Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

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Story Sale: Science Fiction Analog

Trevor Quachri, the editor at Analog sent me an acceptance for “Party On” this morning. It’s rare for me to sell two stories in less than a week, although once I received three acceptances on the same day in the mail. This is when correspondence with magazines was done on paper. That was an awesome day!

Someone asked me if selling a story every gets old. Nope.

Stuff That’s Happened Lately: Late 2020

It’s been a while since I’ve shared news here (I post more often on my Facebook page!).

I attended the virtual MileHiCon the third week in October. This was my first virtual con. I had a tough time getting into it. I love conventions, but the virtual version lost almost everything I like: meetings in the hallways, crowds, room parties, dealers’ room, art show, bar-con, etc. Still, it was better than no con at all, and I did meet up with friends virtually. Fortunately, they recorded many of the panels. Here are the ones I was on:

Creative Parenting

There’s Kissing in My SF

My Favorite Writing Tools

You can cruise through the complete list of recorded panels here.

I attended World Fantasy a week later, where I also did some panels.

For most of the fall I have been working on supporting the release of The Best of James Van Pelt, my huge short story collection. This has included doing interviews and essays. The first rumination on the collection appeared in “My Favorite Bit: James Van Pelt Talks about The Best of James Van Pelt,” which Mary Robinette Kowal hosted. The second one appeared on John Scalzi’s WHATEVER, The Big Idea: James Van Pelt.

Sadly, Covid wiped out this year’s Rain Forest Writers Retreat, which I’ve attended for the last eleven years (sob!). Hopefully the world will right itself by 2022 and conventions and public events will be a part of our regular schedule again.

On the publishing side of things, my novelette, “The Minerva Girls,” was the cover story for the Sept./Oct. Science Fiction Analog. Also, “Ethnoentomology” appeared in Deep Magic, and “After the War” in On Spec. Analog sent the galleys of “I Have Loved the Stars too Fondly” for approval, and Asimov’s bought “The Bahnhof Drive-in.”

In the meantime, I’m truly enjoying being retired, and I’m working on my next stories.

Promoting The Experience Arcade and Other Stories

Promoting a book is an interesting activity, and a separate one from writing the book or selling the book to a publisher. Marketing a book is a third challenge, or a third hobby, depending on how you think about it. It requires skills and a mindset that don’t seem related to the first two activities (and those two aren’t related either).

Image may contain: one or more people, possible text that says 'SUMMER OF THE APOCALYPSE JAMES VAN PELT'

I’ve been playing around with FaceBook ads to see how they impact book sales. Last month my son and I built a campaign for SUMMER OF THE APOCALYPSE. We noticed there was a lot of interest in pandemic related stories, so the timing was right. Other than a couple indignant notes from people who thought we were trying to capitalize of death and suffering (I’ve donated all money that came in from the book to relief organizations), I thought the campaign went well. We definitely moved the needle on book sales while we ran ads, although we spent more than we netted.

A nice feature of FB ads is that you can fine tune what audience will see the ad, and then note what works best. There’s a bunch of control for the author.

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For the next month we are working on marketing my last collection, THE EXPERIENCE ARCADE AND OTHER STORIES. This is a collection instead of a novel, and there are features in the book that point it to different audiences than SUMMER OF THE APOCALYPSE. Also, the book is not tied to current events, so our approach is impacted by that (also, I’m unlikely to get letters from people accusing me of profiting from a catastrophe).

Doing this experiment with FaceBook makes me want to learn more about advertising on other platforms. Amazon and Goodreads seem like possibilities. I’ve done some with Goodreads, like doing a giveaway when the book was released, mostly in the hopes it would generate reviews (not as many as I would hope), but I think there’s more to learn than I have discovered.

An Occasional News Post

I have been spending much of my online time in two venues. The first is Curious Fictions where I try to post a story a week, generally on Wednesdays. The site contains a ton of free fiction. Readers can also subscribe to writers they like or give them tips.

Of course, I like tips. You can also follow writers who you want so when they post new stuff, you are notified. There’s a place to “like” stories or to comment on them. My latest contribution is “The Small Astral Object Genius,” which appeared the first time in Asimov’s.

I also have been posting short fiction reviews at Black Gate. Those also appear every two or three weeks and are free to read. The column is called “Stories that Work.” My mission is to comment on stories that I think are successful and what recommends them. I’m not searching for a “best of” necessarily, nor am I reviewing the stories I don’t think work. Here’s my latest for Black Gate.

Of course, I also hang out at Face Book regularly.

Keep safe! Social distance responsibly.

