A promising year for Paradisa?

Last year at ConCarolinas, I was given feedback on Paradisa’s opening that sent me into a year long spiral of self doubt. In this past year, I had to decide whether my style and POV choices needed to be modified. I had to decide if I was going to stick with present tense. I also had to figure out how to open my book in a realistic way, and how to reorient my plot to be fueled by character agency instead of relying on the characters to go along with my plans.

I am now on the other side of those choices. I have a manuscript that was well received by my second beta round and, in general, only requires a few more cosmetic upgrades before completion. I have decided to switch the book to past tense, in order to increase my marketability (and I really don’t miss it that much tbh). I also came to the conclusion that while the live slush readers were entitled to their opinions about voice and POV, I cannot force myself to write in a way that is unnatural to me. I asked my second round beta readers about whether the book is “deep enough” in the characters, and one actually said it was too deep. A couple of them said it was too shallow. Most said it was fine. So obviously psychic distance is a matter of taste and I’m not going to chase something unnatural to me just because it appears to be a trend. Deep POV annoys me. I’m sure it annoys other people. Those people are my audience.

I have not changed the opening to Paradisa much since October (although Millie Ho guided me to which line is my perfect opener, and it was a line that originally existed three paragraphs down the page.) I think editing it anymore at this point would be unwise, but I was still scared to have it reviewed by Legitimate Official Gatekeepers. It was my best effort, but that rarely is enough these days.

On Saturday morning at ConCarolinas, I saw that the slush reader for Baen Books was doing a very interactive and intimate face-to-face feedback session for submission packets later that day. He needed a synopsis and a cover letter, along with the first five pages. I had no synopsis or cover letter. Cue me writing like a mad person trying to summarize my book in two pages and give it a back cover blurb. If nothing else, this exercise forced me to create two very valuable pieces of a submission package that I can use later though.

At 4 PM, me and five others entered the room to face the slushmaster general. I didn’t really think of this as a pitch to Baen as much as a gauge of “will submitting my book to a place that takes 9-12 months to respond and doesn’t allow simultaneous submissions be worth it?” And also “are there glaring errors that I need to fix, because seriously, I wrote this blurb letter in 20 minutes of sweaty frenzy and no one has seen it before?” Baen, for those who don’t know, has published John Ringo, David Weber, Mercedes Lackey, Larry Correia, Catherine Asaro, Larry Niven, David Drake, and Tim Zahn. They are one of the smaller SFF presses, but their works have gone on to be nominated for Hugos and other awards. On the downside, their catalog contains the leader of the Sad Puppies, but there are Sad Puppy authors in pretty much every SFF publishing house. And Niven, Flint, and many of Baen’s other authors are far more progressive than I am, so they represent all stripes.

One by one, we brought up our packets. He read our letters aloud, and commented on their execution. He read the first five pages of everyone’s books until he reached a point of doubt/disinterest. When he hit that point, he would go to the synopsis and see if the story was going anywhere. A few times, based on these summaries, he commented that the participants did appear to have a story, but their opening started too early or had too much noise. He said that if he had the full, he might find a point in the synopsis where things kick off and start reading the manuscript again from there.

Honestly, he was one of the most generous slush readers I’ve ever heard of. Most agents offer a rejection if they aren’t captivated in the first line of a query. This guy gives the summary, the writing, and the synopsis a fair chance, and literally hunts for the story. He gives everyone a huge benefit of the doubt and treats manuscripts with great care. I respect that greatly, although I recognize that most agents or publishers will not be so thorough.

Still, out of the six of us, Paradisa was the only submission where he did not stop reading the manuscript pages until they said my time was up. He was engaged enough by the story that he didn’t feel the need to check out the synopsis. I was pretty stunned. Even though he was a nice man and a generous slush reader, he was still very honest with all of the participants. He pointed out areas of weak writing, of confusion, and even of things that annoyed him. He wasn’t sugarcoating things for the sake of it, which makes me feel like his very few words of critique against Paradisa may in fact mean something. Although I may have eventually lost his attention with the rest of the book, I haven’t done anything wrong yet.

