I read a lot in January. I binged on books while Dean was out of town in the middle of the month, and almost all of the books were worthy. Plus, I read a lot of short stories and articles. All-in-all, January’s reading was a great way to start the year.
Here’s the best of the best.
Baldacci, David, editor, Faceoff, Simon & Schuster, 2014. When I saw the conceit for this book, I thought it was either going to be brilliant or a train wreck. Well known writers are pairing off their most famous characters in a single story. If the writers blew off the assignment, then the story would be nightmarishly bad. But if the writers took the assignment seriously, the story would be anywhere from good enough to brilliant.
The writers in this volume all took the assignment seriously. Some stories weren’t to my taste, but that’s a personal preference. The stories themselves went in directions they wouldn’t have gone without both writers (and both characters) on the case.
The introductions are interesting as well, because each writer/pair used a different work method. If you want to see the wide variety of ways that writers write, pick up this book, read the stories, and then read the introductions.
I loved this book more than I hoped to—and I had hoped to love it a lot.
Chase, Nichole, Suddenly Royal, Avon, 2013. Apparently this book was originally self-published and did so well it got picked up by Avon. I found it in a Barnes & Noble when I was in Berkeley last September. The book has some issues—the writing is not stellar—but the storytelling has great verve, and even though I’d read the story a million times (the Hidden Princess story), I love that trope enough to slog through a rather slow opening.
Chase has wonderful storytelling chops, which overcame some of the craft issues for me. I debated recommending this, particularly since I started the second book and found it impossible to finish, and then I realized what a feat it was to get someone as jaded as I am about Hidden Princess stories to find one that was impossible to put down. Chase did something really right here. If you like romance, you’ll like this book. Just give it a chapter or two.
Child, Lee, and Finder, Joseph, “Good and Valuable Consideration,” Faceoff, edited by David Baldacci, Simon & Schuster 2014. Take two tough loners and put them in a situation they need to size up immediately. Don’t go through the long explanations or the introductions, just fill the story with believable action. That’s what Child & Finder did here. The story’s brilliantly written and, frankly, I’m surprised that it isn’t up for an Edgar like one of the other stories in the volume.
Dark, Juliet, The Demon Lover, Ballantine Books, 2011. Juliet Dark is the pen name for one of my favorite authors, Carol Goodman, something I just discovered this year. Apparently this book had brief life as a Carol Goodman novel, and then got reissued as the first book in an “urban fantasy” trilogy. (I’m reviewing the trilogy in order of publication here, not my usual alphabetical scheme.)
This isn’t urban fantasy. This is a pure modern Gothic of the best kind. Callie McFay takes a teaching job at a very strange private college in Upstate New York, in a town called Fairwick. As I read the entire trilogy, I realized there were a lot of mentions of Oneonta, where I lived until I was two. I e-mailed my sister about Oneonta and asked if there was a private college there. She had gone to SUNY-Oneonta, so I figured she’d know. She mentioned Hartwick. Hartwick/Fairwick…hmmm.
Okay. Personal connection solved somewhat, although I want to go to Oneonta now (I haven’t been there as an adult.)
This book is sexy and dark and lovely and fun and has a marvelous send up of universities, college towns, professors and alumni. Yes, there’s a demon lover, and there’s faerie, and there’s a lot of magic, and more tension than I really wanted when I started reading. Thank heavens I had the next books on order, because I had to read them right away.
There’s also a lot of fun writing material here. Callie wrote a book The Sex Lives of Demon Lovers (a nonfiction book) which was one reason she was hired at Fairwick. And she moves into a house once owned by a famous Gothic writer whose novels she references in her nonfiction book. She finds more material in the attic about that writer, and she also meets the writer’s demon lover.
Wonderful stuff, maybe some of the best stuff that Carol Goodman has written (that I’ve seen anyway). If you love fantasy novels, pick this one up.
Dark, Juliet, The Water Witch, Ballantine Books, 2013. Ballantine really does not know how to market Carol Goodman (or Juliet Dark) which is a real shame. The cover for books two and three in this series are much more literary than the cover for The Demon Lover, and probably won’t appeal to the casual fantasy reader.
The Water Witch picks up the loose threads that The Demon Lover left hanging. Callie’s still in Fairwick, but she faces a fight between the conservative witches of the Grove who want nothing to do with faerie, and the very magical friends she’s made at Fairwick College. Biggest problem? Her witchy grandmother who raised her is a member of the Grove.
After The Demon Lover, the idea that anyone would want to destroy the entrance to faerie or the freedom of Fairwick is horrifying. And the tension runs throughout. Having lived inside academia for the first 26 years of my life, I also recognize the pull between the conservative alumni who don’t understand what kind of school they came from and the professors who want to teach students as they are now.
This book goes to an edge that made me turn the last page, close the book, and pick up the final book in the series that very moment.
Dark, Juliet, The Angel Stone, Ballantine Books, 2013. Whoever wrote the back cover copy on this thing makes it sound like an Outlander rip-off. Ignore that. Read the book.
I can’t explain what happens here without giving away action in books one and two, but oh, wow, is this marvelous and tense and brilliant.
Did I say I love this series? No? Well, then. I love this series. Read it. Now.
Deaver, Jeffrey, and Sandford, John, “Rhymes with Prey,” Faceoff, edited by David Baldacci, Simon & Schuster 2014. I’ve read both series here, although I greatly prefer the Lincoln Rhyme series. This is one of the longer stories in the book, and it needs to be. The two characters—Deaver’s paralyzed character Rhymes, and Sandford’s bull-doggish Lucas Davenport—team up on a case in New York. The characters fit together well, and the authors do something I greatly appreciate: they have each character react to the other in a believable way.
It felt like one of those cross-over episodes of two good television shows. Well done and worth the added length.
Green, Adam, “Innocents on Broadway,” Vanity Fair, November, 2014. Fascinating article about Green’s father, Adolph and his writing partner Betty Comden, as they developed On The Town for Broadway in the early 1940s. This article has everything—family history, writer history, World War II, and an odd success story. If you’re interested in what writers face, particularly in first successes, read this one. [Note that Vanity Fair was having website issues when I tried to link, so you might have to type in the link yourself.]
Handy, Bruce, “In A Bookstore In Paris…,” Vanity Fair, November, 2014. Like every American who has gone to Paris in the last ninety years, I’ve spent time at Shakespeare and Company. It’s a rite of passage in a way.
I knew that the owner, George Whitman, had died a few years back, but I hadn’t realized that his twenty-something daughter inherited the bookstore. Fascinating piece on one of the most successful independent bookstores in the world, on the eccentric Whitman, and on his brilliant daughter who wants to hang onto his legacy and modernize it without destroying what he built. Worth reading, even if you never plan to visit Paris…
Hendrickson, David H., “Huram’s Temple,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March/April, 2015. Often I fall in love with a story written at one of our writing workshops, but I can’t buy the story for some reason or another. In the case of “Huram’s Temple,” the story just didn’t fit any projects I was editing, so I told Dave to send the story out to traditional magazines. And he did—and Janet Hutchings picked it up for EQMM. Wider circulation, lots of readers. Win-win for everyone, including you.
“Huram’s Temple,” is set in Biblical times, beautifully evoked as Dave does so well. And, like most short mystery stories, if I tell you much more, I’ll spoil it for you. So pick up the issue and read this one.
Lehane, Dennis, and Connelly, Michael, “Red Eye,” Faceoff, edited by David Baldacci, Simon & Schuster 2014. As I got ready to post this on my blog, I note that this story got nominated for an Edgar. It deserves the nomination. Lehane and Connelly seamlessly blend their two characters into a story that makes sense for both of them.
Harry Bosch is following a cold case all the way to Boston and Bosch being Bosch doesn’t inform the authorities that he’s there…yet. He stumbles on Patrick Kenzie who was staking out the same house for a different reason, and yeah, you know, the story proceeds from there.
