James Van Pelt

Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

Tag: publishing

Experience Arcade Cover Reveal

My new collection, THE EXPERIENCE ARCADE AND OTHER STORIES, is now up for preorder at both Amazon and Barnes and Noble. We can now reveal the entire cover! I still get all squishy inside when I see my name on a book. It makes me feel like I was when I was ten-years old at the library, looking for which science fiction authors my book would appear between when I grew up (it was Jack Vance and A.E. Van Vogt).

 

Selling a Small Press Book

pandoracampaigneYesterday, Patrick Swenson asked me how my Goodread’s ad that I started in October for PANDORA’S GUN was doing. I hadn’t tried any kind of advertising campaign for any of my books before, so this was new territory for me. The Goodreads program was pretty simple. They gave me a template for the ad which I designed (it took five minutes–most of that time was deciding how to word the text to go along with the book cover) . Then I chose how much money to put into the ad buy. What I’m buying is Goodreads placing the ad on the side of pages that Goodreads users who have indicated an interest in books like PANDORA’S GUN could see. I’m charged fifty cents when someone clicks on the ad. As of this morning, the ad has been displayed 413,675 times, and I’ve spent $57.50 of my budget.

So, what to make of that? Has the ad resulted in $57.50 of sales so far? I have no way of telling. It certainly has not translated into hundreds of books being sold.

Would I have stronger results with a Facebook or Amazon ad? Do online ads work at all? Would I just do better by compiling a newsletter list (which often feels spammy to me)? These are questions I don’t have answers for.

My feeling is that in the small press world, the only things that truly sells books is word of mouth. In online terms, that would be people reading a book, liking it, and then sharing it with their online friends. If some of those friends also share the book, then you get the equivalent of a sustainable reaction. Lots of people are talking about the book and getting other people to read it.

Right behind word of mouth are reviews. Not just reviews in PW or Locus, but also on Amazon, Goodreads, B&N, etc. A well-planned signing can move books too, but in small batches.

The next tier of actions I could take: book marks, custom pens, flyers, tee-shirts, etc. strike me as a waste of money (although fun to do).

Unfortunately, word of mouth and the reviews are mostly beyond the author’s control. Author’s can’t make people talk about their books, and they can’t control the reviews.

So, to answer Patrick’s question, I don’t know how the ad buy at Goodreads is doing or whether it was worth it. All I can say is that I controlled buying the ad. Once the book was out, it was one of the few things I could control, and that felt good.

Sunday Writing: First Sale

martian chroniclesSometime when I was a little kid, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I’d always been a reader. The Tom Swift stories, Tom Corbett: Space Cadet, A Wrinkle in Time, The Princess of Mars, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, and the other usual suspects. Anything with a spaceship on the binding in the library, that’s what I read.

I didn’t want to be a writer at first. I loved reading books. But books have a gazillion pages! In 4th grade it took me a weekend to write a one-page report for my social studies class. Nobody that I knew could write a book. In fact, the most science fictional idea in my life was that a person could compose an entire book.

Then I read The Martian Chronicles. Some of those stories made me laugh. A lot made me cry. They all thrilled me. And they were short! I couldn’t write The Door Into Summer, but maybe, just maybe, I could stick with it long enough to write a story the length of “Night Meeting” or “The Silent Towns.”

I remember looking through the science fiction books in the library to see where they would shelve my version of The Martian Chronicles when I finished it. I put my finger between Jack Vance and A.E. Van Vogt to show the space where my book would fit.

I might have been nine or ten.

Fast forward almost twenty years. I still read a lot, but writing stayed on the back burner. It was never out of my mind, existing in that sphere where other unpursued dreams resided, like getting in shape for a marathon or learning guitar. It wasn’t until my first marriage fell apart that I really started writing and submitting work. Nothing like misery to drive a young man to the typewriter! I stayed alone in my office, didn’t come to bed until late at night, thinking deeply about stuff other than my life. Perfect.

