I’ve just given the same pep talk to three different writers, so I figure you probably need it to.
Let me speak to you about impostor syndrome. That thing where you are sure everyone knows you’re faking it and they are going to find out any minute and then you will be cast down and they will laugh and OMG EVERYONE WILL KNOW YOU SUCK!!!!11!!1!!!!
Years ago, when I was nominated for the Campbell Award I was having serious, serious impostor syndrome. And Nancy Kress — multiple Hugo/Nebula/Everything award winner with a bajillion books, told me that she still had impostor syndrome. That is at once tremendously heartening — because it means I’m not alone — and terribly sad, because it means that there’s not a point where I will have “made it.”
You know how, when you’re playing a video game, you get to see this beautiful loading screen when you level up?
What happens with impostor syndrome to you is that you leveled up while you looking away from the computer. You didn’t see the loading screen, all you see are monsters that are bigger than they were.
But you DID level up and you can totally handle it.
It’s much, much worse to never experience Impostor Syndrome, because that means that you are staying on the easy level. Things will just keep coming that you know how to handle and that, eventually, gets boring.
So next time you feel the Imposter Syndrome hitting, recognize that it’s a symptom of the fact that you levelled up without noticing. It’s a crappy feature and the UI is totally borked, but you can handle it.
One of the unexpected side effects of publishing a book or a story is a shift in your status. Now, I know you’re thinking, “but I’ve only published one thing, I’m not a REAL author.” I’ve talked elsewhere about imposter syndrome, so I want to talk about the unintentional side effects of ignoring the fact that you no longer occupy the same place in the hierarchy
You and Ursula K Le Guin are the same. Bear with me on this one… Occasionally, I talk to an SFF fan who has never read anything by Ursula K. Le Guin. Sometimes, they’ve never even heard of her.
We’ll pause for a moment to experience shock.
Also to sorrow for that reader’s upbringing.
Okay. So, here’s the thing. To that reader, picking up a book by this new author they’ve discovered named Ursula K. Le Guin carries with it exactly the same weight and expectation as picking up a book by you. Which means that to a new reader, you have the same social power as Ursula K. Le Guin.
In fact, if they’ve read and loved your book, and not read anything by her, you have more social power.
What is social power? Have you ever been talking to someone and then suddenly realized Who They Were. Then frantically reviewed everything you’d just said in case it was something was stupid?
Here’s me, experiencing that moment:
I’m standing in the cafeteria line at a puppetry festival. The older woman behind me points to one of the innumerable orange dishes behind the glass. “Do you have any idea what that is?”
“Macaroni and cheese?” I mean, it’s orange and lumpy in that sort of way. I point to a different vat of orange. “Do you have guesses about that one?”
“Scalloped potatoes, I think…” She points at another. “That?”
“Sweet potatoes, maybe. It has marshmallows.” I point to more orange. “Thoughts on that one?”
“Cauliflower with cheese.” She points to something virulently orange. “What about that?”
I’m stumped. I turn to face her more fully, enjoying this game and I see her name badge for the first time. Jane Henson.
My brain is now filled with don’t lose your cool. don’t lose your cool don’t lose your cool. What comes out of my mouth is, “Um… orange?”
Up until the moment when I realized who she was, she was just a pleasant older woman and fellow puppeteer. After that moment, she was Jane F*cking Henson and I’d been talking to her about orange food. Strangely, she is exactly the same person before and after that moment. Her internal status doesn’t shift. Her external status does.
And that is what happens with you, when someone realizes that you wrote a book that they liked. Everything you say suddenly carries more weight to them.
This is a sudden hierarchy shift. When you publish a book, or heavens, win an award, you don’t just jump one level, you jump a couple in terms of people’s view of your external status. Inside, you’re still exactly the same person but people respond to you differently and it is weird. It is tricky to navigate the change, because it literally happens overnight.
Beware of accidental abuse. Let’s take it as given that you are a good person and would never knowingly hurt someone. When you’ve had a hierarchy shift, by publishing a book, or winning an award, you take up more space than you’re used to but you feel the same.
So imagine if your idol is coming into town and says, “Want to have lunch?”
You drop everything, try not to hyperventilate, and say, “Yes.”
A random stranger comes to town, you say, “No.”
