Learning at Home

While we’re at home and practicing social distancing, many of us are looking to learn something new or hone our skills. There are a lot of classes being offered online right now. Here are a few that are both free and potentially of interest to those of us in the speculative arts.

Let’s start with the courses that happen at a specific time:

Next up are a slew of classes that you can check out anytime:

If you’re willing to sign up for skillshare.com, you can get two weeks for free. And if you do so, you might be interested in these course offerings:

Have you found a really neat class that you’d like to share with our readers? Or perhaps you’re teaching one? Be sure to tell us about it on our forums!

Inside the News

Publishing News for March 2020

The world changed quickly because of COVID-19.

People are scared. People are worried. People are losing their jobs. People are sick and dying. People don’t know what the future will bring.

But people are also pulling together and helping one another. People are social distancing but keeping each other in their lives. And this is true both for the larger world and the genre world.

Artists and authors are trying to help each other, as with the Society of Authors launching an emergency fund for writers. People are also creating websites such as COVID-19 Freelance Artist Resources, which features info on emergency funding and much more. Others are fundraising to help, such as with Ijeoma Oluo creating the Seattle Artist Relief Fund Amid COVID-19.

For many authors and writers, especially those who support themselves by freelancing, the economic fallout from COVID-19 is frightening. A lot of freelance work is being stopped or put on hold by businesses. In addition, books tours are being cancelled, as are other places where authors promote their work such as conventions. (Locus Magazine is keeping an updated listing of all genre convention cancellations and delays.)

But people are adapting the best they can. The 2020 Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in SF/F Writing was presented virtually, with Rona Wang reading her winning story through Zoom. Many authors are also taking their in-person visits virtual, such as with N.K. Jemisin’s upcoming April 3rd appearance at the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination.

SFWA is also partnering with r/Fantasy to “host their 1st ever virtual con with AMAs, giveaways, & more. Slots are available for April and May.” (For info on how to participate, go here.)

Others are also setting up virtual conventions, with Everywhere Book Fest for kidlit authors, books, and readers being among the first.

I wish I knew how all this would turn out. I wish I could say that people wouldn’t be hurt and devastated in the coming months. But I can’t do that.

What I can say is that during times like these people help each other. As we’re already seeing.

Thinkerbeat Just Ain’t Thinking Right

Thinkerbeat Reader is the submission system and community supporting Unreal and Unfit magazines. However, it turned out the editor behind these sites, Daniel Scott White, had been posting online the names and rankings of many of the magazines’ rejected authors.

Other issues have also been raised about the magazines, including Thinkerbeat Reader requiring a membership fee after the first three months (meaning authors may have to eventually pay to submit).

Many, many people called out the editor and magazines for doing this such as Benjamin Kinney in a very good post on his website. And some authors published or reprinted in the magazines, including Yoon Ha Lee, said they wouldn’t have published there if they’d known what the magazines were doing.

In response to this criticism, you’d think an editor would simply say “my bad,” apologize, and fix the issues. If White had done this the genre would likely have been pretty forgiving.

Instead, White doubled down, telling authors who complained that he was “being disruptive, sure, but that's what it takes to displace other magazines on the way up.” The editor also emailed some accepted authors and said “There's an angry mob on Twitter that is threatening to ban me at the SFWA” and proclaimed the magazines might “put a 'banned by the SFWA' sticker on my next cover. Should be our best selling one yet.”

As an FYI, SFWA doesn’t ban magazines and doesn’t even have the power to contemplate doing so.

For more on the responses from these magazines, see this thread by Diabolical Plots (who runs the respected Submission Grinder website).

Thinkerbeat eventually stopped publishing the ranking and title of stories but they still name rejected authors. Yet there is (note my sarcasm) good news because now the rejection earns you a "Thinkerbeat Award!" The site even urges rejected authors to put the award icon on their websites and social media pages. Sigh.

Other news and info

This thread by Marianne Kirby on how stories must have some hope in them, and how the “big narratives getting pushed on us by corporations are mostly about prolonging agony,” really touched a nerve with me. A must read.