The problem with sending work out for publication, though, was that nobody wanted it. I started submitting for real in 1983 or so, when I was twenty-nine. I photo-copied the relevant pages from The Writers Digest Writers’ Market. Also, I hung out at the big comic store in Denver that sold all the genre fiction magazines so I could see what was happening currently. Lots of great magazines that don’t exist anymore. My favorite was Twilight Zone Magazine.

In the meantime, rejections piled up. For a while, I taped them to the wall in my bathroom until I found I didn’t want to go into that bathroom anymore. One of my first rejections came from the great George Scithers at Amazing Stories. He said, “I hope while you were waiting to hear from us on this story that you were working on your next.”

For five years I collected rejections. Most were impersonal. No one gave me a hint that I was getting close, and I didn’t even feel close. Published stories started to read to me as something magical. How did the writers do it? I returned to Bradbury’s stories. They were perfect! How did he write “The Veldt” or “Ylla” or “I Sing the Body Electric”? The barrier between the quality of what I was doing and what “real” writers did seemed insurmountable. And writers as people began to feel mythical to me. Even when I met a couple, they didn’t quite seem human. I met Ed Bryant, the multiple award-winning science fiction author, and his personality was bigger than life. Then I met Joanne Greenberg, the author of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. I was so rattled that the first thing I said to her was, “I thought you were dead.”

The idea of being a “writer” consumed me, not because I thought they lead glamorous lifestyles (Ed Bryant looked tired, and Joanne Greenberg resembled a PTA mom), but because I wanted my words to do what their words did. I wanted words that got out of their own way and moved readers the way Ed Bryant’s and Joanne Greenberg’s words moved me.

I wanted strangers to validate my literary existence through reading a story I sent to them uninvited and deciding that they liked it enough, and that their readers would like it enough, that they would send me money for it.

I wanted a first sale.

In 1987 or so, four years after I started my real push to publication, I read an article in Writer’s Digest that I think was supposed to be funny. The author said she had heard somewhere that you weren’t really a writer until you’d collected 100 rejections. I don’t know how many I had at that point, but I must have been approaching the century mark. The author said she’d sent her first story out, and it was immediately rejected. She was so proud: one down, ninety-nine to go. The problem was, she sold her second story. Surely, she thought, this was a bump in the road on her quest for 100 rejections, but the third and fourth stories sold too. At the article’s end, she wailed about how she’d never get to be a writer because her stories kept selling.

I hated her. I’ll bet Writer’s Digest lost a few subscriptions from that issue.

At conventions I have sat in auditoriums with hundreds of people just like me, listening to published writers at the front of the room talk about their careers. Like me, most everyone else in the room was unpublished. The yearning was palpable.

Gordon Van Gelder, the long-time editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction told me once that when he finished a week-long gig as an instructor at a writing workshop, he attended an end-of-session party with the wanna-be writers. He said at one point they surrounded him, all chatting, all being polite, but he could feel the subtext beating like a whale’s heart in the room. “Choose me! Choose me!” was its rhythm.

In 1988 I went to U.C. Davis to start a master’s degree in Creative Writing. We had a sort of publishing club that met once a week to talk about selling our work. The ticket into the meeting was a manuscript in an envelope, stamped and addressed to a market. We talked about publishing, pored over writers’ guidelines and commiserated over our rejections.

Finally, in 1990, I took a phone call in my tiny, Davis apartment. The guy on the other end didn’t introduce himself but started talking about a story I’d written earlier. It took a couple of minutes for me to realize it was the editor of After Hours, a tiny horror magazine. He wanted to buy a short story of mine called “No Small Change.”

I’d made my first sale.

I’d like to be able to tell you that this first sale changed my life in a way I could feel, that my writing afterwards became more subtly imbued with the essence of publishability. I’d like to say that I became more confident and bolder, that my next blank page became less intimidating.

Sadly, none of this happened.

But I can tell you that I was smiling when I hung up the phone with that publisher, and that on some level I’ve been smiling ever since. In most ways, a first sale changed nothing at all.

And it changed everything. My first sale was awesome.

If you’re a writer who hasn’t sold anything yet, you have my best wishes. Somewhere out there in your future an editor will pluck your manuscript from the slush and love it. If you’re a published writer, then you have your own first sale story. I hope yours means as much to you as mine means to me.

