Happy Freedom Day

July 4th, 2015

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That’s not a flag, but it is my Nanowrimo word count for the day, so I’m off to enjoy the Fourth of July holiday with my wife. If you’re American, celebrate this moment – by convention, commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but by connotation, commemorating our liberty. If you’re not American, hey, you can still take this moment to reflect on the ways in which you are free … and how important it is to preserve those freedoms. Enjoy the day!

-the Centaur

July 3rd, 2015

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Welp, just finished my word count for today … and tomorrow! And walked outside to find myself at the site of the Battle of the Stanford Bookstore from LIQUID FIRE. Cool to be at a place that appears in a book that’s done.

Testing posting from my phone, then it’s a phone call with an old friend, then off to dinner. Enjoy your freedom this weekend.

-the Centaur

Now this is a different way to start the month

July 2nd, 2015

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Normally a couple of days into a Nanowrimo project I’m already a bit behind, wondering how I’ll catch up. Today I’m actually ahead for the second day in a row. Onward!

-the Centaur

Check Your Assumptions

July 2nd, 2015

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Recently I wrote an essay about my writing. In it, in short, I said I used to submit a lot of short stories for publication, but then I got discouraged when they were almost all rejected, and ultimately stopped sending stories out completely. However, once I started sending stories out again, I started to sell stories again – so there was no use in getting discouraged.

That’s a nice little story, but even as I wrote it, I knew that story might be wrong – my data was clustered by stories in the order they were written, not by date of sales, so by necessity it caps my submission rate at the rate at which I wrote stories. I suspected that real chronological data might be even more spiky, with several stories being written and sent out in one year. As it turns out, I keep great records – all my rejection slips, spreadsheets of date sent, meticulous notes on submissions and magazine closures – and when I dug further into the data, I found that my story was wrong in ways that I didn’t expect.

First, I never stopped sending stories that I’d written. With rare exceptions of stories I couldn’t take from first draft to salable product, every single story I wrote, I sent out. No, even that’s not quite right. One story I didn’t send out at all after a particularly nasty review from a friend to whom I never send stories anymore. Other people loved the story and were “haunted” by it and said I should send it out. But the point being, most of the stories I thought I had never sent out actually got sent to many places.

Second, my story sending was even spikier than I thought – 1990 to 1998, with a spike in 2001 to 2002, not resuming until 2011; you can see this in the chart above. Now, there are lulls in there where stories didn’t get sent … but since I have records of sending out almost every story that I wrote, this sounds like I stopped writing stories, not stopped sending them. And that actually is true: when I joined a dot.com startup, I was largely too busy to write short stories, and I quit for a while again after my father and grandmother died … shifting gears instead to novels, of which the first one that I finished became my first novel published.

Third, and worst of all … I thought I wasn’t getting sales of my early stories because editors thought those stories sucked, but actually, editors seemed to love them. Excluding a Lovecraft pastiche, even the very first story that I widely circulated, “Common Ground,” got some very positive feedback. And I don’t mean just encouraging rejections – I mean people who wrote “Great story! Unfortunately, our magazine is shutting down and we’ll have to return it.” In fact, several magazines responded with “we’re out of business” letters – and most of the magazines I sent those early stories to have since shut down. So maybe I had the kiss of death, but I sure seemed to be doing something that attracted people’s personal attention.

So I was right to say that there was no point in being discouraged – but my picture of events was even worse than I thought. I have more thoughts about constructing and deconstructing your own personal myths … but for now, let me just say: check your assumptions. For those of us who are hard on ourselves, it’s all too easy to take a little rejection and turn it into giant discouragement. The reality is, even if things look bad, you might find a glimmer of hope … even in a rejection pile.

-the Centaur

Climbing the Mountain Again

July 1st, 2015

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Well, I haven’t finished editing THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE in June like I wanted to, but it’s now July, and I’m out of time. So it’s back to another Nano challenge, the Camp nano challenge for July, in which I’ll write 50,000 words of the Cinnamon spin-off novel, HEX CODE.

After much struggling, I have come to accept that this Cinnamon Frost novel, which comes between Book 4 and Book 5 of the Dakota Frost series, can go nowhere else other than between Book 4 and Book 5. if HEX CODE had happened before Book 4, SPECTRAL IRON, the story would collapse: Dakota could solve the problem with one phone call, if that, and my 150,000 word book would collapse to a 30,000 word novella. Same thing with PHANTOM SILVER: if HEX CODE hadn’t happened immediately before Book 5, half the plot would collapse, and I’d need to contrive reasons to do things which are completely natural.

