Look What I Found In My Brain!Random!

Spellbent

Chimeric Machines

Sparks and Shadows

Installing Linux on a Dead Badger

Coffin County

Mr Hands

Home Before Dark

In Silent Graves

Fear in a Handful of Dust

Current Reader Favorites:

Tools for Wandering Writers – how to stay productive on the road
Is the publisher just a middleman? – things to consider before you try self-publishing
Finding or creating a writer's workshop group – the title says it all
Using Profanity in Fiction – when cursing works, and when it doesn't
How To Make A Living Writing Short Fiction – can it be done? Yes.
Book Review: Lord of the Flies – all about Ralph and Piggy and Roger
Who Moved My Cheese? – a short review of this short book
How to comfort someone whose mother or father has died – advice for handling this difficult situation
Coping with unemployment – more practical advice for a difficult situation


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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sprinting For The Deadline


I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
- Douglas Adams

"C'mon, pencil! Make words!"
- SpongeBob SquarePants

Many of us, when faced with a deadline, tend to push it. For some writers, there's a certain creativity-enhancing rush to be found in putting a story off until the very last minute. College tends to foster this kind of work habit, and after a couple of semesters you may find yourself regularly vanquishing deadlines with the help of the 24-hour pizza delivery joint and Mountain Dew. Other authors may fully intend to work on deadlines at a steady, civilized pace, but they've got families and day jobs and emergencies that blast their high-flown intentions to dust like clay pigeons.

I used to feel bad about pushing deadlines, but I decided that's a waste of emotional energy. I do have a day job that makes it hard to stick to a steady writing schedule, but when you come right down to it, I know I'm a binge writer at heart. Some people can write a book fifteen minutes at a time, in little bits and bobs, but I do better with multi-hour sessions in which the words (hopefully) pour forth.

Still, when people hear you're a last-minute writer, they tend to think you're either hopelessly disorganized or a fear junkie. A friend once said to me, "Oh, you have to scare yourself by waiting until the last minute to get your adrenaline going, right?"

Well, not exactly. My first story deadline, yes, that gave me a cold sweat, because I didn't know for sure that I could actually get the work done. But that first story was a long time ago; I know I can do it now. So deadlines aren't usually that scary any more.

So why do I, more often than not, find myself tossing down a few cups of coffee and tapping away at 3 am? It's because I have a noisy mind: thoughts and memories barge in like obnoxious in-laws, my Inner Child whines for ice cream, and worst of all, my Inner Editor glares over my shoulder, critiquing the placement of every comma and clause. Yes, you know the Inner Editor, don't you? Some famously alcoholic authors started hitting the sauce in an effort to get theirs to just shut the hell up already.

When I've had just enough coffee, and am just a bit sleepy, all the cross-talk in my head fades, and I can settle down and get work done. When things are going extremely well, I'm probably inducing a kind of trance state, and I can be extremely productive. (For me, anyway; my best run to date has been 10,000 words over two and a half days, which pales in comparison to Gary Braunbeck's writing 40,000 words of Mr. Hands over the course of seven days; his Herculean writing binge happened after a series of unfortunate events and a surprise move-of-deadline. And it was not without consequences, namely that he was utterly exhausted afterward. But it helps to know that it can in fact be done.)

So, my biggest fear is that I'll develop some kind of condition that prevents me from drinking coffee. Tea, much as I love it, just doesn't cut it, nor do most fancy energy drinks. Besides, coffee has been found to cut the risk of Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer's disease, and those are far worse than any missed deadline.

Respect the deadline, and respect the bean. I'll have mine hot with one sugar and one cream.

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The Care and Feeding of a Convention Writing Workshop Track

Right now, I'm in the process of putting together the writing workshop track for Context 23. The convention has grown considerably in the past four years, and all our data points to that being the result of expanding the writing programming.

A decade ago, Context had a writing workshop that was similar to the type of writing workshop offered at many conventions. It was a Milford-style critique workshop that went on Saturday and Sunday mornings of the convention, and it was often team-taught by Tim Waggoner and Gary Braunbeck. People would submit short story manuscripts in advance of the workshop (sometimes just a few days in advance, leaving instructors scrambling to get everything read in time). I helped Gary prepare for the workshop a couple of times, and it was a good, solid workshop that most students got a lot out of.

But it occurred to me that the convention could offer much more, if someone would just be willing to roll up sleeves and do some coordination and promotion. There's nothing at all wrong with a critique workshop; many beginning writers don't have access to writers' groups or critique partners, and they crave informed evaluation from a pro. But other writers do have access to critiques, or they're writing poetry or novels, or they're not interested in manuscript critique but possibly very interested in specialized writing topics.

Furthermore, it seemed to me that there's a gap between the casual convention critique workshop and expensive, high-intensity workshops like the Borderlands Boot Camp and Clarion. I was pretty sure that Context, with its focus on reading and writing speculative fiction, could fill that gap.

So, a couple of years ago, I volunteered to become the writing workshops coordinator for Context, and now the con's offering a buffet of workshops that I don't think any other science fiction/horror convention has matched. This year, we had topic workshops on flash fiction (taught by Mike Arnzen, who tackled horror poetry last year), creating plots, writing comic books, writing video games, creating character through dialog, writing openings, and world-building. On top of that, we had Gary Braunbeck leading a short story critique masterclass for published writers, and Tim Waggoner and Paula Guran offering individual critiques of short stories and novel packages. And we had regular writing panels on topics like effective blogging, self-editing and finding agents to supplement the topics offered in the workshops. We offered over a dozen formal workshops and at least twice that many writing panels; you can see a listing of everything on the Context Writing Workshops page.

I'm still recovering from the weekend, but soon I'll start putting together the workshops for next year.

Most any convention could do what I have done; the only catch is that it's a lot of work pretty much year-round, and requires a moderate level of organization. As to who should be put in charge of a workshops track, it helps to have someone familiar with writing workshops and the needs of both writers and instructors. Some convention workshops have failed because the organizers just didn't get that workshops involve a lot of hard work and expertise, leading to instructors becoming frustrated over late submissions and delayed payment.

So, here's my advice to anyone who wants to establish a workshop track like the one we've got at Context:

  1. Figure out what students want to see. This is your first, basic step to figure out what you'll be offering. Do this early as possible; nine months before the convention starts isn't too early (like any baby, a good workshop takes time to gestate). The easiest way is to poll people who've been to your convention in the past; brain-storm some workshop ideas (popular panels can often become workshops) and see which ones people like most. I've found Livejournal polls fairly useful for this. Once you have a list of popular workshop topics, look around to see if you know instructors who could competently teach those topics.
  2. Recognize that your instructors are crucial. A workshop is smooth sailing if you're working with professionals who know how to put on a good workshop. I have an advantage in that my husband, Gary Braunbeck, is a skilled teacher who knows other skilled teachers via the Seton Hill University Writing Popular Fiction program. All the instructors we've had from Seton Hill - Diana Botsford, Mike Arnzen, Tobias Buckell, Timons Esaias - has been great to work with.

    \Once you've recruited good instructors, treat 'em right. Get them the equipment they need to hold a good workshop, and answer their questions promptly. Make sure they're being paid fairly for their work, and get them paid promptly after the convention is over.
  3. Yes, you should charge extra for the workshops. You don't have to (and probably shouldn't) charge a lot, but make sure you're charging enough to ensure that the instructors are being fairly paid for their time and work and that the dedicated space that you've rented from the hotel or convention center is being paid for. Furthermore, a small additional fee helps weed out people who are less than serious and who might be disruptive. Conversely, charging too much will limit the number of people willing to sign up, and will make students much more critical of the workshop they've paid for. If you have a dynamite instructor who wants to limit the workshop size, sure, charge more; otherwise, seek the happy medium. We've found $20 per person for a 2- or 3-hour topic workshop works well.
  4. Keep a close eye on your numbers. Make sure you're not over-selling a workshop, and make sure you always know who's signed up for what. And make sure you know what each instructor should be paid. This basic type of organization is crucial.
  5. Keep students informed. Regular updates keep students excited about the upcoming workshops. If people have questions, make sure you respond to their concerns quickly and professionally. Even if you think they're being overly demanding or unreasonable, it's important to maintain an attitude of good customer service.
  6. Pay attention to your facilities. Make sure that the room dedicated to the workshop will physically hold the number of people in the class, and that the room will be set up to accommodate them. Also, make sure your instructors will have access to the necessary multimedia equipment (laptops, projectors, TVs, DVD players, etc.) and make sure to test the equipment before the workshop starts to avoid awkward delays while you run home to find a TV remote because you didn't realize the channel buttons on the TV are broken. (Sorry about that, Gary.)
  7. Promote, promote, promote. Students won't sign up if they don't know the workshop exists, or if they don't know what they'll get out of it. We've had good luck posting at writers' message boards and sending flyers to local universities. Start early, and keep at it; the economy isn't good, so good promotion is crucial.

If all that sounds like a lot of work ... well, it is! But there's nothing like seeing a good workshop come together.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Life is material; you just have to live long enough to figure out how to use it
by Gary A. Braunbeck

There's a great line from William Goldman's novel The Color of Light: "Life is material; you just have to live long enough to figure out how to use it."

William Faulkner maintained that any child who managed to live past the age of seven had enough material to write books and stories for the rest of his or her life and never see the well run dry; Flannery O'Connor said much the same thing.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that if you encounter any authors who insists that their work isn't in some form autobiographical, they're lying through their teeth.

It's not only outward, chronological events that shape our psyches and determine who we become, but our own internal worlds; imagination, impressions, prejudices, fantasies, regrets, passions, likes and dislikes, all of it is eventually filtered through the writer's sensibilities to make an appearance in their work.


