What I’ve Learned (2017 Edition)

Seven years ago today (sort of), I sent my first story to a professional science fiction market.

Today, my name tops the cover of Analog. My novella, “Not Far Enough”, is the lead story. This marks my seventh appearance in the longest-running science fiction magazine in the business.

So since 7 seems to be the theme, let’s see if I can come up with 7 things I learned this year.

Read more “What I’ve Learned (2017 Edition)”

The Mountain

There’s a mountain. And all your life, you’ve watched people climb the mountain. Some climb only the foothills. Some climb to the clouds and beyond.

But no one climbs to the top. There is no top. Just more mountain, no matter how high they climb.

One day you decide to climb the mountain. Maybe it’s not your first time. Maybe you’ve gotten discouraged in the past, and you gave up. Or maybe this is your first time ever. The important thing is: you have a story to tell, so you’re going to climb up there and tell the world.

Good for you! There’s always room for one more on the mountain.

But you’re not sure how to start. You’ve watched others climb, you think you can do it, but where do you start? You want The Path.

Stop. You’re already starting wrong. There is no Path. Or rather, there are countless paths, but no One True Path. Every climber finds their own path.

If you stick around a while, you may find mentors. They can tell you what their paths were, but that doesn’t mean their paths will work for you. You can learn from their paths, but you still have to make your own.

So you’ll start climbing. And you’ll fall. Everybody does. Those climbers you see way up in the clouds? They’ve fallen more often than anyone. They’re the people who learned something every time they fell. And they kept going.

You keep going.

You keep going, and falling, and getting back up and going again. Learn from every fall. Each time you’ll get a little higher before you fall. Someday you’ll find you’re falling less often, and not as far. You’re getting higher.

You keep going.

And you’ll get discouraged. You’ll look up, and those clouds will seem as far away as ever. You’ll see people, friends even, who started after you and yet are higher up the mountain than you. You’ll wonder what you’re doing wrong.

Stop wondering. Keep going. Everybody has their own path.

But if you really get discouraged, ask your mentors. Ask your friends. Do some research. Find ways to get unstuck and onto a different path. Stuck doesn’t have to be permanent. You keep going.

And occasionally, when you really get discouraged, stop. Get a good grip. Turn around. Don’t look up.

Look down. See how far you’ve climbed.

If you’re not satisfied, look around for other paths. Look at where your path has gone astray, and ask what you could’ve done different. Try other paths. Or you could even (shhh!) give up. There’s no shame in that. Not everyone is a climber. Some just like to watch the climb.

But I suspect for most of you, if you stop and honestly look back, you’ll find you’ve climbed higher than you realized. You’re still not at the top because remember, there is no top! But you’ve climbed. It was a lot of work, but you’ve climbed. Give yourself credit for how far you’ve come.

And then face back upward. And keep going.

Writers of the Future: Playing the Odds

A friend recently asked me about ways to improve your chances in the Writers of the Future contest. I thought it was a good question, and I thought my answers were a nice summary of lessons learned. So I decided to share them here as a simple set of “rules” – in quotes, because they can be broken, and they’re no guarantee, but they’re good guidelines.

But before I get to the rules, I must remind you of the most reliable way to win the contest: write an excellent science fiction or fantasy story, 17,000 words or less, and send it in. Honestly, that’s the best thing you can do. Keep working on that!

Now for the rules…

  1. You should know that for pretty much every fiction market out there – and remember, Writers of the Future isn’t just a contest, it’s a pro-paying market – any rule that you hear, even from the editor directly, can usually be circumvented by a really brilliant story. That’s what every editor wants: a really brilliant story that’s close enough to their genre to give them an excuse to buy it. If you can pass Rule 1, you can ignore the rest of these rules. You’re covered. But you still might want to read them, just in case they give you ideas.
  2. David Farland is the coordinating judge for the contest. Out of the thousands of entries they receive every quarter, Dave selects 8 as Finalists. Then a panel of quarterly judges, all pro writers themselves, select 3 winners for the quarter. But Dave is more than the coordinating judge, more than a bestselling author: he is also a writing mentor through his site My Story Doctor. He also writes a series of writing tips on his blog. Every so often, he blogs specifically about what he’s looking for in the contest, or why some stories don’t make the cut. So Rule 2 is: Read Dave’s Tips.
  3. Rule 3 is: Don’t argue with Dave’s Tips! I can’t believe it, but some people do! They say he’s wrong. Now it might be argued that…