So, when you publish a book, you feel like a random stranger, but you are someone’s idol. It’s very easy to do something that would be innocuous if you were talking to an old friend, but in this new context your words and actions carry more weight. It’s not fair, on multiple levels, but that’s the way it is.
It means that people will have a harder time telling you “no.” It means that your opinion will carry more weight. It is easy to take advantage of people without realizing it.
Treat people like third graders. Wait– let me explain. I used to tour to elementary schools with puppet theater. I met a ton of third graders. They are great. They are hyper-intelligent people and everything is still new. They are excited to meet you.
At the schools, they wanted my autograph because I was The Puppet Lady. Now the thing is, I cleaned out my childhood room with that collection of show posters from community theater. I know exactly how much those pieces of paper are worth. Monetarily, nothing.
What they represent is a day that was out of the ordinary. These kids are excited because they had a day that was out of the ordinary. To me, it was just another day. I did puppet shows every day, literally. It took conscious thought to remember that this was the first time that they had seen a show.
Now, it’s easy to confuse out-of-the-ordinary with extraordinary. I can’t live up to extraordinary — I’m just doing my job — but I can be out of the ordinary.
With third graders, it takes so little effort to tip an out of the ordinary day into a fantastic one or a terrible one. It’s the difference between saying, “Sure! I’ll sign your poster. Did you have a favorite part of the show?” and “Kid, I don’t have time for this.”
I’ve realized that it is the same thing with readers. Autographs are proof of an out-of-the ordinary day, a memory that you can show to people.
Have boundaries. Just because you’re trying to be a good person and remember the size of your new footprint doesn’t mean that you can’t also take care of yourself. Don’t want to hang out with someone? Don’t. Need down time? Take it. Someone makes you feel gross? They’re an asshole and it’s okay to treat them accordingly.
Act with intention. All of this can sound terrifying, which… okay, is a little bit my goal. But only in the same way that fire can be terrifying. It is beautiful and keeps us warm, but if we aren’t aware and use it without conscious intention, it can burn everything down.
So you’ve published a book. Maybe most people have no idea who you are, but to the person who read it and loved it?
You are Jane Henson and Ursula K. Le Guin wrapped up in one.
You’re on fire.
Enjoy the warmth and try not to burn anything down.
I counted it out – in 2018 I spent more days traveling than I did at home. I… I question my life choices sometimes. BUT there was so much cool stuff that I don’t know what I would have skipped. And since there is no reasonable way to cover everything I did, here are a few highlights. So many links ahead!
Last year I: published 2 novels, 6 short stories, wrote a game, podcasted, did many space things, baked a few pies, and spent a lot of time with family.
> I went on our 6th annual Writing Excuses Retreat and Workshop. I wrote on a balcony, taught in the R Bar, ate ceviche and wrote during a downpour in Cozumel, and got shingles (ouch). Join us next year – we’ll be going back for ceviche, but not for shingles. (Prices go up on Jan 31st!)
Ceviche and writing in Cozumel
> I got to watch a spacewalk rehearsal at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, and talked all about it during the actual spacewalk a few months later.
> Speaking of amazing space things, I’m just gonna leave this one here:
Yes, that’s an actual lady astronaut that loves my Lady Astronaut book. *Tahani hair toss*
> I started a Lady Astronaut Club. Official merchandise! (No Cream of Wheat boxtops required) Membership cards! Just send in a SASE! The Lady Astronaut Club is open to anyone on or off the gender spectrum.
R J Theodore is joining us today to talk about her novel Flotsam. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Captain Talis just wants to keep her airship crew from starving, and maybe scrape up enough cash for some badly needed repairs. When an anonymous client offers a small fortune to root through a pile of atmospheric wreckage, it seems like an easy payday. The job yields an ancient ring, a forbidden secret, and a host of deadly enemies.
Now on the run from cultists with powerful allies, Talis needs to unload the ring as quickly as possible. Her desperate search for a buyer and the fallout from her discovery leads to a planetary battle between a secret society, alien forces, and even the gods themselves.
What’s R J’s favorite bit?
R J THEODORE
The writing process is full of pitfalls. Even after writers get a handle on structure and characterization and themes (and and and), there are other hidden traps to fall into. Becoming as surefooted as a sailor on an unforgiving sea is part of the process. But the lessons come with pain, and the topics aren’t all as objective as grammar and spelling.
