Covering My Book: I Get the Concept Art

ArtistA few weeks ago I hired artist Hans Binder Knott to illustrate the cover of the first book in a series I intend to indie publish later this year (tentative series name: The Calypto Cycle).  Last week he sent the first set of concept drawings.  I had the odd feeling of being both terrified and excited when I saw his email in my inbox, and it took me a few hours to actually muck-up the courage to open it.  I’ve had artwork done for my stories before and never experience such trepidation, but this was different.  In all those other cases, someone else commissioned the work and someone else paid for it, so my emotional and economic investment wasn’t nearly as deep.  If I didn’t care for the artwork produced (that’s happened once or twice), it wasn’t a big deal.  This, of course, was different, and I certainly felt it.

When I finally opened the email, I realized my concerns were unfounded.  Hans sent six rough sketches of different covers.  They were all based on some extensive discussion we had prior to him coming aboard, and each took a different look at an idea we had settled on during those discussions—different angles, different backgrounds, different poses, different compositions, etc.  While none of those six concepts were the right one, among the six, Hans had captured all the elements I was looking for.

After some further discussion of what I liked (a lot) and didn’t like (not a lot), Hans went back to the drawing board, and yesterday he sent me two more updated concepts.  Without hesitation this time, I opened his email, and to say I was impressed would be a bit of an understatement—Hans knocked it out of the park.  Not with one of the concepts, but with both, leaving me now with the difficult decision of which concept I wanted him to develop into the final cover art.

I decided to sleep on it, and this morning, I made some quick-and-dirty mock covers from the art work.  I solicited some opinions from the family, and talked over the pros and cons with others (and myself, as well).  It was a tough choice, but in the end, I feel the one I picked simply fit this book better than the other, and I’m very excited to see the final product.

So it’s back in Hans’ court again.  If we stay on schedule, I should see the final cover art in about a month.  Once it’s done, I promise to reveal it (I don’t want to ruin the surprise), and I will likely write a lengthy post about the process I’ve gone through and my experience (both the good and the bad) for others to learn from.

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2015 Nebula Nominees (with links)

Wow, where did the time go?  The award season snuck up on me this year, and I likely would have missed the announcement of the 2015 Nebula Award nominees if I hadn’t seen a series of congratulatory emails (not for me, but for some writing friends–just to be clear).

The 2015 Nebula Award nominations were announce over the weekend by the Science Fictions and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).  While the Nebulas cover many categories, I’m most interested in the short fiction categories, so I’ll cover those today and get to the other award categories in a later post.  Where possible, I’ve supplied links to the stories so you can check out the ones available for free, online reading (I’ll update if some of the print publications make their nominees available for free reading, as they sometimes do).

The nominees for best novelette are:

“—–” “Rattlesnakes and Men” by Michael Bishop (Asimov’s)
“—–”
And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed
“—–”
Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” by Rose Lemberg (Beneath Ceaseless
“——–“ Skies)
“—–” “The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society” by Henry Lien (Asimov’s)
“—–” “The Deepwater Bride” by Tamsyn Muir (F&SF)
“—–” “Our Lady of the Open Road” by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s)

and for short story:

“—–” Madeleine” by Amal El-Mohtar (Lightspeed
“—–” Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld)
“—–” Damage” by David D. Levine (Tor.com)
“—–” When Your Child Strays From God” by Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld)
“—–” Today I Am Paul” by Martin L. Shoemaker (Clarkesworld)
“—–” Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong (Nightmare  

As always, it’s nice to see publications where I’ve had stories appear (Lightspeed and Asimov’s) get recognized, and equally nice to see some writers I know (if even tangentially) get recognized.  It’s also interesting to see that this list has quite a few “newer” names on it.  Since I started being able to vote for the Nebula Awards, I could count on a few names consistently being nominated (and that weren’t this year), and while this isn’t the first nomination for several of these 2015 nominees, I wonder if there may be a “changing of the guard” afoot.

As a member of SFWA, I’m eligible to nominate and vote for the Nebula Awards.  I haven’t read all of these stories yet, so I’ve got some reading to do before the voting closes at the end of March.  The winners will be announced in early June.

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What Are You Waiting For?

I’ve met a lot of people who say they that want to write stories. I know most of them will never get around to it for a variety of reasons.  For most of these folks, it won’t matter.  Whatever their reasons may be, they really have no intention of writing that story, and failing to do so will leave no hole in their lives—and there is absolutely nothing wrong with this—but for a much smaller subset of these people, not writing that story will matter.

Writers-BlockI know this because I was one of those people for a very long time. I wrote my first story in third grade and found something I enjoyed doing and found meaningful.  I wrote a “novel” in sixth grade, a second novel in high school, and third one in college.  Peppered between these was a bunch of short stories.  I tried to publish some things with no success.  Shortly after that, I stopped writing for almost twenty years.

