Uncategorized, Writing

How to Enjoy a Writing Excuses Retreat (On a Boat)

Imagine a writing conference. If you are a writer like me, you’re probably already excited, especially when you know it’s composed of primarily science fiction and fantasy writers. You get to go to this writing conference to hang out with some of your favorite writers, meet a lot of cool people who have similar interests than you and learn a ton about the craft, art and business of writing.

You’re not excited yet?

Well, picture all of that on a cruise ship. That’s what makes the Out of Excuses Writing Workshop and Retreat extra awesome – in addition to hanging with Writing Excuses podcasts hosts Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal and Howard Taylor – you get to do it all on a ship bound for several exotic destinations!

This does lead to a problem, however. If you are shelling out a ton of money to go on a writing conference on a cruise ship, how do you make sure you’re getting your money worth? Don’t get me wrong – the programming on a Writing Excuses Retreat is worth every penny – it’s chock full of great content, great writers and great opportunities to meet great writers. But how do you maximize your earnings on the cruise? Here’s are some best practices I’ve learned over the last two years:

Read The Instructors’ Books – Writing Excuses, like most conferences, presents seminars from both the hosts of the podcast as well as guest instructors. On the months before the cruises, I read Steven Barnes’ “Blood Brothers”, Tananarive Due’s “The Good House” and Claudia Gray’s first two Firebird books as well as her Star Was book “Lost Stars”, in addition to the most recent books from the primary hosts – Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells and Howard Taylor. Was it a lot to read? Yes. Was it worth it? Definitely.

Reading these books gave me several advantages. First, it made me extremely excited to hear what these writers had to say. But more to the point, it also gave me insight into their favorite themes and overall strengths as a writer. In addition to giving me something to talk with them about, it also gave me plenty of subject matter to pick their brain about.

Bring Something to Write – I know what you might be thinking. “Write? I came here to learn to write, to network, or to generally improve my writing career. I don’t have time to write.” Needless to say, the Writing Excuses isn’t buying it, and neither am I. The hosts have several incentives to get you in the writing mood, but without spoiling that, I found this second cruise was my most productive outing yet.

I came with a checklist of four or so projects, and not only did I have time for them all over the course of the week – but I’m also very pleased with how they turned out. I think being around so many people who are also passionate about writing super-charges the creative juices – so take advantage of it!

Keep in Touch – This last one might sound a bit basic, but it’s the truth.  Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells have said numerous times that there’s a reason they hit it big – by keeping their writing group going since meeting in David Farland’s fiction class. The same goes the Writing Excuses Retreat. You have ample opportunities to make friends, between group writing time, excursions, dinner, game nights and more. Don’t think of these friendly conversations as simply downtime – the relationships made here can prove extremely valuable.

The good news is that social media makes it extremely easy to keep in touch. There’s also Google Groups to help alumni stay in contact. Even so, it’s a good idea to take down each other’s information if you have the opportunity. Print a couple inexpensive business cards and hand them out at the cruise. When the event ends and everyone returns to their distant corner of the globe, you want to make sure you keep contact with friends from the cruise. These friends can keep you motivated and keep you writing, even when you are separated by state lines and oceans – so make sure you write down their name and e-mail.

The Writing Excuses Retreat is one of my favorite writing events to attend year after year, so if you can afford it, make it a point to sign up. While I admit it can be a pretty big blow to the piggy bank sometimes, the contacts, information and experiences make at these conferences is well worth the cost. So with any luck, I’ll see you next year on the 2017 Out of Excuses Writing Retreat!

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A Word About Honorable Mentions

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an “honorable mention” as “a distinction conferred (as in a contest or exhibition) on works or persons of exceptional merit but not deserving of top honors”.

They are not participation trophies. I repeat, they are not participation trophies!

So what do writing contests have in common with reality TV competitions like “America’s Got Talent”, “The Voice” and “American Idol”? The answer is not crazy judges (or at least, not necessarily). Instead, both of these contests operate in similar fashion – by slowly whittling down the eligible entries over the course of several cuts, until only the finalists are left. Those entries which survive a cut or two but don’t make it to the semi-finals are usually conferred with some sort of “honorable mention” depending on their overall ranking. Thus, they aren’t given to everyone who enters – just to those who make it past the first cut.

