Advice for (first time) SFF Novelists

Some months ago I received email asking me, Any advice for first-time fantasy novelists? The two short answers, which are not as contradictory as they may seem:

If you can quit, do.

Never give up.

But who ever said I wrote something short?

Really, what can you do except to write as well as you can, revise to the best of your ability at the time, allow yourself room for growth, and nurture the joy you feel in the process?

But if I were giving cold-hearted advice to a first time fantasy novelist, it would go something like this:


Part One: If You Can Quit, Do

First, if you're not willing to work hard at writing, don't bother.

I am sure we can find the exception that proves the rule, but every writer I know who has been successful

- however we are defining that term today, and I tend to be ecumenical in my inclusiveness, so let's just assume that I mean in a pretty broad sense not limited to the pots-of-money sense and frankly just about every working writer I know will laugh sadly or even perhaps a tad hysterically when you ask her or him about the average annual earnings of working freelance writers -

has worked immensely hard, turned or churned out a lot of pages in the journey through apprenticeship toward some level of mastery, and kept writing despite setbacks, rejection, cold feet, and those soul-sucking periods of doubt.

By that I don't mean quit writing for enjoyment. Anyone who wants to write because it pleases them or soothes them or excites them, should absolutely write.

Please never let anyone stop you from writing.

Writing is a gift, a blessing, a catharsis, a joy. It's yours; cherish it.

Also, writing is just too difficult for it to be worth doing, in my humble opinion, if you don't love the process or feel driven to write (which are not quite the same thing).

But if you're not willing to work, and work hard, and work stubbornly, then don't make plans for a brilliant career. That is, be realistic about what you're willing to put in, and therefore what you can potentially get out.

I have seen cases where people
1) talk about the novel or book they want to write that is really fabulous
2) write and rewrite the first 50 pages of that novel but never move on
3) write the first draft of a novel but never revise it - or revise it sufficiently - while meanwhile expecting that naturally a publisher is going to pay them pots of money (see above) for their fabulous soon-to-be-bestselling manuscript
4) never write a second novel, and a third, or multiple short stories, in order to continue learning and improving
5) say to themselves, 'well, if s/he could publish, then it can't be *that* hard'

The way to succeed as a writer is - to write. To write something new. To write more. To keep writing.

It amazes me how many people fail to grasp that essential truth.

Part Two: Cover Your Basics.

Do your research about submission guidelines, names of editors in the field you're interested in, the kind of work any given imprint publishes, proper manuscript format, grammar, query letters, markets, industry trends. Don't ask me - or some other industry professional - to do the research for you.

I tell you, grasshopper, if you're not willing to do the research on the basics, then it's unlikely you have the stamina and determination necessary to make a go of it.

There is no secret handshake, no magic bullet. (No, really, there isn't.)

While it's definitely worthwhile getting to know people in the field, all the fantastic networking in the world will not get a lousy manuscript published as a friendly gesture. That's not how it works. Publishers in our economic system like to publish works that they think will, you know, sell and make a profit.

Note that I am here talking about the commercial publishing field. There are other venues for writing, and other reasons (and places) to publish and share writing that don't have to do with making a living. These reasons are just as artistically valid; you need no reason to write except that you have something to say.

I keep harping on this, but it needs to be said: This is not a hierarchical contest to privilege writing-purely-as-art over writing-to-make-money, or vice versa. You are still a writer if you haven't made a dollar from your work. Nor are art and commerce incompatible. You haven't 'sold out' if you make a living from writing. Nor is your worth as a writer measured by your sales figures or lack thereof.

Many are the uses of narrative, and varied are their forms, and we as human beings are the richer for it.

Now, the sff field happens to be (for the most part and in my experience) a welcoming and open community of professionals. I've had little interaction with other genres, so can't speak one way or the other of them. But people who are into this writing gig just to be patted on the head and told how wonderful they are will not get far - not in my experience. Not that authors don't love love love being praised for our work or, and perhaps better, being taken seriously with all our flaws as well as our strengths and not dismissed or belittled or ignored.

So what was I saying?

Oh, yeah.

Just do the damned work.

Part Three: What kind of career do you want?

This is not a multiple choice test. There is no correct answer to this question.

You don't have to be a full-time writer to be a 'real writer.'

If you don't want to deal with the ups and downs and stresses of full time writing, that's a sane choice.

