Sunday, July 31, 2011

Estate Planning

Editor Robert Runte is sharing an important reminder for us authors: we need a will.

One topic that most writer's advice columns never get around to addressing, but which is fairly crucial, is estate planning. Yes, I know, you are immortal and are never going to get sick, let alone die, but let us for the sake of argument talk about a couple of simple steps to save one's family a fair bit of trouble, and to perhaps ensure one's literary immortality.

The Will
First, write a will. No one likes to think about wills much, and certainly don't feel it's something they need to address today...sometime in the indefinite future will be fine, they think. But, stuff happens. So, right now, make an actual appointment to draw up a will. And then, in addition to the usual content, put in a couple of clauses outlining who gets the literary property, and what they should do with it.

There are four issues here: (a) who gets the royalties (if any) from the work; (b) who has artistic control over one's published work; (c) what is to be done with any unfinished manuscripts that are left lying around after one is gone; and (d) what is to be done with one's online presence.

The simplest approach, of course, is simply to leave the estate up to a single executor, but the individual charged as executor for dealing with the regular sort of assets, may not be the best person to look after one's literary legacy. It is not uncommon, for example, for an executor to quickly glance at the current revenues for a title and conclude that it is valueless...missing that commercial or not, what happens to the book still matters to the deceased. One may, therefore, wish to designate a specific individual (and a backup, just in case one's first choice was in the same car accident that took you out) to manage one's manuscripts/publications. Choose a collaborator, or a sympathetic colleague, or a trusted editor, or even a dedicated fan, who understands one's work and one's preferences (e.g., editing the Christian references out of Narnia to reach a wider, modern audience would not be acceptable!) and can manage one's life's work as closely as possible to one's own wishes. Of course, that fan or collaborator may well be one's spouse or close relative, and so the general executor, in which case, great; but if not, it is perfectly okay to appoint someone else -- who "gets" one's genre or vision-- to manage one's literary legacy, even while still directing the royalties to one's dependents.

The crucial factor is to put in writing who is responsible for what, because otherwise, one's literary friends and royalty-hungry relatives could be at odds for years over every little detail. One has only to look at the long and bitter dispute between the girlfriend/collaborator and the family over the literary estate of  Stieg Larsson to see just how bad these conflicts can get in the absence of a proper will. Or, just as undesirable, one's books could be left to languish as an uninterested executor fails to promote them or even keep them in print.

My advice would be to leave all one's literary work to be managed by a single literary executor, rather than designating specific titles to specific individuals. For one thing, specifying titles would require frequent updates to one's will as one finishes additional manuscripts (an unnecessary expensive, as well as a nuisance); for another, there may be opportunities for omnibus editions or reprint series or e-re-releases or etc., that require package deals that could be fatally stalled if the holder of one or other copyright demurs. Appointing a singe literary manager also facilitates determining which unfinished manuscripts should be finished, by whom, and how and when published; decisions that one can't really make in advance, since by definition, one cannot know how things are going to evolve after one's death.... (The exception here is if one is absolutely certain that one doesn't want anyone else tampering with one's manuscripts, in which case one could simply order unfinished manuscripts left as is. I would strongly advise against ordering unfinished work destroyed, however.)

Similarly, the literary executor should be empowered to take down, close off, or maintain one's various online activities. If one's books are selling well, it may be sensible to maintain Facebook, Twitter, blog, webpage etc. presence, though hopefully making it clear that the author is deceased and the reader is now dealing with the executor, speaking on the author's behalf. On the other hand, if the executor is closing up the estate, being able to take down all one's sites can be very important -- particularly if one's last post was a rant, and not necessarily how one wishes to be remembered.

Of course, one needs to check with the person(s) one is thinking of designating as one's literary executor to ensure that they are able and willing to take on this responsibility, before assigning them in one's will.

The Access
Second, having drawn up a will, put a copy somewhere where people can find it!  Lawyer's offices and bank safety deposit boxes sound sensible, until one realizes one's survivors may not know the name of one's lawyer, or be able to gain access to the safety deposit box without a copy of the will appointing them executor, which is in the safety deposit box -- an astonishing catch 22. So leaving a duplicate in an envelope in one's desk drawer makes a lot of sense.

Further, it may be useful to have a list of one's online passwords in the same envelope, so that various social networking sites can be immediately updated. This is particularly important if one is self-publishing, as orders, queries, complaints and so on must be addressed, or at least the explanation posted, so that customers are not left hanging, or fans left to speculate.