In writing my first novel, FLOTSAM, I learned not to back down. That there’s enough fiction out there for heteronormative white dudes and in wanting to tell my story and get other people to love it, I am willing to sacrifice the classic genre audience if I am going to reach the people I want to connect with.
White males have dominated the genre, even if they don’t dominate the audience. There’s been an acceptable level of James Bond-esque machismo to Science Fiction and Fantasy and even in 2018, when we all know the world is broader, bigger, and better with many voices and perspectives, writers of commercial genre fiction tend to weave the truths of non-white, non-binary, non-male characters in between that traditional view of the world. To bury representation so it can’t be seen unless someone wants to. When an author steps out of line (GSM representation in Chuck Wendig’s Star Wars Aftermath trilogy comes to mind), they open themselves to a flood of unfiltered animosity and toxic masculinity. It could break a person. It could ruin a career.
We shouldn’t have to sneak it in, to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. As if representation needs forgiveness! As if there isn’t a crowd of readers looking for us to be brave and bold with such representation, as brave and bold as they are to live it every damned day. We haven’t even scratched the surface of voices that need to be heard.
As a writer, we know our characters represent real people, and yet there’s the tendency to mute them when they stand up to do the most good. Because our careers ride on it. Because the opinions of critics ride on it. Because Amazon algorithms reward numbers, not bravery. Because if the book doesn’t sell, we’re done. It’s also bullshit.
Add imposter syndrome to that. The feeling that nothing we do will be right or good or embraced, the desire to back off and play it safe, or to hide if we can’t please all the people all the time.
Heaps and heaps of bullshit to fall upon the shoulders of a timid, first-time writer.
So the advice to write broadly? To stay in line lest my career end before it begins? To be commercially viable, the next big thing, but not by taking risks or trying something different?
My new novel, FLOTSAM, is my first offering to the world. I wrote it with the usual dreams of seeing it on shelves in bookstores and of seeing a movie poster hang in a theater lobby someday. I wrote it with the dream of connecting with readers who would love it. But in my newness, I began to make missteps. I confused “my readers” with “all readers.” If I thought I could do something to make my audience wider, I was willing to do it. And when I didn’t know what to do, I looked for advice from people who said they knew.
And this was my mindset when I received counsel to remove my aliens’ non-binary, non-English pronouns to make the “broader” audience (read: heteronormative dudes) more comfortable. I argued against it, and my stand was dismissively waved off with “do what you want, but I’d stop reading a book whose author included them.” I couldn’t imagine a more horrible fate for my book. I imagined the mouths of my readers curling at the corners. A physical manifestation of distaste.
To my immediate shame, I took the advice.
The Yu’Nyun of FLOTSAM have no regard for gender. They do not have monogamous relationships, and love is not tied to reproductive systems. They breed in petri dishes and care far more about adherence to social structure and their own beliefs. In fear of alienating readers, who might put the book down when they reached their first xe or xist, I thought perhaps it would not be so bad to strip out those non-binary pronouns. It wasn’t about gender anyway, right? They were aliens, weren’t they? It was my creation, and I had a responsibility to do what I could to help my book succeed, didn’t I?
Based on how I managed the edits, though, I think my subconscious defied the revision. I didn’t erase their identities and cleanly break from the original intent I had for the Yu’Nyun. Instead I subconsciously wove in a breadcrumb trail that led this back to bite me later. I described the complex system of class-based pronouns from the aliens in my novel, in more detail than ever, cementing them into the story. I then exposited via the attitude of my protagonist that the identities were difficult, confusing, and uncomfortable – all the things I had been told they were – and should be disregarded in favor of choosing gender normative pronouns. Against their wishes. I wrote in thin, weak excuses for her behavior. The gender-assigning equivalent of “I’m not racist, but…”
I hated it. It felt wrong. It felt wrong to my character, too. It was not in her character, and the sentences I wrote to explain the decision away were shameful and unconvincing. My advance readers caught the disparity straight away, including Mary Robinette Kowal and a Netgalley reviewer named Abi, whose feedback drew our attention back to the issue. I am so eternally grateful for these readers who helped correct this issue by expressing deep reservations about it. As a writer, I am expected to express myself well, yet I cannot appropriately convey the roiling feeling in my head and gut that plagued me as a result of the identity suppression being uncovered and brought to light again. Not because my malfeasance was “exposed” but because we were so far down the path to publication that it might be too late to correct it. That the book might go to print as-is, and that I would have to live with knowing it could have been more and wasn’t, could have done more and didn’t.