If you prefer to work a day job for the security of the very real benefits you may be getting there

- a steady salary; health insurance if you are so fortunate which is no small consideration in the US economy I should note while not perhaps a deciding factor elsewhere in the world; a refuge from the crazy-making loneliness of the long distance writer because all other elements aside, writers of text narrative (as opposed to, say, writers in tv who may attend a lot more meetings) spend a darned lot of time alone listening to the voices in their heads or maybe that's just me -

then your primary concerns may be improving and polishing your writing to the point where you can publish, publish in the venues you are aiming for, and perhaps even hope to publish much of what you write without regard to how often you finish a story or how frequently your name appears in magazines or bookstores.

If you must work a day job to pay the rent, then you may wish to focus on building a strong back-list over time, as well amassing a substantial savings account to cover emergency expenses in case you decide to take the leap into full-time writing down the road.

There are distinct advantages to not relying on writing as your full-time job.

For instance, there are plenty of writers who are able to write a novel every few years and, by dint of respectable sales (lower than you might think), get their next novel published. There are writers who publish short fiction only, and do not rely on their writing income for their shelter and food money. Those who do not solely rely on their income from writing to pay the rent can pretty much move along at their own pace.

Additionally, if you have a spouse or other source of income that allows you to write full time, or write while being a caretaker, or write while having other part time work, you also have more freedom to write at your own pace without a keen eye fixed apprehensively on the bottom line.

In these cases, the key is to learn to concentrate, to (as management consultants might say) maximize your effort within the time available. It is necessary to learn to focus your efforts, and to avoid getting side-tracked.

For instance, make sure you have set aside time at regular intervals to write. Don't let people tell you, or guilt you into thinking, that because you are not making your entire living or bulk of your living or any living from your writing that it somehow isn't serious, that it can (or should) be set aside for each least distraction, that it should take tenth place after stuff they consider more important.

It's important that you take it seriously, too. If you mean to take yourself as a writer seriously. Really, I mean this. Writers write, and it isn't some flippant thing done in the rags of spare time. It's identity. It's soul.

Richard Parks is an excellent example of a completely professional, completely serious writer with sterling professional credentials and a substantial output whose writing is not his primary income and yet who is just as serious a writer as anyone in the field I know.

So think through your situation; use a clear gaze to consider your options. I would ask that you don't denigrate those who have taken a different route than the ones you are considering.

And it's worth saying again: You don't have to be a full-time writer to be a 'real writer.'

Part Four: Aiming for the glamor?

By which I don't mean the New York Times bestseller list, because all else being equal you can't really aim for that
- JK Rowling can have had NO IDEA when the first Harry Potter book was accepted for publication for a paltry advance what the future would bring -
but rather the idea of writing as primary job.

This is why I'm not tackling 'How to write the Great American Novel Which is Also a Bestseller' any time soon. If I knew how, I'd have already done it. Because every time a well-meaning relative asks me why I don't write a Harry Potter-style-selling book like that nice English woman did, I'm tempted to say that, oh, because I don't want to sully my ferocious poet's heart with all the fame and especially, you know, the tawdry money that would allow me to buy a house on the beach in Hawaii.

This is what you need:

You must have discipline.

You must have persistence.

You must have flexibility.

You must be stubborn.

You have to learn how to write like it's a job while maintaining the ability to nurture the spark of inspiration. That means being able to write through the dark night of the soul because it's very likely that at some point or another you will walk down those stairs and have to climb back out again with a hundred-ton boulder of doubt on your shoulders.

You have to learn how to diversify, so that if one line of income-producing work dries up (and it probably will), you can move in another direction. If the winds of change blow through the market, shaking up the conventional wisdom about what sells and what doesn't (and they will sooner or later), you want to be able to adjust, to venture down new paths. You want to be able to save yourself.

You have to teach yourself to be able to look at your work and be bloody-minded about what it needs. That is, you must learn to separate your words from your self. Cold, cold heart, look at that sentence, that paragraph, that dialogue, that chapter, and don't blink.

At the same time, you have to learn to trust yourself.

Is it all garbage this week? That's okay; it'll get better. If it's moving forward, then you're good. You can revise or rewrite later. Stalled out? Maybe your subconscious needs time to work out a hitch in the plotting or character development. Work on something else in the meantime, maybe that long blog post on writing advice. Don't think you need to do itor anythingall in one gulp.

You're going to beat yourself up one side and down the other often enough anyway, most likely, so learn to trust and to be kind to yourself when all seems bleak. But without being soft on yourself (see the cold heart above), because that way leads to the curse of sloppiness.

Finally, figure out the way you work and don't try to force yourself into a process or career path or a type of novel someone else is telling you is The One True Path.