Experience Arcade Cover Reveal

My new collection, THE EXPERIENCE ARCADE AND OTHER STORIES, is now up for preorder at both Amazon and Barnes and Noble. We can now reveal the entire cover! I still get all squishy inside when I see my name on a book. It makes me feel like I was when I was ten-years old at the library, looking for which science fiction authors my book would appear between when I grew up (it was Jack Vance and A.E. Van Vogt).

 

Selling a Small Press Book

pandoracampaigneYesterday, Patrick Swenson asked me how my Goodread’s ad that I started in October for PANDORA’S GUN was doing. I hadn’t tried any kind of advertising campaign for any of my books before, so this was new territory for me. The Goodreads program was pretty simple. They gave me a template for the ad which I designed (it took five minutes–most of that time was deciding how to word the text to go along with the book cover) . Then I chose how much money to put into the ad buy. What I’m buying is Goodreads placing the ad on the side of pages that Goodreads users who have indicated an interest in books like PANDORA’S GUN could see. I’m charged fifty cents when someone clicks on the ad. As of this morning, the ad has been displayed 413,675 times, and I’ve spent $57.50 of my budget.

So, what to make of that? Has the ad resulted in $57.50 of sales so far? I have no way of telling. It certainly has not translated into hundreds of books being sold.

Would I have stronger results with a Facebook or Amazon ad? Do online ads work at all? Would I just do better by compiling a newsletter list (which often feels spammy to me)? These are questions I don’t have answers for.

My feeling is that in the small press world, the only things that truly sells books is word of mouth. In online terms, that would be people reading a book, liking it, and then sharing it with their online friends. If some of those friends also share the book, then you get the equivalent of a sustainable reaction. Lots of people are talking about the book and getting other people to read it.

Right behind word of mouth are reviews. Not just reviews in PW or Locus, but also on Amazon, Goodreads, B&N, etc. A well-planned signing can move books too, but in small batches.

The next tier of actions I could take: book marks, custom pens, flyers, tee-shirts, etc. strike me as a waste of money (although fun to do).

Unfortunately, word of mouth and the reviews are mostly beyond the author’s control. Author’s can’t make people talk about their books, and they can’t control the reviews.

So, to answer Patrick’s question, I don’t know how the ad buy at Goodreads is doing or whether it was worth it. All I can say is that I controlled buying the ad. Once the book was out, it was one of the few things I could control, and that felt good.

Sunday Writing: First Sale

martian chroniclesSometime when I was a little kid, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I’d always been a reader. The Tom Swift stories, Tom Corbett: Space Cadet, A Wrinkle in Time, The Princess of Mars, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, and the other usual suspects. Anything with a spaceship on the binding in the library, that’s what I read.

I didn’t want to be a writer at first. I loved reading books. But books have a gazillion pages! In 4th grade it took me a weekend to write a one-page report for my social studies class. Nobody that I knew could write a book. In fact, the most science fictional idea in my life was that a person could compose an entire book.

Then I read The Martian Chronicles. Some of those stories made me laugh. A lot made me cry. They all thrilled me. And they were short! I couldn’t write The Door Into Summer, but maybe, just maybe, I could stick with it long enough to write a story the length of “Night Meeting” or “The Silent Towns.”

I remember looking through the science fiction books in the library to see where they would shelve my version of The Martian Chronicles when I finished it. I put my finger between Jack Vance and A.E. Van Vogt to show the space where my book would fit.

I might have been nine or ten.

Fast forward almost twenty years. I still read a lot, but writing stayed on the back burner. It was never out of my mind, existing in that sphere where other unpursued dreams resided, like getting in shape for a marathon or learning guitar. It wasn’t until my first marriage fell apart that I really started writing and submitting work. Nothing like misery to drive a young man to the typewriter! I stayed alone in my office, didn’t come to bed until late at night, thinking deeply about stuff other than my life. Perfect.

The problem with sending work out for publication, though, was that nobody wanted it. I started submitting for real in 1983 or so, when I was twenty-nine. I photo-copied the relevant pages from The Writers Digest Writers’ Market. Also, I hung out at the big comic store in Denver that sold all the genre fiction magazines so I could see what was happening currently. Lots of great magazines that don’t exist anymore. My favorite was Twilight Zone Magazine.

In the meantime, rejections piled up. For a while, I taped them to the wall in my bathroom until I found I didn’t want to go into that bathroom anymore. One of my first rejections came from the great George Scithers at Amazing Stories. He said, “I hope while you were waiting to hear from us on this story that you were working on your next.”