I mustered up some courage and spoke to him one on one after the panel. We chatted a bit about what makes a book “a Baen book” and whether mine could fit that mold. It’s still a long shot, as I believe only three books from his slush have been published by Baen in the last eight years. I’m still not sure I will submit to them first, as their waiting period is so incredibly long. But it’s nice to know that I’m on the right track and have gotten the thumbs up from at least one pro. It’s given me the confidence to knock out Paradisa’s final edits this month and maybe start querying it in July.

As a footnote, I also participated in the same live slush panel as last year with the first page of The Shadow of Saturn. They had more positive things to say about it than they did about Paradisa. They just advised me to cut out a paragraph of some poorly paced exposition that didn’t serve the character. But they liked the opening paragraph, and that’s what I wanted to know the most. I wondered if I should open with a paragraph from my childhood, and they seemed to enjoy it, so we’re going with it!

2016 has been a great year so far. I’m stoked to have this renewed confidence in Paradisa, and to take the leap into publishing it. Maybe there’s an agent or publisher for me out there, after all.

It’s true what they say about darkness and dawn

Let me take you back three years. On May 11, 2013, I graduated from the College of Charleston. It was a Saturday, and I was set to start my first chemist job that Monday. It wasn’t the best job in the world, but it was something. And only one month before, I had been in a very hopeless place.

Job hunting is never easy, but it’s especially difficult when you have no experience. And it seems that no matter how much you apply and no matter what you apply to, you never strike gold immediately. It takes a long haul of hard work and grim rejection. Then, everything starts to work out.

In April of 2013, I had spent 4 months applying to nearly 60 jobs. I only had one interview for a real job, and one interview for Disney World. But within the span of two weeks, I was given a windfall of good news. I was offered jobs from both Disney and that other job. I was offered an interview from MUSC. I was offered an interview from another chemical company called MeadWestvaco. I was given the opportunity to apply for the job I have now.

That cliché about “when it rains, it pours?” Yeah. I learned three years ago how true that is.

But there’s something that dawned on me today as I not only secured my first paying gig for my video company, but a second lit mag offered to publish a piece of mine (yes – two in one week. I’m as surprised as you are). It’s not just a fact that good news tends to show up all at once. It’s also true that good news seems to show up when we need it the absolute most.

I’ve been submitting to magazines on and off since last July.  I did this idly, just to say that I’m putting myself out there. I was not hurt by rejection. I was a little bummed to see that – as of now – my work has made it to the “final round” of judging on five separate occasions but still no dice. Still, I knew that my submissions attempts were largely sidekick to my novels and other large efforts.

And then, as time passed and outside forces weighed in, my anxiety started again. I’ve been pretty open about it these past few weeks. I’ve had acute moments of “what if this isn’t any good?” before, but I can’t remember having a full month or two where I really worried for my future. This is probably the darkest things have gotten for me, even pushing me to the thought of “maybe I should give up writing.” I thought, mind you, that I have never had before.

Then the good news showed up.

When I think back to 2013, my final semester of school was equally dark. I worried for my future then too. I wondered what I would do without a good job – or any job! – to support myself. I needed to move out on my own. I worried what would happen if Austin and I ended up in different cities. There was so much fear bred by uncertainty, and that fear only bubbled the closer I got to graduation. And by April, I was a nervous wreck. I only had a few short weeks to get my life in order and nothing was working out.

Then the good news showed up.

It’s almost as if it waits in the shadows for those lowest moments. It tests us, asking us to keep hope even when things are most dire. Could things have become worse for me had the good news not intervened? Perhaps. With enough rejection, maybe I would have given up writing. But back in 2013, and now, there seems to have been an ebb and flow to my concerns. Just when I start to think “I am seriously worried”, the tables turn.

I don’t need an explanation for it, but I thought I’d offer it as an uplifiting observation. That if you’re at a low point right now – in a place of anxiety and rejection – good news may be fast approaching. Like I said before, persistence tends to get results no matter what order you do things in. If you do something long enough, you’ll be impossible to ignore.

Do you ever hate your own writing?

Here’s a dialogue I hear a lot in my head:

Brain: Wow, this book I’ve written is not good. It’s actually quite bad. No one is going to want to read this. It’s not publishable.

Optimistic Side: Every writer goes through this. Every writer has self-doubt. Don’t let it get you down!

Brain: I’m sure terrible writers tell themselves the same thing. Doesn’t make them any less terrible.

