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Compulsion, Determination, and Other Mental Disorders

Stumbled across this picture on Facebook the other day and hoisted it up on my wall:


I had intended it as a gentle political jab to some of the more intractable ideologues in my feed. I like these kind of subtle jabs mostly because they are unlikely to start arguments, since everybody assumes everybody else is the one who is wrong and, therefore, they totally agree with me (while, secretly, I am snickering to myself because I’m totally talking about them).

However, a friend of mine took it in quite a different way entirely, and posted this comment:

Honest question: Have you ever wondered this about your writing career?

For a second I was taken aback, just because that wasn’t how I was thinking about this at all. It was a very good question, though, so I thought about it for a few minutes and decided that no, I never had (at least not in earnest – sure, everybody probably stops once in a while and idly wonders if they’re fooling themselves). However, I can totally see how somebody would. And this brings us to the discussion of what it takes to be a writer. The answer is, I think, kinda simple and also wildly complicated, but it starts like this:

Stage 1: You Decide To Be a Writer

There are a couple stages to this and a couple ways to come at it. Some people want something like this from when they’re a little kid (me) and some people stumble onto the desire much later in life, but once you boil it all down, you get the point where everybody makes a decision to be a writer. And I don’t mean they decide, on a lark, that novels are going to be for them and they throw themselves a party. I mean that they sit their asses down at a computer (or possibly a notebook or something), roll up their sleeves, and decide to treat writing a book with the kind of dedication and hard work that it requires. They say to themselves this is a serious endeavor which I am going to take seriously and work at consistently until I succeed.

Stage 2: You Discover That Writing is Hard

After Stage 1, you pretty rapidly get to Stage 2 which is “holy crap, this is way harder than I thought it would be!” Novels, oddly enough, do not pop out of your head fully formed and perfect. Stories are damnably intractable objects. Coming up with a good title seems essentially impossible. You get eyeball deep in your first novel and you realize, to your horror, that this damned thing is going to take years to write, probably, and that you hate it.

This is the point where Determination comes in. You swore that you’d do this and, dammit, you’re going to do it! You pour yourself another cup of coffee, turn off your phone, and knuckle down. You work late at night. You stop hanging out with friends. You bang and chip and batter that lousy novel into workable shape like Hephaestus at his forge. Then, with long ages of effort, you finally pull it off.

Stage 3: You Discover That Publishing is Fickle and Unprofitable

Here’s a not-so-well-kept secret about the publishing industry, both Indie and Traditional: it ain’t fair. Some chump of a celebrity vomits into a hardcover binding (with or without ghost writer) and makes millions while untold thousands of new talents languish in obscurity. And then, even if you score that Holy Grail of a book deal (or self-publish in the most favorable of circumstances), you then discover that the majority of books don’t sell that well and often flop. Even the ones that do “sell well” don’t make their authors a hell of a lot of money. Certainly not more money than you could make otherwise with much less effort.

At this stage, a hell of a lot of people just throw in the towel – and why not? You’re probably not going to be making real money at this and writing is super difficult and painful and time-consuming, so why bother?

This is the point where Compulsion becomes a very useful thing to have. Ever since I learned the realities of Stages 2 and 3, I have asked myself one question: If I weren’t going to try and get published, would I write anyway?

The answer to that question is, and always has been, yes.

But then there are follow-up questions:

  • If you are going to write anyway, will you still seek to improve your craft?
  • If you are going to try and improve your craft, are you willing seek other opinions on your work besides your own?
  • If you are soliciting the opinions of others, are you able to listen to those opinions honestly and without anger towards someone who is critical, as you recognize criticism as an opportunity to improve or assess your own work?