Sometimes a writer has to wait until he or she has gotten enough distance, both emotionally and chronologically, to turn a fiction writer's objective eye on an event. You can't use an actual occurrence from your own life and then defend it to people by saying, "But that's how it really happened." Fiction cares nothing for how an event 'really' happened, only how said event or events fit into the natural progression of the story you're telling.

You have to learn to put your ego aside when you write a story or novel, even if you're using something from your life as fictional fodder; you have to care enough to be quiet. Let the story be your guide, not your desire to inflict yourself and your views on the reader.

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On writing about child abuse
by Gary A. Braunbeck

Everything is bigger to a child; not only physically, but perceptually and emotionally, as well. A dollar found becomes a discovered treasure. A harsh word becomes a deafening declaration of war. A heap of dirty clothes in the corner becomes a nasty, fanged monster after the lights are out. A paper cut is a knife in the stomach. And a hug from a parent in times of fear becomes Perseus's shield, protecting them from Medusa's deadly power. Everything is amplified in ways adults find hard to remember.

So can you begin to imagine, just for a moment, the terror, the pain, the agony and confusion experienced by a child whose every waking moment is marked by fear and nothing but?

Childhood is over too soon under the best of circumstances; to strip a child of their trust, to despoil them of the belief that those who love you will always protect and never harm you, to commit the obscenity of taking a child and simply, totally ruining their world, to destroy the joy in their hearts ....

It is, in my opinion, the most unpardonable and irredeemable of human crimes. Period.

If you're a fiction writer, you'll see that a lot of editors shy away from stories that involve any harm coming to a child. In some genres, portraying child abuse or child murder is seen as an unbreakable taboo, and to deal with these subjects is to risk your readership if you can even get the work published.

And it often does seem like the lowest of low pandering tactics: you want suspense? To engage a reader's emotions? Then put a child in jeopardy!

And too often it is used as a cheap effect, especially in horror and suspense. Some authors do seem to sit down to write a piece and say, "Oh, I'll throw in a dash of child abuse for added depth." To do that is not only insulting to the reader and a slap in the face to those who dedicate their lives to bettering the existence of children who are in an abusive situation, but it serves to numb people to the plight of these children.

But I believe there's room for honest portrait of it in good fiction. Not to use a tale as bully pulpit or soapbox decrying child abuse, but to genuinely explore how abuse affects the human condition through the eyes of a story's characters.

If you write fiction about child abuse, probably the most important thing to remember is to keep your work from becoming what Ray Garton once called "whacking material for pedophiles." It's a hard thing to keep a graphic scene from becoming inadvertently titillating -- and sometime a story genuinely needs a graphic depiction.

To use what is probably my most uncomfortable example, take "Some Touch of Pity," a novella that appeared in Marty Greenberg's Werewolves. Anyone who's ever read that story remembers the rape scene. I agonized over that thing for weeks, not the least of which because I didn't want any element of that scene to seem even remotely titillating. Marty, God bless him, understood that a graphic presentation of the rape was integral to the story -- the central character relives this moment from his childhood on an almost hourly basis, it's what defined his view of himself, and it's what keeps him standing at arm's length from his own true heart. But Marty said that as the scene stood, it would be just too much for DAW. Understood.

I rewrote the scene so that the reader experienced it only through the sensations and impressions that the child could identify. That's the version that was published in the anthology. It was still effective, but it didn't pull the reader nose-first into the painful, filthy, bottomless pit of the character's suffering. So, when it came time to include the story in my first collection, I restored the rape scene to its original form, which is much more direct, unflinching, and brutal.

God, how I lost sleep over that. I worried that people would read it and think I was simply trying to shock them in the most depraved manner. I worried that readers would find the story offensive and unreadable. Then I realized that, with all the worries I was dredging up, the one which never crossed my mind was: is it necessary to be this graphic?

The story informed me that, yes, it was necessary to present it in this way. I'm relieved to say that, in the years since I published the uncut version, not one person has accused me of being irresponsible in telling the story in the manner that it required. Writing that story was a gut-wrenching experience, but ultimately I think it was worth it.

 

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Why I became a writer
by Gary A. Braunbeck

I was in the sixth grade when I decided I wanted to become a writer.

I was not -- big surprise here -- a very social or popular kid. I had a geek haircut and thick, Coke-bottle glasses with dark frames. I wore clashing strains of plaid. I looked like the secret son that Buddy Holly kept chained up in his basement.

One Friday in English class we were given back our spelling tests from the previous day (I got a C -- a pretty typical grade for me then). Our teacher, a great guy named Steve Shroeder, informed us that our next assignment, to be done in class that day, was to select seven words from the test and write a story using those words. Everyone groaned, including me.

Then I picked up my pencil and started writing.

Twenty minutes or so later, everyone else is sitting there staring at their papers and I'm still cranking. I wrote right up until the lunch bell rang.

It was a child's first attempt at a horror story. All about a haunted house and a photographer who snaps a picture of the moment of his own death three days before it happens and doesn't discover it until he's developing the pictures and sees himself standing in his darkroom, looking at a newly developed photograph, while behind him this slimy, awful monster is creeping through the wall behind him. He turns around just in time to see a clawed hand reach for his face. The end.

I figured the story was going to get me in trouble -- I attended a Catholic grade school and most of the faculty -- nuns and otherwise -- thought I was "disturbed." (I lost count of how many times I was called into Sister Barbara's office for a "chat" about "my problems getting along with the others.")

The next day, Mr. Shroeder hands back the papers. He had written a big-ass "A+" in bright red ink at the top of my paper, and on the back of the last page he wrote: "Great story. You should do more."

I had written stories before that I'd kept to myself for fear of how people would react to them. This was the first time anyone had ever read something of mine -- and an adult, no less -- and they'd really liked it. It was the first time in my entire childhood I suddenly felt like I wasn't useless.

That really was the first day of the rest of my life, and I owe a lot to Shroeder. I don't know where I'd be now if I'd gotten the reaction I expected to get.

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On horror personas
by Gary A. Braunbeck


I don't know about you, but if I encounter one more horror writer (in most cases, this would be a new writer) who prefaces his or her name with:
  • "The New Bad Boy/Bad Girl of Horror"
  • "The New Queen of Terror"
  • "The New Prince of Dark Fiction"
  • "The New Court Second-Scribe in Charge of Queasy Sensations at The Pit Of Your Tummy"
... or some-such other b.s. handle designed to draw attention to the writer rather than the work, I'm going to climb a tower with a rifle, I swear it.

(Wouldn't it be interesting to have someone call themselves "The Nice Guy Of Horror" or "The Courteous Queen Of Terror" or "The Really Swell Dude of Dark Fiction"? I'd actually remember that, and would probably seek out their work to read just because they were clever enough to do it.)

Sometimes -- dash, repeat, italicize -- sometime these monikers are created not by the writers themselves, but, rather, by reviewers.

One case of a writer who's employed a moniker he or she didn't create her- or himself is that of John Paul Allen, one helluva nice guy and author of the novel Gifted Trust. A reviewer for that novel dubbed Allen "...the father of nightmares."

An interviewer who read that review used the phrase to introduce Allen, so it comes as no suprise that Allen has used that phrase in publicity releases -- and why the hell shouldn't he? It's an eye-catching, memorable phrase that is going to go a long way in helping potential readers remember his name. He didn't come up with it and decide to label himself, and any writer who's handed an unsolicited blurb like that is a fool not to get as much mileage as he can out of it. Yes, writing a strong novel is damned important, but once the work is published, it all boils down to bidness and marketing, and anything that draws attention to your work can and should be used to your advantage. So, good for John Paul.

However.

I have come across (or been introduced to, unsolicited) a number of writers who, both on-line and at conventions, assume a "persona" not only for the benefit of their readers (assuming they actually have any, as they claim), but for that of other writers and editors, as well.

When asked why they insist on assuming these personae, every last one of them (at least, to whom I have spoken) have answered with something like: "Because I want readers/editors/other writers to remember me. It's a way of making a strong impression."

On the surface, it might be seem like a good answer, but it reminds me of a snippet from a Bill Cosby routine wherein two guys are talking about cocaine usage; the first guy asks the second one, "What's the attraction?", and the second guys answers, "Well, cocaine intensifies your personality." To which the first guy responds: "Yes, but what if you're an asshole?"

If you focus the majority of your energy on perfecting a "persona" so that other writers/readers/editors/artists will remember you, then I guaran-flippin'-tee you that you'll succeed; they'll remember you.

But ask them to name a piece of your work and see what happens; you could probably hear a gnat fart in the silence that will follow. Which is precisely what you'll merit; if you choose to make it all about you rather than the work, then you richly deserve the disdain and/or obscurity that is coming your way.

I can say this without fear of reprisal because I do not have a persona; I barely have a personality. Trust me on this.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

More on successful book promotion
Just to recap, in my last post on this subject I detailed my first two suggestions for promoting your book:
  1. Write the best book you can.

  2. Don't get stuck with a bad cover.
The things I'm discussing in this post are mainly of concern to authors and editors with small-press books. So, if you've had the good fortune to score a deal with a big house, you can skip this one.

3a: Make sure your book's listed at Amazon.

Once the cover's set, check with your publisher to make sure the book will be listed on Amazon.com. If your publisher is a small specialty press, a little (or a lot) of wheedling may be necessary. But if you've got more than 300 books to sell after preorders have been accounted for, it's best to get the book listed on Amazon.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Amazon.com; some of you may have a hate-hate relationship with them. If so, I sympathize completely. Amazon demands a 55% commission on top of account setup fees, and they've been bullying POD publishers into using their Booksurge service instead of LSI and other printers. Amazon is the 80,000-pound gorilla of book sales, and they've been taking full advantage of their status, often to the detriment of small publishing companies.

