Fan To Writer Part 5: The Hustle, And The Joy

Welcome to the fifth and final part of Fan to Writer, in which writer, editor, and conference organizer Spencer Ellsworth leads us through the various steps on the path to pro writer. From having fun with stories, to making pro sales and even some money on your writing, come with us on this road.

Part 5: The Hustle, And The Joy

Stage Five! And to qualify for this stage you need…

A career. Even if you feel like putting “career” in air quotes, you have publications, you’re making some money, and you have future projects in the works. You have deadlines, and some income, and tax deductions, and you should probably hire an accountant if you haven’t already.

But you’ve also got to keep hustling. Remember Stages Two and Three? When you were trying to level up on craft, attending conferences and learning the business, and also trying not to let yourself get too mired in frustration? Well, friend… you have to keep doing that, too. Up your craft, re-learn the business, rinse and repeat. Remember the randos in Stage Two, who go to open writer groups just to shit on other writers? Now you get to read their Goodreads reviews and remind yourself to ignore them. The paychecks and publications get bigger, but so do the rejections.

You get to face this very likely fact: even after a book deal, your income hasn’t changed much. First book advances are usually under ten thousand dollars, paid out in dribbles. Even future deals won’t give you the money you need to support a middle-class life for one, much less for a family.

There is no job interview, secure contract, or long-term paying gig in publishing. You could sell one story to your dream market and spend the rest of your life bouncing stories off that same market. Also, remember when you were getting rejected every week? That doesn’t go away, either. You could sell a book series to your dream New York editor and have them turn down your next ten proposals. You could write a story on commission that an editor specifically requests, and that editor can reject it. Those rare multimillion-dollar contracts are still gambles. In John Scalzi’s case, he is writing ten books for $340,000 each. That is a very, very, very good advance per book. But if books 8-10 bomb hard, there’s a good chance Tor won’t go back for another million.

Your publications will probably just do okay.

Just okay.

Make peace with that now.

I’ll link this article in Further Reading, but I want to share one of my favorite quotes about this, from Jay Ridler’s F**k Writing, on the dangers of confusing a career with fame and glory:

“Admit to yourself that what you really want is legions of fans, billions of ebook sales, and gaggles of groupies who worship you more than Neil Gaiman, and then toss those dreams in the burn can. Later, when they creep back in, shove them back in the burn can. Every time. And they’ll return and return, but they won’t happen. You can’t make them happen any more than Hitler could use his “Triumph of the Will” spell to turn the Battle of Stalingrad into a German victory. So, kill your porn dreams! Understood? Cool. Now, pornless, do you still want to write? If yes, carry on!”

That says it all.

I became more and more aware, over time, that I had to be practical about a writing career. I made a five-year plan, a sensible one that did not include “write the next Harry Potter.” It included “get an agent and publish a book and join Science Fiction Writers of America,” all of which I’ve done since.

I also did not include “go full-time writer” in there. I couldn’t see how, unless I wrote a major hit. As Jay made clear, you can’t rely on being Pat Rothfuss or JK Rowling, Stephen King or Suzanne Collins. I recently spoke to Terry Brooks, a full-time writer who lives quite comfortably. He wanted to go full-time after the multi-million dollar success of The Sword of Shannara. Terry’s editor gave him the advice “don’t go full-time until you have three years of income in the bank.” It took him four or five major hits, and about ten years, before Terry could do it.


I decided to keep my day job until retirement, barring any glorious fame. My major professional goal was this: I wanted writing to be my only other job. I’d had up to three jobs at a time, some full-time, some part time, since I got my Master’s. (Let me sing you “The Song of the Millennial.”)

My Starfire books were published just about when my youngest went into kindergarten and my wife and I didn’t have to worry about childcare anymore, so I was able to let some gigs go. I was also able to develop my freelance editing and take on more clients attracted by the books. The freelance editing, in truth, has brought in most of the money, more reliably and steadily, than the writing does. Writing brings in larger checks—my German translation rights, for instance, came in increments of nearly two thousand dollars each—but the editing has proven to be more constant.

As such, my considerations now are business considerations, and for all working writers, writing is business.

Switching agents is less about personality than a fresh approach. Work-for-hire might be necessary to pull in some money when original books aren’t selling. Freelance editing or for-hire time bleeds into that precious drafting time. Conferences should help sell books, not just be a good party.

That sounds skeptical, but it’s accompanied by a kind of beautiful maturity in my love for writing.

The joy of the process has deepened and become more rewarding. There’s joy in freelance editing, in organizing conferences, and in mentoring new writers. There’s joy in knowing how to outline and revise, and seeing a story come together with the realization, “Wow, I leveled up; I couldn’t have written this five years ago.” There’s joy in seeing your friends succeed and in sharing the vicarious thrill of that first publication with them.

There’s a special joy in reuniting with those friends you started out with in your nascent writing groups and knowing the years of shared experience have meant more than words to all of you. Whether they or you are still writing, you’ve blessed each others’ lives.

And there’s still the same joy, the same “wow, fun!” when I sit down to write. If it isn’t there, I do something else and come back and try again.

In that way, I’m still a fan. I’ve just gone from being a fan who dreams of writing to a big fan of my own writing.

Further Reading: F**k Writing: Advice On Writing Advice, Jason Ridler, Starve Better: Surviving The Endless Horror of The Writing Life, Nick Mamatas

Essential Advice for Not Writing Your Novel

Novels are hard. They're long, complex pieces of work which must track multiple plots and character arcs in order to satisfy the reader. New and aspiring writers often struggle with the form, and even authors with a dozen or more short stories under their belts can run into trouble.

As someone who's been avoiding writing since at least late 2005, I'm glad to offer these essential pieces of advice on successfully not writing a novel.