I was discouraged, sure, but more than anything, I felt I wasn’t a good enough writer. I felt I wasn’t ready, and that I still needed to grow and experience more in my life.  I think there is some truth to that, but only a sliver.  I’ve written some stories that I know I could not have written two years earlier.  I know this because I tried to write them at one point and wound up abandoning them, only to find them again several years later and craft them into something I could be proud of.

Where that reasoning came up short, however, is that I only came back to those stories after I had decided to give writing one last shot. It wasn’t my lack of “life experience” stopping me, it was that feeling of not being ready.   I still remember that moment about 10 years ago when I decided to give writing one more shot.  I still felt I wasn’t ready, but I realized at that moment that there was no such thing as “being ready,” so I might as well just get started because the only way I was ever going to get ready was to write.

writers-block-3Now here’s the interesting thing, I think. I’ve been writing for nearly ten years, and the feeling that I’m not ready has never gone away.  I’m still never truly ready to write any story because I want every new story I start to push the limits of what I can do.  I don’t want to be entirely ready to write that story; otherwise I’ll never grow as a writer and improve my craft.

Don’t let that feeling of not being ready become an excuse for not writing. Not being ready should be a perpetual state of life—it should be the reason you are writing.

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Gone But Not Idle

AbandonedHouse4I only posted one update over the past couple of weeks because I was visiting family, and for at least a week of that time, I didn’t have an internet connection.  Some people might find no internet liberating, but I’m not one of them because I pretty much run my life and work through a laptop and the internet.  I also don’t have a problem setting the computer aside, so I’m able to disconnect when I want or need to, but I do like having the option to get online during quiet times in the evening or morning (I’m an early riser), so I can connect with friends, or crank off a small work assignment so the pile on my desk isn’t so mountainous when I return home (unfortunately, that mountain is a higher than usual today—and yes, I’m procrastinating by posting here!).

But being disconnected and busy with family, some of whom I haven’t seen in several decades, didn’t mean I was idle on the writing front.  As was one of my annual writing goals, I managed to write almost every day while traveling, and during those times I might have been on the internet, say, writing posts for here, I crammed in even more writing.  By the end of it, I wrote almost 9,000 words in 9 days.  That may not seem like a lot to some, but that’s a decent total for me.

Most of those words were added to the first draft of book three of my Calypto Cycle, and I’m now nearing the halfway mark of that installment.  All the episode’s ground work has been laid and the players introduced, and things are really starting to get fun for my main character.  I only hope the back half of the story writes itself as easily as the front.  Shameless plug time: Book One of the Calypto Cycle should be out this calendar year (release date TBD), so you’re going to hear a lot more about it from me in the coming months.

I guess what I wanted to tell everyone is that writing can be done anywhere and anytime, and if you want to succeed in the publishing business, I think writing needs to become a part of your daily life (that doesn’t, and shouldn’t, mean you can’t take days off!).   So while I may have been gone, I certainly wasn’t idle.

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In Which I Find an Artist

I’ve mentioned several times that I’ve been working on a novella series that I intend to self-publish. It’s called the Calypto Cycle, and is part noir spy thriller, part superhero, and part mystery set in an alternate 1920s eastern Europe.  The first book in the series is written, revised, finalized and copy-edited (by the wonderful-to-work-with Nerine Dorman), with the next two books not too far behind the first.

One of my writing goals this year is to get book one out to the world.  To make that a reality, I still have several hurdles to clear before the book will be ready.  I need to format the manuscript so it will convert into the various ebook formats, and I have to get a cover that will be attractive enough to draw readers in.  Then need to figure out how to actually launch and sell it.

I could do this all on the cheap by making my own cover and formatting the text myself, but I can guarantee you it would look lousy. While I’m reasonably confident I can do the text formatting, I’m not an artist or someone with any talent at layout and design.  I want the book to look stunning, so I’ve decided to seek some professional help.

I’ve spent several months trolling various art sites looking for the right person to illustrate my story. It’s been a long process, but this week I finally secured the talents of artist Hans Binder Knott to produce an original piece of cover art for the book in my series.  Hans’ work caught my eye because he is exceptional character artist and makes great use of contrast, both of which I’m looking for in my cover art.  I have a general idea of what I want my cover to look like, but the specifics of the picture I’ve decided to leave to artist (that’s why I hired one!), and I hope that a collaborative process will yield a piece of art that a layout and design person can turn into a amazing cover.

I’m beyond excited to be working with such a talented artist, and I’m confident Hans will produce a piece of stunning artwork for the cover of book one. I’ll intend to post updates as we move through the process, and if all goes smoothly, I should have the final artwork in about four months.