My answers to all those things are all “yes.” I think that a “yes” answer to all those things are required to be a true professional author or writer (and is all that is required, by the way). Furthermore, if you answer yes to all those questions, you may as well seek publication. It seems odd that you would put in all that work and then stuff your writing in a drawer somewhere. Send it out! Yes, you will get rejected, but so what? You are already determined and compelled to write regardless of success, and so what does it matter if some agent or publisher doesn’t like it? Hell, you can publish yourself these days! And, yes, it often won’t sell many copies or make much money, but so what? You were going to write it anyway!

So, to come back to that original sign and its message, the sign presumes that your writing career can be a mistake and I’m here to tell you that the only way that becomes true is if you don’t love writing in the first place. It can’t be a mistake if you find it fulfilling, regardless of publishing success or failure. Write! Revise! Submit! Enjoy!

Publicity News

There’s a profile of me and my work up on File 770, courtesy of Carl Slaughter, so go check it out!

Also, we are about a month away from the release of NO GOOD DEED! Pre-orders are available anywhere fine e-books are sold! It releases on June 21st, 2016!

Getting Out of the Writing Basement

Since The Iron Ring debuted and especially since attending the Writers of the Future Workshop and receiving my award, I’ve been running into more and more people who are reading or have read my book. Not “want to read,” not “been meaning to read,” not even “have it on my Kindle,” but actually in the process of reading my novel. Like, if I were to quiz them on the main character’s name, they’d actually know what I’m talking about.

This is both (1) awesome and (2) really weird. I mean, yeah, it’s what I’ve always wanted, right? Culmination of a life-long dream and all that. The thing is, though, that I’ve been alone with this story and these characters for so long and I’ve been writing my stories and novels in a vacuum for so many years that to have people actually be aware of what I do is…well…is something I have to get used to. I really wonder what my face looks like when people congratulate me on my success. I’m guessing it looks something like this:


What...seriously? Are you screwing with me, or what?

What…seriously? Are you screwing with me, or what?

I didn’t introduce myself as “a writer” or “an author” until a year or two ago, when I figured that I had enough publications to make such a claim plausible to an outsider. The immediate follow-up question to the statement “I’m a writer” is “really? What have you written?” I always felt that, if the response was “fantasy short stories nobody has bought and exist in a shoebox beneath my desk,” it would be embarrassing for both of us.

I became used to the idea that my writing was a private and solitary enterprise that I was embarking upon more-or-less alone save for the loving support and understanding of my wife, who is probably the only person I discuss my daily writing problems and anxieties with. Beyond the two of us, I was just an English Professor at a university that doesn’t even have an English major who, in his spare time, wrote stories about spaceships and goblins that nobody really read.

Not the case anymore. I am an author and, indeed, part of my job now is making sure people know it and making sure people buy my books. It turns out that I’m sort of unprepared for this on an emotional level. I am constantly surprised that people are reading my book (and like it, too!). I am so surprised that, sometimes, I secretly doubt their veracity. “They’re just being polite” is the constant refrain of a little voice in the back of my head. “Fool,” it says, “nobody is actually reading your book. Get back in your attic, weirdo!”

I need that voice to shut the hell up. This blog post is me putting that stupid voice on notice.

In my classes, I sometimes give my students a little primer on public speaking. One of the key criteria, I tell them, is confidence. You need to believe in what you say (or at least look like you do) if you are going to expect other people to believe it, too. I need to take my own goddamned advice. When people come up to me and say “Congratulations on your book!” I need to stop shuffling and “aw-shucks-ing” my way through the conversation. Sure, I’m not exactly storming the bestsellers’ lists (well…not yet), but I’m an author, dammit, and people are reading my work. This shouldn’t be a shock or surprise – I’ve worked for this for a long time, and now I’m actually doing it.

I need to own my own success and take credit for what I’ve done. This, it turns out, is harder than it sounds. It must be figured out, though – and I’m guessing I’m not the only person trying to do so – because we can’t stay talking to ourselves in our basements forever. Sooner or later, we need to go into the world and be proud of what we’ve wrought, even if it’s only the beginning of a much greater work.