Optimistic Side: You’ve been doing this a long time. You know more about this than you think you do.

Brain: But that one guy hated it. Couldn’t even get four chapters in.

Optimistic Side: Maybe it wasn’t what he expected it to be/maybe he wanted it to be something else. Maybe he had no clue what he was talking about. You can’t please everyone.

Brain: It was the most critiqued entry in that Live Action Slush Contest I went to. Those people know what they’re talking about.

Optimistic Side: True, but that’s still just their opinion. And even you weren’t sure about that entry. You’ve made it a lot better since then.

Brain: I still keep getting rejected from magazines.

Optimistic Side: ALL writers get rejected. Has that really been your best work either? You’ve only submitted to 15 or so places, and you made the short list on one of them. Two others complimented your writing personally.

Brain: They probably do that with everybody. They’re just being nice.

Optimistic Side: They don’t have to be nice.

Brain: Even half my betas didn’t read it and I thought I could count on them.

Optimistic Side: People get busy. There could be a million different reasons why they didn’t read it that have nothing to do with the book itself.

Brain: Yeah, but if I wrote a real knockout, they wouldn’t need excuses. People make time for good stories.

Optimistic Side: It’s still a draft. And less complete stories get picked up by agents every day.

Brain: Most agents only take one new client a year out of 3-4k submissions. I am not that good.

Optimistic Side: It’s not just about being good. It’s about being the right fit. Remember how much Greg likes your story?

Brain: Yeah…

Optimistic Side: Well maybe you’ll find an agent just like Greg, who has the same interests. Maybe this agent is dying to see a pan-pantheon fantasy with diverse characters and he doesn’t even care about the flaws. He’s willing to work with you because he likes the potential.

Brain: That’s unlikely; my stuff isn’t that marketable. I can’t even think of anything to compare it to.

Optimistic Side: Sometimes uniqueness is a good thing. They’ll pick that over something formulaic.

Brain: The shelves at Barnes and Noble say otherwise.

Optimistic Side: Okay, so some agents like a safe sale. But you wouldn’t want to work with them anyway.

Brain: There are so many better writers than me.

Optimistic Side: There are still better writers than Stephen King. Doesn’t make him any less of Stephen King. You’ll never be the best, but you can be the best for some people.

I’m still not sure if I lean more with my brain or with my optimism. It’s hard to even listen to the optimism at all when everywhere I look, there are people telling me I’m not good enough, or that there’s something inherently wrong with the way I write. Hearing critique about my book is easy – that stuff can be fixed. Hearing critique about my intrinsic writing philosophies, about the style I am in my soul…that’s a lot harder.

Sometimes I wish I was just normal, and wrote generic deep POV paranormal romances or something. Or thrillers. Something that’s an easy sell. Something that doesn’t make this journey so much harder on myself. Being me makes things harder on myself.

But I can’t get too down just yet. It’s not like I’ve even queried this book yet. It’s not like I have any metrics to go on. I haven’t failed yet. I haven’t even begun. So maybe life will surprise me. And maybe the optimistic side will be proven right, and that I’m simply going through What All Writers Go Through.

 

Cinematic Writing: Avoid or Embrace?

My second beta round draws mostly to a close today with…mixed success. 1 beta fully read the book and responded within the initial window, and with incredibly thoughtful comments (thank you Millie Ho!). 1 dropped out due to disliking the style (more on that in a bit). 1 got back to me last night after having read half of it.

The way things have gone, I think I can expect No Response from 4/11 of my chosen betas. Eek. Maybe I should have written a better book?

However, what I want to discuss today is a feature of my writing that all 3 of the responders – including the one who dropped out – mentioned. It’s something I’ve heard all my life, it’s something the readers of Beta Round One mentioned, and it’s something I find myself in a mental war over: my book feels like a movie.

I used to embrace this without a second thought. I am a filmmaker. I love film just as much as I love the written word – perhaps even more. I have been fascinated by movies and the moviemaking process since childhood. I am in love with non-linear editing in particular, and I will defend the merit of film to pretentious literary types until I’m hoarse. So, I used to think this was a good thing because it’s a reflection of who I am.

