Strange Horizons launched at Worldcon 15 years ago. It would be impossible to overstate the impact the magazine had on my life. They published some of my earliest short stories, and certainly the first story of mine to get any attention, “Little Gods,” my first major award nominee. I published some of my best work there — “Artifice and Intelligence,” “Living with the Harpy,” “Another End of the Empire” — as well as heaps of my poetry (including my Rhysling Award winner, “Soul Searching”) and even some of my reviews, and they were for a long time the magazine I thought of as my “home.” (Here’s everything of mine they published over the years.)
I haven’t published there in a while, largely because I almost never send out stories on spec anymore, but I wouldn’t have my career without it.
Also, and rather more importantly, I wouldn’t have the life I have without it, because Strange Horizons led directly to my meeting my wife Heather Shaw. She worked for SH, and the magazine held an event for Nalo Hopkinson at Heather’s house in Oakland way back in 2001. Founder Mary Anne Mohanraj was kind enough to invite me (I was living down in Santa Cruz) and as soon as I saw Heather, I was hopelessly smitten. (She didn’t much notice me then. She had an event to help run, after all. But I wooed her.) A few months later we were living together, a couple of years later we were engaged, and four years later we were married.
Like I said. Impossible to overstate the importance of the magazine to me. It’s also one of the most long-running and dependably fantastic publications on the internet, and has helped launch the careers of more amazing writers than I can count. It’s been around so long I think people take it for granted. Well, don’t. Take a minute to think about how fantastic they are, and if you haven’t read much there, be delighted: you have 15 years of archives to explore.
So. How’re things?
I have been writing a lot, and I’ve gotten so much done, that now the only thing on my to-do list is “Write the rest of Queen of Nothing.” It is indicative of how busy I’ve been that “write a novel” seems like a very restful schedule. (This month I’ve written a story, revised a novel, revised sample chapters for a proposal, contributed to a round-robin collaboration, and other miscellaneous bits.)
Our vacation in San Diego (where I went for Westercon and my wife and kid went for Legoland and swimming pools, mainly) was very pleasant. Returning to real life was bumpy initially, but I’m back in the flow now. I love summer. We’ve been going swimming a lot, grilling in the yard, reading in the hammock, drinking beer on patios, walking in the sunshine, watching movies, spending time with friends. Soaking up all the light. I’m enjoying the present and excited about the future. (Saying that will doubtless summon a devastating meteor strike directly on my house, but so it goes.)
In weird project news, I’m up to 101 supporters for my story-a-month Patreon! It’s not life-changing money, but it’s definitely life-improving money. I’ve done three stories so far, available to anyone pledging at least $1 a month: “A Wedding Night’s Dream,” about a strange wedding in the woods; “North Over Empty Space,” revisiting a couple of the supernatural mercenaries from my story “Cup and Table”; and “Not a Miracle But a Marvel,” which I’ve been describing as my “polyamorous fairy abduction story.” Plus some excerpts from works-in-progress and forthcoming books and a piece of Batman fanfic, extras made available for those who pay $5 a month or more. Basically, if you like my fiction, I encourage you to check it out and consider kicking in. I think I’m giving great value, and it’s a really exciting model for direct support of artists.
Looking back over 2013… it’s been a good year. One of my best years, honestly.
After thinking a lot about my levels of happiness, and what I could do to increase them, I made some pretty big changes this year, and have actually stuck with them for the entire year, which makes me think they might become habitual.
One was taking better care of my body, since I put on a lot of weight in 2012; I did not enjoy weighing one-eighth of a ton, so I started eating better and exercising more. I dropped about 40 pounds in 2013 — okay, after excessively rich holiday food it’s more like 35 right now, but I’ll get back there — and I feel vastly better. More energy, my clothes fit better (indeed, whole heaps of old clothes in the back of my closet fit again), and I’ve rewired my brain sufficiently that looking upon a plate of immensely greasy fried food no longer fills me with intense desire, but rather with queasiness. (I still have a weakness for ice cream, which I do indulge — because life is for living — but I indulge rather less frequently than I once did.)