Catch up on Housework

Have you seen your kitchen sink lately? (No, really. Have you? I can't remember the last time I saw mine under all those dishes.)

Follow Shiny Things

Remember that feeling you had when you first thought up your novel? How excited you were by the pure, untrammeled potential awesomeness of your story?

Well, it turns out that actually writing a novel after that initial head rush is hard work. You've got to make sure the words on the page actually carry meaning to people who aren't you. You've got to track plots and subplots, and tie everything together with a satisfying ending. Theoretically.

If you're like me, it's never going to match up to the glory of your first imaginations.

Although the lure of holding a finished, published, novel that can be read by other people is strong, it's much easier to just give up and skip to the fun part: Coming up with a brand new shiny idea!

If a new story isn't shiny enough, try a blog post (like this one!) or consider picking up a new hobby. Painting miniatures is expensive and time-consuming, and an excellent choice for someone who's looking for an alternative to finishing a long-term project like a novel.

Or how about a second job? A third?

Research Rabbit Holes

As an academic librarian, I know all too well the importance of research. I also know that it's easy to think you've done "enough" research.

But ask yourself this: What will you say to experts on 17th century English spaceflight proposals if you get the details of John Wilkins's breakfast routine wrong? How will you live with yourself with a mistake like that hanging over your head?

Don't know where to start? Wikipedia has never not led me down a research rabbit hole yet.


As the saying goes, "Never do today what you can conceivably put off until tomorrow."

Do you really need those words today? What difference will it make in the long run? If you finish your novel in March 2031 instead of December 2020, who's even going to notice?

Besides, you can always catch up later.

Set Unrealistic Expectations

One of the best ways to not write a novel is to set yourself up with absolutely unrealistic expectations.

When paired with procrastination, this technique is almost unstoppable: you can kick off an endless cycle of getting behind, excoriating yourself for getting behind, and promising you'll make up for it by writing 3,300 words a day instead of 1,600.

Rinse. Lather. Repeat.

This technique's real strength, though, is its versatility. Compare the world-building of your novel to The Fifth Season or Ancillary Justice. Ask yourself if your characters have as much appeal as Hermoine Granger and as much personality as Harry Dresden. Is the plot as intricate as Game of Thrones? Does it change the way you look at reality as much as watching Blade Runner when you were fifteen?

The key is to make your plans as grandiose as possible. Don't settle for writing a novel people might enjoy. Examine in detail every potential flaw of your as-yet-unwritten novel and ask yourself: is it worthy of an Astounding Award? (Or, if you've already disqualified yourself from that by not not writing too many other things, a Hugo?) A Nebula?

How about a Nobel Prize? I mean, Kazuo Ishiguro won one of those and he writes fantasy, so...

Read the Comments on a Recent News Story

On second thought, don't.

Not even not writing a novel is worth that much self-inflicted pain.

Put the Cart before the Horse

If—even after all of the above—you find yourself close to finishing your novel, you can give yourself some breathing room by changing your focus to things you're not ready for yet.

Look up agents.

Read think pieces on trends in your genre.

Trawl for cover artists.

Write award acceptance speeches.

Browse IMDB and figure out if it's really the best choice to get Michelle Yeoh to star in the movie adaptation of your (incomplete) epic wuxia/secondary fantasy/thriller/mystery opposite Patrick Stewart, or whether a Malese Jow/Sean Connery pairing would be better. And who would direct it: John Wu or Jackie Chan? Is Wong Kar Wai too much of a stretch? (Maybe you should add in an unrequited love story sub-plot so he's a better fit.)

If you're really a masochist, consider how many TVTropes pages could conceivably hold entries on your novel.

Video Games

Enough said.


There are as many different ways of not writing a novel as there are authors.

While the items on this list worked for me, even the most dedicated of novelists sometimes find themselves in possession of a completed first draft, a polished manuscript, a submission packet complete with query letter, pitch, synopsis, and author endorsements, or—heavens forfend!—a publishing contract.

This can be very discouraging, but don't give up.

The beauty of writing is there's always another project you can pour your heart into. There's always another chance to daydream instead of putting the hard work into completing a draft. Always another chance to devise ever-more-complicated ways of plotting scenes and tracking character arcs instead of actually writing the scene and showing the character growing in a way that would satisfy a reader. There's always another tomorrow.

Next time you don't write a novel, try something new! Sooner or later, you're bound to succeed.

Fan To Writer Part 4: Publication!

Welcome to the fourth part of Fan to Writer, in which writer, editor and conference organizer Spencer Ellsworth leads us through the various steps on the path to pro writer. From having fun with stories, to making pro sales and even some money on your writing, come with us on this road.

Part 4: Publication!

Stage Four! And to qualify for this stage you need…

An acceptance!

You have sold something, published something, scored an agent, MADE IT, BABY!*

*Making it is not actually making it. See Stage Five. But let’s not harsh it! This is your moment!

I cannot express how validating my first few short story sales, and the following checks, were. Finally, FINALLY, my work was deemed worthy enough for money and went before the eyes of readers. Even after spending years in therapy, reminding myself that “writing does not validate me,” publication… well, it kinda validated me.

So what then?

It depends what you’ve sold. If it’s a small press novel or a short story, you’ll just deal with the editor directly. If you’ve sold a novel, likely you’ve done it through an agent. Occasionally, you’ll make a deal with the editor yourself, and then go find an agent to negotiate the details of the offer. You all remember back in Stage Two, when you were memorizing AgentQuery and following those hashtags? Here’s where it pays off!

Before you gripe about giving an agent fifteen percent, remember that the agent is the one shopping your audiobook rights and foreign rights. After my initial trilogy sold, my agent nearly doubled the amount Macmillan paid by selling audio and German translation. People who say you don’t need an agent in traditional publishing are straight-up lying—and, to paraphrase The Princess Bride, selling something.

