Monthly Archives: May 2015

Conning Your Way: How to Participate in Cons

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Sasquan (World Con) is coming up, and I’m so excited to be a panelist. I must get me my Sasquan uniform. Need this tee shirt!

It’s con season!  Every year I kick off my summer of cons with BayCon over Memorial Day weekend.  This year I’m a panelist on BayCon, ConVolution, and…WorldCon!  I’m very excited about that last.  But not everyone I know who I think should be invited to various cons, has been.  This started me thinking on why was I invited when other just-as-deserving people (oh heck, I’ll be honest, more deserving people) don’t.

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In 2013, a fellow writer’s group member dragged me to WesterCon in Sacramento. I’d been away from cons for ten years, but I knew I wanted a change at work.  I wanted to start doing SF/F editing and give up my day job editing business documents.  Sure, it paid in green, but left my soul very poor and hungry.  I had no idea how to do that, though. My contacts were all with business and publishers not dealing in fiction. Hence I said yes to WesterCon.

As I went through the weekend, I realized I wanted to be involved, not just attending. But how?  Who would want me on a panel?  What did I have to share after years doing pro journals, science docs, educational texts, and nonfic?  Sure I’d kept up by always being in genre writing groups, learning and mentoring, but that was just writer’s groups…right?

That was the little devil inside me, jabbing his pitchfork in my thoughts.  But the little angel was there, too.  “You know a lot about writing,” the angel said. “You know you do.”  The groups, the jobs, they were all about how to write to achieve goals in the best way possible.

So at one of the panels, I raised my hand and I asked, “How do I get on a panel.”

The answer was surprisingly simple—volunteer.

Wow. Mind-blowing.  You mean just contact a con and ask?  Yep.  Best advice I got at that con.  Take that first step in your journey of a thousand steps. It is the most important thing you can do.  Ask.  But I have a few more hints to help ensure the con chooses you over the next guy.

Find out which cons have writers workshops.  Email the event coordinator and ask if you can be on it.  Usually you have to have some publications to be one of the pros in the workshop, but a short story or two will qualify you in most cases.  If you don’t have that (and I don’t), volunteer to moderate.  That’s how I started in con writers’ workshops.  They needed a moderator, and the guy running it asked me to help him out (I was an editor on his magazine).

The second thing you can do to increase your chances is to suggest panel ideas and offer to moderate them.  Last year at one of the cons, I was on a villains panel, and very much looking forward to it.  I was bummed when it was canceled because the person who had suggested it and was to be moderator had dropped out.  I said, “I’ll moderate.”  But no, still no go.  She told me they like to have the person who suggested it, moderate it.  I don’t know if this is across the board, but I have moderated every panel I have suggested.

Both of these suggestions hinge on being a moderator.  That scares some people.  Good news is moderating isn’t necessarily hard.  Do a little research on the Web.  Pay attention at cons you go to and see who moderates well and how they do it. Some moderators only moderate, not participating in the discussion themselves.  This means you don’t have to be a subject matter expert, just interested, though I like to participate myself.  One of the reasons I’m doing this is to get myself out there.

To get ideas on what you can suggest, look at the catalogs and see what areas are covered this year so you can suggest some for next year.  Jot down things that interest you. If they interest you, they likely will interest someone else.  Look around the internet.  What are the controversies?  What attracts your attention and interest?  Cons cover a very wide range of topics.  I’m interested in the writing and publishing, but you can find panels on costuming, music, television shows, anima, comics, and fandom covering science fiction, fantasy, and horror, either together or individually.  The con has something for you…that is why you are there in the first place, right?

Remember also, the community has more than one con.  Just because this con doesn’t pick you doesn’t mean the next one won’t.  Do a little research and find more than one con to try.

Follow up.  If you don’t hear, email and ask.  Don’t pester, but sometimes this will put you in the right place at the right time.  Also, if your first submission went astray, this will be a second chance for it to get through.

Don’t be a diva.  These operations are run by volunteers who have day jobs and lives.  If they don’t choose you or don’t get back to you this year, don’t take it personally.  You don’t know why they didn’t.  Could be your ideas didn’t fit with the theme. Could be your emails or application got lost in the shuffle (I’m pretty sure this happens a lot).  Could be they had limits on quotas. Just take it in stride and try again next year.