Publicity Notes

  • I will be giving a talk on world-building in fantasy literature at the Adams Street branch of the Boston Public Library this Monday, 5/18, at 6:30pm. The event is free and refreshments will be served. I will also be doing a reading from The Iron Ring.
  • I will be doing another book-signing of the Writers of the Future Volume 31 anthology on May 30th from 2-4pm at the Prudential Center Barnes and Nobel in Boston.
  • Pre-orders for Blood and Iron, part 2 of the Saga of the Redeemed, are still for sale everywhere e-books are sold! Get yours today!
  • I’m still holding my contest for the Best One-Liner to win a free copy of The Iron Ring. Contest ends Monday, so enter now!

Here It Is: The Big News!

Some of you may remember when I hinted something big is in the works for me way back in March. Well, I’ve finally been given clearance to talk about it:

I have been offered, and have accepted, a 3-book deal with HarperVoyager to publish The Oldest Trick, my novel set in my fantasy world of Alandar and featuring Tyvian Reldamar. A little blurb about the book:

Almost three decades ago, the Battle of Calassa ended the ambitions of the wizard-dictator Banric Sahand. The war changed the world; sorcery, once the exclusive province of the Arcanostrum of Saldor, began to filter its way out into the hands of the common people. Though tightly regulated, the harnessing of the High Arts brought about a renaissance of practical magecraft, enhancing everything from transportation to health to communication, not to mention crime.

Enter Tyvian Reldamar — Arcanostrum drop-out, smuggler, and impeccable dresser. He’s just been betrayed by his longtime partner (naturally) and left for dead in a freezing river (as is customary). The one hiccup is this: some fool has affixed a magical ring to his finger that won’t let him ‘do evil’, whatever that means. To get even, Tyvian will have to use every dirty trick in the book to combat this ridiculous magical albatross, all the while drawing himself deeper and deeper into a vast conspiracy at the center of which is none other than old Banric Sahand himself. Faced with enemies on all sides and only the grubbiest of allies beside him, Tyvian will discover (with the ring’s help) that maybe—just maybe—he isn’t quite the evil villain he’s always thought himself to be.

The first book – The Oldest Trick – is to be serialized into two volumes (parts 1 and 2) while the third book, tentatively titled All That Glitters, will track Tyvian’s continuing adventures. Release for part one will likely be in February, 2015. This is a digital-only release with only a limited print run associated with the books, but it is extremely exciting for me and the culmination of a life-long dream and ambition. My heartfelt thanks to the good folks over at Harper Voyager for giving me this opportunity.

Here is a copy of the press release:

Voyager Impulse Press release

(not to quibble, but I won second place in the Writers of the Future. I mean, I still won, but they make it sound like I won the whole enchilada, which isn’t strictly true. This makes for better marketing copy, though, so far be it from me to complain!)

Thanks to all of you out there who have encouraged me, listened to me, and been kind enough to read what I’ve written over the years. Now, if you’ll just follow me a bit further, I promise to take us on an adventure we won’t soon forget.

P.S.: I will be certain to make lots and LOTS of noise about this when it is released, so don’t worry about missing it. Watch this space!

Writers of the Future Winner = ME!

Victory is mine!

Victory is mine!

The Writers of the Future Contest has been running now for 30 years. It seeks to publish the best in new science fiction and fantasy writers each year and only those who haven’t yet become full professionals (as defined by the contest) may enter. It is designed to find the new voices in the speculative fiction world and give them a platform off of which to build their career. Its judges include folks like Dave Wolverton, Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, and other luminaries in the field. Each year, only twelve people win.

This year, I’m one of them.

This is the tenth or eleventh time I’ve entered the contest (each year you can enter four times, once for each quarter; I’ve been entering about twice a year now for five-ish years, maybe more). I’ve racked up one Honorable Mention, two Semi-finalist finishes, one finalist, and now this: Second place in the First Quarter of 2014/Volume 31. This is a huge, huge deal. My story will be published in the anthology next year, they will fly me out to LA for a week long writing workshop with the pros, there will be a party and an awards ceremony and I’ll get to wear a tuxedo and so on. Oh, yeah, and I win some prize money, too.

