Kris Rusch and Terrible Contracts for Writers

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I realize that the debate between traditional publishing and self-publishing can be a bit divisive. I honestly don’t know what to think myself, as I’ve just started to look into the major differences. Self-publishing looks like a lot of work, but the bottom line might be worth it if the author has any business sense. But that’s the key, right? Most authors think agents will do all the work, and that’s probably not entirely true. What I do know is that traditional publishing has a dark side. Creators are cogs in the wheel, often cut out of royalties.

Kris Rusch, former editor of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and author of several short works and novels, has a great post about contracts and what to watch for:

These discount clauses—which the authors have freely signed—are the way that publishers are increasing their bottom lines. This is also why so many #1 New York Times bestselling authors are seeing their royalty rates decline. It’s not because the books sell fewer copies (although that’s happening as well); it’s because the authors are being paid less per copy sold—significantly less… If you insist on selling your book to a traditional publisher, especially one of the Big Whatevers, then accept that you will lose that book for the term of the copyright, and you will not get rich off that book’s sales even if the book is a bestseller.

So what’s a writer to do? If someone as established as Kris Rusch is blowing the whistle, then I think the answer is to go hybrid if you want to make a living at all:

If your goal is to be validated while you work another job, then go ahead, sign contracts with big traditional publishers. If your goal is to be a professional writer with a long-term career as a writer and no other job, you have to stay away from contracts and clauses like these.

Six SF/F Women Authors to Read This Summer

I’ve read some great stuff recently and thought I’d share my recommendations for those of you looking to find good reads this summer!

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Uprooted, Naomi Novik

Clear your schedule before reading this exciting, heartwarming, and utterly compelling fantasy: you will not put the book down until you have reached the last page.

I found myself transfixed and beguiled; I eschewed all personal hygiene, eating and sleeping (even ignoring the demands of my children) in order to see what would happen next. Novik’s writing style is easy and light without sacrificing gravity. Most fantasy novels that I’ve read bog me down with world-building: such-and-such a political structure is explained, a magic system’s rules listed like it’s a cookbook, long journeys where characters do nothing but eat and sleep and describe forests or sing songs that, quite frankly, I just skim over. Uprooted demands attention with every paragraph, the world and its rules fit the characters like comfortable sweaters, inviting the reader to become the story’s confidant. It is a tale that is at the same time grim and dark and seeped in magic of the old world, yet light and amusing and full of vivacious characters that resonate.

We follow the heroine Agnieszka (ag-NYESH-kah), a peasant girl who lives in a valley haunted by a treacherous power called the Wood. The valley is watched over by a wizard called the Dragon who resides in a tower cut off from the people. Every ten years he takes a girl from the valley to his tower, for an unknown purpose. The girl is always allowed to leave, but she never returns to her home. The story begins here, when the Dragon comes to choose the next girl, and all of the parents huddle in trepidation, hoping it won’t be one of their daughters.

 

shardsShards of Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold

A solid, clean, sci-fi adventure filled with intrigue, romance, and engaging planetary exploration. That sounds like a typical sci-fi plot, with all of the right ingredients, but the book doesn’t feel like that when you’re reading it. Bujold manages to write engaging dialogue that is informative and weighty without being obviously expository. There are little pearls of wisdom sprinkled throughout the book, things like, “The inept need rules for their own protection,” or, “Leadership is power over imagination,” to mention a few great quotable lines that struck me.

The main character is Cordelia Naismith, a captain of a survey ship (basically: science officers) exploring a newly discovered planet. She ends up marooned with an injured enemy crewman, a commander left for dead by a traitorous political rival. The two have to work together, and end up in love.

 

doomsdayDoomsday Book, Connie Willis

This book is intelligent and engaging, a story about history, disease, and eucatastrophe. Time travel plots, in my experience, are either maudlin romances or cautionary tales that end in the utter destruction of the character or civil structure they inhabit. While Willis gives the reader catastrophe after catastrophe, it all comes together for a perfect ending that pulled on my heartstrings.

