MisCon 28: Evolution of a Writing Career

by syaffolee

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Evolution of a Writing Career
Panel members: J.A. Pitts, Ken Scholes
Panel description: J.A. Pitts and Ken Scholes take us through the evolution of a writing career, what it takes and how to get there.

(Note: This was entirely a Q & A session with both panelists answering the questions.)

Q: What should we expect with electronic publishing?

A: It’s more opportunity for selling books. It’s like selling meth. You need a good story that the publishers want to buy. Everything else is business. What do you want in your career? 99% of writers are midlist and slowly climb from there. It depends on what’s right for you. Don’t put things out before they’re ready. Pay attention to the contracts or they’ll take your rights. It can be hit or miss because things are changing.

Q: What do you think about writing contests?

A: Don’t pay for writing contests. Except for the Writers of the Future Contest. Your mileage may vary. The Writers of the Future has launched several writers. If you submit to Asimov’s, you’re competing with professionals. If you submit to the contest, you’re competing with your peers. It gives yourself a deadline.

Q: What’s something in self-publishing that nobody’s told you?

A: The internet is forever. In self-publishing, you have to do everything. Usually the people who are successful in self-publishing already have fans from traditional publishing. Keep your eyes wide open. No one’s an overnight millionaire. Note that whenever a self-published author gets a call from New York, they always take it. Be leery because people do self-publishing poorly–they need an editor. Every time you write, you practice writing. If you give stuff away, it’s not selling. Instead, use a blog to build an audience. Even with a readership, you might only get enough money for lunch. By being so busy with all the aspects of self-publishing instead of concentrating on just writing, it can be used as an excuse not to pay your dues.

Q: Should you focus on short stories to get the contacts even though you prefer to write novels?

A: No. Focus on the novel. Check SFWA.org for more information. Don’t write short stories unless you like reading them.

Q: How do you know when your work is good enough?

A: You don’t. And don’t ask your mom. You need to find a person who is ahead on the writer’s path to critique your work. Cultivate these relationships over time. Also mentor the people behind you to pay it forward. Get first readers. Cultivate learning to say no and what to ignore. I had a short story with religion in it, but twenty people told me that religion shouldn’t be in science fiction. But I ended up selling that short story. Some people may want to bring you down. Some people will stop talking to you once you sell a novel. Go to cons and workshops. “Trust your mirrors” – find someone who can fill your blind spot.

Q: Should you find first readers in a different or the same genre?

A: It depends, but I recommend the same genre. Other writers are more critical. If you get good readers, they will tell you where they get confused.

Q: If you don’t have a strong group of readers, where do you find them?

A: Online can be dangerous–some are just trolls.

Q: Do you need security papers for your work?

A: No. Once you write it down it’s already copyrighted.

Q: What manuscript formatting should you use?

A: See SFWA.org. Asimov’s gets 5000 submissions a month. Only eight to twelve stories will be accepted so they’ll look for any excuse to reject it. Like formatting. So follow the rules.

Q: How do you get an agent?

A: I sold to an editor before I got an agent. Do your homework. I landed an agent after meeting them at a convention.

Q: When you’re submitting your work, do you submit the same thing with some tweaks or is it completely different?

A: For Heinlein, once he was done, he didn’t change it. Never write the first thing that comes to mind. If you keep on tinkering with the story, you may break it.

Q: What’s the best place to submit it?

A: Check the listings at Ralan.com. Start with the best paying market and work your way down.

Q: When you’re sending a solicitation, do you include one paragraph about what you’re doing?

A: [For science fiction], only if you’re a scientist. Otherwise they don’t care. Only include pertinent sales information. Make the cover letter brief and follow the rules. For query letters, see their guidelines. The quality of your writing sells, not the letter.

Q: I only have one science publication. Is that relevant?

A: No. Only include things that tell that you’re a good writer. Look for acknowledgements to find agents. Strategically query.

Q: Do you have to be outgoing [to get contacts in the publishing industry]?

A: No, but it helps. At the end of the day, it’s what you write that counts.

Q: How do you outline a book?

JAP: I have a spreadsheet and a word document. I outline every single scene before writing.

KS: I’m a pantser with some planning. I decide the size of the story first and then use the screenwriter’s notion of acts to plan the story.

Q: Which agents should we submit to?

A: Check Publisher’s Weekly to see what deals the agents have made. You might find a “good” agent, but they haven’t sold anything.

Q: How do you choose to turn an idea into a novel or a short story?

A: How many plot lines and characters do you have? How big is your idea?

Q: What revision system do you use?

KS: Before, I revised based on feedback. Now, with my editor I revise one chapter at a time, but most editors don’t do this. My editor catches things before they go in the wrong direction. Copy editing is for details. You can change in galley proofs, but it’s difficult because it costs money to change.

JAP: It’s a trust issue with yourself.

Q: How do you start with a hook? Do you start with a character, reaction, etc?

A: You want the first sentence to grab people and get them to read more. Don’t include dreams or waking up. But you can break the rules if you can do it without the reader noticing. Include the genre, character, and problem in the first page.

Q: How much research do you put in?

A: Enough. Don’t do too much. You need one to three good concrete details and the readers will fill in the blanks. If you put in more detail, they will then tell you how bad it is. I’ve asked 10 to 12 experts on something and they’ve all given me contradictory opinions. I used to do research for short stories but now I keep notes. Do enough research to tell the story. Consider how much you’re being paid for the story and how much work you’re putting into it.

Q: Are there any tricks to research?

A: No. Determine what research is important. You don’t need to go into tiny details and waste time on researching buttons.

Q: How do you perfect dialogue?

A: Screenwriting is all about dialogue. Don’t listen to other people. Dialogue is active, it changes tension. It gives information, but don’t make it “as you know Bob.” It pushes the story forward. Read it aloud.

Q: What reference do you use for world building?

A: Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding.

Q: Is there specific marketing you have to do for a location-based self-published book?

A: Just put it out there.

Q: Should you put a story out on the internet?

A: What do you want in your writing career? Putting it on the internet is not a paying market.

Q: How do you maintain a relationship with an agent?

A: Be a professional, polite human. Don’t badger. Be clear and concise. Be able to say no.

Q: How do you market self-published books?

A: I don’t do much with self-publishing. You could use a blog to build audience. I recommend using traditional publishing to build an audience first. For printing, talk to small presses.

Q: How do you choose the right verb?

A: See Stephen King’s On Writing. Choose mostly the first word that comes to mind. Make it clear and colorful. Finish your project first and then fix it.

Q: How can you sort out the good advice from the bad advice?

A: If the advice rings true, it’s good. If you don’t know, ask questions to clarify.

Q: What are your main literary influences?

A: It changes all the time. Lester del Rey, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Wheel of Time. Read what you want to write. I write urban fantasy so I read it. Everyone should influence you. It helps fill the well so you can fill with story.

Q: Where do you draw the line for editing?

A: Don’t be a dick to the editors. Know what’s right for you. Communication is important. Ask them why they want it changed.

Q: Are simultaneous submissions okay?

A: It depends. Look at the guidelines.