“Listen, now. Read this carefully, because I am going to tell you something important. More than that: I am about to tell you one of the secrets of the trade. I mean it. This is the magic trick upon which all good fiction depends: it’s the angled mirror in the box behind which the doves are hidden, the hidden compartment beneath the table. It’s this: There is room for things to mean more than they literally mean. That was it.”
What is genre? It’s part setting, part conventions and tropes, and more. At a meta level, it’s reader expectations – and to a degree, non-reader expectations: many people have said of my story Today I Am Paul, “Oh, that doesn’t sound like science fiction!” Excuse me? An android caring for an Alzheimer’s patient isn’t science fiction? But every person who said that also said first, “Oh, I don’t read science fiction.” These aren’t SF readers, because they “know” what the genre’s about: spaceships and phasers and light sabers and such.
And that’s, unfortunately, another aspect of genre: it’s a wall people use to divide the world into “books I might like” and “those other books”. Without even understanding the range of a given genre, they decide it’s not for them.
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.
I guess the flip side of a Year in Review is setting out some writing goals to work toward. Dean and Kris talk about the difference between dreams and goals. A goal is something that is (mostly) within your power. If you work on it, you can make it happen. A dream is outside of your control. It might happen, but you can’t make it happen. Yet if you define your goals properly, they can make your dreams possible. “Win a major book award” is a dream. You can’t make the nominating committee or the voters like your work. But “Write a great book” is a goal: you can try and keep trying until you succeed. And if you never achieve that goal (great book), there’s no chance to achieve that dream (book award). Sell a story? Dream. That’s up to the editor to decide. Submit a story? That’s all up to you.
So with that clear, these are my 2017 writing goals:
Finish Today I Am Paul (The Novel), and get it to my agent.
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!
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.)
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!
Five years ago today, I sent my first story to a professional science fiction market.
No, that’s a lie. As Dean Wesley Smith says, never trust a writer. We lie for a living. Some of us get good at it.
My first submission was 38 years ago, give or take. I don’t recall the precise date. It was a bad pun story, embarrassingly bad, and George Scithers from Asimov’s Science Fiction sent me a nice personal rejection.
I gave up. I figured I didn’t have what it takes. (And that’s how new I was: I didn’t realize that a personal rejection was supposed to be encouraging.)
My second submission was a few years later, a maudlin little story about an astronaut who wakes up in a world so obsessed with safety that they never do anything. That one got a form rejection.
I gave up.
My third submission was a couple years after that. TSR (the D&D company) had bought Amazing Stories, and I had a humorous adventure story steeped in D&D lore, so I figured it was a good fit. The editor (coincidentally, George Scithers again) sent me a very nice note that said it was a fun story, but he just couldn’t use it.
In 2010, my brother-in-law read what I thought was the first chapter of a novel. He said, “That’s not a chapter, that’s a story. Send it in.” So I did. And it got a form rejection.
I sent it to another market. I wrote more stories. I sent those out. I got more rejections.
I gave up. I sent out one last story, and then I gave up.
Then in March of 2011, that last submission became a Finalist in Writers of the Future. It didn’t win, but it did something more important: it got me to stop giving up. Rejection wasn’t stopping me, I was stopping me.
In March of 2012, I had an acceptance – but not a sale, this was for charity – in The Gruff Variations: Writing for Charity, Vol. 1. It might not have been a sale, but my story “Gruff Riders” appeared alongside stories from Hugo and Nebula winners and nominees plus dozens of other great writers. I was proud to have a story there, and I would be proud to do it again.
Then in September 2012, Analog bought my novelette “Not Close Enough”. In February 2013, they bought “Murder on the Aldrin Express”. In 2014, they bought “Brigas Nunca Mais” and “Racing to Mars”. This year they bought “Early Warning”. Meanwhile, in 2013, Galaxy’s Edge bought “Il Gran Cavallo” and “Pallbearers”.
So an anniversary is a time to reflect. What have I learned?
