My Year In Review: 2014

2014 has been a mixed bag for me, but on balance, good. In some areas of activity, very good. Let’s get into the reporting.

Writing
Until August 2014 I sold, on average, a story a month for about three years. I was proud of that statistic, and more importantly, the more recent the sale, the higher the market payment. The average has fallen below one month per sale, because I have been less aggressive in submitting and writing stories; instead, I have been focussing on quality. And it worked. 2014 has seen 8 sales, where there has been a tangible increase in semi-pro and professional publications. Also of note, is the higher percentage of sales per submissions – I have logged in 2014 a 1 in 10 success rate, which is significantly higher than previous years. I should add that I have also sold a collection of science fiction stories to Cohesion Press which includes, potentially, 9 original short pieces (one a novelette). If that was added to my short story sale statistics, I would be doing very well indeed (I am counting this as a single work).

Highlights of the year:

– 8 sales, a mix of speculative fiction genres
– 1 of these sales was the revised, Australian edition of my all-ages fantasy novel, Guardian of the Sky Realms. I am very pleased with the end product, thanks to Cohesion Press
– Another sale is a collection of science fiction short fiction to be published in 2015 by Cohesion Press. Potentially up to 19 stories, including a novelette, and more than half of the content will be original. A mix of literary scifi, and character/plot driven.
– Another sale is the horror short story, ‘The Crab Woman’, a professional sale to the Our World of Horror anthology by Eldritch Press
– A professional sale in 2013 was published in December 2014, ‘Of The Color Turmeric, Climbing On Fingertips’, in Night Terrors III anthology, by Blood Bound Books
– Another 2013 sale, ‘The Deluge’ was published in Black Beacon’s Subtropical Suspense anthology. While not pro, I’m proud of this, as it is in many ways quite original, and dovetails rather well into the Brisbane speculative fiction scene.

Publishing
2014 was a very big year for the two publishing imprints I co-own, IFWG Publishing and IFWG Publishing Australia.

– I was appointed Managing Director, on top of Editor In Chief
– The two imprints were clearly differentiated, their specific areas of jurisdiction solidified, including the transfer of several title from the US/International imprint to the UK/Australia/NZ imprint (it was a very big job)
– Rationalisation of covers for older titles, improved royalty reporting and payments to existing authors, and many other ‘back office’ improvements
– Both imprints signed on new titles for 2015, both from existing authors and new talent, with a notable signing of Robert Hood for his complete collection of Ghost Stories – a significant achievement and one I am proud to be involved with
– The appointment of Stephen McCracken as dedicated Marketing Director, a critical step up as a publisher
– The setting up of strong alliances with other small speculative fiction publishers, as well as third party services
– Ramp up of SQ Mag, our international speculative fiction zine, to a token paying market, a higher humber of solicited original work by established authors, and commissioning of artwork. Sophie Yorkston has done a sterling job on this project, and without her, this would be a failure.

2015 is looking very good, mainly because the groundwork has occurred in 2014.

Personal
I don't comment much on my personal life, as it is, well, personal. What I can say is that I moved from one day job to another, and it was a highly disruptive process. It took a lot of work to move into the new job, and it did put a strain on my family’s lives. In April 2014 I lost my mother. It was a relatively sudden decline and it had a powerful effect on me, and my state of mind, for many months, and will no doubt have echoing effects for the remainder of my life. All’s good now, but that is more of a statement for 2015.

Market News: Submerged in Blood and Lullabies

My Evyntyde YA fantasy story, set in the world of Evyntyde, Submerged, is now available. It is published by Blood and Lullabies, which sends PDF editions to subscribers. They have kindly allowed me to make it available through this, and other pages of mine.

Submerged (Blood and Lullabies, Edition 3, 20 September 2012)
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Market News: “Legacy” & “Dom and Gio’s Barber Shop”

Double play this morning. My heroic fantasy short story, "Legacy" was accepted by Aurora Wolf Magazine, and my Cthulhu Mythos story (second I have written and published) was accepted by Lovecraft eZine.

Both are satisfying sales.

"Legacy" was one that had some trouble finding a home, and yet I always believed in it – it is unique on a number of levels. I believe this story will be published on 1st October 2012.

"Dom and Gio's Barber Shop" is one of my more recent creations, I am a noticeably better writer than a few years ago, and it was a pleasure to have my story accepted by a very discerning market, who specializes in, and are authorities of, Lovecraftian stories. Publication date is still to be determined.

All in all, a good day.