Schrödinger’s Fave

Schrödinger’s cat posits that a cat, locked in a solid steel box, and whose life depends on whether or not a particular radioactive atom has emitted radiation or not, is both alive and dead, until the exact moment that the cat can be observed. Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger devised this thought experiment in 1935 to illustrate problems he saw in current interpretations of quantum mechanics. Since then, it has been used and reused and re-re-reused in increasingly incorrect and irrelevant ways.

This is one of them.

In college, my creative writing professor was a zealous proponent of New Criticism, a popular school of thought in the mid-twentieth century where you shouldn’t ever acknowledge anything outside of the work when you consider that work. At its most basic, it’s The Death of the Author. And because he was terrible, my creative writing professor constantly repeated his belief in the importance of two main aspects of New Criticism: the biographical fallacy and the intentional fallacy.

The biographical fallacy critiques the view that works of creative art (visual, literary, musical, etc.) can be interpreted as reflections of the life of their authors. The intentional fallacy is the argument that authorial intent doesn’t matter and indeed should not matter in understanding a work of art.

And Death of the Author in general assumes that what the artist might have meant will never be known and doesn’t give a single fuck about that, so you have to find your own meaning.

I really like the Death of the Author method of interpreting a text. It’s a less rigid, more personal way of engaging with media. I also think it’s a great stance for an actual author or musician or showrunner to take. I’ve always felt that what art means to the artist and what the art means to the audience are vastly different. Neither of them is wrong! But ultimately, when compared to what the reader takes from a book, what the author intended doesn’t matter.

…Until it does.


This is what I’ve taken to calling "Schrödinger’s Fave": Every creator you look up to is simultaneously The Best and The Worst, depending on how much you know about them.

The truth is, it’s not always possible or wise for the reader to divorce the art from the artists. What an artist thinks or believes or supports can change how a person reads or interprets their work, although one should not automatically assume things about an artist based upon their work. We all make art about things we would never do or even want to do in real life. But to say that an author or a musician or a comedian’s known actions, statements, behaviors, and beliefs shouldn’t influence how their work is consumed and interpreted is naive, restrictive, and frankly dangerous.

Watching a Bill Cosby stand-up special fifteen years ago was a very different experience than watching the same special today, knowing what we now know. Knowing that the New Zealand film industry was exploited to hell and back because of the Lord of the Rings movies means viewing them is never going to be as carefree and wonderful as it was when they were new. Discovering that Ayn Rand was on welfare in her later years makes…well, no, nothing makes reading Ayn Rand worth it, but it’s still really funny.

Knowledge alters not only the interpretation, but the experience.

Recently, I learned that Ray Bradbury was, er, not a nice person. Not long after, I learned that Alice Sheldon, the woman behind James Tiptree, Jr., killed her disabled husband and then herself (there is debate that it was a suicide pact, but no consensus). Both giants of classic science fiction, both favorites of mine…and both of their work is now irrevocably tainted in my eyes because of their beliefs and actions in life.

We all react to these kinds of revelations differently. Sometimes it’s anger, or betrayal. Sometimes it’s flat-out denial.

And maybe a little self-preservation at the outset would help. Maybe reminding ourselves that even the most amazing writers and painters and singers and actors are only human, always fallible and sometimes horrible, would help prevent that gutting emotional upset.

Then again, maybe it wouldn’t. After all, until we open the box, until we see for ourselves, the cat’s still alive.

Negotiating Short Story Contracts

The purpose of this article is to talk in more detail about short story contracts. This is a topic that seems to be rarely covered in most writers’ forums that I’ve seen, where most of the focus is on the writing side and rarely on the business side. Yet, there are tons of bad contracts out there and it’s very important to avoid the bad ones or at least understand exactly what you’re agreeing to and understand what you can do.

What’s the point of a short story contract?

The point of a contract in many situations is to provide grounds for either side to use in the case of a legal dispute. The amount of money involved in a short story purchase is generally not a huge sum. Even at professional rates for a longish short story, you’re probably talking a few hundred dollars for the transaction, unless you’re getting up into novella word counts or the publisher has an extraordinary pay rate. The sum is generally low enough that, if there were a dispute between author and publisher, disputing it through the legal system would make the dispute a money-loser for both sides.

