Doing the Work

How to Fake Clarion

So this happened this morning.

For many of us, Clarion isn't in the cards. Maybe you can't leave your job for six weeks without losing the job and your home. Maybe you're the parent of a small child, or take care of an elderly or disabled relative. Maybe you have a chronic health condition yourself, or an anxiety disorder that means you wouldn't be able to travel or participate. Maybe you're saving up for a house or paying off medical debt.

Maybe you'd rather go on a proper vacation if you happen to come into a few thousand dollars in disposable income.

None of these things mean you can't be a professional writer. But the good news is, there's more than one path to being a writer, pro or otherwise.

Clarion Isn't the Only Game in Town

First off, Clarion is a six-week endeavor. There are other writer's workshops that require only one week out of your life, and are also highly regarded. Viable Paradise, for example -- and I wish I could make the time for that one. Taos Toolbox is also reportedly an excellent workshop and worth your time and money, if you have them to spare.

Even better, these retreat-style workshops aren't the only way to improve your craft. There might be a genre writer's workshop in your own town that meets once a week, or once a month. And there are critique circles online ranging from Critters to Absolute Write -- I'm sure commenters will chime in with more. If you want a workshop-style venue to have your work read, and to critically read the work of other writers in turn, there are plenty of options.

And the truth is, workshops are helpful... but they're not necessary. Far from it.

Faking a Workshop

What a workshop does for you is hone your critical eye. Simply by being exposed to excellent critical thinking, you develop the capacity to critique your own work. But you can develop a critical eye on your own, if other means don't suit you.

Read. Read widely. But don't just take in the story. As you go, consciously reflect on what you're thinking and feeling. Are you expecting the story to go in a particular direction? What exact sentence or passage led you to that belief? What made you feel excited, or sad, or tense? How are the scenes structured? How are description, dialogue, and action blended together? How long are the sentences? A story is a machine, and every part should be doing a specific job. You need to become a mechanic, able to look at each piece of the story to identify what work is being done.

Read reviews. But not of your own work -- of the stuff you're already analyzing. When you've finished a book or a story, go looking for the reactions of other people to calibrate your own antennae. In preference, read longer, analytic reviews that talk about both what a work has done and how it fits into the overall landscape of genre publishing. Deep critical analysis like you'll find on NPR Books or Tor.com are perfect, but you'll even find insightful critique on Goodreads and Amazon. 

Read bad work. This is, I strongly believe, an important part of a writer's development. Read stuff you know is going to be bad. And then -- this is the important part -- analyze the hell out of it. Why is it bad? Does it fail on a sentence level, on consistency, does it fail in terms of pacing or plausibility? Sometimes we learn from mistakes better than we learn from success. You can't watch Meryl Streep and learn how to be an amazing performer, but you can watch a fifth grade play and learn that maybe you shouldn't leave your hands hanging by your sides the whole show, and maybe you should speak up a little more.

Revise. This is where you apply what you've learned. The temptation to write and immediately submit is strong, but while you're trying to actively develop your craft, resist the urge. Come back to a story after a few days, weeks, months if you can spare them, and try to read as if you'd never seen the story before. Think about everything you're learning, and apply those lessons to your own work. 

Repeat. Clarion (and other workshops) are an intensive course in this kind of thinking, but even when Clarion is over, you'll need to keep doing these things forever. At least, you do if you want to keep growing as a writer. And why on earth would you ever want to stop getting better?

Clarion's Secret Sauce

Here's the real reason Clarion is a big deal: the alumni association, as it were, is a powerful and widespread network in genre publishing. Human nature being what it is, we like people who have the same experiences and affiliations as we do. And we like to help the people we like. So if you go to Clarion, some doors of opportunity are a little more open to you than they were before.

We like to tell ourselves that publishing is a meritocracy, and that's only sort of true. People do emerge from the slush pile, naked and alone. You really don't have to know someone to be published.

But at the same time, it's a bit easier to break in if you've become a familiar face -- not just because people are more willing to go to bat for a friend, but because you'll begin to understand the kinds of work different editors and markets are interested in, you'll learn from the successes and mistakes of your peers, you'll become a part of the cultural conversation that SF/F fundamentally is.