But I still owe THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE to Debra sometime before the end of August for the book to come out this year, and I still need to get SPECTRAL IRON to Debra by January 31st of 2016 so it can come out in 2016, and PHANTOM SILVER to her by January of 2017 so it can come out in 2017 … which means HEX CODE needs to be done in the middle of 2016 so we can get that book out between Books 4 and 5. That means I need to write something like 50,000 to 100,000 words in the next six months, and edit the draft, and send it to beta readers, and edit it again, all on top of everything else I’m doing.

I sure do live in interesting times.

But I’m done with my word count for today, so I’ll be diving back into CLOCKWORK for the rest of tonight. And I’ve got a long weekend coming up, with all next week off leading into Comic-Con, with no responsibilities for Comic-Con itself this year (thank God) other than showing up and having fun, so … perhaps this is going to work out.

Oh, right, an excerpt! I think that’s safe in this case. From today’s first draftiness:

I tenses up. I knows where this is going.

“I,” Mom says, whapping my leg, “am not my mother. I remember fighting monsters and wizards with you. You are reckless and amazing, and I’d love to say you can definitely take care of yourself … but I also remember you’ve been kidnapped, and you nearly set the city on fire.”

“Yes, Mom,” I says. “Sorry, Mom.”

“You are not formally grounded,” Mom says. “But I don’t want you going on a run—”

“Aww, man,” I says.

“—don’t want you going on a run until the situation and your vitals are more stable,” Mom says, pointing at the heartbeep machine. “Not until we can get more security for the house, and coordinate a plan to keep you safe away from the house—”

“Aww, Mom,” I says, “that spoils it. I gotta run by myself—”

“You run with Tully,” Mom says. “You ran with hunts at the werehouse. Did any of that spoil it? Look, Cinnamon, I’m not stupid. I will find out if you have snuck out … but I can’t stop you from sneaking out. You’re an experienced and stealthy street tiger who can turn invisible, and I’m a weak mortal human who needs to sleep. You will get out if you want to. But we’re in a difficult and terrible situation in which our friends are literally exploding and you were attacked so hard it put you in the hospital. All I ask is that you not go for a run until you heal up and the situation calms down, and that if, God forbid, you’re crawling the walls so much you can’t stand it, find a friend from the werehouse and go on a run with a partner.”

I set my lip. I wants to run free. I can outrun anybody. I wants to run free.

“Fine,” I says at last, fuming. But I’m really smart … and I’ve seen the escape hatch.

Mom stares off in the distance. “I know you’re really smart, so I want you to think about what our friend Special Agent Philip Davidson would call operational security. Think about what you can do to make it hard on the bad guys. Change your time, change your route, run with a friend or even a whole hunt—and text me your location. I promise not to freak. In fact, if you’ve done something bad and you need my help, I want you to say that. Tell me, “don’t freak”—but tell me, or I swear to God I am going to ground you until the heat death of the universe.”

Only 48,000 words left for the month of July. Onward!

-the Centaur

Send Out Your Work

June 12th, 2015

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Robert Heinlein famously had five rules for writing:

  1. Write.
  2. Finish what you start.
  3. Refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
  4. Put your story on the market.
  5. Keep it on the market until sold.

with Robert Sawyer’s addendum’s: #6: “Start working on something else.”

Now, like all writing rules, these have limits. Take #3. Some authors write near-finished pieces on a first draft, but most don’t. I’ve done that with a very few short pieces, but most of my pieces are complex enough to require several rewrites. As you get better and better at writing, it becomes easier and easier to produce an acceptable story right off the bat … so see rule #6.

Actually, there’s a lot between rules #2 and #4. I revise a story until I feel it is ready to send to an editor … then I send it to beta readers instead, trusted confidants who can deliver honest but constructive criticism. When I feel like I’ve addressed the comments enough that I want to send it back to the betas, I don’t; I send the story out to market instead.

Regardless, some stories won’t ever sell. Many writers have a “sock drawer” of their early work (and many markets ask you not send them socks). Trying to read my first Lovecraft pastiche, “Coinage of Cthulhu,” causes me a jolt of almost physical pain. Other stories may be of an unusual length or type, and for a long odd-genre story is indeed possible to exhaust all possible markets.

So what should you do with your odd socks? Some authors, like Harlan Ellison, are bold enough to share their very early work; other authors, like Ernest Hemingway, threw away ninety nine pages for each one published. Gertrude Stein reportedly shared her notebooks almost raw; Ayn Rand reportedly rewrote each page of Atlas Shrugged five or six times. So there’s no right answer.

But again, it isn’t that simple. I recently have been reviewing my work, and while I do have a few stories likely destined for the sock drawer, and a few stories which definitely need revision, there are others that I have never sent out, especially after a low point during graduate school when I got some particularly unhelpful criticism.

