The Importance of Silence and Downtime

I’m not silly enough to assume this is true of all writers, but it’s certainly true of me: I need silence.

Not true silence, the absence of noise, though that is also beneficial.  What I really need is a sort of mental silence–time in which I don’t have to be thinking too hard about other things, like work, or whether my child is screaming for good or bad reasons, or if I remembered to feed her.

The reason I need that time is so my brain can work through story issues.  I can sit, in a hammock, let’s say, staring at the trees above me, blinking but doing nothing else–and in my brain, ideas are being sifted through, sometimes consciously, but sometimes in the “background” of my mind while I’m just processing sensory input consciously.  It’s a weird and hard to describe process.  So here’s an example:

Saturday night, my daughter and I stayed in a motel in Placerville, about a half-hour drive from my home, because we were going out to watch the Perseid meteor shower and I didn’t want to have to drive all the way home from our star-watching spot at the Ice House Observation Plateau to Sacramento at oh-dark-thirty in the morning.  When we woke up Sunday, we got dressed, packed up, and went home, where an hour later, I realized I’d left my pillow–a non-standard, kinda expensive pillow that is literally the best pillow I’ve ever had–in the motel room.

Figuring the gas to get there and back again was less than the cost of buying a new pillow, I went back for it.  I went alone, which was useful.  As I drove, I started asking myself some tough questions I’ve been having a hard time with about The Remembrance War around some of the events in book 2 and some stuff I’m building toward in book 3.

Namely, I had two major questions:  First, instead of getting into a protracted street fight in book 2, why don’t the Zhen simply blast the rebels into the dirt from orbit?   Second, why don’t they shoot Tajen dead when he begins [REDACTED]*?  And, bonus question, why ARE [REDACTED] getting involved with the whole mess in book 3?

As I drove, with nothing to do but let the music on my crappy car radio be white noise while I thought (and steered), I found all three answers.  So I committed them to memory, and then spent some time refining the concepts and pre-composing a few scenes that will help make it all clear–scenes that will fit into the already-planned story arc and scene structure.

That kind of downtime, you see, is precious.  And I don’t get a lot of it in my daily life.  Between work, ten year old child, and spouse, there’s a lot of talking, and a lot of doing, in my day.  And I need the quiet to be able to figure out what’s going on with the story.

Fortunately, once I know what’s supposed to happen in a given scene, writing does not require silence.  I wrote one of the best scenes in The Widening Gyre while sitting in a room with 300 chattering parents and their kids at my daughter’s school, waiting for an event to begin.  I wrote several other scenes in the middle of restaurants or coffee shops full of noise.

So while it isn’t necessary to actually write down words, it is super necessary to figure out what the general shape of those words should be.

And now, it’s time to get back to the writing.  Tajen’s about to make an idiot of himself before the Kelvaki High Council at the worst possible moment.

What It’s Really Like, Part 2: The Contract

A few days after I sent my acceptance of the terms the publisher was offering, they sent me the boilerplate for their contract.

boilerplate is standardized language used in contracts.  Every publisher has their own.  It’s essentially the same thing you’ll see in the contract.  This is where the negotiation happens.

So I read over the boilerplate, and googled like crazy for a couple of days.  The contract lays out what you’re paid, when it happens, and how royalties are calculated. It isn’t the same for all formats–there’s separate rates for hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook, and then rates for remaindered books, and book club editions.

It also lays out how much the author gets for the sale of translation rights, film/tv rights, audio play (as in radio) rights, etc.  Most of those, I imagine, will never be used, but they’re enumerated in the contract.

The contract lays out what happens if I don’t live up to my obligations by delivering the book by the due date (I’ve already turned it in, since it was complete when I submitted it for consideration), and how any disputes between the publisher and I will be dealt with.  I don’t foresee any of that being an issue; it’s all pretty straight-forward.