So, I understand a small-press publisher's desire to tell Amazon to go blow; the publisher's got their own site and can sell books through their own secure shopping cart just fine, so distribution's covered, right?

The problem is, for many prospective readers, if your book isn't on Amazon, it's as if it just doesn't exist. Your book's being available at the publisher's site won't help if a reader has never heard of the publisher before and is therefore reluctant to release their credit card info to them.

So: if your book's not on Amazon, you will lose potential sales. Also, because so many other sites grab book information directly from Amazon's feeds, your book's absence from that site means it will also be absent from a bunch of other sites.

(Side note: because book information posted on Amazon gets distributed far and wide, double-check that the publisher is posting accurate, complete information about your book from the start. The publisher can make changes later, but I've noticed changes often don't propagate to Amazon.uk and other sites. It's better if the book description is correct from the beginning).

I'll be discussing Amazon more in future posts, but for now, the basic goal is to make sure your book is listed. If your book is a small-run limited edition from a specialty press, the cost of selling the book on Amazon might not make sense. But if you've got more than a couple hundred books to sell, get the book listed on Amazon (and price it to compensate for their commission), or else be prepared for slow sales.

3b: Make sure your book's listed in WorldCat.

WorldCat is a gigantic database of books in libraries around the planet. WorldCat gives you basic publishing and authorship details about a book and tells you how you can borrow it for free through Interlibrary Loan. If you're the least bit of a library geek, you already know it's very cool, and you probably already wanted to be in WorldCat just on general principle.

If your book's not on Amazon, getting it listed on WorldCat is important. Why? WorldCat is the other main source of information about books that websites like Bookmooch and LibraryThing refer to. It cuts to one of the most basic goals of promotion: making sure potential readers know your book exists. Getting your book listed in as many places as possible is part of that goal, and WorldCat helps you achieve it.

Furthermore, if your book's not in WorldCat, to the librarians of the world it's as if your book just doesn't exist. And since librarians can be some of an author's strongest allies, you want to make sure they can easily reference your work.

How do you get a listing in WorldCat? In theory it's pretty simple: just make sure that at least one Worlcat-member library immediately gets a copy of your book when it comes out.

If you're an established author, there's a good chance your local library already knows about you and is planning to order a copy of your latest book (and if your local library doesn't know about you, shine your shoes, brush your teeth and go make friends with the library staff).

But if this is your first book, or if your local library's suffering from funding cuts, chances are good you will need to donate copies of your work if you want specific libraries to carry it. On the plus side, you can write the donated books off your taxes. On the down side, this usually isn't quite as simple as popping a copy of your book in an envelope and mailing it to the library (if you do this, your unsolicited book may go straight into the box of books culled for the next library book sale).

First, find out who the acquisition librarian is if you haven't done so already. Drop him or her a polite, professional email to tell them about your book and to ask if the library would like a copy for their collection. Make sure to mention that you are a local author and that your book is not self-published. Otherwise, if you and your publisher are unknown to the librarian, he or she is very likely to assume you're self-published and the answer is probably going to be "thanks, but no thanks."

Libraries have only so much room on their shelves, and to avoid being inundated with amateur work most patrons will never check out, many have explicit policies against accepting self-published books. Some may send an email back to you asking for evidence that your small-press publisher has produced a certain quantity of books; don't take this personally. Just politely send them back the information they've asked for (above all: don't piss off your local librarian).

Be prepared for a "thanks, but no thanks" response no matter what; a library may be in the midst of downsizing their collection or undergoing renovation and they may not be acquiring new books. Again, don't take this personally; follow up with a thanks-for-your-time email and query the next library on your list.

Once you've moved past the probably-small list of local libraries who'll look favorably on your work because you're a local author, you'll want to have a more formal press release to send out to promote your book. But to put together a good press release, first you'll need some good book blurbs and review excerpts ... but that's a topic worthy of its own post, and I'm out of time.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

How do you find time to write?
When Random Person discovers that you're a writer, odds are that he will ask you any of several basic questions:
  1. How long have you been writing?
  2. Where do you get your ideas?
  3. Where have you been published?
(If Random Person is a jerk, he'll just grunt "You're a writer? Never heard of you," but that's a topic for another post.)

If Random Person wants to be a writer, he's bound to ask you this:

How do you find time to write?

Hands down, this is the question I get asked most at my day job at the university. There's no shortage of beginning writers there, and most of them have written enough (or tried) to realize that time is a distressingly finite commodity. They've found themselves juggling jobs and classes and kids and housework and errands and ... well, things always seem to go unfinished at the end of the day.

And it's not just a matter of scheduling time, is it? After a 9-hour shift at the restaurant or call center, you might technically have a whopping two hours to call your own before you go to bed. But when you sit down with your notebook or computer, you find the day's left your brain wrung out, and after an hour of staring at the blank page you have maybe a sentence or two to show for your efforts.

There's no easy answer to the question "How do you find the time to write?"

Well, okay, there is; I call it the Grizzled Writer's Bluff: "You can't just find the time, you have to make the time. And if you want it bad enough, you'll do it."

It's an easy answer because while it's perfectly true, it's also perfectly unhelpful. It doesn't provide anything resembling a workable strategy or even a helpful hint; what it often does is make the newbie feel even more lost and loserish than before he asked his oh-so-hopeful question.

Time is a problem for every writer. For those of us with full-time jobs, it's an ongoing struggle not only to make time to write, but also to ensure we're in a fit condition to get good work done when the time comes. Because there's no standard life, there's no standard answer to the question. But there are some tactics writers can take, and the real secret is to try anything and everything to see what works best for you.

When I graduated from college, I started on a "career" job - the kind of job that follows you home at night - and quickly realized I could either have a well-paid life as a white-collar worker, or I could pursue my dream of becoming an author. I knew I just didn't have the energy for both. So, I made myself indispensable at my workplace, and managed to convince my boss to let me drop to part time. Part-time jobs worked well for a while until the .com bust left me unemployed and excellent hourly positions scarce. When I found another day job that didn't seem like it would suck up all my energy, it didn't pay nearly as well as what I'd gotten before, so dropping to part-time was no longer an option. However, I was recently able to switch to a compressed, 4-day-a-week schedule, and that's been helping me cut loose more writing time.

Deciding to pursue more casual jobs instead of better-paying career positions was a pretty risky choice on my part, and it's not one that everyone will feel comfortable making. But there are other time management tactics to take, although they, too, may involve difficult choices.

Start by taking a hard look at what you do during the course of an average day. Make a list of everything you do, and separate things into "work" and "play". Flip a coin if you can't decide.

First, look at your "play". Don't skimp on your weekly tennis game or thrice-weekly trip to the gym - you need to keep your body in shape to keep your mind in shape. But what about all the TV you watch at night? Tearing yourself from the tube is a prime way to find writing time. Socializing is another, harder, place to find time to write. How many parties do you go to in a month? If the answer is more than one, and your day job isn't as a promoter or DJ, you need to cut back. It's hard to say "no" to friends, and you don't want to nuke your social life from orbit lest you become a crazy, out-of-touch hermit. But if you're going out for drinks after work nearly every day, you need to gut up the courage to tell your coworkers you've got other plans.

Ultimately, you need to treat writing like a second job, because it is. Even if you're not getting paid for it yet.

Next, look at the things you've put in the "work" category. What, really, do you have to do? And what do you feel you ought to do? The "oughts" need to be weighed. You can probably cut down on the number of errands you run with a little planning. And unless your neighbors are already complaining, you can probably get by with less yard work and housework. Forget about keeping up with the Joneses - what do you really care what they think, anyhow? If you don't have to do it and you don't want to do it, by all means, ditch it. But make sure it's really something that doesn't need doing; ignoring litterboxes, for instance, can become an expensive disaster.

And gruffly blowing off your kids or spouse and holing yourself up in your office is a recipe for heartache down the road. You have to take care of your responsibilities to the people and pets living with you. Period. The carpet doesn't care if it gets vacuumed, but your daughter will care a lot if you don't go to her soccer games.

The flip side, of course, is that the people living with you may not understand the time and effort involved in writing. So, your first step is to recruit them to your cause. Explain to them that writing means a lot to you; share your dream with them. Explain. Negotiate. Tell them that you need their help to achieve your dreams; your spouse will probably feel a whole lot better about watching TV alone if he or she feels she's helping you get good work done. The kids will still want your time, of course, but "Mommy's working" is a lot easier to understand than "Mommy's ignoring me."

But what if you talk to your spouse about your need for work time alone, and he still treats your desire to be a writer like a childish phase you'll grow out of? Or, worse, he seems to outright scorn it?

For instance, a writer acquaintance of mine isn't "allowed" to write while his wife's awake. She expects him to sit with her watching TV in the evenings until she goes to bed, and then he's free to do what he wants as long as he doesn't disturb her. So, this guy writes from 11pm until 2 or 3 in the morning, whereupon he goes to bed for a few hours, gets up at 6am and gets ready for work.

Clearly, he really, really wants it. Few of us would be able to keep up that kind of schedule. And the thing is, he really shouldn't have to. His wife should have enough basic love and respect to support his ambition instead of treating his writing dream as some unpleasant character flaw that she grudgingly indulges. What she's doing is frankly bullshit. He seems to be sticking out the marriage because they have young children, but I don't see how it can last.

