Mastering Plot

So you’ve decided to write a story. You have a cast of amazing characters, you’ve settled down with your drink of choice and your favorite writing accoutrements, and you’re all set to write The Best Story Ever.

And you have no idea what to do with those characters. You need a plot.

According to Ronald B. Tobias, there are twenty “master” plotsthat encompass all of human storytelling (or at least the whole of Western canon and the most famous examples of Asian and possibly African canon—literary theory is racist and imperfect so take this with a healthy grain of salt). These master plots are:

  1. Quest
  2. Adventure
  3. Pursuit
  4. Rescue
  5. Escape
  6. Revenge
  7. The Riddle
  8. Rivalry
  9. Underdog
  10. Temptation
  11. Metamorphosis
  12. Transformation
  13. Maturation
  14. Love
  15. Forbidden Love
  16. Sacrifice
  17. Discovery
  18. Wretched Excess
  19. Ascension
  20. Descension

I find Tobias’s Master Plots extremely useful as a guide to help frame a plot, because like many writers, I am very good at beginnings and endings but not as strong at middles.

So if you have a bunch of characters with personalities and backstories but you don’t quite know what to do with them, the master plots can help you decide on a plot structure that suits them. Remember: The key word here is “help.” The plot structure you choose should serve the characters’ extant goals, drives, and exploit the conflicts inherent to their personalities, not just be the one that makes you think, “Oh, that’d be cool!”

In my own work, I like to separate The Plot (macro) from The Story (micro). The Story is all the details of what happens to the characters, while The Plot is what’s happening at large to propel the story forward.

Example: The Story of Hamlet is everything with ghosts and murders and damned incest and depressed Danish princes, while the Plot is the backdrop of international politics that’s happening during Hamlet’s breakdown and in spite of it.

Another example in this vein would be a long-running D&D campaign if/when a character dies and a new one is created. The Plot, in this case a Quest, must still go on.

The Plot has to keep moving forward (somehow) in spite of the Story (or Stories) happening between the characters. I’d advise against having more than one or two Plots in a given piece, but you can have as many Stories as you can juggle, and you can use the same list of types for Stories as well as Plots.

So, let’s say you have a deeply religious fellow as your main character—we’ll call him George. You decide to build a Forbidden Love plot around George. (Tobias differentiates a Forbidden Love plot from a Love plot because in this master list, a Forbidden Love always ends tragically.)

In this plot, George can still have a Rivalry with another character or make Sacrifices for his friends or family, and even go on Adventures, but none of those are the central point of tension in the piece. The driving force of the narrative, the thing that pushes George forward, is that tragic Forbidden Love plot.

As I said above, the key thing to remember about using a master plot to structure your story is that one word, “help.” The plot structure hasto make sense for the characters you have—for all of your supporting characters as well as your main ones. You can make almost any set of characters work with almost any plot…but then the word to remember is “work.” Some plots aren’t a good fit for some characters, and while you can do the extra legwork to make them fit, it will take more time and more effort on your part and might well end up not being the story you wanted or needed to write.

Figure out who your characters are, what motivates them and what they need, and then decide on a plot that is most suited to those needs and motivations. It doesn’t necessarily mean the characters will all get what they want, in the end, but it does mean that you as the author will be utilizing your characters to their best advantage to serve the needs of the story.

Now go forth and plot!


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?

Uh…

 

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.

Ready?

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:

NO YES NOTES
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 always not 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

 


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.

Wow!

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

 


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.

Ouch.

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

 


How To Make a Fictional Podcast

I’ve been a long-time fan of radio dramas, serialized fiction, Star Wars audiobooks, and other fantastic types of audio media, so when podcasts Hulk-smashed their way onto the scene in the early 2000s, I was thrilled. I contacted an author and mentor of mine, Nicole Kimberling, and asked if she would be interested in making a podcast. After googling what a podcast was, she signed on. Two years ago I worked with Nicole to make the podcast “Lauren Proves Magic is Real!” A few folks beat us to the chase with full cast recordings, but I think we caught the first wave of fiction podcasts.

