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Uploaded April 9, 1997


Interview with Melisa C. Michaels

From The Market List #8 (Nov/Dec '96)

[[ I conducted this interview with Melisa C. Michaels for the free online SF/Fantasy/Horror writer's resource, The Market List, which catalogues over a hundred publications seeking submissions. It also includes helpful articles, interviews, and other tips, so check it out. -- JB ]]


Q and A with MELISA C. MICHAELS

by James A. Bailey

Author Melisa C. Michaels has seven published novels to her credit, six science fiction and one mystery. Her short work has appeared in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction, and The Best of Omni. She maintains the Web Site for SFWA, is director of marketing for the SFWA Bulletin, and is also on the 1996 Nebula jury for the novel category.

She lives in Hawaii with her husband Richard, and even though she's about as far as one could be from the bustle of the New York publishing world and still be in the U.S., the Internet helps her keep in touch with friends and associates. As a case in point, this interview was conducted via e-mail. [And since then, the contract and publication dates for her new novels mentioned below have been finalized and confirmed]

JB: So, I understand that congratulations are in order, that you've had an offer on a new novel?

COLD IRON cover by Romas KukalisMELISA: Actually it's a pair of them, one of which is already written and the other just in the planning stages. The one that's written is an urban fantasy called COLD IRON (cover art by Romas Kukalis): a murder mystery centering around sociopathic rock 'n' roll elves, which was great fun to write. People tend to forget that elves are dangerous. In Celtic mythology they're referred to as "fallen angels, not good enough to save, not bad enough to be lost," who have "every charm but conscience." After too many cute, pointy-eared guys in modern fantasy, I found that older view of elves refreshing, and I had a wonderful time exploring it.

The second book will be in the same world and feature the same protagonist, Rosalynd Lavine, a human private investigator who will get tangled up with elves again in another murder mystery. COLD IRON is scheduled for August '97 release.

JB: I'm holding a copy of the January '79 issue of Asimov's with your story, "In the Country of the Blind, No One Can See." It says here that this was your first prose sale. Is the thrill still the same, or has time and perspective changed your reaction?

MELISA: The thrill is exactly the same since until this sale I was in a position a little less salutary than "beginning writer." My career seemed to be ended, and I despaired of getting it started again. The details of that are too complicated to go into here. I've written an article about it for the SFWA Bulletin that isn't yet scheduled. Briefly: for complicated reasons having little to do with writing or talent and everything to do with the way the publishing business is set up, careers crash. Don't quit your day job, folks. This is not a safe and secure way to make a living.

JB: When did that little light bulb go off in your mind when you thought, "Hey, I can write this stuff!"?

MELISA: When I was very small, before I started school, I nagged my mother to teach to me read and write so I could get started. I always meant to be a writer, and I've no idea at all what put the notion into my head in the first place.

JB: Did you start with science fiction?

MELISA: No, I didn't. I don't recall my earliest efforts, but I know that some of them were the usual plagiarisms of movies and television. By high school I'd graduated to ideas of my own, but I don't think I realized science fiction was the place for me 'til several years later, when I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area surrounded by science fiction writers and fans and studying sciences in college.

That first sale, "In the Country of the Blind, No One Can See" (Terry Carr, who reprinted it in one of his "Best of the Year" anthologies, called it "In the Country of the Blind, No One Watches TV" on one of my royalty statements), was probably the turning point. I'd been writing mysteries before then, but clones were getting a strong fictional workout at the time and I was annoyed with the way they were being handled. No one seemed to realize that if we could clone humans the result would be humans.

I wrote the story in response to that, and in the process I learned two things I needed to know: that science fiction is a comfortable playground for me, and that there was a market for it. I went on writing mystery novels, but I turned to science fiction for my short stories and had very good luck with them.

JB: How many rejections did you pile up before making that first sale?

MELISA: I don't know the number, but I'd been submitting my work for fifteen years, and I was pretty good about keeping things in the mail. Probably if I'd saved the rejection slips I could have papered a room or two, or even a small house.

