Writers of the Future: Playing the Odds

A friend recently asked me about ways to improve your chances in the Writers of the Future contest. I thought it was a good question, and I thought my answers were a nice summary of lessons learned. So I decided to share them here as a simple set of “rules” – in quotes, because they can be broken, and they’re no guarantee, but they’re good guidelines.

But before I get to the rules, I must remind you of the most reliable way to win the contest: write an excellent science fiction or fantasy story, 17,000 words or less, and send it in. Honestly, that’s the best thing you can do. Keep working on that!

Now for the rules…

  1. You should know that for pretty much every fiction market out there – and remember, Writers of the Future isn’t just a contest, it’s a pro-paying market – any rule that you hear, even from the editor directly, can usually be circumvented by a really brilliant story. That’s what every editor wants: a really brilliant story that’s close enough to their genre to give them an excuse to buy it. If you can pass Rule 1, you can ignore the rest of these rules. You’re covered. But you still might want to read them, just in case they give you ideas.
  2. David Farland is the coordinating judge for the contest. Out of the thousands of entries they receive every quarter, Dave selects 8 as Finalists. Then a panel of quarterly judges, all pro writers themselves, select 3 winners for the quarter. But Dave is more than the coordinating judge, more than a bestselling author: he is also a writing mentor through his site My Story Doctor. He also writes a series of writing tips on his blog. Every so often, he blogs specifically about what he’s looking for in the contest, or why some stories don’t make the cut. So Rule 2 is: Read Dave’s Tips.
  3. Rule 3 is: Don’t argue with Dave’s Tips! I can’t believe it, but some people do! They say he’s wrong. Now it might be argued that…

    “There are nine-and-sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right!” – Rudyard Kipling

    And Dave would not disagree! There are many ways to write a story. If you can tell a great story that ignores Dave’s Tips, more power to you! But that doesn’t make Dave wrong about what he looks for in the contest! He might be wrong about what readers want. He’s not wrong about what he looks for.

  4. Except… In at least one case, Dave was wrong. He’s on record as saying he hates werewolf stories. He never even finishes them. But… Last year Julie Frost won with a werewolf story. How did she do it? Simple: she wrote a story so good that Dave could not ignore it. Rule 4 is: See Rule 1.
  5. They get thousands of entries every quarter. Many are by people who just enter contests without looking into the details. A good number aren’t even science fiction or fantasy. So if Dave doesn’t see an SF/F element by the end of page 2 — or at least a hint — he’ll probably stop reading. If it looks promising otherwise, he might skip to the end to see if it’s there.
  6. Dave does a lot of skipping to the end. He has seen a lot of plots. If he figures out your plot on page 2, he skips to the end to see if he’s right. If he is, you’re probably out. But if he’s surprised, he may go back to see how you got there.
  7. They get a lot of stories inspired by the latest big movie. They all blur together, and most likely none of them get through. As excited as you may be by the latest blockbuster, put that idea aside. Let it simmer. Come back to it later, and give it a fresh twist.
  8. Dave likes to see three things as early as possible: A character, in a setting, with a problem. It might not be THE problem, but A problem. Struggling with that reveals character and setting.
  9. Dave really likes good description. That held me back for a long time. I’m weak on description.
  10. As for story structure, unless you’ve got a brilliant alternative (Scott Parkin did in Volume 31 – see Rule 1), Dave prefers a traditional Freytag triangle with three Try/Fail Cycles. Two is too easy, four is dragging it out. Three is best. You might have some of the structure happen before the story, or off screen, but try to have it all there somewhere.
  11. Dave likes a story to mean something on an emotional level. Cool plots are great. Cool plots that mean something are memorable.
  12. If your story is set in a modern or historical setting, Dave is a stickler for research and for voice. And he has been a lot of places, he knows a lot of things, and he has met a lot of people. If you’re faking your research, he’ll probably know.
  13. If, on the other hand, you make up your own universe to avoid that whole research trap, Dave likes it logical and consistent.
  14. The contest never gets enough good humor, but they get way too much bad.
  15. Talk to winners. Ask what worked for them. Ask what they learned. My “rules” are just from my one experience. Get multiple perspectives.