So, back to the manuscript, which will soon be a Real Published Thing. You’ll have to do edits. If you’re lucky, the editor likes the story or novel just as it is; if not, you will have to make changes that might have you pulling your hair out. Once in a great while, the editor will ask for changes you don’t want to make, and you will have to either pull your story, make those changes, or negotiate with said editor.

Oh, and you’ll soon have deadlines.

If you sell a few short stories, you’ll likely get hit up by editors who are putting together anthologies, or if you’re very good, by editors of magazines seeking particular kinds of stories for upcoming issues. So you’ll have a few months to throw together a short story on X theme. Hope you like X theme!

If you sold a novel, chances are you might have signed a deal to write sequels at the same time you sold it or your book may do well enough that the publisher requests sequels. Your agent or editor will request synopses of these other books and so a vague idea of “the series will end up… here” has to become a tightly plotted set of beats.

After my agent read A Red Peace and offered representation, I clarified that I wanted a three-book deal, so she asked me to send my outlines for the second and third books.

Hahahaha... my outlines?



This is very difficult if you’re the kind of writer who has always written via intuition. If you didn’t outline the novel you sold, well… congratulations! You’re now an outliner because your agent says so. Or you’re a very good BSer who can convince your agent and editor that something happens in those sequels. Whatever it takes to write those synopses.

You’ll have to turn in those sequels on deadline, which means that with all this pressure and a book release coming up, you’ve got to get back into the headspace of playing around with a story.

So you need to find the original joy from Stage One, that sense of play and excitement and breathless rush.

Y’know, figure out how to be the excited kid you were ten years ago.

And do it by December 1st.

And oh, even with all that enthusiasm, it has to be polished. As good as the first book, which you slaved over. So build in revision time.


You’ll have to get used to this. Your intuition, joy, and play are beholden to your practical considerations. You may be one of the lucky few who can be creative on command, but if you’re like me, you have spent the last few years writing what you like when you like it. You have to figure out how to hack your brain—how to forget the pressure in order to have fun. “Trick” yourself in whatever way works best. Use timed writing sessions. Give each chapter to a supportive partner, critique or romantic or both. Buy a bunch of action figures and use them to play-test the storyline.

I may have done the last one. A lot.

I don’t mean to just focus on the pressure. Publication will bring you some amazing joy. Being a debut author is a bit like being a new parent—very tired and very stressed, but full of unique, beautiful wonder at the joy in life. A successful bookstore signing, or convention reading, is so validating you might explode. People listen to your work and enjoy it. You sign your own book! Everyone wants to buy you a congratulatory drink!

(More about this process linked below, in the excellent Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog.)

Know this, in preparation for Stage Five: as the initial rush subsides, the post-publication period is a lot like the pre-publication period, with the same disappointment, discouragement, and difficult life-art balance.

Love every moment of that first publication: the first check, the first time you hold your book. It’s a wild ride, and as they say to new parents, it’s over much sooner than you think.

Further Reading: Lessons For Debut Authors by Mary Robinette Kowal, Advice For Authors Giving A Public Reading by Randy Henderson


Goals, Not Resolutions

It’s the time of year where I usually assess what I’ve done and plan for what I want to do next. For me that means acknowledging some of the invisible tasks—tasks I never add to my to-do lists but are present every day—as well as examining my successes, my failures, and being honest with myself about why they occurred. This helps me understand what I can do better next time and helps me accept that sometimes in life there are events that impact my performance that I can’t help (like, for example, having back-to-back colds… for six months).

What is the difference between goals and resolutions?

In my mind, a typical New Year's resolution is vague, like “being a better person by being more forgiving,” or “exercising more,” whereas goal-setting involves a concrete plan to enact these goals so that they can be accomplished, step by step and week by week.

How do you create goals?

If you’re interested in creating goals for this next year, there are some criteria to evaluate whether your plan involves resolutions or goals. Goals should be:

  • Specific
  • Concrete
  • Independent from outside forces
  • Achievable

Here are some examples:

Become a better writer Practice writing dialogue Becoming a “better writer” is vague and therefore unachievable. Practicing writing dialogue, however, may make one a better writer. It is specific, and one can take classes, read passages in books about dialogue, or perhaps go to plays and take notes.
Be a podcaster Produce one twenty-minute podcast per month  With a concrete goal, there are specific tasks to be achieved that can be broken down. To do this, you would need to create twelve twenty-minute scripts, find narrators, equipment, a theme song, and then set aside time to record and edit.
Win an art competition  Submit to at least ten illustration competitions Winning a competition is dependent on outside forces, essentially on a judge, whereas submitting to competitions is a task that an artist/illustrator can undertake.
Write a novel Write a novel This is trickier: achievable for one person is not always achievable for another. One person will binge-write a novel in a month; another will plug away it every day, finishing up at the end of the year. One person can write four novels in a year and another will write one novel every five to ten years. Sometimes, too, life intervenes: a lost day job can mean time spent stressing and searching; an illness can stop tightest plan; a kid can drop out from college and move back home. Every creator has their own way of making; only they can know what they’re capable of and can assess what their own life will allow.

Personally, when I’m creating my goals, I try to have multiple goals in different areas (usually craft, submissions, and production) so that I can work on different aspects of each goal each month. Others like to work on specific projects, however. Something like a Kickstarter may involve a year or more’s worth of work.

