after books after books and I was struggling to keep up with an every-other-month novella series. Something had to change.
I’m not a fast writer. I know that. I’ll never have the production of a full novel every month. And that’s okay. But I did need to consistently produce.
Working up a spreadsheet I figured out a daily word count minimum that I could hopefully sustain. Most nights, I only get about an hour to actually write so had to factor that in.
My goal is 1,500 words a day (not an hour). Any project, or any number of projects, but I needed that minimum. 30 day month, that’s 45,000 words. I figured if I hit 40,000 for the month, wanting to do more obviously, but I’d be satisfied. At 40k a month, that’s 480,000 for the year. Still not that high compared to others (there are people that do 1 mil halfway through the year) but at 40k minimum for a novel (according to Science Fiction And Fantasy Writers of America) that would translate to twelve short novels. One a month.
(for the record SFWA has word counts as: Short Story – up to 7,499; Novellette – 7,500 to 17,499; Novella – 17,500 to 39,999; Novel – 40,000 and up)
That’s a lot of work produced in a year. I shoot for 30k words for a Novella and 60k+ for a novel.
Now knowing what I needed to produce, I had to start doing that. Setting the goal, having a tangible record via the spreadsheet, forces me to write every night. I switch projects when hit a wall on one, start new things. But I’m writing around 1,500 words a day.
I play “games” with myself. Some nights end up writing less if something else is going on (kids not sleeping for example) so I make it up another night and can see I planned in for non-production days (the 45,000 a month vs 40,000). Since I started tracking on 10/18/18, I have generated 33,982 words.
Not bad for only 15 days or so. Half a month and I’m already pretty close to my ultimate goal.
That’s all the evidence I needed that tracking your word counts works. If you aren’t, I would suggest that you do so.
It seems a minor thing, tracking word count every day, but having that goal that need to hit does wonders for the motivation.
I’m thankful I started going it.
Now just need to make sure I can maintain that pace.
So with NaNoWrimo just mere weeks away, it’s time to makes plans! Plan your novel! Pants your novel! No one cares if it makes sense as long as you get the 50k in the kitty before November 15th it’s all good!
Also, plan to go to a write-in.
Wait, what’s a write-in?
A NaNoWrimo write-in is a public gathering of NaNoWrimo participants. Among many things done at these write-ins is participants type away on their laptops until they all get sick of each other or their work in progress.
Yes, you heard me, writers gathering in groups and typing away.
This may sound odd but it’s fun and you’ll find you get more work done in the end.
A brief background on myself, I started NaNoWrimo in 2004 in Rhode Island and gradually worked my way up to becoming an Municipal Liaison (ML) and in 2014 or 2015 stepped down so someone else got the fun job.
An ML’s job is essentially to herd cats, er, participants, send out emails to the region, hold a mandatory Kick-Off and Thank God It’s Over (TGIO) parties and schedule write-ins even if no one shows up.
A write-in is essential to your NaNoWrimo experience for several reasons.
First, so you know you’re not doing this alone. The comradeship helps as November rolls on and the writers who were hot to trot three weeks ago all of sudden dwindle to nothing by the time Black Friday comes round.
Second, because coffee shops.
I was never a really big coffee drinker in junior, high school and college. I’m one of this morning people that can roll out of bed at 6am and start working without the caffeine.
So, when I started to frequent places like Panera, Reflections, Brewed Awakenings, the now defunct Borders Café, Blue State and Elephant Room (now Schastea) and so on, I figured out what I liked and what I didn’t. This helps later on in life when you’re writing to make a buck and can’t get any work done at home.
Besides the drinks, being an ML is meant looking for places where if need be the entire group of writers (10-15 on a good night) could de-camp for three hours and write without ticking off the owners. Doing these events taught me to look for several things like seating, electrical outlets and parking.
Along with all this, I learned to keep a surge protector in my bag at all times just in case which has saved me on more than one occasion.
Thirdly, write-ins are fun because if you hit a brick wall you get to people watch and listen to for instance a comedy stand-up act about Muppets and fisting.
Lastly, it’s fun to see your fellow writers and swap war stories about losing a thousand words or how many words they gained. Word Wars are started this way and it’s fun to have someone nipping at your heals. This hobby can be very lonely at times unless you manage to hit pay dirt and begin a professional career out of it.
It’s what helped create the writer group I started some eight years ago and out of the core group, myself included, five of us have gotten short stories published or in my case published novel that took me seven years to finish because as much I as I thought I was writing it I wasn’t put my ass in seat, cut the cable tv, the PS4 and the twitter feed to finish it.
So, when November rolls around as it does every single year, check the regional calendar and see if there’s a write-in. Bring your laptop, the charger and your noise canceling headset and go to write-in. Get a lovely NaNoWrimo sticker for which the ML should have many and start typing.
You’ll surprised at how much writing you’ll get done with everyone else is tapping away on their keyboards.
I published my first book, Suburban Zombie High in October of 2013. I had been writing for a few years and decided it was time to press the dreaded “publish” button. I self edited the book (my mastery of the English language is questionable at best.) The story didn’t quite fit into a genre, and the only saving grace was a cover illustrated by Amanda Kahl. I don’t know what I expected. It sold. People other than my family purchased it. Reality finally struck in the form of my first royalty statement: $18.65.
I didn’t have high expectations, but I think we all secretly hope it’ll take off and before we know it there’s a movie, a toy line, and a new societal trend based on our books. I recall staring at the number, and truth be told, I was a bit devastated. I was a novice, unsure of what I was doing, and not entirely sure I wanted to be a “writer.” Imposter syndrome (as I would later learn the term) sunk its ferocious nails into my hide and refused to relent. Authors don’t talk about their royalties frequently, it’s a well guarded secret. We might be judged based on our success because of a single number. The reality, we judge ourselves harshly based on that number.