Thankfully, Parvus Press stands by their authors. It was important to me, and so they stopped production to give the matter due attention. I was given not just their blessing, but their support to use my troublesome and uncomfortable pronouns throughout the text.
In a blog post looking back on Parvus’s second year in business, Colin Coyle wrote “[Saving money or doing the right thing] isn’t a choice. Always do the right thing. Always.”
Yeah, he was talking about FLOTSAM. I can’t express enough gratitude to Colin and the whole Parvus team for addressing this issue with decency and transparency. That roiling feeling in my gut evaporated when I explained where the problem originated, and he asked me, so matter of factly, “Do you really consider [heteronormative white dudes] to be your audience?”
No. No I do not. They’re welcome, of course. But I’ll not bend my pen nibs to their whims at the expense of people whose opinions do matter to me.
Always do the right thing. You know what that is. Represent it in your writing. Don’t sneak it in. Don’t wait until you’re successful and famous, safely assured your career will not be broken by your rebellious streak.
R J THEODORE is hellbent on keeping herself busy. Seriously folks, if she has two spare minutes to rub together at the end of the day, she invents a new project with which to occupy them.
She lives in New England with her family, enjoys design, illustration, podcasting, binging on many forms of visual and written media, napping with her cats, and cooking. She is passionate about art and coffee.
Book One of the Peridot Shift series (Parvus Press), FLOTSAM is Theodore’s debut science fiction novel and is available in print, digital, and audio from Parvus Press.
Ariela Housman is joining us today to talk about her art print Fuck You, Pay Me. Here’s the description:
Sometimes profanity is required. When someone asks you to work “for exposure,” for example. Or for “portfolio development.” Or tries to haggle you down from your stated prices by trying to convince you that you’re not actually that good.
Remind yourself to stand firm and insist on being paid what you are worth with this print. Beautiful letters and graceful flourishes deliver a blunt message with class.
The print comes with a dark blue mat and is available in three sizes:
8″ x 10″
9″ x 14″
16″ x 20″
What’s Ariela’s favorite bit?
This art print is outside of my comfort zone. The departure from my usual artistic style wasn’t what made it hard; I am uncomfortable with the content. I was always taught to use profanity sparingly and never in a professional setting. Yet here I am, not just using it but writing it in brightly-colored, super fancy lettering, stamping my brand name on it, and selling it.
A good dose of encouragement from friends helped me overcome my squeamishness about swearing “on the job.” I didn’t realize until afterward how much my uneasiness over making this print, and the process of defeating it, mirrored my discomfort over asking to get paid and my gradual journey to confidence in the worth of my work.
I’m not comfortable talking about money. Even in non-monetary terms, I frequently find it difficult to assert my own worth and to ask for what I want instead of just what I need. I have internalized the idea that these are not polite things to do, just like swearing, and that doing so would have negative consequences. When I started selling my art, I worried that if I set my prices as high as I thought I deserved, I would never make any sales. Even now I revisit that concern briefly whenever I price a new product. Each time I send a quote in response to an inquiry about custom work, I take a deep breath and remind myself not to brace for conflict; after all, only sometimes do they result in an angry email from the not-to-be-client who is incensed I have the gall to price my work above the value of a mass-produced movie poster. Frankly, sometimes I wonder whether my business will implode if I say “Fuck your expectations of self-sacrifice For The Art, your impression that you can bully me into accepting less money than I know my work is worth, and my own Imposter Syndrome in the bargain! I’m pursuing my art on my own terms.”
The support of my friends and colleagues and the mentorship of senior calligraphers gave me the confidence to start charging in the first place. Over the years it has gotten easier for me to state my prices without flinching, but I still experience moments of self-doubt. When I do, I turn to fellow creators for reassurance and inspiration. So, too, with this print. I chewed on the idea privately for at least a month before getting up the courage to ask a group of friends over happy hour drinks if they thought a print like this would sell. The chorus of “YES!” was loud and immediate. So I put it on the production calendar. (Then followed a surprised IM from my manager, Terri, who was puzzled by the appearance of “Fuck You Pay Me” on the production calendar with no further explanatory notes. Once I explained, she was enthusiastic.)
