Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net


Archive for the 'Writing' Category

Still she persisted…

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017

A retrospective on the first thirty years of my writing career.

It’s been thirty years since my first publication. That was a short story called “Spectral Expectations” that appeared in Analog magazine. I was twenty-six years old at the time, a stay-at-home mom caring for my first baby, born just a couple of months earlier.

That was a different age. The Internet-as-we-know-it didn’t exist yet and all correspondence was via snail-mail. I don’t remember all the details, but I know I was thrilled when my copy of the magazine finally arrived. I was on my way!

Surely I was on my way?

The truth is, I didn’t make any sort of splash with my early stories and it took me another seven years to see my first novel in print. But after that I was definitely on my way. Never mind the low advance or that the novel was published as a mass-market paperback with no hardcover edition. As counterbalance it had a gorgeous Bruce Jensen cover and fantastic reviews. It even went on to win the Locus Award for best first novel and surely that meant readers were paying attention?

Three more novels quickly followed — and unfortunately for me I soon learned that most readers were not paying attention. All four novels — what today I call the Nanotech Succession — failed to sell in meaningful numbers, and all soon went out of print. This was a hard lesson for a still-young writer to accept: Critical success does not automatically translate to market success.

My original publisher, Bantam, was done with me. This was 1998. Eleven years after that first story.

So what was a girl to do? Hell, I’d invested too much to quit, so I forged on.

And I got lucky. I found a new home at Tor. I was lucky a second time when a novella of mine received a Nebula award.

I’ll admit though that I didn’t feel lucky. The psychology of intermittent rewards is pernicious and I felt like the rat in the lab hitting the lever, running the maze, hoping I’d get a proper reward this time. But the rewards didn’t come close to balancing the time and effort it took to get them. Yes, I was finally getting hardcover publication at Tor. That was a good thing, but communications with my editor were problematic and I would have happily bought back the second book in the contract if only I could have afforded to do so.

This was around 2001-2002. Let’s say fourteen years since my first published story. This was not a good time for me. I didn’t feel respected as a writer, I felt helpless to turn my career around, and I felt foolish for all the time, intellect, and emotion I’d invested in this so-called career. Put bluntly, I’d had enough. I decided the time had come for the lab rat to retire. It was a good time to make the move. My kids were older — a teen and tween — and I didn’t need to worry about daycare. So I got a real job.

I hope I will always remember the feeling of utter relief and of gratitude as I drove to the office for my first day of work — a $10 an hour job coding websites for an ambitious local ISP. The pay wasn’t much, the commute was long, and I saw a lot less of my kids, but there was immense satisfaction in adding a small but steady paycheck to the family income. It wasn’t all on my husband’s shoulders anymore.

I completed a couple of writing projects in the ensuing years — a middle-grade novel and an epic fantasy — both very different from the sort of high-tech adult fiction I’d written before. No surprise — both failed to sell to traditional publishers. Meanwhile, I moved from HTML work into PHP programming — and for a long time I loved it. Programming possesses some of the enthralling complexity of novel writing, but with programming the goal is solid, explicit — you know when you’ve got it right, and that’s a very satisfying feeling. With fiction, right/good/quality is a much more nebulous affair, a matter of opinion, and you never really know if your work is as good as it can be or even good enough.

Still … did I really want to expend my creative talents building an ecommerce website so someone could over-charge for gourmet coffee?

Ha! Yes. After several years on the job, I literally asked myself this question.

It wasn’t a question I had to answer, though. I knew it was just a matter of time until the decision was made for me. Our programming shop had always been a money loser and it was clear we were not going to be around forever, so I stuck it out until I was laid off during the great recession.

As it happened, I was laid off with the right skills and at the right time to join the indie publishing revolution. By the spring of 2011 — twenty-four years after that first published story — I’d re-published most of my backlist as ebooks and I’d started writing original fiction again.

The lab rat had re-entered the maze.