The other significant change was fighting against my natural hermit-like tendencies, as I’ve come to recognize that spending time with other humans, especially if I’m drinking beer or playing games or taking part in other pleasant diversions with them, is crucial to my mental health. It is no longer entirely accurate to say I never go places or do things. I’ve made new friends and managed to spend more time with old ones, and it’s been great. Now if I go a week without drinking beer with people on a patio somewhere I get stir crazy, which is a huge change from my past mindset, when I was so introverted I barely interacted with anyone besides family and co-workers in the real world unless I was at a convention.
I was worried that socializing more would cut into my writing time or reading time, but mostly it’s replaced my video-game-playing time, so that’s a trade I’m happy to make.
Other adventures in 2013: Helping to run the first annual (we hope) Dragon’s Lair writing retreat up on the Russian River. Really, Heather did all the heavy organizing, so I mostly just got to hang out with awesome people and cook a lot of food and sit in a hot tub and talk about writing and, oh, yes, actually do some writing, too.
We took the kid to Disneyland in the spring (and went to Wondercon, since it was right down the street). We also made it to the Nebula Awards weekend in April down in San Jose (highlight: a dinner with Jay Lake and various other writerly types), and I went to local convention Convolution in November and babbled on some panels. The only other substantial travel was an epic trip to Missouri to visit family with my son in July, which involved an unscheduled three-day stop in Chicago on the way home because of a plane crash at the San Francisco Airport causing our connecting flight to be canceled. The lovely Mary Anne Mohanraj put us up in her beautiful home in Oak Park for the duration of our stranding, and Chicagoan Holly McDowell took us to lunch one day, so as far as travel disasters go it was pretty fantastic.
I actually saw a bit of live music this year, after a few years of not going to shows. Heather wrote a haiku for a contest and won VIP tickets to the huge Outside Lands music festival in Golden Gate Park, which was amazing. Nine Inch Nails and Paul McCartney and lots and lots of other bands, and also foooood. Later I saw Sean Nelson and the Long Winters play a great show in San Francisco with a friend.
Other highlights that involved leaving my house: The family went to the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz in the summer, always a delight. We attended various festivals, notably Eat Real and the Berkeley Kite Festival. We went to a weird cool art thing, the Lost Horizon Night Market, which briefly sparked a desire in me to do weird cool art, which fortunately passed.
My kid got a bicycle for Christmas in 2012, and learned to ride it in January, and we spent much of the summer going on rides pretty much every weekend, tearing up and down trails all over the East Bay, some of the most fun I’ve ever had with my kid (which is a pretty high bar). The boy started kindergarten in the fall. Insert the usual stuff about how they grow up so fast, etc.; which is cliche, but so very true.
Our friend Dawson visited twice, for Heather’s birthday in January and for our son’s birthday in November. Heather had an amazing birthday cocktail party where we drank loooots of sidecars. At the other end of the year, in December, I had a birthday party (weird, but see above re: being more social) where I drank ridiculous quantities of bourbon. The boy’s birthday party involved many many bounce houses. We all celebrate in our own way.
There was some writing stuff too.
I published some books. My collection Antiquities and Tangibles and Other Stories came out in January, and I’m so proud of it. My banter-filled sword and sorcery novel Liar’s Blade was published in March, and it’s one of the most fun books I’ve ever written. The middle-grade spy novel I co-wrote with Andy Deemer, The Stormglass Protocol, came out in September and has picked up some great reviews. Anthology Rags & Bones, co-edited with my dear friend Melissa Marr, appeared in October and has been getting a fantastic reception. The e-book of my latest Marla Mason novel Bride of Death came out this fall, and will be available in print in January.
I’ve written a bit over 300,000 words of fiction and paid non-fiction this year. That’s mostly three full novels written in 2013: Bride of Death, an as-yet-untitled sequel to my book City of the Falling Sky, and contemporary fantasy Heirs of Grace (which may be the best book I’ve ever written). I wrote a few stories, too: “Bastard, Sword”; “Secret Storage,” with Greg van Eeekhout; “The Retgun”; “Revels in the Land of Ice”; “Batman and Wife”; “Seasonal Disorder”, with Heather Shaw;”Happy Old Year; and “Those Who Hunt Monster Hunters.” Most of those are out, or coming out, except “Batman and Wife” which I wrote to perform at a reading, and “Those Who Hunt…” which is on submission. The rest of the wordage consists of miscellaneous essays and reviews and such.