It all looked great, so I signed it.  I’m sure in the old days this was done primarily via mail, but because the 21st century is amazing, I signed it just like I signed a lot of my mortgage papers–online, via DocuSign.  Thanks to the iPad’s abilities, my finger-signature even looks like my actual signature.  Within half an hour of signing, I got a copy in my email, signed by me, my editor in New York City, and the head of the publisher in London, UK.  I love the future.

Of course, what I know now is that I should have at least tried to hold on to the tv/film rights.  When I signed it I didn’t really care, because in the unlikely event of a film rights deal, I’d get the majority of the money.  But after signing, I learned from a few sources, most eloquently Jen Udden and Bridget Smith, in their podcast Shipping & Handling, Episode 47, that I should have asked for those rights to remain with me, partly for monetary reasons, but also for reasons of control.  Udden and Smith also recommend keeping the rights to graphic novels, and merchandising. They also suggest that if you must give up those rights, try for more than 50% (which I got without haggling, because my publishers are good people). Again, this will likely never come up.  Film deals are exceedingly rare.

I’m not sure how my publisher would have handled that–my understanding is that most of the big houses just grumble and give up the grab at those rights–but, in my case I don’t think I was harmed in giving up those rights even if there is interest further down the road. But it’s a data point new writers should have.

In any case, I don’t actually regret giving those rights up, mostly because the odds of it ever becoming an issue are pretty much against me. But it’s something I’ll keep in mind going forward.

And finally we come to where I am in the process: Waiting. I expect the first-round edits and copyedits in the next 2-3 months.  Publication is tentatively scheduled for March 2019.  I’m working on book 2, which has not yet been signed, and will send off the proposal for it when I’ve got a couple of chapters done (it’s already been plotted and a synopsis has been written).

I’m also doing a lot of research on conventions and other avenues of writerly book promotion.  All while trying to give my kid a fun summer and also plan for the next school year.

What it’s Really Like, Part 1: Getting an Offer

Ever since I got the offer on my novel, I’ve felt a mix of exhilaration and crushing fear.  I thought it might be fun to write a series of posts explaining the process and how I’ve felt during it.  I’m going to call this series “What it’s Really Like,” because when we’re working towards publishing professionally, many of us get an idea in our head of what it will be like, and while I’m only completely aware of my own experience, I’m willing to bet a lot of it is universal.

Despite that universality, however, there are some caveats:

  1. My experience is mine alone. While I know authors who are further along the path of pro writing than I am, some of them significantly so, and many of them have reported similar experiences, there are also some differences that are pretty important.
  2. I am publishing through a small press. By definition, this means my experience will be somewhat different than an author who publishes through a large publishing house, and it will also be different than someone who is working as an indie author, self-publishing their work.  None of these things are better, but they are different.

I’ll post each entry when it’s time, by which I mean as things happen.  Right now I’m in a sort of limbo, waiting for the next step in the process to begin.  So I’ll start by telling how it began–or, rather, how I went from “aspiring novelist with a finished book but no contract” to “author with a book contract.”

In 2016, Flame Tree Publishing, a company that had been publishing themed science fiction, fantasy, and horror anthologies for several years,   announced that they were going to open to novel-length works at the end of the year.  I submitted my novel, The Widening Gyre, on 10 December 2016.

And then I waited.

The response window had been claimed to be about four months, but I’ve been submitting works for publication long enough to know that was not going to be the case.  But eventually, I just about forgot about it.

In March 2018, I remembered I’d submitted the work, and I queried the publisher, expecting that I’d missed a rejection email in spam or something.  But I was informed by a helpful staff member that the book was still under consideration.

Then, on 11 May 2018, I checked my email at lunch.  I noticed an email from someone at Flame Tree, and I could see in the gmail list that it began “Thank you so much for letting me read The Widening Gyre, and please excuse the delay in getting back to you.”

Now, “Thank you for letting me read…” is how pretty much every rejection I’ve ever received began.  So when I saw those words, my heart sank a bit.  But I knew I had to read the rest of it at some point, so I clicked to open it.

