A Series of Pilots

Tell Your StorySome people have asked me why I’m writing novelettes and novellas and not novels. My response: I am. Sort of.

So, I will explain in the following five points…

1. I like the Format

I like novelettes and novellas. Some of my favorite stories are too short to be considered novels, and thus fall into this category. For example, Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild” is a novella. And let us not forget Robert Silverberg, an award-winning SF writer who has excelled at these lengths with stories like “Sailing to Byzantium” and many others.

The Hugo Awards define a novelette as a story of greater than 7500 and less than 17,500 words; and a novella as greater than 17,500 and less than 40,000 words. Since most non-writers don’t think in terms of word count, a novelette is roughly 30-70 pages, while a novella is roughly 71-160 pages. Back in the sixties and seventies, lots of books were published that would now count as novellas. Then came the the rise of “The Big Book,” which led to the bestseller-driven approach followed by today’s traditional publishers, and the smaller books just disappeared.

2. Viability

Ebooks and print-on-demand services have made novelettes and novellas viable again. For busy people, like me and many others, it’s easier to carve out the time to read a shorter-length works than some massive tome. There are other advantages to these shorter-length works, as well. The stories tend to be the length they need to be, so there’s no padding and no extraneous subplots. They’re long enough for complex story lines, but not so long that readers get bogged down.

3. Multi-Tasking

I have so many ideas for stories in my head, ideas that have been bottled up for so long that they’re all clamoring to get out. If I worked on a mammoth project like a novel, I’d have to concentrate for an extended period of time on just the novel. Since my day job is all about multi-tasking, it just feels more normal for me to round-robin across my various projects.

By multi-tasking, I mean that I tend to work on up to eight projects at the same time. There’s a cost, of course, because each project takes longer in terms of calendar time. But, then again, there’s always new work coming out of my “story pipeline.” And my writing groups have gotten used to me bringing chapters from different stories to be critiqued in successive weeks.

Um, note that I don’t recommend this approach for most people, but it works for me.

4. Marketing

My pipeline of shorter works fits into the marketing approach I’ve chosen for indie publishing. Assuming a quality product as a baseline, then to some extent the amount of money that a writer can make is predicated on the number of products that they have. New products (and sales) tend to boost the sales of older, related products. This is the approach used by well-known indie writers Kristine Kathryn Rusch and her husband, Dean Wesley Smith.

5. The Pilot Approach

In my stories I’ve tried to emulate some of the television shows that I like. Shows where a season is really a novel, composed of individual episodes. One of the most famous indie-published books, Wool by Hugh Howey, was originally published in five parts.

In some sense, you can look at most of my novelettes and novellas as pilot episodes for different TV series. Right now, the series are:

  • Belters: In the 24th century, Jonas Kastle is a troubleshooter for the Outer Planets League (OPL) in the run-up to what may become the first interplanetary war.
     
  • Big Sky Country: Brant Halvar is a skyracer on the dangerous skyracing circuit. He and his crew overcome adversity as he advances through the ranks in his effort to be accepted into the elite Big Sky League.
     
  • Pageeda and Scuffee: Pageeda, a young homeless girl living in a gritty port city, struggles to find out what happened to her older sister. She is befriended by Scuffee, a strangely intelligent, oversized cat who has escaped from the local Arena.
     
  • Roadwerks Limited: Rocco Fitch, a wounded veteran of the war in Afghanistan, inadvertently buys a magic road…and gets far more than he bargained for.
     
  • The Royal Bodyguard: Lydio Malik is the Royal Bodyguard for Princess Analisa, the heir to the throne of Salasia. He and a team of others defend her from powerful forces trying to topple the ruling dynasty.
     

Three of these series, Big Sky country, Pageeda and Scuffee, and The Royal Bodyguard are all part of a larger canvas known as The Thousand Kingdoms.

Now, each of these series has a story arc for the “first season,” an arc that I expect to be able to fit into a reasonably-sized book, much the same way that Wool slotted together nicely as novel. Generally, what I’ve envisioned is a five-part arc for each season. And, thus, in way, what I have is a whole bunch of pilots.

So, I’m actually working on a bunch of novels at the same time. Part-time (since I still have a day job). And it all stays fresh for me, because I’m working on multiple projects at a time.