I love the result. I’ve always been tickled by theater of the absurd, so the juxtaposition of style and content makes me grin. It’s an utterly serious message delivered in the cheerful colors of a Crayola marker set; pompous illuminated letters form a word sometimes decried as the crudest one English has to offer; delicate flourishes and curlicues dress up a bluntly utilitarian sentiment. It’s something that shouldn’t have to exist and yet is oh so necessary.
I am still working on being comfortable with setting my prices as I should and sticking to my boundaries. But until we get to the perfect world where I don’t need to worry about my work being adequately respected and valued, I can practice polite ways saying “Fuck you, pay me.”
Ariela Housman has been working as a professional calligrapher for 13 years. Together with her best friend and proofreader Terri Ash, she founded Geek Calligraphy in 2015. A geek of many flavors, Ariela consumes SFF in most media, including novels, comics, TV, and movies. She also enjoys tabletop games, costuming, swing dancing, smashing the kyriarchy, and drinking tea.
Howard Taylor joins us today to talk about Planet Mercenary, a role-playing game (RPG) he and Alan Bahr created, set in the universe of Schlock Mercenary. Here’s the description from the RPG’s Kickstarter:
The Planet Mercenary Role Playing Game is a custom system designed for speedy play with rich storytelling. Combat goes quickly, and when it goes disastrously it’s still a lot of fun.
The core product will be a hard-bound, illustrated, 208-page, full color world book, plus a deck of 50 cards used to steer your role play in hilarious directions.
We’ve hit our first stretch goal, so we’ll also be making custom dice sets (six dice in two different colors) and a Planet Mercenary challenge coin. Further stretch goals include additional pages in the book, armory pins, and some very enticing in-universe reading material.
So what is Howard’s favorite bit?
I was pretty sure it was a terrible idea.
For thirty seconds I thought it was brilliant, and then it seemed so dumb I actually felt embarrassment for having thought of it, and I hadn’t even shared it with anyone yet.
I was at lunch with Alan Bahr, and we were trying to come up with a name for the role playing game set in the Schlock Mercenary universe. We were pretty late in the development cycle to not have a name, and we were getting desperate.
Schlock Mercenary readers have been requesting a role playing game since 2003. You’d think that would have given me enough time to dream up a name for it, but naming non-existent products didn’t seem like a good use of my time. Then, in February of 2015, Sandra, Alan, and I were finally far enough along that we needed a name, and we needed one rather immediately. We could have called it the Schlock Mercenary RPG, but that felt lackluster, and everybody agreed that it would have limited our reach in the wider RPG space.
The idea, the terrible one, had been with me for a while, and I was afraid to share it with Alan. We were brainstorming in a hotel restaurant when I finally decided that bouncing one more dumb thing off of him couldn’t possibly hurt THAT much. I shrugged aside my fear of looking stupid, and gave Alan the pitch.
“How about this: We call the game PLANET MERCENARY, naming it after an in-universe supplier of weapons and stuff.”
“There’s more.” I mimed opening a book and turning pages. “The book is an in-world artifact. The front page is a letter from the CEO.”
I adopted my Official Market-Speak Voice:
“Valued Planet Mercenary customer! Many of you have expressed concerns that the grunts in your companies are uneducated imbeciles, and you can’t get them to read briefing materials, not even to literally save their lives. We have created this old-timey pencil-and-paper role playing book to solve your problem. Your grunts will think it is just a game, but they will actually be learning about the weapons they carry, the enemies they point those weapons at, and the places where, if they read carefully, they might just NOT breathe their last breath.”
I stopped, and waited for Alan to say “Yup. That’s ridiculous.”
He did not say that.
His eyes lit up, his jaw dropped, and he began gushing about how awesome this was. He thought it was fantastic. I waited for thirty seconds, wondering if the idea would turn as dumb for him as it had for me.
It did not.
So I tried looking at my silly idea through his eyes, and I fell in love with it all over again.
