When I Became a Fan

Over in the comments section of this entry at File770, there is a minor discussion of when it was I considered myself a “fan,” and whether it was before I made my formal entry into the world of science fiction fandom (at Torcon 3, the 2003 Worldcon in Toronto) or not. Well, I know the answer to this, so let me answer it here.

The answer, no, not really. Certainly I was a fan of science fiction as a literary genre before Torcon, but it was to the same extent I was a fan of lots of other things, which is to say that I had a comfortable bias toward the genre as something I enjoyed. It was one of my favorite genres to read, but I liked other genres as much if not more — I would as happily read a Fletch novel or a collection of Molly Ivins columns as I would a book by Heinlein. I’ve noted before that when it came time to write my first novel, I basically flipped a coin to determine whether it would be a SF novel or a mystery/crime novel; I could have gone either way (they both would have been set in Hollywood).

Also, I knew I that “fandom” — the group of people who attended and participated in science fiction and fantasy conventions — existed prior to attending Torcon, but I had no connection to that world at all. The closest I came to it was covering a one-day Creation Star Trek convention in Fresno when I worked at the newspaper there (Michael Dorn was the headliner). I don’t count that because I was on the job; I was assigned to go there, I didn’t attend of my free will. Interestingly, before Torcon, Krissy had been to more conventions than I had; she attended an X-Files convention (also done by Creation) as a fan of the series before she met me.

Nor, to be blunt, was I particularly interested in being in “fandom” once I started writing science fiction with an eye toward publication. The group that I wanted to be part of (and did become part of, basically as soon as my contracts got signed) was SFWA, the professional organization of science fiction writers. I assumed (incorrectly) that there was a sharp division between fans and pros in the SF/F world, so obviously I would want to be sorted into the correct group. Note that when I did go to my first science fiction convention, it was with the intent of me, as a pro, meeting the people who would soon (hopefully) be my audience. This is not precisely the attitude of someone who is diving headfirst into fandom.

Did Torcon turn me into a fan? Not really, no. Torcon was mostly about me trying to figure what fandom was and what being a professional science fiction writer was about. I had a great time and I learned a lot and I met some people there who I have been friends with since, but I don’t know that I would say I considered myself a fan after the convention. Nor do I think it took with the next convention I went to, which was the 2004 Worldcon in Boston, although by that time I felt I understood better what fandom was and how I connected to it, in part because I was by that time participating with other writers and fans online.

I would say the first time I felt that I was part of fandom was when I attended my first “local” convention, which would have been the 2005 edition of ConFusion, which takes place in suburban Detroit. It was smaller and less overwhelming than a Worldcon, which was useful, but the other thing that happened is that I started making friends, not just with the pros at the convention, but with the other folks too — and I realized that I liked them as people, and I hoped that they liked me, and I enjoyed the convention for itself and not just as a thing I should go to for professional reasons. I had also by that time learned that there really was no dividing line between “fan” and “pro” in the context of fandom — people were often both, enthusiastically, at the same time. So I stopped worrying about where I was in the context of fandom and simply started being a part of it.

So, yeah, 2005. That’s the year I felt I was part of fandom.

To this day I like to joke that I’m a naturalized citizen of fandom, in that I became part of it in my mid-thirties, having not really had a point of connection to it previously. I know people who are third- and fourth-generation fans and that fact kind of blows my mind. Naturalized or not, fandom has taken me in, with all the positives and negatives that entails — I won the Fan Writer Hugo in 2008, for example, for the writing I do here, which was to me a concrete sign I had been accepted into the tribe. I cherish it for that and for being my first Hugo… but I’ll note there are people who still grumble about the fact I won it, which is of course a very fannish thing to do, too.

And that’s fine. Being part of fandom means accepting it has many aspects and opinions and controversies and drama. It’s part of the package. I’ll take it.

How Many Books You Should Write In a Year

Folks have pointed me toward this Huffington Post piece, begging self-published authors not to write four books a year, because the author (Lorraine Devon Wilke) maintains that no mere human can write four books a year and have them be any good. This has apparently earned her the wrath of a number of people, including writer Larry Correia, who snarks apart the piece here and whose position is that a) the premise of the article is crap, and b) authors should get paid, and if four books a year gets you paid, then rock on with your bad self. I suspect people may be wanting to have me comment on the piece so I can take punches at either or both Wilke or Correia, and are waiting, popcorn at ready.

If so, you may be disappointed. With regard to Correia’s piece, Larry and I disagree on a number of issues unrelated to writing craft, but we align fairly well here, and to the extent that I’m accurately condensing his points here, we don’t really disagree. One, there are a lot of writers who write fast and well, for whom four books a year of readable, enjoyable prose is not a stretch. And, you know. If you can do that, and you want to do that, and you see an economic benefit to it, then why not do it?

