Novel Survey Results, Part II

Update: The full survey results and the raw data are now posted at

For those of you just tuning in, last month I collected information from 246 professionally published novelists on how they made that first pro novel sale.  This is rough, Mythbusters-style science.  It’s not a perfectly controlled study, but it provides a lot more data than I usually see when we talk about these things.

Today I’m looking at two more myths about the writing process:

The Overnight Success
You Have to Know Somebody


Novel Survey Results, Part I

Update: The full survey results and the raw data are now posted at

Last month, I began collecting information from professionally published novelists.  The goal of the survey was to learn how writers broke in, and to use actual data to confirm or bust some of the myths about making it as a novelist.

My thanks to everyone who participated, as well as the folks at Smart Bitches Trashy Books, Book View Cafe, SFWA, SF Novelists, Absolute Write, and everyone else who helped to spread the word.

The survey closed on March 15, 2010 with 247 responses.  There’s a great deal of information here, so I’ll be breaking the results into several blog posts.  At the end, I’ll combine everything into one big write-up and post it on the web site for future reference.

So let’s bust some writing myths.  Today I’ll be looking at:

The Raw Data
Short Story Path to Publication
Self-Publishing Your Breakout Novel

The Raw Data:

For this study, I was looking for authors who had published at least one professional novel, where “professional” was defined as earning an advance of $2000 or more.  This is an arbitrary amount based on SFWA’s criteria for professional publishers.  No judgment is implied toward authors who self-publish or work with smaller presses, but for this study, I wanted data on breaking in with the larger publishers.

247 authors from a range of genres responded.  One was eliminated because the book didn’t fit the criteria (it was for a nonfiction title).  A random audit found no other problems.  The results were heavily weighted toward SF/F, which is no surprise, given that it was a fantasy author doing the study.  But I think we’ve got a respectable range here:

The year in which authors made their first sale covered a range of more than 30 years, with the earliest being 1974.  The data is heavily weighted toward the past decade.

When I do the final write-up, I’ll also include a spreadsheet of the raw data (with all identifying information stripped out).

So there’s the background information in a nutshell.  With that out of the way, let’s get to the first myth…


Cats vs. Dogs: The Results

Last week, I posted the ultimate test of which is better: cats or dogs.  I posed my cat Flit with a copy of Goblin Quest [Mysterious Galaxy | B&N | Amazon] and our new dog Casey with The Stepsister Scheme [Mysterious Galaxy | B&N | Amazon].

Well, the Bookscan results are in, and they’re a bit of a surprise.  Sales of Goblin Quest were exactly the same as in the previous week.  The cuteness that is Flit made absolutely no difference!  I’m thinking perhaps an alternate picture might have worked better.  (And no, that photo is not retouched in any way, except for the caption.)

So then I compared the numbers for Stepsister Scheme.  Comparing last week (with Casey) to the week before (no animals at all), I found that Casey’s photo led to a 10.5% decrease in sales.

There you have it.  Indisputable scientific proof that you people hate dogs!  What’s wrong with you?

For such heartless cruelty, I can think of no more suitable fate than to let you dog-haters suffer at the hands of LEGO Cthulhu — with lasers! This was built by Flickr user ((Primus)).  Click here or on the picture below for the full six-pic story.

Strong Women Characters

A number of people have linked to the article Why Strong Female Characters are Bad for Women.  I’ve read it several times, and while I agree with a lot of what’s said, that title makes me cranky.

Strong female characters are not bad for women (or for men). Stereotypical, cardboard, badly done female characters, on the other hand? Not a good thing. Writers and filmmakers who have no clue how to create a strong female character? Also a bad thing.

A strong female character has to be a character.  Characters are (usually) people.  They have strengths and flaws both.  They have their own goals — which don’t all revolve around a guy — as well as their own fears. They love and hate and yearn and regret.

I’ve found that as soon as the writer tries to define a particular type of character — “This shall be the black character” or “This will be the smart character” or “This will be the strong female character,” then it fails.  The character becomes one-dimensional, defined by that label and a (usually) shallow and stereotypical understanding of how to portray it.