We shared the in-world-artifact concept with a few others, and they reacted almost exactly like Alan had, loving it, and becoming quite excited to see the finished product. This energized me, and when I sat down to write some of the fluff in the book I adopted an in-universe voice, and the words flowed in that exhilarating way that tells writers they are geniuses and cannot be stopped.
(I should point out that this exhilaration never lasts long enough, and there’s always a slog during which we wonder whether we’re just too stupid to know how stupid we are, but imposter syndrome is a story for another day.)
Other ideas followed. In the margins on the front page there is an in-line comment from the CEO:
Who wrote this? I don’t talk like that! Also, if I make notes in here, will they get cleaned out before we print?
One of the writers assures the CEO that in-line comments will be removed, and of course they are not. The comments in the margins become their own through-line, telling several stories across 200+ pages of RPG text.
I find it a little frightening to consider that this idea, which I was afraid to share with my collaborator, is now the theme that ties the entire project together. It is not just a title and a cool hook. It is the hook, the line, the sinker, the rod, the boat, and the compass.
It is also my favorite bit—not because it’s important to the project, but because it will always serve as a reminder to me that some of the very best ideas look stupid, and I won’t be able to figure out whether they’re worthwhile without sharing them.
Howard Tayler is the writer and illustrator behind Schlock Mercenary, the Hugo-nominated science fiction comic strip. He also co-hosts the Hugo and Parsec award-winning “Writing Excuses” podcast, a weekly ‘cast for genre-fiction writers, with Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, and Dan Wells. They collaborated together to create the Shadows Beneath anthology.
His most recent project is the Planet Mercenary RPG which is being funded via Kickstarter right now. Planet Mercenary is set in the universe of the Schlock Mercenary comic. You can find the comic online at schlockmercenary.com
Howard lives in Orem, Utah with his wife Sandra, their four children, and one ungrateful, archetypally imperious cat.
Sometimes I think it’s useful for early career writers to see the things that might happen to your brain later. I just got an email from my editor that Shades of Milk and Honey is going into its 7th printing.
Between all the US editions so far, we’ve netted 23,793 copies. That’s not counting the UK or foreign language editions.
Now… to me, that seems like a staggering amount of people to have read my book. But, to put that in perspective: Wise Man’s Fear sold more in the first week. At the same time, other writers will look at my 23k and be jealous because they haven’t sold as many copies. This is the tricky thing about being an author. You are constantly measuring yourself against other writers, which isn’t useful. Books are very, very different beasts and you can rarely do direct comparisons.
So on the one hand, I’m looking at seventh edition and feeling like OMG! I’m a real writer now, and also knowing exactly how that stacks up compared to a NY Times best seller.
The point of all of this is that, as you go forward you have to define your own sense of success.
For me? Seven printings is a very nice place to be.
But so was selling a single book.
And so was selling a single story.
And so was just finishing a story.
Those success points are going to change over time, and they should. That’s how you level up as a writer. It’s why imposter syndrome happens, because you attain success and immediately set another goal. When you stop having imposter syndrome. When you stop thinking of ways in which you can improve, that’s when you need to worry.
Meanwhile, enjoy the highs of attaining a goal and then set the next one.
What does it mean to “fake it till you make it?” For this episode we talk about the things that we do, or that we have done, that help us (or helped us) feel professional. Howard explains the origin of his legendary online buffer, and how eight years later he changed his wardrobe. Mary tells us the story of the omitted first line of Glamour in Glass, and how her reaction to it was destined to shape (or solidify) the image she wanted others to have. Brandon talks about his first time on the NYT Best-Sellers List.
Obviously the thing we should all be doing, first and foremost, is writing, but there are professional behaviors you can engage in that will help you feel more like a professional writer.
But! There is a logical fallacy to avoid, however. “Affirming the consequent” is when we look at the things our favorite authors do, and do them without realizing that those are consequences of being professionals rather than precursors. We talk about some of the consequences that we, as authors-aspirant, might find ourselves affirming.
Finally, we talk about “imposter syndrome,” and there’s good news on that front: even many full-time, award-winning professionals suffer from it.
David Brin is one of those authors that I probably don’t need to introduce. So let me tell you about the first time I met him. At the Denver WorldCon, I had signed up to do one of the inaugural Strolling With the Stars walks as one of the Stars. I ‘d just won the Campbell and, despite that, was having a severe case of imposter syndrome because the other star was David Brin. He was incredibly generous. I hadn’t sold a novel yet at that point, but he asked me about my fiction and then engaged me in the sort of “What if” discussion that I suspect he must go through when writing.