Break it down and plan it

Once you have developed a few goals, break each goal down into steps. Usually I start by breaking it down on a monthly basis, and then a weekly basis, and then I schedule time each week to work on that specific task. Of course, it doesn’t work quite as clear-cut in practice: I get colds, or I bring my son to preschoolers’ birthday parties, etc. But with a distinctive weekly plan, I tend to stay on track. Actually using that time to accomplish what you’ve set out to is, of course, another matter. You may try gamifying it, or word-warring with friends, or Instagramming your sketches, or turning on a program like Freedom so that you can’t spend your two dedicated hours on the internet scrolling through Facebook.

What are your goals? What have been your challenges in meeting your goals in the past, in terms of meeting them? What are you going to do to ensure that your goals are met this upcoming year? Please join us on the forum to talk about what you’re planning on doing for 2020.

Fan To Writer Part 3: Beware of Bob And Snake Oil

Welcome to the third part of Fan to Writer, in which writer, editor and conference organizer Spencer Ellsworth leads us through the various steps on the path to pro writer. From having fun with stories, to making pro sales and even some money on your writing, come with us on this road.

Part 3: Beware of Bob And Snake Oil

Fan to Writer, Stage Three! Go!

To qualify for this stage, you must be working hard, submitting multiple manuscripts, and…

Well, you have to be in the grind.

And folks, it is a grind.

You might start to feel, distinctly, that you’re always writing and that your stories are never quite there. It’s human nature to feel that way. Improvement takes time. But you start to fantasize about “skipping the line.” How long can one person be stuck as a journeyman? Your writers’ group hits a slump, or dissolves, and you have to find some new blood for your critiques. Your friends keep asking, “When is your book getting published?” and you keep staring down rejections. Once in a while, you get a nice personalized rejection, or an agent reads your entire book. But it all ends up in the same place: no dice.

You get jealous of friends who score agents, publications, speaking gigs and award nominations. Not ugly jealous—you’re a professional, after all—but it’s a tough feeling to bear. You go to conventions and conferences and you wander off to the parking lot because it’s too painful to hear people talk, over and over and over and over, about their book deals and agents and publications.

It starts to invade the joy of writing.

I was there a few years ago. I sat down every day to crank out a certain number of words, whether or not I hated them—and I often hated them. I had stories piling up rejections and I was always going back to revise them, again and again, not sure I actually understood revision. I knew what George RR Martin meant when he said, “I don’t like writing. I like having written.” Instead of wondering if the famously blocked Martin might be expressing his own issues, I decided that would be my mantra! Sure, it was always fun when I started writing in high school but this was serious work now. I couldn’t expect it to always be fun. I wanted a finished book to put in front of agents and editors and damn it, I didn’t care what it did to my mental health, or my home life, or… or… or…

Then I had a vision.

A vision of Bob.

Bob’s not real. Yet he is more real to me than a lot of people.

Bob is a short guy with a mustache. He wears old, worn clothes because he can’t afford newer ones. He also has loose broken glasses because he doesn’t have insurance.

In my vision, I was passing through the outskirts of Phoenix and asked my old friend Bob to meet up. He told me to come by his house where he just barely paid the rent via some odd jobs. He had a degree and work experience in a paying field but he chose not to have a full-time job “to focus on writing.” He proudly told me that he wrote 5,000 words a day. We chatted for fifteen minutes. I asked about his wife and found out they were divorcing because “she wouldn’t make time for my writing.” Then he cut me off to say, “Sorry, I had a slow day and I still have 3,000 more words to go.”

I woke up sweating.

Bob was in me.

The Bob was coming from inside the house.

I don’t even want a mustache!

Leveling up, getting to the next place in the line—that’s a long, long process, and it goes on into Stage Four and Stage Five. It goes on through learning to write different things, trying various story forms and novels, and failing big. It goes on through raising kids, starting new jobs, treating mental illness, relationship problems, grieving your lost loved ones, moving, getting sober, dieting, and exercising.

Especially once you hang out with other writers, writing can become a strong part of your identity. When that identity is constantly rejected, if that identity can’t get an agent, or, as happens in Stages Four and Five, that identity can’t sell twice to the same magazine or loses the agent… well, that can’t be your full identity. That’s a ticket to Sadnessville.

You have to live in order to write.

You don’t have to cross the Pacific on a raft, or fight in a war, or learn how to wield a 14th-century longsword. That stuff is grist for the mill, yes, but you need to remember to get out, see friends, and take care of your brain when it’s hurting, and sometimes, sometimes, friend, ease up on the writing.

So what did I do, when Bob clawed at the back of my brain?

Once I accepted that I had burned myself out, I joined a band and planted a garden and let the writing lie fallow for a while. I could garden and spend time with my kids. I could play in the band and all it required of me, creatively, was to learn the songs and play them correctly. What a relief!

After about seven months of this, I had an idea.

I started writing, and it was fun again.

Now of course, if you stop writing, you might be afraid you’ll never start again. You might already be in that place, reading this and yelling, “Spencer, I went through this five years ago and I haven’t written a word since!” I can’t speak to your situation, person yelling at your computer, but I would hazard this guess: the situation that made you stop was traumatizing for many reasons and not just the fact that you were frustrated with writing and rejection.

You have to work through that trauma.

And it’s hard to realize that writing doesn’t need to be linked to that other trauma, no matter how closely they are associated.

(I know. I also went through that! And it was worth the money I spent on therapy.)

If you’ve felt blocked for ages, try just setting some time aside to write, several times a week, and when you do that, start with something new and small. Remember that it’s fun, and like a pickup soccer game, the fun doesn’t have to be more than a couple of hours a week. Drop word count goals, finished story goals, submission goals, and just pick some blocks of time to write… anything.

Two more things: as you may have guessed from Bob’s failed relationship, somewhere in here, those who are in relationships need to have a long talk with their partners. If you’re lucky, they will be supportive of your work. Sometimes a supportive partner wrecks their own health in favor of the writer. Don’t let a people-pleaser burn themselves out on kids, jobs, and bills while you happily jaunt off to conferences and retreats.