There is no One True Path. There are only paths. This is one. There are others. In the end, you have to work out your own.

Part Five: But I really mean it, you say.

I want to be a paperback writer. I'll be writing more in a week or two.

What follows is purely idiosyncratic advice (worth what you paid for it!) that many other writers won't agree with, nor should they. Because there will always be writers who can't or don't work this way. Nor should they.

Also, it really only pertains to people thinking in terms of novels, and even then probably only for genre fiction, which is the field I know. You'll have to go elsewhere for idiosyncratic advice about short fiction, manga or comics, screenwriting, theater, essays, non-fiction books, technical writing, and web-based writing. Furthermore, it is based on my (flawed and incomplete) understanding of the current commercial marketplace, not on the glorious glowing golden age of publishing of yesteryear (whenever that was). As for the Creative Commons and the explosion of opportunities offered by the internet, I'm also not addressing that here. It's all fabulous and exciting stuff that I need to learn more about, but it's not the subject of these posts.

Let's start with this:

A single completed novel does not a career make.

To Kill A Mockingbird is (in my opinion) the exception that proves the rule. I'm sure you can come up with other examples, but while in rare cases a single successful novel (celebrity books aside) might make you enough money to live off of for the rest of your unblemished life, and good for you if it does, it's not only vanishingly unlikely to happen but also and again not the subject of this set of posts. As for those very fine writers who produce a novel every ten years, again, it's possible that writing isn't their main source of income and/or their day job, or that they are Thomas Pynchon. I rest my case.

So, where were we?

In other words, if you really mean it, don't try to sell your first novel if you have no follow-up project.

By that I mean that it behooves you to be working on a second project, whether it be a sequel or a entirely new story (whether short or long), as soon as you have completed the first novel. If you just want to complete a single novel and rest on your laurels (and how few of us complete even one novel, so that's a considerable accomplishment), that's fine. But if you want a part-time or full-time writing career, then you'll have to write another book (or other kinds of work) anyway, so all things considered it is better if you begin working on that immediately - with all the preparation, cogitation, research, and writing that implies.

It's better in terms of your growth in the craft as well, because it means you're learning and applying what you've learned. For instance, if Novel #1 is rejected, what you have learned from working on Novel #2 may help you revise Novel #1 to publication-worthiness. More importantly, if you are fortunate enough to sell Novel #1 and the publisher wants a second book, which they likely will, then you're not scrambling from scratch. Because, and with the understanding that no plan survives contact with the enemy, you want a plan.

You won't listen to me anyway, and I don't blame you, but really

no, really

in this business, unless you chance into a one-in-ten-thousand overnight success (and most of the overnight successes you read about really aren't; they're really the fruit of years of hard work and a sudden breakout, sometimes with the author's tenth novel)

it helps to strategize.

Part Six: Strategy!

Strategy comes in three sizes: Short. Medium. Long.

Short term: What am I working on now and why? How can I make it better?

Medium term: How can I follow up the current project to best advantage? Is there one project that's really begging to be written? Or one that seems to have most in common with what's hot in the marketplace? What am I most excited about?

Long term: Where do I want to go? What projects do I have in mind, and what order would be best to write them in, all else being equal?

All else being equal?

What does that mean?

Often, all else isn't equal.

For instance, if you are gifted or cursed with an Attack Novel, you write it. Now. Because it is yanking your chain and won't stop until you write it. If you are absolutely taken with a story, get it out in some form, rough or polished.

Or if at the moment you only have one novel well settled enough, or vivid enough, or outlined enough (however your process works), then you go with that one.

But if you're in a situation where you have a couple of potential stories any of which you could happily write and which are more or less in the same stage of pre-preparation, think about which it might be most practical to write first.

Stewing over a fat multi-generational saga and a short YA?

Maybe write the short novel first, and then you can be shopping it around while you churn through the long multitudinous tome. (I wish I'd thought of that!)

Have workable ideas for both an urban fantasy and a Western? Check the bookstores and talk to knowledgeable booksellers, or ask around the working professionals of your acquaintance, or discuss it with your agent (if you have an agent). Figure out which makes the most sense to write at this point in time, with the understanding that by the time you write the novel, the market may have shifted yet again.

If you can write a trilogy in one go, and then sell the entire thing, do so. Or at least have the second volume done as a partial so you don't immediately fall behind.

Because if you can get a backlog of novels, even one, before you reach that zone of selling from proposal and writing to deadline, do it. You may not sell all (or any) of them, but if you don't sell them you'll still have learned an incalculable amount from writing them, and if you do sell them, it's gravy (with revisions attached).

