Why “Waiting to see it complete” kills careers

I belong to a group of writers who all had our debut novels (traditionally) published in 2019. NONE of us have had massive success. ALL of us–some from small publishers, like me, others from Big 5 houses like Tor Books–are basically still languishing in obscurity.

Now, I haven’t read ALL of the books written by this group, but I’ve read a few and sampled many, and they are NOT bad books. Some of them are fantastic. But so many things matter in a writing career that have nothing at all to do with the writer.

One writer lost his editor when she left the publisher, and the new editor declined the third book of the trilogy the former editor had championed–sales weren’t horrible, but they weren’t stellar, either. Another writer’s sales weren’t quite big enough for the publisher’s comfort, so while books 2 and 3 came out, the audiobooks were canceled, and the publisher doesn’t seem interested in more books from this author. Another published the first two books in his trilogy, but the third was declined due to poor sales on the first two–the publisher wasn’t making enough on the series to justify the third book’s cost.

This is why word-of-mouth is important. It’s also why the attitude of “I’ll wait to buy a series until it’s finished” is harmful to authors. I get it, you’re afraid George R.R. Martin won’t ever finish A Song of Ice and Fire, or Patrick Rothfuss won’t finish his series. But if you hold off on buying a new series that intrigues you because you want to make sure it’s complete first, then the odds are that that author will never be able to finish the series. George RR Martin and Patrick Rothfuss have nothing to prove to publishers. When they finish those books, they’ll sell like hotcakes. But for the writers of my generation, sales are life. We MUST sell well enough to justify our next book, because it isn’t just about quality. Good reviews help, but the single most important thing to a writer’s publishing career is sales. If the books don’t sell, it doesn’t matter how good they are.

Also, I do not get that “wait until it’s complete” thing at all. I mean, I’ve loved series that never ended. And yeah, it’s unsatisfying. I will probably never know what would have happened in THE CAPTAL’S TOWER, the final book in Melanie Rawn’s Exiles series, which should have come out 30 years ago and never will. And that sucks, because book 2 had a HELL of a cliffhanger. But you know what? I still enjoyed book 1 and book 2. I still re-read them sometimes, because they’re good reads. Even without the finale, I got my money’s worth.

How many TV shows have been canceled before the story was complete? You learn to move on, even if you regret not getting the full story. I mean, this attitude also hurts TV, too–if the ratings aren’t there because a lot of people want to wait to see if it continues, then it risks getting canceled.

If anyone is tempted to bring up “classics” that sold poorly but are now beloved, please don’t. Herman Melville is dead, and while I’m sure he’d feel good to know that Moby Dick is regarded so well today, it would have done him much better if it had been a success while he could have enjoyed it. If a book appeals to you and you can afford it, buy the thing. Wait to read it if you must, but buy it when it comes out.

I am Mr. Darcy

I mean, not really–except, kind of.

I’m currently in the middle of teaching Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to my AP Literature students, and one of the things I’m realizing on this–counts on fingers–17th time reading this is how close to Mr. Darcy I really am in temperament.

I mean, of course I’m not really like him. I’m not rich, I’m nowhere near as good-looking as he’s supposed to be, and I’m not a good dancer. But I’m a stick-in-the-mud sometimes, I’d much rather be reading a book than talking to people most of the time, and once my good opinion is lost, it’s very hard to get it back.

I’m also quite standoffish, even with people I like, which means that more than once I’ve had people tell me they were surprised when they realized I liked them, because they genuinely thought I was just tolerating their presence in my life.

I’ve gotten better about this over the years, partly due to the influence of my wife, whose independence and self-image are very reminiscent of Elizabeth Bennett. We recently rewatched the 1995 BBC adaptation with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, and it struck me that when I first met my wife, I didn’t like her, and she didn’t like me. Hello, weird coincidence! Of course, Elli and I came around on each other very quickly, and became the best of friends, and then over the course of a couple of years, more. But that first meeting didn’t go well at all.

I’m also, unlike Mr. Darcy, very bad at keeping in communication with people. I last talked to my brother in Las Vegas months ago. Same with my sister in Milwaukee. And one of my best friends and I, who live only 30 minutes’ drive away from each other, will often go months without talking, and then connect and infodump at each other everything that’s happened since we last got together.