I sold some books, including two of the three I wrote this year, and another Pathfinder Tales novel I need to write next year. For someone whose career crashed and burned in 2009, I keep fairly busy.
Heather and I decided that, since our kid is a bit older now and we find ourselves with the occasional bit of free time, that we’d relaunch our ‘zine Flytrap, this time mostly as an online entity (though we’ll produce a limited number of print issues), paying professional rates for fiction. (Though SFWA just raised their rates, so we’re not paying pro rates by their definition anymore; oh well.) We did a Kickstarter to fund the magazine, and the new issue — Whole number 11, or Volume 2 Number 1 — should be out in February with great stories and art and non-fiction and poems.
I also ran a successful Kickstarter for Bride of Death, the new Marla Mason novel. It was, like, the fifth most successful publishing Kickstarter of all time for a little while there (though I’m sure it’s fallen drastically in the rankings since then, as there are more and more great projects funding every day). Still: I got paid about as much for that book as Random House used to pay me, which was pretty amazing.
I did some fun readings, including a really cool one at Brick and Mortar in San Francisco to launch publisher Freemade SF, which included an amazing “pop-up supper club” meal and live musicians playing onstage along with the readers. The Litquake event at SF in SF was also fantastic.
Lest this seem excessively pollyanna-ish, I’ll note there were of course some bad bits too, though nothing all that drastic. The IRS still seems to think we owe them thousands of dollars (they are mistaken; they failed to record a check we sent, though they succeeded in cashing it), and has been sending us letters for most of the year promising to research the matter in the next 45 days. (We get those every six weeks or so, funnily enough.) That’s been intermittently stressful. We’ve endured the occasional clogged drain, overflowing washing machine, or — just this week — plaster falling from the bathroom ceiling, which also made life annoying, but hey, we rent, and the landlord fixes things promptly. I had some wisdom teeth removed, and then a bone spicule worked its way partially out of my gum, causing much discomfort until my orthodontist filed it down. (Gross, sorry.) Occasional bouts of illness. But nothing epically bad.
Basically: I ate many fine meals (buffalo burgers! rabbit liver mousse!) drank many fine beers (Death and Taxes! Coffee and Cigarettes! Bony Fingers!), did many fun things, made delicious popsicles, read wonderful books, watched good TV, played amusing games, and generally fulfilled my general ongoing goal of making my life revolve around love and art and sustainable hedonism.
Over the weekend I finished writing the first draft of Heirs of Grace, my twenty-something-th novel. (It’s probably the 21st novel I’ve written that’s going to actually be published. Or maybe the 20th, as my forthcoming The Deep Woods is right around 40,000 words, and could be considered a novella or a novel depending on which definition you use. I tend to think of it as a short novel. Which makes Heirs of Grace the 25th novel I’ve actually finished, since I have four trunk books that are complete but not really publishable. A perusal of my bibliography won’t allow you to come up with the same numbers I have here, since I’ve done a couple of pseudonymous work-for-hire books that aren’t listed there. Well. You see the confusion.)
I like this book a lot. It’s a contemporary fantasy standalone with some romantic elements — arguably what I do best, and certainly what I like doing most. I think it has some of my best writing, and jokes, and character stuff, and weird magic. I put everything I’ve got into this one. I hope when the time comes to read it in a few months, you’ll find it worthwhile.
Do people care about metrics? I find it interesting, to understand my own working habits, which are irregular and not really a model anyone should follow. I’m not sure why anyone should care about how anyone else works, though. It just seems to invite pointless comparisons. Most readers likely don’t care how you wrote a book — they just care about how the book turned out in the end.
But Heirs of Grace was a weird book for me, in many ways. I sold it as a serial to 47North, to be published in five novelette-sized chunks over successive weeks, then collected in a complete edition. So it’s a novel, but there are little mini-arcs to each individual section, too. Structuring it that way was fascinating, and gave a solid shape to what had been a somewhat messy book in my mind.