Willis gives us two time periods to follow and the two stories collide perfectly at the end, making the book very exciting and addicting. It’s hard to talk about the plot without spoiling it, but the concept is very well thought out and executed: Kivrin is a history student in the year 2054 who wants to get permission to go back in time to observe the 1300s while disguised as a local. Every precaution has been taken, but once she steps through, the people she leaves behind in the future come down with a terrible influenza epidemic. Did Kivrin let something through? Until they know, the academics shut down the time machine, trapping her. And that’s just the beginning.

 

broken-starsThese Broken Stars, Aime Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

I didn’t expect to like this book so much, but it’s a very well done character story, written for a teen audience, and I thought it was very nice. The setup is pretty predictable: a cynical war hero and the daughter of the richest man alive end up marooned on a planet after their spaceliner crashes. (And yea, the ship is named ‘The Icarus’ … what were they expecting?) They of course end up together, but the writing style is very engaging and light, unpacking a myriad of issues that can be discussed with younger readers that might be new to Sci-fi. The issues cover class and race, the consequences of colonization and industrialization, to name a few. If I was still writing high school level curriculum I’d be able to come up with great essay and discussion topics.

As for adults, they’ll just enjoy it, even if it’s a bit predictable at times.

 

Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers, Alyssa Wong (Short Story)

This was a short story published in Nightmare magazine, so if horror/SF mashups aren’t your cup of tea, you won’t like it. I think what struck me most about Wong’s style is how perfectly she captured the visceral sense of hunger and the sort of stomach-rolling descriptions of a character chewing, vomiting, or savoring a bite. The main character feeds on bad thoughts, so the worse the individual, the more pleasurable the meal. Check it out if you have the inclination!

If you have a woman SF/F writer you’d like to suggest, let me know in the comments!

Critiquing Terrible Writing

One of the drawbacks of signing up as a designated critic for a writing service is that sometimes, and only sometimes, I see writing so terrible that I just don’t know what to say. The honest thing to advise would be, “wow, go back to high school,” but I obviously can’t do that.PAPER

The trick is to be diplomatic, sure, but I also want to be genuinely helpful to the writer if I can be. It’s easier to help good writers that might have a few missing elements, like an unclear setting, bad tone, a confusing POV. For the bad writer, the one that doesn’t know the difference between its and it’s, there, their, and they’re, it’s so much harder to navigate. Do I redline every grammar mistake and ruin their dreams?

There’s only so many times I can soften the blow by bracketing my corrections with phrases like, “this is just my opinion” or “this struck me as odd but maybe that’s just me.” Sometimes I’ve really seen no other option but to say things like, “you need to look at the rules for commas; here are several places where you make the same mistake.”

Some people just can’t wrap their head around expository writing, which is essential for speculative fiction. I can’t count how many times I’ve suggested, “show, don’t tell” after reading a story where I’m told exactly what to think and feel by the author, which inevitably means I end their tale experiencing absolutely nothing.

I think editing projects are essential to becoming a better writer, so I’m happy to continue doing this as long as I can. I also think I could never be a professional editor, because I have a feeling I’m not good at being entirely diplomatic when I see egregious mistakes.

New Writing and Editing Projects!

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May is off to a good start: Futura Magazine, Medium’s Science Fiction short story collection, put up my Sci-Fi/ Horror short, “Arrogant Damned” . It’s about a murderer so know what you’re getting into before you leap! One of my beta readers for the story messaged me after reading the opening and said, “hang on I need to finish breakfast first.”

He was probably kidding.  😉

In other news I joined the New England Science Fiction Association (NESFA) and I’m now involved with NESFA Press. I’m currently working on a 240 pg editing project for them, which is very cool since it enables me to get a peek into the publishing process and work on something by a well-known SF author. I’ll be sure to share the work once it’s done and up for sale (and I can speak more freely to the specifics!)