For five years I collected rejections. Most were impersonal. No one gave me a hint that I was getting close, and I didn’t even feel close. Published stories started to read to me as something magical. How did the writers do it? I returned to Bradbury’s stories. They were perfect! How did he write “The Veldt” or “Ylla” or “I Sing the Body Electric”? The barrier between the quality of what I was doing and what “real” writers did seemed insurmountable. And writers as people began to feel mythical to me. Even when I met a couple, they didn’t quite seem human. I met Ed Bryant, the multiple award-winning science fiction author, and his personality was bigger than life. Then I met Joanne Greenberg, the author of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. I was so rattled that the first thing I said to her was, “I thought you were dead.”

The idea of being a “writer” consumed me, not because I thought they lead glamorous lifestyles (Ed Bryant looked tired, and Joanne Greenberg resembled a PTA mom), but because I wanted my words to do what their words did. I wanted words that got out of their own way and moved readers the way Ed Bryant’s and Joanne Greenberg’s words moved me.

I wanted strangers to validate my literary existence through reading a story I sent to them uninvited and deciding that they liked it enough, and that their readers would like it enough, that they would send me money for it.

I wanted a first sale.

In 1987 or so, four years after I started my real push to publication, I read an article in Writer’s Digest that I think was supposed to be funny. The author said she had heard somewhere that you weren’t really a writer until you’d collected 100 rejections. I don’t know how many I had at that point, but I must have been approaching the century mark. The author said she’d sent her first story out, and it was immediately rejected. She was so proud: one down, ninety-nine to go. The problem was, she sold her second story. Surely, she thought, this was a bump in the road on her quest for 100 rejections, but the third and fourth stories sold too. At the article’s end, she wailed about how she’d never get to be a writer because her stories kept selling.

I hated her. I’ll bet Writer’s Digest lost a few subscriptions from that issue.

At conventions I have sat in auditoriums with hundreds of people just like me, listening to published writers at the front of the room talk about their careers. Like me, most everyone else in the room was unpublished. The yearning was palpable.

Gordon Van Gelder, the long-time editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction told me once that when he finished a week-long gig as an instructor at a writing workshop, he attended an end-of-session party with the wanna-be writers. He said at one point they surrounded him, all chatting, all being polite, but he could feel the subtext beating like a whale’s heart in the room. “Choose me! Choose me!” was its rhythm.

In 1988 I went to U.C. Davis to start a master’s degree in Creative Writing. We had a sort of publishing club that met once a week to talk about selling our work. The ticket into the meeting was a manuscript in an envelope, stamped and addressed to a market. We talked about publishing, pored over writers’ guidelines and commiserated over our rejections.

Finally, in 1990, I took a phone call in my tiny, Davis apartment. The guy on the other end didn’t introduce himself but started talking about a story I’d written earlier. It took a couple of minutes for me to realize it was the editor of After Hours, a tiny horror magazine. He wanted to buy a short story of mine called “No Small Change.”

I’d made my first sale.

I’d like to be able to tell you that this first sale changed my life in a way I could feel, that my writing afterwards became more subtly imbued with the essence of publishability. I’d like to say that I became more confident and bolder, that my next blank page became less intimidating.

Sadly, none of this happened.

But I can tell you that I was smiling when I hung up the phone with that publisher, and that on some level I’ve been smiling ever since. In most ways, a first sale changed nothing at all.

And it changed everything. My first sale was awesome.

If you’re a writer who hasn’t sold anything yet, you have my best wishes. Somewhere out there in your future an editor will pluck your manuscript from the slush and love it. If you’re a published writer, then you have your own first sale story. I hope yours means as much to you as mine means to me.

Interzone #264 has Arrived!

interzone 264I received my contributor copy of INTERZONE #264 with my short story, “Mars, Aphids and Your Cheating Heart” within. Andy Cox puts together a beautiful magazine. Is there a print magazine in the genres that rival it for production values?

I messed with all kinds of stuff writing this piece. It’s present tense, second person omniscience (quite literally). I very much enjoyed writing it, and I believe my path to the piece was through the story-a-week challenge, where I said, “What the heck. Let’s break a few narrative ‘rules.'”

At any rate, to celebrate the appearance of the issue, you should subscribe or order the issue on line, and while you’re at it, go to Fairwood Press or Amazon and order a copy of PANDORA’S GUN just for the heck of it.

Sunday Writing: the Great Beginning (or When You Open Your Mouth, Know What You’re Going to Say)

tombstoneLast week I talked about writing conclusions (that don’t suck), so it only makes sense to tackle writing beginnings (that also don’t suck).

I watched a live slush panel at MileHiCon last year and saw the most depressing thing: one of the editors on the panel rejected a story after just three words. I could hear every writer in the room quietly mouthing, “Oh . . . my . . . god!”