I shall always be grateful to him for his kindness that morning and for giving me a peek at his process. And now, he’s going to give you a peek as well by talking about his Favorite Bit of his newest novel, Existence.
Before I tell you about my “favorite bit” from the new novel EXISTENCE (June 2012: http://www.davidbrin.com/existence.html), I’d like to offer an aside — one piece of advice that I give students of writing.
Whatever their favorite genres, I recommend that new authors make their first major project a murder mystery.
The reason is simple. All other genres let the author get away with flaws in plotting and suspense, by distracting the reader with genre-specific razzle-dazzle, e.g. romantic tears or dying dragons or scifi tech-speak. But in a murder mystery, there is only one question; did the dramatic, whodunit revelation pay off? Was it simultaneously both surprising and well foreshadowed?
Does the reader experience a pleasurable moment of self-loathing? “It was all there but I just missed figuring it out! I’m sooooo stoooopid!”If that’s how your reader feels, at that crucial moment, then she or he will buy your next book. That’s the wonderful, ironic fact.
I always try to have one or more suspense arcs in my novels — sometimes half a dozen, running in parallel. And I also circulate my manuscripts-in-progress to up to fifty harsh pre-readers, as quality control, before ever letting the publisher’s editors see it. Achieving that special “aha!” moment is the one thing I fret over, above all else.
Which brings us to my “favorite bit” from EXISTENCE. In fact, there are several such moments and all have been fine-tuned to wreak maximum sado-masochistic tension and release from the customer. But one of them stands out. It occurs when a diverse team of investigators are interrogating an “alien artifact” in order to determine whether its passengers — virtual beings who claim to carry a message for Earth — are for real, or an elaborate hoax. And, if they are truly alien, how much of their message to believe. This process of peeling away layer after layer of deception and truth makes up one major theme.
My favorite moment… and that of more than a dozen pre-readers… comes when a Russian member of the commission has a sudden epiphany.“My God, I don’t believe it.! It’s a…”
And no. I will not finish that sentence here. Nor did I give it away in the fancy-schmancy lavish premier-trailer that renowned web artist Patrick Farley made for EXISTENCE. (tinyurl.com/exist-trailer ) A gorgeous 3-minute taste of the book that doesn’t give away any major spoilers, nor will I do so here.
But I’ve explained WHY it is my favorite bit. And why I always tell myself — even plunging into the heart of the sun or a distant galaxy — to write a mystery whodunit! And to make the surprised reader shout:
“Dammit, I shoulda seen that coming, it’s soooo obvious!”
David Brin is a scientist, technology speaker, and author. His new novel from Tor Books is Existence. A film by Kevin Costner was based on The Postman. His fifteen novels, including New York Times Bestsellers, have been translated into more than twenty language. Earth, foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare and the world wide web. Davidappears frequently on shows such as Nova and is in demand as a speaker about future trends. His non-fiction book — The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? — won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association. http://www.davidbrin.com/existence.htm
Let’s talk about self-promotion and how it feels icky.
Yes, self-promotion is awkward to do the first time. Yes, it is very easy to do badly. But–it is incredibly important to your career. Someone asked, “Isn’t it enough to write a good story?”
A brilliant story? Okay, that’ll probably get some notice on its own, but think about the number of good stories you read. Think about how many of them don’t get on the ballot. The ones that do are the ones that are visible. You are the first cheerleader for your story/novel/performance art. If you love it enough to write it, submit it, and accept money for it… why don’t you love it enough to tell other people the story is out there?
Probably because you’re afraid of coming off as a pompous jerk, or an ass, or you’ve seen the person who is a complete bore and don’t want to be that person.
So… here are some tricks on how to avoid looking like an ass:
Ask people about what they are working on, first. And be interested, not just patient.
Remember the wonder. If you can retain that sense of “OMG! This is amazing that I sold/published/did this.” People will be charmed and excited for you.
Have a change of topic prepared, so you don’t spend the entire day talking about yourself
Have an educational component in there. Like I’m doing right now… Seriously, if you can talk about how you got to the place you are at, so that other people can try the same path, folks like that.