One female writer friend of mine had a husband who made supportive noises while they were dating, but once they were married, he acted impatient when she talked about her writing and did a lot of passive-agressive crap to interrupt her while she was working. She, too, resorted to working after he went to sleep, or she left the house and went to the library. Over the years, his snark and disrespect got worse and worse, even though she was bringing in serious money from freelance writing, and finally she filed for divorce.

I've seen other situations like that, and if the writer sticks with writing, the marriage always ends in divorce.

And that's the upshot of all this: if you are living with people who won't respect your writing or writing time, or if you're dating someone who treats your writing with veiled scorn or disdain, that's a clear sign that they just plain don't respect you. You need to get them out of your life. And although it might seem easier said than done, it's a lot easier done before the wedding bells have rung.

Life is too short to do otherwise.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Writing horror: the devil's in the details
by Gary A. Braunbeck

A writer friend of mine was busy making final revisions on a story he was planning to submit to an anthology. He asked me if I wold look at his story and offer suggestions and opinions. I read the story over, and while a full 75% of it was rock-solid, the final sequence seemed to me to fall victim to over-ripe melodrama.

Now, instead of just saying outright that the finale was over-baked (and a bit nonsensical), I instead pointed out to him what I saw as the place where the story wandered off the highway. It had to do specifically with the nature of a central character's physical and spiritual metamorphosis mid-way through on which the rest of the story's events were hinged. The precise nature of this metamorphosis, and what the character intended to accomplish with it, were unclear and -- I felt -- because of their nebulousness, robbed the story of any impact; instead, they had chosen to finish things off with a (figurative) loud and histrionic display of horrific fireworks.

I began asking him specific questions about the precise nature of this character's physical and spiritual metamorphosis: what exact physical change was taking place, how it affected the character's ultimate goal, and what that ultimate goal was supposed to be.

"What exactly is the nature of this change?" I asked.

"It's a supernatural transformation," was his reply.

"But a supernatural transformation into what, exactly?"

"I don't know...it's just a supernatural transformation," he again said.

"That's not good enough," I replied. "In order for you to get from the mid-point of the story to a more logical, chilling, and less cartoonish ending, you have to know exactly the nature of this transformation, how it affects the character's psychological and spiritual make-up, and what the character's ultimate goal is once this transformation has been completed."

Now, I thought this was a fairly clear, concise, and thoughtful piece of criticism. My writer friend, after throwing up his hands and sighing loudly in frustration, looked me right in the eyes and said: "Dude, it's just horror! It's not like science fiction where these kinds of specific details matter!"

No, I did not kill him, but I did make it clear that they had not only just insulted and trivialized the horror genre, but also (intentionally or not) my life's work.

I don't know anyone who would enjoy hearing their life's work reduced to a triviality, do you?

Now, in my writer friend's defense, he was dealing with a story that had been giving them problems for a while; so much so that it had been put away and only recently approached again.

I would also add that this writer has not written or read as much horror as he have science fiction and fantasy.

I would also add that he had been having a really, really bad couple of weeks personally, and as a result felt like I was attacking them.

That said (and, yes, he apologized later when he realized the remark -- however off-hand -- had offended me), his comment encapsulated for me, with disturbingly and depressingly crystal clarity, why it is that a lot of horror stories and novels being published are of an at-best journeyman quality.

It's because too many writers think, Dude, it's just horror! Too many writers think that it's okay to just say "...it's a supernatural transformation", and leave it at that, because once you've let the demon out, you don't really need to think about the Hows and Whys and How-Comes; once the Boogeyman is boogying, the details don't matter, just so long as it's exciting or suspenseful or horrific.

Wrong.

It is exactly when the Glop is slurping victims left and right that you most need to think about the details. Every story -- no matter how believable or outrageous its premise -- must follow its own internal logic; it must establish the rules for its own microcosmic universe and then adhere to those rules. Fairly basic stuff, unless you think it isn't necessary to bother establishing those rules in the first place.

Let me give you an example: the first Jeepers Creepers movie. Throughout the story, all we know about the Creeper is: he's a demon (and even that much is left for us to infer, rather than directly established). Nowhere in the first film does the writer bother establishing the Creeper's precise nature; we don't know where it came from, what it wants, why it wants it, or what, exactly, the Creeper plans to accomplish through its actions. As a result of the Creeper's nature and powers never being established, the story leaves it wide open for it to behave however it needs to in order to keep the story suspsenseful.

That's not necessarily a good thing; yes, because neither the audience nor the characters in the film know the Creeper's precise nature, it is impossible to predict what it will do next, and by default that should have generated more suspense...but it doesn't quite work. It's the very unpredictability of the Creeper's actions that works against the second half of the film, preventing it from reaching the dizzying levels of suspense that mark the first forty minutes; if we, the audience, had been given some vague idea of the Creeper's nature, had we been given just a few rules, had just a few details been established, then we wouldn't have felt so much that the writer was simply pulling things out of his ying-yang in order to make the next scene SPOOOOOOOKY.

It's sloppy storytelling, pure and simple.

Conversely, the reason Jeepers Creepers 2 was a much better-written movie was because the writer took the time to painstakingly establish the background elements lacking in the first film; because we did know the Creeper's nature, what it wanted, why, and -- an old trick that always works -- that it was functioning under a time limit, the second film generated and maintained a high level of suspense that was both intense and followed the internal logic set down by the ground rules. No, it ain't Lawrence of Arabia, but on terms of storytelling, it's light-years ahead of the first movie.

If you think I'm making a tempest in a teapot here, consider this: Stephen King went back and revised the first four Dark Tower books so that they better followed the internal logic and ground rules that emerged as he wrote the last three novels in the series; he did this because the details are important; he did this because, as a writer, he was not content to simply let gaffes in continuity remain uncorrected.

He did this because he takes his work very seriously, and part of taking it seriously means that you think about the details, you follow your own ground rules, and you (as the late Theodore Sturgeon so eloquently phrased it) ask the next questions: What is the true nature of the beast? Why does this happen? What does he or she want? What brought them here? Etc.

No, you don't have to offer these answers outright during the course of the story, but you, as the writer, have to know these answers yourself, for if you start your novel, novella, or short story with all the answers already in mind, you'd be surprised at how quickly and clearly your story will follow a logical course of events wherein these answers are shown to the reader through the actions of the characters or the progression of events.

The details are important, folks. They are vital. They are not to be dismissed off-handedly, because it ain't just horror: it's a question of careful storytelling, because it's only through genuine craftsmanship that we can offer readers a much richer and rewarding reading experience than just tossing the details out the window and just being SPOOOOOOOKY.

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Sunday, September 07, 2008

How I Got My Agent
A few people have asked how I got my literary agent. Here's the story.

Before I was Gary's wife, I was one of his coauthors, and before I was a coauthor, I was a fan of his writing. I've known him for just shy of 10 years now, and in that decade I've watched his career grow. Because he's a decade older than me, I've looked to his writing career as a model for how things might go, and when things have not gone as well as planned, I've taken a lot of notes in the hopes that I can avoid the same pitfalls for my own developing career.

So. Many of you probably know that Gary has sold the majority of his books without an agent's help. And while that proves pretty convincingly you don't need an agent to have a career as a novelist, it's become clear that he ultimately didn't get the kind of deals that he could have gotten if he'd had a strong, involved agent going to bat for him and seeking opportunities for him. This isn't a slam against any of the people who've published his work; your support is appreciated.

But I look at the deal my own agent made for me, a first-time novelist, and compare it with the deals Gary's gotten in the past, and mine is considerably better. Clearly, having an active, involved agent makes a big difference.

But let's back up. Before he was a novelist, Gary had published a lot of short stories, many for various Tekno Books anthologies. Tekno puts together anthologies for publishers like Ace; if you've read an anthology edited by Martin Greenberg or John Helfers, you've read a Tekno Books production regardless of the logo on the spine. These anthologies are invitation-only, and you will not be invited unless you're a pro writer known to the editors, or recommended to them by one of their existing writers.

Because of his work for them, the editors at Tekno knew Gary produced good fiction, met deadlines and was easy to work with. So, when Steve Perry told them he had started but couldn't finish Time Was, they asked Gary if he wanted to take over. And so Gary got his first published novel. Gary's other books also often came about because he knew editors and informally found out about their interests and gaps in their schedules etc. A lot of business gets done in the bars at SF conventions ;-)

For that matter, both my collections happened because I knew editors who were familiar with and liked my work, and I happened to know to pitch to them when they had lulls in their schedules. HW Press has never been open to submissions, and Creative Guy was closed to submissions when I made my deal for Installing Linux on a Dead Badger.

Are you starting to get the idea that networking with other writers and editors is pretty important? Good. Because it's hugely important.

When I was finishing Spellbent, I knew from watching Gary's experiences that I wanted a good agent shopping it around for me, but I was prepared to sell the book on my own if I had to. So when the book was in what I felt was presentable condition, I started asking author acquaintances if their agents were currently taking new clients. I never once cracked a copy of Writer's Market or Literary Marketplace.

And of course I asked Gary. He'd been corresponding with author/agent Janet Berliner (they met as a result of Gary being president of the Horror Writers Association) and she said that she had started her agency up again, but that the day-to-day operations were being run by her long-time assistant Robert Fleck.

So I sent an email query to Bob last November, and he got back to me that same day saying, sure, send the synopsis and novel to him. I got the files to him the next day, and he read my novel in less than a month, said he liked it, and sent me a draft copy of the agency agreement for me to look over. The agreement looked fine, so I signed the contract with Professional Media Services (this is the only thing we've done through snail-mail; social security numbers in email is a bad thing). Contract in hand, he sent me a list of suggested changes he felt would make the book stronger. I made the edits, sent the book back to him, and he started shopping it around far and wide.

