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The Thunder Tyrant

Writing and Publishing AMA 1.0

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Not entirely apropos of nothing, I'm peeking my head back into Valucre for a short time to offer up this AMA for folks who are interested in writing or publishing -- whether you've considered pursuing the idea seriously or just find yourself curious about the inner workings. @supernal and I have talked about the topic on occasion, but with the publication of my most recent credit in this anthology I wanted to give people the opportunity to ask questions  about writing as a profession and the attendant ups, downs, and quandaries of publishing.

Which is an awkward segue into the question: why ask me when you can probably find answers from writers who are household names on Youtube, or Reddit? The answer is because I'm not one of those famous authors. I'm published as a professional (per SFWA standards) and I've won an award (Writers of the Future), but I'm still in the nascent stages of my career. The period that a lot of authors reminisce about is still part of my immediate frame of reference. Besides that, having come into the field much more recently, I'm much more aware of the ongoing changes in the publishing industry regarding things like independent/self-publishing versus traditional. Authors who have been established for ten or fifteen years predate the self-publishing explosion that came with Amazon's Kindle store and many of them have little interest in the most recent social media platforms (Twitch, Youtube, the gram). I'm also one of the only authors I know to transition from freeform roleplay to professional publication, so I know very well the strengths and weaknesses that freeform roleplay gives to a writer.

In as short a biography as possible: I started roleplaying in 2006 and stopped in 2012, returned in 2015 and went on break again in 2017. I started writing with the goal of making it my career in 2014 after earning a history degree in 2013. I won Writers of the Future in 2017 and made my second pro-rate sale in 2019. I've written five novels (and going on six), so give or take one a year. I've written maybe two dozen short stories, which explains why I only have two credits with that medium: award or no, I don't write much short fiction. I've shared tables of contents with Brandon Sanderson*, Jim Butcher, Larry Niven, Tim Powers, Kevin J. Anderson, and others; I've also had the chance to talk directly with a lot of these authors (and more besides) about their own processes and approaches.

I'm going to try and make regular checks on the site from now until Sunday and answer any/all questions I can. I might try to stretch my time a bit longer than that, but right now I'm somewhere between 3/5ths and 2/3rds into the rough draft of a novel, so after that I'll have to crawl back into the word-mines and get to work again. I'll try to answer every question; my only request is that you don't ask for critiques. At some point in the future I might offer to do critiques or beta-reads, but I don't have the time to do so now and it wouldn't be fair to anyone who asked. 

This AMA is "1.0" because I hope to have more iterations -- 2.0, 3.0, 4.0, and so on -- as I have more of my work published and claw and climb my way into something resembling a writing career. With a little luck, each successive AMA can chart the path I've taken into and through the industry for the community's edification. Ideally, it'll end with X.0, wherein I retire as a strange and reclusive hermit.

(*Just because I have the image on hand: here's a picture of Brandon Sanderson getting my autograph at the Writers of the Future award ceremony. I'm inordinately proud of having that picture, even if I had to let someone dress my hair and knot a tie around my neck for it.)

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@Vansin  I use a "launchpad" approach to prewriting. I'll world-build, character sketch, and outline until I feel like I have a sufficient mass of material, and then I start writing whether or not my outline is complete. If it is, great; if it isn't, I'll work off of what I have from that foundation and then complete the outline when the shape of the story reveals itself to me. My "complete" outlines are basically bullet-lists of scenes: a couple of sentences to describe each scene/story beat and nothing else. I can't quantify "sufficient mass" except that I know it when it happens because I'll lose interest in things like world-building and start thinking more about how I want to shape my prose. For short stories, I'll sketch an outline just to have my thoughts on paper and then go from there.

I do all of my prewriting work in notebooks, even if I draft on a computer. It lets me write while at work and I tend to do a lot of visualization work (circling, line drawing, marginalia, etc). I've tried testing some of the prewriting methods other authors suggest -- like Ingermahson's snowflake approach -- but they never offer as much as working through my thoughts and ideas and letting the story take shape naturally. They might be more beneficial to writers who want to outline methodically, though, so I don't discount them. 

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@supernal  I think there's value to having an author website, although that value has definitely waned with the rise of modern social media tools like Twitter. There's a few key reasons to keep a website around, though:

-It's a form of social media that you have absolute control over. This, for my money, is the most valuable aspect of an author website.

-It acts as a locus for a lot of publishing-adjacent material: conference/convention schedules, mailing lists, announcements, things like that. Mailing list is probably the big one here, though once upon a time several authors had fan-forums attached to their websites. 

-It allows for long-form writing and interaction that most social media platforms can't handle or don't handle with any particular proficiency. Facebook allows you to post stuff at length, but it's still a less-than-ideal blogging platform. 

-Easy way to draw together disparate projects if you work across multiple mediums. For example, if you have short stories published by an online magazine (say, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, and Galaxy's Edge) then those won't come up on Amazon but you can list them on your website with direct links. If you write for games, film, or television, you're not likely to get top-billing on Amazon or a news-site, but you can direct people to your work on your website.