JB: Later, in 1981, you sold another story to Asimov's, "I Have a Winter Reason," where you introduced the character of Melacha Rendell, the Skyrider of that series of novels. Was this something you planned when writing the short story, or did she just "demand" to have more of her life's story told?

MELISA: Neither: in fact, I didn't like her. I thought of her as "that whiney broad in the visit-to-Earth story." But I'd acqired an agent by then to market a mystery novel I'd written, and she liked Melacha very well indeed. It was her idea to write a proposal for a series with Melacha as the protagonist. I resisted at first; but she was so persistent that I finally decided to make the effort, and it was while writing the portion and outline for the first book that I learned to admire and enjoy its protagonist.

Once she got started, of course, the Skyrider didn't want to quit. I'd have written several more books about her if her sales had been better. She had a lot more growing and changing to do when the books left off; but at least she was more comfortable with herself by then than she had been in the beginning.

JB: Besides the five Skyrider books, you have another SF novel, Far Harbor, and a mystery, Through the Eyes of the Dead. You mention writing mysteries from early on, so I guess it was something you've always wanted to do.

MELISA: The mystery was the novel I originally hired the agent to market for me. I wrote it in 1979, hired the agent about 1981, and she sold it in 1989. I probably have a file here somewhere of all the rejections on that one: it must have been to every mystery house at least once before it finally found a home.

JB: Fifteen years for the first short story, ten years to sell the mystery, and a six-year drought until selling Cold Iron. If that's not a testimonial for persistence, I don't know what is!

MELISA: The first one was easy. Everybody knows it takes forever to break into this business. We've all heard about Jack London's trunkful of rejections. I wanted to sell sooner, of course, but I didn't really expect to.

But I went into quite a tailspin over the second dry spell, because I believed the conventional wisdom that it was hard to break into print but easy to stay there. I didn't expect to get rich, but I did expect to have no problem continuing to sell as long as I continued to produce salable manuscripts.

It ain't that easy. I now know that it's common for midlist careers to crash right around the time mine did, after six or seven books. And of course in the late eighties and early nineties a lot of folks' careers were crashing as the publishing industry imploded and the midlist began to disappear. But I didn't know that at the time: I thought I'd been singled out, and I thought it meant I wasn't good enough or hadn't worked hard enough.

But having always meant to be a writer, and having always written (at the expense of just about everything else in my life) I really didn't know what else to do but continue writing. I slowed down, didn't work nearly as hard at it, and did learn to make my living by various other means, but I couldn't give it up entirely. I don't know how not to write.

I know writers who recovered sooner because they weren't taken as much by surprise; and others who won't ever recover because they quit. And that was the bottom line for me: as long as I kept writing and kept trying to get published, there was a chance I'd make it. Now we'll see whether I can get through six or seven more books without crashing again.

JB: Maybe this time you'll have an extra edge. Like many other writers do now, you have your own WWW home page, and even your own "newsgroup" topic (both through SFF-Net). Is the online world becoming an important part of what a writer (new or established) needs for business and information, or is it still just something that's fun and occasionally helpful?

MELISA: I recently wrote an article for the SFWA Bulletin on this subject, too: I think the Internet and/or online services are becoming not just important but essential to a working writer.

Whether a Web page is a really valuable promotional tool is not yet clear, but worst case it surely can't hurt. It's cheap or free for the person already online for other reasons, and there are so many really good "other" reasons to be online I hardly know where to begin.

E-mail alone is reason enough: there's no more convenient method of long-distance communication. It's faster than street mail and less intrusive than phone calls, and for one who lives far from New York it's a great relief not to have to worry about the relative times of day. And it's the ideal mode of communication anyway for a hermitty writer with shaky people-skills.

JB: So you get good use out of that wire sticking out of the back of your computer?

MELISA: The Internet is invaluable for research: I can't even guess how many trips to the library and book stores I've been spared by information freely available on the web. Even when I decide to buy a book to get the particular information I want, it's much more convenient to order it from an online bookstore than it would be to make the twenty mile trek to the nearest physical bookstore.