And others, throughout my life, have seemed to feel similarly. The beta I spoke to last night said, “I liked that it read like a movie; it was very visual.” Millie commented a lot about the visual storytelling in her critique, and that she could tell I had a cinematic mind. But on the flipside, the beta who dropped out did so because “it read like a script for an anime” and he couldn’t get past 10% before having to give up. My father, last year, also critiqued it for being cinematic, saying “it’s a book, not a movie. Write it like one.”

Now I have pause. Maybe Dad is right? People go into books expecting books, right? Sure, you can’t please everyone. But maybe I’ve been pleasing the wrong people.

So I’m on a quest to discover what makes my writing cinematic, and if that’s a good thing. Most writing purists would say “no.” They think that literature should not resemble film, that film is a lesser art form, that fiction should envelop all five senses instead of just your sight. These people usually say “the book is always better” when confronted with any movie adaptation simply because books have more details (which I have entirely separate rant about, by the way.) I do think there’s something to be said for this – literature allows us to look into a character’s head and experience things beyond a mere picture. Characters are undoubtedly easier to understand and relate to in print.

But let’s give pictures their due: the adage “a picture is worth 1000 words” is true, and there are plenty of things in Paradisa that would be much easier to establish if I only had a camera, some editing software, and the London Symphony Orchestra. I imagine Paradisa as a movie in my head, with full production value – and putting it on the page always feels like a shade of what I’m really imagining. I have to emulate “background music” in other ways – describing the general mood and emotion that my intended music actually pulls out of me. The psychic camera can be manipulated by choosing what to describe – start with an “establishing shot” of setting description, a close shot of our character’s exterior description, then an extreme close-up of his actual thoughts. And so on.

There are two features of my writing which are easy to pinpoint as cinematic though, and they are scene breaks and present tense. The present tense provokes a reader’s visual mind a bit more naturally. (I have no fancy, deep reason why I write in present tense aside from my dislike of the word “had”). Scene breaks are somewhat unusual, as most novels follow characters in a nonstop, single shot with a few “the next day, I…” or “I went to sleep and woke up a few hours later…” transition sentences to establish a new scene. I love scene breaks though, because they’re a great way to build momentum. Each scene break can end in a bit of a cliffhanger, or a note of resonance. If you do it all in one take, your resonance can only really appear at the end of a chapter. Also, I have 2+ POV characters in the book, who require new scenes to establish that we’re in THEIR head.

But is there something more to my writing than two stylistic choices? Is there something inherently cinematic about the pacing, or the action? Is there something inherently cinematic about beautiful fantasy settings? Is it how I think of my characters like a cast of actors that I am only here to direct, rather than to control? Or the story being told itself – its themes, its characters, its plot and climax? The scene breaks have to stay, but I am considering converting my book to the past tense in order to make it more marketable – would this ruin the cinematic appeal that so many have complimented? Or would it still be cinematic in past tense; I would have just made my book infinitely more marketable without detracting any of its positive aspects.

Or, on the other side of the coin, should I embrace the destruction of my cinematics? Should I embrace making my book more like a traditional novel? Surely that will help it sell better. And that’s all I really want, of course. I’m of the mindset that most agents have the same taste – as most of them give the same advice – and that becomes even more true when you zoom into a particular genre. If most say “don’t write like a movie,” that might as well be all of them. No use playing roulette looking for the one agent out of 1000 with unpopular tastes that match yours. The stars would have to align to find both an agent and an editor/publisher who would all see eye to eye with me, the author.

I’m wondering what game to play here, because “being true to yourself” is not always the right answer. There is a difference between an artistic choice and bad writing. And I’m starting to wonder if my cinematic roots result in what most informed gatekeepers would call bad writing. It would hurt like hell to change my entire style to fit the norm. I’m not even sure I could do it aside from giving up novels altogether and writing screenplays instead. But as they say, “kill your darlings,” right? Maybe this is one of those times.

Any thoughts? Are there merits to this writing style, or is it kind of amateur? Should I try to be more marketable or hedge my bets with what I’ve already written?