The next words were “I enjoyed the manuscript quite a bit…” Now, you’d think that would be a good sign, but I’d had a couple of nice personal rejections (as opposed to form rejections), and some of them began with “Though I enjoyed the book,” so I was still convinced it was a rejection.  But then I read “… and I think it would make a great addition to the Flame Tree Press line…” and my brain went “Wait, what?”

And then the last part: “… And so I’m happy to make an offer for the book.”

There followed some business stuff to let me know the terms of the offer, but at that point my brain was still stuck on “make an offer for the book.”

In my reply, I tried to play it cool in my response, but the truth was I was practically dancing.  My mood had gone from sour in the middle of a bad day with my students to jubilant.  Someone liked my book–the same book I’d taken to calling the damned book when discussing it with friends–enough to buy it.  It’s really the ultimate “Yes, you are a writer” moment.

Next time, I’ll talk about the boilerplate and the contract.

The Panic of Having Sold a Debut Novel

So, I sold the book.  Began writing it in 2012, finished it in 2015, submitted it to the eventual publisher (among many agents and another publisher) in 2016, sold it in 2018.

Now what?

Well, as it turns out, what happens now is I panic.

I mean, not entirely.  But the book is scheduled for release in March 2019, and I’m expecting the edits in August or September 2018.  Maybe later. So now, I write book 2 and hope the editor likes it enough to add it to the schedule.  But… how can I? After all, I’m a fraud and I’ll never manage a book as good as the first one.  Look at these crappy words I’m making!  GAH!

Which is prime, grade-A bullshit, but it’s what my brain is feeding me lately.  I plotted the book out, broke it into scenes, wrote a synopsis, and then wrote 1300 words of the first chapter.  And then I deleted them, and wrote 1900 words that were marginally better, in both craft and structure.

Every pro writer I know has said at some point that they deal with this, too.  They fear not being able to write another book.  They feel the cold and nasty tendrils of Impostor Syndrome. So I know it’s not really unique.  But digging out of it?  It’s not easy.

In fact, the only thing I can think of to do is to keep my head down, ignore the news, and continue to write.  The first draft will be horrible, but the second will be better, and the third better than that.  And hopefully it, too, will become a book.

So for now, I avoid the siren song of video games and movies, and continue to plug away at this book.  I mean, I already plotted it out and broke it; I guess I ought to go ahead and write it, yeah? And I trust that eventually, I’ll break out of this stupid brainspace and be convinced my stuff is worth reading, again.

Stupid brains.

Today’s Task: Plotting

So, while I wait for the edits on The Widening Gyre, I’m busy working on book 2, The Blood-Dimmed Tide.  As you can imagine from the title, book 2 is a much messier book.

Unfortunately, that messiness was in the plot, too.  Some of it I already saw, and some was pointed out to me by a friend who took a look at it.  So today, I spent several hours working on it.

I basically ripped the plotline apart and looked at the constituent parts. Once I had a grasp of all the parts of the plot I needed and/or wanted in the book, I put it back together. While doing that, I realized a few new scenes I needed, and slotted those in, and I also figured out that with the new shape of the story, I don’t really need a secondary POV anymore. I like the character, though, so I’ve kept her as a character, but she won’t be narrating.

Now I’m writing up a synopsis, just so I know the story holds together, and then I’ll get started on the actual composition of the chapters. Once I get a couple of those down, I’ll send what I have to my editor, and find out if I’m on the right track enough for him to sign it, or if I need to go back to the drawing board.  I’m also taking some notes for Book 3, The Ceremony of Innocence, but I’m leaving off major plotting on that until after Book 2 is done.

My Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison is dead.

It seems almost impossible.  I’ve been reading Ellison’s work for almost as long as I’ve been reading adult books–and I began reading them when I was about 9 years old.  I know I read Paingod and Other Delusions right after my 10th birthday, because that’s when I picked up the collection from where my dad had left it and began reading it. I was hooked from page one. The man who wrote “Repent, Harlequin!” said the Ticktock Man” can’t be dead… can he?