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Writing Tips: Tech Levels

The concept of Tech Levels is a useful one for both science fiction and fantasy stories. Let’s put it this way: Is it feasible for a caveman to have a rifle? No, because the creation of that rifle requires other technologies that a caveman doesn’t have.

Any technology exists within an ecosystem of other technologies that are necessary to support it. Thus technologies can be thought of as existing in levels. Here’s an example model of Tech Levels:

  • Hunter/Gatherer: flint weapons, bow/arrows, animal domestication.
  • Bronze Age: agriculture, swords, shields, infantry, cavalry, rowed ships.
  • Iron Age: metal weapons, horse shoes, stirrup, sailing.
  • Steam Age: steam engines, trains, early guns, fireworks.
  • Industrial Age: factories, tall buildings, cars, planes, radio, radar.
  • Early Space Age: space ships, satellites, nuclear power, jets, computers.
  • Cyber Age: internet, automation, first AIs, cloning.

One can continue extrapolating in order to build a plausible background for stories. So, here are eight principles to help you in crafting Tech Levels for your stories.

Eight Basic Principles

  1. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
    – First coined by Arthur C. Clarke
  2. “Tech Levels” are a useful model for understanding species advancement.
    – The technologies grouped within a tech level can be somewhat arbitrary.
    – Useful models exist in roleplaying games such as Traveller and GURPS Space.
  3. It is possible for a technology to be inexplicably pushed into a later tech level, but the inverse is considerably less likely.
    – The stirrup was invented considerably later than it could have been.
  4. The pace of technological advancement has been increasing steadily over the course of human history.
    – Despite setbacks like the Black Plague, which wiped out 60% of the population of Europe.
    – The Black Plague actually sped up technological advancement by creating a need for less
       labor-intensive farming techniques.
  5. 90% of the technologies in a tech level can be extrapolated from the tech level below it.
    – From John Barnes
  6. 10% of the technologies in a tech level are either unimagined previously or based on newly discovered principles.
  7. A technology has a lifespan, i.e. – it starts out in an experimental form, advances incrementally over time, becomes mature and then is eventually supplanted by a different technology.
    – The horse was the most effective form of human transport from a few thousand years B.C.
       until about 1900 A.D. when it was supplanted by automobiles.
    – A supplanted technology may still hang around later for hobbyists, e.g. – horse riders,
       sailors, balloonists, etc.
  8. The primary problem of SF stories is to slow down technological advancement so that the technologies in stories remain familiar and comprehensible to a 21st century audience.

Common Problems

  1. An obviously mature technology is used in a story, where no experimental or earlier versions of the technology were ever possible in the timeline.
    Dollhouse: Personality implantation with skills and memories
  2. A technology is inserted into a story without accounting for its ramifications.
    Star Trek: The transporter and its capability for matter duplication.
  3. The story is set in the future, but key technologies are inexplicably archaic or the overall tech level just isn’t as high as it should be.
    Starship Troopers (the movie): In the future but using WWII-era military weapons.
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Writing Tips: The Logline

Welcome to the inaugural installment of my Writing Tips series of blog posts. No, I’m not a New York Times best-selling writer, but I’m not shy enough for that to stop me. I’ve been working on my craft for years, and I’m finally producing stories that I’m reasonably happy with (although you never, never, never stop learning).

I’ve also been in a couple writing groups since 2014, which is more than than enough time to see a bunch of writers just simply fail. I’ve read submissions in which it was clear the author had no idea what their plot was, no conception of character goals and, often, no clue where or when to even start their story.

A lot of the issues that I’ve seen boil down to the author not knowing what their story is. If you don’t know what your story is, you have no way to reliably decide what scenes should be in it and what scenes don’t make sense. You have no basis for evaluating a scene. You may not even know where to start the story.

I recommend creating a logline, which is a sentence or phrase that summarizes your story. It’s useful, regardless of whether your preferred writing mode is pantser or planner. In fact, I think of it as the Exacto-Knife of the writing world, an awesome tool for cutting away the extraneous bits that don’t really fit into your story.

For example, my fantasy novella, “Bitter Days,” is about a ten-year-old homeless girl living on the mean streets of a gritty fantasy port city with her older sister. When her sister is kidnapped by men working for one of the most secretive and dangerous organizations in existence, she’ll do anything to get her sister back…or avenge her if that’s not possible.

