First Book Friday

First Book Friday: Stephen Leigh

Welcome to First Day Friday! For anyone new to this feature, I’ve posted submission guidelines and an index of previous authors.

Stephen Leigh (also known as Matthew and S. L. Farrell) is one of the nicest authors I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, which left me in a bit of a dilemma. I could write him a straightforward, flattering introduction, talking about how he’s both an experienced author and skilled filker, and has written a ton of books and stories under his various pseudonyms. Or I could make him feel old by pointing out that he started selling his work when I was still in diapers…

Anyway, please welcome Stephen Leigh. When you’re done reading, check him out on LiveJournal or Facebook.

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Let’s get rid of the obvious right away. I’m not anywhere close to being one of the New Hot Kids. I had my first professional sale back in the antediluvian days of the mid-1970s, and sold my first novel in 1980. This is a story not of How Things Are Done Now, but How Things Were Done Then.

Back then, the advice that many established writers gave to new writers was this: “Start with short fiction. Experiment with styles, play with different ways to approach a story, and allow yourself to fail. You’ll get lots of rejection slips. Keep writing until you start to find your voice. When you finally have a nice list of published stories and maybe an award or two, then you can use that as cachet to snag an agent…”

That was decent enough advice at the time (though in my opinion some of it no longer holds true in today’s market); I followed it. I collected the requisite ton of rejection slips as I honed my skills—because most of my stories were spectacularly bad—but a few were accidentally good enough that I also managed to sell a story here and there. I also realized that my stories (most of which were not selling, remember( were gradually becoming more complex, and as a result, longer.

Around 1976 or so, I read an article about the Hashshashin, an early band of assassins, which started me thinking about the concept of “ethical assassins”—murderers who would attempt an assassination, but would always for philosophical reasons allow the victim a small chance of survival. I started putting together a world with these ‘ethical assassins,’ which I was calling the “Hoorka.” I suddenly realized, as I starting planning and writing this tale, that this wasn’t going to be a short story or novelette, but a full-fledged novel.

Characters and sub-plots and complications. Oh, my!

Honestly, I rather rapidly became lost in the book. One thing writing short stories hadn’t prepared me for was how complicated novels are, how long they take to write, how difficult it is to hold the details in your head, and the amount of persistence and dedication required to complete them…

I panicked. Instead of finishing what I’d started, I eviscerated the book. I retained only the basic shell of the story and wrote a novelette called “In Darkness Waiting.” I sent the story (still bleeding from the massive surgery) to Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and Gardner Dozois, who was the Assistant Editor there at the time, liked it enough to send me revision notes and a promise to look at the story again I made changes and sent it back, and Gardner (or George Scithers, who was editor at the time) bought it. It appeared in the October 1977 issue. (If you’re curious, it’s reprinted in my ebook short story collection A RAIN OF PEBBLES.)

I continued to write and occasionally sell short stories for the next few years, but I was realizing that if I ever wanted to have any shot at actually making writing a substantial part of my income, I had to overcome my trepidations and write novels. Why not start with the novel I’d already begun planning? I’d been smart enough—which is honestly a rarity—not to actually trash the notes I’d made. I began to reconstruct the novel, gluing back onto the skeleton of “In Darkness Waiting” all the material and ideas I’d trimmed away, rewriting the story from the beginning.

Early in 1980 I had a pile of paper that resembled a novel, which I titled SLOW FALL TO DAWN. I also had no idea how to market the thing to agents. Here’s where networking (of the pre-Facebook and LiveJournal variety, using letters and phone calls) came in.

Denise and I had begun attending the regional sf cons as well as the occasional worldcon or big east coast gathering. I’d met quite a few writers—most of them further along in their career than me—and become good friends with some. I contacted a select few, asking if they knew of an agent they’d recommend I contact. George RR Martin suggested a relatively new agent he’d met, Adele Leone, and was kind enough to say he’d send Adele a personal recommendation.

Just as good networking can lead to a “real” job, good networking can also lead to work in your writing career. People do tend to help other people whom they know and like.

I will point out before someone brings out the old cliché that “You see! It’s all just about who you know“ that networking only works to a point. Getting an introduction to someone via a friend might crack open a door you thought locked, but your fiction still has to do the heavy lifting—and that’s far more important. You can sell a novel without networking if it’s well-written and compelling; you can’t sell a poorly-written novel no matter how fantastic a network you have.

Fast-forward a few months… Adele, after reading the novel, had agreed to represent me. At the time, I was running a bi-weekly RPG game—mostly AD&D but with lots of rule changes we’d made on our own. During the middle of one of our games late in 1980, the phone rang and Denise answered. She passed the phone over to me. “It’s Adele,” she said. She gave me an eyebrow-raised look as I took the phone.