Two, there really isn’t a huge correlation between time writing and quality of the finished work. Yes, as Wilke notes, The Goldfinch took Donna Tartt eleven years to write, and she got a Pulitzer for it, but so what? A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, was famously written in three weeks and is generally considered to be one of the great novels of the 20th Century. We can have an argument to which novel of the two is better, but that’s not the point, and anyway no matter what the two are within hailing distance of each other. The point is, again, there’s not a huge correlation between time writing and quality of finished work, particularly when one is cherry-picking one’s examples.

How much time does it take to write a novel? As long as it takes. I wrote Redshirts in five weeks; it took me most of a year to write The End of All Things. Which is better? It’s a subjective call. On average it takes me three to four months of daily work to write a novel. Would my novels be better if I took two years each on them? Maybe, but I kind of doubt it. I write the speed I write because that’s the speed I write. If I inherently wrote faster, then they would take less time. If I inherently wrote slower, then they would take more. I suspect the inherent quality of the work would remain about equal, because I am the writer I am.

Also, you know. What a “novel” or “book” is, is a very fungible thing. The term “novel” encompasses a book like The Goldfinch, which is almost 300,000 words, and Redshirts, which was 55,000 words, not counting the codas. The more-or-less official lower length of a novel is 40,000 words; at the other extreme, Alan Moore’s novel Jerusalem, slated for publication next year, is a million words long. I don’t recommend trying to write four Jerusalems in a year. But on the other hand, four 40,000 word stories? That’s entirely doable for a very large number of writers.

Moreover, with specific reference to self-pubbed folks, they have a considerable amount of flexibility toward the length of their books. All of my novels are contracted to be around 100,000 words, because that makes for a nice-sized book on the bookstore shelf (this is one reason, among others, why I added the codas to Redshirts). I have some flexibility there, but add up the total word count for all my published novels to date, and you get very close to 100k as an average word count number. Self-pubbed books can be considerably shorter, and many are. So again, four books of competent, readable prose is not a stretch in that case.

The economic argument for writing that much in a year is pretty simple: If you do, you give yourself more sales opportunities; there are more targets with which to draw in new readers and to keep continuing readers happy. Wilke might argue that these all aren’t Pulitzer-quality works, but even if they aren’t: So what? Not everything readable has to be in serious contention for the Pulitzer. It’s okay to eat a cheeseburger; it’s okay to read the literary equivalent of a cheeseburger. Believe it or not, some people will read both The Goldfinch and a literary cheeseburger! Because people are like that.

With all that said, I suspect that at least part of what Wilke was aiming at was that one shouldn’t feel compelled to write four books a year, just because a self-pubbed author (or any other type of author, for that matter) read something somewhere that said four books a year was what every self-pubbed author should or must do to make money. And you know what? If that’s actually part of Wilke’s argument, then she’s correct.

She’s correct for a couple of reasons. One, and most simply: Not everyone can write four books worth reading in a year, regardless of length. Because here’s a thing: There’s more to a book than word count. There’s also what you do with the words, not to mention general plotting and organization and, moving away from the purely “creative” aspect, production and distribution, the latter aspects of which self-pubbed authors have to attend to directly (other authors get the benefit of a publisher to deal with a lot of that). Some people have a lot of bandwidth for this sort of stuff; other people don’t.

If you’re one of the people who don’t, then aiming for four books in a year, every year, isn’t going to be beneficial for you. You’ll end up drained and fatigued, and writing/producing inferior work, and it will be obvious. You’ll be punished for it, in the sense that people will stop paying you for your work. If you’re writing four books worth of crap, well. People will eat cheeseburgers, but very few people will eat crap. Don’t serve up crap.

What is actually important for writers to do, all of them, regardless of publishing method, is to find their pace for how they write, and what they write. One writer can happily crank out four books a year, in which case, good for them. Another writer will take years to write a book they’re happy with. In which case, good for them, too. These two writers should not try to write at each others’ pace; they’ll both be unhappy.

Nor is it 100% certain that the “four books a year” writer will make more money than the “one book every few years” writer. Andy Weir, as far as I know, has only one book, but that one book is The Martian, so it’s a reasonable guess he’s making more than almost every “four books a year” author. The four books a year author has more shots on goal, but if your one shot hits the bullseye, then it doesn’t matter. Yes, I did just mix metaphors there. Deal with it. Point is: money is possible at every speed.

Which bring me to my next point: be aware that there’s more than one recipe to making money as a writer. I write a novel in three to four months on average, and I have a backlog of story ideas, so it’s a pretty safe bet that I could write three or even four novels a year. I don’t. Why? Well, because I do other things with my time that make money, and also, make me happy. One novel a year, more or less, plus my other activities, has done very well for me. Other writers publish more and are happy; others publish less and are also perfectly happy. There’s not a right path for everyone. There is, however, likely a best path for you.