On the other side of the coin, you might have a partner who resents any time away at workshops and writers’ groups, who belittles your pro aspirations as a “hobby.” That’s harder. It exposes cracks in the relationship in general. You need to have a good long talk with that kind of partner, sometimes as part of couples counseling, until they understand how important this is.

Final warning about this stage: you’ve now reached the place where snake-oil salesmen hunt. As Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, said, “In the self-pub gold rush, more money will be made in author services than book sales.” Anyone with a little capital can start a tiny press, a contest, and charge people a bunch of money to stick their books up on Kindle. Pay them money and they’ll edit your book, put it out, and charge you even more for Amazon reviews.

Some tough advice: if your book does not attract an agent or editor’s attention, it likely is just not as good as it needs to be for publication.

Self-pub included.

Now, if agents and editors are telling you, “This is great and with some work I could have sold it but X subgenre is dead right now,” or, “This is so weird and bonkers that I can’t take it because I don’t know how to sell it,” or some variation of this is good enough to be published but, then you should go to self-pub. Or go to self-pub if you prefer control over the whole process, including cover, flap copy, and distribution. But self-publishing is not the answer to a book you can’t sell, because if you or an agent can’t sell it, that means that readers aren’t buying.

In the next stage, we’ll explore what changes and what doesn’t when glorious, glorious publication arrives!

For now, beware of Bob and snake oil.

Further Reading: Money, Fame, Notoriety: What Are We Self-Publishing For? Kameron Hurley, Misunderstanding “Write What You Know,” Harrison Demchick


So You're Going to Viable Paradise

Editor’s Note: In this article, Cislyn Smith, one of the cofounders of Dream Foundry, writes about her experience applying to and then attending Viable Paradise. For all those commercial sci-fi and fantasy writers out there: Viable Paradise is a one-week residential workshop on Martha’s Vineyard. What I enjoyed about this article was how Cislyn employed her prose skills, the same skills she worked on developing at VP, to draw readers into what the experience of attending this workshop was really like.

For me, December isn’t only the time of year when I stare analytically at my Christmas tree, wondering if it really is as pretty as I think it is, but also a time when I sum up what I’ve done with my time and what my next steps might be—in my journey as a writer and as a person. For many, those next steps involve workshops. If you are considering a workshop…read on!

Step zero: Decide

This can be a revelation, a momentary decision, or the culmination of many different people asking you: "So when are you going to Viable Paradise?" and "Have you applied for this year?" over a weekend.

Step one: Select a Piece

You can't write long. This is a truth you're well convinced of. For your application piece, you chose your very longest story, convinced it needed to be cut by at least 50 percent, but you had no idea which half of the words to remove.

Step two: Apply

The application involves paying a fee, picking a writing sample to go with your application, and writing a cover letter.

There are no bonus points for sending in the application on the last day. There are also no bonus points for waiting until the last moment because you have pneumonia and you don't know how words work anymore and it's hard to think of what to say when you're wheezing.

Get a friend to help you. That's not cheating, honest.

There should be bonus points, though. There really should be.

Step three: Wait

This is the part where you will probably convince yourself that you didn't get in. That's fine. There's a good chance you didn't, and there's always next year, and that's fine.

Step four: Doubt Reality

Getting in is somehow more confusing and more exciting and more social than expected. All of a sudden you are part of a community. All of a sudden strangers are congratulating you and your social media has exploded. This is an omen of things to come. Hold on to that community feeling.

Step five: Unnecessary Preparations

It really isn't required to read a book or story by each and every one of the instructors. Really. And yet…

Step six: Logistics

This is the time for a spreadsheet. If one of your classmates hasn't made one yet, do it yourself and share it with the class. Getting to the island is a chore. Figuring out who to room with and in what type of room is also tricky—be aware of your own personal space limitations and requirements and try to balance that with financial concerns. Spreadsheeeeeeet.

This is also the time to communicate with the staff about personal stuff that might come up. Like a death in the family less than a week before the workshop. Just, you know, stuff.

Step seven: Pack

You can't possibly pack that jellyfish costume. No, really. It doesn't fit. Even though the lovely people on Twitter have told you to take it.

You can, perhaps, pack the supplies necessary to make a new smaller one, though, as a gift to the staff. Just so long as the fabric glue doesn't leak too badly in your suitcase.

Oh, you should also pack clothes and stuff. Sure. Right. And books for the instructors to sign! Also, yarn!

Step eight: Arrive

Somehow, miraculously, you arrive when you expect to. Staff members wait on the dock to meet you, and then a trip to a grocery store where you will buy too much food (They're going to feed you. Why are you buying so many eggs?) and then to the inn where you will get settled in. There are people to match to names now and also a name tag that you will not take off in public for the next week. Nervous laughter. Questions. Conversation. Unpacking.

Step nine: Work

Every day will involve reading, critiquing, leaving notes for your fellow classmates. You will attend lectures and take notes and one-on-one sessions and take more notes and optional lunch sessions and take notes while also taking bites of sandwich. There are dawn walks and there are craft discussions and there is a story to write on short notice and with difficult constraints.

Somehow, you fit it all in. Well, almost all. Those dawn walks are awfully early.

Step ten: Play

It's a good thing you brought that yarn, because your hands need something to do other than take notes and hyperbolic crochet scrubbies are the perfect way to keep them occupied. And there are music sessions in the evenings. One of your roommates has perfect pitch, and one of the instructors is playing the harp, and there is a small percussion frog being passed around. When it all gets to be too much you can step outside and look up at the stars or walk down to the beach and just breathe. Everyone makes sure you have just the right amount of space—not too much, not too little.