What about strength?  Strong does not mean invulnerable.  Strong does not mean perfect.  Strong does not necessarily mean physical strength.

Strength is my daughter holding back tears after her little brother accidentally hurts her, because she knows if she cries it will upset him.  Strength is my mother calmly shoving chocolate into my dad’s mouth when his blood sugar drops too low.  Strength is Susan Boyle getting up on stage, ignoring the derision of the audience, and singing the crap out of her song.

Sure, strength can also be Uma Thurman kicking ass in Kill Bill — but that’s just one of many kinds of strength.  When that’s the only kind of strength we see, it betrays a serious lack of creativity on the part of the writers. (And Thurman’s character is far from invulnerable.  As the article notes, she is strong, but also flawed and human.)

Lastly, a strong female character has to be female.  This is a “Duh” moment, but I think there are a lot of writers who have a hard time creating realistic female characters. Sometimes women seem to exist only as sexual fantasy objects. Other times people complain the female characters are just “men with boobs.”

Dangerous territory here. I’m not about to try to lecture everyone on what is and isn’t female. Nor am I going to claim I always get it right. What I do know is that sex and gender can affect our experiences and our identity, but they don’t define who we are, and there’s tremendous variety out there.

We’re not getting enough variety in books and TV and movies.  Often we get a few narrow character types and ignore 99% of the female population. And hey, here’s a hint: if you have only a single (strong, of course) female character in your ensemble, it’s extremely difficult to show variety.

So no, I don’t believe strong female characters are bad for women. I do believe that, as a whole, we’re doing a lousy job of writing them.

Discussion and disagreement are welcome, as always.

Butt Kicking

When I was a kid learning Tae Kwon Do, I hated sparring.  I don’t like to fight.  Being small for my age didn’t help.  It was my least favorite part of the lessons.

Jump ahead 20 years to the present.  Sanchin-Ryu, the style my daughter and I have been studying, has been a very different experience for me.  Take last night.  We had a session of fighting practice.  I was the lowest ranked, least experienced student in the group.  Among other things, I took a punch to the groin (thankfully, the black belt who threw that punch had very good control), as well as a punch to the back of my fist[1. There is a scene in Red Hood’s Revenge where Talia uses this move. Trust me — it’s effective.].  That one’s still sore this morning.

I had a blast.  Yes, a part of me is wondering if that’s a sign of deeper psychological problems.  But mostly I think it’s because with this style and group of people, there’s always a clear understanding that everyone wants you to succeed.  It’s not about winning or scoring points; it’s about helping you to see and understand what you did well and what you need to do better.

It reminds me very much of the editorial process.  My editor kicks my butt with every book.  My agent often jumps in as well.  (Much like the me-against-two-black-belts scenario I had last night, actually.  That was fun!)  I usually come away bruised, but it’s a good thing.  They’re not the enemy; they want me to succeed and improve.

And if one of their comments hits a little too hard or in a particularly sensitive spot?  Well, you can bet that next time I’ll be paying attention to my form and technique to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Reporting Rape

When writing about rape in fandom two weeks ago, I included the following:

“I’m not saying there’s never a time to talk about criminal prosecution of rape and why people might choose not to endure the ugliness of a rape trial.  I’m saying this is not the time.

Thank you to everyone for not derailing the conversation.  So often when someone talks about rape, the immediate response is some form of “You have to report it!”  I saw this at a few other blogs: “You have to get the asshole arrested!”  Or on the other end of the spectrum, “If you didn’t press charges, you have no right to complain!”

Rape is a crime that rips power and control from the victim.  You know what doesn’t help you regain that sense of control?  When everyone jumps in to tell you what you have to do.  Especially if you add a heaping pile of guilt: “If you don’t press charges and he rapes someone else, it’s your fault!”