The deadlines were interesting, too. The first chapter was due at the end of September, and after that, I pretty much had a deadline every two weeks, so I was writing 15-20,000 words every couple of weeks — and revising them, so they were fairly polished when I turned them in. I blew one deadline because I got sick and needed a week-long extension, but managed to get the installment after that one done on time, so as a whole I hit my markers. I ended up writing 90,000 words or so over a span of about 50 days — not that I worked on it every day. I’ve always been a binge writer by preference. I like to take many hours at a stretch and produce many words, when time allows.
I stuck pretty close to my outline until this past week, when I realized my planned ending was stupid, morally reprehensible, and — worst of all — boring. I tried to think of a better ending, one that was earned and powerful. I talked out the implications of changing things with a friend at a cafe on Saturday, and I think I came up with something that works.
Those rolling deadlines and the tight time-frame — and the fact that this book is quite important to me, one of the most personal novels I’ve written since Briarpatch — gave my life a peculiar rhythm these past couple of months, and made me identify quite intensely with my characters. I find myself really missing them this morning. I’ll get to spend a few more weeks with them as I work with my editor on final revisions, but soon it will be time to move on to the next book.
I’m feeling happy and accomplished and bittersweet and melancholy today. So, you know. Like a human.
I recently got a copy of Wonderbook (which you can order at Amazon and B&N and other places), a lavishly illustrated, weird, and delightful guide to writing imaginative literature, by Jeff VanderMeer. I contributed in a very small way with some text to make a “revision snake,” one of a series of informational diagrams in serpent form, detailing the revision processes of various authors for various books. Here’s the snake for my novel Poison Sleep, detailing the number of drafts I went through in that book, and some challenges I faced:
THIS BOOK IS FULL OF SNAKES and other wonderful things. It’s seriously one of the strangest, most interesting, and most browse-able books I’ve ever held in my hands. Check it out.
There’s another book I should mention, too — my first middle-grade novel, The Stormglass Protocol, co-written with Andy Deemer, is out now. It’s a tie-in novel for a game about kid spies (appropriately called Stormglass, which Andy helped create), and I think it’s fun and fast-moving. It was a great experience, writing a book with twelve-year-olds in mind, though it might appeal to you grown-up types too. (It is not full of snakes. It is, however, full of bees.)
The busier life gets, the less time there is to chronicle my life, so the only time I seem to reliably write about what’s happening to me is when there’s not much happening to me. I’m not going to pretend that I’m breaking the cycle, here — this post will go up and it will doubtless be weeks before I manage another. Mostly when I feel the need to crack wise or bloviate, I do so on Twitter (or facebook), but occasionally it’s fun to go on at greater length than 140 characters, so here we are.
The weekend was cool! My wife, the lovely, talented, and all around wonderful Heather Shaw, entered a haiku contest and won, getting us VIP tickets to Outside Lands, the big music festival in Golden Gate Park. We went this weekend, and it was awesome. Paul McCartney was hilarious and played wonderfully, Nine Inch Nails was badass, and we also saw some good other bands, some comedy (the latter in a Spiegeltent! As Eugene Mirman said, “Comedy is best performed in a hot wooden tent in the middle of the afternoon”), and lots of drunk/high people having the time of their lives. (I was only moderately drunk.) Also there was lots of good food and booze. I ate a lamb burger and sweet potato fries topped with bacon and marshmallow sauce and drank good beer and a great rye manhattan. Huge thanks to our friends Drew and Nicole, and to my sister-in-law Holly, for the heroic acts of overnight babysitting that allowed us to stay out late dancing in the misty rain.
I’ve got a book due in September (another Pathfinder Tales novel, I think my best one yet, unless I blow it before I finish writing), so I had to do some work over the weekend, too. I managed to get a decent number of words in on Saturday before we hit the park, and I didn’t go to the festival on Sunday (my wife went with her sister instead). I was solo parenting and watching my nephew on Sunday, but in practice that meant the kids played together and entertained themselves, so I got a ton of writing done — I managed to write about 12,000 words for the weekend, which is more than I’d gotten done in the previous two weeks. The plot is really starting to click along now, too. I’ve gotten to the part of the book when all I want to do is write. Which is good, since I still need to get a lot more pages done in the next three weeks.
I read and enjoyed Scott Lynch’s new Gentlemen Bastards novel, Republic of Thieves, and am almost done with Daniel Abraham’s new Dagger and the Coin novel The Tyrant’s Law. (In which bankers are a force for good in society! So you know it’s a fantasy novel!) I recommend them, though in both cases you should read the previous two books in the series(es) first.