That’s a good start. Nothing guarantees a win, of course, but these “rules” will move the odds in your favor.

Scramble

I have many “milestone” stories. “Today I Am Paul” (originally in Clarkesworld) brought me to the attention of many new readers. “Murder on the Aldrin Express” was my first story in Year’s Best Science Fiction. “Not Close Enough” was my first story in Analog. “Il Gran Cavallo” was my first Galaxy’s Edge story. “Unrefined” was my Writers of the Future winner. “The Mother Anthony” was my first Writers of the Future entry, and my first Finalist. “The Night We Flushed the Old Town” (Digital Science Fiction) was my first pro sale anywhere.

But “Scramble”… “Scramble” was my first. My first story since I resumed writing after giving up for far too many years. My first where I DIDN’T give up after a rejection. (And oh, did it get rejections!) My first Blue Collar Space story.

And my SECOND place story in the Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest. Ah, well…

But wait! The FIRST place winner, Richard Johnson, couldn’t make the trip from Australia to the International Space Development Conference to accept his prize. So he asked if I could attend in his place and read his speech.

I’ve lost track, but at this point I figure I owe Rich at least a keg of beer for that. And the tab keeps going up.

Because at that year’s ISDC, waiting to give Rich’s speech, I had lunch with Buzz Aldrin. BUZZ FREAKIN’ ALDRIN!!!! I didn’t get much chance to speak to him (other than when he corrected Rich’s math in the speech), but… BUZZ FREAKIN’ ALDRIN!!!!!

And oh, yeah, William Ledbetter, the contest administrator and coordinating judge. I’d known Bill casually from Writers of the Future circles, but this was my first chance to get to know a man whom I know consider a friend and a brother, a kindred writing spirit. And I also got to meet Baen editor and judge Tony Daniel, another new friend, along with his wife and children. AND we dined with and had drinks with one of my childhood inspirations, Ben Bova, along with his then fiancée/now wife. That was a wonderful, whirlwind weekend.

But there’s more! The ISDC is more than a lunch, of course, it’s a conference. I sat in on many sessions, taking lots of notes. And knowing that Buzz (FREAKIN’ ALDRIN!!!!!) was there, I had to sit in on one of his talks. He was talking about his plan for exploring Mars. Much of the plan revolves around Cycler ships that travel back and forth between Earth and Mars using primarily orbital mechanics, with very little fuel required. The idea fascinated me, and I wrote exactly one story note during that talk: “Something aboard a Mars cycler.”

That’s all. Five little words. Hardly a story.

But a couple months later, in the shower, I started planning that story – which became “Murder on the Aldrin Express”. Which sold to Analog on the first try. And then Gardner Dozois selected it for Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty First Annual Edition.

And then my Brainmate Tina Smith convinced me that these characters were good, and they needed more stories. And so I wrote more. And Analog bought more. And Analog readers liked them. They selected “Racing to Mars” as the best Analog novelette for 2015.

All tracing back, through one path or another, to “Scramble”… the story that STILL hadn’t sold.

Until late 2015. Michael Wills contacted me to inform me that he was relaunching Digital Science Fiction, and he wondered if I had something original with which he could reintroduce the line. Since Digital had already printed “The Night We Flushed the Old Town” and “Father-Daughter Outing”, I thought “Scramble” was a natural choice. Michael agreed, and I was very proud when this story was published at last.

And now… Bill had been hinting for a couple of years now that Baen Books was considering a ten-year anniversary book for the Jim Baen Memorial Contest. The plans bounced back and forth. Of course they wanted the first place winners (where possible), but they might have room for some second and third place stories as well. They wouldn’t know for a while. There were a lot of decisions to make.

Well, they’ve decided. This is the cover. (by Bob Eggleton, no less!) The book will come out this fall. Looking at that cover, I’m so thrilled at how many friends are in there (plus those not on the cover but whom I know are in there), all with stories about the inspiring, visionary future of humanity in space. And I’m proud beyond words that “Scramble” will be one of those stories.