“I have good news,” the voice on the other end said. “Bantam’s made an offer on your book…” I don’t remember much of the rest of the night, except that I recall it involved more beer than usual and that I happily allowed the characters in the RPG to get away with far too much mayhem and treasure. Everyone went up a level or two.

SLOW FALL TO DAWN  [Amazon | B&N] was published by Bantam Books in October 1981.

That’s a long time ago, as impossible as that seems to me sometimes. Adele, sadly, is no longer with us. After three books with Bantam, I went on to other publishers with other books. I would start writing fantasy rather than science fiction (and acquire a pseudonym along with that genre). The field—and publishing in general—changed rather radically in the intervening decades. Hey, that first contract didn’t even mention electronic rights. The $3,500 advance I got for SFTD is roughly the equivalent of an $9,500 advance now… but the average first-novel advance offered now by the ‘traditional publishers’ is far less than $9,500. Agents now take 15% of a writer’s income, not 10%. We won’t even talk about ebooks and their impact.

It’s a brave new world out there now. It’s not the same one that I started out in, and I’m not certain that the path I took is still a viable one.

First Book Friday: Kristen Britain

Welcome to First Day Friday! Click for submission guidelines and an index of previous authors.

Kristen Britain (LJ, Facebook) is a New York Times bestseller. Her latest book Blackveil came out in February of this year. The series even has its own wiki, which is pretty darn nifty. Kristen is another DAW author, meaning I suspect it pained her to keep this post under 1000 words :-) (I sometimes think I’m the only DAW author who can write a book in under 100K words.) Kristen is also part-centaur, and lives in Maine, where I’m told they’re more tolerant about that sort of thing.

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I’d like to start by thanking Jim for his informative-funny-passionate blog, which is on my daily reading list, and for inviting me to participate in First Book Friday! Here’s my story…

I was one of those people who had loved reading and writing from a young age and dreamed of being published. In high school I completed my first novel, which I still keep stashed away in a box. Even after college, the dream remained. I tried my hand at writing short stories because back then, the general (though not necessarily correct) wisdom was that if you wanted to sell a novel, you first had to sell short stories. I tried, but short stories were not really my thing, and traditional adventure fantasy did not seem to be most markets’ thing. I consider this period one of training in which I continued to develop my writing skills and learn about the business end of writing.

In the fall of 1992, after too many short story rejections, I decided I might as well put my energy into my true love, long fiction. At the time, I was a seasonal park ranger, moving from one park to another every three to eight months. By then, I’d grown weary of the moving, and even with prospects of a winter season in the sunny south, I decided to settle at Acadia National Park in Maine for the winter, working part time. If I weren’t a frugal person, I couldn’t have managed this. The extra free time was a perfect opportunity to delve into writing a novel.

And I did, exulting in the hours of uninterrupted time, composing on my 80/88 XT computer. By the end of the following summer, I had a beginning, middle, and end to a novel I called Green Rider [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy]. I embarked on revisions and tried to learn more about publishing from books, magazines, and workshops. In one workshop, literary SF novelist Richard Grant was the first pro to point out that my novel held promise as a publishable entity.

Note that none of my research or feedback took place on the internet since there wasn’t much of an internet in the days of yore, and I certainly didn’t have access to it. My road to publication was the way of the ancients and much of my research took place mostly in libraries. As a shy and introverted person, attending conventions didn’t even seem possible for me, so I did my networking at workshops and … by chance.

After revisions, I sent out the manuscript, unrequested, to SF/F publishers, not an uncommon practice back then. I received a couple form rejections, but others were “nice,” and even encouraging. I even received a phone call and long letter from an editorial assistant at Warner Books (now Grand Central). What, I wondered, is one supposed to think?

Then one of those “by chance” moments happened. On a visit to my post office, the postmistress noted the ad on the back of my Locus Magazine for a fantasy novel by a new author who, she said, just happened to live almost down the road from me. I was second in line at his first local signing. I told him of my situation of “nice rejections.” What, I had asked him, might be his advice? “Get an agent,” he said. Then after a pause he added, “First you have to have a great story.” I told him I thought I did. “Get an agent,” he told me.

I queried agents, including this author’s, Russ Galen. To my astonishment, Russ asked to see the manuscript. I quickly received another nice rejection, this one full of helpful comments. I reread my manuscript and realized he was spot on. I embarked on a new series of revisions and when I became unsure and muddled, I asked the local author if he’d look over the manuscript and tell me if I was on the right track. I was thrilled when he agreed to do so.

