WotF: Helping the Next Generation Develop Thick Skin

Well, it’s that time again, when Writers of the Future hopefuls wait patiently for the Q4 results to be officially announced while polishing up their entries for Q1.  It’s the wrap-up of another volume and the beginning of a new one.

Good by volume #28, hello #29.

I can’t wait to see the list of HMs and aboves for Q4.  I love scanning it and finding all the names I know.  It’s a lot of fun.

WotF is a unique venue.  It’s designed to encourage and find novice writers.  Almost all of writing is purely business–and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Everyone has to eat and make a living.  And business is tough, man.  There’s little room for patting strangers on the back–especially strangers who aren’t yet proficient at the job.

In business no one cares if you’re trying: either you can produce or you can’t.  Either you are capable or you are not.  And it is your job to rise above the rest of the amateurs (on your own) and become proficient enough to be called a professional.

Business doesn’t play nice with fragile egos.  And, unfortunately, a lot of novice writers have delicate sensibilities.

The good thing about ego is it’s fluid.  Everyone can learn to be more self aware, to better understand their abilities and capacity for improvement.  Everyone has the chance to learn how to take criticism well, and how to tell the difference between arrogance and confidence.

But, some learning curves are steeper than others.  And the publishing industry doesn’t have much room for those writers who take a long time to mature.

There are lots of people out there who love to write, who want to write.  Only a small portion of those people get up the courage to submit a story.  They slip their pristine manuscripts into manila envelopes, slap on a few stamps, send it off, then wait patiently for a reply.  When it comes they open that first SASE to find–of course–a rejection.

This happens to everyone.

But not everyone understands that.

Lost of new writers get discouraged easily and early.  To be honest, those who let the first rejection knock them out of the running forever don’t belong in the industry.  If one rejection keeps you from writing, it’s not your calling.  But some don’t quit all together–instead they become closet writers.  They love it, but they hide it.  Still others might make it through the first few rejections, but as they move into double or triple digits they give up.

Because most rejections are pretty simple, and tell you nada.  All they tell you is, we won’t publish this story.

And that’s how most of it should be.  Because editors don’t owe anyone an explanation.  They don’t owe you a sympathy card, or a pat on the back, or even a better luck next time note.  Did they ask you for your manuscript?  No.  What do you owe the telemarketer whose phone call you didn’t ask for, eh?

But the Writers of the Future contest is different.  They’ve made encouraging new writers their priority.  They want to keep those who would drop out in the running.  Why?  Because they believe in the learning curve–that even the frailest of egos can develop thick skin.  That new writers, like children, are our future and need nurturing.

If you show promise, they have lots of ways to let you know.  Be it a hand written note on a rejection, or an honorable mention, a silver HM, a semi-finalist, or a finalist.  If you don’t win, you’ve been rejected, but your rejection from WotF (form or otherwise) can tell you more than most other rejections: You might not be proficient yet, but someone’s rooting for you.

And that’s a wonderful thing. 

So, what’s your standing for Q4?  Are you already entered in Q1?  Let me know!

~Marina

65/100

Quick

My Wednesday post has to be brief this week.  I’ve got relatives over and at the last minute we decided we’re having Christmas early, which means a lot of going out and being away from the computer (due to shopping).  But I have a few little teaser comments I’d like to make:

Remember that illustration I did?  The one for my first paying art gig?  The anthology it appears in, Absolute Visions, will be available for ordering soon!  I shall post a link the minute I have one.

I also have some writing related news.  But if I told you now I’d have to kill you.  So I’ll wait.

I wish I had a third thing to list here, as that would bring balance to the post, but alas… Oh, wait, my first anniversary with my husband is coming up next week, does that count?

Anyway, that’s about it for today.  Hope you all are enjoying your December and are polishing up WotF and IotF entries if you’re still eligible!

~Marina

63/100

The Business Ethics of Writing and Publishing: Shilling

There are all sorts of articles available on how to publish (traditional and self), on why or why not to go a certain route, how to present yourself, how to produce a good product, how to get the attention of agents, publishers, reviewers, readers, etc.

But you know what I’ve never seen?  An article about writing and business ethics.