To write my story “Antiquities and Tangibles” (about someone who finds a little magic shop and tries to buy happiness there, with predictable levels of success), I did a lot of research about happiness, from the philosophy of the ancients to popular self-help to theories in neuroscience to sociological studies. Since I’ve got a personal interest in being happy, too, as a human being, I took note of things I thought might help my life. There’s broad agreement that social connections are key to happiness, and since I spend a lot of my life sitting in my house alone making up stories about imaginary people, I decided to overcome my essential introvert-ness and at least try to see people in the real world more often. After a few months of that, I’m willing to call the experiment a success (though I’m spending more money on beer than I used to). I’m still an introvert with hermit-like tendencies, but going out once or twice a week and seeing people, or having people over, has improved my outlook on life significantly. There were a few years there when I felt like my life was nothing but work-write-parent-repeat, and having things start to open up again is good for me.
Other things of note!
The Kickstarter to revive our ‘zine Flytrap was a success! We’ll be opening up to submissions soon, and our first issue should come out early next year. We’ve already got some great art and non-fiction lined up. Details will be along.
There’s a trade paperback of my gonzo historical novel The Constantine Affliction, out tomorrow, technically, but it looks like you can get it today at your favorite online bookstores and possibly even places in the physical world as well.
As part of the Kickstarter rewards for Bride of Death, I promised to do a monthly advice column from my main character, cranky sorcerer Marla Mason. The first installment of Auntie Marla’s Good Advice is up now. I think it’s pretty funny, but then, I would, wouldn’t I?
I think I mentioned this before, but I started a tumblr to collect various quotes/dialogues/etc. from my son (known to twitter as officeboy), just to have them all in one place: The Officeboy Dialogues. The initial flurry of posts has died down as I’ve posted most of the best stuff, but I’m still updating it as he says new hilarious/smart/weird things. Like yesterday when he made some insightful comments about my hair.
I’ve been corresponding a bit with an aspiring novelist who finished his first novel and is likely going to self publish it, after some frustration with trying to find an agent and publisher. He wants to be a professional writer and is very eager to get published; it’s a feeling I remember well. He also feels a bit remote from the scene because he doesn’t live in an English-speaking country.
I gave him some advice. I don’t claim to be an expert, but this is based on my experience with traditional publishing, self publishing, working for an industry trade magazine, etc. This is pretty much practical publishing stuff, which is actually my least favorite kind of advice to give; I’d rather talk about writing better stories, but this stuff is important too.
Here’s what I wrote him, with the identifying info stripped out (and some typos corrected and bits clarified):
Well, sure it could take several books until you write one good enough to sell. Some people sell the first book they write, but it’s not common. You wouldn’t open a restaurant the first time you cooked a recipe. You wouldn’t buy a shiny new scalpel and declare yourself ready to perform brain surgery after perusing an anatomy textbook. Writing novels isn’t easy. (That thing about how it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to attain mastery of any subject is probably more or less correct. Writers also talk about the “million words of crap” — until you’ve written a million words or so of fiction, you probably still have a lot of the basics left to master.)
What’s your hurry? You want this to be your career, so do the work. I started writing seriously when I was 14 — I mean, I was writing from age 7 or so, but I was submitting and revising and researching markets from age 14 on. I sold my first small-press stories when I was 19 or 20, and had my first pro sales in my early twenties. When I was 30, I won a Hugo and got reprinted in the Best American Short Stories and after that I could sell pretty much any story I finished (if I thought it was good enough to send out). Only took me 16 years of steady effort. And that’s stories — I’m still figuring out how to write novels, after selling about 20 of them, and writing about 25.
If you write in English and have a reliable internet connection, it doesn’t matter if you live in [land far away from the US]. (I’ve met my agent maybe twice in person in the ten years we’ve been working together. I’ve met very few of my editors and publishers in person.) Everything is done via e-mail.
Since just looking at lists of agents can be intimidating, I recommend trying to find agents who’ve sold books similar to the ones you write. Find the websites of authors who are in the same genre you are and see if they mention who represents them. Look in the acknowledgments of books broadly similar to yours and see if the authors mention their agents. Or subscribe to Publishers Marketplace for a month and search in their deals database, to see which agents are selling novels in your genres — especially first novels. (If they just sold a first novel, odds are good they’re open to new clients.)