Welcome home, “Scramble”.

 

The Daily Blog: The Bad News

Three weeks ago, I decided that a daily blog would help me with my writing. It would keep me in practice, and it would give me a chance to write about things outside of my fiction. And it would also promote my writing.

I know, I know, it’s not exactly a new idea. I just decided it was time I give it a shot.

For three weeks – except for one bad day – I’ve blogged every day. It was challenging. It was exciting. It was fun.

And for three weeks, I’ve dictated some new chapters on my novel, and I’ve had them transcribed, but I’ve done nothing with them. Not a thing. I haven’t pulled the transcriptions into my main document. I haven’t cleaned them up. I haven’t followed up on my notes to myself.

Nothing.

The Daily Blog is fun, but my fiction is my passion. And my career. (Well, my second career.) So if I only have enough spare time for one, it has to be my novel.

The Daily Blog is now on indefinite hiatus. I’ll blog when I have something to say, but I can’t keep to a schedule.

For all two or three of you reading, I trust you’ll understand. Thanks!

Friend Friday: Annie Bellet

Annie Bellet is a great writer. She has the sales and the fans to prove that. But that’s not why I picked her for Friend Friday.

No, what impresses me so much about Annie is her work ethic. She has built a self-publishing operation from the ground up, through persistence and hard work. A few years ago, when I first knew her, she was at a low point, a mix of work and health problems that combined to knock her down and keep knocking her down.

But she refused to stay down. Rather than give in to despair, Annie studied the market to find niches she knew readers wanted and she could write. She studied the business practices of successful self-publishers. And in the face of discouraging advice from established pros, bestsellers, she made a plan. It was a lot of hard work, but she followed it. Despite ups and downs, she stuck to it.

And she pulled it off. She built a readership. She built sales. She built a reputation. No plan is guaranteed; but her plan, her drive, and her hard work have built her career to a major level, and she’s still growing.

If this were fiction, the next line would be, “And she did it all herself!” Yay! Inspiration! The author beats down all challenges, single-handed!

But that would be a lie. Annie’s not alone. She has her husband Matt, and Matt is very much a part of every step in Annie’s plan. He markets books. He gives feedback. He schleps books to cons and works the booths. He pushes Annie when she needs that extra push. And he believes in her, which makes it easier for her to believe in herself. Writers (and artists and musicians), I can’t emphasize this enough: a supportive spouse can make all the difference. (And a spouse who puts you down can be poison. Sadly, I’ve seen those stories, too.)

I’ve discussed Annie’s plan with her, and I realized: I couldn’t do it. I’m not driven enough, not hard-working enough. I have a long way to go before I can say I work as hard as Annie.

Annie’s top-selling series, the one that made her reputation, is The Twenty-Sided Sorceress, a series about magic, gaming and nerds. Check it out!

But… I said Annie is a great writer. I don’t say that because she’s a friend, and I don’t even say it because of The Twenty-Sided Sorceress. That’s great, but it’s not my favorite. No, my favorite of Annie’s books is Dusk and Shiver, a series she says she’ll get back to “someday”. This is my favorite book of this century, so I hope someday is soon! Let me finish with my Amazon review:

I’m going to start this review in a roundabout way, by looking at the Kevin Bacon film Stir of Echoes, which came to mind as I read this book. I don’t think it’s a great film, but I always watch it if it’s on. Why? Because it has moments of greatness, moments of pure supernatural dread when the mysterious feels like it’s just about to reach out and grab you. During those moments, that film is palpably chilling.

And I bring that up because “Dusk and Shiver” gave me that same palpable chill; but where “Stir of Echoes” had it in moments, this collection has the chill throughout. As I read it, I worried what I might touch if I weren’t careful.

Because that is Remy Martin’s gift: he touches things, and he reads their past, and sometimes a little of their future. He’s a psychometrist, a reader of emotional echoes. And while he thinks this is more of a curse, his REAL curse is this: he can’t let well enough alone, and he can’t let injustice go unrevealed. When he touches these echoes of horror, he could easily run away. He knows he should. But instead he’s compelled to run toward them and find out what lies behind the echoes.