    “There are nine-and-sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right!” – Rudyard Kipling

    And Dave would not disagree! There are many ways to write a story. If you can tell a great story that ignores Dave’s Tips, more power to you! But that doesn’t make Dave wrong about what he looks for in the contest! He might be wrong about what readers want. He’s not wrong about what he looks for.

  4. Except… In at least one case, Dave was wrong. He’s on record as saying he hates werewolf stories. He never even finishes them. But… Last year Julie Frost won with a werewolf story. How did she do it? Simple: she wrote a story so good that Dave could not ignore it. Rule 4 is: See Rule 1.
  5. They get thousands of entries every quarter. Many are by people who just enter contests without looking into the details. A good number aren’t even science fiction or fantasy. So if Dave doesn’t see an SF/F element by the end of page 2 — or at least a hint — he’ll probably stop reading. If it looks promising otherwise, he might skip to the end to see if it’s there.
  6. Dave does a lot of skipping to the end. He has seen a lot of plots. If he figures out your plot on page 2, he skips to the end to see if he’s right. If he is, you’re probably out. But if he’s surprised, he may go back to see how you got there.
  7. They get a lot of stories inspired by the latest big movie. They all blur together, and most likely none of them get through. As excited as you may be by the latest blockbuster, put that idea aside. Let it simmer. Come back to it later, and give it a fresh twist.
  8. Dave likes to see three things as early as possible: A character, in a setting, with a problem. It might not be THE problem, but A problem. Struggling with that reveals character and setting.
  9. Dave really likes good description. That held me back for a long time. I’m weak on description.
  10. As for story structure, unless you’ve got a brilliant alternative (Scott Parkin did in Volume 31 – see Rule 1), Dave prefers a traditional Freytag triangle with three Try/Fail Cycles. Two is too easy, four is dragging it out. Three is best. You might have some of the structure happen before the story, or off screen, but try to have it all there somewhere.
  11. Dave likes a story to mean something on an emotional level. Cool plots are great. Cool plots that mean something are memorable.
  12. If your story is set in a modern or historical setting, Dave is a stickler for research and for voice. And he has been a lot of places, he knows a lot of things, and he has met a lot of people. If you’re faking your research, he’ll probably know.
  13. If, on the other hand, you make up your own universe to avoid that whole research trap, Dave likes it logical and consistent.
  14. The contest never gets enough good humor, but they get way too much bad.
  15. Talk to winners. Ask what worked for them. Ask what they learned. My “rules” are just from my one experience. Get multiple perspectives.

That’s a good start. Nothing guarantees a win, of course, but these “rules” will move the odds in your favor.

My Year in Review – 2016

I like to post my Lessons Learned on the anniversary of my return to fiction (July 4). But friends tell me I should also do a year-end review post. So here it is.

Today I Am Paul (5,000 words, reprint)

This little story is my 800-pound gorilla, dominating the rest of the year’s news. Besides winning the Washington Science Fiction Association Small Press Award and being nominated for the Nebula Award, the story was reprinted in the following venues:  

·       The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Third Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois

·       The Best Science Fiction of the Year, edited by Neil Clarke

·       The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016 Edition, edited by Rich Horton

·       The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 8, edited by Allan Kaster

·       The Long List Anthology Volume 2: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List, edited by David Steffen

·       VISIONARIUM präsentiert: Arcanum. Geschichten aus der Zukunft (German translation)

·       Bli Panika (Hebrew translation)

·       XB-1 (Czech translation)

·       Angle Mort (French translation)

·       Quasar (Italian translation)

·       Nowa Fantastyka (Polish translation)

·       Science Fiction World (Chinese translation)

Today I Am Santa Claus (5,000 words, December)

If you liked the Caretaker and its family from “Today I Am Paul”, you can read the next story of their lives in Christmas Caring II: A Christmas Charity Anthology, edited by DawnRay Ammon. This anthology, full of fun Christmas short stories by bestselling writers and new-comers alike, is bound to get you into the Christmas spirit. All proceeds will be donated to Legacy Initiative of Utah.