(Nor is it a given that every writer should have as their hard goal for writing “making money.” It’s a fine goal — I’m all for it! — and if indeed you want to write as your primary means of income then clearly you have to factor that into your workflow. But not every writer wants to, or should. You can be a writer, and be a professional writer, and do other things too. It’s allowed. And indeed, in many circumstances it can offer you more flexibility for your writing than being a full-time writer allows. Just to put that out there.)

So how many books should you write in a year? As many as you like, and as many as you can do, within your ability, for the sort of writing you want to do. What you need to do is to discover what your own capabilities are, and then work within them. Write the books you would want to read, and buy. If you can do four of those a year, great. If you do one of those every eleven years, that’s good too. Most writers, I suspect, will fall in between those two data points. That’ll work.

The Big Idea: Pamela Sargent

It’s no surprise that writers live in their own worlds, and occasionally let you see those worlds in our books. But as Pamela Sargent explains, with regard to her novel Season of the Cats, sometimes before we can let you visit our worlds, we have to… tidy up a bit.

PAMELA SARGENT:

By the time I conjured up the central idea for Season of the Cats, I had wrestled with a number of “big ideas” as a novelist, among them human immortality, the life and conquests of Genghis Khan, and the terraforming of Venus. Those undoubtedly qualify as big ideas, but the central situation in Season of the Cats concerns a somewhat dysfunctional early twenty-first century couple who have dreamed up an imaginary utopia of cats. Is that a big idea? Perhaps it is if that imagined world, appropriately dubbed Catalonia and consisting of a quite civilized feline society, leaks into the so-called “real” one and threatens the couple’s marriage, their sanity, and possibly their lives.

But when I first started playing with this novel, more than two decades of being a published writer, along with personal and professional setbacks, had led me into a deadly morass of self-doubt, burn-out, depression, and writer’s block. (The euphemistic terms for this state are “being on hiatus” and “lying fallow.”) The cure that I found for myself, partly by accident and partly through economic necessity, was writing on a smaller scale, concentrating mostly on short fiction and also honing my craft by collaborating on a few Star Trek novels with my partner in life, George Zebrowski. The rest of the cure, which came a little later, was writing the first part of what became Season of the Cats, with no idea of where the story was going or what, if anything, would come of it. I needed an escape during some dark times and a way of entertaining myself while trying to rediscover the joy and satisfaction the act of writing and shaping a story had once brought to me.

I began with the two central characters, Gena and Don, who lived in a place that resembled our former neighborhood, and their cat Vladimir, who was modeled on our beloved Spencer, a small long-haired tuxedo cat who lived a long and largely happy life of seventeen years before finally succumbing to kidney failure. I indulged myself in this cheery fable, making light of Gena and Don’s troubles in order to escape my own while having no idea of where the story was going or any thought of publication. Any writer knows that if a story doesn’t interest you, then it’s unlikely to interest any reader, but here I was so intent on entertaining myself that I had completely forgotten about any other reader. By the time it occurred to me that maybe, with a manuscript in hand, it might make sense to try to get the novel published, a couple of more objective readers had to give me the bad news, namely that the story I’d found so diverting was a self-indulgent and unappealing mess.

You can write and publish for a lifetime and still make mistakes, still have to relearn what you thought you already knew. I set this novel aside to write other work and returned to it later, always a good idea if a piece of writing isn’t working; the passage of time has a way of illuminating your earlier errors. And when I did my rewriting, I followed a method the late science fiction writer Frederik Pohl had recommended, which may sound drastic to anyone young enough to have never used a typewriter: Fred’s advice was to print out the text, destroy any electronic files, and begin rewriting with only your printed text as a guide. Otherwise, he told me, you get lazy and just do touch-ups instead of a complete overhaul.

He was right. My own overhaul, which involved several of these drastic rewrites, included reworking the plot, digging into the darker aspects of the story that I’d avoided before, among them an entity that threatens several of the main characters, and adding details, drawing on my own experience as a foot soldier in a local political campaign and at a disagreeable temporary day job, that yielded more interesting plot twists and more desperate situations for my characters. I was still entertaining myself but also keeping the reader in mind. As Fred also put it, “Your reader is some guy in Cleveland at three in the morning,” and that seems as useful an image of a reader as any. Figuratively speaking, we’ve all occasionally been that guy in Cleveland at three in the morning.

Like Gena and Don, I had lost control of my own imagined world and had to face my own struggle, which is obliquely reflected in the pages of Season of the Cats. Whether my characters win or lose their battle is for readers to discover.

—-

Season of the Cats: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Wildside Press

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.