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.
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.
June 3, 2011 @ 1:51 pm
Interesting, and a book that might be interesting to pick up. Assuming I haven’t read it yet. Jim, what do you suppose Stephen means about “how to snag an agent” changing? As the father to a budding author my advice to her has been exactly that- write lots, submit lots, rewrite lots and don’t mind the rejection slips. What’s changed about that path?
June 3, 2011 @ 2:15 pm
Russ — I’ll let Jim give his own answer, but here’s mine. “Write lots, sumbit lots, rewrite lots and don’t mind the rejection slips” still isn’t bad advice (well, I wouldn’t ignore the rejection slips; they can actually tell you quite a lot about what’s going on: for instance, if they’re all form rejections slips, you’re not getting past the first reader for some reason, which indicates there’s still a lot of craft-level work that still needs to be done; if they have an actual editorial comment on the submission, then you *really* need to pay attention to that…).
But publishing *is* changing. I know some fairly well-published writers who aren’t using an agent at this point, or who engage with agents in different ways than were standard ten years ago (in fact, I’m one of ’em at the moment). Many of the ‘new’ writers didn’t follow the “write lots of short fiction before you write novels” path, but have jumped right into novels. There is the whole ebook path, which is still being blazed and explored as we speak. Contracts with publishers and agents need to be reviewed very carefully now — they did before, too, but some of the contract clauses I’ve heard of recently are atrocious. For that matter, the idea of even *having* a contract with an agent beyond a handshake is fairly new — with both of the agents I had, I never had a written contract.
THe publishing world of 2011 doesn’t look at all like the publishing world of 1981 or 1991 or even 2001. I think the publishing world of 2021 is going to be very different yet. Doesn’t mean that the “old advice” is bad, but that you have to look at it in the context of the current reality and make your best judgment.
Jim C. Hines
June 3, 2011 @ 6:14 pm
Russ – I think the core path that you describe — write, rewrite, submit, and repeat — still holds true. But the way people break in has changed. For example, when I did my First Novel Survey last year, we found that more and more people were selling their books by submitting to agents instead of directly to the publishers.
But the biggest thing is to write, so I think you’re on target there. Beyond that, just make sure she’s doing the research on the business side so she knows where to submit and how to do so, keeping in mind that like Steve says, advice from 20-30 years ago may not hold today.