Patience in the Career of a Writer

Patience is a tough concept in this day and age. I'm 51 years old and I observed the 'I want it now' cultural underflow hitting my world in the Eighties, I think. I'm even a victim of it – there are times when I stupidly buy the dvd I really wanted on release, knowing I might not watch it for six months – and hey, the dvd is going to invariably be cheaper in six months. I really wanted to finish a particular home improvement project and even though I don't have to complete it today, I take the extra expense and time of going to the relevant shops to buy that component. etc etc.

I can't afford to take that mentality with writing. I can't, not at every level. I will give in to that extra push to write whats bubbling in me, at heavy cost to health and sleeplessness – but that's more the creative urge than any other serious root cause. What I'm talking about is the need to climb the vocational ladder of authorship. I'm talking about getting recognized by one's peers. Being a member of the SFWA. Making a semi-pro living, leading to pro living from the craft. Aside from ridding oneself of impatience so that one doesn't go round the twist, the critical reason to learn patience is to avoid the mental and physical pitfalls of being in a state of impatience.

Self-publishing is a good example. While I acknowledge and have respect for some self-publishers making a go of it, and those very few who actually succeed (by any reasonable definition), I can't help but feel that many of the self-published authors are simply impatient. They want the success that they have so eagerly and unhealthily (in relative terms) wanted. And they settle for less to gain that rung on the ladder. Perhaps for some this is the right way to go, as this is their peak or they are satisfied with the rung, but for others, I am sure it isn't.

Short fiction is a more measurable environment to analyze the topic. There are elite publications/epublications, there are medium level, and there are lots of low. How long does it take to make one's first 'pro sale'? I read a number of prominent/established short fiction writers' blogs and almost all of them talk about the usual apprenticeship taking ten years. Yes. TEN YEARS. This is presumably from the point in time when a conscious, mature decision was made to actively achieve a pro sale. That requires patience. I believe Jay and others will tell you that this isn't a situation of wasting one's time – it is a situation of learning, growing, and achieving narrative that at each step-point in one's growth was not imagined in previous iterations. I'm not saying it will take, say, you, ten years to get there. What I'm saying, however, is that if it takes ten, or fifteen, or whatever, years, then you will grow from the experience, and you must, aside from the eagerness and love of the craft, have patience.

A subtlety of this topic, which in fact contributed to the motivation to write it, was a link by Jay Lake to a most interesting blog by Jim van Pelt, on the relationship between 'hard work' and 'achievement'. He says that there are important synergies, but they are not proportional. He makes the wise observation that it is the experience of the process that ultimately will be the reward.

I have witnessed many incidents where friends and acquaintances in their early writing careers, make some poor decisions. In hindsight, I believe that many of them were caused by impatience – not the classic human frailty kind, but resultant from a lot of frustration with rejection, and exacerbated by the very thing that makes them writers – their creative urge. I have even lost friends because of their impatience.

All I can say is be patient (and smart).
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Writing: Latest Work

In a fairly concentrated period I wrote a 5k short story yesterday and, like God resting on the seventh day, found it was good. Well, ultimately readers will decide that bit, but I felt good that I got it out of my system. This seems to be the way with my short fiction writing lately – with all my day job, family and publishing commitments, I need to be productive with the eyes of the storms that come my way, and yesterday was one of them.

This story, titled The Girl Who Floated To Heaven, is a dark and tragic piece, which isn't always my style, but I do tend toward the dark these days. The best 'dark' stories are ones that show a glimmer of hope, or at worst, provides some insightful comment. I think this story is more the latter.

I always post my stories into my writers' group wiki for comments, so soon after that cycle of review, I will find a market for this precious little gem.
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The Sweet Spot – How Much Detail Does A Character Need?

This topic jumped at me after thinking about a post I replied to in Facebook. Bear with me with some background information.

The posting was about the revelation that JRR Tolkien was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature by C.S. Lewis in 1961, and poor Tolkien was discounted early in the selection process – apparently for poor storytelling, or something similar. This article was topical because of the fame of LOTR, and in particular by Peter Jackson's screen adaptations. Many people 'ooed and ahhed' because they viewed him as a master writer, but a friend of mine, John Hughes, pointed out that Tolkien was far from being a literary genius. Nuances apply here. Setting aside whether a reader likes LOTR or not (or Tolkien or not), a successful storyteller he is, and given the generations and multitudes of people who read, and reread LOTR, he is in my mind a master storyteller. There is a distinction between master writer versus master storyteller, when it comes to the assessment of literary excellence. While I'm not saying the Nobel Committee are the doyens of literary assessment, I think they got it right with Tolkien, from a literary point of view, and especially in 1961.

Now, to the thoughts I really wanted to share with you. If LOTR isn't a literary masterpiece, by some high standards, why is it so successful, including in pre-Jackson days? I think it's because it is a darn good yarn. Tolkien himself stated that his objective was to write a really long tale and sustain interest – he scoffed all his life at efforts to dissect his work, to find meaningful allegory. He most certainly did succeed in writing a sustained yarn. But are his characters written well – with depth and insight? More importantly, did they need to be?