The neat thing is that Connelly and Lehane also use their voices to great effect as well. This is a tour de force, and worth the price of the book all by itself.
Lescroart, John, and Parker, T. Jefferson, “Silent Hunt,” Faceoff, edited by David Baldacci, Simon & Schuster 2014. The two authors do deep-water fly fishing together, so they decided to pick two of their characters who would meet on a fishing trip. Add some narcotrafficantes and probably more violence that the writers have their trips, and you have a gem of a short story.
Owen, David, “Floating Feasts,” The New Yorker, November 3, 2014. I have no idea why I found this article fascinating, but I did. It’s about all that goes into feeding the ravenous hordes on a cruise ship. It sounds like more work and planning than my poor brain can handle. Fascinating stuff, and the descriptions—yummy!
Rankin, Ian, and James, Peter, “In The Nick of Time,” Faceoff, edited by David Baldacci, Simon & Schuster 2014. It wasn’t until I typed the title into this list that I realized the title is a pun. Nicely done, gentlemen.
I’d never read Peter James before. Honestly, I’d never heard of him before. I love Ian Rankin’s work. The story, another cold case (kinda), is as good as anything I would expect from Rankin. I also liked James’s Roy Grace, so I suspect I’ll be picking up his books soon. Which is how these highwire acts are supposed to work.
Short, Martin, “My Humble Beginnings,” Vanity Fair, November, 2014. I’m not a big fan of Martin Short. He doesn’t make me laugh. It always seems to me like he’s trying too hard. I like him more now than I did when I first saw him thirty-some years ago, but only because he does the I’m-older-and-wiser comedian thing really well.
I almost passed on this article, an excerpt from his memoir, and then I remember that comedians are usually writers first. And this was about his beginnings. I knew none of what he wrote here, even though I read more Saturday Night Live! biographies than I should. I had no idea he was involved with Gilda Radner (I still miss Gilda) or that he got his start in a Toronto production of Godspell with Paul Shaffer, Victor Garber, and Dan Aykroyd. That caught my attention, and the story here kept it. I won’t pick up the memoir (I’m not that interested), but this excerpt was certainly worth my time.
Silva, Daniel, The Messenger, Signet, 2007. As I was finishing up the Anniversary Day Saga, I found I couldn’t read much of anything. I settled on some darker mysteries and, for some reason now lost to time, started the first book in Silva’s Gabriel Allon series.
Silva writes well and the early books were plausible, but he wrote “realistic” spy fiction, so Allon always lost—and lost horribly. I threaded the Allon books with others, expecting the downer. It’s fascinating to read the series years after he wrote the books, because sometimes the things he mentions that “could” happen actually have two or three years after the book got published.
Then I read The Messenger. For some reason, Silva decided to throw out the “realism.” I put that in quotes because this is fiction, after all. But Silva decided to make the world a slightly parallel one to ours.
Anyway, even though Allon works for Israel, he got tied up with the Vatican early on (don’t ask), and is asked to help find an extremist who wants to destroy the Vatican. And within 50 pages, Silva changes the course of his books forever.
I started cheering then, and have continued to do so since. The books aren’t as realistic, but they are much more entertaining. This is the one where Silva finds the correct direction for the series. You can start here, but start with the early ones if you can. If you’re a writer, it’s particularly instructive. If you’re not, go slowly, and read something happy after each one.
Smith, Dean Wesley, Lake Roosevelt, Smith’s Monthly, January, 2015. Oh, things have gotten interesting in Dean’s Thunder Mountain universe. This novel doesn’t start in Idaho; it starts on the Oregon Coast as his heroine is researching mysteries in the past. She goes to a historic diner, and who should walk in, but a man she’s been investigating—from the turn of the previous century.
Those of us who read the Thunder Mountain series know what’s going on, but she doesn’t. And as she learns, things get even stranger. The story’s compelling as usual, but the changes Dean’s making to his universe are also compelling. Another excellent read.
Dean and I have owned businesses, together and separately, for decades. Not just our writing businesses, but publishing businesses, retail businesses, and a host of other businesses. When we ran Pulphouse Publishing, we had one employee who was indispensable—Debb De Noux, whom everyone knew back then as Debra Gray Cook. When she left to move to New Orleans with her future husband, mystery writer O’Neill De Noux, we knew we needed someone to take her place, but there was no one who could do everything Debb did, and deal with me and Dean at the same time.
Because, as you’ve probably guessed, we’re not the easiest people to deal with. Allyson Longueira at WMG Publishing manages us very well. Fortunately, she’s not only Machiavelli reincarnated (I mean that in the best possible way), she’s also brilliant, talented—and indispensable.
We have another employee working toward indispensable, and it’s marvelous to see.
It’s also scary. Because, as we learned with Pulphouse, when one of the indispensable people leave the business, the business staggers for a while before recovering its footing (if it ever recovers its footing).
We’ve done a lot of growing up since Pulphouse, and we’ve learned a lot about indispensable people. I hope we’re putting that learning to good use.
It took me a long time to realize that there’s a huge difference between a good employee and an indispensable one. In my working life, I’ve been an indispensable employee twice—and once was by accident. When I worked at the radio station, I kept getting hired as interim news director. They wanted me to be the actual news director, but I wanted to write and freelance. So we would go through the process of hiring someone new who would flake out (or fail) and then I would step back into the job. Two different station managers told me that they wanted me in that position, but they could never get me to give up my writing dreams.
I finally had to move to another state to get away from the lure of that job.
At most of my day jobs, I was a good employee. I showed up on time, did my work to the best of my ability, cared while I was there, and did all that I was asked to do. Sometimes the jobs were beyond me (I was truly a crap-ass secretary), but even the jobs that suited me never had my full attention.
I suspect that even if those jobs had had my full attention, I still would have been one of the rotating faces of really good employees—someone who could be relied on, but who could be replaced.
Indispensable employees make the job their own. More than that, they become part of the business in a way that would fundamentally alter the business if they left.
Since I’ve been ruminating on that this year in relation to the other businesses we own, I noted a thought skating across the surface of my brain: Weird that writers can’t be indispensable.
The second or third time that thought skated by, I caught it and examined it, and realized the thought was wrong. (Which was probably why it kept cropping up: it bugged me.)
Writers can be indispensable, but in a slightly different context.
I came to this sideways, from my editing experience. When I started editing (in the deepest darkest dying days of the last century), I realized that if I wanted to put together the definitive volume of something—let’s say horror short stories—then the volume would need certain writers.
Back then, anthologies had to sell to traditional book publishers, and they always wanted Big Names. Big Names—or Brand Names—sell books, but only in the proper context.
So anthology editors who were editing horror would always scramble to get Stephen King or Dean Koontz (or both) to headline the edition. Nowadays, anthology editors hear the same thing about urban fantasy—Laurell K. Hamilton or Jim Butcher would be dreams, along with Charlene Harris or Patricia Briggs.
But…and here’s the big thing, I mentioned doing the definitive anthology, and sometimes that would mean putting together a different group of writers.
When I came of age in reading, the definitive science fiction anthology had to have Isaac Asimov, not because he was a bestseller, but because he was known in the outside world as The Science Fiction Author.
An inside-the-field definitive anthology needed Harlan Ellison and Ursula K. Le Guin. The writers that readers expected. The writers whose bylines gave the anthology credibility.
Recently, Cat Rambo has been posting some ads from the early 1990s on Facebook, ads for book imprints, and back then, traditional book publishers would also line up definitive midlist writers. A traditional publishing horror line, for instance, would have no cache without John Skipp, Craig Spector or Kathe Koja. Not bestsellers, but the writers of the day—the writers whose presence said yes, this editor, this publisher knows what they’re doing.
Some of that is trendiness, sure. And some of it is branding. But really, it’s because those writers had a body of work that made them indispensable to their genres.