So, still valuable, but the exact degree of value is going to depend on the individual author. A website still rates highly for me because I like writing long-form discussions and interactions and I want to work across different mediums, so being able to cohere those different projects in a single place is especially useful. 

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@jaistlyn  So, there's two major approaches to getting your work published: independent and traditional publishing. I'll start with the latter because, while there's more people involved and more money being moved around, it's simpler from the author's perspective.

In traditional publishing, you usually work with an agent. Agents serve two functions: as gatekeepers and as advocates for authors. Agents are the go-between; you polish your novel as best you can and send it to an agent, if they like your work they'll agree to represent you. Standard agreement is that they get 15% of advances/royalties in exchange for that representation. The agent takes your manuscript and sends it out to editors at publishing houses in an effort to pitch and sell your work to them. This is where the gatekeeping effect comes in: if your work is sent to an editor by an agent, that represents (supposedly) a requisite amount of quality because an agent wouldn't represent an author they didn't think capable of writing fiction that'll sell. Let's say your agent pitches the book to the head editor at TOR and they really like it.

That's where the agent's other function kicks in, because now the editor and agent are going to haggle over the cost of the book's rights. A traditional publishing house will always want the English e-book and print rights* to your book and it's becoming more common for them to want the audio rights, too. They leave you the IP rights -- that is, the setting, characters, and story are still yours, and if someone wants to make a film or video game, they have to work with you and your agent, not the publishing house. Because the agent's 15% is predicated on how much you get, the agent will usually work to get you the best deal possible. Let's say the editor agrees -- and there's no guarantee that they will, even if they love your work, but let's say they do. You agree to an advance of 20,000 dollars and a 12% royalty rate. They give you 20,000 upfront (in three payments, spaced out according to checkpoints in the book's production) and then if you can make 20,000 dollars worth of sales** you'll receive 12% of every sale thereafter. Exceeding your advance in sales is called "earning out." Your agent takes 15% off of all of it but that's fine; the boiler-plate offer from publishers is usually 5,000 dollars and 10-12% rights so they got you a decent deal.

The editor slots your book into their house's publishing schedule; the timeline varies but let's say they set your publication date at 18 months out from the agreement. The editor or one of the editors on their team will take your novel and start working in edits with you. They, along with a proofreader, will take you through successive edits to tighten your book up. Developmental editing (character and story), line editing (grammar, tone, sentence structure), and then finally proofreading; during proofreading they'll create mock-up copies of your books ("proofs") and you'll go through them line by line to try and catch any spelling or typographical errors. During this time, the publishing house has lined up the cover art of your book and their PR department has set up any promotional material or activities they've budgeted for you.  Generally, you have no say over the cover art unless it's egregiously abhorrent to you. 

The book goes through the editing process and all the attendant work of putting together the proofs, compiling an ebook version, and the myriad of things going on in the background of a publishing house that we aren't privy to, like the interactions between publishers and distributors, wherein distributors (bookstores) decide how many copies of your book they want to stock. As the 18 months come close the end, the publishing house will put together some advanced reading copies -- ARCs for short, which usually come without art or the final front pieces (table of contents, forewords, etc). The publishing house will send these out to reviewers, news sites, or as parts of promotional giveaway. You can usually request ARCs and they'll give you some to hand out if you want to do your own PR or request reviews from specific sources.

Once the eighteen months are up and the publication schedule has rolled over to your month and date, the book goes on sale. Copies are shipped to various outlets and distributors, put onto shelves, and put on Amazon and other digital retailers. You have about two years to earn out that advance they gave you if you want to see any royalties. More importantly, you have two years to earn out that advance if you want to get another deal from that publishing house, because they're giving you the advance on the pretense you'll make the money back for them and then some. The bigger the advance, the more weight they'll put behind you, but the bigger the pressure to match it in sales. Failure to earn out doesn't kill your career but it's not good, either.

This explanation is a bit lengthy, but it's not really complicated, just stressful. You write the best book you can, hone it to a razor's edge. Ship it out to agents. If you get represented, the agent sends it to editors. If it gets an offer, the agent does the haggling and you sign the paperwork if you're amenable to the offer. After that, you work with the editors to get your book in its best shape and the publisher does everything else.

To shorten the explanation of self-publishing: you take all the things the publisher does and you do it yourself at your own cost. You pay an editor to work on your book. You pay for cover art. You pay for marketing. You format the manuscript (or pay someone else to do it) for ebook and print publication and set up a print on demand with your printer of choice. You're almost certainly not going to see your book in a store because you don't have any relationship with a distributor or retailer, but you can put it up for sale in every format on the Kindle store, Apple store, Kobo, and so on. The downside? You're covering the costs of production, you won't have the same market penetration in fandom or in distribution, and you won't get the same industry pedigree. The upside? Instead of a 12% of the profits, you get 60-70%. In traditional, your 10 dollar book will net you 1.20. In indie, it'll net you 6 or 7 dollars. Your rate of production is also much faster. The fastest self-published authors I know can write, edit, and prep a book for sale in two months or less, compared to the 12-24 month time period of traditional publishing.