The Pandemic isn’t helping anything. I am not comfortable on Zoom despite spending most of my days on it. So I haven’t even made much effort to see my best friends, whom I spent time with more regularly pre-Pandemic, in an online context. A couple of times, I went to a friend’s place and sat outside, yards apart, and had a beer while talking. But now that the weather is cooling, I find myself hoping a viable vaccine is found relatively soon so I can have my life back.

Anyway, Mr. Darcy has a special place in my heart, because he is me, and I am him, and here we are.

The Pandemic’s Effect on (my) Book Sales

My debut, The Widening Gyre, was released in 2019. In the first two quarters of the book’s life, I sold over 1000 copies. That’s relatively good for a no-name author published by a small press. It’s gone on to sell more since.

The sequel, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, was published in February 2020, just before everything went pear-shaped. And despite good reviews, sales have been dismal. It’s not just the pandemic; it’s also several other issues–my publisher’s distributor shut down part of their business, creating returns that killed sales numbers, and then the publisher switched to a different distributor, which caused even more hiccups, none of which could have been avoided.

This isn’t the first time this kind of thing has hit publishing. The 2008 economic crisis caused publishers to slow down for a time, partly because there was a paper shortage, and partly to stop losing money in a time when people weren’t buying so much. In 2016, the election of the Orange Doofus to the highest American office caused sales to slump for liberal and conservative authors alike.

The Coronavirus Pandemic has hit everyone, from Big Names down to little guys like me, as this New York Times piece from May 2020 shows–but of course, it hits guys at my level harder than the Big Names, because they have already built up an audience. Scalzi is going to do all right no matter what, because he’s proven himself to his readers and built their loyalty. Me, I’m still working on that, with only two books out. Even if our percentage of loss is the same, it’s more harmful to me, though his numbers are bigger.

To be fair, there is always a drop in sales as a series goes forward–not all readers will stick with you, even if they liked the first books. But I think–and to be honest, I really hope–that my 2020 sales are an aberration caused by the Pandemic. Book three is scheduled for 2022, and I hope we’re all back to normal by then.

Why Backups are Important

Once, there was a writer who’d completed his first novel. It was decent. It was ready to go out, or at least as good as he could make it.

And then his computer’s hard disk died. Completely. And it took the novel with it.

“That’s okay,” he said. “We have a backup.”

No, he didn’t. Or rather, he had one, but it was more than a year out of date and only had the first five chapters. And so he labored for months, trying to recreate the story he’d done so much work on, based on those chapters and his notes.

And yes, he was me.

Fortunately, I attended Viable Paradise a few months later, and realized how many changes I had to make anyway, so I pretty much scrapped all but the characters and the basic plot and rewrote it. Then I was fortunate that friends from my VP class were willing to beta read it for me, and I revised based on their notes.

And now it’s on bookstore shelves.

But you know what? Ever since then, I have constant backups set. I set Scrivener to back up the file to the cloud every time I close the program, and I place weekly backups on a portable hard drive just in case. The hard drive is on-site, so the icloud backup gives me an extra layer of security in case my house burns down and takes my office with it. You think about things like this when you’ve already lost your computer and files to a fire once (years before I’d finished the novel, but still… it was bad).

Take it from me: Always keep backups, and if you can keep offsite backups, such as in “the cloud,” by all means do that. You never know what 2020’s going to throw at you next.

Star Trek and the Echo Chamber of ‘fandom.’

I came across an announcement that Star Trek: Picard had been renewed for a season 2 already. Attached to that article was this comment:

And, well… sigh. Talk about wishful thinking. This is right up there with NeoCon talking points. This is the kind of viewer who is so ensconced in his echo chamber that he has no idea what’s going on outside.

First of all, that’s not how the TV industry works. If a show is greenlit for a season 2, it begins work months before the airdate. In this case, the show is set to begin filming season 2 in March 2020, which means that the writing staff, art production staff, SFX people, etc. are already working, even if only in the planning stages. It is already a significant financial risk, because now if they cancel season 2, it means they paid a bunch of people for a project that went nowhere, wasting money.