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Inspiration: Last Night at the Café Renaissance

Last Night IllustrationBack in July of last year, InterGalactic Medicine Show published my story “Last Night at the Café Renaissance” (complete with this great illustration by Larry Blamire).  This is one of my all-time favorite stories, and I couldn’t be happier to see it in print.  It’s also one of my most unusual stories, described by Jason McGregor in his Tangent review as “. . . one weird story . . . a blend of “imaginary land” and “alternate WWII Paris” . . .”

So where did this one come from?  I can trace the inspiration for this story back to a conversation I had with two of my co-workers at my day job.  We were on business trip, and were heading back to the hotel from dinner.  On the drive across the island, we started talking about what it was like to work as a waiter, and it turns out one of my co-workers had spent a time in the restaurant business.  He described at length how tired his feet would get working tables on a busy night.  One thing lead to another and we started riffing off each other about ways to make waiting tables easier on the feet.  One of those ideas was to suspend the waiters from trapeze wires and let them fly around the restaurant.

That idea stuck with me for a long time, but I had no story to go with it.  I had only the image of waiters flying around a restaurant with trays full of food.  A restaurant with an arrangement like that would need to be pretty avant garde, so I figured it needed be a place specializing in something like molecular gastronomy.  Waiters on wires, artistic experimental food—what a great image!

And so was born the Café Renaissance, it’s staff, and a delightful multi-course meal dubbed “catastrophe cuisine.”

Add to that a war-torn setting, and a very human story about loss, vengeance, and redemption, and I found a story that made Tangent‘s recommended reading list for 2015.  “Last Night at the Café Renaissance” isn’t available for free online reading (sorry), but you can access the issue of InterGalactic Medicine Show that contains it with a subscription, available here.  I hope you’ll pick up a copy, and enjoy one of my favorite stories.

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So You Want to be a (Science) Fiction Writer

Pen and inkI’m not one who generally dispenses advice to be people about how to break into the writing business or to assess their ability to “make” it.  I’m happy to talk about market trends, what works for me (but may not work for others), the myths and truths of publishing (as I see them), and the challenges of succeeding.

But whether you have the goods to become a successful writer?  That’s not where I generally I want to go.

Having said that, now I’m going to ignore it.

Do you have the goods to be a writer?  Yup.  Everyone with even a modicum on education can write a story or an article.  My ten-year-old daughter tells and writes stories all the time (I love them, but I am biased).  Anyone willing to sit down with a pen and paper, at a keyboard, or whatever you’re implement of choice may be, can write, and therefore be a writer in the most general sense.

But that’s not what most people mean when they ask me that question.  Here’s the hard truth about making a living as a writer: its hard work and just like being a doctor, an engineer, an electrician, or a barista, it’s not for everyone and not everyone can’t really do it.  Don’t get me wrong, I think most everyone has the ability to do any of those jobs, but do they have the mettle to make it?  That’s where I think they come up short.

Just like with all those professions I mentioned, writing requires a certain skill set, and if someone is willing to put in the hard hours—10,000 hours according to Malcolm Gladwell—he or she has a good chance of mastering that skill set, and likely finding some success with selling his or her work.  Like most skills, I believe inherent talents play a role, but in the end, I believe most anyone can write and sell fiction (just as I think most anyone can be a doctor), provided they are willing put in the hard work to make it happen.  You might never become a bestseller, you might get lucky and sell your first story, or you might hit it big and go to sell millions of books in dozens of different languages.  Who knows—I certainly don’t.

What I do know is that most people making a living from writing have worked very hard to hone their craft and develop the skills necessary to write stories that will sell.  So if you’re ready to put in those hours with little return other than self-satisfaction (and whole ton of rejection), I firmly believe you can get there, but it requires is that you write.  And write some more.  And more.  And then more . . . .

So stop reading, and go write.

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Is That My Name on the Cover?

A writer I know developed something she calls Writer Bingo, where she made up a Bingo card where each square has something she considered an important or desirable writing milestone.  It might include things like “first personal rejection” to “first invite to submit a story” to “win the Hugo.” It’s a fun way to develop and track writing dreams and goals, progress, and success.

I never developed my own Writer Bingo card, but if I had, one of the squares would have been “get my name on the cover of a magazine.”  To me, getting your name on the magazine cover is a big deal because it’s those names that help sell the publication.  Those are names that catch people’s eye and make them pick up the magazine  (and possibly help them decide to buy it).  Usually it’s names people know because those are the ones that sell.

space-and-time-magazine-issue-124-coverWhen I was writing my previous post about the inspiration for my story “From the Darkness Beneath,” I noticed that my name was on the cover of Space and Time magazine.  I actually did a double take.  Yup, there it was, right at the top under the magazine title.  This isn’t actually the first time I’ve made a cover—I was on the inaugural cover of Kasma SF—but it’s the first time I’ve made an actual print magazine cover that contained several stories and which has been around a long time (Space and Time was founded in 1966).  That may sound like splitting hairs, but to me it’s not.