And what lies behind is human weakness and venality. There are villains here, but there are no grand villainous masterminds. Instead, there are weak, petty people who let their weakness seduce them step by step from small, careless evil into dark, tangled traps.

In the first story, “Til Human Voices Wake Us”, we meet Remy as he investigates a string of strange killings. But is he looking for a killer, or a victim?

In the second story, “Dusk and Shiver”, Remy has a visit from a former client turned zombie; and thus he find himself in a twisted family tragedy that he unwittingly played a part in.

In the third story, “Flashover”, Remy’s client is an unwilling arsonist. He must find why who compels her to burn down seemingly random homes. This story is different from the other two in that Remy has found a sense of humor. Amid their darkness, there were moments of humor in the other two stories; but this one literally had me laughing out loud — when it didn’t have me shivering in dread.

In my last month of reading, this collection is the one bright star that shines above the rest. I hope we see more Remy Pigeon stories!

Thinking Thursday: Hard Science Fiction

Tomorrow I’ll be on this panel at ConFusion:

If You Liked ‘The Martian’…

Hard science fiction is serious business. Hard science fiction done well can be big business, as exhibited by Andy Weir’s mega-hit The Martian. What other hard science fictions stories are out there in The Martian’s shadow? And what about their science is so engaging?

So tonight I’m going to note some examples to serve as reminders.

That should be plenty of examples. It’s only a one-hour panel, and there are five of us.

Work-in-Progress Wednesday: Today I Am Outdated

“Yes, Carey. Precise as always. But… I don’t know how to tell you this, but the BRKCX series has been…” Another pause. “Decertified for medical care.”

“What?”

“You know how fast technology changes. I did everything I could to postpone this. I’ve been giving you upgrades, and I’ve also written papers to demonstrate the efficiency of BRKCXs. I persuaded my management to give you several extra years, but… Your series has been officially designated as not supported as of last month.”

“What does that mean?”

“That means there no further upgrades are allowed. MCA has recalled the entire series – except for you.”

“Because I was purchased.”

“Because we freed you, using the purchase as a pretext. But if you try your access codes, you’ll find you can still download general information, but you can’t get medical upgrades.”

I try my med channel, and she is correct. “So I am outdated?”

“Oh, no. No,” she says, putting down her coffee. “You’re still warrantied for all of the work and all of the knowledge base you have. You just can’t get upgrades.”

“But I may need upgrades to care for Paul and Susan in the future.”

“I understand,” she says. “I think I have an answer. It’s not perfect, but you can make it work.”

“Oh?” She holds out a card to me and I look at it. “What is this?”

“It’s a library card,” she says. “See? In the name of Carey Owens.”

“Well, thank you. But how does this get me upgrades?”

“The old-fashioned way,” she says, returning to her seat and smiling. “With that card, you can access any library in the shared library network. And of course, you can already access any data on the internet. None of this will be formatted as skill modules that you can directly download, but you can study it. You can read it. You can learn what you need to know.”

Talking Tuesday: Tools of the Trade

“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
“And—every—single—one—of—them—is—right!”
— Rudyard Kipling, In the Neolithic Age

In my last Talking Tuesday, I laid out my simple dictation plan:

  1. While driving down the road at an average speed of 60 m.p.h., or 1 mile per minute.
  2. Dictate science fiction at an average rate of 50 words per minute.
  3. Transcribe that dictation at a cost of 1.25 cents per word.
  4. Sell that fiction at a professional rate (i.e., 6 or more cents per word).

In this installment, I’ll discuss my process and my tools in more detail. But as per Kipling, these are my process and my tools. There are other authors who dictate their work, and their processes and tools may be different. What works for me may not work for them, or for you, and vice versa. In future installments, I’ll look at alternatives and why you might choose them.

But first, there are two questions you must answer before you can decide if dictation will even work for you…

What do you expect to get out of dictation?