There's a lot of rubbish on the Web, but there are also newspapers, dictionaries, reference works of all sorts, folk tales, maps, museums, art galleries, libraries, and a million other resources. Used with care, it's like having the world's major libraries at one's fingertips. I could natter for pages about the wonderfulness of the Internet as a research tool.

JB: What about the people you meet online?

MELISA: The online communities in places like Genie, CIS, SFF-Net, Dueling Modems, etc. are of equal or even greater value to the isolated writer slaving over a solitary keyboard all day. After years of an unsuccessful search for a new agent, I found one through a friend I met on Genie. Editors of invitation-only anthologies may tend to think first of the people they know online. Even if one doesn't get invited into the anthologies, the freshest market information is usually online. So is the latest news about editorial musical chairs, publisher mergers and take-overs, misbehaving agents, and much other business information. The same information is often available elsewhere, but later--sometimes too late.

Hanging out and talking shop with editors and writers online is a great education and motivator, too. Usenet is probably a good promotional tool, possibly better than Web home pages: I discovered when researching my Bulletin article that many people buy the work of people they meet on Usenet, which very possibly they would otherwise never have noticed.

Writing is an isolated lifestyle. Online communities can save our sanity, keep us socialized, keep us informed, keep us happy. One online community probably saved the life of a SFWA member who might have died rather horribly if online friends hadn't been aware of health problems, become worried about an absence of posts, and found someone local to investigate.

JB: Besides your own home page, you also design and maintain the Web site for SFWA. How did you end up with this job and what does it entail?

MELISA: I ended up with the job because Jeffry Dwight (SFF-Net/Greyware Sysop) offered SFWA the space on his server but hadn't the time to do the page himself, and nobody else volunteered. I was just learning HTML for my home page, and I thought I was pretty good at it (I wasn't, but I've muddled through), and I wasn't doing anything else for SFWA at the time, so I volunteered.

What it entails, besides learning HTML and some minimal computer graphics, is probably pretty much the same skills as editing a hardcopy magazine: figuring out what the content should be, convincing people to contribute it or writing it myself, thinking of new things to add, and keeping the existing information up to date.

I've just got the site in pretty fair order for the first time in months, so I can begin a new project: expanding the pages devoted to the Bulletin (http://www.sfwa.org/bulletin/). I plan to put up a backlist catalogue, order forms, better descriptions of available issues, more cover art, etc.

JB: Speaking of the SFWA Bulletin, you're also the marketing director for it, so plug away!

MELISA: We're trying to increase our subscription base, and we're still struggling against the popular misconception that only SFWA members can subscribe to the Bulletin. Many people who would enjoy it and find it extremely useful either don't know about it or don't know they can subscribe. My job is to get that information out.

It's really a great magazine for the serious writer. Even if you've never sold a story, if you're serious about the business it's not too soon to start learning the ropes, and The Bulletin will show you them. It provides well-written and informative articles on the art and craft of writing, the business of publishing, and the writer's life.

Forthcoming issues will have articles by best-selling authors Gregory Benford, Robert Silverberg, and C.J. Cherryh, and many others. We have a continuing column by Raymond E. Feist, portraits from Christine Valada's popular Portrait Gallery, and market reports in every issue.

The Bulletin is also of interest to readers of science fiction and fantasy who want to read non-fiction by their favorite authors and who want to know how their favorite books and stories are written, even if they don't aspire to be writers themselves.

Gosh that sounds like a sales pitch. Well, it is: that's my job. But it's also true, even if I do sound like a salesman about it.

JB: Are there any other resources available for aspiring writers from SFWA?

MELISA: The Handbook, "The Professional Writer's Guide to Being Professional," is available for sale to anyone and well worth the price: it's packed with articles on every aspect of professional writing. I strongly recommend it.

JB: On the other hand, SFWA can't do it all; sometimes a new writer has to look elsewhere for the kind of help he or she needs. Are there any other resources that you've seen that writers can look for, either online or elsewhere?