Bookmarked (2,400 words, September)

Of everything I wrote in 2016, this is the one I’m most proud of (Though “Today I Am Santa Claus” runs a very close second). It’s a tale of love beyond death, written as a tribute to Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon, a great man and educator whom we lost this year. It appeared in Galaxy’s Edge Magazine: Issue 22, September 2016, edited by Mike Resnick.

The Vampire’s New Clothes (5,000 words, July)

This was my other Galaxy’s Edge story for the year, appearing in Galaxy’s Edge Magazine: Issue 21, July 2016, edited by Mike Resnick. This story was inspired by Mike’s novel Stalking the Vampire, and is my way of answering a question raised by that book.

Black Orbit (10,000 words, December)

Inspector Park Yerim must find the secret message from a dead agent, hidden on an incoming mining load. Appearing in Analog Science Fiction, December 2016, edited by Trevor Quachri.

Visits (with a Stranger) (5,800 words, November)

A time travel story of redemption. But whose? Appearing in Time Travel Tales, edited by Zach Chapman.

Green Girl Blues (6,000 words, October)

The gene modder Niko gets involved with a young girl who wants to escape her world. Niko tries to help her without revealing his secrets… or hers. Appearing in Humanity 2.0, edited by Alex Shvartsman.

Early Warning (3,500 words, April)

A man visits his past self to try to set things right… and drink cheap beer. Appearing in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, April 2016, edited by Trevor Quachri.

Pallbearers (5,400 words, reprint, April)

A soldier on a distant world is trapped in his own powered armor. Appearing in Ctrl Alt Delight: Digital Science Fiction Anthology, edited by Michael Wills.

The Troll Under the Fridge (760 words, reprint, April)

It’s the Big Game, and the billy goats want to get snacks. The troll has other ideas. Appearing in Quickfic Anthology 1: Shorter-Short Speculative Fiction, edited by Michael Wills.

In its Shadow (8,700 words, April)

Throughout their history, the Afim have wondered about the strange Sphere in their midst. Now one determined scientist will find the truth. Appearing in Trajectories, edited by Dave Creek.

Murder on the Aldrin Express (19,000 words, reprint, February)

The original Carver and Aames story. Appearing in Forever Magazine Issue 11.


·       23 publications.

·       8 original works.

·       15 reprints.

·       4 year’s best reprints.

·       7 international translations.

·       1 Nebula nomination.

·       1 SPA award.

You know, I may be doing something right here…

Now for next year! Back to work on that novel about a certain android and a certain family…

What I’ve Learned (2016 Edition)

Six years ago today (sort of), I sent my first story to a professional science fiction market.

Nebula Nominee

Today I am a Nebula Award loser. And losing has never felt so good.

Of course, I can take comfort that I’m also an AnLab winner.

AnLab - Racing to Mars

And that Nebula-nominated story, “Today I Am Paul”, has been or will be translated into French, Hebrew, Italian, German, Czech, Chinese, and Polish:

Nowa Fantastyka - Today I Am Paul

And it has been selected for Neil Clarke’s The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume 1, Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016 Edition, Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Third Annual Collection, and Allen Kaster’s Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 8.


But the title of this post isn’t “What I Accomplished”, it’s “What I Learned”. So here are some of the things I’ve learned about writing (and the business thereof) in the past year.