That first year, I made $34.34.
My self-worth became married to that number. I wasn’t even worth $40. I couldn’t pay a bill after a year. I could barely afford a decent take out meal. Depression, insecurity, and wavering love for my hobby started to crop up. I was alone. I couldn’t talk to the “big authors” because they obviously wouldn’t understand. They’re living the dream and I can’t even afford a week of Starbucks.
I was picked up by a publisher and Nighthawks, my first superhero novel came out in February of 2016. I was stoked to have a partner in this journey and start washing away that horrible first experience. My confidence strengthened and I started working at a brisk pace. My book was professionally edited and the cover was supplied by the publisher. I was green, for me, this was the moment, my big break, my chance to be worth more than thirty dollars. In May of 2016, I received my first royalty statement for Nighthawks. My heart sank as I saw the phrase, “Grand Total: $7.66.”
In 2016, I made $105.76 from my fiction novels.
I had four books out at this point, three fiction and one non-fiction. My non-fiction managed to do well enough to make mortgage payments. I didn’t want to be a non-fiction writer, and I grew angry at the success of a work I didn’t feel passionate about. I had managed to make enough with my fiction to pay a single month of cable, a single hotel night, or gas for my car for a month. This “not good enough” mentality refused to shake free. I started believing I might simply be bad at this “hobby.”
Then things started to change. I decided to take a bit of a different approach to life after some catastrophic events happening in my professional life. I needed to be done with stress and start looking at things through a glass half full lens. Why did I have these doubts? Why did I feel insecure in my work? Why did I just feel not good enough all the time?
Let me point out some things:
I published a god damned book. How many people fail before this step?
I made money on something I love doing. Strangers bought my creation.
My profit increased from one year to the next.
My output increased. I now have fifteen (soon to be sixteen) titles between novels, anthologies, and audio.
I started to learn the industry behind the “hobby” I love.
I met amazing folks who support me unconditionally.
How do I put a price tag on those things? You can’t. Suddenly, my outlook changed. I stopped looking at myself as a creator and started thinking of myself as an artist who needs to commercialize their craft. I’m a graphic designer, essentially an artist for hire. It clicked. My worth is not a number. My identity isn’t a royalty statement. Those numbers are a byproduct of my effort and my blood, sweat, and tears.
In 2017, the number increased by ten fold. 2018 isn’t over, and the number is continuing to climb. I wish it was ten fold again, but I’ll take double or triple (you can calculate the math to guesstimate my income.) The number continues to climb.
I got my royalty statements yesterday. I didn’t even look at them until I needed to pay one of my vendors. I opened my account and said, “Uh, that’s more money than I thought.” I inspected my royalty statements and realized I made more in one month than I had between 2011 – 2016. Can I live off it? Absolutely not. Can I pay all my bills? I’m happy to report we’re nearing that threshold.
What I want you, the author reading this, the struggling artist, to take away? I want you to know that 1) you are not a royalty statement. You are so much more. You are a creator of worlds, a long-winded poet, a human. 2) Authors may not divulge our numbers openly, but when you get a royalty check that doesn’t amount to dinner on the dollar menu at McDonalds, we have all been there. Many of us are still there. We all struggle, even if it’s not visible, communicated, or disseminated across social media. 3) If you want to do better, you control your future. You can be better. There is no magical cap on your potential. Hard work can (and will) get you there.
I used to measure my success in royalty statements. It still colors my definition, but I’ve broadened what I find to be considered success. My definition of success comes in small steps, and each step I take leads to the next. I am not going to be Angela Lansbury and solving crime by tomorrow. I may not have a Netflix series out next month. But someday, one step at a time, I will finish this marathon a victor, even if my time is monumentally longer than those in first place. The take away of this I guess, you are not a number.
On the anniversary of Ray Bradbury’s death, I happened to have the chance to watch the new HBO remake of Fahrenheit 451. I’ve been a Bradbury fan since I was a teen—I even have a 451 tattoo that I’ve been designing for some time now and hope to get inked soon.
And while I was not overly impressed with the new HBO remake—it fell flat for me and seemed like there were a lot of missed opportunities and felt too rushed—and didn’t use one of the best lines which just happens to be on my tattoo design 😉 it did get me to thinking about some things. My youth, my love of all things Bradbury. But mostly, my life since becoming a digital author and rethinking my stance on physical books—actual printed records of our words and why we NEED them.
When I was a teen, Bradbury’s books opened me up to a world that was so much bigger than the bubble I was forced to live in, something I’m eternally grateful for. I recall vividly on the day of his death, that only thirty minutes before it was broadcast that he’d passed, I’d named him as a personal hero and influence on my own writing path during an author event I was taking part in. And although during a meh HBO remake, Ray’s voice still rang through loudly and has opened up my mind again.
Of the books I sell, 99% are digital. My main focus these last few years has been almost entirely on my digital creations. Over the last year, as KDP print emerged and rumors abound that createspace would close, I even debated pretty hardcore about doing away with print altogether. Because one, I sell so few paper copies is it even worth it, and two, going digital saves trees and is eco-friendlier, and three, publishing only digital content is so much easier and it’s what the people want, right?
I’ve heard the argument so many times about how physical books will never really die because there is something visceral about holding a real book in your hands. And while I agree that there is something special about a real book, and I do still own, buy, and read physical books (three guesses which author has a permanent stack of books on my nightstand—his name rhymes with Bay Radbury), I have kept my professional focus on digital and moved a huge part of my personal life toward digital, and had come to see paper as an art form dying a slow, inevitable death. Something to be accepted and even embraced as an author in this digital age.