MELISA: There are so many resources online that I couldn't begin to choose from among them. I've put many of them in the links on the SFWA page (http://www.sfwa.org/links/resources.htm). The main thing to remember online as off is that money for writing is supposed to flow toward the writer, not away.

New writers: do not pay to have your work published. Do not pay to have it listed in a database or read and criticized or any other dumb thing. Do Not Pay. There are so many people in this world eager to make money off others' dreams: don't let them steal from you.

(Of course there are legitimate expenses--big name workshops like Clarion and Milford, for example, and various other legitimate forms of schooling. But be careful. Be sure that what you're paying for is a legitimate expense and worth the cost.)

For many writers a workshop or critique group is useful, and I've listed three good ones on the SFWA links page above: one conducted via email, one by street mail, and one (I think) in person. Finding or forming a local group might be a good idea too.

Books about writing that I've found invaluable: for advice on the craft, any written by Lawrence Block (the two from which I've got the most value are Telling Lies for Fun and Profit and Spider, Spin Me a Web); and for advice on the business, Donald Maas's The Career Novelist. I cannot stress enough how valuable these books are. Buy them, read them, read them again, and read them again, every one of them.

JB: I think every writer probably goes through a stage where he or she obsesses on the details of the inner processes of publishing; I know I did for a while. I found a certain liberation, though, when I discovered that there is no "secret password," that the key always comes back to the writing of the story. Is that the kind of lesson we all have to learn from experience?

MELISA: Ah, "The Secret." Yes. There is a certain sort of wannabe (and with that attitude they are too unlikely to achieve publication to be called "prepublished") who becomes positively enraged if one will not divulge "The Secret." And of course the secret is that there is no secret. Success in writing as in any field is achieved through plain hard work and good luck.

Neither alone will do it, and I suppose that's why some people tend to obsess on the mysterious nature of success, looking for The Secret. Perhaps they think they're good enough and should be selling, so the only reason they aren't must be that they don't know The Secret. But they are only hurting themselves; their obsession makes them unable to hear good advice and to keep learning, in order to be at their best when they finally get their bit of luck (by reaching the right editor with the right story at the right time).

I expect you're right, that it's one of the lessons we have to learn by experience and observation: it certainly can't be taught. There's another place where being online can help, though. Watch enough writers talking shop and one is bound to realize eventually that success is based on work and luck and that a rejection slip means nothing more than that the editor didn't need that story just then (a bit of information that would surely go a long way toward dispelling a number of odd notions about this business).

JB: Thank you, Melisa, for taking the time to help us do just that.

MELISA: No no, thank you. This has been fun. I'm always glad for an opportunity to pass on what I've learned the hard way, and for opportunities to promote my work...and perhaps most of all, for opportunities to delay getting to work for the day. (I'm profoundly grateful to have deadlines to meet again, but I still look for excuses to put off actually doing the work.)

REFERENCES:

Melisa C. Michaels' Home Page: http://www.sff.net/people/melisa/

SFWA Home Page: http://www.sfwa.org/

SFWA Bulletin
Dept. H
404 Oceanside Street
Islip Terrace, NY 11752
(http://www.sfwa.org/bulletin/)

Sample Copy $3.95 / One year (4 issues) $15.00
Two years (8 issues) $27.00 / Three years (12 issues) $36.00

SFWA Handbook
404 Oceanside Street
Islip Terrace, NY 11752
(http://www.sfwa.org/pubs/handbook.htm)

Paperback Edition - $14.95 plus $3.00 shipping and handling
For SFWA Members: $9.15 plus $3.00 shipping and handling
Hardcover Edition - $19.95 plus $3.00 shipping and handling
For SFWA Members: $15.40 plus $3.00 shipping and handling
Checks payable to SFWA, Inc.

The Career Novelist: A Literary Agent Offers Strategies for Success by Donald Maas,
Heinemann, ISBN: 0435086936, U.S.: $15.95

Spider, Spin Me a Web by Lawrence Block,
Quill (William Morrow), ISBN: 0688146902, U.S.: $12.00

Telling Lies for Fun & Profit by Lawrence Block,
Quill, ISBN: 0688132286, U.S.: $10.00


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