Many writers are creatures with delicate, butterfly-like egos … yet you need to develop an elephant’s hide. Hemingway once said talking too much about the writers craft could destroy it, literally like brushing the scales off a butterfly’s wing; John Gardner said he’d seen far too many promising writers crushed by one too many rejections.

When a good editor (*cough* Debra Dixon, ℅ Bell Bridge Books) hits you with hard criticism on a story, she’s not trying to crush your ego: she’s trying to tell you that this character isn’t fleshed out, or the logic breaks down, or the story is dragging – or moving too fast. But not everyone’s a good editor. Not everyone’s even a good critic.

I’ve encountered far too many critics who can’t critique constructively: critics who try to be clever by turning legitimate comments into deadly bon mots; critics who try to change the story by questioning your purpose, genre or style, critics who have their own ax to grind, including one who sent me a diatribe about why I should throw out my television.

And there are friendly critics, critics who never say anything bad about your story. Some people would say you should ignore them, but I disagree. First, you need a cheerleader to feed that delicate ego you’re sheltering within that elephant’s hide; second, if even your ever chipper cheerleader doesn’t like a particular story, you better sit up and take notice.

But the stories in my low point weren’t like that. Many of them got good internal reviews, and I was happy with them, but they were long, or slipstream, and I couldn’t find markets for them. Or I was too tied up with the idea of high-paying SFWA markets. Or, more honestly, I just got busy and short shrifted them. But that opens up the question: how deep into my backlog do I go?

For me, answering these questions usually involves creating an Excel spreadsheet :-) which you see above. Clearly there was a low point in the data where I wasn’t submitting anything, and I was going to spin a story of how I got discouraged … but a closer analysis tells a different story.

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The dates are approximate here, but mapping a sliding window over cumulative submissions, we can see a pattern where I started writing shorts, then had a first sale, followed by a burst of creativity on the heels of that encouragement. After a while, I got more and more discouraged, hitting rock bottom when I stopped sending shorts out at all … but this is only short story data.

Actually, I was working on a novel as well.

Before my first sale, “Sibling Rivalry”, I’d written a novel, HOMO CENTAURIS. That burst of creativity of shorts came in graduate school, when I deliberately didn’t want to take on another novel-length project. I did get discouraged, but at the same time, I started a novel, DELIVERANCE, and finished another two novels, FROST MOON and BLOOD ROCK.

FROST MOON sold right when my short story writing was picking up again. It feels like I quit, but the evidence shows that I slowly and steadily sold stories both to open markets and to invited anthologies until very recently – and that there are as many stories circulating now as I was selling earlier.

So, maybe some of these will make it. Maybe they won’t. But the data shows that feeling discouraged is pointless – my biggest sales came after my longest stretch of doggedly sending stories out. My karate teacher once said that most of your learning is on the plateau – you feel stuck, but in reality you’re learning. The data seems to bear that out.

So if I had to redo Heinlein’s rules, they’d go something like this:

  1. Write.
  2. Keep writing.
  3. Finish what you start.
  4. Circulate your work to get feedback.
  5. Edit your work to respond to that feedback.
  6. Send your edited work out to the markets.
  7. Don’t wait to hear back … start writing something else right away.
  8. Keep circulating your work until sold, or you’ve exhausted all the markets.
  9. No matter what happens, keep writing.
  10. And never, never, never give up.

Time to practice what I preach …

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…and put more stories out on the market.

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-the Centaur

P.S. Axually, I’m doing a step not listed above … responding to editorial feedback on CLOCKWORK. Responding to feedback is explicit on Heinlein’s list as #3, but an implicit consequence of #8 on mine. If you sell something, listen to your editor, but keep a firm grip on your own vision. That’s hard enough it needs its own article.

Taking Stock

May 26th, 2015

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What you see above are (almost) all the author’s copies I have of all the published fiction I’ve written. Why am I taking stock of all this now? Well, at Clockwork Alchemy, this happened:

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I sold many, many other copies of my books and a solid dozen copies of FROST MOON – nearly cleaning out my stock of my first novel. I’d ordered twenty when LIQUID FIRE came out, but between that dozen, a few for a shelf at work, and a box that I sent to BayCon, I was left with just two of them. Time to order more.

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I’m in the writing game for the long haul, so I generally order 20-30 copies of any book or anthology that my work is published in (less or more if the publisher has a deal on sending a specific amount). Generally, north of 20 is a good number – I just sold out of 20 FROST MOON, but it can take a few years to sell out of 30 copies of an anthology. Your mileage may vary.

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Along with the books are piles of swag, postcards, t-shirts and various display materials which I organize into boxes so they can easily be taken to conventions. After several iterations of this, I’ve grown to keeping the stock in one big box, the swag in another box, keeping an empty “useful box” for extra copies on the first day of a convention (or a few copies for a smaller event like a signing) and all the oversized books and display materials needed at a full table in another box.