My author friend would have made a great editor. Using his comments, I fixed the manuscript, and in 1996, he re-read it. When he finished, he invited me over to his house and when I arrived, he spread his arms wide for an embrace and said, “Congratulations! You’ve written a novel!” He provided an introductory letter which he faxed to Russ Galen, and the next day I received a message from Russ’ associate, Anna Ghosh, requesting the manuscript. She soon became my agent, and a month or two later we sold to DAW Books. Green Rider was first published in hardcover in November of 1998.

I believe that even without my author friend’s help, I would have found my way to publication—it just would have taken longer, and I would have had to learn much more on my own. But I was determined, and I never stopped writing. Each novel since has provided its own writing challenges forcing me to “up my game.” Meanwhile, the 21st century has presented challenges on the biz end. Much has changed since the 1990s: ebooks, self-publishing, hard economic times… It is difficult to keep up with and the learning curve is never-ending, but if there is one constant, it’s my writer friend’s advice: “First you’ve got to have a great story.” After all, even with all the changes and challenges, I am confident there will always be demand for great stories.

First Book Friday: Deborah Ross

First Day Friday is back! Now with submission guidelines and an index of previous authors!

Today we have Deborah J. Ross (deborahjross on LJ), who published her first book as Deborah Wheeler. Her first pro short story sale was to Marion Zimmer Bradley for the very first issue of Sword & Sorceress. She’s been convention security, a preschool gym teacher, martial artist, bacteriologist, and much more.  (I love the way each of these jobs would be useful to the rest.)

Read on to learn how she sold her first book to DAW…

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Jaydium [Amazon | B&N | BVC], my first novel to see print (as Deborah Wheeler), began as a few pages scribbled in a spiral-bound notebook while my first child attended swimming class. The idea for the “space ghost” in Chapter 5 came to me as a dream-image: a tunnel, dark and poorly lit, and the ghostly figure of a man. In itself, this is not particularly innovative. Usually, the figure is adrift in time or some cross-dimensional warp. The hero’s goal is to rescue him, to bring him into normal space/time. I wondered what would happen if such an attempt might have the opposite effect — to bring the rescuer into the world of the adrift-guy. A hundred rounds of “What If?” later, my rescuer had become a pair of unlikely allies, each with a different reason for being in the tunnel, and I sent them off on a series of displacements not only back in time but across alternate histories. I wanted something more at risk than just “not getting home.” What if getting home means something else happening, something really terrible that affects much more than just these few characters? What if the alternate future in which they don’t get home is the best one?

About the time I finished the first draft, I joined a writer’s workshop. They tore it to shreds. I went home and cried, and then set about learning everything they could teach me. Four revisions later, I sent off Jaydium to Sheila Gilbert at DAW. And waited. And wrote the next book. And researched agents. And sold a bunch of short stories to increasingly prestigious markets. And waited some more.

My family had the opportunity to spend 8 months in a furnished house in Lyons, France, an adventure too marvelous to pass up. For the first time since I’d started writing seriously, I had child care most of every week day, no day job, and very few other distractions. When I returned home, even though it was financially terrifying, I folded up my day job to focus on writing.

Three months after I returned home from France (I think it took DAW almost 2 1/2 years, so I wouldn’t want readers to get the mistaken impression that 3 months was a reasonable response time!), I got a call from my editor. “I’ve finished reading your book,” she said. “I love your work.”

Pause.

I squeaked, “Does this mean…” I’m going to sound sooo stupid if I’m wrong! “…you want to buy it?”

She laughed.

With very little oxygen reaching my brain, I stammered, “This is wonderful! I’m so glad you like it! I can’t think about numbers … you’ll have to discuss that with my agent.”

“Great. Have him call me.”

In stupefaction, I hung up the phone. What had I done? I didn’t have an agent! All I knew was not to commit to any contract specifics while in an altered state of consciousness.

I picked up the phone and dialed the agent at the top of my dream list. “I’ve just gotten an offer for my first novel,” I said. “I’ve heard wonderful things about you from Author A, Author B, and Author C. Could you … er, um … negotiate the contract for me?”

“Only if we establish agent-author representation. For all your books.”

“Oh. Yes, please.”

Then he laughed. Although I was delirious with joy, I was feeling a bit idiotic. Why was everyone laughing at me?

It turned out that those same authors had been telling him about me, and he’d been waiting until I had a finished book that he could represent. (He’s still my agent and I’m still with DAW.)