Until in the middle of watching 451 when a sickening feeling welled up inside me that suddenly had me shaking in my slippers as I pictured a world gone totally digital and all our precious words wiped out, without any permanent record. What an absolutely terrifying thought that was to imagine.
Digital = Impermanence.
Easy to erase.
Easy to become non-existent.
The quickest way to ban content, ever.
Our digital words can be taken away without notice. Whether by a group of people in charge, or an overnight fictional horror story come to life and our digital devices no longer work… or… think up your own nightmare—you’re an author 😉
In some ways, this is already happening with all the banhammers slamming down lately for content and whatnot, a bad enough scenario already. But I think it has become too easy to forget how fragile the digital world really is. It is this seemingly giant TOO BIG TO FAIL (we’ve heard that before) ecosystem.
We fear our words being stolen and freely and unfairly spread across the digital universe. But do our words even truly exist if they’re only living in this digital universe? And now we have a generation of young people growing up, unaware of this potential fragility. And if not completely so now, we’re not too many years away from this.
And while I still fully embrace the digital world, because I love it, and I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon, I fully intend to reinstate my efforts to keep paper alive. Not just for my own books, but for the good of human-freaking-kind. Perhaps, someday, I’ll even open my own bookstore.
I absolutely do not want to face a future where are voices are no longer recorded in some permanent way, or have our younger generations growing up without the knowledge of what it means to have this, or how easily their voices could be stripped away without it.
If we ever end up in a society where our words are silenced, I, at the least, want to have a physical book to fight back with as it’s harder to destroy something you can hold, versus something that only exists in the digital universe.
So, Paper—I’ve been absent from caring about you for too long, but I’m back now baby and full on in love again.
Thanks, Ray. Your lessons are timeless 😊 and have changed my life so many times now. The power of words and imagination is a beautiful fucking thing.
I’ve been publishing for several years now and had the chance to work with extremely amazing people. The stories have ranged from heartfelt successes to humorous failures. I’ve sat with million dollar earners as well as authors struggling to make a single sale. What I’ve noticed as a big difference between the two, the successful author is able to remove their ego, package it up, set it on the shelf, and shush it when necessary. I admit there is an artistry to the craft we’ve undertaken, but great art does not equate to sales and often times this ego rearing its ugly head is the author’s biggest dilemma. I’m here to drop a truth bomb, your ego, it’s got to go.
Let me amend where I’m going with this statement. This is targeted to the author looking to make a career from writing (which means making $$$.) This is not targeted to the authors who write as a passion project. However, if you hope to have your passion project seen by the world, or at least more than your family, this is very much directed toward you. I wrote for passion for many years (and still do at times) so I never want to discredit or tell an author how their journey should be directed. But herein lies the conflict, when authors, even passion project authors, want their work read by many, but refuse to see their authorship as a career. So let’s start with major mistakes.
Bookshelves are a thing of the past.
There is this romantic image of an author casually browsing a bookstore and stumbling upon their work. They may ask to sign it, the store rewards them in free lattes and by some bit of magic, throngs of fans arrive demanding story time. Let’s be frank here, this is not the case. Angela Lansbury and Castle are fictional. The romantic image of the writer is 99.9% myth. And I’m not sure about you, but I don’t build a career on the possibility of winning the lottery (which has nearly identical odds.)
Consumers are steadily growing, but they’re not growing in the bookstore sector. We can see this with the demise of Borders and the frequent profit loss reports of Barnes & Noble (which is kicking and screaming to its grave.) If you do out the math of what is selling in bookstores, you’ll find most often it’s only the .1% that is making sales worth it. I’ve met multiple authors who have gone to bookstores and set up sales channels only to find the books do not fly on the shelves like they imagined. I write superhero novels, and I thought putting them in comic shops would be a great market plan. After countless hours, I managed to get them into several stores where almost none sell. If I did the sales and divided by the time spent, I probably made about $.10 an hour.
Remove the romance of writing from your business model. Push to where the market is strongest, and for many, this is online. This goes with the determination of selling physical books in online stores. Do not ignore them by any means, but also realize an ebook sale is often easier, faster, and selling in bulk can be more profitable in the long run. Don’t let your ego get in the way of letting go of outdated mentalities.
Book signing events
This is where I admit my ego often rears its ugly head. I’m an introvert by choice, but every now and then, I want to go out and bask in the glow of my admiring fans. I set up a book signing event and expect the line down the street, where people will let me sign their chests (it’s happened!) and kiss their babies. To my amazement I’m sitting alone gabbing with employees basking in the smell of fresh books. Poor.
We all have our vices, this one is mine. The reality of the matter is, unless you’re well-known, you’re not going to have people showing up to your signings. Or if you do, it’s people who would have bought your books without needing a hand sale.Most bookstores do not have the budget to advertise more than a social media post or a sandwich sign out front. The four hours I spend at a bookstore, is time lost doing something else, like selling books or writing. When I factor in the payout at the end of my last couple author events, I probably made nearly $.25 an hour and maybe met six people, five of who just know me and want to hang out. My ego is burning money, creating anxiety, and ultimately, disappointing me. But let’s be honest, this is where my vice will probably never let up.
Libraries can be a time suck.
I am the son of a librarian. I support libraries. Librarians are some of the most underrated superheroes in the universe and should be sung about. With that being said, getting your book onto library shelves can be tedious, a waste of time if you over invest, and ultimately, not reward anything other than your ego. I have sent mailer cards to every library in the state (multiple states even.) My sales from this? Of over six hundred libraries, I sold three books. That didn’t cover the shipment or hours wasted sending release notices to librarians.