So how do you fake the network? Duh, networking! Build your own. Go to cons, if you can. Make friends. Invite people to coffee or a drink. If that's not possible for you, work social media. Follow authors, editors, agents on Twitter. 

And don't be all networky and utilitarian about it, because people can tell and generally super hate that. You need to approach everything as an exercise in meeting interesting people and making friends. Promote the work you admire. Ask questions. Introduce people to each other when you can; do favors when you can. Give to the community. Give. Give. You can worry about taking later, or maybe never. 

Because Clarion is, at the end of the day, just one neighborhood in the SF/F community. But there are others, and you'll find professional writers in all of them.


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Confessions of a Transmedia Pundit

If you're a long-time reader here, it won't have escaped your notice that I stopped talking about transmedia a while back. I'm not writing about craft anymore, I'm not giving talks at conferences, and I've been increasingly winding down or declining commitments to run workshops, speak to classes of aspiring digital professionals, and so on. But it's not because I've left transmedia, and not that I don't believe in transmedia anymore.

Partly this is because I'm in an extremely fortunate position wherein haven't needed to hustle for new projects for a long time now. But it was already in the cards when I was still hustling. Mostly it's because I don't want to sell snake oil, and when I talked about transmedia, snake oil was where I was headed -- and definitely what audiences wanted from me: promises that if they just did what I told them, they'd get more engagement, attract more eyeballs, and make more money.

That's not always true. Transmedia is not your magic bullet; you can use every technique in the toolbox and still make a project nobody ever looks at or cares about. Sometimes implementing a transmedia strategy is a waste of precious energy and resources. It's hard to say that when your goal is to get people to hire you for money to do things, though. But look: transmedia isn't synonymous with innovative or interesting, nor is it a replacement for a traditional marketing plan.

Anyway, I didn't want to become someone eternally pitching something I didn't believe in anymore. So I stopped punditing, basically.

There's another reason, too. While I was still on the conference circuit, I found myself increasingly talking about work that I'd done or experienced three years before, five years. Meanwhile the amount of work I was actually doing was paltry, and I don't think any transmedia work I've done has been noteworthy since... well. *coughs* It's been a while. 

I got into this field because of the art, because of the audience relationships, because when you make something amazing and electric, there's nothing else like it. I got into this because of The Beast, because I was told a story and gifted with an experience that changed my life. I want to do that, too. 

I wasn't ever, ever going to do that by speaking to a group of brand strategists about the engagement pyramid.

When something isn't working for you, when you find yourself walking down a path that goes somewhere you don't want to be, the only answer is to turn a corner and head somewhere else. So what have I been doing instead? I doubled and tripled down on making instead of talking

I've got a really magnificent long-term project that you could probably call transmedia I'm working on -- details will come eventually, I swear. Hopefully in the next couple of months!

And I've also been chipping away at a long-term plan to build some credibility as a writer, and maybe start some organic growth so that one day I can go to a publisher or a production company and have the gravitas to get more complex things made... without having to start a studio my own self. I've done independent works like Lucy Smokeheart and The McKinnon Account. I've also somehow turned into a legit science fiction author. I've written a novel, I've published a few short stories. I'm represented by Zoe Sandler at ICM now, and I'm a member of SFWA. I have a game on the way, and some secret stuff, too. I'm making again. It feels... amazing.

But I'm still here, and I have big plans. Long-range plans, to be sure. But hopefully when we get there, you'll find it's been worth the wait.

And who knows, maybe when the time comes, I'll finally have some new things to say about transmedia, too.

 


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Lists

I can predict without fail whether a working day will be an exceptional one or not based solely on whether I make a list in the morning.  

I cut my teeth on the old Franklin planners, back before they were Franklin-Covey. I've tried moving to electronic task lists a dozen times since then, using any number of tools. The Handspring Visor, Tiddlywiki, Reminders, Things.app, Remember the Milk. Probably a dozen more that I abandoned and forgot within two weeks. I had a long, successful run with Entourage, which managed intermittently recurring tasks with a brilliance I've not seen since, but my calendaring and email needs have brought me elsewhere over the last decade. 