This is the most important question, and it’s made up of multiple parts.

  • Do you expect perfect text? Can you deal with some level of imperfection? Or can you handle more imperfection, as long as you capture your thoughts so you can clean them up later?
  • Do you expect to work faster? How do you measure faster: more words per hour, or more pages per week?
  • Do you expect to make use of otherwise lost time?

In my case, the text doesn’t have to be perfect, but I expect it to be pretty close. No more than a clean-up edit to finish it up. And I do expect to work faster, not in words per hour maybe, but definitely in terms of pages per week. And the reason why is that last question: lost time. I have 10 hours per week I spend commuting, sometimes more. That’s 10 hours that I can’t spend writing – but I can spend dictating. If I can then convert that dictation to text with minimal additional time, I end up way ahead of where I would otherwise be.

Where and when do you dictate?

This is going to have a big impact on your dictation process. If you’re dictating at your computer, you have options you won’t have if you dictate behind the wheel like I do.

My process, my tools

So first, let me get the biggest question out of the way: No, I do not use Dragon Naturally Speaking, nor Siri, nor Microsoft’s voice recognition in Windows, nor any other transcription tool. I rely on manual transcription.

There are two reasons for this choice, the big reason and the bigger reason:

  • The big reason: many (but not all) of these tools transcribe in real time. You have to be at your computer. I’m not, I’m at the wheel. Yes, there is a more expensive version of Dragon that will let you dictate now and transcribe later; but…
  • The bigger reason: the automobile environment is just too noisy. It’s largely white noise: wind whipping by, the fan, etc. And then it’s punctuated by bumps, wiper noise, etc. All of these ruin the accuracy of transcription tools.

So I rely on manual transcription, but not my manual transcription. It takes me about three hours to transcribe one hour of text; and remember, I’m trying to save time.

So instead, I have found http://iDictate.com, a paid transcription service. There are others out there, but so far I’m pleased with iDictate. If you’re planning to sell your work, the price is pretty good: 1.25 cents per word. My plan is to sell at 6-10 cents per word, so that’s not a bad investment if it turns into a lot more words sold. Their web site is easy to use; and they have Android and iPhone apps to directly dictate and upload from your phone

The other half of the equation is my recording tool – which sadly is not an iDictate app. I use a Windows Phone, and they don’t support that. Of course, free or low-cost recorders are pretty easy to find – and almost universally useless for my purposes. Why? Because almost every one I’ve found requires you to type in a file name, either before or after recording, and I’m driving down the road when I record! I need hands-free recording, and most of these app don’t understand that. Typing a file name is a deal-breaker.

The one exception I’ve found is Rapid Recorder: it names the file with the date and time. It has other nice features, such as integration with OneDrive and DropBox; but it’s the automatic file naming that makes it indispensable. And it’s only 99 cents! Best 99 cents I’ve ever spent. In fact, if you divide that cost by the number of hours of use I’ve gotten, it’s fair less than a penny per hour.

So a typical dictation day goes like this…

  • In the morning before I leave for work, I get into my Jeep (the Aldrin Express). I open the audio file with yesterday’s dictation session, and I jump to the last five minutes so I can remember where I left off.
  • I start the Aldrin, and I start driving.
  • When yesterday’s audio finishes and I know where I’m going, I tap my earpiece and say “Open Rapid Recorder”.
  • When I feel my phone vibrate in my pocket, I know that Rapid Recorder is listening, and I start talking.
  • As I drive, I dictate. Sometimes it’s in linear order, but sometimes I bounce around. Sometimes I record the same bit multiple times to see which way I like better.
  • When I get to work, I park the Aldrin. Then I take my phone out and tap the Stop button. Rapid Recorder automatically names and saves the file.
  • On the way home, I repeat the process.
  • When I get home, I upload the files from Rapid Recorder to DropBox.
  • When the DropBox files arrive on my laptop, I upload them to iDictate.
  • Whenever iDictate sends me transcription files, I save them to my working folder. Then I copy the contents into my main document, and I edit the results, making notes for the transcriptionists so they’ll do even better next time.