One way to identify these writers is this: If some reader in the know has to defend her reasons for disliking that writer, then that writer is indispensable. (If the same reader has to explain who that writer is to another in-the-know reader, then that writer is not indispensable. Maybe up-and-coming, but not indispensable.)
You see this less today for a variety of reasons. Because the traditional publishing industry contracted Bestselleritis in the late 1990s and decided every book had to be a bestseller and successful midlisters needed to be jettisoned, the indispensable writers vanished. They didn’t have time to build the kinds of careers that made them known for great quality, even if they never hit a bestseller list.
That was in books. You’d never see a book imprint advertise its list today, hoping that the midlist names would guarantee quality. Now those names get hidden if they’re on the list at all.
From about 1997 to 2009, the indispensable writer vanished from the bookstore shelves and showed up in the short fiction markets. There are writers whose work is exceedingly well known to short story readers, writers whose work is unknown to novel readers.
And this phenomenon isn’t limited to one genre. The mystery magazines and mystery anthologies have their list of indispensable writers (some of whom were gracious enough to write for me in our Fiction River Special Edition: Crime). The science fiction magazines have their own list of indispensable writers, as does the tiny horror anthology field. There are an entire group of literary writers whose only oeuvre is short fiction. Eventually, they might get a short fiction collection—and the main difference between them and their genre counterparts is that the short fiction collection will be reviewed in places with larger circulations than genre publications—places like The New Yorker or The Washington Post.
So that’s one traditional publishing area where writers are still indispensable. (This also happens in literary nonfiction, in long-form journalism, in tech writing, and so on. But let’s just focus on fiction here.)
But my twisted analysis caught another skating thought—editors were trying to communicate quality to readers. Which meant that readers had already determined that these writers were indispensable.
Let me repeat: Readers had determined that these writers were indispensable.
In the days before algorithms and Goodreads, the only way to know what readers were thinking was through purchases, surveys, and letters to the editor. For example, when I was editing The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I knew that putting certain names on the cover would make the sales go up. Yes, these names could be brand names, like Stephen King, but often they were favorites of the regular readers, writers like R. Garcia y Roberson or Esther M. Friesner.
That was a quantitative measure of a writer’s power within one publication. Often we’d get letters asking when the next Friesner story would appear or if we planned to publish Richard Bowes again. We would do our best to answer with a definitive yes.
Now, those tools remain important, but so do the algorithms and online tools. If traditional publishers were smart, they would start rebuilding their midlist, using some of these tools.
(A few companies might be moving toward that, with the announcement this week that HarperCollins, Jonathan Cape, Little, Brown, and Tinder Press will be seeking unagented submissions. At least two of the imprints handling unagented manuscripts are literary imprints. Literary books generally do not sell as well as other genres, so I see this as a sign that publishers might be (I said might) be returning to building a midlist. )
In the past, readers conferred indispensability but the gatekeepers had to notice. Magazine editors noticed first. (Which was why, when I started, new book editors would come to magazine editors to find that hot new writer.) The book editors would then nurture the young writer toward indispensability.
What that meant was that a group of readers felt it necessary to buy that writer’s next book. The key was that the group of readers had to continue to grow. Slow growth was fine, but growth was necessary.
Of course, once traditional publishing caught bestselleritis, it abandoned that thinking.
But magazine publishers never did, which is one reason that even as traditional book publishing contracted, the number of genre fiction magazines has grown dramatically in the 21st century.
Now that writers have control of their own careers, they need to understand that indispensability is within their reach. They have to grow their own readership, becoming a favorite writer of an ever-growing group of readers.
In Discoverability, I analyzed how readers approached writers. (If you want to see the first version of this analysis, check out this post.) For example, everyone has a favorite writer. But that favorite writer is not the same from person to person to person. If you don’t understand what I mean, check out the post.
What you want to become, as a writer, is indispensable to a group of readers. (Remember: No writer is indispensable to every reader.)
How do you become indispensable? That’s hard to define.
But I’m going to give it a shot.
Same with good writers. If the current trend is vampire horses in a dystopian universe, then good writers will write a good vampire horse story with all of the “successful” elements.
That’ll sell books for a while. As long as the readers want vampire horses and as long as there’s a relative dearth of vampire horses, then the good writer will succeed. But when there’s a glut of vampire horses and the good writer does nothing unique with those vampire horses? Then the readers will move on, and the good writer will get forgotten.
I know a lot of indie writers who are running from trend to trend to trend, trying to keep up with the readers. What good employees those writers are. They’re doing the best job they can, as someone else defines the job.
The difference is that the indispensable writer is the one who defines the subgenre and the job because the indispensable writer takes the next step…
But that’s not what I mean. When I say put yourself into your work, I mean write something that only you could have written. So what if vampire horses are trendy? Maybe you want to write about fairy princesses, even though the trend is passé. Write it anyway. Make the readers rediscover why they once loved fairy princesses.
If you love vampire horses, then write a vampire horse novel like no other. Make it something you love rather than something you think someone else will love.
Do the work for you.
Writers who will become indispensable some day step outside of their comfort zones all the time. That’s one reason I write for a variety of short fiction anthologies. Someone gives me an assignment and I think: I can’t write that. But I try. And I often learn something in doing so.
Or let’s look at it this way. How many times have you, as a reader, slowly stopped reading a once-favorite author because you knew exactly where each novel was heading? Once upon a time, that novelist’s voice was new to you, and so wherever she took you was fascinating. But after four or five books taking you on the exact same journey, maybe with different characters and a slightly different setting, you stop buying that author’s work the minute it comes out.
Sure, you might read that author’s work on a chocolate ice-cream night—the kind of night where you want to know exactly what you’re going to get. But eventually, you even stop doing that because some other writer has stepped into the comfort position. Or worse, you forget that you used to read that writer.
Those writers are good. But they’re repeating themselves. They’ve found a lane and a pace, and they’re staying in it until someone else forces them off the road.
There’s also no such thing as perfect in writing. (See this post or the book The Pursuit of Perfection) In fact, trying to be perfect is one thing that will guarantee that you as a writer (and as a person) will get stuck in the same groove over and over again.
When you take risks, you have to expect failure. The failures will be hard, but they’ll be survivable.
The fascinating thing about artists who fail? Those failures are often among the most interesting things they do. Think of the comedians like Johnny Carson who was best when he was bombing on stage, or the singers who manage to recover in the middle of a suddenly bad performance. Sometimes a writer’s failures point the way to the writer’s greatest success. Sometimes that failure is a test-run for a future project. Sometimes the failure happens simply because the market wasn’t ready for the innovative piece—and years later, that innovative piece gets rediscovered.
The most important thing about someone who is indispensable?
Those writers who get stuck in the perfect groove? They dig themselves in so deeply that they can’t even see the rest of the road. But if you’re constantly striving, you’re always looking around to find out how to better your craft.
Dean recommends watching The Voice to the readers who follow his blog because we both learn a lot from the professional musicians who give advice. We learn. I’m constantly reading business books—not how-to books as much as books on the history of other businesses in the arts, to see how they survived (or didn’t), how they innovated (or didn’t), and how they grew (or didn’t). I’m fascinated by that stuff, and I’m constantly learning.
I realized this past Sunday as I watched the Academy Awards that I’d been so busy building all these businesses, I had closed down a major source of creative learning for me. I had stopped seeing first-run films. I need to find time to watch movies again, because that form of storytelling often advances my own.
Take that design and make it your own. Keep striving to be the best. You might never achieve it (at least in others’ eyes) but work for it in your own.
Bottom line: Writing is not a competition. We are not fighting each other for readers. Every reader can read more than we’ll ever be able to write.
We’re actually working day in and day out to leave a body of work behind. I mentioned some names above who were considered the heart and soul of a genre twenty years ago. In the case of the horror genre, the genre vanished, and those writers could have vanished with the genre.