Lesson Learned: I Wrote About Space X and I Didn’t Publish It Fast Enough

Allow me to explain what I mean by this title: a few years ago, I was a NASA intern. Part of my internship involved visiting private and public aerospace factories, which included Space X. As you might have heard, Space X’s Falcon 9 rocket exploded two minutes after launch this weekend. No astronauts were onboard (I’m pretty sure Space X has not had any manned missions to date), but most people saw it as a pretty sobering blow to the private industry’s shining star. And in 2012, as soon as I stepped foot in to Space X’s lobby, I saw this coming.

The following is excerpted from my Michelle-In-Space blog, which was a Livejournal I kept documenting that summer….

Finally, it was the long haul to Space X. Traffic didn’t get us too badly, but it still took nearly two hours to get across town to Hawthorne, where Space X and Boeing Satellite Systems were located. It is a surprisingly mundane part of town. Our tour of Space X got some mixed results, with people either loving it or hating it. I think I can’t talk about specifics, but I can give you a general gist of the place. Most of my peers will scoff at me for my blasphemy, but I honestly hated it. There was a disgusting level of unprofessionalism displayed (I lost count of the amount of F-bombs dropped by our orientation presenter and our tour guides – I’m not a prude, but keep it out of the workplace), a lack of anyone there over age 30 (aka, lack of any experienced wisdom and mentoring), and the sheer negligence that was being displayed with flight hardware. I mean, absolute negligence. I had more than a few raised eyebrows watching people work carelessly on stuff that is supposed to fly into space.

I love that the space industry has gone private, and I can certainly understand why someone would want to avoid the government-style red tape that comes with working at NASA proper. But this is the one company I’ve seen this summer which openly admits to skirting the edge of safety to save a buck, and then puffs out their chests in arrogance because of it. It actually baffles me how anyone could ignore that, especially since no one who fell in love with Space X has actually explained to me why they do – they’ve just looked at me like I’m psychotic. Personally, I am heavily dissapointed, and even a bit heartbroken by what I saw there. I was expecting amazement and a glimpse of the future, and instead I walked out with dread. Of course, I am happy we went, because it was very eye-opening and informative to see – I merely think the Dragon may as well be named the Icarus.

As a writer, I was immediately struck with the urge to “sound the alarm” on this inevitable tragedy though fiction. In 2013, I charted out a script outline for an indie film called Goliath, which tracked industrial espionage and quality negligence between a Boeing-like company and a Space X-like company. I eventually reduced this into a short story called “Goliath,” which was a 3000 word mock interview between a reporter named Sofia Morgan and the reckless Elon Musk-lite CEO of Goliath Aerospace. In the interview, the CEO takes Morgan on a tour through the facility and it strongly mirrors what I myself saw at Space X, heard from the tour guides, etc. At the end of the article, Morgan recounts the devastating explosion that occurred two weeks later on Goliath’s launchpad, and how all the signs of imminent failure were foreshadowed – but their hubris was too high to see it.

I submitted it to one anthology last summer, it was rejected, and I shelved it. I was hoping to revamp it this summer – next month, even. In fact, Sunday morning, I even wrote it on my to-do list. Then I heard the news.

I’m not sure if it’s a story that needs to be put out there anymore. I think I missed my shot. That’s not to say it can’t be enjoyed anymore, but now I think it’ll come off as reaction rather than foresight. Predicting trends is always more impressive than following them.

The moral of the story? If you see something coming that no one else does, write a story about it! And get it published! Your window will come and you’ll be ready. But if you write it when the event has passed, you may have missed the boat.

My Summer of Short Stories!

I went to ConCarolinas two weeks ago and was simultaneously reinvigorated and sobered. On the plus side, I met an awesome author named Josh Strnad. Josh was actually a guest at my convention, AtomaCon, last November – but I barely got to meet him then! I was too busy helping run the con. But his book Pantheon – about Greek Gods in the weird Wild West – captured me from the get-go and I remembered that I wanted to buy a copy.

So I chatted with him a bit, and he gave me great advice about building a publishing portfolio via short stories. This is stuff I somewhat knew, but I’ve been so focused on Paradisa that I’ve neglected any other writing. Now that I’ve reached one of the most major roadblocks yet with Paradisa, I’m setting it aside for a bit and focusing on my short works. Plus, Josh put it in a way that made it seem accessible – just write about 5-6 different things, and send them out to anthologies/mags that might like them. It doesn’t need to be a constant battle of writing a different story for every different publication out there.