First Book Friday: Submission Guidelines

So far, all First Book Friday posts have been by invitation only. I’m continuing to send out invites, but I’ve also decided to try opening this feature up to submissions. If you’re interested in doing a FBF piece, here are the guidelines:

1. I’m looking for submissions from science fiction and fantasy authors who have published at least two novels professionally (which I’m arbitrarily defining as a publisher which paid an advance of at least $2000). Not because I hate self-publishing and small press, but because these are the stories I want to feature and explore here.

2. Submissions should be roughly 500-600 words, and should explore how you came to write and sell that first book.

3. You can query me beforehand, or you can write the thing and e-mail it to me. Please put “First Book Friday” in the subject line, and e-mail it to fbf@jimchines.com. (If you’re uncertain about anything, please send a query.)

4. Remember, you’re telling a story, not writing a commercial. (From what I’ve seen over the past year, a good story will end up selling a lot more of your books than a commercial does anyway.)

5. There’s no payment for FBF posts at this time. However, my blog generally gets 2000+ unique readers per day, most of whom are SF/F fans. I will write an introduction with links to your web site, and will include a pic and links to your first book.

6. You can request a specific date, but I make the final decisions on scheduling.

7. I reserve the right to reject submissions or ask for rewrites, based on my completely arbitrary ideas on what makes a good FBF post for my readers.

8. By submitting, you’re agreeing to give me first rights to publish your piece online, and the nonexclusive right to archive it in my blog. I.e., it can’t appear elsewhere before it goes up here, but once it does, you can repost or resell it wherever you’d like.

Any questions? Anything I missed in the guidelines? I’ll be updating these as needed once I see how things go.

First Book Friday: Catherynne M. Valente

Welcome to First Book Friday.

Today I am delighted to welcome Catherynne M. Valente (yuki-onna on LJ) to the blog. I’ve been trying to figure out how best to introduce her here, and have come up with the following. Cat is a beautiful person who writes beautiful stories, and our world would be a poorer place without her.

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These days, most people think The Orphan’s Tales [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] was my first book.

Not so.

I suppose in a technical sense it was my second book–I started The Orphan’s Tales right after finishing my actual first novel, The Labyrinth [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], in the same tiny Rhode Island apartment, ricocheting between the table in that little kitchen to the opulent local Starbucks to the gothic tower where I was working as a fortune teller. But in publication order OT is my fourth baby, the first one to get into a really good New York school and win a few blue ribbons.

But my first was The Labyrinth. This is how it came to be.

I had just graduated from college and was in that purgatory between the diploma and what-are-you-actually-going-to-do-with-your-life. I’d been writing poetry for years but beyond a short story in undergrad, I’d never tried fiction. A friend of mine linked me to a little website called Nanowrimo, which was then just a baby itself. Well, that seemed like a great idea to me, and before I tell you what happened next you must remember that I was 22, and being 22 I was full of piss and vinegar and not knowing what I could and couldn’t do. A big part of that space after college is figuring out what you can and can’t do–and this was where I figured it out.

I said: It’s October. I don’t want to wait til November. Also, 30 days is way long. I’m going to do it in 10.

And I did. Everything I’d been keeping inside me for years while I learned Greek and Latin and got my varsity on the sailing team–and struggled with depression and a wholly crap childhood came out in a flood. It helps to be an insomniac already, and to have a job where I could pull out my laptop between Tarot clients. And at the end of that I had a (very short) surreal novel that I was reasonably sure I could never sell to anyone. Sure, I started writing that weird fairy tale thing, but I didn’t think I’d sell that either. It was just a Christmas present for my niece.

Fast forward a year and I’m in grad school, and very tentatively submitting The Labyrinth around. Around is a relative word, though–I knew absolutely nothing about the SFF world. Less than nothing. I got a few notes from editors saying it was so beautiful and they were definitely not buying it. (I still get those.) I ended up selling it to a small realist press just before I moved to Japan. A few weeks after arrival I was informed that they were pulling the contract, and it seemed reasonably clear to me that this had occurred not because the book had suddenly gone bad in the fridge but because I had declined the editor’s request to sleep with him before departing the US.

This dejected me in a big way–I couldn’t believe such things still happened, and I was afraid that no one would buy my book who wasn’t motivated by other and uglier considerations. I sat on it. I worked on the fairy tale thing which was getting longer and longer. I wrote another book, Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams. I learned how to navigate the Tokyo subway system.

And I started a Livejournal.