I think we come to an area of fiction writing that applies universally, but in different ways depending on the writer, the genre/style, and the audience: even the most 'literary' writers don't spell everything out when it comes to character portrayal. The most difficult, and rewarding part of writing, in my experience, is being able not just to describe what needs to be described, but in a way use absence of information to enable readers to fill in the gaps. The art of illusion. Some writers spend a lot of time on character description – by show and tell, preferably more by show. These works are often centrally concerned with characters – this is what these writer's readers want – and is often motivated to draw out emotions, states of mind, etc, that simply cannot be invoked by pure, plot-driven narrative. This is goodness. On the other hand, there are works of literature that might want to emphasize theme, or, like Tolkien, plot (a tale, a yarn). Needless to say the permutations of what lies between are virtually limitless.

Regardless of how much characterization a writer wants to drive, in combination with the many other elements of what makes a piece of fiction, there is nevertheless a balance required, and good craftsmanship. LOTR wasn't devoid of characterization, and there certainly are many characters who come across vividly. But a lot of it comes from Tolkien's skill as a writer who knows how to craft 'absence' of information. Tolkien liked the narrative style (hey, have a go at the Silmarillion), and he stuck to his brand of voice. The key here, is that he found, within his voice, the sweet point – the balance, in LOTR (and the Hobbit, and fragments of work he did not publish).

Does this mean Tolkien should have won the Nobel Prize? No. I don't believe so. I think the Nobel Prize isn't geared toward the type of fiction Tolkien wrote – it represents, ideally, a lifetime's work in experimentation and exercising of skills in virtually all facets of fiction. It is also, quite frankly, a literary award in the most pure, snobbish sense. The Hugos, Nebulas, Bram Stokers, etc etc cater for genre fiction, and where there is a little (and I emphasize, little) more flexibility with regard to where along the literary spectrum the sweet spot is required (I think of Paulo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, as a perfect example of all the ideals of 'literary' fiction in genre fiction).

So, how much detail does a character need? Answer, it depends. But to achieve the 'sweet spot', there is just as much effort in determining what is written, from what can be drawn from what is not.
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2012 New Year’s Resolutions

Well, back to the resolutions. They are essentially the same as last year's and I can do a mini assessment of 2011's goals.

10 goals:

  1. Be a great dad and husband. I can't judge this – others have to, but I feel I can do better. This is especially important with a 6 year old daughter with autism.
  2. Lose weight. I have never been heavier, and so my goal for the year is to lose 20kgs. That's a tough one. I failed in 2011 – I must succeed in 2012. I have never been unhealthier.
  3. Read more. As a writer I need to read – one of the cornerstones of being good at the craft (target: 24 books). Succeeded in 2011, and intend to succeed again.
  4. Outline Bitter Creek by December 2011 (or perhaps do much more). This went nowhere. Must do in 2012.
  5. Revise The Scepter and the Orb by September 2011 (first Evyntyde novel). Half done in 2011. I want this done by March 2012.
  6. Write 3 additional short stories and finalize/publish my Evyntyde anthology, Tales from the Chronicles of Evyntyde – by June 2011. This is done, but I'm holding back on publishing at this stage. I will revise this at half year mark.
  7. Complete first draft of my second Evyntyde novel, Crystal Peak. Not a word done in 2011. I want to do this by end 2012.
  8. Write at least 12 short stories in 2011. I wrote 17 stories (in fact, one was rewritten into a novella, so you could say I did 18). My goal for 2012 is 12 pieces of short fiction again.
  9. Qualify for membership of the SFWA. Not a single qualified story. However, my stories are just getting better each year. Let's try again for 2012!

2011 Addendum – write and complete YA Dystopian novela, The Comfort of Beanbags. This was done.

So, as a summary for 2011, it truly was a mixed bag. From a writing perspective, my short fiction has performed well (I published 11 pieces), but I haven't hit those high marks quite yet. From my larger work point of view, I have just been too busy to progress, and I have to do something about it. On a personal level – again mixed. I'm a good dad and husband I think, but my weight/health is a major concern.

Detour: my market performance for 2011:

25 submissions, including nominated awards, were carried over from 2010 to 2011.

Counting the carry-overs,

165 submissions were collated.
122 were rejected,
11 were accepted
32 were unfinalized.

8 of the 11 acceptances were for anthologies.

In total percentage terms:

10% of finalized horror submissions were successful
8.7% of finalized scifi subs were successful
6.38% of finalized fantasy subs were successful
8.27% of all finalized subs were successful.

