What I’ve Learned (2016 Edition)

Six years ago today (sort of), I sent my first story to a professional science fiction market.

Nebula Nominee

Today I am a Nebula Award loser. And losing has never felt so good.

Of course, I can take comfort that I’m also an AnLab winner.

AnLab - Racing to Mars

And that Nebula-nominated story, “Today I Am Paul”, has been or will be translated into French, Hebrew, Italian, German, Czech, Chinese, and Polish:

Nowa Fantastyka - Today I Am Paul

And it has been selected for Neil Clarke’s The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume 1, Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016 Edition, Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Third Annual Collection, and Allen Kaster’s Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 8.

BSFotY1YBSFF2016YBSFV33

But the title of this post isn’t “What I Accomplished”, it’s “What I Learned”. So here are some of the things I’ve learned about writing (and the business thereof) in the past year.

  • Friends are better than any award. I can’t emphasize this enough. Stand by them. They’ll be there long after awards are forgotten.
  • Readers are also better than any award. The reader response to “Today I Am Paul” has overwhelmed me.
  • But awards are pretty cool, too! Even when you lose. And especially when you make new friends along the way. (Hello, Nebula class of 2015!)
  • I learned an amazing amount of astronomy in five long days at the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop. I’ve already written one story based on what I learned there, and more are in the works. Bonus: I made a bunch of new friends!WIRO
  • Under the tutelage of Mike Resnick, I’m learning to identify international markets for my work. I need to keep at this, but it’s a start!
  • I learned that the people at Writers and Illustrators of the Future really mean it! They care about the careers of their winners. That was even more clear as a returning winner than I ever realized as a new winner. The judges and the Galaxy Press staff welcomed us back as family.
  • I learned (again) to listen to Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Lessons that they taught me five years ago keep bearing fruit today: trusting yourself and your sense of story; making writing a habit as a way to encourage your brain to write; getting out of your way; persistence; engaging the senses; putting a character in a setting with a problem in the very first paragraphs (and then keeping them there!); and so much more.
  • I also (re)learned to listen to Rebecca Moesta and Kevin J. Anderson on the topic of professionalism. Treat every reader, every writer, every editor and publisher and worker well, because it’s the right thing to do. There are many benefits that come from this, but even if there weren’t: It’s the right thing to do.
  • I learned the power of Cyberoptix Tie Lab. Their ties have become my trademark. (Me, a guy who hates ties!) They’re amusing, and they also serve as ice breakers. People ask me what tie I’m wearing today, and why. (And there’s always a why.)Laser KittyCommand ModuleRobot Rampage
  • And perhaps most important for my writing, I’ve learned the power of dictation. Oh, I’ve dictated stories for a while now, including “Today I Am Paul”. That story was a single, fifty-minute dictation session; and what you see in print is pretty close to what I dictated. But eventually I realized: Every story that I sold in the last three years was a dictated story. Dictation works for me, so I decided to do more of it. So now when I climb into the Aldrin (my Jeep), if I’m not listening to traffic reports, I dictate into my hands-free app on my phone. As Dean and Kris teach, it’s both a habit and a way to get out of my way and let story happen.

So there it is. It has been a fantastic year, no doubt. Now I have to get back to work and make this year even better!

The people behind “Murder on the Aldrin Express”

“Murder on the Aldrin Express” is in the September issue of Analog!

 

You can order it from Analog Science Fiction and Fact or find it in your local bookstore.

This story started when I attended the International Space Development Conference in 2012, after taking second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest. The first place winner, Rich Johnson, couldn’t attend ISDC from Australia, so he asked me to attend in his place.

So Rich Johnson is the first person behind “Murder on the Aldrin Express”.

At the ISDC, I had the pleasure to accept Rich’s award from legendary author and editor Ben Bova, who himself received a lifetime achievement award. I was also the guest of Baen Books editor and author Tony Daniel, and my host for the weekend was author and editor Bill Ledbetter.

So Ben, Tony, and Bill are the next people behind “Murder on the Aldrin Express”.