Bite me.  Rape is the fault of the rapist.  No matter how hard some people try to pretend otherwise.  Most of the time, when people talk to me about rape, they’re not looking for me to fix it or solve things.  They might be looking for someone to believe them.  They might be looking for support.  Often they’re just looking for me to shut up and listen.

That’s hard.  I feel pissed off and hurt and powerless, and I want to do something.  I want to fix it, and I want to make sure the bastard who did it gets punished.  But that’s not something I have the power to do.

Not helpful: You have to press charges! (More about satisfying my own need to punish the guy and to stop feeling helpless.)
Might be helpful: If you decide to press charges, I’d be more than willing to go to the police with you, and to court if it goes to trial.

So why would someone choose not to report rape?  Rosefox linked to this blog post explaining some of the reasons.  Some police officers are wonderful about sexual assault, but not all.  I’ve known people who reported a rape, only to have the cop refuse to believe them and threaten to arrest them for filing a false report.  Then there are the stats on how few rape cases go to trial, and how few of those result in conviction.

As for the trial itself… I’ve been through the court process for a custody issue.  It was one of the most stressful experiences of my life, and it dragged out for close to a year with hearings, appeals, rescheduled dates, meetings with attorneys, and so on.  Imagine going through that experience as a rape survivor, having to relive the rape again and again in front of strangers, hostile attorneys, and the rapist himself.

Do I want rapists locked away?  Of course.  So what’s more likely to help that happen?  Trying to bully a rape victim into doing what I want?  Or trying to support her (or him), letting her make her own choice and offering to support her in whatever choice she makes?

I also wonder if this insistence on “You have to report it!!!” is another facet of our attitude that stopping rape is women’s responsibility…

Discussion is open and encouraged, but once again I’ll be moderating as needed to keep it respectful and on-topic.

Janet Kagan

Janet Kagan was the author of, in my humble opinion, one of the best Star Trek novels out there: Uhura’s Song [Mysterious Galaxy | B&N | Amazon]. She also wrote the original SF novel Hellspark [Mysterious Galaxy | B&N | Amazon] as well as a collection called Mirabile [Mysterious Galaxy | B&N | Amazon] and a Hugo-winning story “The Nutcracker Coup.”  There’s a warmth to her writing that I absolutely love.

Janet was the first professional writer I talked to when I began trying to break in.  I’m not sure how I got the courage to contact her, but we ended up swapping a number of e-mails over the years.  She offered advice and shared her own experiences, and even provided a wonderful blurb for Goblin Quest.

Close readers will notice several references to Janet in Mermaid’s Madness.  The map includes the Kagan Sea, and in chapter one, the ships Saint Tocohl and Lord Lynn Margaret are both named after characters from Hellspark.

She died two years ago this week.  Here’s an excerpt from the post I wrote when I learned she was gone:

One of the things she did was to offer a personalized, hand-made card to anyone who would donate blood. She was a small woman, and the Red Cross wouldn’t let her donate, so this was her way of supporting them. My mother (a regular donor) got in touch with her, and asked if she could send a card to me instead. I still have it.

Of course, this led to Janet and my mother becoming friends. When I sneakily arranged to have Janet send mom a signed copy of Hellspark for her birthday, Janet threw in a hardcover first edition of Uhura’s Song as well. That’s just who she was.

It’s hard to explain how much her encouragement and support meant to me as a struggling newbie.  I occasionally still find myself wishing I could e-mail her about hitting #1 on the Locus bestseller list, or how well the goblin books were doing in Germany.  Like a little kid showing his parents the A+ he got on his diorama for school.

She’s who I think of when writers talk about paying it forward, and someone I aspire to be like as I try to step into the role of helping other new writers.  I miss her.

Why Advances Matter

With 11 days to go, the First (Pro) Novel Survey is up to more than 200 responses, which is wonderful!  But it’s also generated some interesting feedback in comments and e-mails.  Some people are upset that small press, self-published, and e-book authors can’t participate.  Others say advances are part of a dying publishing model.  There’s been worry that advances can actually harm an author who doesn’t earn out.  To top things off, I’m told I’m completely out of touch with the current state of publishing.