The most important thing is simple, and at the same time the hardest lesson of all: Stop giving up. Or as Galaxy Quest taught us, “Never give up, never surrender!” My number one advice to new writers, especially young writers, is “Don’t be like me. Don’t give up.”
Does not giving up guarantee sales? Of course not! That’s why this advice is so hard to follow: not giving up means facing rejection after rejection, never knowing if you’ll ever see a sale. Or a second after your first. Or…
So the other thing I learned is to keep learning, keep getting better. And this advice scares me. See, I don’t do a lot of conscious learning. Oh, I read writer blogs and books, I attend workshops, and I talk with other writers. Those are all good things to do, and I recommend them. But I’m not good at thinking about the lessons I learn. I read, I listen, and I try to absorb, but I don’t consciously apply the lessons. I just write, and I hope. I worry that if I don’t work harder at this, I may hit a plateau and not know how to climb off it.
So I’m working on this; but at the same time I worry about the story of the centipede. He walked all around, just fine, until somebody asked him how he kept all those feet coordinated. He started thinking about it, he couldn’t figure out, and he could never walk again without tripping over his own feet. I worry that if I try to consciously change, I may lose whatever it is that I’m doing right. And I don’t know what that is.
I don’t know what that is! And that, my friends, is scary! I’m flying blind.
And that, again, brings us full circle. I can tell you a hundred little things that I’ve learned along the way; but I still know nothing, not really. I can tell you what worked for me in particular cases, but I can’t tell you what will work for you. I can’t tell me what will work for me next time.
And anyone who says they can tell you: they’re a writer, they lie for a living. Don’t trust them. Even when they believe their lies, they’re really just telling you what worked for them in some cases. As long-time Writers of the Future judge Algis Budrys said, there is seldom only one right way of doing anything. If someone tries to tell you The Way, remember that it’s only A Way. One among countless. Learn what they’re teaching, but think of it as a tool in your toolbox, not a rule you must follow. Try it out, see how it works for you. It’s not The Way, but it might be useful.
But this is no lie: there is a way, a way that significantly improves your chances. I’ve already laid it out above, but let me put it together here. Don’t stop learning, and don’t stop trying.
WRITE! WRITE! WRITE! WRITE! WRITE!
(Speaking of which, there’s a novel calling to me… Get back to work!)
I just read the news: Galaxy’s Edge has been accepted by SFWA as a pro-qualifying market. Therefore my two sales there, “Il Gran Cavallo” and “Pallbearers”, are my third and fourth official pro sales. (They’re my fifth and sixth at pro rates, but Digital Science Fiction didn’t last long enough to qualify as a pro market.)
So the good news is: I am now officially eligible to join Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Thank you Mike Resnick, Laura Somerville, and Shahid Mahmud for producing such a great magazine and making this possible.
The bad news is: I am now officially ineligible to enter Writers of the Future. My current entry for Q1 is my final eligible entry. I have now “pro’ed out”, putting me in the great company of authors like Annie Bellet and Kevin J. Anderson. Thank you, Joni Labaqui, David Farland, and the crew at Author Services, Inc. for an amazing three years with the contest. And thank you to all my fellow members of the WotF forum for all your support and encouragement.
Jen is the author of Moonlight Medicine: Onset, an urban fantasy/paranormal romance (I’m never sure where the line is there) about a veterinary researcher caught up in a war between werewolves who want to destroy her because she offers the most dangerous thing possible: a cure.
“I like a good doctor story as much as the next reader, but don’t bore me with all that medical stuff! Don’t tell me the patient’s blood pressure, don’t tell me what course of treatment they tried that accidentally made things worse, and don’t tell me how they found the real illness hidden behind all of those mysterious symptoms. Just tell me that the patient went to the hospital, and the doctor did some doctor stuff, and the patient got worse until they did even more daring doctor stuff, saving the patient in the nick of time!”