But a contract is still worthwhile, because it should clearly spell out what both parties can reasonably expect from the other over the course of this transaction. It can be used as a reference to point to if you feel the publisher is not living up to their side of the deal, and which the publisher/editor can point to if they feel likewise about your behavior. And you don’t just want to consider what will happen in this transaction but what may happen with future transactions with other publishing involving this story or other stories.

I have from time to time had stories accepted by editors who insist on having no contract, and they tend to tout this as a huge benefit, paraphrased to: “We’re all friends here! We don’t need contracts! We won’t sue you, we promise!” While protection from lawsuit is handy, that’s not really the main point. I want to know what to expect and I want to know what is expected of me, and if I don’t have a contract, I don’t have that—you can exchange expectations in an email but the formal language of a contract is meant to remove ambiguity. You can be friends with editors, but when it comes to dealing with the actual transaction, it’s best treated in a professional and businesslike manner by both sides. Just as you don’t need formal training to be a writer, you don’t need formal training to be an editor—a lot of editors are running their publications in their spare time and treat it more as a hobby than a profession—which isn’t to say they don’t publish great work, but some of them want to avoid anything that feels like a real business. I have sold stories to places like this before, and generally things have turned out well, but a lack of contract still makes me wary because I have been bitten by lack of contract or badly worded contracts more than once.

What should I expect in a contract?

Okay, so contracts are important and all that—but what do you do when you get a contract? The good news is that short story contracts are straightforward compared to most other contracts—there are a few clauses you should expect, and some types of wording that you should avoid. Most magazines publish their payment terms and some other details in their guidelines—so you usually don’t have to negotiate unless the contract includes an unexpected questionable clause.

1. Don’t sell copyright

Just don’t. Run away. You won’t be able to ever resell it. It’s not your story anymore if you sign. Most markets won’t ask for this, but some will. The exception to this is if you take work-for-hire writing stories within an established world—for instance, if you are hired to write Halo tie-ins or Star Wars tie-ins. In those cases, you are writing in a world that someone else owns, so selling the copyright for the story can make sense (but the pay should also be better).

2. The Basics

Language describing the parties and the story in the transaction by name.

3. Payment Details

The dollar value, the medium (PayPal or check, etc.), and expectation of when you will be paid (i.e., as soon as you sign the contract, at the time of publication, 30 days after publication, etc.). Obviously the payment value should match what you’ve been told in the guidelines ahead of time. The expected timing is important because it gives you a reasonable idea of when you can pester the publisher if you haven’t been paid yet. And some publishers, even ones that you respect, may occasionally miss a step. If they publish your story, they owe you that money. Do not feel bashful about following up if you haven’t been paid when you should’ve been—that’s one of those cases where the contract is very helpful to point at when you’re asking for what’s due to you.

4. Editing Permissions

Explanation of what the editor is allowed to change about your story. Many say something along the lines of that the editor can make minor formatting changes to fit the style of the publication—I don’t have a problem with that. Others may say that the editor can make small punctuation type changes. I usually don’t worry about those too much. But I have had a few that say that the editor can change whatever they want. I am very wary of this, because I’ve been bitten by that clause before—where the final three paragraphs were left off the story with no consideration given to how that changed the effect of the story. I don’t intend to sign another contract with such a clause.

5. Publication Media

An exact description of the publication mediums that the story will be published in. Such as a print magazine only, or online only, or online and a podcast, etc. Be very wary of language that is all-inclusive, like “any and all electronic mediums.” A publisher should know exactly what they are publishing in. If you later want to reprint the story somewhere else, the exact details of what the previous publisher is allowed to do becomes very important. Imagine you sell to a print magazine the right to publish in all mediums, and the next publisher wants first audio rights. You can’t ethically or legally sell to the second publisher without querying the first publisher now…and the first publisher may not be obligated to respond.