My logline is: “She needed a hero, so she became one.”

That tells me a lot about my story. I already know that my heroine lives in poverty, has no education, owns no real weapons, has no training as a fighter and, finally, is a young girl in man’s world. My logline tells me that she’s got to figure out how to overcome these weaknesses herself. She doesn’t have to do all the work alone, but she’s got to be the one calling the shots.

Try it. Create a one-sentence description of the story you’re currently working on. Or the one you set aside because it was giving you too many problems. If you can create a realistic log line for your story, you may well discover that it allows you to focus your story in a way that that you couldn’t achieve before.

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Micro Fiction Workshop at Capclave 2016

I attended the Micro Fiction Workshop at Capclave 2016 on a whim. Here’s the description from the program:

Micro Fiction Workshop
Coordinator: Dustin Blottenberger, Deidre Dykes (M), Brigitte Winter
Micro Fiction, a subset of flash fiction, are stories of 300 words or less. Learn how these word count restrictions force writers to boil stories down to their most powerful core elements. You will create micro fiction pieces through a series of exercises, learn about exciting markets for tiny stories and discuss how micro fiction can be a useful tool for deepening your writing skills.
Limited to 15 people.

Now, flash fiction isn’t something you can make a living at. And micro fiction, well, ditto. But what the heck? I figured at least it would be two hours of writing practice that would exercise literary muscles that I didn’t always use.

I was pleased to discover that Dustin, Deidre and Brigitte had put together an excellent workshop with well-organized content and useful exercises. Even better, the final exercise was to write a 101-word Halloween story (that’s 100 words plus a 1-word title). I ended up with what I thought was a rather nifty Halloween story with a killer last line…and a market to send it to. Next Saturday (10/15/2016) is the deadline for the Halloween “issue” of 101Fiction.com.

I’ll be submitting my story as soon as I complete some minor polishing.

Meanwhile, here’s the selfie that Dustin took at the end of the workshop:

Micro Fiction Workshop at Capclave 2016     Photo Credit: Dustin Blottenberger

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Writing Tips: Authors Getting Paid for Events

Dollars for AuthorsThere’s been a big kerfluffle going on about authors getting paid to speak at events, whether solo or as a panelist. I’ve been seeing a series of different perspectives on this issue on The Passive Voice, a very useful site that highlights articles around the web on publishing in general, and indie publishing in particular.

The debate was already in progress in the media and online, when author Philip Pullman took a stand in January 2016 and resigned as a Patron of the Oxford Literary Festival because they don’t pay their authors. This rather enflamed the debate because Philip Pullman, the author of the bestselling novel, The Golden Compass, is something of a marquee writer.

I have experience on both sides of the fence. I’m an author, albeit a fledgling one. I’ve also organized and run dozens of technical conferences. I’m a member of the Washington Science Fiction Association, which runs Capclave, an annual science fiction literary convention held in the Washington DC area. I have also spoken at numerous technical conferences and literary conventions.

So, I’m a big fan of the following principles.

         Yog’s Law: Money flows towards the writer.

         David Gerrold: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing for money.

BUT…

I have to qualify this a bit. My general rule of thumb is: If you make money, then I make money.

I’m talking about significant money. A typical convention, especially one hosted in a hotel, can easily cost 20 – 40K or more to put on, much of which has to be paid up-front (hence the reason most events have early bird pricing bargains to encourage attendees to sign up early). Committing money up-front requires assuming risk; those who take the risks should rightfully make more than those who don’t.

The average convention doesn’t really make a profit, or at least not a significant one. At best, they make seed money to make it easier to sustain the event in the future. In fact, most SF conventions are run as non-profit organizations. So I don’t expect to be paid in cash. It’s eminently reasonable for authors appearing on panels and conducting workshops to attend the event for free, and conventions generally do this. There’s usually a minimum; I believe Capclave awards free attendance for appearing on three or more panels or running one workshop. A good workshop is considered to require much more effort than being a panelist (this is true, by the way, trust me on this).

Generally, program participants get free attendance and the attendant validation of being promoted as an author by the convention. Guests of Honor generally receive more money because they’re draws. Usually this devolves to paid expenses, such as hotel, airfare and meals. For SF conventions, with their low ticket prices, this is generally the max. In fairness, Guests of Honor also get much more in the way of promotion but are also generally booked for many more timeslots than other authors at the event.