Interzone #264 has Arrived!

interzone 264I received my contributor copy of INTERZONE #264 with my short story, “Mars, Aphids and Your Cheating Heart” within. Andy Cox puts together a beautiful magazine. Is there a print magazine in the genres that rival it for production values?

I messed with all kinds of stuff writing this piece. It’s present tense, second person omniscience (quite literally). I very much enjoyed writing it, and I believe my path to the piece was through the story-a-week challenge, where I said, “What the heck. Let’s break a few narrative ‘rules.'”

At any rate, to celebrate the appearance of the issue, you should subscribe or order the issue on line, and while you’re at it, go to Fairwood Press or Amazon and order a copy of PANDORA’S GUN just for the heck of it.

Sunday Writing: the Great Beginning (or When You Open Your Mouth, Know What You’re Going to Say)

tombstoneLast week I talked about writing conclusions (that don’t suck), so it only makes sense to tackle writing beginnings (that also don’t suck).

I watched a live slush panel at MileHiCon last year and saw the most depressing thing: one of the editors on the panel rejected a story after just three words. I could hear every writer in the room quietly mouthing, “Oh . . . my . . . god!”

This editor clearly had some buttons that could be pushed. I think the first three words were, “Rain fell steadily . . .” She raised her hand to reject the story based on her belief that you should never start with the weather. In the bar afterwards, some editors were laughing about it and offered their own quick rejects. They were tongue in cheek, but every tease has an element of truth.

“Tom woke . . .” Instant rejection based on just two words. Don’t begin with a character waking up.

“It was . . .”   Instant rejection also based on two words. Don’t begin with a pronoun without an antecedent followed by a linking verb.

“The wood elf . . .” Instant bounce. This editor said don’t begin with a stock character.

I thought the editors were a pretty tough crowd. Three words or even two! But it does raise the questions, how long will an editor give you, how do you keep them reading, and what features mark crummy beginnings?

When I first edited, I read every story to the finish. My reasoning was mostly karmic: I wrote stories that I wanted to be read to the end, so therefore I read other writers’ submissions to the last page. This resolution lasted about a week. I began to reject stories that I hadn’t finished reading because nothing beyond where I quit reading would make me buy the story based on what I’d read so far. I have listed my bounce-worthy writing errors here.

Let’s assume, though, that the writer avoids the easy to fix errors, like using too many linking verbs or relying on clichés. What makes an effective beginning then?

I’ve come to believe the effective beginnings come first from the writer’s firm conception of the story’s ending. Think of it this way: when the scouts are gathered round the campfire, and the troop leader begins a story, she or he knows exactly where the story is going to finish. The beginning line isn’t setting up the next line or the first paragraph as much as it’s setting up the ending.

Along with that confidence about the ending is an utter belief that the story is worth telling. The troop leader knows absolutely that the story will be worth listening to, that the sad parts will be heart rending and the funny ones will elicit laughter and the tense ones will have everyone perched on the edge of their log, hanging onto every word. The beginning should reflect that confidence. The story plunges toward its ending. It doesn’t flail around for the first few pages like a drowning person unsure of the way to shore.

The very best beginnings dive in. The author doesn’t feel around in the dark for three pages. The live wires are on the surface in the first three lines.

So, how does that happen, the good beginning, I mean? The smart writers realize that they write at least two beginnings. The first one appears in the original rough draft. It’s written before the original ending has appeared on the page. By its nature, the first beginning can’t have the same confidence as the second beginning because even the outliners don’t completely know what happens in the story after that first page. Ideas change and evolve during composition. As soon as the first draft is done, the writer can now write the second beginning, hopefully the better one: the beginning that reflects the writer’s knowledge of where the story is going.

The dynamite beginning starts with the storyteller’s knowledge of the end. The storyteller knows, right from the first word that readers want to be hooked in; they need to be oriented in the scene, and they have to understand the characters and be intrigued by the situation. Good beginnings happen when the storyteller balances those needs—setting, character, situation and ending-driven prose—in the correct proportion for the story at hand.

Oh, and language, of course. The storyteller mixes those elements in the beginning.