Let’s start with the basics.  An advance is an advance against your royalties.  When I sold Goblin Quest to DAW, they paid me $4000, half on signing and half on publication.  (Slightly lower than the average, because Goblin Quest was a reprint of a small press title.)  For the sake of easy math, let’s say I got 50 cents in royalties for every copy that sold.  So for the first 8000 books, I got nothing — I had already received that money up front.  But once we sold book 8001, I officially earned out the advance and began receiving royalties.

Even if I never sold those 8000 copies, I keep the advance. Nor would I be blacklisted for failing to earn out.  A lot of books never earn out their advance.  Understand that the publisher doesn’t necessarily lose money on those books.  The math is a little messy, but publishers can and do still make a profit on books that don’t earn out.

Will publishers get a little cranky if they pay you a six-figure advance and you only sell 10,000 books?  Well, sure.  It might mean smaller advances in the future.  You might need to adopt a pseudonym (as many others have done), or change to a different publisher.  But it doesn’t mean the end of your career.

Remember the advance represents an investment on the part of the publisher, and I want my publisher as invested as possible in my book. There are never any guarantees, but which do you think will get more of a sales push, the book where they paid the author $5000 up front, or the one where they paid $50,000?

Finally, there’s the fact that royalties take a long time to show up.  Let’s assume your book is going to earn out, which means you’re eventually going to get the same amount of money either way.  Would you rather get that money today, or wait and get it in a year or two or more?

Writing is not a hobby to me.  It’s a career, one that helps me pay the mortgage and feed my family.  My advances mean I know I’m going to receive a certain minimum amount on each book.  I can start to plan and budget, meaning I’m better able to make a living with this.  (Now if only my publisher would offer a health plan for its authors…)

As for the frustration and anger that I’m shutting out small-press and self-published authors with this survey?  Yes.  Yes I am.  I’ve got nothing against small press and self publishing.  (Please see above, where I first sold Goblin Quest to a small press.)  But that’s not what I was interested in for this survey.  I wanted to learn more about how authors break in with bigger, advance-paying publishers.  If you have a problem with that … well, it’s your problem.  Deal with it.

Diabetes Details 7: Doing the Math

Previous diabetes posts are available by clicking the diabetes tag.

People often make assumptions about what I can and can’t eat as a type 1 diabetic.  Here’s the thing: I can eat anything I choose … as long as I take the correct dose of insulin to go with it.  Therein lies the trick.

Diabetes Math 100: Introduction to D-Math

I try to keep my blood sugar goal between 70 and 140.  I’ve discovered that one unit of insulin drops my blood sugar about 60 points, so if my blood sugar is 200, I’ll program the insulin pump to give me 1.5 units.

With meals, you’re worried about glucose.  This means you primarily count carbohydrates.  I need to take about 1 unit for every 8-9 grams of carbs.

Pop Quiz: My blood sugar is 160, and I’m sitting down to a meal with 90 grams of carbohydrates.  How much insulin do I take?

I’ve also found that I need more insulin for my first meal of the day.  Closer to 1 unit for every 7 grams of carbs.  A 50 gram breakfast gets about 7 units.  So now there are two ratios to remember.  So far, so good.

Diabetes Math 200: Graphing Over Time

Those ratios are nice, but some foods are digested and absorbed more quickly than others.  Humalog insulin has a pretty stable absorption rate, peaking after about 90 minutes.  This can be a problem.

A number of factors affect the absorption of that meal you just ate.  Some things, like orange juice, get absorbed pretty darn fast.  Others, like pasta, can take a long time to absorb, especially larger noodles.  (Lasagna is a killer.)

The insulin pump is programmed to deal with this using a feature known as the square bolus.  Basically, you program two doses of insulin: one to be delivered immediately, and a second to be delivered at a steady rate over several hours.