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This way if I want to go to a con, I can just grab a couple boxes and go. If I want to go to a con where I’ve got a table, everything I need is in just a couple more boxes, all of which fit in a couple shelves (more or less) in one bookcase.

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For a local con where I have a table, like Clockwork Alchemy, I go all out, so I need a couple more boxes of props, a display stand, and some tablecloths and an antique easel on loan from my wife. But the results, I think, are impressive.

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At least, thanks to my helpful assistants (thanks!) …

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… it helped me sell a lot of books, and hopefully, make a lot of new fans.

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Time to order more FROST MOON …

-the Centaur

Clockwork Alchemy in Transit

May 25th, 2015

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No time to blog this proper – things are moving too fast. But here’s a flyover of Clockwork Alchemy in pictures.

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There’s an awesome dealer’s room … with droolworthy clothes (not my size, or it would be mine):

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There’s an awesome art show, with epic props and artwork:

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And I do mean epic:

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There are amazing costumes of all kinds …

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… with bleedover from Fanime and Baycon:

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There’s an awesome Author’s Salon organized by the redoubtable volcano lady, T.E. MacArthur …

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… and featuring alternate historian Harry Turtledove, Madeline Holly-Rosing of the Boston Metaphysical Society, Kaja & Phil Foglio of Girl Genius …

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… and me!

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Many people at Thinking Ink Press helped out, either getting materials together prior to the con or helping out at the table …

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… and we managed to make many fans happy by bringing them LIQUID FIRE!

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… and much more! For the very first time … someone bought the first Skindancer trilogy as a bundle!

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Let’s end on that happy note, and I’ll have more tales of the con soon! One more day to go…

-the Centaur

Jeremiah Willstone and the Sorting of the Secret Post

May 21st, 2015

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If you love steampunk, flash fiction, or cool things printed on paper, come by Clockwork Alchemy this weekend. I’m pleased to announce that Thinking Ink Press is printing two pieces of ephemera for the con – the flash fiction Instant Book “Jagged Fragments” and the short story Snapbook “Jeremiah Willstone and the Sorting of the Secret Post.”

I had hoped we’d have JEREMIAH WILLSTONE AND THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE ready for Clockwork Alchemy, but Debra, my editor at Bell Bridge Books, thought we should focus on getting Dakota Frost #3, LIQUID FIRE, out first – and she was right. That’s out right now, in fact, just in time for the con – I got the books early this week.

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But Betsy Miller of Thinking Ink Press suggested that I put something together for the con, thinking of three pieces I already had – the flash fiction pieces “The Secret of the T-Rex’s Arms” and “If Looks Could Kill” and the essay “The Rules Disease“. Not to be daunted by taking on too much, I decided I wanted a piece teasing THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE.

So I wrote a brand new short story just for the occasion, “The Sorting of the Secret Post”.

Hand-printed copies of these books will be available at the con. We aren’t sure what we’ll do with these in the future – the beauty of instant books (books printed on a single sheet of paper) and snap books (chapbooks printed on conventional printers) is that they can be printed on demand for an event. We call them “ephemera” and they enable us to experiment with the printed word.

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Here you see Keiko O’Leary of TIP folding instant books (and Liza Olmsted of TIP scowling at a tax form). The editions we’ve produced this time just came together in time for the con. You can’t even have the first ones – Nathan Vargas of TIP bought the very first copies of both books, one-of-a-kinds that will never come around again.

“The Sorting of the Secret Post” in particular is a direct prequel to THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE, but it isn’t clear whether we’ll reprint it once the book from Bell Bridge is out (though I hope we will, we haven’t decided). So come on down and get your copies … because whatever they become in the future, they’ll be something different.

-the Centaur

At Clockwork Alchemy this Memorial Day

May 18th, 2015

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This Memorial Day weekend, I’ll be at the Clockwork Alchemy conference in the Author’s Salon. I’ll have on hand the new steampunk anthology TWELVE HOURS LATER, plus of course the newly released third Dakota Frost, Skindancer book LIQUID FIRE, which, despite the presence of an airship, is firmly an urban fantasy novel.

If I’m not at my table, I will likely be appearing at:

  • The Science of Airships Saturday, May 23 from 2pm – 3pm in the San Juan Workshop Room
  • Steampunk Comics Saturday, May 23 from 6pm to 7pm in the Author’s Salon.
  • Writing Steampunk: Sunday, May 24 from 2pm to 3 pm in the Carmel Fashion Room

In addition to TWELVE HOURS LATER and LIQUID FIRE … I may have something else at the table. Stay tuned.

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-the Centaur