I’m going to break down the steps you can take toward creating your own podcast, because if you have a story to tell, there’s someone out there who needs to hear it.

The approach that I would take to creating a serialized fiction podcast starts with breaking it into two parts: the story and the sound engineering.

Part 1: The Story

The story should be written as a script. They fall into the standard types meant to operate without the aid of visual explanations:

Classic Radio Play: A narrator explains the settings, scenes, and any other parts of the story not revealed through dialogue.

Serial Documentary Drama: A self-aware (which means the narrator is aware they’re recording a podcast) story in which the main character is recording a podcast. Normally, the characters investigate something and the plot involves their interviews, experiences, etc.

Theater of the Mind: A dialogue-based podcast without a narrator that relies entirely on soundscapes. Sound effects take the place of visuals. This can rely heavily on clear exposition (which can be corny).

Dear Diary: An audio diary in first person narration, because reasons. Maybe your character hates to write words, or maybe they are just one of those people who constantly take audio notes.

There are ways to merge these ideas. For example, the main character of “Lauren Proves Magic is Real!” was a podcaster who found the field recordings of a supernatural special agent. She then aired them as episodes of the podcast. So the podcast had to be self-aware, and have both narrative and audio diary elements. The self-aware podcast seems to be a popular choice, which might be because it can frequently be styled in a War of the Worlds way. The listener may experience a moment or two early on where they are not sure if the podcast is real or fiction.

It’s important to make the presentation style clear early on, as it will determine how much of the story is told in dialogue and how much of the story is told with audio.

An audio script, like any script, can be made simply with your computer, your typewriter, or some pen and paper. Like any good story, you’ll want a beginning, an inciting incident, a climax, maybe even a twist, and of course an ending. I personally gravitate toward cliff hangers in serial fiction episodes, so fans have something to wonder about

Now that we’ve covered some basic story elements and your imagination can start putting together a story you’d like to tell, let’s cover some of the technical basics and the steps to take if you want your podcast on Apple—‘the people’s platform’—or paid subscription networks like Stitcher.

Audio Recording Gear Land:

Microphones: How many mics you’ll need depends on how many characters will be speaking to each other in a single scene. I started with three mics and got to a point later on when we needed eight—for one scene. I’m not gonna lie: Mics can be expensive, depending on the sound quality you need. However, you can certainly start with cheap microphones, even gaming microphones that come with a desktop PC. You can also occasionally find microphones at secondhand stores. A classic mic that gives you a lot of bang for your buck is the MXL 990. The standard stage mic, SM58, will work too, as well as the standard stage instrument mic, the SM57.

USB interface: This is a little box into which you can plug a fancy microphone and then the box plugs with a USB cable to the computer USB driver. There’s a large variety, but here are some I’ve used: focus rite, m-audio usb, and audiobox.

Software: There’s a lot of audio programs out there. Your computer may already have one, like GarageBand. There’s also free audio editing software, like Audacity. I’ve also heard good things about Reason, and Ableton Lite. Your audio software will be where you record your story and track over track, and sound edit your story. You’ll record your dialogue using the power of acting, and the friends you can convince to act with you. Take your time to experiment with settings and be open to feedback. Eventually, you will become familiar with your software and be able to produce content very quickly.

There are a few workarounds for the creative person working with a very small budget. There are a series of apps for smartphones that are decent for recording and sound-mixing. If you want to start small, nothing is stopping you. You have the power to write, record, and mix on the device you are likely reading this article on.

Sounds & Music

Theme Songs: All good podcasts have a theme song. It can sometimes include clips of the dialogue cut out and edited like a movie commercial or be an original theme. Theme songs are a fantastic opportunity to collaborate with another like-minded creative. Find a musician friend and offer to use their music or ask them to write some. It’s hard to be vulnerable during the beginning of a creative process, but having a musician that you like on your team is really going to be worth it as you move forward in producing.