The rewards were small just as they’d always been, but for the first time I was in control of my work. I loved that. It was fun. And in 2014 the unexpected happened — my first science fiction novel in ten years wound up on the final ballot of the Nebula Awards. This stroke of luck turned into a nice traditional publishing contract along with a TV option. Hey, hey, hey! Twenty-seven years after that first published story I was finally on my way!

Uh, no.

Once again, just as with my first novel, everything seemed to go right except for that sticky part about selling enough copies to keep publishers interested. It brings to mind a line from the Roseanne sit-com, when the family’s electricity is turned off and Roseanne declares (I paraphrase) “Well, it was nice to visit the middle class for a while.”

Hey, it was nice to look like I was on my way … for a while.

I sometimes find myself metaphorically side-eyeing young writers who’ve hit it big the first time out. Does that early success give them a heady confidence that mutes the inner critic, slays the self-doubt, allows the words to flow? I imagine it does for some, though I know it doesn’t always work that way. Success can sometimes be as challenging as failure. On the other hand, success usually pays better.

And still she persisted…

I’m not done yet. Now, thirty years after that first published story, I’m getting ready to publish a new novel. “Once a writer, always a writer,” my agent says. Maybe this new novel will be the one to hit. Maybe not. That’s out of my hands.

What I get to choose is whether or not I make another play — and I’m grateful to have that choice. Being able to make that choice is a blessing not bestowed on everyone. Though my writing career has followed a crooked, stumbling path, life has been very kind to me. I’m still here, and I still have the time and the ability to continue writing for at least a little longer.

There are many other writers who could tell you a similar career story, many others who have persisted as long, or longer, than I have, some in far tougher circumstances. You know who you are, and I raise my mug to you! 🍺 All praise and honor to you on the long road!

So what’s my end goal? To write a really damn good book of course, but also to finally win enough readers that my husband — who’s been carrying the load forever — feels secure enough to fully retire.

Thirty years is a long time to persist in this game, but I’m going to bang the lever at least a couple more times. What the hell. Maybe I’ll hit and have the ironic pleasure of hearing myself described as an “overnight success.” 😉

GoodReads Giveaway

Monday, March 13th, 2017

I have an original story in Cosmic Powers: The Saga Anthology of Far-Away Galaxies, edited by John Joseph Adams and due to be released next month. You might be able to get an early look at the anthology if you enter the GoodReads ARC giveaway.

For those not familiar with the inner world of publishing, ARC stands for “Advance Reader’s Copy.” It’s the almost-but-not-quite final edition of the book.

Here’s the anthology’s description:

A collection of original, epic science fiction stories by some of today’s best writers — for fans who want a little less science and a lot more action — and edited by two-time Hugo Award winner John Joseph Adams.

Inspired by movies like The Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Wars, this anthology features brand-new stories from some of science fiction’s best authors including Dan Abnett, Jack Campbell, Linda Nagata, Seanan McGuire, Alan Dean Foster, Charlie Jane Anders, Kameron Hurley, and many others.

Click here to enter the GoodReads Giveaway.

Almost done…

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

A few days ago, for the first time, I printed out a copy of The Last Good Man. It’s 499 manuscript pages.

I used to always keep an up-to-date printed copy of a novel as I worked on it, but that habit faded away and these days I don’t print anything out until the end. Then, as the last step in the process**, I read straight through the printed copy from beginning to end, ALOUD. I listen for clumsy bits and look for errors, fixing them (by hand) along the way.

It’s amazing how many little problem spots I still find. But simply viewing the novel in a different context — in this case printed, instead of on-screen — causes the brain to see/hear issues that were invisible before. Reading aloud means it’s going to be slow, but for me it’s an essential step. And the end is in sight!

Today I reached page 422 of 499. I should finish tomorrow. Then I get to enter all the handwritten fixes into the master file. After that the manuscript will be ready to go off to reviewers.