I’d been blogging for years on Diaryland, the Ur-LJ, but Livejournal was where I really started to make friends and find an online home. After a few months clicking around and doing what LJers do, I came across nihilistic_kid (Nick Mamatas), who had just had his first novel, Move Under Ground, published. I left him a comment and said that I wasn’t asking him to look at my chapters, as that is awful and gross from a stranger, but only a few suggestions as to small presses I should submit to if I have a wildly uncommercial bizarro book. He obliged, and I sadly discovered that I had already submitted to all but one of them and been rejected. The one remaining was Prime Books–which, according to their website, was closed to submissions.

In an act of kindness that I certainly did not deserve and poor Nick should not be pressured to repeat[1. Editor's Note: if I hear that someone has e-mailed Nick saying "Hey, I saw on Jim's journal that you looked at Catherynne Valente's novel, so will you read mine?" I'll feed you to the goblins.], Nick said he’d look at my chapters and send them to Prime if he liked them. He did, and Prime accepted The Labyrinth within the week. I got an email from Jeff VanderMeer asking to write the introduction, and a little while later a box full of wonderful indie press SFF books from Jeff with a note that said: “Welcome to the Family.” It remains one of the dearest gestures anyone has ever made to me.

Nick and Jeff and the kids at Prime were the first people to believe in me, and think that I had something to offer. Everything else came later, Bantam and Tor and S.J. Tucker and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland and, yes, some book with a bunch of nested fairy tales in it. But that’s where it started. With a Livejournal and a lost kid in Japan trying to figure out how to write a book.

After I got that email telling me, in effect, that my life was changing right now, I closed my computer very gently. I was happy, of course I was happy. But my overwhelming feeling was: Oh. Oh. I get it. Publication isn’t the point. It’s just the beginning. I have so much more work to do now. I can’t slow down, not even a little. Now comes the part where I will work as hard as I can as long as I’m alive, to be able to keep doing this. I’d better get started.

First Book Friday: Sean Sweeney

Welcome to First Book Friday!

In the past eighteen months, Sean Sweeney (aka John Fitch V) has self-published nine novels (three in the past two months), along with a novella. He’s also a sports writer for the Fitchburg-Leominster Sentinel & Enterprise and a few other publications. I’ve been chatting online with Sean for years, and invited him to share the story of how that first book came about…

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Before I begin, let’s all wish the proprietor a happy 37th birthday. I’ve been friends with Jim for a few years now; we met back when MySpace was actually cool, and we’ve built a nice rapport since then. After we first met, I picked up Goblin Hero and nearly pissed myself while reading it. Now I’m a devoted follower; I love his concept for Libriomancer. Can’t wait.

But anyway. My story…

A little over eight years ago, I started writing the manuscript that became Obloeron: The Quest For The Chalice [Amazon | B&N]. I started it about 13 months or so after I spoke with celebrated fantasy author R.A. Salvatore; we had spoken at the WaldenBooks I had worked at at the time (2002), and I was interested in writing fantasy/sci-fi.

I’ll admit it: I had no idea what I was doing. For the first month, I just wrote. I didn’t know anything about character development. I didn’t know the difference between active and passive voice (something that went on for quite a while, too). I only knew that I wanted to write a fun story with some blood, some gore, and quite a bit of action. And, as one local author said, I was writing about a halfling with a Conan complex. So I had that going for me, which was nice.

After that first month, I had four chapters written. I was proud of those first four chapters. I even had the first line of Chapter 5 written … and then I stopped. I had no idea where I wanted to take the story from there. I put the MS on the shelf for a few months, wondering where the story would take me. When I finally figured things out, a terrible thing happened to my family: my father died. For two weeks, I spent time at Massachusetts General Hospital, supporting my mother. On the subway, I brainstormed out the start to Ch. 5, and after we held the funeral, I went up to Maine with friends, mainly to get away from everything. I brought the old IBM laptop and my notebook, and at night I typed away while my friends watched horror movies. I did additional brainstorming on the beach. (I secretly want to live on the beach and just write; don’t let that get out.) Once I finished Ch. 5, I put the MS back on the shelf once again, this time for over a year. Yes, a year. It’s also why I no longer fly by the seat of my pants when I’m writing.

In August 2004, I went up to the Westminster, Mass. library to see Salvatore speak; in fact, I went there to cover the event as a journalist. As the event evolved, and as Bob spoke about how he doesn’t believe in writer’s block, something sparked in me. He inspired me to finish the book that night, regardless of how long it took me. I pulled that manuscript off the shelf, blew the dust off – this may be why I have serious allergies now – and started writing. I even tried to edit while I went, trying to make it a better story. It was in these latter sessions I conceptualized the Obloeron prequels, the first of which I released a few weeks ago.