For short fiction, you generally just find a market that buys your kind of fiction and follow their submission guidelines. Let's say I write some literary weird fantasy piece, maybe 5,000 words. My choice of market would probably be Clarkesworld or Beneath Ceaseless Skies. So I go to their website, check their submission guidelines. Format the story, shoot it to them. If they like it, they'll shoot me a contract. I sign, they send me my money (standard SFWA payrate is .08 cents a word, so 400 dollars) and then publish the story. Agents don't get involved in short fiction sales because it doesn't net them much of a profit since there's no royalties 99% of the time and the advance is usually between 100 and 800 dollars.

*By "print rights" I specifically mean first print rights. So if you publish the whole book on your blog or on Medium, or via self-publishing, then you've voided your first print rights. It's extremely rare for someone to do this and still sell the print rights of their book. I can think of two or three indie authors who managed it, but it's a freakish outlier. Foreign language rights (every other language beyond English) is usually something you retain and that your agent will sell if they can. A literary agency often has someone dedicated to foreign rights sales.  

**This 20,000 isn't earned at retail price, it's earned at your royalty rate. If your book costs $10.00 and you get $1.00 in royalties, you'd have to sell 20,000 copies to earn out, not 2,000. 

That should cover most of the process of having your work published, without getting too deep into the details. It's more stressful than complex, a bit of a crapshoot, and most of the intricacies are handled off-stage by other people, many of whom you'll never see or interact with.

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@folie a deux  If you mean how do I handle rejections from submission attempts, I can't say -- I haven't had a rejection yet, mostly for lack of submissions as opposed to some talent on my part. I won Writers of the Future on my first submission and that award was what got me an invitation from the editors of Parallel Worlds to put a story into their anthology, so there was no submission process there. Although I've written five novels, the first two were practice. The third and its sequel (the fourth) are probably publishable but I chose to trunk them because some of the issues explored in the books would be better suited if I adapted them to another story. The fifth was an experiment in trying a particular subgenre and I had mixed feelings about the results. My sixth novel is probably going to be the first I send out.

That's not as uncommon as it might seem; a lot of authors will write several novels before feeling comfortable with sending their stuff out. Even those who start submitting to agents with their first effort often have to write several novels before selling one. Off the top of my head, Stephen King wrote three or four prior to selling Carrie. Jim Butcher wrote somewhere between two and four. Brandon Sanderson wrote around a dozen novels before selling one, and his first five novels were practice runs that he used to teach himself the craft. A lot of times, we trap ourselves with this idea that we have to walk into this artistic pursuit and hit the ground running, but that's almost never what happens, unless your name is Samuel R. Delaney. Even Isaac Asimov received several rejections before he sold anything worth scratch.

That being said, this question does let me delve into an adjacent topic: submission rejection. It's worth noting that, while there might be issues in a manuscript in need of fixing, or a writer's talent is just short of the mark for professional publication, you can never take rejections personally. There's so many factors beyond just the manuscript's quality that it's really out of our hands. I'll list a few, to illustrate:

-What does the agent like? Does this book fit into the wheelhouse of what they sell? Do they feel confident representing it?
-Does the agent have any books similar in theme, subject matter, or tone already on their desk for consideration?
-Has the agent sold a similar book recently?
-Does the agent feel that there's a market for the book, whether or not they love it? If you write a vampire book, does the agent think that there's been a dearth of vampire books and so it won't be popular? Or maybe there's been a dearth and that means there's a niche to fill? Has there been an explosion of vampire novels, so it might be a good purchase, or has there been an explosion of vampire novels and, no, maybe the market is too saturated?

You can apply these reasons to an editor's decision-making too, when it comes to the purchasing of the rights. What's important to realize is that, while the editors and agents are following the market, they can't really gauge it any better than you or I. They don't have an inside track to what's going to be the big hit or else they'd be engineering bestsellers like clockwork. It's a mixture of experience, professional knowledge, guesswork, and gut feeling. If we're fumbling around in the dark for a book that will sell then agents and editors are navigating by a guttering candle.

So, for my rejection process, and for rejection in general, one key thing I take away from it is that it's never personal. I know when I send off that email that there are any number of factors beyond my control that will influence the agent in question. All I can do is write the best book possible, the book that I want to write, and lead with my best foot forward. 

As for what keeps me going, the most honest answer is twofold. First is that I love writing and I'll write whether or not I'm successful. The second is that failure is a learning tool. If I know why something I wrote didn't work, then I can fix it, or improve the weakness for next time. I'm also adversarial to a fault, so my reflexive response to failure is to work harder. The archetypal example of my attitude is Henry Rollins in this video, Failure doesn't stifle my motivation, it fuels my efforts. I don't know if that can be taught or if it's just the way my psyche is put together. To me, failure is best perceived as a whetstone: we sharpen ourselves on it only through repeated, persistent effort. 

For further reading, here's Sanderson's own essay detailing his pre-published efforts as an author. 

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