If you’re a book reviewer and you’d like a copy please send me an email at linda at mythicisland dot com, letting me know who you are, where you review, and whether you prefer an epub or mobi (Kindle) ebook file.

I’m planning to publish The Last Good Man in June.

I HOPE YOU LIKE IT!

** more accurately, the last step before sending the manuscript out to reviewers and to the copyeditor. Once I get it back from the copyeditor, I’ll have one more round of edits.

On Self-Rejection

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

Two or three years ago I wrote a short story called “The Martian Obelisk.” I finished it, but I didn’t feel happy with the result. It was grim, and I didn’t want to write grim. I was further discouraged by well-meant critique comments. Nevertheless, I worked on the story for a few more days. But my doubts persisted, and in the end I self-rejected the story. I stopped working on it, and never sent it to any market.

This past December I decided to take another look at “The Martian Obelisk” and much to my surprise, the story was far better than I remembered. It still had issues, but enough time had passed that I could see them with fresh eyes. So I devoted more hours to revising it. Then I emailed Ellen Datlow, who acquires stories for Tor.com, to ask if she would like to see it. I explained its history and mentioned that it felt more appropriate now, in the context of our grim present times, than when I had first drafted it.

Much to my surprise and delight, Ellen accepted the story. “The Martian Obelisk” is scheduled for publication on July 19.

I’ve often lectured others on not self-rejecting. It’s good advice. 😉

Writing Goals For 2017

Sunday, January 1st, 2017

I wish everyone a Happy New Year. Let’s do the best we can, okay? Given the president we here in America are about to be encumbered with, I suspect 2017 will prove to be a bitter, divisive year. I hope I am wrong and that we are, by some grace, better off at the end of it.

In the meantime, there is the work.

Here’s what I hope to accomplish in 2017:

1. Write a NEW NOVEL. It may or may not be the one I’ve already started, but I want to have a new novel, either in my agent’s hands or ready to publish myself, by the end of the year.

2. Write a SHORT STORY. I’m only going to require one. Science fiction or fantasy, but unrelated to any existing work. If any additional short fiction happens, that will be a bonus.

3. Write a NOVELLA set in an existing story world. This is an unmet goal carried over into a third year. I still want to write it. There is a chance it will turn into a novel. So it goes.

4. PUBLISH the novel I finished writing in 2016. (More on that in the next post.) It’s going to be a complex process, but I’m looking forward to it.

That’s it! This list gets shorter every year, either because I’m getting older, or I’m becoming more realistic about what I can do.

What are YOUR writing goals for 2017? What are your reading goals? Share them here!