Finally, be nice to the events’ coordinator when they do accept you into the program.  I had a snafu one year that a very nice events’ coordinator bent over backward to help me fix.  She didn’t have to.  So I took her out for a drink when I got to the con.  Not only did I have a lovely time getting to know her better, but I got invited back the next year without contacting the con first.  Moral of the story? Some drinks or candy or chocolate chip cookies can go a long way.

Nine Steps to Participate in a Con

  1. Research and pick several cons to try
  2. Keep a log of ideas throughout the year.
  3. Join the writers’ workshop
  4. Contact the con and volunteer
  5. Submit panel ideas
  6. Follow up at a reasonable time
  7. Be nice to the events’ coordinator
  8. Be professional and polite where you don’t get the invitation you wanted.
  9. Rinse and repeat: try again next year.

Ralph Kern’s SF Book Endeavour Relaunches into Cyberspace

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On 7 Amazon Top 100 lists right now! Colonization, Exploration, First Contact, Hard SF, Space Exploration, Space Opera, and Time Travel.

I don’t review books; I edit them. As an editor, my job is to critique for a living, so I find all manner of nits I can pick at.  So critiquing clients’ projects…just not a good idea.  But today, I’m breaking that rule.  Today is relaunch day for Ralph Kern’s book, Endeavour.  I did the final copyedit and “Americanized” the book (a little harder than just running spell checker, it turned out, but I digress).

In my thirty years of editing, this book was my favorite project. I found it to be a page turner.  Even when I came to the end of my editing day and had to stop working, I would read just a few more pages ahead as a sneak peek for the next day’s work.  As it did for other reviewers  (on Amazon), Endeavour reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, one of my favorite SF books ever.

The Premise.  The book starts with mankind about to take first steps into the stars. They are looking to answer the Fermi paradox: Where is everybody?  Through the book, we follow the team as they get closer and closer to answering the question. We also watch as the people of earth leap into the future and pass by our team who, as a byproduct of relativistic time issues, become one-way time travelers. Continue reading »

The Strengths. As many have noted, Ralph Kern has paid attention to the science in his science fiction. The science he portrays, as he explains in the afterword, is a projection of the science being posited today. This imparts a very real and solid feel to the story. His writing style is clean and crisp—very easy to read.  Finally the story that ultimately unfolds is interesting and compelling. I was sorry to reach the end.

The Weaknesses.  Three weaknesses have been brought up more than once in the reviews.  First, the characterization had been criticized.  I will grant that the characterization is a lighter element, but not a weakness.  The characters convey the story well, and I grew to care about them.  I did ask Ralph to insert a few lines here and there to aid with this issue, but overall, the novel is story-driven, not character-driven, and it worked well.  I say this as a person who usually prefers character-driven recreational reading.  Second, Ralph’s regional habits of grammar and word use (and we all have those) have been dinged as intrusive.  Ralph worked hard with me on smoothing these over.  I don’t expect this is a problem anymore.  Third and finally, the editing has been a touchstone of complaint.  Two editors have now reviewed it, so I expect the editing will no longer interfere with the read.

All in all, I really feel that Ralph has captured some of the flavor of the heyday of SF and the midcentury greats, then modernized it for today’s audiences.  This is true hard science fiction, driven by story and science, and one very enjoyable read.

Ralph Kern’s ebook may be ordered at Amazon.

That’s What Editors Are For

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Graphic: retrieved from Laugh Tracks at GoComics.

I put together a bike for my brother’s kid this Christmas.  Turns out, I’m pretty handy with a wrench.  Thought I might try building a car next.  What do you think? Should I go for it?

What you are thinking right now is a little glimpse into my head when I tell people I’m an editor and writer, and they say to me, “Oh, yeah, I’ve been thinking about writing a book.  It’s about XXX. What do you think? Should I go for it?”  I’m torn between trying not to smile too hard or being a little insulted.  I usually land on amused.

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Someone once asked me how I do what I do after I helped that person fix a pretty big hole in their novel.  I laughed and said, “Shell out thirty grand for a degree in creative writing, then pony up more for a certification program in editing, attend a dozen cons, moderate half a dozen writer workshops, participate in five writers’ groups, read an uncounted number of how-to books and unpublished manuscripts, and oh yeah, work for thirty years as an editor/writer.” What I’m trying to say, if you haven’t had your coffee yet, is that although all the people I’m talking to speak English, speaking it and writing it are two different skills.  That’s the first thing that person asking me about writing a book will need to learn because it will free them to pursue the myriad avenues that help people learn to write.  If I try to point this out gently, I have often heard the response, “Well, that’s what editors are for.”