Also, there are honest-to-goodness glow-in-the-dark jellyfish under a cloudless sky filled with shooting stars, followed by hot chocolate and music. And making a jellyfish hat for the staff was, actually, a good idea. Even if the fabric glue did leak in your suitcase.

Step ten: Connect

Do not be afraid to ask questions, to give honest feedback, to make friends. Go to dinner with your classmates the one night the staff doesn't feed you. Write together in the common room until very late to meet your story deadline. Lament, as a group, the ridiculous constraints for the story you're writing. Throw hyperbolic scrubbies at random people during breaks. Play games. Break into spontaneous renditions of songs from Disney musicals.

Much thanks to VP Staff Member David Twiddy for use of this image.
Much thanks to VP Staff Member David Twiddy for use of this image.

Step eleven: Epiphany

You turned in your story last night, and while it's not perfect, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It's fine. You wake yourself up early enough to actually go on a dawn walk convinced you need to take out that second POV character, and panic because it doesn't work.

You came here to learn how to write long. You've been writing long this whole time and cutting it down by far too much.

Heck, this article is over word count already, and it's not even fiction.

Yeah. Maybe length isn't the problem. Also, don't edit the story. It's fine, for now.

Step twelve: Synthesize

Leaving the island—that little bubble of community and in-jokes (They're really not a cult!) and space for writing and thinking about writing—is hard. Getting back into any semblance of a normal routine is even harder, especially with all the personal stuff that's waiting for you. And you're going to wonder: Why am I not writing more? I did this workshop and I learned so much. I leveled up! Where are all my words?

Be patient. They're there. Lurking, like jellyfish under the water. Give them time to surface. Let all the feedback and ideas sink in and change you. Metamorphosis is seldom sudden, no matter what the stories say.

Fan To Writer Part 2: I Wrote A Thing!!!

Welcome to the second part of Fan to Writer, in which writer, editor, and conference organizer Spencer Ellsworth leads us through the various steps on the path to pro writer. From having fun with stories to making pro sales and even some money on your writing, come with us on this road.

Part 2: I Wrote A Thing!!!

Fan to Writer, Stage Two. Go!

To qualify for this stage…

You have a manuscript!

It might be a novel or a short story. It might be all done, or mostly done, or maybe, if you’re one of those who writes out of order, it’s a beginning and ending with no middle.


You ask your friends to read it. Some of them do and some of them love it and encourage you. Others, including family, might say incredibly discouraging things that pierce you to the heart, and you tearfully pull up the document on your computer, about to hit DELETE.

Don’t do that!

Don’t give in to that initial discouragement. Don’t listen to any schmo with an opinion. You need supportive, loving friends at this point. You don’t need a “brutally honest critique” but you do need people who are intelligent readers and ask more of a book than entertainment.

Specifically, you need a writers’ critique group. Or a professional editor. Or both.

Writers’ groups are tricky. Many indie bookstores run open critique groups where anyone in the community can show up with their manuscript. I was in one of these for a while and there were two other people in the group who were wonderful—prolific, very productive, with sharp, intelligent critiques. We’re still friends.

There were also random people showing up to tell us that we didn’t know anything and all science fiction was crap.

One guy showed up for a full year, said negative things about everyone’s story, and only ever brought one short story, the only thing he’d ever finished.

Half the reason I stayed was so I could tell new writers, on the sly, not to listen to him.

This can be true in online groups as well. (See Further Reading below for help finding these.)

Practice saying this: “The only advice I need to take is the advice that rings true.” This may be easy for you, if you have a type-A, go-getter, take-no-prisoners personality. If you’re a born people-pleaser, this will be even harder. You’ll have the instinct to implement every critique, every comment, when only a few of those comments will be right for your story.

In time, someone in your writers’ group will say something that rings that bell. You’ll know it when you feel it. For me, it’s that moment where I say, “oooh, that change would make me love my story more.” That means the speaker is a critique partner to keep. Approach those sorts of people and ask them to join you in a private group. Provide some wine and cheese and cookies at the first few meetings to bribe them. (And save the receipts! That’s tax deductible!)

Professional editors are equally tricky. Almost everyone with an English degree is hanging out their hat as an editor these days, because we live in the era of a “good” economy where no one makes enough. But you shouldn’t go with your friend, your old high school teacher or the shiny ad on Facebook.

If you want to spend that money, go with someone who has worked in publishing, who has an eye for errors and story both, with listed testimonials and professional memberships. Don’t go too cheap—worthwhile editors follow EFA rates. Absolute Write has a good list. Usually, if your editor is a working writer, actively publishing, with an eye to trends and quality in their field, they’re much more likely to give you both good craft advice and good practical advice.

Alternatively, that money would be just as good at a writing workshop and may inspire you more than an edit will. Plus, you’ll make friends and possibly meet other critique partners.

Great. You’ve gotten an edit from a great editor and you’ve found some good critique partners. You’ve ditched the open group for a smaller, private group with people you trust. You’re looking at some local writing conferences and maybe even an audition-only workshop.

What now?

Welcome to the queue. We’re all standing in line.

To advance, you have to keep writing. Start a new novel and work steadily for a year, or finish a short story every few months. Submit to any place that’s reliable. Start with high-paying markets and respectable agents and publishers. If your work bounces off those, submit to reliable smaller markets and small presses. Thicken your skin, have crying sessions with your writers’ group, and keep some Ben & Jerry’s in reserve for the rejections that really hurt. Don’t ever submit to pay-to-publish markets or pay-to-read agents. Those are scams.

Read up on every agent who represents your favorite writers. Anytime you read a book that you love and that is similar to what you’re writing, try to find the agent and editor who put it together. Haunt AgentQuery like a vengeful ghost. Follow the #MSWL and #DVpit hashtags on Twitter—the first is agents and editors asking for their dream projects, and the second is Twitter pitching, in which likes from agents and editors represent open calls to submit the story.