Here's my agent/novel timeline; bear in mind that for all that's here I'm actually leaving quite a lot of secondary stuff out:

11/13/2007 - I make initial email query
11/13/2007 (1 hour later) - Agent Bob requests full manuscript and novel, via email. OMG!
11/15/2007 - I email synopsis and manuscript. Chew off nails.
12/2/2007 - I email a revised synopsis and manuscript because I'd changed the last chapters and made the synopsis suck less. Sit and vibrate nervously, annoying cat on my lap.
12/5/07 - Bob: "This is a very fun book; please look over the attached agency agreement draft."
12/5/07 (15 seconds later) - Cats scatter fearfully because I'm leaping around yelling "Woo hoo!"
12/5/07 (30 minutes later) - Me: "The agreement looks fine to me. Also, did I mention this is the first of a series?"
12/5/07 (30 minutes later) - Bob: "Write synopses for the other books! We'll whip all this into shape over the holidays, and send the package out afterward."
12/6/07 - Bob snail-mails agreement.
12/8/07 - I finally realize that Bob was the managing editor for the first magazine I ever sold a story to, years ago. KISMET OR COINCIDENCE?
12/14/07 - I finally realize Bob has probably sent the paperwork to our PO Box instead of the house. D'oh. Check PO Box that night, find agreement, wish I'd found it before Friday night.
12/17/07 - Mail back agreement (missed Saturday pickup time). Announce my new agentedness on LJ!
12/24/07 - Bob receives paperwork; he emails detailed requests for changes.
12/25/07 - bob and I exchange a flurry of emails discussing/clarifying changes.
12/26/07 - I email Bob the synopsis for 2nd book in series.
12/27/07 - I email Bob the synopsis for 3rd book in series.
1/1/08 - I email Bob the revised manuscript.
1/16/08 - Bob gives me list of the first round of publishers he's sending the book to.
2/11/08 - Bob sends me the front matter for the novel package submission; I tweak some things in my bio and send it back.
2/17/08 - I discover a CONTINUITY ERROR, O NOES! After freaking out, I discover fixing it involves editing a whole two sentences. I email the repaired mss. back to Bob.
3/28/08 - I meet Bob at World Horror; he tells me he's gotten some preliminary interest from a couple of publishers, including Del Rey.
4/2/08 - Bob tells me that Del Rey likes the book, but is concerned that portions of the book are too dark for their audience; he forwards me the editor's comments. He says he's arranging for me to talk directly with the editor.
4/11/08 - After several days of quietly flipping the heck out, I talk to editor Liz Scheier. She expresses her concerns, I convince her that I will fix them.
4/11/08 (1 minute later) - I set about making requested changes.
4/14/08 - I email revised mss. to Bob.
4/28/08 - Bob emails me back to tell me Del Rey has made an offer. Cats hide under bed as I run through the house yelling OMG!
5/2/08 - Liz emails me to tell me she's pleased we'll be working together.
5/2/08 to 6/20/08 - Bob and various people at Del Rey hammer out the grisly details of the contract. When completed, it is goat-chokingly large. I read it, comprehend it, sign it.
5/9/08 - Del Rey announces the 3-book deal on Publisher's Marketplace.
6/20/08 - Del Rey cuts me an advance check.

So, that's about 6 months from query to book deal. Which is really fast in the publishing world, and as you can see, there was a pretty constant flurry of activity (and I left out things like discussing other books unrelated to Spellbent with Bob etc.)

From my perspective, the take-home messages here are:
  1. Networking is crucial in making book deals, but all the schmoozing in the world is meaningless if you can't back it up with a solid publications history and a demonstrated ability to produce good work on deadline.
  2. When it came time to get an agent, my networking and publications history would have been meaningless if I didn't have a finished novel in hand and a solid plan for More Where That Came From.
  3. Luck probably plays a distressingly large role in all this.
  4. I am a single data point; my experiences may or may not be reflective of what any of you might experience.

If you're looking for general pointers on finding an agent, I wrote about that a while back.


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Friday, August 01, 2008

Of Subtext, Subtlety, and Coming In After The Fact
by Gary A. Braunbeck

There's a certain type of story, one that I have come to call the After-the-Fact story. I have not seen many After-the-Fact stories written in the horror genre; mostly, they've stayed in the neighborhood of "literary" fiction. So, why haven't we seen more of this type of story in horror?

After-the-Fact stories are tricky little bastards, because the main action of the story has already happened before the first sentence. After-the-Fact stories do not employ flashback, nor do they resort to the obvious mechanism of having a character offer a quick recap of what happened before the reader came into it; no, in these stories, you're presented with a situation that, nine times out of ten, is in no way connected to what actually happened; you have to piece together the events by what is said and done by the characters. They're a little like walking into a room just after someone's had an argument or gotten a piece of bad news; even though you know something's just happened, no one will tell you what it was, so you have to figure it out for yourself by observing the effect it's had on those around you: you have to pay attention to the detritus, because that's all you've got to go on.

A classic example is John Cheever's story "The Swimmer". On the surface, it's about nothing more than some rich guy in suburbia who's spending a Sunday afternoon running from neighbor's house to neighbor's house to use their swimming pools. "I'm swimming my way home," he tells his friends and neighbors, all of whom laugh and remark on what a card he is as they go about mixing their martinis and discussing events at the country club. Occasionally someone remarks, in passing, " ... he's looking better, don't you think ..." or ... I'm really surprised to see him out like this, after, well ..." Then the main character comes over to them and that line of conversation is dropped. This goes on for a while, each successive neighbor becoming more surprised and anxious at seeing him, offering more whispered comments when he's out of earshot -- " ... didn't realize he was back ..." etc. -- until it becomes obvious that something fairly awful has happened to this guy sometime before the story began, and though Cheever never once directly states what happened, everything you need to know is there.

The first time I read "The Swimmer", its sudden shocker of an ending seemed to come out of left field, so I went back and re-read the story, much more slowly than the first time, and realized that Cheever had, indeed, dropped a ton of clues; unfortunately, the majority of them were hidden in the detritus, given only through subtext.

Raymond Chandler (creator of Philip Marlowe, the hero of such classic novels as The Big Sleep and The Little Sister) once gave the best example of what constitutes subtext that I've ever encountered (and I am liberally paraphrasing here):
A man and woman, both middle-aged, are waiting for an elevator. It arrives, and the man helps the woman get on. For the first several floors they are alone, watching the blinking lights. They do not speak and stand well apart from each other. The woman wears a very nice dress. The man wears a suit, tie, and hat. The elevator stops -- not their floor -- and a young woman gets on; she smiles at both the man and the woman, who smile at her in return. The man removes his hat. The ride continues in silence. The elevator stops, the girls gets off, the man puts his hat back on. A few floors later, the man and woman get off and walk together toward a door at the end of the corridor.

It was usually at this point that Chandler would ask the listener: "What's written on that door?"

So I'll put the question to you: what words are written on that door which our middle-aged couple are heading toward?

How the hell am I supposed to know? some of you may cry. No one in that freakin' elevator said word one to anyone else, and on the basis of all the nothing that happened during that boring, boring, boring ride, I'm supposed to guess what it says on that stupid door?

Yes, you are.Because an awful lot happened during that elevator ride:
  1. The man and woman never spoke to each other, even while they were alone;
  2. They also made it a point to stand well apart from each other even though the man helped her get on;
  3. When the young woman got on, the man, obviously out of respect and courtesy, removed his hat;
  4. Once the young woman disembarked, he put the hat back on; and,
  5. The man and woman got off on the same floor, and are heading toward that door together.


Still say nothing happened and that you have no clues to go on?

Detritus. Subtext. The unspoken information that is conveyed to a reader through a character's behavior, actions, speech, or lack thereof. In acting, it's referred to as "nuance". It's subtle, but its implications are quite direct if you care enough to pay attention.
That is, in my opinion, what the horror field has lost over the last few decades: a willingness on the part of both writers and readers to (respectively) employ and appreciate the quieter, more delicate, and less obvious details of character and scene that can make fiction so much richer and rewarding.

Last chance; take a guess what it says on that door.

Try: Marriage Counselor.

That was an After-the-Fact story; tricky little bastard, wasn't it?

There's usually very little action in these stories; nothing much seems to happen at the core -- it's on the periphery that you have to watch out for yourself.

A handful of other After-the-Fact stories you'd do well to search out and read include Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"; Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path"; Raymond Carver's "What Do You Do In San Francisco?", "Popular Mechanics", and "Why, Honey?" (these latter two being arguably horror stories); Carson McCullers's "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud"; Michael Chabon's "House Hunting"; John O'Hara's brilliant "Neighbors" (a horror story if ever there was one); and a personal favorite of mine, Russell Banks's "Captions" -- perhaps in its way the most extreme After-the-Fact story I've yet encountered --wherein Banks details the agonizing disintegration of a married couple's existence through captions taken from newspapers or written underneath pictures in photo albums.

You've undoubtedly noticed that the above list contains no horror writers. There is a reason for this: not many have attempted an After-the-Fact story. Maybe it's because the structure of this type of story seems to self-consciously "literary" to them; maybe it's because horror readers have become far too accustomed to having everything spoon-fed to them and don't think they should have to work a little while reading a story, and so horror writers just automatically assume that All Must Be Revealed as quickly and in as simplistic of terms as possible. I don't know, I'm guessing here. But I've been going through my books searching for at least six examples of a successful After-the-Fact story in the horror field, and here's what I came up with:

  • "Sitting in the Corner, Whimpering Quietly," by Dennis Etchison
  • "Petey" by T.E.D. Klein
  • "Red" by Richard Christian Matheson
  • "Snow Day" by Elizabeth Massie
  • "Taking Down the Tree" by Steve Rasnic Tem
  • "Gone" by Jack Ketchum
... and that was it (even with this small a list, Klein's, Matheson's, Ketchum's, and Tem's stories almost offered too many concrete hints to qualify).

