Debut Author Lessons: How to deal with self-promotion and award season

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
  • Kiss Me Twice” a novella appeared in Asimov’s this year

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.

Darn. Busted.

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.

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19 thoughts on “Debut Author Lessons: How to deal with self-promotion and award season”

  1. Laura Anne Gilman

    Hah.  I am amazingly (and I think justifiably) proud of THE SHATTERED VINE, but since it’s the concluding volume in a trilogy (FLESH AND FIRE and WEIGHT OF STONE coming first), I’m sure there’s not much point in pushing it for awards.   I still jump up and down and squee about it, though. 

    Of short fiction, I think “Crossroads” (Fantasy magazine, summer 2011) is my favorite.  American mythology, with magic, and the chance to play around with storytelling structure and description using both genre and litfic conventions.  And it all came about from a challenge I put forward to a writing class…

  2. In the past couple of years, there have been two steampunk anthologies entitled DREAMS OF STEAM.  The latest, DREAMS OF STEAM II: BRASS AND BOLTS has a lot of great stories in it.  I think it stands out because it has two stories featuring Nikola Tesla, one of which, “In Tesla’s Court” by Robert Cerio, also features Mark Twain and time travel.  It even mentions my favorite Twain novel, A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT.

    There are a lot of good stories in this volume, and, with another on the way, I think it’s worth checking out, if only because these anthologies get better every time.

  3. “What should I read?”

    You know, I asked that on my own blog a couple of weeks ago, and the silence was deafening. Thus far I’m generally not impressed the stuff I’ve been reading based on the Nebula suggested reading list.  It may turn out to be a lean year.

    That said, Nick Mamatas has done some very interesting stuff this year, specifically with SENSATION in the novel category, and “North Shore Friday” in the short story category.

  4. I hope you have read the short story collection – Jane Austen Made Me Do It – I am not a writer but I do read 4 or 5 books a week.  Many genres are represented and I found them all entertaining and many of them memorable. 
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts here in your blog.

  5. The book I have been recommending to everyone is Feed by Mira Grant (the sequel Deadline came out this year and rocked, as well.)  The four of us (me, hubby, 2 teen boys) all loved it.  What I’m reading now is “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.”  It’s interesting because hubby hated it and couldn’t get past the first 50 pages. I keep vacillating between ‘how cool is this’ and ‘lord, this is way too self-consciously cute’.   I’m committed to reading it to the end, because for right now the cool factor is winning over the cute factor.

    I know from that impostor syndrome of which you speak.  I barely wrote anything last year, but then I have to remind myself that we survived a house fire that left us rootless and in temporary housing for 10 months.  My job was holding ‘home’ together as best I could for the rest of the family.  And along the way, I edited one novel and decided to self pub another.

    My squee moment was this morning when I got the proof copy for my debut YA novel!  W00t! December 1st was the anniversary of the fire and I feel like I’m able to move forward now, to new and better things.

  6. Torrey Podmajersky

    I wasn’t going to comment, but then I read “manipulative puppeteer” and LOLed. A puppeteer who isn’t manipulative must be, by definition, doing it wrong.

    One of the things I’m most looking forward to reading are the other stories in Finding Home, an anthology focusing on post-apocalyptic communities ( My story in there is “How Frank Delano Changed the World But Not As Much As He Thought.”

  7. This is not self promotion, but it is an answer to “What should I read?”

    Silently And Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente, is a novella published as a serial by Clarksworld Magazine,; they also have podcasts up of the first two (of three) parts read by Kate Baker.

    The premise, “How do you teach an A.I. to communicate through metaphor?” 

    For those wondering “Can Catherynne M. Valente write Science Fiction?” I feel the answer is, yes. The story made me think of  Permutation City by Greg Egan, in that they both explore the ideas of A.I. and identity.

  8. I didn’t have anything come out this year, but I was wondering about “Kiss Me Twice”.  I remember that you posted a large portion of it for free several months back–and I still want to finish reading it. I’ve tried looking of single issues of Asimov’s for sale and I can’t figure out how to purchase it so I can read the rest of your story….  Do you know a way? I’m sure there’s something obvious I’m missing.