And to my surprise, I actually have a lot of stuff in my archives. Some of it, especially the poetry, isn’t bad (poetry isn’t something I normally lean towards, but when I *do* write poetry, it’s quite fun. I love crossword puzzles, and rhyme schemes/poetic forms are somewhat similar. I love metaphor and wordplay. Maybe I should be doing more poetry!) There are also a few drabbles and shorts I’m going to send out into the universe too.

Then, there are anthology calls and contests. Some of these require me to write something new, be it Catholic fiction, personal essays, horror shorts, or fairy tale reboots. So, I have a lot of ideas on the pipeline for this summer. Hopefully I’ll have a few paid writing credits on my resume by the end of the year, and that’ll better equip me to pitch a novel when the time comes.

And now, the sobering note: I participated in a live action slush fest with the opening page (or, one of them) of Paradisa. For reference – and your benefit, should you want to learn something about what not to do –  I’ve excerpted it below:

Death is familiar to Connor Bishara, but he’s not sure when it became so. Perhaps it comes from a few years of stepping over mangled bodies on a battlefield, or from seeing the love of his life spread across the satin lining of a coffin. Regardless of when his heart hardened, plenty of others have left his life since – grandparents, old friends, coworkers. Connor is used to watching these losses as if through glass, accepting this grim world without a twitch.

His father’s death is different. 

As he watches Malik Bishara’s coffin descend into the Tunisian earth, blood boils beneath Connor’s skin. Not quite sorrow, or vengeance, or even fury – just chaos.

The panel stopped around this point, citing that they didn’t like present tense and that the POV felt too distant. Too “over the character’s shoulder” rather than inside his head. They did not get a sense of voice, character, or conflict.

I don’t necessarily disagree with them, as I think what they said is factual  – I’m just a bit disheartened that these things were apparently dealbreakers. I already knew that present tense was controversial, but I didn’t think setting a scene from outside the character was a killer, especially in the third person. I consider Paradisa to be third-person limited anyway, so yeah…it was surprising to hear that it isn’t limited enough. Although, upon skimming Paradisa later, I’ve noticed this is a constant problem, so I guess I’ll have to keep an eye out for that. And maybe consider changing it to past tense too. Just a little disheartening overall, because they’re basically saying that my style is a dealbreaker, and that’s pretty much the worst – it’s not just an error or a technique I can cut or tweak or really fix.

But hey, adapt or perish. On the plus side, I didn’t make any amateur mistakes like starting too early or opening on the weather, or waxing on about the landscape for two paragraphs before getting to the character. I also think one of the major takeaways from the workshop is that novels should offer a clear image of “This is the type of book this is going to be.” Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone opens with the night of James and Lily’s death. It does NOT open with a chapter full of Harry being abused and not doing much of circumstance. That initial dip into the magical world with Hagrid and Dumbledore, even though it does not follow the main protagonist, is a key opening that sets up the entire book.

So I’m considering opening on a supernatural character and jumping to Connor in Chapter Two. Or if it’s written in past tense, I can open with a  broad statement about the adventures Connor will go on before flashing back to ~before~. With my current opening, NO reader would expect a mythological fantasy about saving the world! Even if all the style stuff was fixed, that would still be a major problem.

Alas. No rest for the wicked. I’ll keep you posted on my short submissions and I’ll let you know where you can pick up my writing should it actually get published anywhere ;)

Do Book Trailers Sell Books?

Normally I would do a Thowback Thursday, but I think that series may be played out. Plus, today I’m flailing hard over the Avengers Age of Ultron trailer (JAMES SPADER’S VOICE YA’LL), which has inspired my topic today.

This will be short, as it’s not a topic I’m widely versed in. I’ve seen book trailers on occasion, usually put out for mass market and commercial fiction. I’ve seen a few of James Patterson’s and Stephen King’s book trailers grace my television screen, but most I’ve encountered have been online. Sherrilyn Kenyon’s book trailers are often ads shown before YouTube videos. Eoin Colfer used to upload book trailers for his Artemis Fowl series, which was especially strange as his target audience was 8-13 year olds.

I think they’re a cool concept. If I was an indie author, I would 100% do a book trailer, as I’d need all the marketing I can get. I’ve actually made a trailer for Paradisa but we’re not gonna talk about that. 