Looking Back, and Looking Ahead

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

Here we are at the end of the year. It’s a good time to take stock of writerly things. This isn’t meant to be a whiny post. More of a looking-reality-straight-in-the-eye post — and looking ahead at what’s to come

~~~~~

Some writers have nicely ascending career paths. There may be a few setbacks, but overall the trend is up. For many of us – dare I say most of us? – that’s not how it goes. Oh sure, we enjoy the occasional triumph, but our careers are mostly a long, lonely slog through tough, soggy, mosquito-filled terrain, with only an occasional glimpse of snow-capped peaks rising in the distance—the Olympian heights! (This being a metaphor for bestseller lists, in case you missed that.)

For a while, it looked like The Red trilogy was going to be my path out of the fens — if not to the magic mountains, then at least to more solid ground. I mean, the critical response was pretty damn encouraging. Check out some of the crazy quotes here.

If you’re new to this blog and you’ve never heard of these books, here’s a brief history:

Back in 2013, I decided to self-publish the first of the trilogy, The Red: First Light, rather than trying to sell it to a traditional publisher. This was my first science fiction novel in ten years, and it went on to become a finalist for the Nebula award and second runner-up for the John W. Campbell Memorial award. It was picked up by Simon & Schuster’s Saga Press, given a gorgeous new cover, and in that incarnation was named as a Publishers Weekly best book of 2015. Saga Press published the second and third books in the trilogy in quick succession. Book 3, Going Dark, tied for first runner up for the Campbell Memorial award.

So I had reasons to get my hopes up, right?

These books had the most commercial potential of anything I’ve written. They are action oriented, and they extrapolate on real-world technology and politics. They are also heroic stories in which the actions of individuals do matter. Yes, they are written in a cynical tone (an amusingly snarky tone, I hope), but this was cynicism wrapped around a core of idealism. In other words, they’re culturally appropriate for a large swath of American readership. As evidence of that, they’ve had multiple inquiries regarding film and TV rights, and in fact were optioned for TV (an agreement now expired).

This was all far more than I’d expected … but the path peters out if potential readers miss those reviews, or if they decide for reasons of their own to skip the books, or if they never hear of the books at all because they don’t read reviews and rely instead on chance, name recognition, or word of mouth to choose their next read.

The trilogy garnered enthusiastic readers — and I’m grateful for every one of you! — but despite all the good omens, it failed to capture the attention of enough readers to make it a success. Sales languished. The books sank out of sight.

Hell, yes, this was disappointing. And I could write a long, disgruntled post speculating on the reasons why it happened — in fact I did — but I’ll spare you that. We’re here at the turn of the year and it’s time to move on, because…

I’VE GOT ANOTHER NOVEL ON THE WAY!

::cheers::

::confetti::

Hey, I’m excited about it. I hope you are too. I really, really hope you’re excited, because I’m going to need you’re support on this.

So what’s it called? What’s it about? That post will go up at the New Year. But here’s a hint:

In these crazy, frightening, rapidly changing times my focus has been captured by the near future. Where are we going? What are some of the implications of our rapidly developing technologies? What impact might they have on the way we see ourselves, and on what we value in ourselves, given that we are still operating under the templates of our ancient tribal minds? These are some of the themes behind a thriller that’s written on a very human scale.

So check back soon. And in the meantime, if you haven’t done so already, sign up for my occasional newsletter (see the form in the upper right column). It’s one more way to keep in touch.

Writing Goals for 2016:
The Assessment

Friday, December 23rd, 2016

Since 2011, I’ve been publishing a list of my writing goals for the year, and at the end of the year I take a look at that list and assess how I did at meeting those goals. So it’s time to assess 2016. What follows is a list of the goals I posted on January 1 2016, and how I did on each one:

1. FINISH the current novel-in-progress, where “finish” means it’s been revised and polished and is in my agent’s hands.

DONE. Done. Totally done.

2. START the next novel, where “start” means figure out the general idea behind it, and develop a rough outline with a list of characters. Bonus points for actually writing the opening.

This is actually DONE too. I’ve outlined a new novel and written the first 5,000 words. Circumstances being what they are, though, I will likely dump this novel… er, I mean, put it aside… and try to come up with something more traditional and possibly more marketable.

3. PUBLISH a second short story collection. This is going to be a round up of all my short fiction published since 2012.

DONE, with the caveat that it doesn’t include all my short fiction — I’ve held back the two Zeke Choy stories. Still, eight short stories! For more details on the new collection, click here.

4. Write a short story in THE RED story world.

DONE. This story was requested for an anthology that I really wanted to participate in, so that gave me the motivation to get it done.

5. Write at least one hard-SF short story unrelated to anything else I’ve done.