I thought perhaps Peter Straub's "Bar Talk", "The Veteran", or "A Short Guide To the City" (all from his magnificent collection Houses Without Doors) could be used to beef up the list, but that would have been stacking the deck (pardon my mixed metaphors); Straub's work is the result of an exceptionally well-read literary background, so of course the sensibilities of his work are informed from countless sources, resulting in fiction that is challenging in its approach to structure and subtext -- no more so than in the "Interlude" fictions sprinkled throughout Houses.

So no Straub; it wouldn't be playing fair on my part. Same goes for Stewart O'Nan, whose wonderful collection In The Walled City contains not one, but two After-the-Fact stories, "Calling" and "Finding Amy". (I exclude O'Nan because, though he does sometimes dabble in the horror field, he is not primarily a horror writer.)

So I came up with six stories, four of which (though superb) just barely made it onto the list. I'm sure there are other After-the-Fact horror stories out there that I missed, but my guess is, not that many.

Horror may be trying to outgrow its popular definition, but it's still suffering from a case of arrested literary adolescence -- and I'm not one who apologizes for using the term "literary" when talking about horror. It can be among our most literary forms of storytelling; emphasis on can be; we still need to take chances, even if we fall flat on our faces in the attempt.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Book Promotion: Part 1
When people think about doing book promotions, they often think of an author going on a book tour. Doing a book signing or sitting at an author's table at a convention or book store means you get to talk to a lot of new people and (hopefully) get your books into the hands of new readers who've been impressed by your approachability and charm. This can be a lot of fun, especially if you're an extrovert who gets energized by meeting new people.

But even for the most gregarious among us, working a book table is also likely to test your reserves.

The simple act of sitting behind a book table -- whether you're actually selling any of your books or are just there to sign copies -- trips a certain circuit in a certain type of narrow skull. Namely, it triggers the conviction that you, the author, are a mere sales clerk, and therefore not a real person this Rudy McRuderson needs to show any basic courtesy toward.

When I shared a book table with my husband Gary Braunbeck, a guy in a suit came up, pointed at one of his Leisure titles, and said "Ooo, that looks like a spooooky book!" and wandered off making idiotic cartoon ghost noises. At a recent local book fair, a well-dressed soccer mom picked up my book Sparks and Shadows, read the back, then tossed it down on the table with the queenly disdainful announcement "I don't like short stories!"

More commonly, someone will shuffle up to your table, disinterestedly glance over the books you sweated blood to finish on deadline, and then say, "I've never heard of you."

And upon hearing this, your job, dear signing table author, is to give them your most dazzling smile and brightly reply, "Well, now you have! Would you like a bookmark?"

And that cuts to the most basic purpose of book promotion: it's how you let people know that your book exists, why they might want to pick up a copy, and where they can get it. And you try not to alienate anyone (including yourself) in the process.

Make no mistake: promoting your book is work. My first job involved scraping dried poo out of the bottom of snake cages; the darkest depths of book promo can seem comparable. However, the snakes never once thanked me for a clean cage, whereas I have gotten emails from people who've picked up my work at a convention as a result of seeing me read or seeing my materials and consequently became fans.

I can see some of you shaking your heads, resisting my crazy notions. Surely you would never have to stoop to the literary equivalent of scraping snake poop! Isn't writing a good book hard enough? Surely well-written books just naturally rise to the top of any book stack and find their audience like dandelions finding the sun! Isn't all that icky, tiresome promo stuff the publisher's job?

Sure. And it would be great if your publishers threw all their money and effort into promoting your book ... but what if they don't? It would be great if the big book chains automatically ordered a zillion copies of your book and put them up front for all to see ... but what if they don't? What if the publisher gets cold feet about your book's sales chances and releases it as a POD, and now no brick-and-mortar stores will stock it at all?

What then? How is your book going to fare against the hundreds of other books that are published in the U.S. and U.K. each day?

I won't stand here and tell that you actually have to do anything. You still have a book, and what you do with it is entirely up to you.

For instance, you can just be thrilled that you beat the odds and got a book published, send your author's copies to your friends and family, and let the book market remain a black-box mystery you don't involve yourself with. You've got a pretty nice life, and you reached your goal of becoming a Published Author. So what if low sales and low involvement will prevent you from selling another book to that publisher? One book's enough, right?

Alternately, you can feel cheated that your publisher dropped the promotions ball, and bitter that people aren't flocking to the book you poured your heart and soul into. You can wail and gnash your teeth and throw up your hands in defeat. Later, after you've pulled yourself from your inactive funk, you start work on your next project, hoping your first failure hasn't doomed your hoped-for career as a writer. You can always get a fresh start with a pseudonym, right?

Or you can say to yourself, "Hm. This isn't going like I thought it would, but I refuse to let my book go down as a failure without a fight. This is my book, and I know in my heart there's an audience for it out there, and dammit, I'm going to find it!"

And when you're ready to roll up your sleeves and help your book perform as well as it possibly can, that's when you need to start considering what you can do to promote it.

The first, most basic step is one I've already touched on: write a good book. Write the best book you possibly can.

You are, first and foremost, a writer. Worry about promotions after you've taken care of your craft and your deadlines. You can surely do a hard sell and essentially trick somebody into buying a mediocre book, but that reader isn't likely to come back for seconds.

The second step is this: never, ever get stuck with a bad cover.

In this instance, "bad" can mean an ugly cover, but it can also means a cover that doesn't speak to the target audience's aesthetic sensibility, or which greatly misleads readers into thinking the book will be something it's not. The old adage "Don't judge a book by its cover" is widely and utterly ignored by the reading public. People buy or ignore books all the time based purely on the cover art; buyers for book chains may double an order of a book that has a cover they think is especially appealing.

Yes, this is shallow and horrifying, but it's how the world works. A bad cover can kill your book dead. So don't let a bad cover happen to your book if you can help it.

Most big publishers have professional design staff, but these pros often work under crushing deadlines and consequently they do make mistakes. Look at their past offerings and try to get a cover approval clause written into your contract if you have any doubt that they'll give you a good cover. Small-press publishers may or may not be run by people with good art sense, but they'll generally be perfectly willing to work with you if you approach them politely with suggestions.

Not sure if you know what separates a good cover from a bad one? Then take some time to learn a little about the basics of graphic design and typography. Being "artistic" is as much a learned skill as it is a natural instinct; even if you think you're art blind, you probably can learn the basics of good design. And if after Art 101 you're still convinced that covers featuring bluish Poser people trapped in the Uncanny Valley look just fine ... make friends with an artist who likes to read the kind of books you like to write. They can help warn you when a bad cover is about to happen to you.

Developing your graphic design sense and acquiring skills with programs like Adobe InDesign and Photoshop will serve you well as you move on to more advanced book promotion tactics ... but I'm going to save that and more for future entries.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

On Book Advances
by Gary A. Braunbeck

Many dim moons ago, when Reagan had just taken possession of the White House and I'd taken possession of my 20s, I decided on fiction writing as a career, unaware at the time that my decision was due to undiagnosed brain damage, the extent of which is still being determined. I was cranking out bad short stories and even worse novels on a magnificent (and if used as a weapon, potentially deadly) Olympus manual typewriter. Its loud, metallic clickitty-clack-clack became the underscore of my Grand Opera of the Imagination, a march, a rally cry, a battle hymn, always singing out You can do it! You can do it!

Yes, we all recognize the above as being Inspirational Bullshit Designed to Make You Urp on Your Shoes. The truth is, that sound used to drive me crazy, because eventually it began to sound like the Failure Police were mocking me as they danced and sang before my eyes in a Kick-Line of Coming Calamity: You're going nowhere/You're doing nothing/No one will read you/You'll die unread. Boogie-oogie-oogie. Sisyphus had nothing on me.

One of the things that used to keep me going was the thought that, if I kept at it and listened to the advice of pro writers whenever I could corner them, I would start to publish, then be paid, then be able to support myself on writing alone. Well, I did keep at it, I did listen to advice from the pros (especially a marvelously encouraging letter from Harlan Ellison to the 19-year-old moi), and I began to publish. My first short story appeared in a small press magazine when I was 22, and now--almost exactly 25 years later--I have somewhere around 200 published stories to my credit, as well as 10 novels, 10 short story collections, 1 non-fiction book, and 2 anthologies that I have co-edited. And there are nights when that chorus line from the Ninth Circle of Hell still puts on its little show, with a Sunday matinee thrown in for good measure. And I wonder why I'm on anti-depressants.

One thing that often appears to beginning writers much as the vision of the Holy Grail appeared to King Arthur is the concept of the Advance. Ah, so elusive she seems, waiting somewhere Out There in your future, wagging her finger seductively, lips moistened and eyes gleaming with yummy promise: I'm here for you, you'll see. Some day, we'll be together.

Cue soft focus, Writer embraces Seductress, Fade Out as echoing voices sing: You finally got here/Don't need to punch the clock/But you remember/There's still Writer's Block!

Ahem. Yes, the last and deadliest phase of going from part-time to full-time writer, from would-be pro to flat-out slave of the muse: the advance.

As I write this, I have a stack of book contracts within easy reach. All have been signed by the proper parties, and all have been accompanied by advance checks. There's just one little glitch in this portrait of the Writer's dream Come True.

I haven't written any of these books yet.