There are many opportunities to play music in a fictional podcast. There’s music that plays in cafes, music that denotes the passage of time, music from a car radio, music that sets a location. As much of this as you can get originally created, the better. But also there are a ton of resources online for both music and sound effects. I use www.freesound.org for sound effects and small bits of royalty-free music.

There will inevitably be times where you need a sound effect that isn’t on the internet. I’ve had to create sound effects by recording myself running up and down stairs while knocking things over, dropping plates, scraping a razor against a bowl, hitting an iron railroad nail tied to a fishing string, etc. Be creative. You already can record. Ask yourself what’s in the room around you that makes a sound that could enhance your story.

Hosting: Once you have recorded several episodes and are committed to a release date, you’ll need to acquire a site on the internet. It can be a simple free Wix site or Squarespace. The only real requirement you need is for the site to be able to hold an RSS feed, which is where you will drag the mp3s of your project. Then you’ll either pay a third-party site like Podbean, or hop over to Apple podcast and submit your podcast for review. If it passes muster with the strange robots that review things, then bang! You’re live. It’s time to hit that share button and plead for likes on your social media.

The best advice I can give anyone about to make a fictional podcast is start small, pick a release schedule, and meet that release schedule every week. That means being prepared and not waiting until the last minute to do anything. Enjoy yourself! You’re about to embark on the fairly unexplored medium of fictional storytelling, a genre that is still being formed. I’m excited to hear what you make.


Interview with John Coulthart

Who are some artists and/or illustrators who have influenced your work? How and why?

The greatest influences strike you when you're very young. My mother was an early influence because she'd been to art school, and worked briefly as a textile designer before getting married. Having an artist in the family demystified the art world and made an art career seem like a tangible thing. She also had a few art books and magazines from her college days so I was aware of fine art from a very early age. Later influences were the covers I was seeing on bookshelves and in record-shop windows in the 1970s; the book covers being created by Chris Foss, Bruce Pennington, and Bob Haberfield weren't things I tried to imitate myself but the combination of this type of art with a fantasy, horror, or science fiction story sparked my desire to aim for doing something similar myself. Album covers were equally intriguing even if the music they packaged wasn't always very good. I urged my parents to buy me Roger Dean's first art book, Views, then began collecting the books published by his Dragon's Dream company. The album art of Roger Dean and the surreal and often enigmatic record sleeves created by Hipgnosis made music seem like another area in which it might be good to work.

The final influence from this period was Heavy Metal, a magazine, which, from the late ’70s, was reprinting in English the French comic strips from Métal Hurlant by Moebius, Druillet, Bilal, and many others. I stopped reading comics when I was about twelve after trying to get interested in US superhero comics; I didn't like the art and thought the stories were ridiculous compared to the written science fiction I was reading. Heavy Metal had superior artwork and the stories were often a lot more interesting. This made me realize that comics could still be a viable medium for an artist who didn't want to draw in the American style.

What media do you use? Do you think any media are better, or can shape, how speculative elements are depicted in a work?

I work entirely digitally today, using a combination of Photoshop, Illustrator, and a Wacom tablet. I still do sketches on paper from time to time since this is a good way to quickly work out ideas, but I only use physical media if I require a very specific effect, like an ink wash or something. With Illustrator, I like the precision it delivers, something I often tried to achieve with ink drawing.

The great advantage of digital media is its flexibility. You can refine a piece of work or try a number of variations without destroying the early stages of the piece. With physical media, you often have to live with the single thing you're creating, flaws and all. With digital art you can also use bits and pieces from all over the place, combining photo sources with original illustration to create a seamless hybrid. This is useful for imaginative work when you're often trying to create things that haven't been seen before. I'm not the only illustrator who used to hoard photos ripped from magazines to use as drawing reference. There's no need for this today when the internet gives access to images of every kind.

The disadvantage of digital art is that everyone is aware of its flexibility, so you might be asked to change something you were perfectly happy with simply because an editor or art director knows that changes can be made.

How has the field been changing in the past ten years?