Do not discount libraries as part of your marketing plan, just make sure you’re investing a reasonable amount of time and money. My new strategy to help myself and still reach these golden bastions of information is to reach out to my newsletter and ask my fans to inquire about my book at their libraries. It takes a few minutes of my time, my fans do the leg work, the library sees interest in my title, and ultimately, I’m helping support libraries. This level of time commitment, it’s a smart business decision. Losing hundreds of dollars pushing your books onto librarians, not so much.
Industry reviews are not reader reviews.
So you’ve decided your ego needs a huge boost or a huge slam. You’re ready to go for one of those fabled, massive, professional recognized reviews. It’ll cost you an arm and a leg, and you’re hoping they like your book and give it a positive review. You’re gambling. You’re gambling your reputation and your money. Your ego has reared its ugly head and it demands that you be recognized for your hard work. But when was the last time, a reader went to read these reviews? Sure you can add it to your Amazon product description that you received the golden star of the BigCompanyReview.
Honestly, when was the last time you, as a reader paid attention to that? I go to book pages because I either like the author and buy everything they write, or I browse and look at people reviews. I don’t care what some big company said about your book, I want to know what fans, people like me, have to say about your book. I want social proof that I won’t be let down.
These big review sites, they’re for professional ego stroking. Would I like to have BigCompanyReview tell me how much they love my work? Sure. But not for the money it requires and not at the risk of a bad review. The worst part, of the people I know who have received glowing recommendations, nearly all of them agree, the reviews have not made them sales. So then why get them? The determination for peer acceptance? Or is it our ugly friend again, the ego?
Books alone are not always viable.
This is aimed at the authors looking to make writing their full-time career. It’s a hard pill to swallow. My personal dream is to live in a remote cabin, write manuscript after manuscript and roll around in my money. Truth is, my writing alone isn’t going to cut it. I’m doing well, and reaching my personal goals, but the big goal is to be a career author. I’m finding my revenue is starting to shift from writing of books and now includes audio and boxsets. It’s still my writing, but it’s not solely books.
You may find that a combination of writing and patreon is your solution. It could be speaking engagements and writing are your thing. You as an author may write books, but that is not your only marketable skill. Diversifying your revenue streams to include a little here and there will eventually add up. I’ll keep praying that I land a movie deal, but I can’t put all my chips on a long shot.
A business requires goals.
The idea that you are a writer is a glamorous life filled with Starbucks, late night inspirations, and falling in love with fictional people. It is also a job, and at times, your boss will be the biggest pain in the ass. But that boss is pushing your business toward a goal. These goals do not need to be large and mighty. Most often the best business plan has small steps. These small achievable goals push us toward the greater goal, no matter where you define success.
I’m going to give you a small exercise, and I think it’s important, so be a trooper and join me.
Take a sheet of paper and at the top, write and finish the statement: My goal as an author is… Make it a single overarching goal. Perhaps look at it as your ten-year goal.
Make three columns
In the left column, take ten minutes and write down every thing you do as a writer. Include your writing habits, your marketing, your events. Literally try to write as many things as you can think that you’ve done in your author career journey. For me, it might be: attend cons, ams ads, facebook ads, writer conference X, attend author expo, manage NESW, boxset promotion, audio books….
In the center column, this is where it gets a bit difficult. You need to write how each item in the left column achieves your greater goal. You need to be honest here. No inflating the purpose. Some of these you might not know if you haven’t done them yet. This is where you can ask people who have. Never attended a convention to sell books, ask veteran sellers, they’ll be honest about their goals. Never done a book signing event and not sure how it might achieve your goal, ask.
Now here’s the part I find authors have the most difficulty doing. Tape that paper somewhere in your office. Each time you execute one of the items on the left column, write the result in the right column. If it does not achieve that goal in the center, kill it. If it does, then make notes. If it did something unexpected, it’s time to rewrite how it’s achieving your greater goal.
Stick with it. You’ve just unknowingly created a business plan. It might be loose, it might be incomplete, but you’ve started. This works for authors seeking a career, hobbyist, and even the causal, “I do it for the love.”
I will bluntly say, all the above advice should be taken with a grain of salt, a lot of scrutiny, and raked over with your personal and business goals in mind. No person’s career is identical to another and there are numerous paths to be taken. But the one thing I stand by, and I urge people to conquer for the sake of sound decision-making to advance your goals, your ego.
When I started writing, I made the decision to write LGBTQ characters into mainstream science fiction books as a reaction to the massive gap I saw in science fiction television shows and movies growing up in the eighties and nineties. (Sadly, I didn’t read much back then.)
Gay characters in Star Trek? Not until Discovery aired in 2017-18; not until they retconned Sulu’s story in ST: Beyond in 2016;
Gay characters in Star Wars? Hmmm…only if you gay-ship Poe and Finn;
Gay characters in Dune? Oh wait, but he was old and evil, arguably like every Disney villain; Jafar, Ursula, Hades, Scar, Shere Khan;
The SyFy Battlestar Galactica reboot? Yes, but the producers tucked the gayness away. You’d only know Lt. Felix Gaeta was gay and in a relationship with Louis Hoshi if you searched the Internet or watched the BSG webisode series.
Gay Superheroes? Not in the movies, but slowly arising in the comics and daring television shows. Yay!
This points to the question that burned in my soul as kid who watched these and other amazing eighties reruns such as Knight Rider, Airwolf, Buck Rogers, The Wonder Years, Growing Pains, Full House, and Family Ties:
Where were the people like me?
Why don’t people like me exist in the things I love, or, why are people like me portrayed as evil?
Why did I only read about people like me in M/M romance or erotica novels?