They didn’t. Because they all had other interests and other strengths and, at their core, they didn’t define themselves as horror writers. They called themselves writers, and they were constantly working to improve, constantly striving to be the best writers they could be.
Sometimes you’re the hot new thing and sometimes you’re the voice of a genre and sometimes you’re someone’s favorite writer. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive, but they don’t always happen at once—and most importantly, they don’t stay constant.
If I asked you who your favorite writers are now, you’d give me a list. But I can guarantee you that if I had asked you the same question when you were fifteen, you would have given me a very different list. And twenty years from now, you’ll give me yet another list.
Some names might remain the same. (Stephen King has stayed on my list since I was a teenager.) But more often than not, the names are constantly evolving. My indispensable writers are constantly changing, as more and more writers come into my consciousness.
I’m sure that’s the same for you.
You can’t force someone to like you. You can’t force someone to like your writing either.
But you can do the very best job you possibly can, take risks, occasionally fail, and strive to be better each and every day.
And if you do those things, you’ll become an indispensable writer for a group of readers. If you continue to do those things, you’ll become an indispensable writer for a growing group of readers.
Never aspire to good. Because you’ll end up at good enough.
Aspire to be the best.
Grow and learn. And keep writing. Each and every day.
Truth time: I write this blog for me. Because talking to you makes me crystalize my thoughts on a topic or research something or figure out if my assumptions are right.
That’s why I love the discussions that happen in the comments section, even if I don’t respond to every comment. I learn from you all too. Thank you for that.
But I also need to make some money writing the nonfiction, which is why I put a donate button on these posts. So if you’ve learned something or gotten something out of this post, please leave a tip on the way out.
Click Here to Go To PayPal. (Yes, White Mist Mountain is my company name)
“Business Musings: Indispensable,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
“War Cake” by World Fantasy award-winning author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is available for free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available on Kobo, Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and in other online retail stores.
Raisins. Spices. Elle’s arthritic fingers shook as she pinched a bit of this and added a touch of that. The kitchen was hot and smelled of baked bread already cooling on the rack. The children peered over the countertop. Ruthie had flour on her nose, and Quinn, the oldest at nine, had a telltale raisin speck on his lower lip.
“Whatcha think Mommy and Daddy are doing?” Quinn asked.
Elle glanced at him. The boy looked solemn. “They’re probably sitting in that desert with the other soldiers, wishing they were here.”
“Why can’t they come home?” Ruthie asked.
Why indeed. How to answer that to a child? Elle wasn’t sure she understood and she had lived through more wars than she wanted to remember. Her entire life seemed like a string of letters to the front: to her father in the trenches in France; her husband fighting in the Pacific theater; her son in Vietnam; and now her grandson and his wife in Saudi Arabia.
The kitchen door banged, sending in a burst of winter chill. Elle’s daughter-in-law, Lucy, shook the snow off her coat. Her arms were full of packages, but her face looked as stiff as Elle’s fingers felt.
“What are you doing, Mom?” she asked.
“Teaching the children how to make a war cake.”
Lucy mumbled something angrily. The children watched them closely, sensitive to any tension between their grandmother and great-grandmother. Elle poured the batter into her ancient, dented cake pan, hoping that Lucy would remain quiet.
Lucy set her packages down and pulled off her gloves, finger by finger. “She’s telling you that if you bake a war cake, your parents will come home safe. The only way they’ll be safe is if the politicians do their job. Don’t believe her silly talk.”
Lucy threw her gloves on the table and left the room. The children watched her go. Ruthie continued staring, her little body shaking, but Quinn whirled, as angry as the soldiers who had created him.
“You said this would help. You said they’d come back.”
Elle opened the oven and put the cake inside. Dry heat caressed her face. “Love, hope and belief will bring them back,” she said. “The cake is just a symbol, a way of focusing those good feelings.”
“But you made it sound like magic.”
“I know.” Elle closed the oven and set the timer.
“Grandma Lucy doesn’t think it’s magic,” Quinn said.
“Your grandfather died in a war.” Elle wiped off her hands and sat on a stool across from the children.
“But you said that wouldn’t happen,” Quinn said.
“I said it wouldn’t happen if you bake a cake,” Elle said quietly.
“You didn’t make one?” Ruthie had finally turned around.
Elle clasped her hands, remembering those fights in a kitchen 25 years older, 25 years poorer. Long arguments about superstition, belief and action. Elle’s mother had taught her in a kitchen 75 years gone that an action, no matter how small, always made a difference. Hence the war cake, the product of the First World War, reflecting its shortages and beliefs. A cake made without butter, eggs or milk, only a pinch of flour and a touch of sugar, with raisins for sweetness and spices for luck. It lasted, even mailed to the farthest front, and raised spirits often when they needed raising the most.
“I asked her not to make him a cake,” Lucy said from the doorway.
“And he died,” Quinn whispered. “The only one in the whole family who never came back.”
Lucy ruffled his hair. “Superstition, child.”
Elle held her breath. She didn’t know what she would do if Lucy said no to a war cake again. Her grandson and his wife were over there. But the children had to listen to Lucy, the one who would raise them if their parents never returned.
“Send it anyway,” Lucy said. She was talking to Quinn, but looking at Elle. “I was wrong all those years ago, denying him a little touch of home, a little bit of love.”
Elle put her hand on top of Lucy’s, tangled in the boy’s hair. A little belief, a little magic and a lot of hope. Lucy smiled at Elle and Elle smiled back—feeling warmth toward her daughter-in-law for the first time in a generation.
“And I hope,” Lucy said to the children, her voice as soft as a benediction, “that no one will ever have to bake a war cake for you….”
Copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Sirius Visions, August 1994
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2015 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Sdamien/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Suffice to say, these days all writers have options—and as I weighed my options on this particular project, I realized that the best way to handle it was to license it to some place traditional.
That’s not my only traditional project. Now that the Retrieval Artist series is done, I’m back writing short stories. Since the first of the year, I’ve sold several to traditional markets and have even more stories on submission. It took some effort to wrench my brain from an eight-book project to a 6,000-word project, but I’ve managed. I’ve even written (and sold!) a short-short.
At the same time, I’ve finished the first novel in a series I’ve wanted to do for almost ten years. The Fates series, which I’ve written under the name Kristine Grayson, introduced three teenage girls who were acting as the Interim Fates. I had written Tiffany’s story and had trouble selling it eight years ago. When I reread it, I realized that the book was just fine. Then I mentally reviewed the rejections I’d received on the project back then, and realized what the problem had really been.
The rejections had all focused on the “dialect” and the unacceptability of the point-of-view character. The young adult editors who saw the book said the point of view was unacceptable for the market, and no YA reader wanted to read about characters like this.
At the time I was truly confused. I’d sold books about those kinds of characters—magical characters negotiating our world—before. I couldn’t figure out what these editors were talking about. When I asked my then-agent, he said that the editors were just clueless. Comforting, sure, but not helpful.
Now I realize he didn’t want to tell me what the editors really meant.
So I didn’t know what I had done “wrong” until this year (nearly a decade later). It was a problem I had seen before; I just hadn’t recognized it.
Tiffany is African-American. Her race shows up in the very first paragraph. There is no dialect—there isn’t even slang in that opening. Just a rather sassy voice of a confused young woman who has entered our world for the very first time.
I never thought of the book as anything but a Fates book, so when I got horrid (and I truly mean horrid) rejections—mostly based on that first chapter saying that no one would read a book like this let alone publish it, I thought I had done something wrong in the writing.
I hadn’t done anything wrong. Unless you consider a non-white protagonist to be something wrong. I hadn’t. I still don’t.
But now I don’t have to deal with the perceptions of what is or is not acceptable to the YA market. I can just finish the trilogy-plus that I’ve been trying to write for years now.