NOT done. Other than the story mentioned above, I didn’t even start any new short fiction this year. However, I did rediscover a story I wrote two years ago, but never sent out. It was better than I remembered, so I revised it and am now in the process of marketing it.

6. Write at least one novella set in an existing story world.

NOT done. This was an unmet goal from both 2015 and 2016, and it will now roll over into a 2017 goal.

Overall, 2016 was not a good year for my writing career. I’ll admit that my confidence has faded, along with the enthusiasm of a few years ago, and without that confidence and enthusiasm it’s been a lot harder for me to write. Still, I managed to do most of what I’d hoped to do. So I’ll give myself a pat on the back, and try to do better in 2017.

Did you have writing goals for 2016? How did you do?

Persistent Technologies

Sunday, October 30th, 2016

I’ve been catching up on my reading, and chanced to find — almost simultaneously — two articles looking at the potential advantages of old, seemingly outdated technologies.

The first, “What An NFL Coach, The Pentagon And Election Systems Have In Common” starts off with a discussion of Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, angrily rejecting the use of tablets during football games, calling the technology “undependable.” It goes on to talk about the inherent security of the paper trail generated by America’s old-fashioned and decentralized voting system, and the potential security in the antiquated software behind some weapons systems. As someone who is still using an ancient version of Windows on my writing computer, I am in total sympathy with the latter. 🙂

The second article, Why the US Military Still Flies Cold-War Era Planes looks at old, “persistent” technology from a different angle. The U2 was first built in 1955. It’s still flying today. Why? Because it still does the job:

“With its interchangeable nose cones and sophisticated surveillance equipment, there’s no reason not to think of the U-2S as a cutting-edge, contemporary technology

Like all technologies, planes are flexible. They change both through use and through the actions of their users. They undergo maintenance and updates…

I like this term, “persistent technology.” It’s a good concept to keep in mind when writing near-future fiction. Not everything has to be shiny and new.

Is it Better to Write a Series or…?

Saturday, October 15th, 2016

court_of_fives_kate_elliottThis is a short post for writers…although I’m sure readers have opinions too.

Recently on Twitter (where I spend far too much time) Kate Elliott, author of many excellent fantasy series, was asked an interesting question. Paraphrasing here: For a first novel is it better to write a stand-alone, a duology, or a trilogy?

Kate’s answer begins here and continues through a series of thoughtful tweets. I urge you to go read it:

I just wanted to add that there is one more alternative to consider: writing “related” novels…or, in a dark-humor vein, a “fake series.” This is how I started my novel writing career.

In a real trilogy — the Red Trilogy, for example — each successive book relies on the one that came before. In each book the writer ought to make an attempt to refresh the reader’s memory about past events, but it’s assumed the reader will be familiar with what went before, and that the story will build directly on that. There will also be an overall narrative arc that runs from book 1 to book 3 (or however many books are in the series).

But when it comes to traditional publishing, there are a couple of potential problems with writing a trilogy. First, if books one and two don’t do well in the market, book three may never be published. Consider that there are readers who won’t begin a trilogy until all the books are out. What happens if a large number of readers follow this strategy? Then very few copies of the first and/or second book will sell during those crucial early weeks after publication, and if that happens, there’s a good chance the publisher will simply cancel the series before it’s done.

The second problem was more crucial in the days before ebooks, but it can still affect a writer’s career today. This is when the publisher is willing to go ahead and publish all three books in a trilogy, but allows the first book in the trilogy to go out of print. Yes, really. It’s happened many, many times, and of course this means that the series is unlikely to win new readers, because the first book is unavailable to read. This is less of an issue in this age of ebooks, because ebooks are forever. But (so I’m told) a lot of readers still prefer print.

My response to this, in the days before ebooks, was to write “related novels.” In those days, books would go out of print fast — under a year in many cases. Knowing this, I made a decision to write my early novels as “stand alones.” So if we look at the Nanotech novels, all four share the same story world and some share characters, but each presents a complete story and can be read by itself. In fact, in their Bantam Spectra editions, the Nanotech books were never sold as a series. Over the years I’ve had readers tell me they picked up Vast first, read it, enjoyed it, and never suspected that there were three earlier novels they “should have” read first. That’s how a stand alone is supposed to work!

Anyway, writing “related” novels is one more strategy in the writer’s toolkit.

“Done”

Monday, October 10th, 2016

I just sent my agent the final-for-now version of the new novel. Naturally, as soon as I decided it was done, my writing mojo went on vacation…which is making it difficult to write a short story that I need to get done. :-/