I guess I can cross that Bingo box off.  Or is put a chip on it?  Maybe I’ll just the up ante because I think you’re bluffing . . . .

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Inspiration: “From the Darkness Beneath”

I missed announcing this one when it came out a few months ago.  To be honest, I had almost entirely forgotten about “From the Darkness Beneath” since its been sitting in the publishing queue at Space and Time magazine for over three years.  To say they have a slow publishing schedule would be like saying Sauron was a not-so-great guy.

“From the Darkness Beneath” is one of my rare ocean stories.  I only note that because for my day job I work in the ocean, and many people think that should lead directly to a lot of my fiction taking place therein.  I guess it’s that write “what you know” thing.  I’ve never been a big proponent of “write what you know” because if I actually did that, I’d have a pretty narrow range of fiction.  I’m a proponent of “know what you write” instead, but that’s a topic for another post.

But getting back on topic, I wrote “From the Darkness Beneath” a long time ago, so the inspiration for this story would have been entirely lost if not for a hastily scribble note that I’ve found.  Obviously I wrote the note with this post in mind, likely back in 2012 when I sold the story.  It’s just six words: rare earth elements in short supply.

Rare earth elements are a group of chemically similar elements important to the manufacture of many hi-tech products.  Most are not really rare, but they don’t tend to occur in concentrated deposits, so they can be reasonably hard to obtain in any significant amount.  Likely most people have never even heard of rare earth elements (they have wonderful names like Yttrium, Promethium, and Gadolinium), but they’re important to many products we use on a daily basis, including computers memory, DVDs, rechargeable batteries, cell phones, catalytic converters, and fluorescent lights.

Given the importance of these elements to modern society, I wanted to explore what would happen if they became truly rare.  To what lengths would a corporation go to obtain them? This extrapolation led me to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and a mining colony owned by the Pacific Abyssal Mining Consortium on the East Pacific Rise (rift zones are one of the few areas where rare earth elements grow in relatively high concentrations).  This setting naturally creates a sense of claustrophobia and isolation, so I took those ideas and ran with them, eventually coming to the story of Yim, who with a genetically engineered chimpanzee (a Pan sapien), is the caretaker of an automated mining facility where things go awry when an unexpected visitor gets aboard.

If you have a chance, I hope you’ll check out “From the Darkness Beneath,” available in the current issue of Space and Time magazine (#124).

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The No-BS Rules For Writing Success

nobullshitPeople like to talk about rules for writing, but I’ve found that almost all the rules people talk about are a bunch of BS.  That especially applies to all the rules about how to construct a story, how to start a story, what to include in a story, etc.  At best, those rules are guidelines–don’t ignore them, but don’t treat them like the are impermeable.

In my experience, however, there are a few writing rules are that I consider unbreakable if you want succeed as a fiction writer.  Those rules have nothing to do with the structure of a story, its elements, it conflict, how you begin or end.  They are about the process of writing and publishing, and are as much common sense as they are “rules.”

1.) You must write.
2.) You must finish what you write.
3.) You must submit what you finish.
4.) You must keep submitting until it is sold.
5.) You must start working on something else.

That’s it.  The keys to success in five simple rules.  Many of you probably recognize these.  The first four are from golden-age, science fiction writer Robert Heinlein (he had a fifth rule, but I don’t think that one is unbreakable).  In my experience, they form the basis of the only successful process to selling and publishing fiction.  Write.  Finish.  Submit.

The last rule is from current science fiction writer Charles Stross, which he added to Heinlein’s rules in a post on his blog.  His rule makes it implicit that you can’t stop after one iteration of Heinlein’s rules.  To be successful, writing is a cycle: Write.  Finish.  Submit.  Write.  Finish.  Submit.  Write . . . .

Last year, I forgot these rules and it was the main reason I didn’t have as successful a year as I wanted, which is exactly why I’m bringing them up now.  I can’t let myself forget that writing is about committing to the hard process of “butt in chair” and “fingers on keyboard.”  For me, this year is about getting back on track.

I know it’s less than two weeks into the new year, but I’ve already managed to write every single day.  I haven’t finished a story yet (I’m working on a longer piece at the moment), but my progress is undeniable.  The words are coming.  The story I’m working on is coming together, although it still has a long way to go.  Other ideas are starting to brew, but those will need to wait.  I have a story to finish first.

Write.  Finish.  Submit.  Recycle.

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