By the way, I think knowing your best beginning will only appear after you’ve written your ending is an incredibly freeing idea. It means that you shouldn’t sweat your first beginning. You don’t need to know the perfect words to start. Just start the darned thing. Go ahead and flail around. It will be good for you. When you get better, you’ll realize your actual story began four-hundred words from where you started, or that the real beginning, the true one, is completely different from what you first wrote. That’s okay. That’s a part of the writing process.

Also, every once in a while, the perfect beginning shows up without a story to accompany it. Stephen King said he had the first line of the Dark Tower series before he knew the story: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in an empty spot on a paper he was grading, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He said, “Names always suggest a story in my mind; eventually I thought I’d better find out what hobbits are like.”

And here’s another also. The editor who rejected stories based on the first three words was an idiot. Great stories have begun with weather. They’ve begun with people waking up. A ton of really poor stories have started that way too, but a ton of bad stories have begun in all the other ways. Three words really aren’t enough to judge a story. But three sentences might be enough, and certainly three pages will tell any editor worth her salt whether she needs to continue reading.

Write the whole story first, then fix the beginning. When you’re done with that, fix everything else.

 

April/May Asimov’s

APRILMAY2016 AsimovsThe latest Asimov’s is out with my short story, “Three Paintings.”  The main character is an artist who has come up with an unusual experiment in creativity.

I have artist friends, so I wanted to make sure I didn’t create an artist who wouldn’t pass their verisimilitude test.  So far, the two who’ve read the story said that I didn’t screw up too badly.

This is my 12th appearance in Asimov’s, starting with “Safety of the Herd” in 2002 (13th if I count a reprint of an Analog story that appeared in the Greek edition of Asimov’s).  It is truly awesome to make a sale there.  If you would have told me twenty years ago, the year I made my first professional sale, that I would be where I am today, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Sunday Writing: Art and Competitiveness

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Trust my 10th graders to ask a really provocative question.  We had a local creative writing conference and contest at Colorado Mesa University, and I gave extra credit to enter the writing contest.

One of my kids asked, “How can we make our poems competitive.”

Wow!

So this is what I put up on the board for what the judges would be looking for.  It is, of course, also a description of what I think makes writing artistic.  The overlap of art into competitiveness is inevitable but not complete.  This is an interesting way of looking a story writing too, where “competitive” becomes “publishable.”

  • Unique
  • Specific
  • –   details and appeals to the senses
  • –   individual incident instead of summary
  • Sound (for poetry, all the sound features like rhythm, rhyme, consonance, onomatopoeia, etc., but also the language working hand in hand with the content by emphasizing the impact)
  • Language
  • Connections
  • Synthesis

So, in terms of writing short stories where judges are replaced with editors, this is what I meant by each term.

Unique:  Editors respond to fresh treatment of ideas.  They will not like a familiar idea phrased in a familiar way. The key is not necessarily a brand new idea but a fresh handling of it.  A brand new idea, of course, is cool too!

Specific:  Buyable stories focus on details and make appeals to the senses so the reader has a chance to participate in the performance of the narrative.  They relate to tightly focused incidents.  Powerful short stories transport readers to fully realized experiences.  They don’t read to find out what the characters feel or think; they read for a moment to feel or think those things themselves.

Sound:  A story is on one level all about speech.  Even if it is never read aloud, clumsy phrasings, ill-considered clashing of sounds, and distracting rhythms will detract from the performance of the tale.  This is why so many instructors suggest writers read their work out loud as part of the editing process.

Language:  Words are what we use to build sentences and paragraphs.  A significant part of the power is in word choice and word arrangement (diction and syntax).  The language should have an interest all on its own.  Part of this takes us back to what I said about “unique” above, but it’s also about recognizing the medium.  A song is not just the tune; it’s about how it’s played.  A story is not just the plot, it’s about how it’s told.

Connections:  The interesting stories are hardly ever about just one thing.  The poet and critic, John Cirardi said that poems are essentially “duplicitous,” appearing to be about one thing but being about something else, like Frost’s “Two Roads in a Yellow Wood Diverged” appears to be about a choice while hiking, but it’s also about choices in life.  A good story will also make connections, where the events in the story reveal or explore a larger issue or question.