The Publisher
Third, with the emergence of many indie publishers, one should be alert to the possibility that even the best intentioned micropublisher could suffer a sudden mishap or illness that could leave one's book tied up in limbo for years. At a minimum, one must ensure that any contract signed includes a revision clause, such that if the book is out of print for more than 1 year, the rights revert to the author. Similarly, it doesn't hurt to inquire about the publisher's estate planning, especially when dealing with one-person operations. If the publisher passes away, who is going to take over? Anyone? Someone that could be trusted to take the same care with cover art, editing, marketing, and so on? Even if there appears to be a half dozen individuals involved in the press, if the owner passes without a will, the other members may be powerless to carry on. So ask. (Asking may even trigger them to develop a will and contingency plan!)

And while on the topic, if one is self-publishing, one needs to make provisions for having someone take over and manage one's inventory in the event of illness or mishap. A week's delay while one is abed with the flu will go unremarked; but any extensive illness or absence could create devastatingly ill will if no one is responding to queries, filling orders, or addressing complaints. So, I strongly recommend that along with a will, all self-publishing authors should draw up a contingency plan.

Just saying!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

My first time was a fluke: My First Published Story by Ada Hoffmann

            My first time was a fluke. There, I said it.
            Actually, my first three times were flukes. Three acceptances in three months, all for stories on their first submission, which is just not supposed to happen, even with small press. Then nothing for eight months, and not because I wasn’t trying. They don’t tell you about this in “how to be a writer” lectures. They don't say that there are flukey good times and flukey bad times, and all you can do is work hard, keep improving, and keep some perspective.
            They also don’t tell you, at least not often, that flukes happen for a reason.
            I did a lot of research when I was starting out. I looked on sites like Ralan and Duotrope, made notes, and read the submission guidelines. All of them. To get a feel for what was out there, I guess, or maybe I’m just compulsive at times.
            Some places have really short guidelines. “Write a science fiction story. Put it in standard manuscript format. Email it to us. The end.” And some places have guidelines longer than their actual stories. Expanded Horizons is the latter. They explain at length exactly what they want: Strong female characters. Racial diversity. LGBT (and asexual) characters. I could go on – they cover a lot of topics – but you get the idea.
            And then there was a category I didn’t expect.
            “We want to create a story-telling venue for those with rare and unusual sensitivities and awarenesses. Uncommon sensitivities and awarenesses (sometimes called psi, intuition, etc.) are a popular theme in speculative fiction. We aim to... show such people in a realistic and respectful manner, to publish stories that feature such characters in their normal lives. We look for stories which are not primarily “about” these awarenesses and abilities, or even about them at all.”
            What a cool idea, I thought. I knew what they were talking about, but it had never occurred to me before to use it in a story that way.
            So I tossed around the idea of a psi character in a story not “about” psi. It’s not the only idea that went into the story, of course. But what came out – after due diligence, editing, and a trip to a writer’s group – was “The Chartreuse Monster”.
            Expanded Horizons seemed like the right first choice. I almost thought I wouldn’t get in; I worried that the female protagonist was too passive, for instance. But I steeled myself, said it was worth a try, and sent it in.
            This is where the fluke happens. Unknown to me at the time, the editor of Expanded Horizons had been craving exactly the kind of story I’d just written, and had been in a state of despair because no one was sending in psi stories that actually fit the guidelines. Unknown to me at the time, I’d gotten it right. I had no way of knowing this at all. Well, except for the part where they said so on their web site.
            I got the fastest acceptance ever.
            I don’t have much to say after that. It was a great first time. We talked about the subject matter, made some minimal edits, I got paid, and the story went up online. My family and friends were impressed. I was happy. So, it all went well.
            I guess I didn’t learn any lessons, overall, that aren’t the basic platitudes you get from everybody. Guidelines matter; read ‘em closely. Know the field and know where you’re submitting. Be open to new ideas. Write what people will want to buy.
            Then be prepared for flukes, and don't let them get to your head.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Avoiding the (blogging) Pretentious Label

This is an excerpt from my new writing reference book, No More Blank Screen: Blogging Ideas for Fiction Authors.

There is one bit of advice that I'd like to pass on to all bloggers, but especially unpublished ones who discuss the business of writing and publishing. It is really important to blog about what you know.

Many new writers start out blogging about their path to publication. They share their ups and downs, pass along helpful websites, and the writing tips they've picked up along the way. All of these ideas produce great blog articles and bring readers to your site.

Problems arise when the blog becomes a teaching tool by a writer with nearly no publishing or writing experience. Published authors may be turned off by advice from someone with no actual knowledge on their subject manner. Even worse, you could be passing along incorrect information and leading people down the wrong path.

