I have a new short story out, with a pile of extras thanks to the lovely Lightspeed Magazine. Enjoy “Sing in Me, Muse“, out today, as well as a thoughtful “Author Spotlight” interview with me by Sandra Odell, and an absolutely gorgeous podcast reading by Gabrielle de Cuir.
It’s a rotten time to be a writer. Leaving aside the creativity-crushing effects of indoor monotony, the usual mechanics of the publishing business are showing their fault lines: authors can’t go on book tours, covers can’t catch consumers’ eyes as they perambulate around shops, and while ebook and audio bundles could be a cool thing, I suspect the big houses are concerned about what will happen to all that easy-to-break DRM’d material after the crisis is over — which is what they were worrying about before, but it’s not a good look right now.
Marketing is one of those things that seemed to be broken well before all this, though, so I wanna talk about it briefly.
Creativity is not zero-sum game — ideas are a dime a dozen, every author has a different take, and even if they don’t, the audience may not care (see: stuffman’s Two Cakes comic) — but marketing is. The funds a publisher can put toward advertising creative endeavors is, generally, limited. Stuff costs money, and that money has to get allocated. Publishers make a guess as to what’s going to sell, and allocate money toward that — just like any other company.
It’s all very uncomfortable. Publishing needs content from authors to have any sort of business. Readers, however, are fickle and publishers are not infallible — they don’t actually know what’s going to sell well, regardless of the money thrown at any one project. So there’s incentive there to publish a lot and then see what the reading public likes. But that “publish all the things!” ethos rides up against the zero-sum issue of before: there’s only so much money. So… the publishers make a bet, pick what they think is going to be successful, and hope they’re right. They’ll stack the deck as much as they can — advertising and marketing and whatnot — but again: they don’t actually know how it’s going to turn out. One tent-pole book that sells well because of a heavy advertising push can support publishing dozens of other books… one or more of which may end up being equal or larger successes, because of talent or audience whim or sudden Oprah visitation.
It makes sense, when you look at it from that angle. If, however, you’re the writer on the other end of the equation… it feels a lot like being a content-producing monkey. Or, to put it a more palatable way, vastly underappreciated and overworked for the pay we receive.
A real-life example:
I’ve had one book published (co-authored, published by Tor Books, so there was a Real Publisher with Real Money and a Real Contract), and let me tell you, I was surprised by what I was asked to do. I needed to provide a list of reviewers for them to send ARCs (but why didn’t they have their own list?), and I had to set up my own interviews (but I didn’t know anybody, couldn’t they at least connect me…?).
What I didn’t realize at the time was that another book was coming out in the same genre at almost the exact same time — but it was a three-book deal as opposed to the single one we had, and they already had all three books in hand. So, where does the money go? There isn’t an infinite amount of it — and “money” here includes stuff like the literal hours in the day. Hours spent on our book were hours that couldn’t be spent on that other one.
Do all that math, and what comes out is that other book, and its associated series, was a better bet, business-wise. Gotta put your money on the horse that gives you the best chance of winning. Those books got the major marketing push, and ours didn’t.
(Note: Being able to rationalize it doesn’t actually make it feel better.)
I have no idea what the other book’s sales were like; ours weren’t great. But I had a decent advance that never earned out, so between me and the publisher, technically I walked away the winner. And the publisher didn’t collapse into financial ruins when my book didn’t take off, because that other book — and any of the other better-selling books that came out that year, and the backlist of bestsellers, and the constant promise of future bestsellers — allowed for them to take a loss on mine, and losses on many other future books that they’ll publish anyway on the off chance that one of them’ll be a winner anyway.
I don’t have a solution for any of this. Publishing houses are doing a ridiculous, constant balancing act that absolutely shouldn’t work, just like how “playing the ponies” should not constitute anybody’s idea of a career. It’s a wonder that the whole thing hasn’t collapsed before now.
The reality is, unless I plan to pull an Emily Dickinson and hide all my fiction away in a drawer somewhere — which I’m not — I have to accept that part of the whole writing gig is marketing myself, because there’s never going to be any guarantee that a publisher is going to do it for me. I have to make my own luck, stack my own deck, bet on my own horse.
I just wish that for all the math publishers are doing on their end, they’d do some on ours. Because they have a limited number of dollars and hours to put to a project… and so do I. And if they can’t find a way to pay authors to be both their content creators and their marketing team… well. That’s a gamble that might eventually cost them everything.
I’m in the middle of outlining a romance novel that has a lot of potential endings — and several of those possible ending are polyamorous in nature. It’s making me realize one of the weird ways fiction doesn’t necessarily mirror reality.
Romance fiction tends to be, largely, monosexual — one person meets one person, they fall in love, happily ever after (HEA). On some rare occasions, though — and this appears in both original romance novels and in romantic fanfiction — you get a polyamorous solution to everyone’s will-they-won’t-they.
When an author chooses the polyamorous option, they’re trying to demonstrate how it works for an audience that may not necessarily have any experience of it in real life. And in fiction, it looks great. There’s support, there’s a lot of love, there’s frequently really inventive sex scenes. Two things I’ve noticed, though:
- The kind of poly that tends to show up as the HEA is polyfidelity, or maybe “kitchen-table poly“. In polyfidelity, everyone’s in a relationship with everyone else, like a closed triangle (or whatever shape the polycule is). In kitchen-table poly, everyone might not be in a relationship with everyone else, but they’re all involved in one another’s lives to the degree that they could sit around the kitchen table in their pajamas.