The book is now in production, and I finished the next book, dealing with Tiffany’s half-sister, Crystal. In March, after I finish the seven (seven!) short stories I’d promised that are all due right now, I’ll write Brittany’s story, and then the final wrap-up novel.
Those novels will be published, one a month, later in the year.
I could never have done this in traditional publishing. Obviously, right?, since I couldn’t sell the first one because of Tiff’s race. But I’m not really referring to that: I’m referring to the one-per-month pace.
As most of you know, I’m publishing one novel per month right now, and whoa doggies, did that turn out to be a good idea.
Not just from a sales standpoint—which is sooooo much better than expected (thank you, Retrieval Artist fans!)—but from a creative standpoint.
As I wrote the saga, I knew that readers would be impatient with two back-to-back books that don’t feature the Retrieval Artist of the title. But both books are important to the story, so important that I couldn’t skip over them.
I kept thinking about the way that Reader Kris would feel if she loved the Retrieval Artist series (and its main characters) only to get the next book after a two-year wait and find there’s no Retrieval Artist in it. Then, after another year-long wait, there’d be another book with no Retrieval Artist.
Honest to God, Reader Kris would’ve been mightily pissed off. By the time year three rolled around with its Retrieval Artist book (and finally, the Retrieval Artist!), I would have picked up that book and weighed it carefully in my hands, trying to figure out if I really wanted to continue this journey with no end in sight.
Because, in that imaginary scenario, there would have been three more years of novels still to come, just to finish the storyline. Three more novels, and Reader Kris would already have been disgruntled.
I had to figure out how to satisfy my inner reader, and my inner reader told me that a single story should be read as quickly as possible. Even though the saga is eight books long, it’s one single story.
Hence the one-per-month schedule. That would give readers time to discover the books and time to read them. It also wouldn’t overwhelm WMG, which is a small company.
This month, with the release of the second book, validated my decision. A few readers have already complained on websites that there are two books without the Retrieval Artist, and have worried that there’s no point for this second book. The readers have all said they’re picking up the next, though, and they’ve mentioned that they’re pleased with the short release schedule, because they too can imagine how ticked off they’d be if they had to wait another year.
I think I would have lost a large percentage of the readership releasing the books the old-fashioned way.
This way, I’m watching the readership grow dramatically. More and more readers have come into the fold, and what’s impressing me is how willing they are to go with this experiment.
When I step back and think about it, I realize that readers are already attuned to the long-arc storytelling format, thanks to the last decade or so of television. Viewers know that some episodes might seem unimportant but really aren’t—that something will happen that will show those “unimportant” storylines to be the most important of all.
Other experiments aren’t creative ones: they’re opportunities presented by the short release dates, mostly with promotion. WMG has just started its Retrieval Artist promotions. Some promotions have been pretty visible, and others not so much. Some have worked well, and some didn’t succeed to expectations. More will happen in the next few months, and then even more when the entire saga sees print.
Once the final data is in, I’ll do a blog post about all of that—as a kind of follow-up to the Discoverability book.
So much experimenting, so many different projects, that I walk into my office and find my head spinning. Thanks to some changes we made at WMG in the past few months, even more opportunities have arisen, and I’ll be taking advantage of those as well.
What’s fascinating to me is that all of this—all of it, even the traditional stuff—wouldn’t be happening without the rise of indie publishing. I’m free to experiment—and I’m doing so in so many ways:
I’m experimenting as a writer with form and story structure.
I’m experimenting as an editor with projects that can take years to grow an audience. (Making them unacceptable in the traditional world; viable in the indie world.)
I’m also experimenting with skills I had formerly had to set aside, things I’d learned decades ago and can finally return to. I’ll have more on that in the next six months as well.
Dean and I are experimenting with some online classes (new sign-ups here).
We’re experimenting as publishers with designing a company for the modern age.
We’re experimenting with a vertical business model. Our new retail arm isn’t quite ready to go with books, but it will be soon.
And I’m back experimenting with the blog. I have three other blog posts already written, and I decided to use none of them tonight. I have a short story I need to finish ASAP (so I can get to the other six!) and two of those blog posts will evoke a lot of response from you folks, response that I simply don’t have time for right now. The third post, written last fall, isn’t appropriate due to some personal events that happened this week. I’ll set that post aside for a few more weeks or maybe for a couple of months.
I toyed with not blogging at all tonight. I could wait and write a longer blog when the story’s done.
But I’m so thrilled with the way the year is going, and the opportunities that are coming my way due to the changes in publishing, that I had to share.
I’m heading back to the story now.
Thanks for listening.
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“Business Musings: Year of Experiments,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
“The Best and the Brightest” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, a winner of the Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History, is available for free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available on Kobo, Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and in other online retail stores.
But to tide you over, Asimov’s just published a new Retrieval Artist novella. Fair warning: this novella is a standalone section of Starbase Human. However, if you’re jonesing for some DeRicci, you’ll find her here. You can read an excerpt here.
It’s fun to see the books and stories finally appear. I’m working on other projects, including something special for you Grayson fans, but I promise more Retrieval Artist is percolating! Enjoy…
Because of a variety of health issues, I haven’t been to a convention or taught an in-person class since 2011. The publishing industry has changed a great deal since then—and I just figured everyone kept up with the important changes.
But I learned something this past weekend. Everyone who is still active in the industry has kept up on the changes, but there are terrible old pieces of advice still floating around the universe, and newer writers are acting on that advice.
I spent last weekend at Superstars Writers Conference, put on by my dear friend, Kevin J. Anderson and his wife Rebecca Moesta. This year’s conference was the sixth, and Superstars is filled with energy that many staid old writers conferences do not have. The instructors this year were Kevin J. Anderson, David Farland, Eric Flint, James Artemis Owen, Rebecca Moesta, Jody Lynn Nye, Todd McCaffrey, Peter J. Wacks, M. Scott Boone, Toni Weisskopf (Baen Books), Allyson Longueira (WMG Publishing), Lisa Magnum (Shadow Mountain) Mark Leslie LeFabvre (Kobo), and Ashleigh Gardner (Wattpad). (If you don’t recognize any of the names, look them up. I guarantee you’ll be impressed.)
Superstars covered all sides of the industry, from bestselling writers talking about process to the people directly involved in indie publishing discussing how to do it effectively to traditional publishers discussing how the business works now. Lectures on Hollywood, copyright, negotiation, you name it and it got covered in three intense days.
The seminar is taking signups for next year and I highly recommend it. (If you can’t go to a conference, then look at our slate of online classes and lectures.)
Much of the learning happens in the sessions, of course, and writers of all levels benefit. I sat in on Toni Weisskopf’s talk about the changes in the publishing industry from the point of view of a long-established traditional publisher (which is not one of the Big 5), and learned a great deal.
I also listened to my friend David Farland give his Hollywood talk. Dave and I have known each other for about 25 years and always trade information about our Hollywood dealings. But I found hearing him give a lecture on things to watch out for beneficial. He put everything in a structured form. I knew 90% of it (although he had some industry nicknames that I had never heard). That 10% I didn’t know? I’ll make a fortune off of it in the future. Brilliant ideas and tips that will have a lovely, positive impact on my business.
I listened to other things as well, and caught a lot of information in small bits. Perfect. I know Dean and Allyson sat in on talks I had to miss, and they learned a great deal.
But, as Kevin says, a lot of learning happens in the time between sessions. Meals, conversations in the bar or around the hotel’s fireplace, a handful of chance meetings gave me the opportunity to speak to writers I had never met before.
In those conversations, I heard lots of great things. I acquired a few more projects (like I need those!) and made some invaluable connections. I know that everyone else did too.
But also in those conversations, I heard bits of misinformation that took my breath away. I think a lot of the reason I heard this stuff was because these writers felt as startled as I did by the misinformation and wanted to find out if that misinformation was something they needed to pay attention to or something they needed to ignore.