No.  No, we’re not.  The tasks of editors are varied, but fixing your fiction manuscript for you isn’t one of them. I will help you, I will work with you, but I won’t do it for you. I find that people often don’t understand the role of an editor, and that has been a problem sometimes in my career.  I have worked as a developmental editor (a favorite), substantive editor, technical editor, copyeditor, production editor (another favorite), proofreader, and editorial proofreader (my least favorites)—and that’s not all the kinds of editors.  If you don’t know what all of these mean, you are not alone.   The lines between the editing roles blur and overlap, so if I have a little trouble at where one starts and another ends…well, I thought it might be time to try to help authors out.

The Developmental Editor. DEs work with authors through the phases of writing and revision to ensure that manuscripts reach their potential and communicate clearly to readers. In my role as DE, I’ve aided in knitting parallel storylines together that should have but never met.  I’ve extracted the “real” story from scattered plotting.  I’ve even given one character a sex change.

When do I need one?

If you are early in your career and have a manuscript worth rescuing (meaning that it’s not headed for the bottom of a trunk if and when you realize just how much you really don’t ever want anyone to see it), you might find hiring a DE useful.  Or if you are an experienced author who is under time pressure or needs help with focus in your writing efforts or storyline, a DE might help.  A DE gives the author a person to bounce ideas off of, and to get creative juices flowing again. A fresh perspective can lead down very interesting paths. Teresa Edgerton helped me out with my novel in just such a fashion.  I had a race of functionally immortal people (they lived so long the locals thought they were immortal) that could no longer bear immortal children.  This meant their race was dying, albeit extremely slowly, and that parents would watch their now mortal children live a comparatively brief life and die.  Teresa pointed out the terrible affect this would have on the society, families, and individuals.  It affected the development of my story right down to the architecture. It grew into the core problem between the antagonist and his father, enriching the story immeasurably. A DE might be a means of helping lift that heavy stone, writer’s block, helping you to see work that is stale in your eyes in a new way.  I once helped a person who could not get past a particular chapter.  I suggested they change the point of view to another character in the scene.  The author told me they’d stayed up through the night and finished the chapter.

The Substantive Editor. They perform all copyediting tasks and work heavily with sentence structure and wording to improve the flow of text and smooth transitions.  They can offer rewrites for consistency, logic flow, tone, or better focus.

When do I need one?

I use my substantive editing skills when I do developmental editing, but rarely am hired to perform this function alone for fiction.  But I do see a use for it because I use it in my writers’ groups and workshops all the time.  A substantive edit is a good teaching tool.  If you really want hands-on guidance, you might choose to work with a substantive editor.  I wouldn’t make this your first lesson in writing.  I suggest doing it after you have participated in workshops and writers’ groups, studied up on styles of authors you like, or read the how-to books. Once you’ve done those things, if you still feel a lack, you might want a teaching tool tailored specifically to your writing to discover your individual weaknesses and strengths.

Copyeditor.  How to prepare a manuscript for publication is covered in books called style guides.  Each one follows different rules for different circumstances. For instance, the big US publishers tend to use the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) while journals often use the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA).  This will dictate things such as do you represent this number as 11 or eleven?  APA dictates 11, whereas CMS, eleven.  A copyeditor knows the style guides and house styles and applies them and other resources to make consistent corrections to punctuation, spelling, grammar, and capitalization. They will flag inappropriate language or inconsistent tone.  They may do a little research for you to check your facts. I edited a story once where a man walked into a neighborhood bar in 1923—the middle of prohibition—and I didn’t catch it.  While that is not strictly the purview of a copyeditor, I still was a little embarrassed!

When do I need one?

This one’s easy: on your way to publication.  Ideally you want a copyeditor and a proofreader. Please, oh please, do not send your work to press and public without a professional copyedit and proofread (or combination thereof).

Proofreader. The proofer is the last person to touch the manuscript before publication.  Ideally the proofer sees the final copy that you are ready to send to the typesetter or your publishing service.  The proofer generally only corrects hardcore errors. This harkens back to the use of galleys in precomputer-typesetting days. Publishers used to get a typeset manuscript on a roll. Every change cost money to retypeset, so the proofer would only correct the text if it was a real problem.  Today, proofers can be a little less restricted and offer a little more intensity, but in essence, they are still correcting only errors that the author and other editors may have missed.