I don’t mean page one of the stories.  I mean the beginning of his introduction.  My edition is the one with “Your Basic Crown of Thorns,” which is a meditation on the nature of pain.  It’s glorious and heartbreaking and beautiful.  It brought me to tears, then and several more times over the years.  Harlan Ellison remains the only writer who has ever done that to me.  And I’ve loved him for it.

Harlan Ellison is part of why I don’t speed.  I read his story, from that introduction to Paingod, about having to go to traffic school, and seeing–and hearing–the scream of a mother who had just lost her young son to a traffic accident.  He said that five days later he could still hear it, couldn’t stop hearing it.  That imprinted on me.  I don’t speed in residential areas.  I get angry at those who do.  Because I read Harlan’s “viscera” in his introductions.

He was always a man who stirred up controversy.  Growing up in fandom means hearing endless stories about him.  I assume most of them are BS, but a few have the ring of truth.  He was acerbic, to be sure.  And that, too, I loved.  Harlan Ellison was a man who wasn’t afraid of telling anyone his opinion, even if he knew it would be unpopular or would anger those he was talking to.

When I found out that my father had died, my sadness was because it hit me that now I’d never know him.  It was the death of dreams. I feel a similar sense of loss regarding Harlan Ellison; I had so wanted to meet him, but could never get to where he was.  And in recent years, I’d begun to realize it wasn’t going to be likely–he was getting older, and had stopped going to cons.  But I held out a little hope.  Now I’ll have to make do with the words he left us. He’d probably think that was as it should be.

Of course, he made mistakes.  We’ve all heard, I’m sure, of the incident in 2006 with Connie Willis, which I won’t repeat here–Google is there, you know how to use it.  I’m sure he made many others–he was, after all, only human.  I’ve seen many people today focusing on those aspects of Harlan.  I don’t think that’s right.  Acknowledge them, yes.  But remember that this was a man who could smith words like very, very few can.  Let’s not try to take that away from his memory.  Let’s stop eating our dead, and instead honor what they did well, and resolve to do better than they did where they fell down.

As for me, “my” Harlan Ellison was a deeply honest man who wrote about the horrors and the triumphs of life, and made me think about who I am and what I’m doing here.  He taught me to know the facts behind my opinions, and if the facts didn’t fit the opinions, to change them, and not the facts.  He taught me principles.  Most of all, he taught me that I am not alone, and that sharing my fears and my very self with others would benefit me more than it would harm me.

He also, if I’m being honest, taught me how not to behave as a professional writer.

And now he’s gone.  Goodbye, Mr. Ellison.

Book I’m Looking Forward To: Trail of Lightning

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Anglo who identifies as a Scotsman-in-exile, which is to say I come from a long line of mostly-British-descended people who came here from Scotland in the early days of the US, and I wish they’d all stayed in the UK so I could have been born there.

That said, I somehow picked up a very fierce appreciation of the American Southwest, and the native tribes that live there.  Because of this, I did several classes on Native American literature in college, and read quite a few amazing stories. But in the SFF field where my true heart lies, there’s remarkably little Science Fiction or Fantasy written by Native Americans.

One of my favorite science fiction novels is Roger Zelazny’s Eye of Cat, a story taking inspiration from Navajo traditions. As much as I love that book, though, Zelazny was as white as I am.  He did a good job, but how much better might it have been if it had been written by someone who knew the culture from the inside?

One of my favorite stories this year was Rebecca Roanhorse’s Hugo Award-nominated “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience.”  Go give it a read, I’ll wait.

Good, wasn’t it?  SO MUCH going on there.  Well, imagine how happy I was to see that she’s got a novel–first in a series–coming out this month?  She describes Trail of Lightning as an “Indigenous Mad Max: Fury Road.”

Read more about her book at this link.   (Includes B&N Preorder link at bottom)

Amazon preorder page

Rebecca Roanhorse’s website