Startlingly, these questions about misinformation didn’t come from the folks who were brand-new to the publishing industry. The serious misinformation came via the folks who are what the sf field calls “neo-pros,” newer professionals with a few sales under their belts or that brilliant first novel that some agent agreed to take on.
Clearly, these young writers (and I mean young in the time they’ve spent in the field, not in physical age) had been studying the field for a while and had absorbed some bad information along with the good. But some of the information was so bad, so out-of-date, that I don’t think these writers got the information from anyone who has published in the last 20 years.
Old books, maybe, old topics of conversation, old…something. I don’t know. Because if a young writer said any of this stuff to an established pro, the young writer would have been told that the information is waaaaay past its sell-by date.
And I’m not referring to the myths that Dean deals with in his Killing The Sacred Cows of Publishing. Many of those myths are out of date—meaning they were true before 2009 or they were never true and were always myths.
But this past weekend, I heard things that were just flat headshaking.
Because I had a lot of private conversations, I can’t give you many examples of what I heard. I have one example I feel I can tell you because it came from at least two different writers on different days.
These discussions happened because, for my sins, I sat on a panel about agents (with Dean, Dave, Eric, and Toni). It was a different panel than it would have been five years ago, as Toni remarked when it was all over.
But because of that panel, a lot of young writers who were at the stage where they’re contemplating hiring an agent (or already have hired one) asked me questions in the after-hours discussions.
Writer One hadn’t hired an agent yet, but said, in all earnestness, that he was not looking at agents who charged photocopying or postage for mailing out work. And I told him that was a good thing, since no reputable agent has photocopied or snail-mailed a manuscript in at least 10 years (maybe not even in this century). I’m not even sure a bad agent or scam artist would list those things on a website.
Shortly thereafter, I was talking with another writer who had just hired a major agency, one that I’m familiar with (and have known its founder before the agency started). In the middle of a very good discussion about the firm and the agency, the writer told me that she had queried her agent-to-be, making sure this high-level agency did not charge for postage or for photocopying.
I’m sure at that point, the agent in question stared at the phone (or the e-mail) and wondered where in the hell that writer’s query had even come from. Because the agent in question probably hadn’t sent out a photocopied manuscript in her entire agenting career. (There are other agents at the agency who were in school when the last photocopied manuscript got messengered to a publisher. High school.)
This information isn’t a myth that’ll stop a writer from writing or even something that might have been useful a few years ago. The information isn’t going to harm a writer’s career or make the writer seem stupid. It’s just…odd. And so wrong that it makes my head hurt.
And I’m sure the writers who are finding this ancient information (vestigial information?) are as perplexed by the advice as that agent probably was. But I’m also sure that the writers felt they needed to be on guard for this behavior—even though no one does it. And has not, for years, maybe even decades.
(I heard one piece of misinformation that came from a practice that was discontinued before I was born.)
It’s almost as if these writers are dutifully searching for a payphone so they can take a forgotten coin out of the coin return.
I suspect most of this information is coming out of how-to-write books by established authors, books that were published long before these newer writers were born. Many of these books are being reissued in ebook, without the author (or publisher) reviewing every chapter.
These books are about craft. How-to-write suggestions remain the same (except for a few small tidbits) from generation to generation. I recently read an article by Louisa May Alcott on craft, and had a great realization because of one of her points.
But Louisa May Alcott’s advice on how to sell a novel (if she ever gave any such advice) is woefully out of date. 150 years out of date.
Business advice in how-to-write books published in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s is also woefully out-of-date. As is most business advice written before 2009. I’m sure I have some pieces of business advice from before 2009 floating around on the internet that wouldn’t apply to anything these days.
The business has changed dramatically, but because publishing does not have a reputable way for young writers to learn the craft and the business, then intern somewhere, and then become a full-fledged professional, the writer has to assemble his education from bits and pieces of knowledge scattered in a variety of sources.
And if the writer is new to the business, the writer has no way to separate good advice from bad, current advice from outdated advice.
If I tell you to only pay attention to advice that was written after 2009, you’ll miss tons of excellent craft advice from writers whose longevity makes everyone who is currently writing seem like they’re neo-pros. If I tell you to only read advice from indie writers, you’ll end up with a lot of chaff. If I tell you to only read advice from traditionally published writers, you’ll end up with an equal (or greater) amount of chaff.
I don’t even have great advice for you on how to avoid this vestigial business information. But I’ll give it a shot:
Think about it. If the advice seems really odd (like paying for photocopies), then approach that advice with caution.
If you see the same advice from a wide variety of sources, both old and contemporary, then research some more. You might discover that there’s a legitimate reason for doing something the old-fashioned way.
If you can’t find any legitimate reason on your own, check with several established professionals. Just one won’t help you, because that one will always bring her bias to the table. Frankly, having me on an agent panel these days serves mostly as a cautionary tale in which I have to control my mouth and the harshness of my advice. I don’t want to bust someone’s dream, but I really don’t want anyone to hire an agent in this modern market.
In fact, all of the professional writers on that panel this past weekend said if they were just starting out today, they wouldn’t hire an agent, a piece of information that seemed to fly past most of the audience as if we were speaking a foreign language.
If every established professional you check with agrees that something is no longer necessary, then perhaps you should pay attention. But if the vote’s split 50/50, then the decision as to whether or not to follow that advice is yours.
That’s the beauty of one of writing conferences like Superstars. In the space of an afternoon, you can ask five different professional writers with decades of experience each their opinion on a particular topic. In fact, after hours, you could even gather the five writers, pose the question to all of them at once and watch them all nod in agreement—or burst into a highly entertaining (and valuable) argument.
If I hadn’t gone to Superstars, I would never have realized that such ancient information infects the minds of young writers. I’m glad to know that. Because now, when a young writer asks a seemingly bizarre and antiquated question, I won’t think that writer is hanging out on the wrong message boards (or hasn’t yet discovered this thing called “the internet”). I’ll remember that there’s a lot of ancient material floating out there, and this piece of bad information the writer is referring to might be one that hundreds of young writers are grappling with.
I might even consider doing a blog post on something like that.
I’m really grateful for the conversations and the learning I experienced this weekend. Not just the things that I can point to in Business Musings, but also things that I need to know.
Just because I’ve been in the field most of my life doesn’t mean I’m done learning. I need continuing education as much as the next writer. I got a lot of good material from a lot of good writers—both beginners and established professionals.
I’ll share some of that information here, but you probably won’t know it came from Superstars. Because often the information was the missing piece in something I’ve been struggling to blog about. And sometimes the information only applies to things I’m doing—or in the case of some of the Hollywood advice, is stuff I can’t put in a general blog. (Sorry. Listen to Dave’s talk on your own. Superstars sells mp3s.)
One thing to remember whenever you go to a writers conference or to a convention. Listen to the people who are farther down the path that you want to walk.
If you want to be a bestselling romance writer, then the advice to write one book every five years from the literary novelist who also works as a professor won’t apply to you. However, if you aspire to work as a writing professor (to pay the bills) and a literary novelist, then listen to the literary novelist and disregard much of what the bestselling romance writer has to say.
Remember who you are as you take advice. Don’t dismiss everything you hear, but listen to it from the prism of who is giving that advice and whether or not you want to have a similar type of career to that writer.
That perspective really does help separate the wheat from the chaff.
And, as I’ve just realized, there’s more chaff in the writing world than I had ever imagined.
Thanks for coming to the revived blog. I’m back writing it, and I’m having a blast.
If you see something here that you like, please share this blog by linking or hitting the share buttons below. If you have a comment, feel free to make it. (Realize I only let someone post under the name anonymous if I can see that person’s name and website.) If you got something out of the post that you find valuable, please leave a tip on the way out.