When do I need one?

Right before you go to press. I’ve been working on my manuscript forever. The first chapter has been edited, proofed, and massaged ad nauseum over the course of years. Last month I still found a dropped word. Try not to touch your text after the proofer is done.  That just introduces opportunity for error.  Trust me—I can’t tell you the number of times a last minute change has introduced error.

Often times some of these roles double up.  For instance, owing to time or money constraints, you might combine the role of copyeditor and proofer (which is what an editorial proofreader is). Though in an ideal world, your copyeditor and proofer are different people, most copyeditors will do this.   I often double up the role of developmental editor with substantive editor to offer a little story-level help and a little writing improvement.  Don’t hire someone to do all the roles.  The most I’m comfortable with when I’m combining roles is two. After that, I get too involved in the text to see it clearly in much the same way as the author does.  If I’ve done developmental and substantive editing, I really don’t want to be responsible for the proofreading.

Editing is expensive, and many new authors don’t have the luxury of hiring an editor right away.   Don’t despair.  You can get some of these benefits from a writers’ group or workshop in the early stages of you work. I know that participating in a writer’s workshop has drawbacks. For example, controlling your time frame is harder.  You have to determine the quality and applicability of the feedback.  The other participants may know something is not right, but not know how to articulate it. You also have to devote a lot of your time to other people’s manuscript problems.  However some of these drawback turn into boons.  You get better at your own writing when you critique others, and you discover the wonderful sense of community that is out there for writers. You also will have a head start on working with your editor once you’ve undergone the critique process.

So there is your primer on editing.  Now go ahead.  Ask me again.  So what do I think?  Should you go for it?  Should you write that book?

Absolutely.  The only way that first story in you becomes a novel is if you write.  But remember, that is the first step in a long flight of stairs.  If you need help, we editors will be here.

My Descent into Publishing Purgatory:
Part 5—Waking up from the Dream

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By the end of the year, I grew more dissatisfied with my situation. My “publisher” was keeping me bogged down in the marketing where I had no skills and no experience. They thrust me into a senior-level job as a marketing and social media specialist with expectations to produce spectacular results after sixteen weeks of on-the-job training and being paired with a “mentor.”

My manuscript never got near an editor’s desk.

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I read the articles on SFWA’s Writer Beware blog and corresponded by email with Victoria Strauss herself. I discussed my frustrations with close friends—a freelance professional editor and a couple of authors with publishing credits at the major houses like Harper-Collins and DAW.  Their support and friendship validated what I knew in my gut to be true. I was in a bad situation.

  • A-to-Z Publishing demanded that I work as hard to market myself as if I were a self-published author. Yet they denied me all control over the launch schedule, the choice of editor, and the cover design—contrary to my expectations of a boutique small press.
  • Their brand label had no commitment to quality. The books they produced ahead of mine showed sloppy editing riddled with grammatical errors. They used what were clearly cut-and-paste stock images on their cover art.
  • Their projected sales goals aspired to those of major commercial publishers, but A-to-Z lacked the capital to build a platform to help me achieve those goals.
  • They would never contact any reviewers or bloggers on my behalf nor did they establish any relationships with such as contacts for their authors. Instead, I would be in line with countless self-pubbed authors begging to bloggers for attention. Forget about a review in Publisher’s Weekly or Locus or being featured in the books section of my Sunday newspaper.
  • A-to-Z would never get me distributed into any brick-and-mortar bookstore, even the small independent ones. In fact, they discouraged me from arranging any personal appearances in a bookstore on the premise that bookstores were “boring” relics headed for the dust bin of history. Perhaps it’s different in other parts of the country, but where I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, bookstores are not dead!

What advantages did they really offer to be earning a hefty cut of my profits? None.

Even so, it was very hard to let go of my dream. Like the workhorse in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, I kept trying harder and harder. Believe me, none of the authors in A-to-Z’s catalog put in more hours and more effort with so little results. Or, as the marketing folks say, ROI—return on investment. I studied Guy Kawasaki’s marketing books. I watched YouTube videos. I read a bunch of blogs. I learned about SEOs, Google analytics, the algorithms that Facebook uses to filter the news feed, the difference between outbound (spam) and inbound marketing, and the application of psychology techniques in advertising. Overthinking it? Perhaps. I realized that sales and marketing folks think about these things a lot. They get really excited to blog about metrics, clicks and sticky views, conversions from leads, tracking sales spikes correlated to their activity on social media, and so on. God bless ’em, but this stuff bores me.