  • Friends are better than any award. I can’t emphasize this enough. Stand by them. They’ll be there long after awards are forgotten.
  • Readers are also better than any award. The reader response to “Today I Am Paul” has overwhelmed me.
  • But awards are pretty cool, too! Even when you lose. And especially when you make new friends along the way. (Hello, Nebula class of 2015!)
  • I learned an amazing amount of astronomy in five long days at the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop. I’ve already written one story based on what I learned there, and more are in the works. Bonus: I made a bunch of new friends!WIRO
  • Under the tutelage of Mike Resnick, I’m learning to identify international markets for my work. I need to keep at this, but it’s a start!
  • I learned that the people at Writers and Illustrators of the Future really mean it! They care about the careers of their winners. That was even more clear as a returning winner than I ever realized as a new winner. The judges and the Galaxy Press staff welcomed us back as family.
  • I learned (again) to listen to Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Lessons that they taught me five years ago keep bearing fruit today: trusting yourself and your sense of story; making writing a habit as a way to encourage your brain to write; getting out of your way; persistence; engaging the senses; putting a character in a setting with a problem in the very first paragraphs (and then keeping them there!); and so much more.
  • I also (re)learned to listen to Rebecca Moesta and Kevin J. Anderson on the topic of professionalism. Treat every reader, every writer, every editor and publisher and worker well, because it’s the right thing to do. There are many benefits that come from this, but even if there weren’t: It’s the right thing to do.
  • I learned the power of Cyberoptix Tie Lab. Their ties have become my trademark. (Me, a guy who hates ties!) They’re amusing, and they also serve as ice breakers. People ask me what tie I’m wearing today, and why. (And there’s always a why.)Laser KittyCommand ModuleRobot Rampage
  • And perhaps most important for my writing, I’ve learned the power of dictation. Oh, I’ve dictated stories for a while now, including “Today I Am Paul”. That story was a single, fifty-minute dictation session; and what you see in print is pretty close to what I dictated. But eventually I realized: Every story that I sold in the last three years was a dictated story. Dictation works for me, so I decided to do more of it. So now when I climb into the Aldrin (my Jeep), if I’m not listening to traffic reports, I dictate into my hands-free app on my phone. As Dean and Kris teach, it’s both a habit and a way to get out of my way and let story happen.

So there it is. It has been a fantastic year, no doubt. Now I have to get back to work and make this year even better!

2013 Writing Goals, in detail

I just posted this on Facebook:

Time to set writing goals for the year. After 17,000 words in 5 days — one of those a work day, one a holiday with the relatives, and one a New Years Eve party with friends — I kinda feel an obligation to set my goals high. Either that, or I’m foolishly optimistic based on a false sense of accomplishment. But either way, here goes…

[Drumroll, please!]

A short story or a novel chapter completed per week.

If I fall short, you all have my permission to sneer, as long as you do so in a motivational fashion.

But here I should be more specific. Dean Wesley Smith has his annual post on goals. I like his distinction between a dream and a goal: a dream involves factors you absolutely cannot control, while a goal involves only factors you can control. “Sell a thousand books” is a dream because you can’t control the buyers (unless you go out and buy them yourself, which is kinda cheating). “Submit a dozen short stories,” “Submit a novel,” and “Self-publish a novel” are goals, because they’re entirely up to you (unless life seriously gets in the way).

Dreams are good. They’re motivating. Goals are good. They’re concrete and measurable. And done right, goals improve the odds on your dreams. But don’t confuse the two, and don’t judge your progress by your dreams. Judge it by your goals.

My writing goals for 2013:

1. My first goal is a repeat of my goal from last year, one where I had only middling success. At the end of every week, every completed story must be one of the following:

A. Sold.

B. In the hands of an editor who might buy it.

C. Self-published to Kindle and other platforms.

D. Free-published on my blog. (This is only for works that I do like, but I think are too short or otherwise too noncommercial for self-publishing.)

I would say I met that goal about half the weeks of the year. This year I’ll aim for every week.

2. Write more.

3. Finish more. As above, my goal – and yes, it’s a stretch – is a story or chapter per week.

4. Set up my publishing house as per Dean’s Think Like a Publisher series. I already have the domain name, the web site, and the DBA. I have two titles published under Old Town Press. It still needs more structure to think MORE like a publisher.