More importantly… On what planet is Star Trek Discovery a “flop”? The show has been widely praised. Ratings are solid. The show has won several awards, and not just in the usual Sci-Fi categories of costume and makeup. Yes, it has the usual haters who are upset about gay people in Star Trek, or black women as main characters, and there are a few others who don’t hate those things but who think the show is sub-standard for whatever reason. But as far as I can tell, the vast majority of fans have welcomed the show, and enjoy it.

Star Trek: Beyond did underperform in the box office, but it did well among critics, so I’m not sure the box office is all that meaningful. Yeah, I know, the Box Office take is considered super important, but to me a good movie that didn’t do amazingly at the box office is not the same as a flop. Movies underperform for lots of reasons; quality is only one possible measure, and not always the most important. Beyond premiered in a summer crowded with “geek movies,” and it still did pretty well, especially compared to most of the other Trek movies.

But what really gets on my nerves is this phrase, “what sounds like the complete abandonment of Roddenberry’s optimistic future.”

What?

No, really… what? Has this person even watched STD or the STP trailers? For that matter, have they ever watched any Star Trek?

Yes, Roddenberry’s future is an optimistic one, but it’s also one drenched in blood and horror. Look, we’ll set aside anything made after Roddenberry died and look only at the stuff he was part of. The United Federation of Planets, even in Gene Roddenberry’s original writing, came out of a period of death and destruction. Earth alone suffered under the Eugenics Wars, then World War 3, then the Earth/Romulan War. The Vulcans went through a period of savage warfare that nearly destroyed them. TOS opens only a decade or so after a period of open war between the Federation and the Klingons. And even in Roddenberry’s scripts, there is acknowledgment of the failures of the Federation.

Star Trek: Discovery’s entire first season is about the Federation losing its way in a time of war, and how it fights its way back to the ideals upon which it was founded. Hell, the main character is convicted of a crime because she gave up on those ideals, and spends the entire season reclaiming and redeeming herself.

In Season 2, the show is very much back in the optimistic vein of Roddenberryesque optimism. I am left to conclude that the commenter above didn’t watch the whole show.

STP is positioned in much the same way. We know Picard resigned from Starfleet, seemingly disgusted with the direction in which Starfleet was moving, and the show looks like it’s going to be about his fight for those ideals. So, how was Roddenberry’s optimism “abandoned?”

It wasn’t. It’s still there, but this isn’t 1966, and we can’t just show a perfect future with no struggle. So we’ll see the fight for the future that must happen if we’re to make it better than the past. Let’s watch Picard fight for the future we want. Let’s watch Burnham fight for the future she’s lost.

I bet we’re going to enjoy the hell out of that ride.

Rise of Skywalker: What I Liked/What I Didn’t Like

It’s no secret that I’m a huge Star Wars fan. I watch the movies and the shows, I read the books, I wear the costumes, I spent more money than was perhaps warranted at the time for a custom lightsaber for my costumes, I wrote a book heavily influenced by Star Wars. So how did I like the latest movie?

I didn’t want to post about it too close to release, but now enough time has gone by, and I’ve seen the movie twice, so I feel I can give it a reasonable take. The tl;dr version is that I liked the movie, but there were some aspects of it I would have done very differently, and that didn’t work for me. Of course I’m not going to leave it at that, but you need to know that after this, I’m going to spoil the crap out of it, so if you haven’t seen it yet and you care about spoilers, you should probably stop reading now.

Beware: Beyond this point, spoilers lurk!

Okay, so the beginning held some issues for me. The opening crawl tells us THE DEAD SPEAK! and then goes on to say that a message from the long-dead Palpatine has been heard throughout the galaxy, threatening revenge.

Well, first of all, it’s just one dead guy, so THE DEAD SPEAK! is perhaps a bit of crappy writing. A DEAD MAN SPEAKS! would have been more accurate, but okay, it’s sensational to use the plural. I’ll concede that.

What I cannot countenance, though, is doing it in such a lackluster, drama-free way. Instead of being told that was happening, imagine if we’d seen it. Imagine if Poe, Finn, and Rey were consulting with Leia in Resistance HQ when the message came over the wire, Leia sagged in horror, and someone else of Leia’s age recognized the voice? Wouldn’t that be better? How about if we saw the horror and fear throughout the Galaxy as the Emperor’s voice streamed across the hypernet?