One thing about Quest that still makes me shiver: that Christmas, I was closing in on the ending. I brought my laptop to my grandparents’ house and worked while Gram and mom cooked away. I had a saving issue – this laptop had a 3.5-inch disk drive, and it wouldn’t save. No idea why. I got home that night, and the file was gone. I bawled my eyes out; all that work, two years worth, gone in an instant. Thankfully, a friend of mine told me about file retrieval software, and I was able to retrieve the manuscript.

I looked into self-publishing practically from jump street: I liked the control aspect, but yes, I’m sure I have a few more gray hairs now than I did when I started writing. Now, though, it’s a little easier for me: practice makes perfect.

Obviously, Quest is one of my favorite stories, despite the mountain I traveled to get the story onto the screen; it’s the one that started me on this journey into publishing.

First Book Friday: Author Roundup

I’m making this list for my own purposes, as well as for anyone who might have missed some of the older First Book Friday posts. My thanks to everyone who’s participated.

Submission guidelines for First Book Friday are posted here. I’m also open to recommendations if there’s someone you’d like me to invite … with the understanding that the REALLY big names are less likely to have time for an unpaid guest blog post, so you can suggest Terry Pratchett if you want, but it probably ain’t gonna happen.

First Book Friday Authors:

  1. Jim C. Hines
  2. Joshua Palmatier
  3. Lisa Shearin
  4. Tobias Buckell
  5. Lynn Flewelling
  6. Marie Brennan
  7. Harry Connolly
  8. Alma Alexander
  9. Laura Resnick
  10. John Levitt
  11. Alyx Dellamonica
  12. Seanan McGuire
  13. Martha Wells
  14. David Anthony Durham
  15. Chris Dolley
  16. Laura Anne Gilman
  17. Rachel Aaron
  18. Diana Pharaoh Francis
  19. Sherwood Smith
  20. Kelly McCullough
  21. Jaleigh Johnson
  22. Pamela Dean
  23. Erik Scott de Bie
  24. Mark Terry
  25. Lynne Thomas
  26. Anton Strout
  27. Peter V. Brett
  28. Mindy Klasky
  29. Cindy Pon
  30. Gini Koch
  31. Elizabeth Bear
  32. Sean Sweeney
  33. Catherynne M. Valente
  34. Deborah J. Ross
  35. Kristen Britain
  36. Stephen Leigh
  37. Chaz Brenchley
  38. Kat Richardson
  39. Mette Ivie Harrison
  40. Bradley Beaulieu
  41. Karin Lowachee
  42. Kari Sperring
  43. Tansy Rayner Roberts
  44. Michael R. Underwood

First Book Friday: Elizabeth Bear

Welcome to First Book Friday.

Elizabeth Bear (matociquala on LJ) has won the Campbell award for best new writer, the Hugo award (twice), the Locus award for best first novel, and the Sturgeon award. If my math is right, she’s put out about sixteen books since 2005, not counting several short fiction collections. Plus she’s been quoted on Criminal Minds.

Personally, I’m waiting for her to write a book about a Giant Ridiculous Weredog.

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Jenny Casey is somebody who has lived in my head for a long time. Wounded, courageous, charismatic, with a take-no-prisoners sensibility and a voice that never hesitates to relate the truth she sees, be it breathtaking or horrible.

I suspect every writer has a few of these–the characters you can slip in to as easily as you slip into your favorite sweater. The ones whose rough patches and worn places just make them more comfortable. The ones whose voices wake you up at night with clever comments.

The ones who will not shut up and give you any peace at all.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was six years old, and I figured out stories came from someplace. I had stories in my head; it just took close to twenty-five years to learn the skills necessary to get them out and onto paper in a form other people are actually going to want to read.

Jenny first came to me in 1995 sometime, and among the first words she ever said to me were I never sleep if I can help it. I wrote a bad action novella about her, and a much better short story (“Gone to Flowers”) which has since seen print, and reams and reams of backstory vignettes.

She seemed to want to tell me about her life, and I was eager to hear it. But I wasn’t yet the writer I needed to be to pull it off. And I had no idea how to learn to be that writer. So the pile of notes and unpublishable fiction remained just that–a pile, even though I went back and worked on it periodically. I was writing, but I wasn’t progressing.

In 2001, though, I lost my job, and in the wake of 9/11 could not find another. So I wrote. It was a coping strategy. In that same time, I fell in with a group of writers at the Online Writing Workshop For Science Fiction and Fantasy (in a bit of sweet irony, I am now a Resident Editor there) and they taught me all the skills I needed–the most important of which was learning how to learn.

