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.
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!)
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…
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:
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.
A 4,000 word short story (approximately 30 pages in paper).
Eliza Wall was the most space-happy young lady on the Moon. She spent all her time studying to become a great explorer. Then on one fateful expedition, she must put all of her skills to the test. Can she save herself… and her father?
This one started with a desire to sell to Redstone Science Fiction. I like the market, I like their stories, and I like their attitude; but they have a firm 4,000 word limit, and my stories usually start at twice that length. So I sat down to write a 4,000 word story; and more, I sat down and studied their magazine hard, so I would know exactly what sort of stories appealed to them. Magazine editors always say: “Read some issues so you know what we like.” And so I did that, and I found they liked hard science fiction stories very much like I like to read – and write.
And so I sat down and I wrote, carefully holding back my usual wide-ranging style to focus on a very small story. The end result came in at 3,996 words on the first draft; and I seldom do second drafts beyond a little cleanup work, so I just sent it off. The result was… Well, it was ironic, and I laughed:
Your speculation about living on the Moon is touching, but the subject is quite similar to some stories we have already published, making it not quite what we are currently looking to add to Redstone SF.
“Read our magazine,” my ass! I didn’t hold it against them, but I did start taking that particular advice with a large grain of salt. (And I haven’t sent them anything since, but not because of this rejection. I just can’t get under 4,000 words that often, and they only accept stories during limited periods and on limited themes. But someday…)
I started with an idea from an old Alternity adventure that I ran at PentaCon one year. That idea was way, way, way too large for a 4,000 word story (it might become a novel someday); but there was one challenge I could lift from it and turn into a story. None of the same characters would make sense in this version, so I decided to recast it entirely as an Old Town Tale. Instead of a team of explorers escaping an international conspiracy, it became a young girl trying to save her father; and though I didn’t know it at the time, the young girl became Eliza, who would later grow up to own and run the Old Town.
Eliza has appeared in other Old Town Tales, and she’ll appear in more. This one is dedicated to Virginia and Ayanna, two young ladies who helped me figure out Eliza’s personality. My niece Virginia inspired Eliza’s sense of exploration and curiosity (and shoes!). And my friend’s daughter Ayanna helped me see the view of a young lady trying to both take on the world and hold tight to the family she loves.
An 8,000 word short story (approximately 50 pages in paper).
When you’re an Ecological Engineer on the Moon, you get used to the mess, and especially to “that smell”. But one night, Scott Wayne discovers “that smell” is a threat to the city of Tycho Under – and worse, to his favorite bar! Can a bunch of neighborhood barflies save the city? Or will bureaucracy win out?
“The Night We Flushed the Old Town” is a tall tale of life on the Moon. Scott wouldn’t lie to you… would he?
Like many of my stories, this one started with a character who lives and works in Tycho Under, sitting down and telling me his story. These are ordinary characters living ordinary lives and working ordinary jobs – but their lives and jobs just happen to take place in space. (I call this subgenre “Blue Collar Space”.) In these stories, I usually don’t know what the story is, just what the character does for a living; and then I let him or her tell me what their work is like until eventually I find the story.
(Note: Yes, I know how crazy that sounds, my characters talking to me. Just pretend it’s real, OK? This is a lie we writers tell ourselves to explain the different places in our brains where ideas come from. Some writers speak of muses, some speak of messages from outside themselves; and some, like me, speak of the characters having minds of their own. We know that it’s all really inside our heads; but making up believable lies is just what we do, ya know? We don’t just tell these lies to our readers, we tell them to ourselves.)
In this case, I was looking for an aspect of Lunar life to explore; and I settled on waste treatment. Why? I dunno, it just seemed like a good idea at the time. So I sat down with Scott Wayne, and he started to talk to me…
No, we can’t do anything about “that smell”. I knew you’d ask—everybody does. But you haven’t thought it through. Take a barstool and I’ll explain.
And no, I’m no candy-ass for calling it “that smell”. You heard me down in City Engineering: I don’t exactly watch my language. But here in the Old Town, I try to be more circumspect. If you want to keep drinking in the best bar on Luna, you’ll do the same. Eliza—she’s the former drill sergeant behind the bar—kindly asked us in Eco Services to be a bit euphemistic when we talk about our work. She’d rather we not ruin any appetites. So, we talk about “that smell” and “liquid waste” and “sludge”, not… well, you know.
That’s almost verbatim what I wrote down on that first day. I can’t tell exactly where it came from (though it bears a tiny resemblance to a certain incident that involved me, a doctor, a flu shot, and a fainting friend in the ladies’ room); but with those two paragraphs I knew who Scott Wayne was. Then I let him tell me his story (with a lot of help from Wikipedia and other web searching), educating me on waste disposal and the contents and uses of… sludge. Eventually I learned some key facts, and I realized the threat to the bar and the city.
And even if you saw it yourself, you wouldn’t believe it. Oh, I wouldn’t trust a person like me if I were you. Sure I wasn’t there, I swear I have an alibi. I heard it from a man who knows a fellow who says it’s true…
This one is a bit of a tall tale. Of course it is: it’s told in the Old Town!