6. Language

I have seen contracts that specified all languages, which would effectively block me from reselling it in translated fashion to a German publication (for instance). There are international translation markets for science fiction. I have not pursued any of them, but they are there and I want to keep that option open.

7. Exclusivity Period

This is the period of time after publication when you’re expected to not allow the story to be published elsewhere. Some magazines require no exclusivity period—so you could theoretically publish it somewhere else the next day (though I usually give at least three months as a courtesy to editors). Six months or a year is pretty common. Be wary if they ask for too long an exclusivity period—I’d look askance at anything above a year for short fiction.

8. Publication Duration

Period of time when the publisher is allowed to publish the work. This will vary a lot depending on the medium.

9. A drop-dead date

The contract should spell out a time period after which, if the publisher hasn’t exercised their publishing rights, you get all your rights back anyway. This is usually on the scale of a year or so. If the publisher has paid you by this date, you should be able to keep the money with no further obligation. This is one that’s most often omitted from contracts, so look for it.

10. Company Closure Provision

This is similar to a drop-dead date in that it specifies when you can get your rights back—but in this case it’s meant to immediately release your story to you if the magazine officially shuts down. As long as there’s some kind of drop-dead date, this one isn’t necessary, but it’s a nice thing to have.

11. Miscellaneous

Read every sentence very closely (it helps that most short story contracts are pretty brief). Watch for too-broad language. Watch for anything that would make you nervous if taken exactly as it’s written. One example of this that I’ve seen is a too-broad demand for the author to participate in promotion—of course an author should want to spread the word about the book, but there’s a difference between “something an author ought to do” and “something an author needs to be contractually obligated to do.” The writer has already done the work by writing, and presumably they want to get back to the business of writing some more, so at some point you have to consider when other demanded obligations become unreasonable.

What if I don’t like the contract?

1. Ask other authors.

Consider asking someone with experience with short story contracts about the language.

2. Query the editor about it.

Ask for a change, and explain why you think the change is important. If you know other people who got contracts from them around the same time, consider discussing your concerns with them. If more than one person pushes back at the same time, that sends a stronger message.

3. Consider the editor’s response.

They might write up a one-off contract just for you. They might consider changing the contract they send to everybody. They might say they’re not going to change. I’ve seen all of these reactions. Most big professional editors will probably already have a reasonable boilerplate. New editors/markets are more likely to be wildcards with unfriendly wording—but these new editors may also not realize that there’s bad wording and may be very willing to change it.

4. If they give you a new contract and you’re satisfied...

Sign it and celebrate!

5. If they don’t want to revise...

I’d at least try to get a layman’s explanation of what they meant by the problematic language (though keep in mind that if that doesn’t match what the contract says, the contract with your signature on it is going to hold more water than an email exchange).

6. If you still don’t like the contract...

Consider very carefully what you want to do. You can sign it anyway. You can say no. What feels right? How prestigious is the market? How generous is the pay? If you sign the contract anyway, just be aware of the risk you’re taking, such as the risk of a story being legally tied up indefinitely if there’s no drop-dead date, and make it a calculated risk that you walk into with your eyes open. If an editor takes a hard stance on a clause that you don’t want to budge on (like no drop-dead date or selling copyright), then maybe that’s not a person you want to enter a professional relationship with.

Can I break contract?

So, you sign a contract with a one-year exclusivity. It gets published, gets rave reviews. Ellen Datlow drops you a line and asks to publish it in a Best of the Year anthology. Now what?

Anything in a contract can be waived if both sides agree to it. So, just consider whether your publisher would benefit from whatever you’re suggesting. If they wouldn’t, then maybe you should forget about it. If they would, then you’ve got a sales pitch to do. Best Of anthologies, especially ones by well-known editors like Ellen Datlow, are a common case where contract exceptions are made (and often even are explicitly allowed in the body of the contract). Getting a story in there gets a lot of recognition for the original publication’s editor.

There might be other things that you could convince an editor to agree to as well. Maybe you have an idea to cross-promote a publication by publishing it on a podcast—that can be beneficial too. Just ask.

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

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