Then google their websites, which will almost always have submission guidelines. Some want a query and thirty pages, some want a query and two pages, some just want a query, some want attachments, some will reject submissions with attachments unread — just follow the individual guidelines. A lot of people are lazy and send out mass e-mails that ignore individual guidelines and agents will mostly ignore those e-mails; who wants a client who can’t follow even basic instructions? (A sufficiently brilliant book can trump everything else, of course… but I’ve never written a book so brilliant I could ignore the standards of professionalism.)
Yes, it’s a lot of work. If it were easy, everyone would do it. The odds are probably better for a high school basketball player to be drafted to play professionally than for an aspiring writer to get signed by a major publisher. (There are a LOT of aspiring writers.) But then, most aspiring writers are not good enough to be published professionally, just as most high school basketball players aren’t good enough to play professionally. If you’re good, you’re not competing with every writer that submits to an agent or a publisher — because 90% of those submissions are simply not good enough. If you’re good, you’re competing with the 10% that are also good. And if you’re in that 10%, you will eventually get a deal.
Your first novel is, frankly, probably not in that 10%. I know nothing at all about your work, and maybe you’re the exception, but statistically, probably not. I was sure my first novel was brilliant when I wrote it, and looking back, I’m so glad the e-book/self-publishing revolution hadn’t happened in 1996, or I would have published that disaster of a novel, because I truly believed the publishers who rejected me just weren’t capable of understanding my genius. Nope. Turns out I was just suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect, and radically overestimating my own competence.
I’ve got nothing against self publishing, of course. I’ve done it, and it’s great for some projects. But traditional publishers still have distribution on their side, and all the “e-book revolution!” stuff to the contrary, most people who buy books still buy actual printed books, and many of them buy those books in actual bookstores. (Hard to believe, I know. And in some genres, especially romance and thrillers, e-books are making up as much of half of sales — but for most genres print still wins handily.) That may change, but for now, there are definite advantages to signing with a real publisher. Real editing. Good covers. Advances. And it’s far easier to sell foreign and sub rights if you were published traditionally, and for many writers, that’s where you make your real money.
Anyway. Do whatever feels right to you, of course. But that’s what I think on the subject.
First, there is now an audiobook of The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl available for your listenings! Narrated by Marguerite Croft, and with a great cover by Jenn Reese. Go, download, listen, enjoy. (And go ahead and get some of my other audiobooks while you’re at it.)
I have begun a Tumblr to collect all the various Officebaby/Officeboy quotes that have appeared in scattered places online for years: The Officeboy Dialogues. I’ll update it somewhat regularly with new and classic utterances until he stops saying cute things or gets old enough to be annoyed by the site, whichever comes first.
My Pathfinder Tales novel City of the Fallen Sky is a finalist for the Scribe Awards in the Original Novel category. Very cool, especially since I’m writing another book about those characters this summer.
In other news: I’m 65,000 words into Bride of Death, and expect to have a complete first draft by the end of the month. It’s going really well now; I’d rather be writing it than doing most other things, including those actions necessary to maintain life. In June some other deadlines will begin racing rapidly toward me, so it will likely be September before I can revise the novel. Then there’s copyediting and proofreading to do, so I’m planning for publication in November, most likely. The e-book at least will be out by year’s end for sure, barring unforeseen catastrophes. Onward, ever onward!
I used to have the worst time with writing synopses of novels. Part of it was that I had a career as a novelist before I ever really needed to write one. I sold my first book with a complete manuscript in hand, and the same with my second, and while I had to write a few paragraphs for the later books in that series, they weren’t what you’d call well-fleshed-out synopses.
But eventually the day came when, in order to sell a book based on a proposal, I had to first write an actual synopsis, describing an as-yet-unwritten novel in some detail, and my poor brain just vapor-locked. That’s not how I work! I complained to those poor unfortunates who are obliged to call themselves my friends. I just leap into the book and see where the current takes me! I can’t plan ahead! The book would become like unto a dead thing on the page! (Yeah, I really say stuff like “like unto a dead thing,” it’s troubling.)