Excelsior!

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Story Organization

This was a cool gem I found on Reddit:

Mary Robinette Kowal gives a rundown of how she turns an idea into a story idea! I’m always interested in seeing how each author does this. I’m going to go through her steps to see if it helps me. Starting out as a writer means learning all the rules and then internalizing them to make them your own.

One of the things that is hardest to learn is that you need to trust your own instincts — not as a writer, but as a reader. Basically that moment when you think, “I would love to read a story about…” is a moment when your brain is offering you inspiration for a story you could write. Even niggling side thoughts like, “it would be cooler if” can be the seed of the story.

The seed isn’t the problem, it’s developing it into a story idea that’s the tricky bit. Here’s an exercise to try.

  1. Write down a gee whiz idea.
  2. Where would this gee whiz idea happen? That’s your general scenic location.
  3. Write down characters who would be there.
  4. From that list, which ones do you want to spend time with?
  5. What does each have at stake?
  6. Pick the one who has most at stake ie the most to lose. That’s your main POV character.
  7. What do they want? Brainstorm for 3-5 minutes and, then bold the idea that excites you.
  8. Why can’t they have it? Brainstorm, then bold the idea that excites you.
  9. What is their plan? Brainstorm, then bold the idea that excites you.
  10. Write 1- 3 sentences summing up your decisions.
  11. Identify what kind of MICE conflict it is.
    • A. Trying to escape – milieu
    • B. Questions –idea
    • C. Crisis of faith/self-doubt – character
    • D. Things happen! – event
  12. Where does that mean the story needs to begin? Or, what MICE Quotient frame goes around it gets.

So that gives you a basic story beginning, but something that is only a single thread is often dull.

Now we need a second plot thread. Typically, if you pick the same MICE Quotient element, it winds up being just a conflict in the main plot, not a second thread in its own right.

  • 1. Try to find a different MICE element to introduce.
    • A. Milieu – What problems exist with your MC’s environment?
    • B. Idea – What questions does your MC have?
    • C. Character – What challenges your MC’s self definition?
    • D. Event – What disrupts your MC’s status quo?
  • 2. From the list, try to pick something that is not the same kind of MICE thread as your primary conflict. This will be your secondary conflict.
  • 3. Write 2-3 sentences summarizing your decision.
  • 4. Weave that into your previous set of decisions and that gives you a very basic frame for a story.

There are other tricks and this is definitely not the only way to go from idea to story, but it’s an exercise that can help you sort things out while you are learning to develop your instincts.

 

“Hard” Sci-Fi Is a Made Up Term

Once upon a time, I made an unfortunate attempt to label the kind of thing Poul [Anderson] writes as “hard copy”—work so deeply felt and so carefully crafted that it looks solid no matter from what angle you view it—and I asked for more of the same from other people. Everyone instantly assumed that what I was talking about was sf in which the science was correct, and thus inadvertently was born our present usage of “hard science fiction.”

From James Blish The Tale That Wags the God 

The distinction between “hard” and “soft” is useful but I’ve seen various debates in the Sci-Fi community over whether or not it’s contrived. Nice to know it was all a fluke! Language is funny this way.

The X-Files are back!

X-File
The premiere last night wasn’t good but I just don’t care. Why is that? Nostalgia?

I was a wee tot in the ‘90’s so my parents didn’t let me watch the show. I did sneak it sometimes: I would peek at the TV from a crack in my bedroom door and go back to bed with nightmares.  It made a HUGE impression on me.

You can always tell who the virgins are; the people who never even heard about it because their mom’s probably watched Opra or Friends instead.

I was that kid in school who was like, WHO CARES ABOUT ROSS AND RACHEL, THERE’S A GUY WITH NO BONES IN THE CHIMNEY. I KNOW, RIGHT? SCREAM IN SILENCE FOR A WHILE.

The series has spawned some terrible movies and excellent fan theories, and now I’m glad to see it back on the air. It just seems right.