How many writers eliminated per cut depends on the size of the contest, but it could be anywhere from thirty to seventy percent. Just ten percent of the submissions to the high-profile “Writers of the Future” contest receive some kind of “honorable mention” in a contest of hundreds if not thousands of entries. While it might not carry the cash or the publication of higher rankings in the contest, “honorable mention” is still nothing to sneeze at.

Why does all of this matter? Because writers need to celebrate their victories, even if they aren’t as big as they would like. Unfortunately, in a time of Millennial bashing, some confuse “honorable mention” with a “participation trophy” everyone receives. This just isn’t the case (nor would it be very helpful even if it was the case).

An unexpected victory, no matter how small, can fuel a writer’s passion for months to come. Whether it’s a kind word during a critique, a personalized rejection letter, or yes, even an honorable mention, a win is still a win. Writing is a solitary and often silent endeavor, making counting our wins all the more crucial. But there’s also plenty of negativity out there – so don’t let take your victory into the jaws of defeatism. Tune out the noise and focus on what you’ve accomplished – and where you are going next.

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Know Thy Genre

It’s less than a week from the release of the next Star Wars, and even though I still won’t see Episode VII for still few more weeks, I still can’t contain my excitement for the new trilogy. The Cantina scene on Mos Eisley was one of my first movie memories as a kid, and the franchise – from movies and TV shows to the comics and books – certainly played a big role in putting me on the path of a geeky science fiction writer. But in spite of my enthusiasm, I have to point out an obvious fact: George Lucas did not invent (or even re-invent) science fiction.

I say this out because a friend of mine once gleefully told me he had an idea for a science fiction story without laser guns or sword fights. And he’s not the first person to tell me they have an original science fiction story that’s not Star Wars, or Star Trek, or Battlestar Galactica or Babylon 5.

No genre exists in a vacuum. Science fiction dates back to the works of Jules Verne and Mary Shelley. Mysteries can be traced back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allen Poe. The roots of fantasy can go all the way back to mythology and folklore. It is ignorant – and borderline arrogant – to assume TV and movies are accurate portrayals of genres in and of themselves.

Honestly, I think most writers know their genre pretty well. After all, something must have inspired you to become a writer in the first place. Whether it’s a healthy diet of space opera or cozy mysteries, beginning writers often have a solid knowledge base in their primary genres. It’s when they start to cross the border into a different genre – or subgenre – that issues arise. Fortunately, there are few ways to ensure a seamless transition from story to story.

First of all, if you want to write in a genre, you have to read that genre, plain and simple. Fortunately, there are many resources to point you in the right direction. Goodreads is an invaluable resource when it comes to genres. Probably the best way, however, is to just ask someone you trust. I recently started working on an urban fantasy. I asked a friend for some recommendations – not only did I get a better understanding of the genre with regards to audience and POV, but I also added a few new favorite authors to my list. Not a bad deal.

Secondly, don’t be quick to discard an idea if you find out it isn’t as original as you hoped. Originality can be highly overrated. Often times, it’s not so much an idea that matters as much as the personal touch a writer brings to a story. For months, I’ve been hard at work on a story involving the great-great grand daughter of Abraham Van Helsing – only to find SyFy Channel is also working a project involving such a character. But in truth, a female Van Helsing is nothing new – such characters have appeared in both Hammer films and Marvel comics. While I’m curious what the SyFy Channel comes up with, I’m continuing my own project because it gives me a chance to further work my particular vision, my individual voice on the subject.

Ultimately, writing isn’t about mastering a genre – it’s about mastering several different genres. Love him or hate him, George Lucas didn’t re-invent sci-fi – instead he combined several different genres a time, mixing together the pulp sci-fi of the Golden Age with Kurosawa’s samurai epic “The Hidden Fortress” and the works of Joseph Campbell into a wholly unique vision. Want to follow in his footsteps? Then find your voice across numerous worlds and infinite stories.

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Why I’m Not Publishing on Amazon (Yet)

When I tell people I’m a writer, the inevitable question is “Are you published?” I tell them while I have been published, my work hasn’t appeared very widely. This always leads to the dreaded follow-up question: “Why don’t you just publish on Amazon? It’s so easy.”

Normally I just smile and reply “I’ll think about it”, but the truth is quite a bit more complicated. To understand why I’m not throwing books up on Amazon left and right, you have to know a little bit about the publishing landscape, which is currently in a great deal of flux. There are (at least) three ways to publish. I’m going to give an overview of each of them, along with the reasoning behind my current publishing strategy. The two factors to keep in mind, however, is that a) your strategy has to tailored your own goals and dreams and b) you can – and should – revise your strategy as time goes on.