You see, as difficult as this was for me to learn and hard as it may be to really get one's mind around, writing to deadline is not as glamorous as it may seem.

It's glamorous and exciting in theory, because it means that you have, you know, been paid to write a novel, and how utterly cool is that?

But it also means that if you start falling behind, or if you have any other stresses in your otherwise pure life, you are screwed.

Because you want to put yourself in a position where you are meeting your deadlines.

But since I stand before you as bitter proof that this doesn't always happen, sometimes for reasons beyond your control and other times for reasons within your control, I think you are wise, if you can be patient, to build in a bit of a backlog. That is, have another book done in rough draft, or polished draft, or as an extensive outline (if you outline). Or, if you're really productive, two books, or three. Or a trilogy. Or a dozen, if you are weirdly and prolifically insane. Whatever you can. If you can. (And if you can't, don't beat yourself up, just be aware that it makes your task harder.)

Strategy is your plan of action. It serves you by giving you a goal to aim for and a route to get there, and it also serves you as a buffer by building in flexibility and adaptability in case of a sudden change of circumstances or fortune. Trust me, those will come.

If you have thought through various options, you have a better chance of switching gears when necessary, responding promptly to an emergency, or regaining lost ground in case of a setback. Because nothing is guaranteed.


Finally: The Thrilling Conclusion

This sets of posts started life as a trilogy and now look: it's in seven parts!

So. The little things are also the big things. Here are some of them:


Be flexible.

Don't put all your eggs in one basket. There are a number of writers who have kept their careers alive because they were able to jump into a different sub-genre within the sff field or leap to an entirely different genre with new work.

But also, don't write to market if you don't like or respect what you're writing. Your lack of enthusiasm (or, worse, your insincerity) will infest the text the way maggots infest rotting meat.

Stock up on and make notes of ideas.

If you don't work this way, feel free to ignore this, but I find it useful to amass files of budding narratives. You can build - slowly and over time - potential stories so that if your first two novels sell and do well enough that the publisher asks for more, you have immediate more to give them. Or if they don't do well, you can leap into a new story. So that, if you want to write, you've got something to work on.

Listen as carefully as you can to what people are telling you.

If an editor says, while I like idea x, do you have anything else? Have something else.

If you are consistently hearing about a specific problem in your work, pay attention. If one person doesn't like Character Y, that means that one person didn't like him/her/it. But if 80% of the readership didn't like hem (and I don't mean in the love to hate him way, I mean in the this character didn't work and I didn't believe in her and furthermore I actually put the book down after chapter 4 because I was so tired of reading about him way), then it is possible you might have a problem.

But that doesn't mean people are always right. It's just that you can't assume necessarily that they're wrong either. No, I didn't say this would be easy.

Be kind.

An exhortation to be kind may strike some as smarmy, but I'm serious. I don't mean nice, I mean kind in the deepest sense of that word. We suffer through enough corrosive influences in our lives.

Be kind to others. Enjoy the success of other writers, because it's hard enough to come by that surely they've earned their props even in those cases where you might not particularly like what they write. Appreciate and enjoy the work of other writers, because when you think of it, human creativity is amazing. Anyway - why not be kind?

Be kind to yourself. Be ruthless about the words, but be compassionate toward your psyche.

Smile when you talk about your work.

Confession Time: This is perhaps the single most difficult thing about writing professionally for me. When people ask me about my books I will often hem and haw and shuffle my feet and hunch my shoulders and feel self-conscious. And I might even say something ever-so-slightly negative, almost as if I'm apologizing for inconveniencing them for the interest they've expressed: If you don't read sff, you might not find it of interest. Uh, it's long and complex and kind of dark. What am I thinking? How crazy is that?

Show enthusiasm! It's okay to be excited about your writing. It is a product of your creative joy.

Now, I admit that listening to some people go on and on and on about their interminable plots and how in love they are with their romantic lead can be numbing. Yes, narcissism can be a risk with all artists. After all, we are all sitting here thinking that strangers will want to read what we write. But that's not what I mean.

I mean - whoa! you did it! - you are so jazzed with the whole writing process and the work of creativity!

It's okay to show the love, because if you love what you do, that comes across in your work. You know what they say about choosing college courses (when you're not specifically fulfilling major requirements): take classes from teachers who totally love what they are teaching and express that excitement in their course, because they will bring to you to see their excitement.

Bring your excitement to the page.

Love what you do.

End of story.