Just Submitted My First Story

Fear is a hard to overcome...

Fear is a hard to overcome...

I just submitted my first story for publication. It was surprisingly daunting, actually. It took more willpower than I’d expected, but I overcame my fear. For good or bad, rejection or acceptance, one of my stories, “Crossing the Chasm,” is out there in the cold, harsh world where it’s about to be judged by others.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid. At age 11, I decided that I wanted to write books, science fiction adventures, just like the ones that Andre Norton wrote (Andre Norton was my gateway drug for science fiction). It never happened, partly because life got in the way and partly because it never made economic sense for me. There was no real business model for being a successful writer, not unless you were one of the top sellers.

In August 2012, I met Hugh Howey at the World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago; it was my first day at the con. He was an indie writer, and he’d just started achieving some phenomenal success for his serialized novel, Wool. I had dinner with him and some of his fans, and I learned a lot more about self-publishing that night. Somehow, while I wasn’t really paying attention, the publishing industry had changed dramatically, and was still changing at a high rate of speed, thanks to ebooks. According to Hugh there were opportunities for self-published authors that had never existed before.

When I returned from the convention, I began researching this self-publishing thing. I discovered that there were all sorts of opinions available on the web. Some were informed. Some were not. Others were clearly in denial. The publishing industry was obviously in a state of upheaval. And here’s what my business experience told me:

Opportunities thrive in chaotic situations.

The publishing industry was certainly in chaos. Writers could bypass the gatekeepers and market directly to readers, for the first time ever. Hugh was right. There wasn’t a better time to be a writer.

I got serious about writing in 2013. It wasn’t easy. I had a day job. A long commute. Commitments for volunteer work. But I persevered. I started writing fiction. I continued blogging. I attended conventions, notably Balticon and Capclave, but this time focusing on being a professional writer. I started networking as a writer.

I learned that writing fiction is hard. I kept writing anyway. I fixed bad habits, like only writing fiction when I felt like it — professional writers carve out time to write no matter what. I researched how other writers wrote, and adopted the tactics that I thought would work for me. I bought Scrivener, a word-processing tool aimed at writers, and it slipped smoothly into my writing process like a missing puzzle piece. I worked on my prose style, because I discovered that the techniques that worked in non-fiction, proposals, and technical documents didn’t work so well in fiction.

I measured my output, because I’ve learned in my alternate career as a software developer that you can only improve the things that you measure. When I discovered that I was spending too much time on blogging and not enough on fiction, I made a mid-year course correction.

When the dust settled, I had finished three short stories in 2013, and was working on another much longer and more ambitious story when the year ended. It wasn’t much, by some standards, but here’s the thing that’s noteworthy — I had finished three stories, and I was still going on. There are many people who dream about being a writer but never finish anything.

Unexploded OrdnanceOnce you’ve finished a story, it’s like unexploded ordnance. It’s purpose is to be used; it’s just wasted potential until it’s sent on its way. Is a story that’s never been seen by others still a story?

I had previously identified potential markets for all of my stories. Today, I submitted one of those stories, “Crossing the Chasm,” to a professional venue, as defined by the SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America). Translation: I submitted it to a venue that pays real money, the SFWA-approved minimum rate, for stories.

It was surprisingly hard to do. Not technically, of course. In reality, it was pretty simple. I filled out an online form, wrote a short “cover letter” and uploaded a text file. Getting to that point, though, was much more difficult. Fear, especially the fear of rejection, is a powerful thing.

This is the cover letter that accompanied my story:

Hi,

My name is David Keener, and I guess I’ve tried to do something a little odd with this story. It began as a live story that I told in front of Toastmasters audiences (Toastmasters is a non-profit organization that promotes education in public speaking).

I liked the idea of “performing” slightly bent, modern-day fairy-tales with titles based on typical business subjects. When performed, this story becomes a roughly 9-minute talk. I looked at the stories I’d developed in this “series,” and thought some of them, like this one, could be equally enjoyable in print form. Hence this submission.

Naturally, I hope that you’ll agree with me.

         — Dave —

This is the start of a process. The venue to which I submitted the story will respond to my submission within 8 weeks. They’ll either accept it or reject it. If they accept it, great! I’ve got my first professional sale. If they reject it, well, it gets submitted to another venue. This will keep on going until I find somebody that will publish it.

Meanwhile, I keep writing. I keep improving my craft. I keep learning about the industry, and how I can take advantage of all the changes that have been happening. I’m a writer. I’m a creator. This is what I’ve chosen to do, and I will not be stopped.

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Norton’s Footsteps

Andre NortonI’m a science fiction fan. I’ve been one for almost as long as I can remember. I think I became a fan in one of the classic ways — I was infected by my father.