“I like a good sports story as much as the next reader, but don’t bore me with all of those plays and strategies! Don’t tell me the plays they tried and how their opponents blocked them, don’t tell me the ingenious strategy that turned disastrous, and don’t tell me how the replacement quarterback tried something no one had ever seen before and surprised everyone with the winning touchdown. Just tell me there was a game, and the teams clashed, and the home team was on the verge of losing until the underdog turned it around and won the game!”
“I like a good police procedural as much as the next reader, but don’t bore me with all of that forensic stuff! Don’t tell me how they combed the scene for clues, don’t tell me the strange evidence they found but couldn’t explain, and don’t tell me how the forensic team managed to tie together disparate clues to paint a picture of the real crime. Just tell me there was a crime, and the police were stymied, and then the lab fingered the real killer. Don’t waste time on procedure, just get to the exciting chase scene at the end!”
“I like a good science fiction tale as much as the next reader, but don’t bore me with all of that science stuff! Don’t tell me how the laws of physics blocked the protagonists’ plans, don’t tell me how they pushed their ship to the limits to try to skirt the edge of possibility, don’t tell me how they pushed too far and their ship broke down, and don’t tell me their ingenious plan for turning disaster into triumph. Don’t waste time on believable science, and especially don’t waste time convincing me that it’s believable. Just make something up, and get to the exciting chase scene at the end!”
I don’t think anyone would watch House M.D. and say the writers should cut out all the medicine. I don’t think anyone would watch The Replacements and say the writers should cut out all the football plays, the huddles, and the practices. I don’t think anyone would watch CSI and say that the writers should cut out the, ya know, Crime Scene Investigations and the laboratory scenes.
Yet some people show no hesitation in dismissing science fiction with actual science and engineering at its core. Not just “I’m not interested in that,” but rather, “You’re doing it wrong!” And often they’ll add (with a sneer), “It’s science fiction! Duh!” I can only shake my head and pity them. Such limited imaginations…
There’s room for medical soap operas, and room for medical mysteries. There’s room for stories about the lives and passions of pro athletes, and room for stories of a team of underdogs fighting against all odds to get to the championship. There’s room for buddy cop films, and room for forensic investigations.
And there’s room for fantastical, metaphorical science fiction verging on fantasy, and room for real nuts-n-bolts, hard science fiction.
Once upon a time there were three Billy Goats, who were to go into the kitchen to make themselves fat, and the name of all three was “Gruff.”
In the kitchen was an old refrigerator with all the best food; and under the fridge lived a great ugly troll, with eyes as big as saucers, ears like skillets, and a nose as long as a carving knife.
So first of all came the youngest Billy Goat Gruff to open the fridge.
“Creak, crack, creak, crack!” went the hinges of the fridge. They were old and hadn’t been oiled in a long time.
“Who’s that cracking open my fridge?” roared the troll.
“Oh, it is only I, the tiniest Billy Goat Gruff, and I’m getting a snack to make myself fat,” said the Billy Goat, with such a small voice.
“Now, I’m coming to gobble you up,” said the troll.
“Oh, no! Pray don’t take me. I’m too little, that I am,” said the Billy Goat. “Wait a bit ‘til the second Billy Goat Gruff comes. He’s much bigger.”
“Well, be off with you,” said the troll. And the little goat grabbed a pudding cup and fled from the kitchen.
A little while after came the second Billy Goat Gruff to open the fridge.
“Creak, crack, creak, crack, creak, crack!” went the hinges of the fridge.
“Who’s that cracking open my fridge?” roared the troll.
“Oh, it’s the second Billy Goat Gruff, and I’m grabbing some lunch to make myself fat,” said the Billy Goat, who hadn’t such a small voice.
“Now I’m coming to gobble you up,” said the troll.
“Oh, no! Don’t take me. Wait a little ‘til the big Billy Goat Gruff comes. He’s much bigger.”