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“Business Musings: Weird Misinformation,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
Here’s the news: Search & Recovery, the fourth book in the Anniversary Day Saga, released today in all formats from trade paper to ebook to audio. I’m going to link to Amazon here, but rest assured, you can get the paper book from your favorite bookstore. (And if they’re not stocking it, ask why not.)
I’m particularly proud of this book. I hadn’t initially planned to write Berhane’s story, but I wrote a short story to explain her to myself, and the story grew. I suddenly realized why I had introduced her in A Murder of Clones. A lot of characters in Search & Recovery become important later on, so don’t miss this one!
“Courting Rites” by USA Today bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is available for free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available on Kobo, Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and in other online retail stores.
The free story will be available for one week only. If you missed this one, click on the links above. There’s another free story lurking somewhere around the site. Track the story down, read, and enjoy!
If you’ve been in the business a long time, you have a follow-up thought: I know how to do [latest trend]. It wouldn’t take much.
And if you were in traditional publishing, and occasionally wrote tie-ins or some novel that your traditional editor demanded you write, you have a third thought: I’ve played in someone else’s universe before. It wouldn’t take me long to churn out something just like [latest trend].
Yes, note that I used the phrase “churn out,” which I complained about a few weeks ago. I did so deliberately. Because that’s the mindset you end up in.
You’re not writing for the joy of the art. You’re not writing what you want. You’re writing what you think is required for success.
A lot of people end up with an okay short-term career doing just that—writing the latest trend, whatever it is. When that trend eases, they move onto the next trend, and the next until they burn out. Sometimes, for some of them, following the trend works, and they find their niche. But for a lot of folks, they wake up one day to find themselves not wanting to go to their writing desk because sitting there feels too much like the day job they quit (or are still working in the hopes of a windfall).
When I say “short-term,” I say it from the perspective of a long-term career. I mean a five-to-ten year career in publishing, with only two or three years of real success. It’s a career. It’s something to be proud of. But it isn’t a lifetime career, which so many writers say they want.
I firmly believe in writing what you love. Even when I was writing tie-in fiction, I wrote what I loved. Star Trek and Star Wars got me into science fiction back when I was a kid. They had hijacked my imagination. I still adore that Classic Star Trek universe, and all Chris Pine’s Kirk showed me was that I am a super huge fan of Captain James T. Kirk, if he’s written and acted properly, no matter who portrays him (Sorry, William Shatner—I like you too, but I like Kirk more).
I loved the original Star Wars film, loved, loved, loved Empire Strikes Back, and was okay with Return of the Jedi. Those were the only films that were out when I took on my Star Wars gig. Every other series I wrote in, from Quantum Leap to Roswell, I was a fan of first.
In fact, I turned down a lot of tie-in work for projects that I wasn’t a fan of. And when I say a lot, I mean hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of tie-in work.
I know I can’t write well about something I don’t enjoy.
I write in a lot of genres because I read a lot of genres. I write a lot of short stories for themed anthologies to stretch myself. Once in a while when I write a theme anthology story, I discover a subgenre I don’t really want to tackle again, but mostly I learn the ins and outs of the genres, and often I get too many more ideas to ever finish before I die.
Writing novels to follow a trend (even if it stretches me) is something I won’t do. Novels take too much time, and you have to sink into them, or at least I do. I need to lose myself in the world that I’m writing about, and losing myself means a full commitment.
Frankly, if I want to write the latest thing, if I want to be trendy instead of artistic, I’d’ve taken the jobs I was offered in Hollywood, writing screenplays for television shows, and making a small fortune. I’ve worked collaboratively, and I’ve successfully written both screenplays and radio dramas. (By that “successfully,” I mean they were produced. I got paid for some things that weren’t produced as well.) Screenplays and radio dramas are fun until they’re not, and when they’re not fun, they’re awful.
But trend-following in novel-writing, that’s generally not collaborative. That’s just being outer-directed instead of inner-directed.
What do I mean by outer-directed? Someone else or something else, in this case a trend, determines what you write from day to day. Nothing wrong with that, except…
To me—and this is probably just me—it completely defeats the point of being a freelance writer. If I wanted a day job, I’d get one. If I want someone to tell me what to do, then I’d have a boss. If I wanted to guess trends, I’d work in advertising.
I don’t want to do any of that.
At heart, I’m both a rebel and an artist, and those two aspects of my personality have allowed me to freelance successfully for decades.
I know how hard it is, though, to see folks who started with you who are, in your outside opinion, doing better than you are.
In some cases, another writer actually is having more success. She is writing in the right subgenre or she’s hit the cultural zeitgeist or—here’s the hard one for many authors to admit—she’s just a better storyteller than you are.
But if you’re a long-time observer of writing careers, like I am (and like Dean is), you realize that today’s success story is tomorrow’s struggling writer.
Yes, that writer’s struggling from a different place—a place you might consider successful—but she’s often having problems she couldn’t even have imagined at the start of her career.
Those of us who went to Clarion Writers Workshop have all experienced having someone in the class end up more successful than we are. In my class’s case, the initial success story was a writer whose work was on the Hugo and Campbell ballot when he arrived at class. He intimidated the heck out of all of us.
When we survivors of that class got together in 2011, he said, “I often joke that my Clarion class has written a hundred novels, and Kris wrote most of them.” Everyone laughed, including me, but it made me realize that somewhere along the way, I became—at least to him—the success story of our Clarion class. It was a weird feeling.
It’s an even weirder feeling when one of your students does better than you do at something you’d like to succeed at. A while back, a friend of mine taught at Clarion. This friend has published dozens of novels, but none have hit any bestseller lists. One of her students sold a novel right out of Clarion for five times what my friend made on any of her novels. That student became the Hot Young Thing in the front part of this decade.
Dean and I have experienced that as well. We’ve had students who hit the major bestseller lists with series, and those students remain on the lists. We’ve had students who’ve won all kinds of prestigious awards. We’ve had students crack markets I still can’t crack (like The New Yorker).
We never take credit for our students’ success—I mean, how can I claim I’m responsible for someone repeatedly hitting The New York Times list with a series when I’ve never done it? (I’m not that needy or hypocritical.) Those former students are doing something right. They’re great writers who tell amazing stories—and guess what? Those former students have a fantastic work ethic (which was visible at the workshops they attended before the success hit).
I’ve known other writers who also teach who end up jealous of their former students or who denigrate the students’ success. And that just reflects poorly on the writer-teacher. I know it’s hard for some writers to watch others be successful, and I also know that everyone when they’re starting out believes that there’s a secret formula to being a successful writer.
There is: Work hard, write a lot, and don’t quit.
But you will never reach the same level of success as your friends. Their careers are theirs. The careers are dynamic, and as individual as your writer friends are.
Plus, all careers have ups and downs. Even the biggest bestseller struggles with something—maybe in the craft or maybe in the business. What every successful writer learns is that complaining about problems gets this response (often accompanied with a sneer) : I’d love to have that problem. So the writer doesn’t talk about it.
When Dean and I first met, we had several long talks about the problems of writer-couples. We knew some friends who broke up when one person in the couple became successful. (This isn’t limited to writers, by the way. Sometimes couples break up when one person in the relationship makes more money or gets a better job or gets more acclaim. I think it’s a sad side of human nature.)
Dean and I kept talking about this issue to make sure we were on the same page. That page was this: We’d stay together even if one of us was more successful than the other. More than that, we’d cheer each other on.
As Dean said back then, one of us will always be more successful than the other one, but over a lifetime, it might not be the same person. And that’s proven to be true. Early on, Dean had more success—he’d sold a lot more fiction than I had. Then I became a critical darling (and the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction), winning lots of awards and getting great reviews. That continued, but Dean out-earned me (by tens of thousands of dollars), and we both found that ironic.