Don’t harp on it. Make your announcement once at the beginning of awards season and once as nominations wind down.
Don’t say “Vote for me!” It sounds desperate. All you need to do is let people know the work exists.
Talk about other and multiple things you are passionate about. Otherwise, people will avoid you because you only talk about one topic.
Promote other people. First of all, it’s nice. Second, it will make people think you are nice, even if you are cold-blooded bastard.
Allow me to give a concrete example of these in motion. This is, by the way, the blog post I had prepped to roll out as my end of year wrap-up, so you’ll be able to see alllll of my tricks. The backstage peek on this particular topic, by the way, makes me a little nervous.
Hey! Awards season has started and I’m afraid I’m going to miss some stories because there’s so much good stuff out there. Will you drop me a line if you’ve read a story that I ought to pay attention to? Or if you’ve got a story you’re particularly proud of?
Nervous? Me too, so I’ll go first.
I had only two things come out this year.
“Goodhouse Keeping” a short story in the anthology Courts of the Fey
I was feeling like I hadn’t published much until a friend pointed out that I also wrote two novels this year and that a novella is a heck of a lot of words. Um… yeah. I will stop feeling bad about myself now.
Isn’t that ridiculous that we do that to ourselves? I mean, I’m still over the moon about both of those stories and yet… Imposter syndrome sets in and I think I should be doing more.
The interesting thing about both of those sales is that they were originally NaNoWriMo novels.
For those of you who just finished NaNo– This is an interesting alternative. “Kiss Me Twice” this started life as my first NaNoWriMo project back in 2004. This year, I cut it down to novella length rather than beefing it up to a full length novel. I liked the story but recognized that, because we’re pushing me as a historical fantasy writer, it was unlikely an SF murder mystery would sell. I mean the elevator pitch was “CSI with a Mae West AI.”
It was also a little bit of a mess. The advantage of letting it sit for several years is that I’m a better writer now than I was then. I used Scrivener to break it apart into scenes and pull out the subplots I didn’t need. Then I rewrote from the beginning to fix it. The story went from 60k down to 25k.
“Goodhouse Keeping” is the first chapter, plus some other scenes from my third NaNo, reconfigured to be a short story. That one is all urban fantasy. Or rather, suburban fantasy. Elves in the burbs…
Anyway, the point is if you are looking at your NaNo and think that you can’t possibly flesh it out, consider cutting it down. Or look at it to see if there’s a short story in it that you can pull out. The words, they aren’t wasted even if you don’t sell it as a novel.
Whew. I rambled about that more than I meant to. Now it’s your turn. Drop me a line, or post in the comments below to talk about stories that you are excited about. Yours or someone else’s.
I got a lot of reading to catch up on.
See what I was doing? If you ran across that on my blog, without me calling attention to what I was doing, you might even link to it because I have some content there that doesn’t look self-promotional. It all totally is.
What this all comes down to is, weirdly, manners. But in the old sense. Manners — back in the Regency — used to be considered “an outward expression of your opinion of others.” If your manner to other people is such that you think of them, and treat them, as only people who will get you votes, then they will be able to tell and be irritated about it. If your manner is that these are people who you esteem and want to share the joy — yours and theirs — then they will respond accordingly. If you treat them like people you want to help get to where you are, they will keep coming back. The real secret is to be sincere about this.
Does that make sense?
Now the true test is to see how many of you think I’m a manipulative puppeteer– oh. Wait.
Now… it’s your turn to practice self-promotion. Tell me what you’ve been working on this year. I really do have a lot of reading to catch up on and awards season is only beginning. What should I read?
January 3, 2014 EDITED TO ADD: “Kiss Me Twice,” the story I used as an example here made the Hugo ballot. Note that of the two, it was the one that was available online. Also, if you are curious about how I handled this year’s list, it’s a slightly different take on the helpful thing.
ETA: Here’s 2016 and 2017‘s posts, all different takes on the same thing.
(Tor Books – July 14 2020) Mary Robinette Kowal continues her Hugo and Nebula award-winning Lady Astronaut series, following The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, with The Relentless Moon. The Earth is coming to the boiling point as the climate disaster of the Meteor strike becomes more and more clear, but the political situation is already overheated. Riots and […]