Why did I have to sneak downstairs in the late nineties to watch MTV’s Undressed to catch a glimpse at LGBT characters living seemingly normal lives in college and other young adult situations?
However, all was/is not lost.
The recent Doctor Who series and its spin-off, Torchwood, saw fit to include bisexual Captain Jack Harkness and his same-sex romantic delights for fans to enjoy. I was ecstatic! When David Tenant’s Doctor brought Captain Jack and Alonso together moments before he regenerated, I was bouncing on the couch with excitement. Then, newer shows like MTV’s Teen Wolf flipped the script and shocked me by providing its characters with a next-level LGBTQ environment: not one straight bullied or cared a gay student; rather, all students were accepted with complete equality regardless of whom they loved. I was finally seeing myself in mainstream characters portrayed in recent television shows and in movies, like Love Simon.
I’m thrilled to see more and more shows (Shameless, Sense8, and more) include a plethora of LGBTQ characters, and I truly hope this trend continues—but some areas of have much catching up to.
Alas, this brings me to writing quality LGBTQ characters. If the mega-studios won’t give me what I want, then I decided to write it for them and the others like me who yearn(ed) to have an LGBTQ superhero, an LGBTQ space marine, or an LGBTQ captain of a massive starship who live in happy, healthy, and challenging worlds and relationships. Because I strongly believes the real world we live in should be a place—like Teen Wolf’s setting—where LGBTQ equality and respect are second nature and never questioned, I choose to write this into my stories.
I still think there are too few examples of LGBTQ superheroes in popular media today, and most of those are retconned or made LGBTQ with new storylines. It’s not that I want television to into all rainbows and sparkly (though wouldn’t that be fun?), but I want equal airtime for LGBTQ characters. They don’t even have to bang—but knowing this superhero is fluid or that male captain has a husband would be fantastic.
Putting aside what the rest of the world does or doesn’t do, I set out to write my own stories, and this year, I’m proud to start sharing them with the world. In 2014, I started world-building for a series I’ve titled TheNitraxian Galaxy Saga, a massive, groundbreaking LGBTQ science fiction space opera. I’ve spent a lot of time world building, outlining, and organizing the characters and plots into an amazing story. In reality, this significant undertaking is the LGBTQ lovechild of Star Trek/Wars and Game of Thrones, allowing for equal page time for the main characters regardless of their sexuality. I wrote book one in 2017 and then set it aside to work on a project that would not leave my imagination alone.
In early 2018, I started—and am still—writing an LGBTQ superhero story set in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The five-book Guardians Series is the story of gay student Quinn McAlester and his best friend Blake Hargreaves, high school classmates who acquire super powers through a freak accident. I didn’t set Guardians in a utopia of equality. Rather, using real-world situations, I flipped the script on acceptance and focused on Quinn’s coming out as a superhero to a town that refused to accept him and his gifts. I did this because there are still so many teens and adults who struggle with coming out despite the progress we’ve made as a country toward accepting LGBTQ equality and rights.
I encourage authors write well-developed LGBTQ characters because LGBTQ people enrich the world in so many ways and I want to see and read about amazing, wonderful, (and yes sometimes evil) people like me represented fairly in books. Though I am aware the wider audience still rejects LGBTQ characters (yep, I have one of those infamous 1-star reviews on a book) you can help enhance people’s perceptions and acceptance by writing wonderful and loving LGBTQ characters who show the world their true colors.
For the curators of, The Final Summons we encountered a lot of firsts. While none of us are slouches when it comes to publishing and the written word, taking on a leadership role provided a unique insight into the world of submissions. We received more submissions than we originally anticipated and the caliber of writing ranged from poetically perfect to rough draft at best. However, we poured through them, discussing the merits of each story and how it would combine into a cohesive anthology. We fought passionately for the stories we loved and had to make tough decisions. There were victories, many of them, but there were also a series of eye rolls that had us asking, “What were they thinking?” We wanted to provide some insight into this newly discovered world that we think will help authors in submitting short stories for anthologies.
Follow the Guidelines.
It sounds simple, but we were shocked by how many people didn’t follow the guidelines. We clearly stated you must be a member of the New England Speculative Writers and located in New England, yet we received submissions from across the United States. We asked authors to include some basic information such as word counts and a tag line. While we were able to fill in the gaps as necessary, the extra work made us move these titles to the bottom of the slush pile. Imagine a publisher receiving hundreds of entries? The fastest way to get rid of the muck (even the best written muck in existence) is to see if an author did these basic steps. If they haven’t, it’s a way to be stricken before you’re even read.
It gets trickier when it comes to “theme” or the anthology “vision.” We left our topic extremely broad to give writers the most latitude possible. However, some of the stories were so off topic it was obvious they were written for another anthology. Some of the stories never even came close to reaching the theme. We got aggravated when an author wasted our time with a story that had no business being submitted. Now unfortunately, those authors’ names are associated with that aggravation. It means the next time they submit, they walk in with a strike against them. So when submitting, make sure it hits the theme squarely enough that you leave a good impression. Previously submitted stories are welcome, even encouraged, but they need to be on “brand.” This might require a little bit of rewriting or tidying up a plot. The extra effort shows.
Short vs. Epic.
The most common thing we said while reading the submissions was, “This isn’t a short story, it’s a condensed novel.” There were some great stories to be had, but some of them weren’t short stories, not even by a long shot. Epic tales are amazing, but they need the room to breathe, develop, and flush out an intense plot. We sent several stories back with notes suggesting that the author take the story and use it as a building block for a lengthy epic tale. The stories were good, some even compelling and wonderful, but they need more than 7,000 words.