  9. I wrote one short-short that I should revisit and am gathering momentum for a novel, but the majority of my writing has been non-fiction. No books this year, as we’re between Microsoft Office releases, but I did record three full-length courses for

  10. May I recommend Kameron Hurley’s _God’s War_ and _Infidel_? They’re the best things I’ve read this year that Cat Valente didn’t write.

    As soon as I sold my first story (“Falls the Firebrand,” Analog, March 2011) the guys at the local SFF club pointed out that my “Campbell Clock” was running. No pressure, right? o_O;Since then I’ve had “Lord God Bird” the the _Triangulation: Last Contact_ anthology and “Borrowed Feathers” in Stupefying Stories Vol. 1, Iss. 2. The rights to all of these have reverted to me (at least, I think so, based on the contracts — I’m sure about two of them, anyway). I want to put them online somewhere, but  I’m still looking for a good place to do that.

    Oh, and I’ve been reviewing books for Strange Horizons! Because they are awesome.

    p.s. Shades of Milk and Honey got me through the awful flight home from World Fantasy. Thank you.

  11. Mary, what a pleasure to read your tips for authors. Since we share backgrounds as touring puppeteers (and Bon and I have figured out how to fit an entire show in a Prius) I will add that I always bring everything I need for salad dressing–Extra Virgin, Balsamic, Soy Sauce, Garlic and an Herb mix– so that I can hit a supermarket salad bar or even get a salad from Subway without having to stomach dressings full of cottonseed oil and guar gum, or, worse, eat an undressed salad (which always makes me feel like a foraging stegosaurus). Clearly not possible when traveling by air, but I prefer the long drive to a brief, olive-oil-free flight.

    Writing? Dec. 1 brought me to the end of 2 years of writing a poem every day. I always harp on “art as a practice” to my writing students, so feel compelled to set an example. Dec. 2 began “play-a-day.” Short plays, certainly, but who knows where it will lead? I make more money with my plays than with the poetry, so it seemed like a good place to focus. I have not yet been able to stop writing a poem-a-day. But I’m not addicted. I can quit any time! Really.

    In addition to publishing a bunch of poems this year, I wrote a new translation/adaptation of The Soldier’s Tale For Robert Smythe and the Chamber orchestra of Philly, which just won a Barrymore for most innovative collaboration. I think I’ve already told you about that, but this is my year-end summary, so. Last year I adapted a novel by a friend as a stage play. This summer I re-did it. Cut fifty pages, several characters, and made it a lot more theatrical. Still needs a production. I also put together a reader’s theater production made up of poems extracted from interviews I did with former shoe factory workers (an industry that has disappeared here). It was the culmination of four years as poet laureate of our nearby city of Rochester, NH.

    So, we keep plugging away. My students keep me nominally in touch with pop culture (two of them successfully completed NaNoWriMo this year). For a world slowly choking itself to death, life is still pretty brilliant.

    Congrats on all your successes! I read mostly poetry these days, and literature long out of print, but if you want a recommendation, hove you ever read “The Loved One” by Evelyn Waugh?

  12. The books I most loved this year, which I recommend (though my recommendations are biased by my love of fantasy as a genre) are:
    – Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence
    – The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss
    – Half a King by Joe Abercrombie
    – Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

  13. Oh, love this! Great advice! I’ll be sure to be back and check your blog again. I have two books to publish this year and I am, well, totally a newbie at this. So very grateful to find and learn what to do and NOT do. 🙂 Thank you!

  14. As someone who is finally moving into the time of her life where she can start thinking about publication and self-promotion, this is an extremely helpful post. It’s wonderful how well the internet preserves these sorts of things for future audiences. Thank you!

    While reading, I very quickly realized that this is probably the overall best approach to self-promotion — whether promoting a short story, blog, or some event you might be responsible for. This battle between wanting to be humble and *really* wanting to have some degree of exposure is such a curious thing.

    I also think that another (possibly) helpful way of self-promoting could be to openly ask people for feedback. Then we, the author, have humanized ourselves by admitting that we too have room for improvement. What do you think could be the repercussions of that? Have you tried it, and have people responded poorly or well? Does it open the proverbial can of worms?

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