“Very well! Be off with you,” said the troll. And the middle goat grabbed a frozen package of macaroni and cheese and fled to the microwave oven. Fortunately no trolls lived under the microwave, only some dust bunnies, and they weren’t very hungry.
But just then up came the big Billy Goat Gruff.
“CREAK, CRACK!” went the hinges of the fridge, for the Billy Goat was large and impatient and he opened the door very wide to see what was deep in the back of the fridge.
“Who’s that cracking open my fridge?” roared the troll.
“It’s I! The big Billy Goat Gruff,” said the Billy Goat, who had an ugly hoarse voice of his own.
“Now I’m coming to gobble you up,” roared the troll.
“Dude… Seriously?” said the big Billy Goat Gruff. “You’ve got a fridge full of food here. Pudding cups and frozen jalapeno poppers and potato salad and cheese and hot dogs and broccoli and orange juice and… Hey, I think you have half a leftover turkey in the back there! That looks good! And there’s about a hundred more things in here as well. Troll, with all this food, why would you want to gobble me up?”
The troll scratched one big ear. He had only three fingers on each hand, but that was enough to scratch with. “Ummm… I never thought of that. Hiding under things and gobbling people is the only job I’ve trained for.”
“Well, take the day off! You’ve got plenty of food. Hey, we’re watching the big game in the den. Sixty inch TV! Kickoff’s in ten minutes. You should join us!”
So the big Billy Goat Gruff grabbed the leftover turkey, and the troll grabbed the jalapeno poppers and popped them into the microwave. Then all three Billy Goats Gruff and the troll really raided the fridge and set out a small mountain of snacks and drinks on all the tables in the den. The dust bunnies decided they were hungry after all, so they brought in some chips and salsa. Everything was ready just in time for the kickoff.
The game was a real nail-biter: it went into overtime, and a Hail Mary pass won it for the home team. Everyone roared with excitement, even the dust bunnies (though they roared very quietly). The troll and the big Billy Goat Gruff stood and gave each other a high five. (Well, high three for the troll and high two for the big goat, but you know what I mean.)
I’m a little late getting this on my blog, but here it is at last: Gardner Dozois, editor of The Year’s Best Science Fiction series, has selected “Murder on the Aldrin Express” for inclusion in volume 31! You can preorder it here!
Here’s the incredible table of contents:
1.“The Discovered Country” by Ian R. MacLeod
2.“The Book Seller” by Lavie Tidhar
3.“Pathways” by Nancy Kress
4.“A Heap of Broken Images” by Sunny Moraine
5.“Rock of Ages” by Jay Lake
6.“Rosary and Goldenstar” by Geoff Ryman
7.“Gray Wings” by Karl Bunker
8.“The Best We Can” by Carrie Vaughn
9.“Transitional Forms” by Paul McAuley
10.“Precious Mental” by Robert Reed
11.“Martian Blood” by Allen M. Steele
12.“Zero For Conduct” by Greg Egan
13.“The Waiting Stars” by Aliette de Bodard
14.“A Map of Mercury” by Alastair Reynolds
15.“One” by Nancy Kress
16.“Murder on the Aldrin Express” by Martin L. Shoemaker
17.“Biographical Fragments of the Life of Julian Prince” by Jake Kerr
18.“The Plague” by Ken Liu
19.“Fleet” by Sandra McDonald
20.“The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin” by Michael Swanwick
21.“Bad Day on Boscobel” by Alexander Jablokov
22.“The Irish Astronaut” by Val Nolan
23.“The Other Gun” by Neal Asher
24.“Only Human” by Lavie Tidhar
25.“Entangled” by Ian R. MacLeod
26.“Earth 1″ by Stephen Baxter
27.“Technarion” by Sean McMullen
28.“Finders” by Melissa Scott
29.“The Queen of Night’s Aria” by Ian McDonald
30.“Hard Stars” by Brendan DuBois
31.“The Promise of Space” by James Patrick Kelly
32.“Quicken” by Damien Broderick
I am in amazing company! I am honored beyond words.