As an aside, most regional SF literary conventions have a weekend price of $60 or so, which can be ameliorated by earlybird pricing. Even Worldcon, which ranges from 4000 to 10,000 attendees, is priced at around $250 for a much larger event (likewise ameliorated by earlybird pricing).

Now, in the world of technical events, ticket prices are much higher. For those events, it’s quite common for keynote speakers and people who are legitimate draws to be paid a speaking fee, and sometimes a significant one.

Even there, you have to make some judgements. If George R. R. Martin is speaking at local SF conventions like Capclave or Ravencon, his expenses will be taken care of, but even he won’t be paid a significant speaking fee. The budget just isn’t there, but the promotion opportunity is still very real, even for Martin. On the other hand, if Martin is the keynote speaker at a high-priced Hollywood screenwriter conference, then he might very well expect a speaking fee.

I can’t judge whether Phillip Pullman was right in pulling out of the Oxford Literary Festival. I don’t know what the event’s budget was or what, if any, profit was made. Philip Pullman is sufficiently prominent that he might very well command a reasonable speaking fee. Many other authors, myself included, would not.

I think authors need to look critically at their potential as a draw, the size of an event, the budget of an event, their own potentially uncompensated attendance costs (hotel, airfare, meals, etc.) and the level of promotion provided by the event. After that, it’s a business decision, tempered by realistic expectations based on a sober assessment of an event. I don’t think authors should automatically assume that the world owes them speaking fees for being a program participant. If that’s what you think then, well, I’m happy to take your slot.

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So Clueless It Hurts

I was recently at a…well, let’s call it a networking event…for writers and science fiction fans. I ended up seeing a man there that I knew from other events, a writer in perhaps his late fifties. Now, I probably hadn’t seen this fellow, who I’ll refer to as Bob for the sake of anonymity, in probably six months. When we’d last talked, he’d mentioned that he had a novel that was in the process of being published by a small press.

“Hi Bob,” I said, walking up to him. “Nice to see you again. It’s been ages.”

We exchanged some pleasantries, and then I asked, “Hey, how’s that book coming along? Has it been published yet?”

“No,” Bob said. “It’s still in process. It’s a small press, you know, and the owner, well, they guy had some health issues.”

“Oh, sorry to hear that. I hope he’s doing OK.”

“Yeah, he’s on the mend, but he’s way behind,” Bob said. He took a sip of his drink. “He’s hired some staff to help him get caught up.”

“Do they have a publication date for you yet?”

“No, but they’re working on it. The guy offered me my rights back if I wanted them, but I told him no.” Bob shrugged. “I can wait. I mean, he produces really nice looking books.”

I was a bit incredulous. His publisher is at least six months late on publication, and he’s acting like this is no big deal. Casually, I probed further. “So, he can’t tell you when it’s coming out?”

“No, but I’m not worried. I’m not losing any money. Besides, I only get paid when copies get sold.”

So now he’d basically told me that he didn’t get an advance for the novel. I’m not too worried about that because, frankly, advances are more of a “big trad publisher” thing than a “small press” thing.

But he’s apparently never heard of “opportunity cost.” If you have a story that’s done, and it’s not out there where folks can potentially spend money on it, then the time that passes erases any money that you could have been earning if only it had been available. In business, time really is money.

Let’s say that his novel had the potential to earn a $1000 a year (assuming some reasonable marketing). Bob was clueless that he’d just lost perhaps $500 of potential earnings.

Even worse, if the small press owner was unable to get the book out on time because of illness, what were the odds that he’d be able to market it effectively? That’s a business consideration, as well, and one that almost certainly would warrant terminating the contract.

This is basic business stuff and Bob was totally clueless about it all. He was so focused on getting his book published, that he didn’t think about opportunity cost, marketing or even income. In my humble opinion, this cluelessness towards the business aspects of a writing career is why writers like Bob have been taken advantage of so badly by publishers, agents and other folks over the years. And it’s why so many otherwise talented writers are unable to make a living at writing.

It’s great to be creative. It’s great to be a writer. But if you really want to have a career, take the time to learn the business side of the writing life. Please, pretty please.

