PART III ERRATA & ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction

Is there such a thing as a perfect book? If there is, I haven’t read one, let alone written one. One of the things I’d hoped to accomplish with this blog was not just to promote the book but to supplement it with additional material. This wouldn’t be much of a blog about the writing and publishing process if I just let the printed book speak for itself, so here we go, a part or “step” at a time, digging in to correct mistakes, struggle over inconsistencies, patch in missing information, and resurrect edited text.

It’s never to late to buy, read, use, and discuss The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction

Thank you to master fantasist Terry Brooks for that opening quote—a sentiment I share without the slightest misgiving.

Dare I expend the research time necessary to prove my comment in the introduction to Part III that it’s easier to get a book published than to win the lottery? Let’s try:

Multiple state lottery games like Powerball and MegaMillions have odds as high as 120,000,000 to 1, which means it’s about 46 times more likely you’ll be hit by lightning than you’ll win the all-numbers perfecta. This is what gamblers call a “possibility bet,” which means that however remote it may be, there is a possibility that you can win—people really do actually win the lottery. Professional gamblers prefer “probability bets,” which means that (in some cases, literally) if you play your cards right, you can alter the odds in your favor so that you’ll probably win. You will, however, have to gamble more than a dollar on a probability game like poker or blackjack to win anything near the occasional nine-figure jackpots of the multi-state lotteries.

According to Laura Backes in her Publishing Central article “Your Odds of Getting Published,” it looks like you have about a 1 in 100 chance of selling your book to a particular publisher. Honestly, I think she’s being pretty optimistic with that one, but even if it’s ten times as hard as Ms. Backes thinks, 1 in 1000 sure beats 1 in 120 million.

Those statistics came from about thirty seconds of Googling, so please don’t hold me to anything but the basic concept that writing a book for publication is more a probability bet than it is a possibility bet, if, like a professional gambler, you play your cards right.

And what’s the point of writing a book if it isn’t going to be published? Even if you’ve shed the starry-eyed hope of being the next J.K. Rowling, are safely in it for the work and not the possibility of riches, it’s just as important for you, as a professional writer to sell your work than it is for you as an artist to write it in the first place. Written language was first invented to keep track of money, but a wonderful side effect is that it can transport culture from person to person, place to place, and generation to generation. But not if it’s stuck on your hard drive or on a shelf for no one else in the world ever to see.

Chapter 32: Get Published

There was a lot of trimming going on in the beginning of this chapter, but I miss this snarky line, which was edited out: “The form rejection letter is one of the primary uses for photocopiers in the city of New York.” No statistics on that, but it cheered me to say it.

I’ll refer you back to last week’s post on the subject of conventions. It really is important that you go to . . . oh, boy, at least one. I know we’re living through a continuing economic depression—believe me, I’m feeling the effects myself—but do what you can to get to a convention and still have a home to come back to. It will be as worth it as you make it.

I love this header:

GET YOURSELF AN AGENT

It’s like that Steve Martin joke: “I wrote a book called How to be a Millionaire . . . chapter one: First, get a million dollars . . .” I know that’s what it may feel like if you’ve been banging your head against the publishing business without results, but please heed my warning against that Catch-22 thinking that you need an agent to get published but you have to have been published to get an agent. That’s really, really, really, really not true.

But it will really, really, really, really seem like it. Concentrate on reality, though, not appearances.

This “hip pocket” client thing is for real, too. I am currently in that position with an agent at Preferred Artists in Los Angeles, who’s shopping around a screenplay for me though we haven’t signed any sort of formal agency agreement. That’s perfectly fine with me—I want to start writing movies and that’s a good way in. How did I meet up with that agent, you may ask? For about four months several years ago I sent a query letter every day, one a day, to a different agent. I think I sent over a hundred query letters. Two agents asked for the script. One of them gave it to some intern in their story department who ripped it to shreds. Honestly, I have never seen my work torn to pieces like that. Even the Baldur’s Gate haters didn’t come close to this guy. The other agent thought it had promise but asked me to lighten it up a bit, simplify the fantasy elements and make it more appropriate for a younger audience. I spent a month working hard to do that, and when I sent him the revision he loved it. It’s out there now, making the rounds, and will (like most spec scripts) most likely never see the light of day, but it’s out there—someone in that community is working on my behalf. That’s not half the battle, especially in Hollywood, that’s about 90% of the battle.

Here’s a bit trimmed out from the section on query letters and combining two successful properties that I think we should have left in:

“Combines the innocence of Harry Potter and the non-stop action of HALO,” might actually get you somewhere. If anything, having just made that up off the top of my head I’m curious as to how someone might pull that off. Or did I kinda describe Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game? I might have.

This was trimmed out of the part about how many unsolicited submissions publishers get:

I started my career as an editor with a very small, DIY literary magazine called Alternative fiction & poetry. I “paid” authors two copies of the issue in which their work appeared. I got about a dozen manuscript submissions every day, and they kept coming for at least ten years after the magazine folded. When we opened up our Wizards of the Coast Discoveries imprint, we had more than a thousand manuscripts in the first month, which meant that those 1000+ aspiring authors were on top of it enough to see a new announcement and react in a month. When Wizards of the Coast held it’s open call for a new Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting, we got over 11,000 one-page submissions.

I got a little mean in the section on writing a book before trying to sell it, didn’t I? It was a little meaner in the manuscript:

Armed with that knowledge and a completed manuscript in hand—oh, yeah, almost forgot, do not try to sell a novel you haven’t written yet. If you have a great idea, hurray for you, so does everyone. I’m not even going to try to be nice about it. No one gives a rat’s ass about your great idea. If you’ve actually written the book, and it’s an original work that is yours to sell, there is a market out there for it. If you’re talking to your agent about your tenth book, and your last nine were best sellers, your unwritten idea has value. The rules will be different for you if you’ve never been published than they are for Stephen King. Really just get over that. It’s not a challenge, it’s the way it is.