With such a tiny word allotment (and let’s be honest, some of us write 100,000 novels that only touch the tip of the iceberg) these epic tales won’t work. In a short story, the world building has to be done in a manner that works alongside the story and not a heap of information at the start. Submissions that started with an uncanny amount of “info dumping” put us on alert. We didn’t need to know the background of the world, how it came to be, or why magic/technology was at its current incarnation. Sometimes the mystery of not knowing is even more alluring. We need a single character (or perhaps two) to exist in a world that we experienced through them. If they don’t meet elves along their journey, there’s almost no point in mentioning them (even if you know they exist in this world.)
Listen & Digest.
We decided at the start that no matter what we read, we’d provide positive feedback to the author. We believed this to be an essential part of the process with New England Speculative Writers. Sometimes we focused on mechanics, sometimes it was centered around plot, it all depended on the author and what their work needed. Never once did we feel that a story was unsalvageable.
We understand that veteran authors have resources, such as beta readers, critique groups, even editors working with them when they prepare to submit short stories. We are not them. We are a set of virgin eyes, exploring your world (and often your writing) for the first time. We come in without bias wanting the very best of your characters and your plot. We aren’t on the hunt for perfection (not a single story was accepted without feedback) we are on the hunt for potential. With work, passion, and an open mind, even the flattest characters can be rounded and rocky stories can be smoothed. When an author criticizes our feedback, it says two things instantly: 1) I’m difficult to work with or 2) I’m incapable of being a team player.
Having submitted to dozens of anthologies, we know that most often, you receive a form letter. This goes for agents and publishers as well. So when an agent/editor/publisher gives you advice, you don’t have to take it, but you do have to stop and consider it. Are they speaking accurately? Truthfully? Are they offering words to uplift your story? Many people wrote back when they resubmitted saying, “I liked your first two points, but I tried your third and it just didn’t work.” We’re not perfect either, but when we get responses saying somebody has attempted our suggestion we see “TEAM PLAYER” and it excites us to build a relationship. Don’t burn your bridges.
This is a double edge sword. You need information, but you don’t want to pester. We found both sides of this happened while we were open for submissions. We had forthright questions, “Do you see any gaps in your submissions?” all the way to, “I have a pitch, can I get feedback?” We responded to as many as we could with as much information as we could. But there came a point when some of the questions stopped being about needing information and turned into needing validation.
Ask a question if you must. But remember you are one of dozens of emails each day. When it became obvious some of the emails were essentially asking us for a plot so they could write the story, we ceased communication. Needing facts is very different from needing creative energy. Ask facts. Be specific, be clear, and be concise. If time allows, you’ll receive a similar answer. However, if your answer requires time, energy, and especially creative energy, you might be overstepping boundaries.
Ask questions through the proper channels. Yes, we have twitter and Facebook which allow us instant access. Some of the authors even have our cell phone numbers. Text and you’re dead to us. Shoot a fast message on Facebook, we’ll try to respond. Put it in the official email, then it feels like business and we want to foster professional relationships, so that gets the fastest (and most thorough) answers. Seeking out on social media is okay if you’re tight with the editor, but don’t abuse it. Some of us only use Facebook to swap recipes with our moms. Social media is still not considered a professional line of communication (your mileage may vary with this statement.)
Patience is a Must.
In the fast paced world of self-publishing, an author can finish writing a book and have it published in days. Even micro publishers move within months where the old model of traditional publishing can take years. Times are changing and with deadlines and quick production, there is a sense of urgency. “Did I get in?” “Any word?” “When will the decision be made?” The more these questions are asked, the more stress/pressure goes on the publisher. We’re not saying don’t ask, it’s important to your livelihood to know these things, but give it time. Even with forty submissions, it took us nearly two months to read and provide feedback. As each of us have full-time jobs, as do many small presses and free lance editors. We spent every available moment reading and making comments. The editorial process takes time.
With many self published authors simply putting their book online and wondering why sales aren’t taking off, it needs to be a constant reminder that success takes time as well. Curating and providing feedback is only half the job. We spent countless hours preparing a marketing plan on how to fund, produce, and market our anthology. We set the publish date a year into the future to allow time for editing, cover production and pre-orders. Always feel free to ask what the “plan” is, but be aware, the time-table might not be a mad dash to the finish line.
We debated on what should go onto this list. We had many other thoughts and considerations, but these we felt were a universal truth with our anthology and beyond. As always, we want to watch our authors flourish, so we hope this bit of insight behind the scenes of The Final Summons, helps guide your hand in future anthology submissions!
Like most who know about the artform, I was introduced to improv comedy from the famed TV show Who’s Line Is It Anyway? Despite many of the references going over my young head at the time it first aired, I still found myself bursting at the seams with laughter at the off-the-cuff antics of the performers.
In high school, I was fortunate enough to participate in an improv club, where we not only played games, but also took field trips to performances and studied techniques from professionals.
While I was goofing off in a cloud of gawky adolescence, I was ignorant to the fact that improv was not only teaching me how to think on my feet, but also how to tell stories. And one day it clicked that the beauty of improv, as well as the core of storytelling, is all about engagement. Whether you are performing or observing in the audience, improv is a hands-on experience, much like the worlds you build in your narrative and the relationship you have with your readers.
It was only later in adulthood that I realized I was inadvertently applying these skills in my D&D gaming sessions. It started simple enough with my character creation (and giving my GMs headaches with grotesquely detailed backstories), then evolving further when I started DMing myself. Eventually, it got to the point where I chucked the rulebooks out the window and ran completely diceless campaigns.
After making this connection, I was able to apply my knowledge to large scale writing projects and develop the eyesight to become my own content editor. (NOTE: Don’t depend entirely on your own skills for content editing if you can help it. I am saying I was able to recognize enough to save work for someone else).