At lunch at ISDC, we shared a table near the stage with a number of professionals in the space industry. The conversation was fascinating, particularly that from one older gentleman whom everyone paid especial attention to. I am sooooooo dense! We were halfway through the salad course before I caught his name tag: Buzz Aldrin. I managed not to drop my salad fork, despite realizing that I was lunching with the second man to walk on the Moon. After lunch, I attended his talk on his plans for a Mars mission, as explained in his new book, Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration. A major part of Col. Aldrin’s plan is a Mars cycler, a ship that uses orbital mechanics to travel to and from Mars relying almost entirely on orbital mechanics, with minimal fuel use. Among many notes that I made at the ISDC was this: “A story set aboard a Mars cycler.”

So Col. Buzz Aldrin is the namesake and the next person behind “Murder on the Aldrin Express”.

After I put other stories to bed, one morning I decided it was time to write my Mars cycler story. As I showered for work, I thought about the story. I knew I wanted it to focus on travel aboard the ship itself, not on Mars. A key element of the cycler approach is that there’s a lot of time to kill between destinations. I needed a plot about what people do along the journey, but I wasn’t sure what sort of plot. Sure, I could do an accident, radiation hazards, or a lot of other shipboard mishaps, but none of them appealed to me. I didn’t have an immediate answer, so instead I concentrated on the backstory and characters. I started to get a picture of the ship’s captain, a capable astronaut who would choose to serve aboard what Buzz Aldrin sometimes described as a subway train between planets. I decided he was a bit of a misanthrope, and he chose this duty because it cut down on the number of people he would have to deal with. Meanwhile, that phrase – “subway train between planets” – stuck in my head. From there I went to subway, train, express… And suddenly I had named the ship the Aldrin Express (though it’s really called just the Aldrin through most of the story). Immediately after that name followed my title, based (of course) on the Agatha Christie classic, Murder on the Orient Express.

So Agatha Christie is the next person behind “Murder on the Aldrin Express”.

And with a title like that, I knew the shape of my story: it had to be a mystery. Yet at the same time, it was to be hard science fiction, especially since I had Analog in mind for it the whole time. So it had to be a mystery where at least one vital clue was grounded in hard science. Before my shower was done, I had figured out the nature of the crime, the victim, the major red herring to distract the reader (I hope!), and the true resolution of the mystery. By no means was the story done, but I had a course set. But there was one crucial element still to be worked out: the precise nature of the scientific clue that unraveled the puzzle. For that, I tapped the family expert: my brother-in-law, Mark “Buck” Buckowing. Besides reading more than the rest of the family put together (and our family reads a lot), Buck happens to specialize in exactly the science I needed. (I won’t say what that science is because I don’t want to spoil the ending.) Buck gave me the start of an answer; but more important, he suggested Synthetic Spider Silk (S3) cables as a key element of the Mars expedition. I followed up Buck’s suggestions with more research, and I discovered how S3 cable was the perfect addition to the story, the single piece that made it all work out.

So Buck is the next person behind “Murder on the Aldrin Express”.

So I had the setting, I had the crime, I had the clue, I had the red herring, and I had a detective, Captain Nick Aames. I had most of the elements I needed to start the story; but I had a problem: the more I thought about Nick, the more unlikable he seemed. I didn’t want him to be unlikable, or at least no more so than Sherlock Holmes (as one example). Or maybe like Gregory House, M.D. I was attempting to make a thoroughly unlikable character yet one whom the reader would still root for. This seemed like a big challenge, and I wasn’t sure how to accomplish it; so as I do more and more when I’m faced with a writing dilemma, I went to Facebook and asked for opinions there. I asked (roughly) “For people who like and watch House, what draws you to watching such an unlikable character?” I got a lot of feedback from a lot of friends, and all of it was valuable; but the best feedback came from fellow Ann Arbor Duelist Robert “B.J.” Chavez. He said two things: we watch House because we like to see someone who won’t suffer fools gladly, and who will speak uncomfortable truths; and we particularly like House because we see that other characters, sympathetic characters, like and respect him despite his flaws. We like them, and they like him (when he’s not infuriating them), so we want to understand what they see in him. We’ll give him a chance because they give him a chance. Holmes has his Watson and House has his Wilson; Captain Nick Aames needed his first officer, Chief Anson Carver. With that, the story became Carver’s as much as Nick’s; and I started looking for ways to tie Carver into the plot and make it much more personal for him. I think that made for a far better story.