Synthesis:  Everything has to work together.

I know this probably sounds theoretical and far removed from the story you are writing at this moment, but I think the deeper thinking about theory and language plays out in improved writing.

Submitting Short Stories

writer silhouette

The standard advice to short fiction writers on submitting their work is to follow these steps:

  1. Write the very best story you can.
  2. Seek meaningful and educated feedback on the story.
  3. Do your final revisions.
  4. Familiarize yourself with the markets.
  5. Identify a hierarchy of markets that are appropriate for the story from most desirable to second most etc. (this might be based on pay rate or circulation, but it could also be based on how often stories in the venue are up for awards or who else appears in it–money isn’t everything).
  6. Correctly format the story according to the market’s directions, and then send it.
  7. Work on your next story while waiting to hear about the first one

That’s good advice and generally I’d recommend it.

However, what if you are prolific?  I often think of a story that I’d heard about Robert Silverberg: When he grew serious about writing as a young man, he wrote a million words a year for a few years.  That’s over 3,000 words a day without missing any days!  He had more markets to look at (although not that many more than what we have now), and he was writing fast enough to fill each of the top magazine’s entire table of contents every month.  Clearly the magazines wouldn’t make an all-Robert-Silverberg issue, so Bob wrote under pseudonyms.  Even doing that, though, he was writing faster than the top markets could absorb his work.  In 1958, he published 80 short stories!  That’s not just a good year; for many authors it would be an entire career.

If you want to have your mind blown, check out Robert Silverberg’s summary bibliography.

How did Bob do that?  He submitted work to a lot of places.  I don’t know this for sure, because I haven’t asked him, but I’ll bet that in 1958 he submitted more stories than were accepted for publication.  Yes, even Robert Silverberg saw rejection notes.  Also, I’ll bet that because he was writing so fast, when he looked at his hierarchy of markets, he could not submit every story to his top market because he already had a story under consideration there.  He had stories under consideration at his top twenty markets or more.  Because he was prolific, he could not wait for the top markets to open; he submitted stories everywhere.

Submitting stories everywhere is a different submission philosophy, but if you are prolific, I think it is a good one.

My other example of submitting everywhere is the late Jay Lake who was also hugely prolific.  The year before he won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, he was reporting a couple short story sales a week.

I bring these examples up to explain my current submitting philosophy, which I’ve come to think of as the shrapnel grenade school of submitting short fiction.  Right now, I have twenty-one manuscripts in the mail.  A month ago, I had thirty-two.  I also have thirteen stories at home waiting for more revision or for the right market to open.  (The opposite philosophy I think of as the cruise missile school of submitting, which has been perfected by Ted Chiang.)

The shrapnel grenade philosophy has a few advantages:

  1. Being prolific means that I’m practicing a lot.  Finishing several short stories a month makes my learning and growth curve steeper than if I was writing slower.
  2. Submitting often makes me familiar with the market.  Right now I have a good overview of who is editing where and what they are looking for.  I’m particularly interested when new markets appear or anthologies open.
  3. Submitting a short story is the moment when an author briefly interacts with the larger world of editors and publishers.  Submitting often means that there are more of those interactions.  The editors are more likely to remember me when my newest story crosses their desk.
  4. I feel more professional when I produce stories and submit them at a regular interval.  I feel less like a hobbyist.  This is not a dig on writers who are not prolific.  It is only a comment on how I feel.  Everyone’s path up the mountain is their own.

So, for right now, I’m trying out many markets.  This means that I’m following a piece of advice Dean Wesley Smith gave me a bunch of years ago, which was to “Pump the editors.”  I know, I thought that was an oddly phrased sentence too, but what he meant was to write a bunch and keep your work circulating.  The editors will eventually figure out that you are for real and serious about what you are doing.

And that’s a good thing.

P.S.  I forgot to add where I’m finding all these markets.  I lean heavily on ralan.com (every writer who uses his site ought to send him a donation), and the Submission Grinder.  I also learn about market via networking with writers and editors I’ve come to know over time.

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