Oh, and get a Twitter account. You might hate Twitter, but the entire publishing industry is on there.

And keep reading! Read everything possible that comes out in your chosen genre, and read everything else that catches your fancy.

Caveat: there are some people who “skip the line.” Stephanie Meyer and Patrick Rothfuss both wrote a good, and more importantly, marketable, first book. They found agents and editors, and sold like crazy until they were hobnobbing with celebrities. They are entirely the exception. Look at Stephen King, George RR Martin, Suzanne Collins—all had years of drudgery before they wrote their hits. Look at 99.966% of all other writers, in fact.

This apprenticeship period, in which you hone your craft, make friends with other people who are honing theirs too, and really dive deep, is a lot of fun. My best writer friends are the people I met in this period. If you thought Stage One was fun, it ain’t nothing next to the heady rush of learning, of experimenting, of jumping happily into the trenches.

Next time, we’ll talk about the slow crawl to journeyman stage.

Further Reading: Are You Looking For A Critique Group Or Partner? Janice Hardy, How To Make The Most of Your Writer’s Workshop, Bernadette Mung, Online Writing Workshop, Thoughts On Writers’ Reading Habits, Dario Ciriello


NaNoWriMo: How to NaNo

How do you write a novel in thirty days?

Damned if I know.

For me, the annual attempt at completing National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, or sometimes NaNo for short) is simultaneously a grand adventure and also an exercise in frustration. And yet, I keep trying, because I enjoy the challenge.

One of the great benefits of a challenge like NaNoWriMo is that it can push someone out of their comfort zone in completely controllable (because they’re the only one calling the shots) but also completely unanticipated ways...if that makes any sense. I mean that as someone participating in NaNoWriMo you learn things about yourself as an author, whether you think about yourself as "an author" or not. And you very well might not! You may have never done NaNo before. But if you’re participating this year, then congratulations, you’re an author now.

I’ve been participating in NaNo since 2012, and I’ve come up with some rules of thumb. This is, I hasten to say, how I work in November. It does not have to be how you work or how anyone else works in November or at any other time. It’s not the most convenient process in the world but it’s mine, and it took me the better part of seven years to figure out that learning how to write regularly is recognizing my own process and how it works, and what my highs and lows are.

Rule #1: Never stop thinking about your plot.

Plots—that is, the problem that the characters are facing—are hard for me. So I’m thinking about them constantly: How does Action A lead to Reaction B, and how does that influence the far-off Consequence Z several thousand words from now? I do this to some extent the rest of the year as well, but giving myself the permission to just think about a single narrative nonstop for thirty days, and immerse myself in it, is amazingly freeing.

Rule #2: Drink with your characters.

Picture yourself and your character in a situation where they’re comfortable, maybe more at ease than normal, and start imagining a conversation between the two of you. This is a technique I like to use when I find myself blocked on a particular character. For me, knowing how a character will believably react in a given scene depends upon knowing the character as a person, on knowing both the big details and the little details.

So get them talking. You might be surprised at what you uncover.

Rule #3: Convince your significant other that writing is more important than they are (temporarily).

Writing is largely a solitary process. The writer needs to concentrate and brainstorm and that’s hard to do when there’s a relationship to tend to as well. It’s only a month; your partner can do without 80 percent of your attentions for a month. (I leave it to actual parents to advise how to do NaNo with children in the mix.)

Rule #4: Write in inappropriate places.

Inspiration strikes at the most awkward of times. In bed. In the shower. On the toilet. Keep a little notebook and a stub of pencil in your pocket or a note-taking app on your phone, and when you get an idea, write it down.

Rule #5: Learn at what word count you’re most likely to run out of steam, and plan accordingly.

Example: I’ve trained myself to bang out scenes of about 500–600 words in the scraps of time I can find on a work day. But that won’t get me very far in thirty days, so I have to write my usual daily words, refuel my brain with caffeine, and then do it again. By the end of the month, my draft is a little incoherent, but it’s met the recommended word count and that’s my goal.

Rule #6: Listen to the voices in your head—no, not those, the other ones.

Your characters will tell you lots of things, about themselves, about the story, about their world. You don’t have to use everything they tell you, but listen to all of it. Do not listen to the voices that tell you to just give up because it’s too hard and your writing sucks and no one’s ever going to want to read this anyway. Of course it sucks; it’s a first draft, that’s its job. Your job is to get that story told.

Rule #7: Remember to hydrate.

And eat. And sleep. And shower. And go outside occasionally. Writers cannot live on words alone.

Rule #8: Sort the bodies out later.

Refer to Rule #6. You’re going to have plot holes and dangling threads and limp dialogue and scenes that go nowhere. Let them. November is for writing, for getting the story out, hopefully from start to finish. Some other month is for going back and stopping all the leaks.

Did you find this list helpful? Did you at least get an idea of what you can do to make your NaNoWriMo experience a little easier? Fantastic! Go write!

Did you think this was a load of horse crap? Fantastic! Go write! And then come back and tell me how you made NaNo work for you!

Fan To Writer Part 1: Turn Fun into a Book?

Welcome to the first part of Fan to Writer, in which writer, editor, and conference organizer Spencer Ellsworth leads us through the various steps on the path to pro writer. From having fun with stories to making pro sales and even some money on your writing, come with us on this road.

Part 1: Turn Fun into a Book?

Fan to Writer, Stage One. Go!

And the first rule for qualifying at this stage…

You’re not a writer. At least, you don’t think of yourself as one.