Not sure what I mean?

Let's say Bob is an unpublished writer who is working on his first fantasy novel. He's stumbled upon a way to ramp up the tension in his first chapter. Here are two potential blog posts from Bob:

Example #1
You wouldn't believe what happened today! I finally figured out how to ramp up my tension in Chapter 1. What a difference. Here's a quick summary of what worked for me. Have you tried something similar?
Example #2
When you write fantasy, you need to remember the importance of conflict and tension in your first chapter. Here are some steps on how to do it properly so that you can catch the eye of an agent.

See the difference? In the first example, the author's voice is coming through, celebrating a breakthrough in his writing. In the second example, the information appears to come from the author's own experience. He's teaching us, even though Bob can't honestly say if his steps will help catch an agent's eye because he hasn't even finished a novel!

Personal experience? People love it. Teaching without any experience? You get a bit of a reputation for talking about things you don't actually know. It makes it harder in the future for people to take your actual knowledge seriously.

So, how do you avoid the pretentious label? Quite simple, really. Blog about what you know. If you don’t know something, blog about how you don’t know or how you don’t understand a particular thing. In fact, people generally will respect you more for admitting that you don't know. As a bonus, readers may comment and give their advice and opinions. Instant dialogue!

Bottom line: Write what you know. Everything else falls into place.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Writing Short Fiction: An interview with Douglas Smith

I'm so happy to have Doug Smith with me. His short story collection, Chimerascope (reviewed here), has been one of my favourite reads of 2011.

Is the short form your favourite to write, or did you just fall into that?

When I started to write fiction in the late 90's with the goal of being published, I intentionally started with short stories, for three key reasons. First, the standard advice at that time was that short fiction was the best way to "break in" as a speculative fiction writer and to build a reputation with sales and awards. Secondly, I thought that it was the best way to learn the craft. Short stories allow a writer to learn different techniques and to try different approaches from one story to another that the novel form doesn't (or rather, that would take longer to do over multiple novels). And finally, quite frankly, when I started, I had no idea whether I'd ever be able to sell anything that I wrote, so I figured I'd rather invest the time in writing a few short stories and trying to sell them than in writing and marketing a novel. It just seemed like a smaller hill to climb at the time to find out if I could sell my fiction.

All that being said, I love short stories, both to read and to write, and will (I hope) always continue to write them. At this point, though, I'm expecting that I will spend most of my writing time on novels. I'm marketing my first novel, and am working on my second.

You have two short fiction collections out right now. How does an author choose when to do a collection?

The old approach used to be that a writer would start with short fiction, and then move to novels, and once they had a name and a few novels published, they would publish a collection, typically via the same publisher that did their novels. The problem is that collections do not sell well, and you won't see too many collections from major publishers, even for their own novelists, unless that author is a Neil Gaiman or Stephen King. So collections are now often published by smaller presses. 

About 2007, I was looking into the possibility of a collection. I had enough short stories published at that point to make up a full collection (eighty to a hundred thousand words, and most of those stories were either award winners, finalists, or had been in a "Best of..." anthology. I talked to Robert J. Sawyer, the award-winning Canadian SF author, about this idea, and also to Stephen Jones, the well-known anthologist from the UK, and both advised that more authors were putting out collections with smaller presses before they had a novel published, as a way to raise their profile with bigger publishers when they were marketing their first novel. Stephen also recommended PS Publishing in the UK, which is owned by Pete Crowther.

So I did my research and found PS to be very highly regarded. I approached Pete about a full collection, which he politely declined. But he proposed doing a smaller collection as part of PS's new "Showcase" series, designed to highlight (in their words) "up and coming new writers." This was to be a smaller (and therefore, cheaper and lower risk to PS) collection of about thirty thousand words. The other change was that Pete wanted new stories, not ones that had been previously published. 

We compromised on that point. I wrote two new novelettes for the collection, "Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase, by van Gogh" (which was a finalist for the Aurora in 2009) and "Going Down to Lucky Town" (which began my Springsteen-inspired stories). Pete then agreed to include a previously published story "Spirit Dance" in the collection, as I was finishing my first novel, which is based in the world of that story, and I wanted to have that story in print and available. That collection was entitled Impossibilia, and was also a finalist for the Aurora in 2009.

Then in 2009, a pair of writer friends, Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory, decided to begin their own small press in Toronto. ChiZine Publications grew out of the already established online zine, Chiaroscuro. I had a lot of confidence in both their editorial tastes and their publishing smarts, so I pitched a full collection to them. I also liked their proposed publishing model. I was very happy with the job that PS Publishing did on the collection, but their model is based on limited print runs, signed, numbered, hardcover editions, with no retail distribution and no paperback editions. 