Ironically, one of the lessons in A-to-Z’s seminar had us take a look at what other successful authors do and analyze how they got there. George R. R. Martin (Game of Thrones) started as a script writer in Hollywood over thirty years ago and has worked his way up the food chain. Brandon Sanderson is an up-and-coming fantasy author with a background in missionary work. In other words, he knows how to knock on doors and talk to people. Aha! Light bulb moment. Like any professional career, successful authors put time and effort into networking in their field. Clearly, it takes years of diligent effort and marketing savvy to build up a fan base. There are no shortcuts, no magic wand, no fast track to success.

I asked to be released from my contract. At first, they said no. “We have been honoring our side of the contract, and I cannot release the book to you after investing this much in you.” My mother’s fighting spirit flared to life in my gut. I pushed back, citing that the contract obligated A-to-Z to publish my book within eighteen months of receiving the complete manuscript. That deadline had passed. They stonewalled me until I threatened legal action. Thankfully, I never had to go to court—but I was ready to fight.

I’m fortunate that, with some perseverance, I recovered all the rights to my manuscript.  I am free to self-publish or send out queries once more. Back to square one. Except that I no longer feel so desperate and hopeless that I’ll sign anything just for the chance of seeing my name in print. If I grow old and die without ever seeing a novel commercially published in a SFWA qualifying market, I am okay with that. Now I have the confidence to walk away from a bad deal, and thanks to this experience, I’ve learned how to spot one.

So what’s a poor struggling first-time author to do?  Arm yourself!  You spent a long time writing your book, so spend a little extra researching where to find a good home for it. Here are some places to start.

The Peril of Author Mills: Victoria Strauss discusses the siren allure of the author mills that lure in inexperienced first time writers and reveals the nightmare they can become.

The Writer’s Dig:  Editor Robert Lee Brewer of the Writer’s Digest discusses the small press as a publishing option.  

Writer Beware—Contests and Awards:  SFWA blog discussing the pros and cons of contests and awards.

Writer Beware—Small Presses: SFWA blog discussing issues to consider when submitting to a small press.

My Descent into Publishing Purgatory:
Part 4—Goodbye Professor Higgins


DeeDee discovers a new Form of Torture
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Meanwhile, I worked harder at coming out of my shell. The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. I attended local SF/F conventions and set a goal for myself—not just to attend panels but to raise my hand out of the audience and make a comment. I gave myself permission to say dumb things or just agree with what someone else said. It was too soon for Eliza Doolittle to become My Fair Lady and command the attention of the entire room with eloquence. My goal was to just… speak.

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More good things happened. I got a short story accepted by a magazine! Okay, it’s a very small e-zine that is not a SFWA qualifying market. Even so, it was a “yes” after so many years of rejection. Since then, I have sold 2 more stories and another will be appearing in an upcoming anthology. At last, I am building a list of publishing credits to put in query letters. My fan fiction is not the only thing to put on my resume!

A-to-Z Publishing disregarded my personal leaps and my incredible forward strides to reinvent myself. I felt sure my awesome book would be a sleeper hit but they were not willing to take a chance. All they wanted was numbers… numbers… In other words, if I could not guarantee big sales right out of the gate, they would never start work on editing. More than a year after I submitted the manuscript, no one had ever read beyond the synopsis.

Also, as part of my so-called prize package, I was entitled to write blog posts on A-to-Z Publishing’s Web site for a full year, The president and I agreed on a list of topics. I wrote half of them with a promise to write more. She heartily approved, “These are wonderful, informative blogs! I know I am going to enjoy your book.”  Yet to my surprise, she refused to post the blogs until after my book’s launch. “No author has had their blogging start prior to their book release.” I never got a clear explanation of why she would hold back doing something so simple to give me more visibility. If my book’s release was delayed because of my low numbers, why not boost me up?

A phone call with the president of A-to-Z only increased my frustrations. She scolded me for thirty minutes about the lack of friends listed on my Facebook page. Seriously, I took notes and marked the time. At the end of that call, my action items were: 

  • to work harder to build up my social media numbers
  • to fill out her newly designed self-assessment and time management worksheet

Yeah, that was it; my publisher’s solution to get my book published was to make me work harder on extraneous stuff and fill out forms.

Part 5: Waking up from the Dream