Discounting carried over subs:

140 submissions were collated.
98 were rejected,
11 were accepted
31 were unfinalized.

8 of the 11 acceptances were anthologies.

In total percentage terms:

12.12% of finalized horror submissions were successful
10.53% of finalized scifi subs were successful
7.89% of finalized fantasy subs were successful
10.09% of all finalized subs were successful.

Now to tracking my Resolutions (the ones that can be):

2. Lose 20 kgs. I will report regularly here.
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3. Read 24 books. Slow.

4. Outline Bitter Creek novel. I want to do this by July 2012.

5. Revise The Scepter and the Orb by March 2012. A bit slow here.

6. Make a decision about Tales From The Chronicles of Evyntyde anthology by July 2012.

7. Complete first draft of Crystal Peak (sequel to The Scepter and the Orb) by December 2012.

8. Write 12 short fiction pieces in 2012. Ahead of schedule – written 3 by end of February.

9. Publish/Have Accepted 15 short fiction pieces in 2012. OK – 2 acceptances in January. None published yet.

10. Qualify for SFWA. Here is my status (amber means currently going for it, red means not even going for it, and green is a success – 3 stories must be published by recognized mags/publishers):

These are my New Year's resolutions – good luck with yours!
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The Road To Heaven Is Paved With Crass Commercialism

I’ve raved before about my views on publishing, and particularly self-published work. The bottom line of my past ranting is that those who are good are being swamped and disadvantaged by the vocal majority—who are simply poor writers and poorly supported from a polished end product point of view. What’s more, there is no easily accessible way to reality check such unfortunate individuals.
 
What I want to focus on in this essay is the social network layer that is utilized (read: abused) by such individuals, as well as those who provide a ‘service’ to them.
 
Social Networks are SOCIAL
 
This seems self-evident, but a lot of people don’t get it. To pay for many of these social networks, there’s advertising, but in most cases the advertising is self-evident—every element has its place. Many writers, and those who want to make money ‘helping’ authors, hit the social network hustings in a big way. Why do they do it? Well, I can think of a few notable dynamics: firstly, because it is there; it is so tempting to say, ‘buy my book’, or ‘visit my interesting site because you know and I know I’m flogging my book, but you must appreciate my thin veneer of social networkese in this post/twitter’. Another reason people do this is because there is a very small fraction of people who have actually succeeded in getting some semblance of fame and/or income from using social networks to sell their products—of course, those who succeed, get more successful because they become celebrities for their archetypal standing, which feed more hopefuls who look to them, and the spiral continues to rise, but unfortunately still for those few.
 
I don’t, personally, disagree with advertising one’s book on Facebook, Twitter etc, and I have certainly done it as an author, as well as a publisher, but I draw a well-defined line. For me, it is more important to join a social network socially, and only announce the other stuff on a minority basis. I can guarantee you that you gain more respect from those who count more effectively, and quickly.
 
I will provide you with an example. There is an option in Facebook to seek ‘friendship’ with another member. What motivates you to ask a stranger to be a friend? Perhaps the litmus test is what you do once friendship is first obtained—do you say 'hi!' on their Wall or do you add a link to your book site? The latter is a classic example of sheer hypocrisy—there is no friendship, not even an attempt at it, only crass commercialism. I personally increase my friendships in FB quite actively and rapidly, and I never ask my new-found friends to see my commercial/marketing web pages or the like. They can choose to do so if they wish, but I’m not even going to give them a hint. Will I get sales from this type of activity? I suspect few, but hey, are other authors the best people to market to, even if I wanted to? No. That’s probably the most ironic aspect of commercialism in the literary field in social networks, because most authors are spending too much time in the wrong target areas.
 
I especially dislike those who have sites on how to make it in the publishing field, and how to produce the best erotic novel covers, etc etc. The majority of these people are failures themselves, or at best, are big fish in diminutive ponds. Of those who are successful to some degree or another, are simply adding social networks to their regime of blatant commercial marketing.
 
My advice is this, and it does in part stand on ethical high ground—as an author, use the social network if you can because it makes people aware that you exist. Don’t push your products to the max because you are in the wrong space—this is a social networking arena, not a friggin’ marketplace. Socialize, and do interesting things where no-one has to invest in them other than their time. If you have had literary successes, rave about them, along with your interesting pieces. If you have a new product for sale, or want people to know about what you have got on your shelf, do it—just don’t do it a lot. I look at some of the better companies that have presence on Facebook and Twitter, such as Simon and Schuster, and also my company, IFWG Publishing, and you will see that even they don’t hit you all the time with products. Not at all. They’re smart, and ethical.
 
I ask you authors out there to challenge yourself to be smart and ethical.
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