But it’s that important that you get that: Sit down and write the thing, then try to sell it.

I think I made a mistake in here, too, saying that you will be rejected. That’s not true at all, actually. That whole thing about the publishing business not caring about you, not wishing you well, goes the other way as well. The publishing industry does not wish you ill. Unless you’ve gotten all stalkery and done things like pitch Mein Kampf meets the Bible then it’s not personal. You are not being rejected, your manuscript is. No one is so awesome that everything he or she writes is pure gold. You will write a whole book—maybe you already have . . . I know I have—that you thought was just peaches at the time but in reality it’s just not good enough. Learn from that, and write better next time.

Chapter 33: Do It For a Living

I love that letter from Robert E. Howard. Here’s the source.

I’ve repeated this advice about doing it for anything but the money and having work habits that strip away limits to when and where you can write that I’m feeling a bit like a broken record. I’ll refer you back to my column at Grasping for the Wind, or you can come to San Francisco on Saturday April 2 to see me preach it live at Wondercon.

Hmm. It’s interesting that an editor trimmed out this pro-editor screed from the original manuscript:

To me, that’s really the key thing to remember about an editor. He or she is there to help you make your book the best book it can be, and at a time—before anyone else has read it—where that criticism can actually be constructive, when you have the ability to act on it. You may end up with an editor you don’t connect with, someone you’re sure just doesn’t get you. That happens fairly often, actually, but be very careful of being overly sensitive or precious of every word. If you have an editor who tells you that everything is fine as is and not to touch a thing it’s lots more likely that you’ve hit upon a lazy or overbooked editor who’s giving you and your book short shrift than that you’re really actually that good. No one is really actually that good. Go ahead and dismiss these as the words of an editor rationalizing his position, but do so at your peril: No author is so good that he or she can’t benefit from the assistance of a talented editor.

All this talk about passages being cut, by the way, shows that I did not have a lazy or overbooked editor working with me on The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction and despite a few lines I’ve said I wished were still in there, the book is way better for Peter Archer’s efforts. Thanks, Peter.

And maybe one of the reasons this book has gotten some positive reviews is that he asked me to cut (for space, actually) this whole bit on critics:

As with editors and agents, you might think it’s possible that there are good critics and bad critics, and that the “advice” of a critic can be as helpful as an editor’s or an agent’s. I suffered over whether or not to include anything on the subject of reviews, especially since I wanted to keep this book positive, but I guess I should say something. I’ll start with asking the opinion of some friends.

Lou Anders not only reads reviews, but passes them on to the authors he works with, as a way, “to gauge reaction, not inform the writing. By the time a book has come out and been reviewed, the author is way past it and into another project, and every project is its own animal.”

Reviews, both good and bad are part of the business, and though many of the traditional review sources, especially daily newspapers, are publishing fewer, if any book reviews, the critics are still out there—especially in the so-called “blogosphere.” Though I would strongly advise against reading any of your own reviews, ever, good or bad, I know that isn’t terribly realistic. According to John Betancourt: “I always read reviews; I don’t think it’s possible for anyone in publishing to not read reviews of books they have worked on. But it helps to keep them in perspective (good or bad) and develop a thick skin for the (inevitable) bad ones.” How thick does your skin has to be? Somewhere between a Kevlar vest and the armor of a main battle tank. If not thicker.

Kuo-Yu Liang, Vice President of Sales & Marketing at Diamond Book Distributors believes that aspiring authors should read reviews of other authors’ books, “to learn more about the process. Publishing and library reviews are pretty much straightforward and informative and will cover commercial genres. Mainstream reviews typically go out of their way to review literary titles that will never sell. Genre reviews can be all over the place depending on the personality of the reviewer. I think most reviews do not sell books to the consumers, but librarians and booksellers do use them as a reference.”

“I’ve never read a review that I thought made me a better writer,” said Paul S. Kemp, who admits to reading reviews of his own work. But those reviews still won’t shake his confidence. “If I let a manuscript out of my hands, that’s because, at that moment, it’s the best story I can tell and the best way I can tell it. Once that manuscript becomes a book and gets into the hands of readers, it’s theirs, and they should and do feel free to offer their views of it. But whatever their views (good or bad), it doesn’t change the fact that it was the best book I could write at the moment I wrote it. I’m content with that, irrespective of reviewer sentiment.”

Even R.A. Salvatore, one of the most successful fantasy authors in the world today, has had his share of run-ins with bad reviews that he said, “shook my confidence, made me rethink my choice of careers (and it chose me, not vice-versa, I insist!) and helped me along a road of depression that had me shaking every time I had to turn on the computer. I had just lost my best friend to cancer and Vector Prime, my foray into the Star Wars universe came out, wherein I killed Chewie. Let’s just say it was a fairly horrible few months. To this day, I won’t go near the internet for a month or two after a release.”

I’d actually advise extending that period out to infinity. You’re always better off listening to the considered opinions of your editor, whose job it is to help you be a better writer. For the most part, a critic’s job is to prove he’s a better writer than you are by finding a clever way of dismissing your life’s work. Whatever power they may actually have over your career they should have to claim without your assistance. Leave them out of your life, whether they like you or not.

And that was my nice version of what I think of critics.

Avoiding reviews is so hard, I often fall off the wagon myself. Off to the right there I’ve even linked to a few, God help me. But try. Reviews of your own work are not going to help you be anything but neurotic. I know, because I’m neurotic as hell.

I think we’ll leave it there for this week. Only one more of these to go!

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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