(Not entirely true; work has begun on all and is nearly finished on two; the point is, I've got until October to deliver all five. Boogie-oogie-oogie, cue the kick-line in the wings.)

That's the part of the Pro Writer Fantasy sequence that never enters the picture when the young You imagines that provocative seductress beckoning to you from your future. Yes, it's great to have someone hand you a stack of cash for something you haven't written yet (it's still one hell of a confidence booster), and when you're younger it's easy to think you'll never, ever, under any circumstances, have trouble producing that book you've already taken money for, but somewhere in the theatrical wings of your subconscious Jung and Freud are rolling on the floor, howling with laughter as the Failure Police don their black fishnet stockings ala Dr. Frankenfurter and wait for their cue.

I once promised myself that I would never, ever accept money up front for something I haven't written. As far as my books go, I've broken that promise every time, and so far I haven't locked up, freaked out, melted down, climbed a tower with a rifle in my hands, or taken to reading John Grisham.

But ....

But there's always the waiting chorus line in my head, kept in place by a stage manager who every so often calls: "Places for the Dance of Doom and Despair! Places, please, he's gonna crack this time, I just know it!"

Taking advances up front for something not yet written is a sure-fire way to keep you on edge, and adds (as I've found so far) a certain, feverish, almost desperate quality to the work itself, which gives definite intensity to the telling of the tale. I've had many people say one of the things they like best about my work is its strong emotional content. I appreciate that, because I do like to engage readers' emotions as deeply as possible (there just isn't story without feeling), but to be completely honest, sometimes that intensity comes not just from my imagination, but from the realization that Dear God, I've already taken money for this thing and I Have to finish it, I Have To, Dear God I HAVE TO! What if I can't? What if I go blank, become blocked, flip out, have to take a one-way ride in the Twinkie Mobile to the House of Good Pudding? What Then? What? WHAT THE #@!* WAS I THINKING?

And one lithium later I remember the why I got into this in the first place.

To meet women.

As long as they're not part of certain chorus....

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Advice to beginning fiction writers
Everyone who sets out to become a writer wants to be seen as a "real" writer, not a wanna-be or never-gonna-be. It's basic human nature to crave acceptance, status and respect. And even the crustiest, most jaded authors -- despite their protestations to the contrary -- are human beings who are warmed by praise and stung by criticism just like everyone else.

Group hug, anyone? Sure, let's all have a big, fuzzy group hug. You're going to need it. Respect can be very hard to come by in the writing world.

Have you written seven epic manuscripts but not sold anything yet? Average Joe SFWA Active will snort and roll his eyes behind your back when you declare yourself to be a writer in his presence.

Excited because you just sold your first novel? Snarky Big-Name World Fantasy Award Winner won't give you the time of day.

Have you made a long, award-winning career selling dozens of horror and dark fantasy books? Professor Condescendor at the Great North American English Department will pat you on your head and tell you it's too bad you don't do any "serious" work.

And if you've made a solid literary and commercial career writing dark works of staggering intelligence, subtle lyricism and heartbreaking genius, Teen AOL User will be quick to write a negative Amazon review of your latest opus: "This book was teh BORING! There was no action in it at ALL!"

And if you manage to write bestselling works that magically combine high art, genuine chills and compelling storytelling, if you have Professor Condescendor and Teen AOL User and Big-Name Award Winner all clamoring for your next publication ...

... you'll go visit Uncle Insurance Salesman, who'll yawn when you describe your latest book tour and ask, "So when are you gonna quit playing around with that writing crap and get yourself a REAL job?"

The moment you set out to become a writer, no matter how good you are, you're going to meet people who'll put you in touch with your inner Rodney Dangerfield at almost every turn.

So you just can't win, can you? You might as well just write what you want and pay to publish the result at Lulu.com and not worry about what anyone else thinks, right?

Whoa. Not so fast.

You might not always be able to win at the writing game, but there's a right way and a wrong way to play it. And if you play well, you'll (probably) earn the respect of the people who might matter a whole lot to the progress of your writing career.

Because when you get down to bare boards, you want that career, don't you? Writing makes a fine hobby, but hobbyists just don't get the kind of respect pros do. And the beauty of making money at writing is that it enables you to spend your time writing instead of fixing leaky toilets or taking customer support calls.

The most straightforward way of gaining respect in the genre of your choice is to write and sell a lot of excellent work in that genre.

Straightforward, sure ... but not very darned easy. Writing well is hard enough without considering that the average paying publisher might accept less than 3% of the manuscripts submitted to them.

It can take years for talented beginners laboring in anonymity to land first story or novel sales, particularly if they have decided to limit their submissions to high-profile pro markets.

So what's a newbie to do? Fortunately, there are several para-writing activities you can engage in that can both improve your skills and positively raise your profile and respect in the field (and thus your likelihood of getting published).

1. Go to Clarion or the Borderlands Boot Camp. These workshops are often described as "boot camp for writers". Borderlands Press' workshop is held in Towson, MD over a long weekend. There are three of the six-week Clarion workshops in San Diego, Seattle, and Australia. You'll have to compete to get in, pay to stay in, and it's an intense experience that galvanizes some writers and traumatizes others.

At Clarion, you'll work with established pros and other up-and-comers; the networking contacts you make can be invaluable. And if you graduate, you may find that a Clarion credit is enough to lift your submissions out of the slushpile and onto the editor's desk for closer consideration. This golden period only lasts for a year or so after you graduate, but many graduates have made publishing hay from it.

2. Get an MFA in writing. Pursuing a graduate degree of any kind can be quite expensive, and an MFA takes time and work. On the plus side, it gives you a socially acceptable way to spend a few years focusing on your writing. On the downside, MFA programs are rarely receptive to science fiction, fantasy, romance, and horror, so you'll have to bleach your genre roots and learn to put up with a lot of tedious (and potentially discouraging) lit snobbery from your instructors and classmates.

Writing practice aside, an MFA gets you an academic credential -- one that some people may be impressed with -- but not much else. However, having an MFA is a prerequisite to getting a job as a creative writing instructor at most big universities, and becoming a writing professor is a pretty good gig if you can get it. Academia is not for everyone, and MFA programs crank out many more graduates than there are waiting positions, but a professorship is more suited to a writer's creative life than most 9-to-5 jobs.

2a. Or, go to Seton Hill. Seton Hill University in Greensburg, PA, runs a unique low-residency MA in Writing Popular Fiction. The goal of the program is to have you graduate with a publishable novel manuscript in your hands; Nalo Hopkinson and Mary Sangiovanni and others have sold the books they worked on in the Seton Hill program. Can you get published without going to school? Absolutely. But if you want to get a Master's degree and you want to work with pros like Michael Arnzen, Gary A. Braunbeck, Lawrence C. Connolly, and Tim Waggoner, you should check out the program.

3. Become an editor at a paying publication. If you're buying fiction and poetry, you get instant credibility -- as long as you make good decisions.

Fortunately, you don't need to shell out the money to start your own publication. There are hundreds of established publications out there, and the vast majority of them are understaffed; they will gladly accept competent volunteers for proofreading and slush-reading.

You'll get to see the submissions process from the other side of the transom, and the experience can be tremendously educational. Hard work and good taste will help you rise in the volunteer ranks until you're a recognized editor. But beware: you may find yourself with so much work on your hands that you no longer have the time or energy to write.

4. Don't ignore the small presses. Yes, the small presses are small. Many don't pay well, if at all. But there are good, respected small press magazines that will get you a bit of pay and a bit more recognition in the genre. No, they can't compete with top-paying markets in terms of exposure. But competition for the best markets is fierce. The writers I've known who've written stories or novels, sent them out only to the biggest markets and given up on the manuscripts when they weren't accepted have all ultimately given up on writing.

5. But by all means, submit to the top markets. A single sale to one of the top markets will instantly raise your profile in the genre and give you much more credibility as a writer. So, if you think your work's solid, give it a shot; just don't fall into a depressed I'm-no-good-I-should-just-quit funk if you miss your target.

6. Don't give up. Did you read #5? I repeat: don't give up. Getting established as a writer will take a while. How long a while? Probably years. How many years? Get a pair of dice; roll 'em. That's as likely a forecast as any. Ultimately, it will probably take longer than you expect. But those with sticktuitiveness are rewarded.

7. Write nonfiction. Editors at paying magazines are deluged with fiction and poetry submissions, but nonfiction submissions are sometimes just a trickle. So, your odds of placing a book or movie review can be pretty good. An article credit doesn't "count" the same as a fiction credit ... but it still gets you a bit of pay and gets your name on the Table of Contents.

8. Follow the Golden Rule. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Or, phrased a bit less Biblically: "The best way to get respect is to give it." Or, even more simply: don't be a jerk.

Yes, we all know certain big-name writers who are famously caustic, combative, or just plain unpleasant. Some people unfortunately find a great deal of entertainment in watching established authors snark at the expense of "lesser" writers. Consequently, some beginners mistakenly believe that they, too, can get noticed and get published if they're nasty as possible.

This tends to backfire in a bad way. One talented writer I know who kicked up a lot of dust and got himself banned from forum after forum eventually felt he'd damaged his career so much he needed to legally change his name. No one ever succeeded as a writer because they acted like a huge jerk; the huge jerks in the field have succeeded because they write like angels.

So, go forth and write like an angel and work like the devil. And remember that everyone in this business is only human.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

On sales versus publications
I was updating my website today, and it finally occurred to me that the casual site visitor might be put off by the fact that I refer to poetry and fiction sales rather than poetry and fiction publications.

"Whoa," he or she might think. "This Lucy person is all money-focused. She's all commercial. Ew. Doesn't she care about art?"