Because early on in our relationship, he cared more about acclaim, and I cared more about making a living. Yet, the universe made sure I had the acclaim and he made a better living.
We’ve had all kinds of ups and downs in our careers. Then we had careers that branched out into their own smaller careers. Some of my pen names are more successful than others. (Now, that’s a weird feeling: one part of me is so much more successful than another part—and they’re both me!) Dean has had the same experience. And we have some interesting success as Kris&Dean (or Dean&Kris, depending on how you look at it).
Our early discussions made us hyper aware of the way that some authors surge into success and others don’t. Our long-term careers have made it clear to us that success doesn’t guarantee a lifetime of success.
We know a lot of New York Times bestsellers who no longer write. Some burned out, others moved to different professions, a handful can no longer sell books traditionally (!) because their numbers slid. (Those poor souls refuse to indie-publish, too, and I think that’s just too bad. They have fans. They can write again. They’re just not willing to work outside of the traditional structure.)
I’ve had several long talks with a number of the latest Hot Young Things—because once upon a time, I was a hot young thing. I won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, which takes an uphill career trajectory in sf of less than two years. It’s a rather giddy experience.
Everyone wants your fiction, everyone wants to be your friend, everyone wants to take your picture—
And then, one day, someone else becomes the Hot Young Thing, and you become an Established Pro. For a lot of writers, that shift is hard. (It’s not fair to call it a transition, because it happens almost overnight.)
I really tried to warn one Hot Young Thing, because he had tied his ego into being the It Writer. I knew it would end for him, and it would end badly, and he wouldn’t be prepared. One day, the publishers would want his books, and the next day, his sales figures would cease to be theoretical, and he would get (or not) get a book deal based not on being an It Writer but on a track record.
He never prepared, and the loss of his It status devastated him, like I feared it would.
Another Hot Young Thing listened when I warned her about the possible change coming up. She asked how to sustain a career, and I advised her (mostly on short fiction). She took a lot of the advice I gave her, and is considered one of the sf field’s most valuable talents.
Yes, she too ceased being the It Writer, but she’s still got a solid career. Because she understood career trajectories, and planned for the days beyond that early giddy success.
Why am I talking about Hot Young Things and It Writers when it comes to chasing trends? Because publishers chase trends all the time—including the hottest writer, the best genre, the perfect novel—and writers try hard to fulfill that.
(The meme I’m hearing these days from traditional publishing? Urban fantasy is dead. Um…what? Tell the fans that. Urban fantasy might not sell at 2005 levels, but it still outsells most other sf/f genres.)
Traditional book publishers, because of their business model, chase short-term trends because traditionally published books only have a short time to earn a lot of money. (That whole velocity thing we often discuss.) Traditional book publishers move from trend to trend, hot writer to hot writer, searching for what’ll sell today, not yesterday.
I get it. Their business model depends on it, still.
But writers—indie and traditional—who chase trends are thinking short term.
First, a trend will have already peaked by the time you notice it.
Second, those writers who are trying to game the Amazon algorithm, to see what categories the books at the top of the charts are in, are chasing trends that might change next week. Unless you’re writing really, really fast, or unless you’re writing short stories, chasing trends using that method is an exercise in fruitlessness.
Besides, it won’t pay off long term.
Trends cycle. Urban fantasy used to be called contemporary fantasy. Contemporary fantasy was hot twenty years ago, then died out, and then came back disguised as “urban.” Traditionally published writers often couldn’t repackage their old books (and publishers let them languish).
But now, in this new world, where writers have control, they can repackage those old books, put the proper modern label on them, and discover a whole new audience.
That’s part of long-term thinking.
The true aspect of trend-following, though? The real short-term part of it? It’s not the word “trend.” It’s the word “following.”
You’re always playing catch-up. You’re always trying to do what someone else has already done—and, in fact, what someone else has already done better and in a fresher manner.
You’re just grabbing coattails.
An agent whom I should have fired sooner than I did once complained that I always wrote in genres she had trouble selling. (Boo-hoo.) And she told me to follow trends. I told her that the best writers don’t follow trends. The best writers set trends.
Something a writer wrote from his heart took off, and readers responded. They didn’t respond to the plot or the identifiably different thing. They responded to the whole package—the enthusiasm of the writer (visible through the story), the storytelling, the perspective, the voice, the setting, the characters—most of which is impossible for someone else to replicate.
Because the key words here are “heart” and “enthusiasm.”
J.K. Rowling wrote a book set in a magical boarding school. There was an entire tradition of British and American literature set in boarding schools. Publishers at the time thought the entire idea passé. That first book got rejected a lot—primarily for the fact that its idea had been done to death in British and American literature, and was no longer trendy.
But she persevered, sold the first book, and the book she wrote from her heart—her passion—because she couldn’t stop writing that book—became a worldwide phenomenon.
There are only so many worldwide phenomena, and not every writer can be one. But every writer can attract readers who like the writer for their unique perspective, voice, and storytelling ability.
When you follow, you lose that uniqueness—and quite often, you lose the passion too. That’s why follower-writers burn out. Why you often hear them at writers conference, speaking with contempt about the entire creative process.
Why write when writing is drudgery?
And why follow trends these days, when indie publishing has opened the entire world for a writer?
Some of my books don’t sell well in the United States, but they sell extremely well in Australia or in Europe. Some readers know me as a non-fiction writer (which still surprises the heck out of me). Some readers only know my romance name. Some readers only read certain science fiction novels, and some readers only read my mysteries.
If I limited myself to writing only the hottest, most trendy things, I’d lose readers. If I had limited myself to writing only the hottest, most trendy things before I was ever published, I would never have attracted those readers in the first place.
I worry about trend-followers, just like I worry about the latest Hot Young Thing. Because both are setting themselves up for a fall.
I truly believe that trend-followers want to be long-term writers. I believe trend-followers love writing, and see trend-following as the only way to be successful.
But success isn’t an upward line on a graph. Success is a wave—sometimes you’re up, and sometimes you’re down. Following trends only makes that wave into a series of pyramids that don’t share walls. A huge up, followed by a terrible fall. Most writers never make it to the next up after a terrible fall.
But they will have had a year or two of success.
Maybe for some people, that’s all they need.
Me, I enjoy doing what I do. I have a job that I love, and I’m able to do it, because sometimes readers like what I do.
I’ve had bestsellers and I’ve had complete flops. It’s great when a book sells well. It’s disappointing when a book doesn’t.
But the key isn’t how the book sells. The key is the writing. I always ask myself if I accomplished the creative task I was trying when I started that book. Did I write the best book I could? Did I learn everything I could from writing that book? Now, with the benefit of hindsight, am I happy I wrote the book?
If I answered yes to those questions, I deem the book a success.
If readers like it, then the book is blessed.
If they didn’t, then I got some practice in.
I move onto the next project—the next project I’m passionate about, not the next project I write to hit a trend. Because enjoying my work matters more to me than some outward measure of success.
That’s the artist-rebel.
The irony is that often, enjoying my work and finding my passion leads to the success so many others chase.
To me, that’s the secret of a long-term career. Stop chasing, and wander along your own path. If you do it long enough, you’ll notice that some people have joined you.
And that, my friends, is completely cool.
Thanks to you all for coming back to the blog. I started this because I was following my passion: At the beginning of the recession, I realized I needed to finish a freelancer’s guide I’d been planning for almost a decade. (So many out-of-work people freelance, and do it wrong, making their situation worse.)
I also knew that I wouldn’t finish the book with all the other writing projects I had unless I had a weekly deadline. I expected maybe five people to read those weekly blogs and, to my surprise, I’ve ended up with thousands of readers.
Just because I was (and still am) doing my own thing.
Thanks for coming with me down this windy path. Thanks for the forwards and the recommendations. Thanks too for the donations, which do keep me focused on nonfiction as well as my fiction.
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“Business Musings: “Following The Crowd,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.