Maybe they’d have done that if Carrie Fisher had been alive for this one. Maybe not. But I can’t help but feel that the opening we got was substandard.

As for Palpatine’s return, I’m not bothered by that so much, but that’s probably because I’m one of those EU nuts. Palpatine’s return is a story that has been told before; it didn’t take much of a stretch for me to assume it happened the same way. And while Dominic Monaghan gets his line about “ancient Sith cloning techniques,” it’s a throwaway line I get the feeling was missed by a lot of people, judging by the “how did he survive?” questions I’m seeing online in the wake of the film’s release. They could have spent more time on that, I think, and less time collecting plot coupons.

Poe was handled well; he’s matured from where he was in The Last Jedi, and is ready to command–even recognizing he needs his buddy Finn to lead with him is a sign of that maturity; he’s not the guy to go it alone anymore. I loved the little bits of his past we saw, and the discussion-through-expressions alone he had with Zorii at the end was a thing of beauty.

Finn also got some good screen time, though his big emotional moments seem to have hit the cutting room floor–we never find out what he was going to tell Rey. Hopefully that’ll be in the novelization.

Rey’s arc, I loved. I know a lot of so-called fans hate Rey and her “mary sue” tendencies, but I don’t consider her a Mary Sue at all, and I have no problem accepting her innate and intuitive understanding of the Force, or her swift learning once she’s got a teacher. She redeemed Ben (with some massive help from Leia), and she earned her place as the last of the Jedi. I’d love to see where she goes from here; I really hope they don’t abandon the new characters as the Star Wars machine moves on from the Skywalker Saga. If anyone from Disney Publishing reads this, I’ve got some ideas on how Rey moves on from here for the books. Drop me a line, guys!

I didn’t really love the use of old footage for Carrie; Leia came off as speaking in non sequiturs several times, and the effect was flat. I’m not sure what else they could have done, but it didn’t work for me 100%. That said, Leia’s end was fitting. She saw in her vision with Luke that her son would die at the end of her Jedi journey. She was wrong about how that would come about, which was fitting–in my opinion, none of the Skywalkers have ever correctly understood any of the prophecies around them, from Anakin’s “bringing balance to the Force” to Leia. She stopped, but her last act was to reach out to her son as a Jedi, and help turn him away from the Dark Side. And in doing so, both of them died. Prophecy’s a hell of a thing.

Ben, a man who killed literally billions, spent his last moments returning life to one who had been his enemy. It was fitting, and while I cringed as they kissed, I was relieved when a moment later he faded out of the world. Maybe he’ll show up as a Force ghost someday (I have some ideas there).

I absolutely loved Babu Frik, and I was very pleased to see him alive at the end of the story. I really liked the world of Kijimi, and I was upset they destroyed it in the story. But the little guy survived, along with Zorii, whom I also really liked, despite her being in only a couple of scenes.

However, one thing I really hated was the sidelining of Rose Tico. Rose is a great character, played to great effect by Kelly Marie Tran, and I was upset that she was given next to nothing to do. Her plotline with Finn went nowhere, she was just an exposition machine, and she could have been replaced by just about anyone. Tran and her character both deserved better, and I’m annoyed with Abrams for not giving her what she deserved. I’ve read the screenwriter’s explanation, and I find it wanting. I mean, I believe Terrio, but I also think more effort could have been expended to make things work better–maybe by dropping Leia from those scenes and rewriting them for Rose to shine.

Despite that, Rise of Skywalker was a fitting end to the story that began with A New Hope (or The Phantom Menace, take your pick), and while there were things I’d have done differently, or not at all, I think Abrams delivered a Star Wars experience I could be happy with. I saw it twice in the theater, I’ve preordered the home release. I look forward to more in this universe, in all the forms it takes.

Rant: Self-Checkout Machines and Why I Hate Them

When self-checkout registers first showed up, I thought “This is amazing; I can check out without annoying small talk about random crap in my basket!” I happily got in line.