Because I have a mortgage and other bills due every month and Bad Things Will Happen if those don't get paid, and because I am not a trust-fund baby, yes, money is on my mind pretty regularly. But I expect I'm not any more money-focused than most of you reading this.

If I really cared about money above all else, I'd have gone into real estate or stock trading. I surely wouldn't be spending time writing poetry.

Like it or not, those of us who work in the arts in the U.S. have to deal with a capitalist system that doesn't cut us any slack if we've worked very, very hard on our craft all month and yet don't have any money. And the no-money situation is a pretty common one for fiction writers who don't have family supporting them.

It's hard for a beginning writer to sell a story or poem. If you haven't tried it before, you may have no clue exactly how hard it can be. It can even be pretty hard to give your stuff away to a nonpaying lit magazine.

Making a sale is essentially hearing an editor say, "I like this so much I'm picking it as better than 100 other things I got this month, and I'm going to make space for it in the publication I've staked my reputation to, and I'm going to give you money out of my own pocket."

In other words, a sale means a whole lot of editorial approval.

Furthermore, writers' organizations like SFWA and HWA define a writer's professional status by the quantity and quality of sales he or she makes. And the IRS surely demands that I keep track of individual sales; those sales define me as a "real" writer in the government's eyes rather than a hobbyist.

So if those groups are gonna define my status as a writer by my sales, I might as well too, right?

"But what about Art?" I hear some of you cry. "Where's the art in all this pursuit of filthy lucre?"

I care deeply about art. But I don't get to decide if any of my writing is artistic. Art is what happens in the reader's mind, if it happens at all. It's subjective, and I don't get to control it.

What I do get to control is craft. Good craft often translates into good art. And I work as hard as I can to produce well-crafted writing.

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

Manuscript Tracking Tools
Beginning writers who send out their very first stories to magazines or anthologies don't usually have much trouble keeping track of where they sent them. Why? They can't stop thinking about them!

A new writer often spends her free time anxiously second-guessing herself and her submission decisions: "Ack! A typo! I should have done more proofreading! I should have cut that second fight scene! I should have sent it to Alternate Magazine instead!"

And when the mail carrier comes, she pounces on the pile of mail, hoping for a response, day after day, month after month, but when the ominously thin SASE finally arrives, she can hardly bring herself to open it.

Once a writer has been through the wringer of the painfully long submission-rejection-resubmission cycle a few times, she forces herself to stop thinking about the darned submissions, and focuses on the work at hand: writing new stories.

And that's when the submissions can get muddled in a writer's mind. It's easy to lose track of a rejected submission, thinking that it's still being considered someplace, while it languishes on the writer's desk or hard drive. A worse case happens when a writer inadvertently starts sending the same story to multiple markets at the same time, only to end up with two different acceptances for the same story. And while this might seem an embarrassment of riches to an unpublished writer, at best it's an embarrassment. At worst, the writer is faced with the painful decision of which bridge to burn, since most editors are cranky and overworked and don't look kindly on authors pulling accepted stories out from under them.

So, writers need to have some kind of a method to keep track of their submissions. What kind should you use?

Some writers prefer the simplicity of keeping track of their submissions on paper.

"I used to be a teacher," says writer Kevin Killiany. "I have several old grade books with lots of columns and rows. Each manuscript has its own page. The titles of the stories tracked are written on the cover of the book, with stars next to the ones that sell."

Despite my abiding gadget lust, when it comes to submission tracking I'm also pretty low-tech. I use note cards in a little plastic index card box. Each story/poem/article gets its own card, and each submission is recorded on a line. When I've filled one side of the card with rejections, I know it's time to reconsider my tactics.

The editor at Albedo One approves of my card box tracker: "I would suggest your library card approach is as good as it gets. You do not need to wait for your computer to boot up. You are not snookered when there is a power cut. You have the whole story (if you forgive the pun) in one simple piece of card. In addition, you can be flexible in what you note on the card.

"The only problem with the card system is that you would find it a bit difficult to produce listings of the work you have out in the market," he says. "But then again, how often do you really need to do that?"

Others have used the box tracking method, but became disenchanted with it.

"I used to use notecards in a little plastic box, but a few years ago I switched to a very simple one-page spreadsheet, which I put in a folder with the manuscript itself," says writer/editor Lori Selke. "Same data, slightly different format, no more annoying little plastic box kicking around and getting in the way."

Horror author Yvonne Navarro combines paper tracking with computer software. "Every short story that I finish has its own manila folder," she says. "On the inside left side I write the date and name of the magazine/anthology and the date on which I should receive some kind of a reply based on their guidelines (or my estimate). If the manuscript is rejected, I write that and the date, then start all over.

"To keep track I have a little 'sticky note' program on my computer that pops up a note with the story name when the response should be here. Before that I used a big, full-year write-on/wipe-off calendar, but I never wrote on it -- I used Post-It Notes with the name of the story that I moved from date to date."

As far as computer-based tracking methods go, many writers use spreadsheets.

Writer Daniel R. Robichaud turned to spreadsheets after finding paper records unmanageable. "Once upon a time, I assembled lists on loose sheets of copy paper with the story name and market, written in the order of submission. After a while that became a complete nightmare to manage, particularly after moving a couple of times when loose sheets of paper could and did get lost."

He now keeps separate worksheets in a single Microsoft Excel file for his fiction and nonfiction. "It's easy for me to set up a reminder in the Office Mail program to send queries for submissions sitting in slush piles long after the market's posted response time expires."

Brenta Blevins prefers to use the freeware spreadsheet program found in found in the OpenOffice.org suite. "I like the nice linear quick view of the spreadsheet and being able to sort within my spreadsheet."

Other writers prefer to use online trackers offered by sites such as WritersMarket.com, Duotrope and Writers' Planner.

"The Duotrope submissions tracker is excellent because it also ties into their market listings and reports on response times," says writer E.C. Meyers. "It's online and free, but Duotrope does accept donations towards their operating costs."

"Another advantage of Duotrope is its web accessibility," says Brenta Blevins. "I don't have to have the computer with my spreadsheet -- I can update the submission record anywhere (even on vacation)."

There's a freeware program that many writers such as Bev Vincent use: Sonar 2, which was created by author Simon Haynes.

"I wrote it because I was going nuts keeping track of short story submissions," Haynes writes on his site. "This program tells me which market has each story, whether a story has been sold or rejected and which stories are gathering dust instead of earning their keep."

Of Sonar 2, writer Adam Nakama says, "It's not as powerful as high-end database software, and has a couple of quirks to it, but I don't need the full power of database tracking. (Sonar 2) has a few things built in that are nice for writerly types who don't know how or don't want to program it into their friendly database record.

"It also makes it easy for you to data mine your submissions," says Nakama. "You can see, for example, that you've been sending stories like clockwork to Magazine X for years, but that damn editor just won't accept your stuff, despite you getting frequent acceptances from other magazines on par with it. You may want to consider that your work just doesn't mesh with that editor and move on."

So, as you can see, there are lots of ways to track your manuscript submissions.

Someday, we writers may have access to neural interfaces that can update your entries just by thinking about them. In the meantime, your notebook, spreadsheet, or software is only as good as your own updates. So take the most basic step in good tracking: make sure you write down your submissions when you send them out.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Keep Your Stories Safe: Introduction
Every so often, I see a frantic message on Shocklines posted by someone whose computer has crashed -- with the only existing copy of a newly-minted short story or novella dead along with their hard drive.

If your hard drive dies carrying important files that can't be resurrected with the aid of programs like Norton or TechTool, that's a painful way to learn that you must do regular system maintenance like defragging your hard drive and backing up your files to keep them safe. But these days, keeping backups of files is only part of what you need to do to keep your work safe.

It'd be simpler if computers simply worked and didn't crash, wouldn't it? But crash they do, and some of the worst crashes I've seen in my job as a tech support agent have happened because of spyware and virus infections. The Internet has become a truly treacherous place for Windows users (Mac and Linux users are largely immune to such problems at this point) and malware infections can be difficult to remove; the best thing to do is to protect yourself.

The first thing you need to do is to make sure you have a firewall installed and have a decent antivirus program like McAfee VirusScan (my personal favorite) or Norton Antivirus, and have the program set to regularly update your virus profiles. The best antivirus program in the world won't do you any good if you're exposed to a brand-new virus that the program can't recognize because it hasn't been updated (and on that note, make sure that you check for and install system and security updates for your computer's operating system on a regular basis).

The best thing to do is to try to avoid exposing yourself to viruses in the first place. Many people get infections through spam emails that contain viruses masquerading as other types of attachments. So, don't open those attachments promising pictures of Britney Spears cavorting naked with the Queen of England, folks. Don't even touch them.

Also, don't respond to alarming emails that purport to come from your bank or credit card company. Don't click on the links they provide, don't call the phone numbers they provide, and in the name of all that is holy, don't click or call and then provide any personal information or account numbers. These emails are almost always scams intended to steal your information so that some creep can clean out your bank account or go on a credit spree on your dime. These assholes are ruthlessly efficient, and they will start doing this within minutes of getting your information. If you're worried about your account, look up the company's name in your telephone book and call them.

And finally, never, ever email anyone your entire social security number, credit card number, password, etc.

An email is about as private as a postcard, or a conversation on a crowded bus. You would be amazed at the sheer number of people who potentially have access to your emails as they make their way from Computer A to Computer B. This a good reason to never put your social security number on a manuscript that you send through email or in an emailed contract.

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I'm Lucy Snyder. I'm a Worthington, Ohio author and former magazine editor; on this site you'll find my writing as well as features from my husband, novelist Gary A. Braunbeck.

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