ChiZine does limited hardcover, but based on pre-orders only (which limits their risk), and also does a trade paperback edition. Plus they had already lined up retail distribution in Canada and the US, with the UK shortly thereafter. I was delighted when they accepted the proposal, which led to my second collection, Chimerascope, which is currently a finalist on the 2011 Aurora ballot, and includes an Aurora winner, eight Aurora finalists, and a Best New Horror selection.

As a writer, what has been your most successful techniques/processes/whatever the word is to help you write so many speculative shorts?

Just write. Seriously, I always struggle trying to describe my "technique" or approach to the creative side of writing. The marketing side, on the other hand, I can describe (see below for some tips). But as to how I craft a story, it varies every time. Roger Zelazny (one of my all-time favourite writers) once said that story ideas come to him in one of three forms: a character, an idea, or an image. I've probably had my share of all three being the genesis of some story, but I know that I can never begin to write a story until I know the character(s) who will be involved and through whose eyes (and head and heart) I will be telling the story. Because it's their story, not mine, if it's going to be any good. Once I know my characters, I can start to write the words. 

One thing that I do that I've been told by other writers is unusual is that I tend to not write stories sequentially. I will often write scenes out of order, and have on several stories, written the final scene first. Beyond that, I can't give much advice on the creative side beyond write, write, and write. Writing is a craft. I'm always amazed by how many beginning writers expect to be selling at professional levels right out of the gate. 

If you were just taking up hockey (forgive a Canadian for a favourite metaphor) and had never laced up skates before, you wouldn't expect to be playing for an NHL team in your first year. And yet, many beginners seem to think that they should be accepted as a Wayne Gretzky of the writing world before they've even learned their craft. Learning to write well takes time and effort. So write, write, write. And read, too. If you don't read widely and constantly, you will never be a writer.

As a reader, what do you look for in short fiction?

Great characters, which is difficult to find in the short form. But if I can't believe the character and feel that they are a real, fully formed creature with a back-story and goals and problems, then the setting and the idea and the world don't matter to me. All those are important in speculative fiction, but they are part of the story, and to me, you can only tell a story properly through the characters.

Do the works of others influence where your ideas take you?

Not written works, although I did publish an early story, "The Boys Are Back in Town," which was my attempt to write a Roger Zelazny-esque story. Once you've written enough, you develop your own style. That being said, I've started writing short stories that are inspired in some way by the songs of Bruce Springsteen. "Going Down to Lucky Town" and "Radio Nowhere" have already been published (and now available as eBooks), and I have at least another half dozen kicking around in my head or in the early stages of crafting. My dream would be to one day publish a collection of Springsteen-inspired stories with an intro by the Boss himself. Springsteen is a storyteller and a poet, creating vivid characters and achingly memorable situations in just a three-minute song. It's worthwhile for any writer to study some of his ballads.

What advice would you give an unpublished writer trying to break into short stories?

Never give up. Never surrender. No, wait--that was Galaxy Quest. Well, it's still good advice. Publishing is a numbers game. The writer who has the most stories submitted to the most markets is going to have the best chance of being published. Write the best story you can, and then get it in the mail (or email). Then write the next story and get it out there, too. 

When you get a rejection (and you will), the very best reaction is to immediately send that story out to your next target market. Don't let rejections get you down. Yeah, that's easy to say, but I'll give you a couple of data points. At one time, the most money I've ever made on a short story ("The Boys Are Back in Town" mentioned above, to Cicada in the US at 25 cents a word) came on a story that had been bounced twenty-four times. And I sold a story to a pro anthology last year, a story that I'd written in my first year of writing and that had been previously rejected sixty-five times. So write well, write a lot of stories, and keep them all out at markets until they sell. But read my answer to the next question too.

What is your opinion on unpaid or very low paying markets? Do you have a firm rule (“I never work for under 2 cents a word”) or do you play it by ear for each market and/or piece?

I have a very clear and strict set of rules on marketing my short fiction. Other writers can follow their own rules, but these are mine:

1.      Always start with the top markets. "Top" here can mean anything you like, but to me, it means markets that (a) pay professional rates, and/or (b) have a good reputation (they'll look good on your resume), and/or (c) publish stories that consistently show up on the major award lists. If you don't know how to find speculative fiction markets, check out

2.      Work your way down your list of top markets until you hit the bottom. You can define bottom however you like, but for me it's when I've run out of markets that match the criteria in #1.