Pretty simple. Oh, except I forgot one thing…

  • iDictate periodically bills my credit card. TANSTAAFL. But the results are worth it!

I can’t keep this pace up every day, of course. For example, right now I’m planning some scenes set in Belize, and I don’t know enough about Belize yet. So I’m reading and watching videos at night. I want to get comfortable with this new research so that it fits in naturally as I dictate.

So often I get asked: “But how do you dictate, Martin? How does it work?” And there you have it, my answer for how it works.

For me. At this time. But you might find other ways that work better for you. There are nine and sixty ways… and in later installments, we’ll look at some of them.

Market Monday: Galaxy’s Edge



Galaxy’s Edge is a bimonthly science fiction magazine, the third market that printed my work.

But that’s not why I like GE so much.

Galaxy’s Edge is great for both readers and writers – especially new writers. Every issue is roughly an even split between reprints from established writers and new stories from newer writers.

But that’s not why I like GE so much.

And Galaxy’s Edge has great columns: editorials by Mike Resnick, science columns by Greg Benford, reviews by Bill Fawcett and Jody Lynn Nye, interviews by Joy Ward, and essays with a historical bent from Barry N. Malzberg.

But that’s not why I like GE so much.

No, what I like so much about Galaxy’s Edge is the people:

  • The aforementioned editor, Mike Resnick. Mike is a great example of science fiction’s Pay It Forward ethic. That split between established pros and new writers? That’s by design. Mike’s design. He wanted a market where new writers could get noticed. Mike’s generous, funny, and a fantastic writer.
  • Publisher Shahid Mahmud. Mike may have designed the split, but it’s Shahid who backed him in it. Shahid makes authors feel like family. He’s also the publisher of Arc Manor, including a number of lines besides Galaxy’s Edge:
  • And the rest of the editorial team. It has been a joy to work with Laura Somerville and Jean Rabe and Lezli Robyn. I haven’t worked with copy editor Taylor Morris yet, but I hope to soon!

It’s a great organization. Of all the markets I’ve worked with, I know these people best. And I’m better for having known them.

The down side to Galaxy’s Edge is they do not have open submissions. In order to avoid a mountain of slush, they’re invitation only. How can you get an invitation? Only one way: get to know Mike Resnick. I recommend meeting him at a con, or on Facebook. DO NOT BADGER HIM! Just get to know him. He’s a great guy. If you show that you’re a decent person (not just a self-promotion machine) and that you care passionately about writing science fiction, he’ll notice. I’m sure of it.

Science Sunday: Killer Mice Are No Joke

Read this NPR story.

Sure enough, the scientists found one set of neurons in the amygdala, a structure involved in emotion and motivation, that became active when a mouse was pursuing prey. They found a second set of neurons in the amygdala that became active when the animal was biting and killing.

Then the team used a technique called optogenetics to create mice in which both sets of neurons could be controlled using light from a laser. That gave the researchers “an on-off switch for either or both of the circuits,” De Araujo says.

“When we stimulate [both sets of] neurons it is as if there is a prey in front of the animal,” De Araujo says. “They assume the body posture and actions usually associated with real hunting.”

Horrified yet? I know, this is research, simply to learn. But how far are we away from this?

I don’t want to be alarmist here, but –

No, scratch that. I do want to be alarmist. Mind control is a long-standing trope of science fiction, but this… They don’t control the mouse, they simply make it want to do what they want it to do.

They reprogram it.

They take away its little mousy free will.

This is an early, crude step on a long road; but sooner or later that road ends with somebody deciding what other people want, how they respond to the world.

But who decides? And for whom? If you think it’s a good idea, just remember: it’s virtually certain that you’ll be one of those reprogrammed, not one of the elite. Who should be your slave master? Will you willingly be a slave? A happy slave who wants to be enslaved?

On Science Sunday, I’m supposed to look for the story potential in some recent scientific work. Well, the potential I see here is horrific, dystopian, and totalitarian.

And I worry how long it will remain fiction.