Pizza has a pretty high fat/grease content, which also slows down absorption. So for pizza night, I’ve figured out the proper dose is around 6.5 units now and a square bolus of 10 units over 6 hours.  Lasagna is 2 units now, 6-7 over about 5 hours.  A piece of fruit?  1 unit now, no square bolus.

Diabetes Math 300: Multivariable Equations

Now things get exciting.  Remember those ratios we learned back in the 100-level class?  They don’t actually stay the same from day to day.  Here are some of the factors that can mess with your numbers:

  • A good aerobic workout speeds up my metabolism and decreases my insulin requirements by 10% or so for up to 24 hours.
  • Getting sick throws everything off, and usually raises my blood sugar, meaning I need 10-20% more insulin. (I can often tell I’m getting sick because my blood sugar starts to spike a day or so before any other symptoms.)
  • Stress tends to raise blood sugar, though I’m told it can also lower it in some people with type 1 diabetes.
  • When did I change my insulin pump?  If it’s the first 24 hours of a new set, the insulin absorbs better than it does on the second day.
  • The insulin pump uses catheters that go into the belly fat, and occasionally those sites get irritated or build up scar tissue, which slows absorption.  Increase all dosages 5-10%.
  • Finally, there’s the “heck if I know” factor.  Because sometimes your blood sugar still ends up at 250, even though you ate the exact same thing for lunch, took the exactly right dosage of insulin, and did everything else you were supposed to.

Conclusion: It’s not that diabetics can’t eat certain food.  But I’ve chosen to eliminate some things from my diet.  I drink diet pop instead of regular; I don’t usually drink milk; I’ll eat ice cream, but rarely.  Not because I can’t, but because eliminating those things from my diet reduces the number of variables and makes it easier for me to calculate my dosage.  Even so, those calculations are often a best-guess, and I’ll usually check my sugar 2 hours after a meal and adjust for any errors.

That’s how it works for me as a type 1 diabetic.  Questions are welcome, as always — I’m pretty open about this stuff.

Book Review Policy

A few things have happened over the past week that made me I need to figure out my book review policy, for my own sake if nothing else.  So I came up with Jim’s Rules of Reviewing.

  1. If I’ve asked for a review copy, I’ll do my best to review the book.  I figure if I’m the one asking for a free book, then I’ve made a commitment to review it.
  2. If you want to ask me to review your book, please contact me for details on sending a review copy.  Review copies tend to get bumped toward the top of my reading pile.  I review most of these books, but not all of them.
  3. If I buy a book for my own pleasure reading and enjoy it, I’ll probably post a review.  A decent chunk of these will be books from friends and acquaintances online because, well, I try to read my friends’ books.
  4. No promises, no guarantees, and no refunds.  I owe my readers honesty, which means even if you’re a friend, I can’t promise you a glowing five-star review.  If I’m busy cramming for a deadline, my own book is going to take priority.  C’est la vie.

So, did I miss anything important?

And as long as we’re talking books, here are two new releases to check out.

Seanan McGuire’s second October Daye novel A Local Habitation [Mysterious Galaxy | B&N | Amazon] is out today.   I actually provided a blurb for the first one, Rosemary and Rue:

“McGuire knows her fairy lore, bringing the wonder and the danger of the fair folk to the streets of San Francisco so vividly you can smell the rose goblins. Action, intrigue, and a dash of romance make Rosemary and Rue a fun, engaging read. An impressive first novel that leaves you impatient for the second.”

I haven’t read A Local Habitation yet, but I’ll be bugging DAW for a copy soon.  Sample chapter is available here.

Also out today is DAW’s monthly anthology.  This time it’s Timeshares [Mysterious Galaxy | B&N | Amazon], edited by Jean Rabe.  From the description:

“Take a vacation through time with the help of a Time Travel Agency offering excursions into the past and future. Readers will find themselves in exotic, adventurous locales-and in all manner of trouble and mysteries. And figures from the past will be able to squeak by the other way.”

Enter to win a free copy of this one over at SciFiChick’s blog.  Do it now!


Jim C. Hines