The first way writers are published is through traditional publishing. This is the way publishing has worked for decades. Writers seek out an agent, who present their work to a publisher, in return for fifteen percent off the writer’s earning (this is a standard throughout the industry). A publisher agrees to produce the writer’s book, providing not only publication, but also cover design, editing services and some marketing. Major publishers also usually have the connections to put the author’s work in bookstores across the country. The writer usually receives an advance as well as subsequent royalties after the book sales have paid out the initial advance.

One of the biggest downsides is that this way is fraught with gatekeepers. From the agents themselves to the editors acquiring the book, there are tons of hurdles a writer has to clear in order to land a deal. While these gatekeepers ensure a certain standard of quality, it’s still a very difficult process for writers. Don’t believe me? James Patterson and J.K. Rowling were both rejected at least twelve times by publishers and I’ve heard of major authors being rejected upwards of fifty times.

In spite of these hardships, this is the path I’ve currently chosen. I want to eventually make enough from my writing to do it full-time, or at least most-of-the-time. This way, I’ll have an agent in my corner to help make that happen. While I realize the lion’s share of the work falls to me, and that there’s only so much agents, editors and even publishers can do, I like the sense of structure and teamwork. Plus, these are my first novels. Having them rejected gives me more incentive to go back, revise and ensure they really are the best work I can produce.

But of course, that’s not the only way to publish nowadays.

The other way is through self-publishing. Most self-publishing is done through Amazon’s CreateSpace, although there are tons of other self-publishing services. For years, self-publishing was looked down by traditional publishing entities, but the advances in printing technology and the widespread availability of print-on-demand services has changed that. Unlike traditional publishing, self-publishing is simple: as the name implies, you do it all yourself. It’s actually a lot easier than you think. You just buy an ISBN, upload a PDF of the text, provide a cover, click a few buttons, and then you have a book.

“If it’s that easy, what aren’t you doing it?” you might ask. “Heck, why isn’t everyone doing it?” Well, that’s the problem: nearly everyone is doing it. At least a million books are published a year in English alone. The competition is fierce. And remember, you are doing this all without a publisher, which means you provide the cover, you do the editing. Flubbing either of them can put a black mark of your book, making it difficult to land publishing deals later on in your career.

I think self-publishing works for two kinds of writers on opposite ends of the spectrum. The first are the hobbyists. These writers aren’t looking to make it big or turn it into a career – they just want to get their feet wet. So they put together a well-edited book with a basic cover and see what happens. It worked for Andy Weir, whose book “The Martian” started out self-published, and is now a bestselling novel and movie. The other class of writers are the ones who have tried traditional publishing to no avail and decided to put their work up on Amazon – again with solid editing and a good cover. My friend Cat Stark did this with her book “The Elven Prince”. She’s happy with the results and preparing to publish another book very soon.

Last but not least, there are the hybrid publishers. This is a nebulous category at best, but an important one nonetheless. Like all forms the media, the publishing industry is experiencing a rabid amount of change. What worked thirty years ago in publishing doesn’t work anymore, heck, what worked ten years ago might not work anymore. Hybrid publishers represent those writers with one foot in either camp. It could simply be a writer who uses both traditional publishing and self-publishing venues to get his or her work out there. Or it could be a writer who teams up with a vanity press and then uses crowdfunding to purchases ala carte services to obtain publisher house quality for their project. Or it could mean something completely different.

The industry is rapidly changing. Hybrid publishing acknowledges publishing doesn’t have to be binary choice of either going through the gatekeepers or going it alone. If there’s one part of the industry that’s going to grow in the next couple years, I suspect it’s this one – but how and where, I don’t have a clue. All I can say is if it sounds like a great plan and you’re willing to take the risk – go for it – but keep it mind all experimentation involves risk, and all risk involves failure. Publishing in general is a thorny business to innovate, filled with plenty of good ideas attempted too soon or too late – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try in the first place.

Ultimately, the 21st century has made publishing personal. Thus, the tools and strategies we use have to be tailored to our own objectives, but don’t be afraid to restock or completely revise these strategies from time to time. After all, no plan survives the battlefield.