Yet I always come back to pen and paper. Maybe a pretty notebook, with thick, creamy paper; maybe a grungy Moleskine with stickers on it. And pens! Gel pens, mostly, or my beloved Waterman Audace fountain pen, one of my most well-loved possessions. Smudgy pencils only as a last resort.

For years, I've tried to explain to myself why paper works when digital fails me. It's not like me. I'm an early adopter. A technophile. A full-on digital native. And yet every electronic task system falls short for me, cluttered up with things I no longer intend to do, or things I can't possibly get to until next week, or simply ignored until the shame of restarting becomes too heavy to bear.

But with paper, every day is a fresh start, if I need one. Just... turn the page. Coffee, pen, paper, ten minutes for contemplation of time and energy and deadlines.

And not just one list; I have many. One of all my active projects, so I remember all the flaming swords I'm juggling. One for things I want to remember to do, so I don't lose track of them, but don't mean to get to today. And one, carefully curated, spelling out the shape of this today. Big things: writing a thousand words, a conference call, read and sign a contract. Smaller things: shower, water the plants, paint my daughter's toenails.

There are days, weeks, months where I don't make any lists at all. I get some stuff done in that time, surely I do. It might even be about the same amount of stuff, to be honest. I can't know. But those times are a bleak and hazy wasteland in memory. Those are the days I'm tired, the days I fritter away, the days I stay where I am instead of moving toward what I want.  

But even knowing this, knowing how important a list can be, how it can make or break a day, I don't always make a list. I mean to, of course, but sometimes I just can't bear to, I don't have it inside me to write one. A chicken/egg paradox, it would seem.

I've come to realize that my lists aren't about productivity or planning. Not really. To me, my lists are a signifier of intent and potential, and that is why I can't move to digital. Glancing at a screen pre-populated with the stuff I thought today should be for, all chosen sometime last week? This isn't the same fundamental action. It's the making the list that's important, not merely having a list.

Making a list is creating an arcane focus for the mind. It's an act requiring a summoning of will in the moment. It's not really that a list makes a better day, I think. It's that it's only on a good day that I'm capable of making a list.


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Patreon Policies for SFWA-Qualifying Markets

As previously discussed, Patreon is a great new thing where fans of a creator can directly fund an artist's output, be it writing, podcasts or videos, poetry, music, essays, blogging... anything, really. It's an interesting model, and one I'm taking for a test-drive my own self. (Hey, maybe join my Patreon? $1/month for a short story! It's a good time, I promise!)

For writers, this raises an interesting question regarding rights. If you've posted something on Patreon, does it count as a first sale? Would a short story market ever consider something that had been previously posted on Patreon?

I decided to find out. I collected some contact information from the short story markets I care about most -- the ones that qualify you to get into SFWA. (Ambitions, I have them.) I omitted a few markets, mainly those that were invite-only, plus Highlights because it was impossible to find contact information. And then I send out this email on April 10:

Hi!

I'm conducting a poll of SFWA-qualifying short fiction markets to find out their policy on works previously sent to an audience through Patreon. I'm planning on collating the responses I receive into a blog post so that information is out there in the public domain.

Patreon is a fairly new online service that allows your audience to directly support your work with an ongoing pledge. So for example, my patrons can pledge $1 for each short story I write and send to them. Someone else might use the Patreon service for podcasts, videos, critical essays, comics, etc. It's a little like Kickstarter, except the fundraising is ongoing rather than one-time.

Patreon posts can be locked, so pieces aren't really published for a general audience. But there is a monetary transaction in place, so it's not precisely the same thing as posting to Critters.org or Absolute Write for a beta read, either.

My questions for you are:

Does a short story sent to Patreon backers count as a previously published story for your purposes, and would you accept such a submission?

Do stories have to be locked to patrons only for you to consider a piece? (I'd assume so, but it's worth asking!)

Is there a particular cutoff line after which a Patreon story is considered published in your eyes? What if there were only five Patreon backers, or ten? What if there were a thousand?

Does this policy also apply to other works, like poetry or illustrations?

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions, and do let me know if you need any clarification or other information before responding. I look forward to hearing from you!