These skills not only helped with the writing aspect, but also the business side of being a “Competent Author™.” Elevator pitches, networking and relationships, public speaking etc. All of this can be improved upon with a flight from the seat of the pants.
But performance, no matter how small the audience, is much easier said than done, especially if you have anxiety. With practice and a few quick, short-worded sentences tucked in your belt, you can excuse yourself from overwhelming situations:
“Hey, this was a great conversation, but I really need to be elsewhere right now.”
“Thanks for chatting! I’m headed to another appointment, but maybe we can continue later?”
Whether it’s true or not, it’s great to have some pre-fabricated exits. However, I am speaking through my personal experience, and not everyone can find this helpful.
If you want to start off with playing improv games, try it out with a few close friends just to get a feel of the mechanics. The more you practice in a safe environment, the easier it may become for you. Remember, your replies will NOT sound polished. In fact, they will be clumsy and awkward until you learn what bits of your personal conversation filter can be shut off at will.
And that’s okay! Improv is not supposed to be polished, it’s supposed to be messy and random. A lot of the most noteworthy moments can come from spouting off the first thing that comes to mind (in both good and bad contexts). Just like editing a draft, polish comes later with time and practice.
A good first-time game is called “One Word,” where participants take turns telling a story one word at a time. Put a little flair on it by adding a theme or setting to help keep everyone focused. Make a space adventure and tell the story of a first alien encounter. Perhaps an opposing kingdom is beating down the gates to your castle, what happens next?
A quick google search of “Improv Comedy Games” will bring you a slew of options, but here’s a pair of sites with great examples to get you started:
Many games can be tailored to fiction, adding genre spins to suit whichever you want to practice. Focus on setting and character creation, or even use the Question Game (make a conversation only using questions) to practice your dialogue development.
Introduce exercises in your next writing group meetings or convention mixers as an icebreaker. But please be mindful of those with social anxiety and be respectful to members not participating! Improv requires a certain level of trust, and some may not feel comfortable for whatever reason they may or may not feel like sharing. Do not take it personally if you get rejected but be sure to leave the door open for those who want to try.
And on that note, another vital skill learned through improv is the ability to read the room. Improv is not just about spouting off the first thing that comes to your head. It’s also about learning the dynamics and knowledge base of the participants as well as the audience.
For example, any games involving song titles or movies may leave some players out because they don’t partake in popular media. It is also advisable to stray away from politically charged topics in a new setting until everyone is familiar with each other. It will take some experimentation to determine everyone’s comfort levels, as well as what types of games everyone excels at. Play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Ultimately, have fun with improv whether you apply it to your writing or not! It’s a fantastic way to practice interactions and storytelling while enjoying time with others both in and out of the industry. And most importantly, don’t be too serious when playing. It is comedy, after all.
This celebratory month of women in speculative fiction has seen posts on many topics all of which come back to a central important issue – inclusion. I write in an area of fantasy that is often relegated to the back burner in the sci-fi/fantasy community and among writers in general: romance. Yes, romance is frequently the red-headed step child at the family reunion, but I can’t help it. Love and relationships are always the focus of my writing.
Most of my published work would be classified as either paranormal romance or romantic fantasy with many of these being in the category of retold fairy tales. It’s a genre I’ve loved for decades and while it generally finds a lot of success with the reading public, many people I meet have an easier time believing in mermaids and magic than love or happy endings. (New England is especially known for this – romance sells the lowest in this part of the country).
What can be more basic, more interesting, and more revealing than how we choose and treat our closest relationships? When as writers we create worlds we need to ask ourselves about the mating, pairing and parental relationships that exist in this new world. When we read, if these things are left out or ignored, something about the world seems off, lacking.
Certainly the various movements including #metoo, #timesup and #ownvoices show that how we interact with one another, how we include those who identify differently from us, has a lasting impact on current and future generations. Speculative fiction gives writers and readers an amazing opportunity to look at the truth of these relationships – the problematic and the healthy – from new perspectives which can help us understand our own. Look at the recent resurgence in popularity of The Handmaids Tale, science fiction which puts relationships at the core. No, it’s not a romance. This is a world where there is no place for romance – and look at the results of that.
I know that in my own writing, when I work in a paranormal world, I look at what rules I no longer have to adhere to, where I can get creative, and where can I build something completely new – something that reflects what I believe is the best a relationship can bring to an individual.
We still have challenges when presenting these relationships either in books or film. From Sleeper to Demolition Man to Gattaca science fiction and fantasy movies show what might be different in the future when it comes to the challenges of love, sex and relationships on other worlds and in other futures. Many make it comical (when I asked about this on Facebook a friend reminded me of Barbarella), some eliminated it all together. But at the end of the recent blockbuster hit Wonder Woman she extols the value of love and how this aspect of who we are is one of the things that make us worth saving.
Would you like some recommendations? My favorite fantasy author who looks at the importance and influence relationships have on our lives and our world is Anne Bishop. All of her books explore romantic relationships, but the Black Jewels trilogy (and beyond) is particularly amazing as is her Others series. And if in your fantasies you want vampires, then Joey W. Hill’s Vampire Queen series is one of the hottest series I’ve ever read.
I have come to believe that we brush love and all it stands for aside at our own peril. It deserves to be a priority, not a second thought, not something relegated to the silly or trivial. Certainly not something called “girly”. Anyone who has felt and expressed a wide range of emotions knows – emotions are not for the faint of heart. They require great strength and they show the strength of those who experience them.
As Diana says at the end of Wonder Woman, there is darkness and light in all of us and only love can truly save the world. I agree.