It still doesn’t quite seem real to me. I keep expecting them to call me back and explain that it was some giant mistake and that, actually, they meant to call the other guy named Auston. I haven’t gotten that call, though. This is the real deal. It’s like winning the American Idol of science fiction writers, except nobody is going to make me sing some crappy song written by a bunch of monkeys with typewriters. Well, at least I don’t think so.

Anyway, come next April, I’ll let you all know.

The Risk of Success

I’ve been very navel-gazey lately; I apologize. It just so happens that, unlike my usual life, I’ve been experiencing a lot of things pertinent to the theme of this blog, which is my writing career and the speculative fiction world at large. Here is the latest:

I have, for the second time, been nominated a finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest.

This comes on the heels of a bunch of other bits of good writing news – I’ve got a couple stories out, more coming, the Really Big Deal I Can’t Discuss Yet, and so on. I don’t have any reason to expect to win the contest this time around, but then again, part of me feels like I just might. Things just keep turning up roses for me lately, so why shouldn’t the trend continue? I mean, besides the complete lack of compelling evidence that any such thing as a ‘trend’ exists when we are discussing mostly isolated incidents that are as much decided by idiosyncratic taste and luck as my actual skill. Right.

successAnyway, for the first time in my writing career, I’ve permitted myself to actually ponder the implications of actually becoming what I’ve always intended to become – a professional author. Yeah, sure, I’ve spent long hours daydreaming about movies being made out of my books or what it would be like to have hundreds (or even thousands) of fans clamoring to read my next book, but that stuff is just idle fantasy. I am now thinking about the realistic kind of success – the kind that actually happens to a fair number of people, not the miracles that are JK Rowling or Stephen King (note: no disrespect to them intended, but I’m sure they’d be the first to admit that the dump-trucks full of money their books made was as much due to serendipity as talent).

A couple things I am learning to accept:


#1: I am (Probably) Never Going to Be Able to Quit My Day Job

Writing and writers – even reasonably successful ones – do not make tons of money. I mean they can make reasonable money, sure, but not “I wrote a book and now I can retire” money. I’ve got two kids, a mortgage, a car payment and the rest of it; unless I can guarantee myself an annual salary from writing equal to or greater than what I make as a college professor, I’m going to be grading papers for a looong time. Now, granted, this is within the realm of possibility (it isn’t as though they’re paying me an absurd quantity to teach in the first place), but teaching, unlike writing, is a stable and long-term career. My writing is going to have to learn to coexist with it unless it really starts showering me with funds.


#2: There Will Be Setbacks as Well as Victories

You don’t just get yourself one book deal and then relax on easy street for the rest of your career. There are going to be significant challenges along the way. Turns in the road, bridges burned, betrayal, and mayhem (well, hopefully not those last two). You’re going to have to learn how to deal with it. This isn’t a race with a finish line – it’s a race to get into another race. You better like running.


#3: Don’t Be Afraid of Success

So, say you sell a novel (or several). You are then faced with an actual deadline by which you need to finish the book. Me, I like deadlines – allows me to manage my time better. Still, the prospect of having a drop-dead date for a book is a little intimidating. Without a book deal (or even real interest), your novel can be fiddled with, edited, and reworked as long as you want. Spend fifteen years on the thing if you want – who’s to care? To have that writing model (just me and my computer) removed from the equation is equal parts terrifying and exhilarating. Despite your trepidations, you’ve got to jump in, anyway. Regret what you have done and not what you haven’t and all that jazz.


Anyway, I hope more good news will be coming the way of this blog soon. In the meantime, I’ll keep writing commentary on whatever in the spec-fic world catches my fancy as well as keep posting information about my fantasy world, Alandar. That last part, of course, is just for funsies. Honest. There’s no other reason to do that…