Maybe you wrote stuff in high school or college: poetry, plays, a short story or two. But you haven’t really toyed with a story for a long time. Perhaps you got a literature degree and looked at the creative writing majors across the hall with envy. Maybe you run a D&D campaign that is a lot of fun and it’s your sole creative outlet. Maybe you even write some fanfic when you’re feeling adventurous.

You like reading and have an active imagination.

Caveat: anyone who writes fan fiction is indeed a writer. That is a valid form of writing and some of the best stuff I have ever read is fanfic. (Transformers fans HAVE to read James Roberts’ Eugenesis.) However, since this series is focused on becoming a professional working writer, we’re going to include “writing your own original characters” as part of the leap.

You let yourself dream on occasion or you tell your friends, “This D&D campaign would make a great book,” or “I wish this fanfic could be a real novel.” It’s fun for you to write about your favorite show going places it couldn’t go: The Doctor of Doctor Who as a vengeful samurai, maybe. A gay vengeful samurai, even. Maybe you’re gay and Japanese and wish you could see more of yourself in science fiction. Or disabled, or trans, or any unrepresented group in Western media, with its focus on white straight beefcakes. You want to read something no one’s written yet.

Well, why not try writing it?

Like so many passions in life—gardening, music, long-distance running—you are the thing once you do the thing. A gardener gardens. A musician makes music. A runner runs. Anyone who writes is a writer and anyone writing their own original work, with some imagination and hard work, has a good chance of seeing it in print.

Now, you’ll immediately run into the big roadblock: writing is not very conducive to a busy schedule. It requires you to be alone, seriously concentrating, in unforgiving blocks of time.

You must use those blocks of time to write even if the laundry’s piled up and the dishwasher needs to be run again.


How to find that time?

You could try NaNoWriMo—a fun, no-pressure blast of words in a month, with get-together write-ins to help you find time. You’ll find plenty of friends willing to try the month of mad words with you. Although much is made of the 50,000-word goal, few people remember that for someone who doesn’t usually write at all 10,000 words, 20,000 words, or even the halfway point of 25,000 words—that’s a lot!

Are you intimidated by even 10,000 words?

Let’s see if we can get you started. Ask your idea some questions and answer those questions.

Let’s take your gay, vengeful samurai time traveler. Why vengeful? He’s chasing the man who killed his best friend across time. How does he time-travel? It’s got to be something as characteristically samurai as a police box is British. A magical—time katana? Sure. It cuts holes in the time stream, let’s say.

What else? People love romance. Does romance complicate things? He gets distracted by the very sexy Sherlock Holmes in the Victorian period. Oooh, that’s fun.

All that has to take up around 10,000 words. Simple goal.

You may already know what kind of writer you are: someone who likes to plan or someone who likes to fly by the seat of their pants.

This may be because when you’ve written things like term papers in the past, you outlined, laying out the bulk of the story before starting. Or, if your process has always been more intuitive, you know you’ve always just sat down and gone until you stopped. In either case, you can deduce from interrogating your story that in the first scene your samurai’s buddy will be murdered. In the second scene, maybe we’ll see the aftermath—the funeral—and a long hike into the mountains where he finds a dead time traveler and the time-cutting katana. Seems like a natural progression.

You have a goal for your first few weeks of writing: get to the point where he picks up a time sword, cuts the air, and gets a whiff of coal-stinky Victorian England.

What then?

Well, by then you may have hit a little slump, so you can have the sexy detour with Sherlock Holmes. A shameful amount of pro writers throw some sex in when it’s getting boring. No judgment here!

Go from there, asking the questions: “What happens next?” and “Why?” and “How does this get my character closer to their goal, while not making things too easy for them?”

Where did the time traveler come from? How did his friend’s killer flee in time? How’s Sherlock feel about a one-night stand and has he deduced his mysterious lover’s identity?

If that all sounds intimidating, start smaller with short prompt sessions, half-hour timed writing, or producing something like flash fiction or prose poems. See prompts in Further Reading. If you like short, stay with short, and write little scenelets and jokes. If you find you keep having bigger ideas, you’re probably a natural novelist, and NaNoWriMo may be your speed.

Oh, you’ll get stuck in places, but you’ll start to work out, in time, how to get unstuck. List seven different ways a scene could go. Leave brackets like this: [Insert graceful transition here] and skip ahead.

Another caveat and another method: You can take a fanfic story and “file the serial numbers off” to make it your own whole-cloth creation. My novel A Red Peace may, uh, have started its life as something that rhymes with Schmar Schmores. Just make sure to change it enough that it supports other new stories in that world, not the original.

And in time… it’s done, it’s alive, it’s yours. You asked the questions, put in the time, wrote the dirty, the clean, the exciting and the expository bits. It’s there on your desk, glowing with promise.

In our next exciting installment, what to do with an actual draft? What role do writers’ groups, paid editors, conferences and workshops play?

Further Reading: 500+ Prompts to Inspire You Right Now, Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas?, NaNoWriMo: How It Works


Writing Contest Finalists!

We wrangled and we read and we processed over 300 entries. It was hard, but we got the list down to ten finalists, and here they are!

  • S Rain Lawrence - Minnesota
  • Douglas Wu - Connecticut
  • Steven Berger - Texas
  • Jamie Adams - Minnesota
  • Sam Tovey, United Kingdom
  • Tiffany Smith - Texas
  • Andrew J. Savage - Japan
  • Rose Wachowski - Virginia
  • Samantha Lynne Sargent - Canada
  • Claire Whitmore, Madison - Wisconsin

Stay tuned for the finalists from the art contests. Winners of both will be announced on November 15.

While you wait, make sure to check out our fall fundraising activity. Your donations and support during this time are how we'll keep our programming going, fund future contests, and bring you exciting new things! Browse our auction, swing by our merch sale, back us on Patreon, or give a direct donation via Paypal.