I wrote five novels in two years. And the fourth of those was Hammered [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], which was based on some of those early notes, was good enough to impress Jenn Jackson, who agreed to become my agent. She sent me some rewrite notes, by means of which I tuned up the manuscript, and we started submitting it. I’d already finished Scardown by then–publishing is slow!–and while I was waiting, I went back to writing … I think it was Blood and Iron, at that point.

Jenn called one night and told me she had good news: Anne Groell at Spectra had made an offer on Hammered and its two sequels. I almost dropped the phone.

And then I went and started work on Worldwired.

Anne has since told me that at the time, the Jenny books were Bantam Spectra’s fastest turnaround from acquisition to publication. (The record’s since been beaten–I think by Kelley Armstrong.) She bought the series in November of 2003, and they were all in print by December of 2005. They made my name as a writer, quite frankly, and I am eternally grateful to Anne and Jenn for that … and also, it must be said, to Jenny.

Jenny’s still got that voice: straightforward, brittle, brutally honest, a little jagged-feeling. The difference is, now other people can read it too. By the timeline in the books, she’s going to be born on September 30, 2012.

I think I need to throw her a party.

First Book Friday: Gini Koch

Very imporant administrative note: Goblin Tales passed 100 sales yesterday!

Ahem. Where was I? Oh, right — First Book Friday, with Gini Koch. From Gini’s website, some of her hobbies include mooning over pictures of Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, and training her pets to ‘bring it’. I met her at World Fantasy, and… well, let’s put it this way. Her cover for Alien Tango features blue explosions, a rocketship, and an angry gator. Energetic, lively, fun, and a little random.

Gini’s a lot like that.

Her third book about “Super-Being Exterminator Kitty Katt and the Alpha Centaurian she loves,” is called Alien in the Family [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], and comes out on April 5.

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I didn’t think I was cut out to be a writer because I don’t outline, and I was told by a teacher (who I knew, even at age 15, to be an idiot) that unless you outlined, you couldn’t write ANYthing. And yet, I believed her. For 20 years. And, for those years, any time I’d try to write an outline, I’d lose all the joy of the idea, bog down, and end up with nothing useful after hours of time expended.

But I always wrote in my head. I just didn’t think playing out scenes constantly was being creative — I thought it was how I passed the time while everything around me moved so slowly. I’m a multitasker of the highest order and if I don’t have something occupying at least the front and the back of my mind, said mind tends to wander into all those lovely worlds I wasn’t qualified to write.

My first novel came about because the particular voices in my head were SO loud, obnoxious and demanding, that I wrote their story down just to shut them up. I was supposed to be working (on the weekend) but looked up 8 hours later to see a lot of pages written — and a novel taking shape. I’d also discovered a joy I hadn’t known before and realized this was the thing I wanted to do, wanted to BE. I also realized that I was doing just fine without an outline.

As I wrote more and more, my technique got better. Most would have trunked that first novel, but I loved the characters too much — they were the REASON I was writing, the reason I’d discovered the thing I truly loved to do. So, I rewrote their story. In full. 9 times.

And am rewriting their story a 10th time, because while my agent loved version 9.2.2 and shopped it around, and also while we got some incredibly complimentary rejections, because it’s set in the Old West and has people on horses it’s considered a “Western”, and they don’t sell, dontchaknow. So, the characters gave me their blessing, and we’re off into a different spin. I’m excited, my agent’s excited, and the characters are excited. But I digress…

Fortunately, I didn’t know about, and then ultimately ignored, most of the writing advice out there. I’m a linear writer, I need music and chaos around me to get anything done, and I work on a variety of things at once. The idea of having to “finish one thing before you go onto the next” is alien and abhorrent to me. If I’d listened to it, I wouldn’t be published. In anything. I wrote well over a dozen novels (none published yet, some trunked, some waiting patiently for me to go back and fix them like I did my beloved First Novel) and triple that in short stories, with some novellas along the way. But I still wasn’t “there”, and I knew it.

Touched by an Alien [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], came about through a variety of steps, the most significant being these, all of which took place in roughly the same year:

  • One of my friends was constantly nagging me to “write funny” — I finally listened to her, and the first professional sales I ever made were in short humor; 
  • I started playing around with different POV options, particularly going from 3rd person only to trying out 1st person;
  • I finally found the crit partner I truly clicked with, and watched my writing move from really good to truly publishable;
  • I realized I needed to understand pacing innately, which I didn’t at the time, and so I gave myself an assignment to write a variety of short stories in varying lengths, from micro-fiction up to 10,000 words. When I finished all of this, somehow, I  indeed understood pacing and ended up with a large variety of stories to sell, many of which have indeed sold (under different pen names).