- You don’t see a lot of parallel or solo poly — at least, not being practiced by the main character. In parallel poly, multiple relationships are being maintained separately; in solo, the poly person maintains multiple relationships but is “settling down” with no one person in particular.
I don’t think kitchen-table or polyfidelity or any of those big group styles of poly are the default of poly — and I don’t think they’re necessarily better than parallel or solo poly, just because we see it in fiction more often. Rather, I think that it’s difficult to write parallel or solo poly sympathetically, in the manner that we’re used to writing about mono relationships.
Writing (for me) is all about having a toolbox of ideas and hacks and methods to convey particular ideas, tools that allow me to translate the messy story in my head to something that looks relatively similar in a complete stranger’s head. If I try to convey one character’s love and desire for multiple other characters, and those characters are all separate or otherwise don’t interact… that sort of writing exists, but generally it’s used to denote a cheater. Even if the author explicitly states that that’s not the case, the author has to contend with their reading audience’s years’ worth of experience decoding and interpreting monosexual fiction — and their own experience writing it. It’s just… easier to write polyamory as if it’s just very complex monogamy.
The truth is, though, that it’s a different bird. And that can land some readers in trouble, particularly those who use fiction to game-test ideas in a sandbox before playing them in the real world. If they’re presented with a type of relationship that looks like it solves their own problems, and then don’t do any research outside of fiction… well, let us consider the example of 50 Shades of Grey and BDSM, and move on from there.
So in working on the ending to my romance, I’m stuck trying to come up with the HEA while at the same time maintaining what I’d like to think is reality for a large subset of the polyamorous community (and shouldn’t they get to see themselves in fiction too?). It’s frustrating work — but, I suppose, that’s why authors do it. Maybe I’ll be the one to crack the code.
I’ve finally gotten my own website. HOORAY.
The thing about writing is that it can be very easy to fall into the trap of “it has to be perfect when it hits the page.” When that doesn’t happen (because of course it doesn’t), that’s when many people give up.
The more sneaky trap, I think, is the one that appears for those who made it past the first one: “it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be everything.” Maybe the words aren’t the right ones, that’s what second drafts are for, sure, but you can’t edit what isn’t there, so you better get it all down the first time around.
So a writer sits there and thinks “I really want to write a story about a duel, but before I can do that I have to write all the lead up to it, and I can’t do the lead up with out making sure I have parts of the B-plot going through it, and I can’t do that before I figure out how I’d reference the theme, and I can’t reference the theme without creating some parallels in some other scenes, and I don’t even know what those scenes are–”
And then nothing happens, and the screen remains blank, because there’s more than one way to try and get everything “perfect” before it even hits the page.
Don’t worry about the theme. Don’t worry about those side scenes. Don’t worry about the references you have to shove into places you haven’t even imagined yet.
Write the duel. Write the next thing you’ve got a clear picture of. Write it out of order, write it from the wrong character POV, write it in a different tense. You can’t edit what isn’t there – and you can’t write when you’re too afraid of getting it wrong.
stop telling ppl to write like hemingway i promise u adverbs are not another face of the dark lord satan its ok
If writers took every bit of writing advice that was in the format ‘Don’t use X part of the English language’, all English fiction would read like Spot the dog
IMO Adverbs can be pretty nasty sometimes (”’I can’t wait!’ said Tom excitedly” is still a pretty bad sentence) but it all comes down to how you use them, and what words you put them together with.
Generally, you should try to avoid using adverbs in phrases like ‘she said happily’ or ‘he screamed loudly’. Aside from that, adverbs aren’t inheritly bad.
And ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’ isn’t a bad sentence at all.
thats not really anything inherent to adverbs, it’s just redundancy. the dialogue is speaking for itself. ’“i can’t wait,” said tom excitedly’ is a bad sentence, but ’“i cant wait,” said tom flatly’ is chill. id probably throw a comma in there before ‘flatly’ for pacing but u do u
“dont use adverbs” is basically a really shitty way to verbalize “redundancy is often awkward and makes your audience feel condescended to if it’s not done well”–because lgr there are times when redundancy is okay, there are times when literally everything is okay
break the rules of literature. theyre shitty rules anyway
Eight rules for writing fiction:
1) Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2) Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3) Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4) Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
5) Start as close to the end as possible.
6) Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7) Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8) Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Short fiction is the “garage band” of science fiction, claims Tor Books editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden, so it’s time to step on that fuzzbox and thrash as hard as you can without knocking over your mom’s weed-trimmer. Actually, I think Nielsen Hayden was referring to the fact that you can try more crazy experiments in short SF than in novels, because of the shorter time commitment of both writer and reader. But how can you become a super-master of the challenging form of short fiction? Here are a few suggestions.
I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on short fiction writing, but I have written over a hundred of the little fuckers, a large proportion of which have been science fiction-y. Here are a bunch of do’s and don’ts, that I discovered the hardest way possible.
- World-building should be quick and merciless.
- Make us believe there’s a world beyond your characters’ surroundings.
- Fuck your characters up. A little.
- Dive right in — but don’t sign-post your plot in big letters.
- Experiment with form.
- Think beyond genre.
- Don’t confuse your gimmick with your plot.
- Don’t fall into the character-based/plot-based dichotomy.
For full explanations of each item on the shortlist, click the link.