I figure two weeks is long enough to wait for answers to come in, and by now I have a fair number of them. The result is mostly no, though a few markets will consider a Patreon-released story as a reprint. Here are the market-by-market responses:

Apex Magazine: No. Says Cameron Salisbury: "Considering that the author has been paid by their patrons for rights to read the story, first rights have been relinquished. It doesn't matter if 1 person paid for the story or 1000. We require first rights. So we're not paying 6 cents a word because the story has been previously published.

"Stories published to online locked groups like Critters are not considered previously published. 

"These policies also apply to poetry and nonfiction."

Buzzymag: Yes, as a reprint. "It would be deemed as published and we do accept previously published work, subject to the rules we have posted for such work."

Beyond Ceaseless Skies: No. Scott Andrews says: "Yes, to me, a story sent to Patreon backers would count as previously published.  No, I would not accept it at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, because we don't publish reprints.

"To me, it's not that money might have been paid, or the number of Patreon backers who received it; it is that the story was presented to an audience.  That to me makes it published.  (On Critters.org, the difference to me is that that is presenting the story not to an audience but to beta-readers.)"

Clarkesworld: No. Neil Clarke says: "Quite familiar with Patreon. We're using them ourselves. ... I'd call that published and the end of your first rights."

Cosmos: Yes, but don't submit. Cat Sparks says: "Cosmos is not currently accepting unsolicited fiction submissions. I was not aware of Patreon & will have to give it further thought, but theoretically if a story was locked to patrons only I would not consider it to have been previously published."

Grantville Gazette: Yes. Says Rick Boatright: "Policy is  simple, we don't care."

Lightspeed: Yes, but as a reprint. Such a post would have to be previously locked to viewership for patrons. Says John Joseph Adams: "Even if I'd just be considering it as a reprint. If it was freely available online elsewhere I probably wouldn't be interested in reprinting it in Lightspeed. (I wouldn't mind that for an anthology, but since Lightspeed is a digital magazine with an online component I tend to avoid reprinting works that are already freely available online elsewhere.)"

Nature: No. Says Colin Sullivan: "I think the idea of Patreon is interesting, but at the moment I can only view it as another potential publication outlet for a story. As that boils down to another "place submit" a story, I feel that if a piece appears through Patreon that constitutes "previous publication", which means such a story would not be eligible under our present submission rules."

Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show: No. Edmund Schubert says: "I'd have to say that anything that appeared online, in any way, at any time, would be considered published, and would not be of interest to IGMS."

Strange Horizons: Yes, provided it was locked to patrons. An Owomoyela says: "In general, we're interested in first publication, not first payment – distribution to a closed group, as with a password-protected website or a restricted mailing list, doesn't count as publication for our purposes.  So, we would accept a submission for a story originally distributed to a closed Patreon list." But also note that poetry policy may be different, and: "As of now, we don't have any policy in place to define publication through a platform like Patreon. We may find ourselves refining a position in the future, especially as platforms like Patreon become more established, but practically, so far, it hasn't come up."

Tor dot com: No. Irene Gallo says: "I would say that falls under self-publishing and would disqualify it as an original story for us. 

"I'll add that each of our stories, while free on the site, are also available whenever ebooks are sold, globally.  So our authors are making royalties from them above the initial flat fee. (Because the stories are free online, we do not consider the initial fee an advance, they begin collecting royalties right away.)"

So there you have it! If more responses come in, I'll update this post to reflect it. And meanwhile, if you run a market, please do feel free to comment here to lay out what your own Patreon policy is -- any genre welcome.

I'll just add one more thing -- as a Patreon creator, I'm up to $104 per story in fairly short order. That's already competitive with any market paying a semi-pro rate. I'd love the wider readership and chance at acclaim that come with publishing in a magazine like Apex or Lightspeed, don't get me wrong! But it's entirely possible that by this time next year, submitting to a market that pays even full pro rates would net less dollars in my pocket than Patreon does. It's going to be interesting to see how this all shakes out in the next couple of years, huh?


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Lucy in Cold, Hard Numbers: Part 3

This is a continuation of a series in which I share my sales numbers for the Kickstarted e-published serial pirate adventure, The Daring Adventures of Lucy Smokeheart. For earlier analysis, see Lucy in Cold, Hard Numbers: Part 1 and Part 2. Readers may also be interested in The Economics of Lucy Smokeheart, which laid out my budget for the project while the Kickstarter was running: Part 1 and Part 2. 