So B.J. Chavez is the next person behind “Murder on the Aldrin Express”.

And from there, I was off and running, the story virtually flowing from my brain into my voice recorder. (Practically this entire story I dictated into my phone and then transcribed and cleaned up later.) It took about three weeks longer than I wanted (I had hoped to have it done by WorldCon); but in about seven weeks including work, WorldCon, and other obligations, I had 18,500 words that really hung together (I hoped). So I sent it off to First Readers: Tina Smith (ak.a. Tina Gower, Grand Prize winner in the 29th annual Writers of the Future contest), fiction author (and Gator fan) Elinor Caiman-Sands, author Jeanette Sanders, my mom, and my fellow Duelist, friend, and trusty editor Bill Emerson (a.k.a. Epee Bill, Editor Bill). With feedback from them, I tightened the story up a bit (adding 500 words in the process) and sent it off to Analog.

So Tina, Elinor, Jeanette, Mom, and Editor Bill are the next people behind “Murder on the Aldrin Express”.

Other friends and colleagues deserve mention. Some acted as sounding boards along the way (including author and WorldCon roommate Alex J. Kane and former Analog editor Stanley Schmidt). Kevin O. McLaughlin performed the small but critical service of pointing me to Dean Wesley Smith’s website; and Dean has proven to be a motivating and invaluable mentor in my writing. I wouldn’t have had the courage to put my work out there if Dean hadn’t talked me into it. And once I followed Dean’s advice and had a story judged a Finalist in Writers of the Future, I discovered WotF winner Brad Torgersen, who has generously blogged about his writing and sales process and serves as a great example and inspiration. I also received great moral support from the Writers of the Future forum and from contest coordinator Joni Labaqui.

As for me? All I did was put the words together. I know that sounds like false modesty; but honestly, at this point I can scarcely remember the writing process itself. I remember a night I spent writing at WorldCon, I remember the shower during which I titled the ship and the story, and that’s about it. The actual writing process is gone from my brain.

But all those people, and all the ways they helped? Them I remember, sometimes in very great detail. That’s why they’re the people behind “Murder on the Aldrin Express”.

2013 Writing Goals, in detail

I just posted this on Facebook:

Time to set writing goals for the year. After 17,000 words in 5 days — one of those a work day, one a holiday with the relatives, and one a New Years Eve party with friends — I kinda feel an obligation to set my goals high. Either that, or I’m foolishly optimistic based on a false sense of accomplishment. But either way, here goes…

[Drumroll, please!]

A short story or a novel chapter completed per week.

If I fall short, you all have my permission to sneer, as long as you do so in a motivational fashion.

But here I should be more specific. Dean Wesley Smith has his annual post on goals. I like his distinction between a dream and a goal: a dream involves factors you absolutely cannot control, while a goal involves only factors you can control. “Sell a thousand books” is a dream because you can’t control the buyers (unless you go out and buy them yourself, which is kinda cheating). “Submit a dozen short stories,” “Submit a novel,” and “Self-publish a novel” are goals, because they’re entirely up to you (unless life seriously gets in the way).

Dreams are good. They’re motivating. Goals are good. They’re concrete and measurable. And done right, goals improve the odds on your dreams. But don’t confuse the two, and don’t judge your progress by your dreams. Judge it by your goals.

My writing goals for 2013:

1. My first goal is a repeat of my goal from last year, one where I had only middling success. At the end of every week, every completed story must be one of the following:

A. Sold.

B. In the hands of an editor who might buy it.

C. Self-published to Kindle and other platforms.

D. Free-published on my blog. (This is only for works that I do like, but I think are too short or otherwise too noncommercial for self-publishing.)

I would say I met that goal about half the weeks of the year. This year I’ll aim for every week.

2. Write more.

3. Finish more. As above, my goal – and yes, it’s a stretch – is a story or chapter per week.

4. Set up my publishing house as per Dean’s Think Like a Publisher series. I already have the domain name, the web site, and the DBA. I have two titles published under Old Town Press. It still needs more structure to think MORE like a publisher.