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Head Shot, or “Hey, He Looks Like an Author”…

David Keener, Author at Large I thought I’d share the head shot that’s going to accompany my bio in the upcoming anthology, “Reliquary.” The portrait photo is by Asher Roth, a friend and fellow author, and was taken at one of our weekly writing group sessions.

And, yes, it’s going to be a little smaller when it’s included in the anthology.

Anyway, the anthology should be coming out around the end of May.

Editorial Note: (July 2, 2016) The anthology is still in progress. All of the stories have been submitted, including my story: “Road Trip,” which is an urban fantasy mash-up with military and police procedural overtones. Personally, I’m betting on the end of August as an actual release date.

Editorial Note: (August 20, 2016) Well, nope, not gonna be the end of August. On the other hand, all of the stories have been copyedited and turned over to the production crew, so the target publication date is now September 30, 2016. Marty Wilsey will be doing print book production, while I’ll be doing the Kindle ebook production.

Editorial Note: (October 25, 2016) Sigh. It will now be published in November. I chalk most of the delays up to: 1) the cat herding necessary to get all of the stories in, 2) the complexity of the work (100K words with full wraparound cover, fancy typography, illustrations, etc.), 3) the learning curve the production team had to climb for both the print and ebook editions, 4) two, yes, two rounds of copyedits, and 5) learning the hard way why contracts are necessary (resulting in a story being pulled and all bio photos having to be redone, including the one to my left). On the other hand, the proofs look stunning.

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Sometimes the Best Reviews…

I just finished the first draft of my novelette, “Road Trip,” and I’m now working on my second draft edits. The is the story that’s going to be published in May in the anthology, Reliquary, so I’m well on track to have it fully polished and ready by the April 30th deadline.

Since I’m working on my second draft edits, I’m looking at the comments I’ve received on each part of the story from the members of my writing group. The best thing about going over all the comments with a fine-toothed comb is that I found this little nugget from Lou Lamoureux, the author of Recalled to Duty:

Good story. Reminds me of Neil Gaiman w/ more flavor.

Not sure it’s true, but still… Gotta love it.

The official blurb for “Road Trip” is:

Rocco Fitch, a wounded veteran of the war in Afghanistan, doesn’t have much left to live for. He’s disabled, unemployed and his wife has left him, taking their daughter with her. Then a beggar, a war veteran like himself, offers to sell him a road.

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Thoughts on Dixie Fey: The Accidental Urban Fantasy Series

Dixie FeyThere was one really interesting thing that happened when I ran my workshop, “Creating an Adaptive Setting,” at Capclave last October. I created the “Dixie Fey” urban fantasy setting, based in the southern U.S., as a world-building exercise to illustrate the strategies I was teaching in my workshop.

To my surprise, in addition to the workshop itself going extremely well, it turned out that the “Dixie Fey” setting turned out to be considerably more of a hit with the attendees than I expected. I fielded questions from the class in which they asked me if the setting was real, i.e. – if I was setting stories there. And whether I’d consider a “Dixie Fey” anthology.

I intend to run this workshop again. I can’t help but wonder if this question will come up again. It seems to me that there’s an opportunity here. Somewhere.

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Editing a New Anthology

One of my writing groups, the Loudoun Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers, is producing its second annual anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories. The editor will be S. C. Megale, another member of our writing group.

Additionally, as with the first anthology, I will be producing the Kindle ebook for the anthology, as I am currently doing for the first anthology. Martin Wilsey will be producing the print edition, taking over from John Dwight (who did a superb job on the first anthology). Donna Royston is available for copyediting; she does this professionally in her day job for a technical journal.

The group decided on a theme of “relics” for the anthology, so every story, whether science fiction or fantasy, will feature some sort of relic. Naturally, we expect the writers to liberally interpret the meaning of “relic” for their stories. This, of course, prompted me to suggest the title of “Reliquary” for the anthology, which was enthusiastically accepted by the group.

I’m a big believer in constant improvement. I’d like to build on the success of the first anthology and do even better with the second volume. To that end, here are my goals:

  • Do at least as good a job with the design of the print edition as the first anthology.

  • Improve on the copyediting of the first anthology; we are still finding grammatical issues and typos.

  • All entries should be stories, with a beginning, middle and end. No vignettes or chapters from longer works (unless said pieces work as complete stories).

  • The print edition and ebook edition should come out simultaneously.

  • The second anthology should have a professional-looking cover.

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