But I’m wondering about the depth of this practice for traditional publishers. Are they just a gimmick, or do they actually sell books? Just Googling that question got me mixed responses from those in the industry. You may be multiplying the awareness of your book, but are you actually reaching your intended audience? Like I said with Colfer – he may be uploading his trailers, but will it reach a 10-year-old YouTube surfer? I think Patterson has the right idea by airing his ads on television, as his target audience (probably middle-aged to older people) are more likely to watch TV than to browse social media/video sites.

Have you ever read a book because you were introduced to it via a trailer? How do you feel about them? Personally, a well-produced trailer may cause me to look up the book on Good Reads. A poorly produced trailer is one I skip. Much like movies!

What It Takes To Write Full Time

It’s fascinating to me that many bestselling authors keep traditional jobs. Audrey Niffenegger – NYT bestselling author of The Time Traveler’s Wife – continues to teach paper art and creative writing at Columbia College Chicago. Misty Massey, who published through Tor Books, works as a middle school librarian. Gail Z. Martin and A.J. Hartley are both professors at UNC Charlotte.

For most people,  it’s important to have *something* consistent that will get them out of the house. And truthfully, I have not talked to any author in such a position personally, so I’m not sure whether these jobs are taken for leisure or financial support (teaching is quite hard, so it’s difficult for me to imagine that anyone would teach as just a retirement/leisure activity. But it’s a passion for many, so I’m not going to speculate on why academia is a popular place for authors).

Either way, I think they have the right idea. For me, I would need to be a multimillionaire before I’d consider quitting my day job.

“Holy crap, that’s a lot, Michelle!” Well, not really. You see, here’s my thought process –

  1. If I start writing full-time, there is no turning back. My career as a chemist is one that requires constant practice and mental exercise. No reasonable lab manager would hire a chemist who’s been out of this field for more than 2 years. The best I could do is jump back into the field with a low-paying tech job, and work my way back to the bench. Which would be a shame, to basically end up where I am now. I don’t want to have to start over and I don’t want to have to go to grad school to “refresh” my career. That would be a huge detour.
  2. Only a handful of writers maintain success from the jump of their career to the end of their lives. There are plenty of “breakout” novelists who dominate the charts for a few months and then are never heard from again.. Sherrilyn Kenyon’s story is paricularly sobering – she went from bestselling author to homeless in just a couple of years, lost her agent, then had to fight tooth and nail back into the industry. Not everyone is as fortunate as Kenyon. A lot of fabulous authors don’t pick themselves up after losing an agent. Selling yourself to the industry with a flop on your resume is even harder than selling yourself as a newb.
  3. With the above points in mind, I would only quit my day job when I had enough money saved to last me the rest of my life. That, my friends, is about $5 million. And because inflation sucks, that’s actually not a lot of money….especially considering that I’ve probably got another 70 years in me. At least half of that would be funneled into my retirement for growth, so ~$3 million would be liquid asset that I’d live off of for the next 40 years. That’s an average of $75k a year, which is fine now, but not so much once inflation kicks in.
  4. Even for a big time author with a $500,000 advance + royalties from, say,  half a million copies sold (and if $1 for every copy = $500,000), it would still take five high-profile novels to make it to $5 million. And that isn’t counting taxes and agent fees, which are probably 40% off the top.
  5. A full-time novelist probably has to buy their own health insurance. I’m not sure about that, but it’s certainly possible that the medical benefits of working for a company vanish when you work on your own. You may also lose other benefits like 401k match, life insurance, etc.
  6. On the positive end, it’s possible for a well-known author to pad their wallet on the convention circuit, charging appearance fees and such. It’s $10,000/day for Neil Gaiman to show up at your event, for example.

Again, $75,000 a year. I know engineers who just graduated college who nearly make that much. That’s like, a “slightly well off middle class” wage. That is not a “jettsetting lifestyles of the rich and famous” wage. I would need to save up $5 million just to maintain /slightly bump my standard of living. And I’d be okay with that, honestly, if I was able to write full-time. I’m not that materialistic. I’d like to be financially secure, have money in the bank in case the AC breaks, and have spare change for traveling. That’s about it.