This editor clearly had some buttons that could be pushed. I think the first three words were, “Rain fell steadily . . .” She raised her hand to reject the story based on her belief that you should never start with the weather. In the bar afterwards, some editors were laughing about it and offered their own quick rejects. They were tongue in cheek, but every tease has an element of truth.

“Tom woke . . .” Instant rejection based on just two words. Don’t begin with a character waking up.

“It was . . .”   Instant rejection also based on two words. Don’t begin with a pronoun without an antecedent followed by a linking verb.

“The wood elf . . .” Instant bounce. This editor said don’t begin with a stock character.

I thought the editors were a pretty tough crowd. Three words or even two! But it does raise the questions, how long will an editor give you, how do you keep them reading, and what features mark crummy beginnings?

When I first edited, I read every story to the finish. My reasoning was mostly karmic: I wrote stories that I wanted to be read to the end, so therefore I read other writers’ submissions to the last page. This resolution lasted about a week. I began to reject stories that I hadn’t finished reading because nothing beyond where I quit reading would make me buy the story based on what I’d read so far. I have listed my bounce-worthy writing errors here.

Let’s assume, though, that the writer avoids the easy to fix errors, like using too many linking verbs or relying on clichés. What makes an effective beginning then?

I’ve come to believe the effective beginnings come first from the writer’s firm conception of the story’s ending. Think of it this way: when the scouts are gathered round the campfire, and the troop leader begins a story, she or he knows exactly where the story is going to finish. The beginning line isn’t setting up the next line or the first paragraph as much as it’s setting up the ending.

Along with that confidence about the ending is an utter belief that the story is worth telling. The troop leader knows absolutely that the story will be worth listening to, that the sad parts will be heart rending and the funny ones will elicit laughter and the tense ones will have everyone perched on the edge of their log, hanging onto every word. The beginning should reflect that confidence. The story plunges toward its ending. It doesn’t flail around for the first few pages like a drowning person unsure of the way to shore.

The very best beginnings dive in. The author doesn’t feel around in the dark for three pages. The live wires are on the surface in the first three lines.

So, how does that happen, the good beginning, I mean? The smart writers realize that they write at least two beginnings. The first one appears in the original rough draft. It’s written before the original ending has appeared on the page. By its nature, the first beginning can’t have the same confidence as the second beginning because even the outliners don’t completely know what happens in the story after that first page. Ideas change and evolve during composition. As soon as the first draft is done, the writer can now write the second beginning, hopefully the better one: the beginning that reflects the writer’s knowledge of where the story is going.

The dynamite beginning starts with the storyteller’s knowledge of the end. The storyteller knows, right from the first word that readers want to be hooked in; they need to be oriented in the scene, and they have to understand the characters and be intrigued by the situation. Good beginnings happen when the storyteller balances those needs—setting, character, situation and ending-driven prose—in the correct proportion for the story at hand.

Oh, and language, of course. The storyteller mixes those elements in the beginning.

By the way, I think knowing your best beginning will only appear after you’ve written your ending is an incredibly freeing idea. It means that you shouldn’t sweat your first beginning. You don’t need to know the perfect words to start. Just start the darned thing. Go ahead and flail around. It will be good for you. When you get better, you’ll realize your actual story began four-hundred words from where you started, or that the real beginning, the true one, is completely different from what you first wrote. That’s okay. That’s a part of the writing process.

Also, every once in a while, the perfect beginning shows up without a story to accompany it. Stephen King said he had the first line of the Dark Tower series before he knew the story: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in an empty spot on a paper he was grading, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He said, “Names always suggest a story in my mind; eventually I thought I’d better find out what hobbits are like.”

And here’s another also. The editor who rejected stories based on the first three words was an idiot. Great stories have begun with weather. They’ve begun with people waking up. A ton of really poor stories have started that way too, but a ton of bad stories have begun in all the other ways. Three words really aren’t enough to judge a story. But three sentences might be enough, and certainly three pages will tell any editor worth her salt whether she needs to continue reading.

Write the whole story first, then fix the beginning. When you’re done with that, fix everything else.

 

April/May Asimov’s

APRILMAY2016 AsimovsThe latest Asimov’s is out with my short story, “Three Paintings.”  The main character is an artist who has come up with an unusual experiment in creativity.

I have artist friends, so I wanted to make sure I didn’t create an artist who wouldn’t pass their verisimilitude test.  So far, the two who’ve read the story said that I didn’t screw up too badly.

This is my 12th appearance in Asimov’s, starting with “Safety of the Herd” in 2002 (13th if I count a reprint of an Analog story that appeared in the Greek edition of Asimov’s).  It is truly awesome to make a sale there.  If you would have told me twenty years ago, the year I made my first professional sale, that I would be where I am today, I wouldn’t have believed you.

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