There's a lot of talk going on in the social medias right now about author income. Publishing Perspectives released a pretty chart showing typical author income by type of publishing (aspiring, traditional, self-publishing, hybrid.) The data the chart is based on is from Digital Book World, and it shows about what I'd expect: writing books is a lousy way to make a living, and very few people do so. 

Meanwhile, I've just released Prisoner's Dilemma, episode 7 of The Daring Adventures of Lucy Smokeheart, and I'm long overdue in reporting Lucy's sales numbers for the last few months. (For newcomers, I try to be as transparent as possible with numbers such as these to give other writers a clear-eyed view into one story, at least. Relevant background: the Kickstarter made $7701 from 251 backers back in March of 2013.)

Here's the raw data to date.

Lucy Raw Data.jpg

The big conclusions: Since the Kickstarter ended and I began self-publishing the episodes, I've made $141.04 extra from Lucy to date (roughly -- this isn't excluding a small amount of transaction fees and some currency conversions may be off.) I've sold 136 individual episodes, 10 new subscriptions, and I've given away 185 episodes in all.

I'll also note that this includes 6 episodes over the course of 8 months; I'm releasing one new episode every five to six weeks, roughly, which is... meh, it's OK.

Income By Month.jpg

But let's see some of this in pretty chart format, shall we? Maybe we can pick out some interesting stories based on this data. Here's the first one: Income by month.

August and December have both been really great months for me, for a definition of "really great" that means "I earned enough to take the whole family to McDonald's one night."

This speaks directly to the heart of that debate about how much money a self-published author can or might be making. It's pretty clear Lucy Smokeheart isn't making me much of a living, and if I had a day job, I shouldn't be quitting it for this. It's also interesting that there just isn't a clear trend here, not up, not down. I have eight months of data and still not much idea what makes a good month and what doesn't.

Sales by Outlet.jpg

Then there's Sales by Retail Outlet.

No surprise here: Amazon is absolutely the gorilla in the room, followed by Barnes & Noble/Nook.

I sell copies on Apple/iTunes, but in a volume only marginally higher than episodes I sell directly through Payhip (or previously, Gumroad.)

In all of the time I have been collecting data, I have never once sold an episode of Lucy Smokeheart on Kobo. As far as I can tell, maintaining a presence on Kobo is pointless.

Sales vs. Freebies.jpg

Then there's one that's a little bit of a mythbuster here: Sales vs. Freebies.

If you squint, it looks like there's a little bump the month after I've done a lot of giving away episodes, but a closer look at the data doesn't support that reading. The giveaways have all been episode 1, so further sales would be skewed toward later episodes. That hasn't happened.

So it may well be that freebies lead to sales... but that doesn't seem to be panning out particularly well for me. I dunno, maybe I'm doing it wrong. But the correlation of freebies=future sales just isn't there for me.

Sales by Outlet by Month.jpg

That said... I had the first episode of Lucy Smokeheart enrolled in KDP Select up until early September, and single-episode sales have been stagnant since then... mostly on Amazon. That leads me to speculate that dropping out of KDP Select has been bad news for Lucy Smokeheart overall.

See this last chart, Sales by Outlet per Month. It's true, Amazon hasn't been so good to me since I dropped out of KDP Select, though that's been disguised by a tiny picking-up of sales from B&N. And given the huge percentage of my sales are in fact on Amazon, I'm reconsidering that whole KDP thing again. At the very least, this is going to require some serious thought.

So in conclusion: This is what a successful Kickstarted ebook serial looks like once it makes it to the self-publishing phase. These are not impressive numbers. These aren't even fund-a-Starbucks-habit numbers. Of course my sales are skewed -- remember I have 248 subscribers getting every episode of Lucy Smokeheart as I write them, and they've already paid for those. (Plus another ten entitled to it... but they never filled out the backer survey.) I cannibalized my base of friends, family, and ardent supporters before I ever exported the first ebook.

But even so, man, it's a good thing this isn't my day job. ...Not that I have a day job...

And if you are so moved to support Lucy Smokeheart, there are manifold buying options online. Episode 1 is free! Or if you want to go big, can I interest you in a subscription to The Complete Adventures?


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