Fortunately some of my friends who are more established writers than I am said, “It’s not like you have to follow the synopsis. Just give them the general idea, and as long as you don’t deviate so wildly that the book enters a different genre or becomes totally different in tone, nobody is likely to care.”
I found that comforting — it took some of the pressure off — but I still had a hell of a time writing the things. I’d sit down and start writing, and when I looked up I’d have five pages of backstory and character motivations and interrelationships and nothing about plot. So I’d try again, and end up with a well-described plot that sounded frankly dumb and improbable, because it left out the character stuff that gave it any weight. So I’d try to combine them both and end up with a synopsis in the neighborhood of 8,000 words long, for an editor who wanted “a couple of pages.”
Eventually I had one of my few genuine epiphanies. The point of a synopsis, I decided, was to convey some of the excitement I felt about the book I was planning to my editor, in a document they could use to convey that excitement to higher-ups at the publishing company, and marketing people, and so on.
I thought, “Why don’t I try to describe the book the way I would describe it to someone at a party?” This is something I’ve been known to do, at convention parties especially, when someone is unwise enough to say, “So what are you working on now?” Depending on how much alcohol I’ve had, the responses can be quite long and involved and necessitate a certain amount of waving my arms and possibly shouting. (I briefly considered and discarded the notion of a video synopsis where I would simply record myself ranting about the book I had planned. Novelty can be good but there are limits.)
Still, I used that as my guiding principle: write the synopsis in a conversational tone, as if telling a sympathetic friend about the really cool thing I’m going to write. I wouldn’t tell them every turn of the plot or every reversal, but I’d hit the highlights, and get across the tone and the nature of the characters and convey the essential awesomeness of what I had in mind.
I tried writing the dread synopsis that way, and it came out pretty well, so I sent it in, and sold the book. I’ve used that technique in every synopsis I’ve written since then, and it’s worked more often than not. I’m not saying it’s a perfect solution for all writers everywhere… but it was the only way to defuse my own anxiety about the process, and it seems to get the essential spirit of the book across, which matters.
Writing synopses went from being something that terrified me utterly to something I do without anxiety — indeed, with some pleasure. They even serve a useful function for me, by crystallizing what’s most important to me about the book, what I’m most passionate about, and what sets my mind racing most rapidly. There’s still enough mystery in the details that I keep myself interested while writing, and give myself problems I have to ingeniously solve, but I don’t lose sight of the basic shape of the book or feel lost in the fog of possibilities.
I wrote a synopsis for a proposal last week, and my process was this: take a long walk and think about the book. Sit down at my favorite bar and get a beer and scribble in a notebook. And, barring some clean-up, I was done. (Of course I don’t know if it’ll sell, but I think it’s a pretty good synopsis.)
So if I’m ever at a party and I’ve had a few to drink and I begin to slowly back you toward a wall while animatedly talk-shouting about my next book, unreeling what seems to be a stream-of-consciousness list of eyeball kicks and set pieces and things I insist will be really cool even if they don’t sound remotely cool, take comfort in the thought that you’re helping me refine the pitch for some future project.
We’re deep into the last day of my Kickstarter for Bride of Death, so if you were thinking of becoming a backer, now is the time. Every time I look at the Kickstarter page I am filled with joy and delight at the generosity of my readers — and the power of crowdfunding to make art compatible with financial necessities. What I’m trying to say is, thank you, and hurray.
The new issue of Apex Magazine is out today, with my looong story “The Fairy Library” free to read, and an interview with me (mostly about my new collection), and also many good things by people who are not me, like the awesome Rachel Swirsky and the equally but differently awesome Will Alexander.
I am doing another Ask Me Anything at Reddit Fantasy this Thursday, with Richard Lee Byers — we both write Pathfinder Tales fantasy novels, so I imagine there’ll be a lot of questions and answers about those, but as the name implies, we can be Asked Anything. Do drop by. Speaking of Pathfinder Tales, here’s a sample chapter for my new novel Liar’s Blade, with a fantastic illustration of one of my favorite characters from the book.
Life is very very busy, with readings to do and stories to write (with deadlines that are nearly upon me) and Life Stuff and a very full calendar… but it’s good. I am happy and productive.