3.      Once you run out of top markets, hold the story (which does not mean give up on it) until a themed anthology comes out that pays pro rates and that fits your story. Themed anthos by definition narrow your competition if you fit their theme. If you've written a zombie cat story (no, I don't want to read it, thank you), then you have a much better chance of selling that to a zombie antho or a cat antho, or (gods forbid) a Zombie Cats from Space antho (and yes, just wait--there will be such an antho. Probably already has been).

And once you sell a story (actually, you never sell a story -- you just license a particular set of rights for a period of time) and the rights revert to you, you can then sell second rights to that story. I'm going to be starting a series on marketing short fiction on my blog over the summer, and I'll be dealing with all of this in a lot more detail in that series.

All about Doug

"Doug Smith is, quite simply, the finest short-story writer Canada has ever produced in the science fiction and fantasy genres, and he's also the most prolific. His stories are a treasure trove of riches that will touch your heart while making you think."
—Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of Hominids

Doug is an award-winning Toronto-based author of speculative fiction, with over 150 short story sales in thirty countries and two dozen languages, including appearances in Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, InterZone, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Baen's Universe, Postscripts, On Spec, The Third Alternative, Cicada, and anthologies from Penguin, DAW, and others.

His newest collection, Chimerascope (ChiZine Publications, 2010), is currently a finalist for the 2011 Aurora Award. His first collection, Impossibilia (PS Publishing), was a finalist for the 2009 Aurora Award.
Doug was a finalist for the international John W. Campbell Award for best new writer, and has twice won Canada's Aurora Award. A short film based on his story "By Her Hand, She Draws You Down" toured festivals in North America and internationally in 2010 and 2011, winning several awards.
His website is and he tweets at  

Saturday, July 2, 2011

My First Time (Publishing) - Josh

On my First:
I recall with remarkable clarity the day the Fed-Ex truck arrived bearing several cardboard cartons for me. Each had the word Druids stenciled on the side. Some 15 years had passed since Barb Galler-Smith and I began the process which ultimately became the Druids trilogy, and this was the moment when the reality of it actually hit me -- like a linebacker on steroids with a score to settle. I'd sold short stories to magazines and anthologies, but this was the first time I'd ever seen my name on the front cover of a book. A real, live, honest-to-Gawd NOVEL!  So, how did I celebrate?  How did I show the world I'd overcome all the silly slings and arrows and petty crap that usually deep-sixes a nascent writing career?  I wept.


Friday, July 1, 2011

Breaking into Pro Short Fiction Markets: Susan Forest

In my experience, I can't emphasize enough how important pro short fiction is, when breaking into the SF writing world. Why? Because it's possible. Even top markets will take unknown writers. It's not "Who do you know?" it's "How good is your writing?" So you have to write a great story. But what else?

For years I'd been told to read the market I was submitting to. Never did it, never sold anything. But when I did take this advice, I started selling. Why? Well, I had a clearer idea of the kind of story that market was looking for. Also, I think I unconsciously set my standards higher.

Rob Sawyer says, submit to top markets. His reasoning is, if you expect yourself to be at the top of the market, you'll live up to your own expectation. And . . . if a story doesn't sell, you still have secondary markets to try.

Scott Bakker gave me another tip: note when a publication gets a new editor--they want to discover their own new talent. Scott might've meant book publishers, but it worked for me in short fiction.

You've heard this before, but it's true: a rejected story might not be a rejected story if the editor gives you critique. I sold several stories that I re-submitted to the same editor after a rejection, once the editor's concerns were addressed.

Again, keep your stories in the mail! Keep a chart showing which market has rejected each of your stories, where that story is now, and which market you think it'll be suitable for next. They don't sell if they aren't out there.

Cover letter? What if you don't have any sales yet? My first cover letters listed the professionals I'd worked with. If you get a chance to sign up for a workshop at Renovation, for instance, put in your cover letter, "I worked with Author X." And remember: keep the letter short and professional.

Networking: At a worldcon party, a writer said to me: "write something short and funny for Analog." And you know? He was right. Both my Analog stories fit that description.

So, yeah. These are a few things that have worked for me, but I'm sure I'm only scratching the surface. I love forums like this because I'm always looking for new tips as well. So, give: what tips have worked for you? 

2009 Prix Aurora Award finalist ("Back," Analog, June 2008), Susan Forest works as a fiction editor for Edge. Her stories have appeared in Analog, Asimov's, OnSpec, AE Science Fiction Review and Tesseracts. Catch her at