Now? Now I hate the things.

I want to like them. I want to use them. But the bloody things were programmed by enemies of all humankind, after centuries of research into how to piss off normal, otherwise-intelligent human beings and make them feel like complete idiots.

The anti-theft scales are so sensitive they know if you place a paper bag on them. You can tell it you’re using your own bag, but there is no way to tell it the bag is theirs, so you’re supposed to scan all your crap and pile it up on the not-very-big scale, and then bag your stuff. I keep trying to tell it to ignore the bag, but it won’t.

Half the time I try to use the bloody things, the machine makes up phantom items on the scale and tells me to remove the “unknown item.” But there’s nothing there it hasn’t already scanned, and if I try to remove something that should be there, then it’s suddenly telling me to remove that. You can’t win.

When I go to weigh produce, about half of the time, it accepts the weight even before I’ve finished putting the veggies on the scale. There’s a button there for me to accept the weight, but the stupid machine at my store does it automatically, and then I’m left with half the produce still not on the scale, even if I’m using a bag.

So now I only use them if I have only a few very small, very packaged items. And they still drive me insane with their chattery instructions that nobody actually needs to hear. “Please complete sale using the keypad!” I’m already halfway through that process, you idiot machine. Maybe don’t tell me to do the thing I’m already doing?!

Author Interview: Reese Hogan

Today I’m presenting an interview with my fellow Debut 19 author Reese Hogan. Her novel, Shrouded Loyalties, comes out August 13th from Angry Robot books.

Naval officer Mila Blackwood is determined to keep her country’s most powerful secret – shrouding, the ability to traverse their planet in seconds through an alternate realm – out of enemy hands. But spies are everywhere: her submarine has been infiltrated by a Dhavnak agent, and her teenage brother has been seduced by an enemy soldier. When Blackwood’s submarine is attacked by a monster, she and fellow sailor, Holland, are marked with special abilities, whose manifestations could end the war – but in whose favor? Forced to submit to military scientists in her paranoid and war-torn home, Blackwood soon learns that the only people she can trust might also be the enemy.

I really like the sound of this! Can you give us a teaser of what to expect?

“As she got closer to the leak, where Blackwood was hauling herself up the sides of the torpedo tubes, it was harder to hear anything else. Someone shouted, but she couldn’t make out the words. She did hear the creak of the wheel as one of her deckmates locked the hatch, and knew the five of them were cut off from the rest of the submarine now. She couldn’t see the hole specifically, but it felt like the whole Trievanic Sea was pouring in from above.”

Readers are often surprised at how difficult writing a book can be. What part of writing do you find most challenging?

When I first start writing a new draft, I have all these ideas but I haven’t yet put together a framework for how they’ll work together. There’s a lot of self-doubt about whether I’m starting in the right place, or have too many plot threads or not enough, or whether I should write first or third person…the list goes on. There’s lots of deleting—whole chapters worth—before I start to figure out what the story will look like.

In the plotter/pantser wars, do you have a side?

I write EXTENSIVE outlines, but—like that old militaryexpression about the best plans only lasting until the first bullet is fired—myoutlines go off the rails almost right away. That being said, the outliningdoes help me figure out the key points that I’m most excited about, and I usethose as guidelines to keep the book on track.

How do you maintain a writing routine? What do you do to “get in the groove” of your writing?

I write a minimum of two hours a day, and I have to plan when this block will be ahead of time to make sure it actually happens, since my kids’ schedules can vary. I try to get another two hours in the evening, but it depends on how crazy my kids are at bedtime (they are 7 and 5). My husband is very good about making sure I get my needed blocks on the weekends, which is the most challenging time to fit it in.

Who is Reese Hogan when she’s at home?

I live in New Mexico with my husband and two kids (ages 7 and 5). I have been writing for twenty-one years. Shrouded Loyalties is my third published novel, although it is the first from a traditional publishing house.

What’s your favorite bit of writing advice?

It’s from V.E. Schwab, and I absolutely love it: “At the end of the day, there’s one thing to do: Show up. Put in the work. Let go of the outcome.”