And then I had a dream — a dark, noir-ish, scary dream — and I fully intended to write a dark, noir-ish, scary story. I was still doing my short story assignments, and this looked to fit my 4,000 word slot.

By page 3, the character’s voice had taken over, by page 5 I realized this was going to be a lot longer than 4,000 words, and by the end of the first chapter that dark short story turned into a funny, sexy, science fiction novel. As I was writing it, I realized it was “the one”… the novel that would get me a great agent. It was, and said agent sent it directly off to DAW Books. The rest, as they say, is history.

Would I change anything? Yeah. If I could do it all over again, I’d ignore that teacher’s rule, like I ended up ignoring all the other rules, and start writing decades sooner. But, you know, maybe I wouldn’t have ended up with Kitty Katt and Jeff Martini and my Alien series. So, perhaps the journey’s gone exactly how it should have. As a person, that’s my view. As an author, well … there’s bound to be a story in all of that somewhere.

First Book Friday: Cindy Pon

It’s First Book Friday time again! Today we have Cindy Pon (cindy-pon on LJ). In addition to writing, Pon also does gorgeous Chinese brush art. Check out one of her recent works, titled Surly Cat. I love it! Bonus trivia: she was also the seventeenth Dread Pirate Roberts, having passed the name on to DPRXVIII a few years back in order to devote more time to her writing.

Pon’s second book, Fury of the Phoenix [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], comes out at the end of this month.

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I’ve been writing creatively since around age twelve, beginning with poetry that rhymed. To this day, I still enjoy a good rhyming poem. I soon moved on to short stories in high school, and wrote a little through college. But I basically stopped writing creatively for a decade, too busy with “grown up” stuff like grad school, marriage, work, major moves, etc. It wasn’t until I had my two bubs back to back and was staying at home full time that I found my first love again — creative writing. I really needed something to call my own again, and began taking writing classes at the local university extensions at night. From there, I went on to take a novel writing class.

“Writing a novel” had always been on a checklist of mine, that I never even considered seriously. But now that I was home full time, why not take the time to try and do this? I began writing Silver Phoenix [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], not knowing anything other than that I wanted to write a classic heroine’s journey and incorporate Chinese mythology and folklore. I wrote forty pages — more than I had written for anything in my life — and kept going back to revise those forty pages over and over again. I was stuck. Immobilized by my own fears and insecurities. How could I go on to finish a novel? I needed at least two hundred more pages! It seemed daunting and impossible.

I stopped working on the novel for six months.

In the fall, I was fortunate enough to meet Margaret Weis for a private session on my first pages at a local writing conference. That meeting really helped to give me drive and courage to keep going. In the fall of 2006, I joined NaNoWriMo for the first time. I had no intention of writing 50k in a month, but I did intend to use it to plow through The Dreaded Middle. I proceeded to write around 1k words five days a week, and by the end of November, I had 35k more words for my novel.

I finished the rough draft of Silver Phoenix in January 2007, then proceeded to revise the novel at least six times that year, with the help of critique group friends. At the end of January 2008, I began querying for agents. I never set out to be published. I wanted to challenge myself, but when I actually finished the novel, I loved it so much I wanted to share Ai Ling’s story with the world. I knew I had to at least try.

Like so many other YA fantasy author friends, I had originally written Silver Phoenix thinking it was a straight adult fantasy. It wasn’t until I began querying and one big fantasy agent asked, “Isn’t this YA?” that I began querying YA agents. In the end, I was lucky enough to find one after querying 121 (with over 100 rejections to my name). I was seriously considering submitting directly to publishers who didn’t require agented manuscripts if I couldn’t find representation when Bill Contardi agreed to take me on in April 2008.

In the end, Silver Phoenix went to auction in May 2008 and I had as many editors interested in the manuscript as I had full requests from agents. I had such a difficult time finding an agent as they’d look to the books currently on the shelves and say, there is nothing like this on the market — I don’t know who would buy it. When really, it’s a very straightforward fantasy story, like so many of the ones that are published, the only difference being it is inspired by ancient China.

Silver Phoenix debuted in April 2009 and was named one of the top ten fantasy/science fiction novels for youth by America Library Association’s Booklist. It’s been a huge learning curve since I became published, and I’m looking forward to the release of my sequel this March, Fury of the Phoenix. It’s a true joy to be writing for the YA audience, as teens make some of the most wonderful reading fans. I’ve experienced many highs as well as many lows as a published author, but I honestly wouldn’t trade it for anything.