Still, I hope this puts it into perspective how bloody hard and risky it is to be a full-time novelist. I’ve met plenty of people who write full-time who are certainly not millionares…but often, they still maintain a part-time job, have a spouse supporting them, or simply don’t look past five years down the road. I’m just not that type of person, though. Like Merida from Brave, I determine my own fate – and cautious optimism is the way I do so.

Throwback Thursday #8 – My 9/11 Story, or The First Time I Was Published

I felt a strange mix of interest and humility when I realized that September 11th falls on a Thursday this year. Because it sets up today’s entry perfectly, but I feel strange to have positive emotions about 9/11.

I suppose that’s how I felt at age 10, the first and only time I was published in the newspaper, from a submission of my 9/11 story.

On September 11, 2001, I was 9 years old. That probably makes some of you feel ancient, but I know a lot of friends and fellow bloggers were also children on that day. You should probably know from all my Throwback Thursdays that I was an avid writer, even back then. In a couple years, I would also grow to be an avid journal-er. I liked writing down important events of my life as a method of record-keeping. Obviously, we never forgot 9/11, but perhaps I didn’t realize that at the time.

Rather than recounting my “where was I story” from my 22-year-old voice, I’ll let my 9-year-old self tell it instead. It is a little raw, and perhaps a little triggery, because 9-year-olds don’t filter much or have a full scope of understanding. They’re unreliable narrators. But I feel like its worth posting as-is because….well. It’s true.

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Beating The Publishing Odds

1 in 1000.

That’s a commonly cited rate for an author’s odds of publication.

But those odds don’t scare me. I’ve already beaten those odds. I’ve been the 1 in 1000 before. I’ve actually been the 1 in 50,000 before. Chances are, you have too. Everyone has had something extremely unlikely happen to them, something monumentally unusual (my dad survived a place crash when he was 19. I like flying with him because the odds of him experiencing that twice in his life are astronomical). Everyone has accomplished something despite life being stacked against them.

I got into my NASA internship by the skin of my teeth. Sure, I had a good teacher recommendation, which probably helped me get into the top 50 candidates (out of about 1500, I’ve heard). But the SC Space Grant can only send 6 people per year to NASA internships. It doesn’t matter if NASA program wants you if SC’s funding runs out.  And by the end of March 2012, when I was selected, all six slots had filled.

Literally fifteen minutes before Marshall called SC Space Grant to request me, one of the slots freed up. A Citadel student revoked his acceptance. I was pulled out of Physical Chemistry to chat with the Space Grant ladies upstairs, who told me I had to make the choice immediately. If I didn’t take this slot, another student would probably be summoned by one of the Academies to replace it. Some luck, huh?

As for the 1 out of 50,000, I placed 2nd in a pool of 100,000 students when I was in 7th grade. I had the 2nd highest score on some national math competition. I still think that was a fluke, and just a result of daily practice (thanks Mr. Derrick), but hey, I’ve still got the plaque. (I also think that I may have that ratio wrong, but I’m going with the “odds of placing 1st or 2nd in a pool of 100,000” line of thinking. Which I suppose would be 1 to 50,000. As you can see, I was better at math when I was 12 :P)

Let’s also consider that the odds of getting a novel published, for skilled writers who actually know their craft, is not far off from the odds of getting a job any other field. I’ve heard that “1 in 20” is the magic ratio for “full requests per group of queries.” If you send out 20 queries, at least one agent should request a full….and that’s how you know you’re on the right track and have a publishable book. After 50-100 queries, a marketable author should have an offer of representation.

I’m amused to say that those odds are identical to how my chemistry job search went after college. My odds were almost consistently  “1 interview per 20 job applications.” By the end of my 5 month search, I submitted about 60 applications. I ended up with three interviews, two of which turned into job offers.

They want you to believe that publishing is competative…and it sure is. But so is everything else! No one approached me and threw dollar bills at me to be a chemist. I had to bust my butt to find a job, particularly because chemistry is a scarce field in my town. There are maybe two dozen chemists in Charleston who aren’t Ph.D professors or managers. And you can bet that The Citadel, CofC, and CSU all graduate a few dozen chem majors every year. I certainly beat the odds and came out on top in this field….so why not writing too? All I have to do is be as marketable an author as I was a chemist. ;)