Reese Hogan loves nothing more than creating broken relationships in broken worlds. With a Bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in journalism, Hogan has spent the last twenty years honing her craft by taking classes, listening to podcasts, and attending writing workshops and critique groups. She is passionate about music, especially alternative and punk rock, and adamantly believes that art can reach out in a way no other form of communication can. She lives with her family in New Mexico.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest

“Hogan writes with tangible energy, capturing the trials of divided loyalties in the midst of global war… Fans of military SF will enjoy Hogan’s fresh take on the genre.”
– Publishers Weekly

“Loyalty, honor, and a dangerous new technology all come together in this unique world filled with intrigue and action.”
– Maria V. Snyder, New York Times bestselling author of Poison Study

Amazon | Barnes & Noble

My First Drop-in Bookstore Signing!

Today’s my birthday, and I decided that if I couldn’t get the local bookstores in my area to stock my book, I was going to go to a place that did and see it on the shelves for myself!

So the family jumped into the car and drove the 65 miles to Dublin, CA, where the Barnes & Noble had a couple of copies left. They enthusiastically welcomed my embarrassed inquiry as to whether they’d like me to sign them, and one copy was immediately snatched up, allowing me to personalize it for the customer.

Now we’re in San Francisco, staying in a nicer room than we normally could afford (thank you, Hotwire). Tomorrow morning we plan to drive to Napa for breakfast, then return to Sacramento for a family event, where I’ll meet an aunt we’ve only known existed for a year or so (the 40s and 50s were weird, folks).

Overall, a good birthday. Even if I do have to admit I’m getting closer to 50.

Some Thoughts on Game of Thrones S8E5: ‘Ware Spoilers!

When I first heard people bitching about GoT episode 5, “The Bells,” I wasn’t terribly bothered. I hadn’t seen the episode yet, and a lot of the complaints really seemed like they were saying “This didn’t go how I expected it to.”

The biggest complaints seemed to be that Daenarys went “evil” or “mad” and how it didn’t fit with what had gone before. And I was not agreeing with that, because Daenarys in the show has always been a little too close to madness for me–her refusal to take any advice that didn’t tell her what she wanted to hear, her draconian–if you’ll excuse the pun–punishments and her tendency to regard any disagreement with a retainer as them failing her–all of this together made her seem a little too Targaryen.

But then I watched the episode.

Holy crap, you guys. At first it seemed fine; she was executing Varys for a difference of opinion, really, but okay, I can sort of see that. Why she had to use dragonfire again I don’t know; that girl is obsessed with fire.

But then King’s Landing surrenders, and she decides to torch it all anyway, killing thousands of innocents. And that made no sense at all. It was totally not in keeping with her character in previous seasons, it wasn’t a logical progression from what she’d been before.

I can sort of see how she might have snapped after the death of Jorah, but the show didn’t really telegraph that at all.

HBO does these “explications” of the episode right after the show. I’m not sure why these things are becoming so common; they’re kind of awful and unnecessary. I tend not to bother with them unless I really liked the episode, but I watched this one. And the showrunners “explain” Dany’s mindstate and the reasons for her snapping, but none of the explanations really work, because none of it is actually “on the page.” I mean, it all sort of made sense, but it was a sharp 90° turn from what had gone on up to the beginning of Season 8.

Now, I did like Arya’s story, and Sandor Clegane’s end seemed fitting for the character. But it didn’t make up for the terrible.

Now some bullet points:

  • I’m not one of those people who gets upset when the dog dies. But little children? Not Okay, show. It’s one thing to know children die in an apocalyptic setting, but breaking my heart by making me watch a child cowering in fear, knowing she’s going to die? Fuck you, show.
  • Jaime’s end was pathetic. After all that, he fucking actually went back to Cersei to save her ass? Fuck you, TV-Jamie. I hope Book-Jamie turns out better than you did.
  • Cersei dies stupidly. I wanted her to die, but that particular end? No, that wasn’t enough. I mean, I wanted Jamie to off her, which is kind of awful, but jaysus.
  • I get that dragonfire isn’t exactly fire, but since when does fire destroy stone walls? That was a bit much.

At this point I’m not even sure I want to see the ending. I mean, I’ll probably watch it, but more out of curiosity than anything else.