You see, he had all of these great books by Andre Norton. Back in the 70’s, apparently, women weren’t supposed to be writers, so Alice Mary Norton wrote under the pseudonym of Andre Norton. She was YA before YA even existed. And so many of her books had awesome covers. You couldn’t help but pick them up…

Her stories were science fiction adventures, with young heroes encountering danger on exotic worlds. She wrote four of these squeaky clean adventure stories every year for years and years. And my Dad and I would snap them up as soon as we saw a new one on the bookstore’s shelves (with his money, of course).

At age 11, I knew I wanted to be a writer.

Then life got in the way. High school, college, my first real job. With a B.S. degree in Computer Science, I was soon making too much money to consider taking the pay-cut necessary to be a full-time writer. Plus, I had bills, mortgages and other things to worry about. Thirty passed, and then forty.

Start Born, by Andre NortonI still wanted to be a writer, but every time I looked at what it would take to start a writing career, I balked. It just didn’t seem feasible to be a writer. I can think of no other field in which an accomplished practitioner, like your average mid-list writer, can’t make a livable wage.

There was clearly money to be made. Big international corporations wouldn’t have gotten involved in publishing if there wasn’t money in it. It’s just that very little of that money seemed to flow towards the writers. On a typical paperback book, priced at $8.99, the author only made about sixty cents. And if a book didn’t make it big, it was out of bookstores in less than six weeks.

It seemed like a rigged game to me. There were too many middle-men, each taking a share of the money. And too many gatekeepers deciding what was publishable according to their own personal tastes (without once consulting their actual audience).

So I diverted my creative urges into other pursuits. I crafted elaborate and detailed worlds for role-playing games, and ran game sessions for my friends that were like intricate novels. Some game sessions were fantasies, fantasy mysteries, or fantasy horror thrillers. There were science fiction stories, too. For all of them, I kept detailed notes on characters, events, background details, technologies…figuring it all might be useful someday.

Time Traders, by Andre NortonEverything changed in 2007, although I didn’t realize it at the time.

Amazon released the Kindle in 2007. For the first time, ebooks were a viable proposition for authors. It was possible for authors to connect with readers in a fair marketplace, and for the readers to decide which books (and authors) would be successful.

By contrast, bookstores weren’t fair marketplaces, you see, because publishers were allowed to “cheat.” Publishers dictated the choices that would be available to readers by virtue of what they published, and even anointed what they thought should be bestsellers via their promotional activities. They could pay extra for special promotions like displaying books on tables near the front of the store, or displaying books on the shelf face-out instead of spine-out. Additionally, there was no “long tail”…newly published books were out of bookstores in a month to six weeks unless there was a dramatic demand for them.

With the Kindle, Amazon created a level playing field. The disruption of publishing was hardly noticeable at first, but it kept accelerating.

I really noticed the disruption in 2012. I was already aware of the increasing impact of ebooks on publishing. After all, I’d seen Borders go under. But I hadn’t really embraced ebooks myself. At WorldCon 70 in Chicago, though, I encountered the raging debate between traditionally published writers and self-published writers, and I started to really realize the potential of self-publishing. I also ended up having dinner with Hugh Howey and some of his fans. Hugh is one of the most successful self-published writers, known for his international best-seller, Wool. After talking to Hugh, it became clear that publishing really had changed dramatically.

Star Guard, by Andre NortonWith the middle-men and gatekeepers out of the way, writers are now making real money. For a book selling between $2.99 and $9.99, a writer takes 70% of the sale price on Amazon. Writers can find their own audience, because they don’t need publishers anymore. Oh, it’s still work, but writers have upside potential that they never used to have.

I decided that it was time for me to go for it, to really take a hard run at writing professionally. Previously, whenever I looked at writing professionally, the business model just didn’t make sense. There were too many variables that were out of my control. But now, it feels like modern self-publishing was made for someone like me.

And besides, if not now, then when? There’s never going to be a better time for me to become a professional writer.

I believe I have the writing skills. I’ve certainly written many successful things in my life, including technical articles, proposals, dynamic speeches, well-received presentations, and hundreds of blog entries. I have the speaking skills for interviews, panels, presentations, classes and speeches — all that work in Toastmasters has paid off. I have the social media skills from my technical background, and have maintained the web presence for numerous organizations over the years.

Daybreak 2250 A.D., by Andre NortonIt might be a little later in my life than I had originally hoped for, but the dream that Andre Norton inspired in me at age 11, the dream of being a professional writer, is realistically within my reach for the first time. Many of the variables that were once completely outside of my control are now well within the grasp of a hard-working writer with extensive social media experience and a “can-do” attitude.

This is my time. Why don’t you come along for the ride?

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