A Jersey Girl trapped without good diners or boardwalks in New England, Rachel Kenley is the author of eight romance novels, most recently the Melusine’s Daughters trilogy. Rachel started reading romances at 14 and credits them with her lifelong fascination with relationships and how they contribute to our ability to go for our dreams. When she is not writing she is homeschooling her sons, trying unsuccessfully to keep up with laundry, and laughing as much as possible. She believes in shameless flirting, finding pleasure in the everyday, never missing the chance to watch The Wizard of Oz and the emotional and economic power of retail therapy. You can follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and at www.rachelkenley.net where you can also sign up for her newsletter.
Like any craft, writing is a world of its own. There are rules that must be followed, and rules that may be broken. While being creative is esoteric, and may be something you are born with, learning the craft of writing is just like learning any other craft. There’s a lot of nuts and bolts information you need to absorb. Good grammar is the first one, but it takes much more than proper spelling and sentence structure to write a good story. Story structure, character development, pacing, building tension: these are all building blocks of our fictional creations. There are tricks and methods to all of these, but for this blog, I’m going to share a few tips on self-editing.
So, okay, this one is not exactly a newsflash. It’s actually one of the most well-known bits of advice floating around the writing universe. This not only helps you find errors and clunky parts, it’s also a great way to find the rhythm of your words. The tip here? You don’t actually physically HAVE to speak out loud. An actual out-loud read should happen at some point, but as you are writing, just read the sentences in your head, and focus on what they will—or should—sound like when spoken out loud.
I don’t mean to literally read every sentence backwards, word wise. Just read backwards on the page and, when possible, the paragraph. Why? Our minds like to play tricks on us. If we read quickly, we tend to skim, which makes it really easy to mistake what is actually on the page for what we think is on the page.
Spellchecking programs should never be considered the be-all, end-all of editing. They won’t catch everything, and they will at times complain about things you did on purpose. That said, you’re not doing yourself any favors by skipping this step. Spellcheck may flag a sentence that’s perfectly fine, but when you look at it more closely, you may find a better way to word it. This is also a great way to find and kill passive voice.
Mark Your Spots
Ever get stuck on a phrase or plot point, or come across something that you may need to research more? Ever wonder if you already used that piece of dialogue? Don’t get bogged down in details on your first pass. Put a special word in that doesn’t appear often in your work. I use insert, but you can use monster or chocolate or pizza or phalanges whatever. Then, go back and search those words out to find the spots you wanted to work on.
Let It Simmer
When you’ve finished a first draft, back it up, walk away, and leave it alone. Like a good wine, the story needs to simmer. I don’t know if this happens with all writers, but my back brain tends to work on things even when I’m not paying attention. This is a good time to feed your head. Look at art, listen to different music, watch documentaries. I’ve often found a plot point strike me while I was working on a different WIP. Make a note, and move on.
Don’t Take The Easy Way Out
Jack White recently posted an interview where he said that ‘As an artist, your job is not to take the easy way out.’ You want a best-selling novel? You have to write a novel that is good enough to be a best seller. That means setting high standards for yourself. That means picturing your book as an excellent novel, and then stepping into that space. Always, always look for ways to improve your book and fill plot holes.
Don’t Be Afraid To Make Multiple Passes
Some stories are ‘born’ in more or less one shot. Others grow slowly. I tend to be a bit OCD about editing, and edit things at least 4 or 5 times. At least. I have one WIP that’s been edited probably 20-30 times. You don’t want to go overboard here, as you may find yourself editing the same thing over and over. The old saying about art never being finished, only abandoned, is true. That said, do one more pass than you think you need to.
Kill Your Darlings
I can’t take credit for this one, as it’s an old adage, originally attributed to Faulkner. I blew this one off for a long time. And then, all of a sudden, I got it. Just because you can write a long, beautiful sentence, or a perfect paragraph describing someone’s car or clothes doesn’t mean you need to. If it serves the story, fine. But trim the fat. This also means boil down your sentences and paragraphs. Chop filler words and phrases, and let the story shine through. Go in with the intention of cutting.
Save The Bodies
Ever find yourself cutting a scene or chapter that doesn’t fit? It may work in another piece. Keep files for bigger cuts.
Have A Saving System
One rite of passage that many writers share is the pain of lost work. Computer crashes, missing thumb drives, whatever. I learned this lesson the hard way. I now have my auto-save settings set to two minutes. (I can deal with losing two minutes of work in a worst-case scenario.) I also save the file with the date in the name. This is because I used to save new versions by adding things like ‘Final’ into the name. That sounded like a good idea at first, until I ended up staring at multiple versions of a WIP with things like ‘Final,’ ‘ReallyFinal,’ ‘Final Copy,’ and even ‘UsethisFinal’ incorporated into the names. Don’t do this.
Fall Into The Story
Editing shouldn’t all be about nuts and bolts. At some point, you need to let your muse or your creative side play too. Make a playlist, light some candles, do whatever you need to do.
Listen To Yourself
If a scene or character isn’t capturing your attention, it probably won’t grab a reader, either. At the end of the day, some things just don’t work. Don’t kill a story trying to fix it. Let it sit, or walk away.
Morgan Sylvia is an Aquarius, a metalhead, a coffee addict, a beer snob, and a work in progress. A former obituarist, she is now working as a full-time freelance writer. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in several places, including Wicked Witches, Wicked Haunted, Northern Frights, Twice Upon An Apocalypse, and Endless Apocalypse. In 2013, she released Whispers From The Apocalypse, a horror poetry collection. Her first novel, Abode, was released from Bloodshot Books in July 2017 and is available on Amazon. She also writes for Antichrist Metalzine. She lives in Maine with her boyfriend, two cats, and a chubby goldfish.