The most obvious change is that you have an entire generation—maybe two generations—for whom digital art isn't a new thing at all but is the medium they grew up with. This means the standard of work from talented people is now very high; the refined finish that digital art offers has raised the bar enormously. People are also educating themselves much more, via YouTube tutorials or following artists who like to show the process stages of their work.

Another development is the visibility of artists from all over the world. The internet gives people access to an international audience that in the past would have only been available to the very successful.

What have been some challenges for you as a working artist? What have been some of your triumphs and joys?

The main challenge has always been to stay busy (and employed!) while working in the area that excites me the most. If you work freelance you often have to take whatever job comes your way; some jobs are inevitably more interesting and better suited to your abilities than others. You also have to be prepared for working relationships to run their course: publishers change their line of books or close down altogether; editors and art directors leave their jobs and leave your commissions in limbo as a result, and so on. This lack of a stable environment causes other problems since it compels you to say "yes" to whatever work that comes along, with the result that you may find yourself having to juggle two or three jobs with short deadlines simultaneously.

On the upside, it's always good to be earning your living doing something you enjoy, and I feel very fortunate to be in this position even though I'm always complaining that I don't get paid enough. I've been additionally fortunate in having the opportunity to work with people whose books or music I've admired from afar. I'm often critical of the album covers I created for Hawkwind in the early 1980s but that opportunity was a very lucky break for a nineteen-year-old, and it made me feel that I'd made the right decision two years earlier when parents and teachers were telling me I was going to fail utterly if I didn't go to art school.

I also feel lucky to have won the World Fantasy Award for best artist since I don't work exclusively in fantasy and SF and don't always feel very visible there. I've tended to dismiss the genre awards in the past for being minor things that are very US-oriented, despite their "world" labels. I changed my tune a little when I looked back over the previous World Fantasy art winners to see artists like Roger Dean and Moebius in the list. I don't regard myself as being on their level at all but it's good company to be in.

What is some advice you could pass along to people just starting out in the field? How can we work to support each other?

I'm usually wary of giving advice since everybody's circumstances and opportunities differ, and some of the things that worked out well for me won't work for others at all. I didn't go to art school for a variety of reasons but not everyone has the self-confidence (misguided or otherwise) that I had when I was seventeen. That said, it's not necessary to fret about qualifications if you're aiming for an illustration career. Nobody has ever asked me about my education in a job context, and I've never heard of any other illustrator being asked the same. When it comes to commissions, the thing that counts is the quality of your work.

Beyond education, two general things are of lasting importance: visibility and contactability. Is your work easy for people to see, and are you easy to contact if somebody takes an interest? Making your work visible is relatively easy today thanks to social media, so this isn't too much of a hurdle. I'd caution people about becoming wedded to a single platform, however. All the popular social media outlets have only been around for a short time and the less successful ones (in a business sense) like Tumblr keep getting sold to new owners. Some of these platforms may no longer be around in another ten years, so you have to regard all internet outlets as useful in the short term but not as a single place to devote all your time and energy.

The hazards of social media leads to the second point about contactability, and for the long term I'd recommend having your own website. Setting up a website may seem a daunting thing compared to setting up a profile on a free social outlet; websites cost money (a small amount but it still needs paying for) and require a degree of technical skill to set up and maintain. But it's worth the initial effort for the benefit of having your own online portfolio available to the world. Here you can have your contact details easily available and post all your work in whatever manner you find appropriate. You can still post the same work to social media, just don't regard the latter as the only outlet in the world simply because everyone you know seems to be there. Your friends may all be there but commissioning editors or art directors may not be. If someone sees a sample of your work in a web search, are you and your contact details easy to find without them having to sign up to a site or click through login notices and other obstacles before they even locate your name?

This is getting overextended so I'll make a final note that going to conventions is a good way to get your work seen and also meet people who may want to use it somewhere. I'm a total introvert so I dislike conventions, even though I used to force myself to go to them. Convention attendance can also involve considerable expense so you have to be prepared to spend a lot of money and maybe have nothing to show for it at the end. But it's a very good way to meet writers, editors, and art directors. And other artists, of course.