Now, I can’t cover every aspect of business ethics with this blog, let alone this post.   There are dozens of fields of study related to the subject, and students majoring in business can expect to spend hundreds of hours learning about ethics before they graduate.  I can’t provide anything that comprehensive.

But, every so often I’d like to do a post on one aspect of business ethics.  And I’d like to start with deceptive business practices we can all easily avoid, especially if we’re self publishing.  Some of them might be obviously unethical, and others not so much.

Why is it important to avoid deceptive practices?  For two main reasons.  One: taking care to avoid these things will establish trust between you and your readers.  Two: it protects your business.  Some of the things I intend to bring up aren’t only unethical, they’re illegal.  Any action that could put you or your work in danger is a bad business practice.

Today I’d like to introduce you to a deceptive practice known as shilling.

Shilling, quite simply, is the practice of planting someone in the “audience” who agrees with or approves of the product and the seller.  The shill is presented to the rest of the audience as being one of them–someone totally unrelated to the business.

How does this apply to writing?  Where can we see this?  Easy, in product reviews.  When you go to buy a book on Amazon (or a plethora of other online retailers) you can read reviews from other customers before you buy.  A shill is someone whom the author knows who pretends to be an unrelated consumer.

These people typically leave five-star ratings and praise the work, sometimes without citing specifics (because they often haven’t even read it).  They say things like “This is the best book I’ve ever read!  You must buy this now!  I was hooked from page one!  The party never stopped!” etc.  Low quality shills won’t say anything even remotely negative.

Low quality shills are easy to spot for those reasons; their reviews don’t sound like real reviews.  They’re even easier to pick out on self-published works, because self published works tend to have a small distribution, and therefore fewer reviewers.  High quality shills are a different matter: they understand the consumer and exactly what people look for in a genuinely good review.  High quality or low quality, it’s all unethical. 

Avoiding shilling should be easy.  Occasionally you might have a relative who wants to log in and sing your praise without reading what you’ve written–dissuade them.  Make them at least read the book.  You can’t control what they say about it, but you can prevent them from posting something outright dishonest.

Sometimes people like to give out free copies of their books to acquaintances in exchange for reviews.  This is perfectly ethical as long as you do not stipulate what kind of review they must give you.  Also, to avoid looking like you have a bunch of shills in place if they all happen to really like the work, stagger your freebees.  Because shills can also be spotted by when they review.  They often appear right after a book is published, or right after a score of bad reviews have gone up (although, in the later instance sometimes they’re sock-puppets instead of shills.  See below).  If you give away a lot of review-exchange copies right away, you might get a lot of glowing reviews posted around the same date.  That will look odd, and someone might think you’re shilling.

Why is shilling bad?  Other than for the clearly unethical reasons (it’s lying, even if the shill has read the book and posts a review that contradicts their true feelings.  Legally you can’t lie to customers in order to get them to buy your product.  More in this vein at a later date.), it’s bad because you can actually scare off customers with an over-the-top review.  If people know there’s a shill about they will question the quality of the product.  Why does this product need a fake review?  What’s wrong with it?

Shilling has an ugly cousin–and the vernacular is sock-puppet.  If you’ve ever spent much time on the Writer Beware blog (link under Resources and Helpful Links) you’ve probably encountered a lot of these in the comments section.  These are worse that shills because they are the sellers (or, on Writer Beware, the accused scammers) themselves pretending to be someone else.  If you can’t defend your work under your own name, or feel you have to make up reviews for yourself, that’s a red flag.  Why do you feel the work can’t speak for itself?

Trust your writing.  Trust your product.  And trust your readers.

What do you think?  Is shilling all that horrible, or are fake reviews harmless?  Got any other suggestions for how to spot a shill?

~Marina

(ETA: On a personal writing note, I’ve got a story up at Baen’s Bar that earned an  HM in the WotF contest.  If you’re a member and you’d like to read it and leave a crit that would be much appreciated!)

61/100

Happy Thanksgiving!

For those of us that live in the US, tomorrow is Thanksgiving.  A time for family, food, and reflection.

It’s good to remember that even when we think we’re in dire straights, there’s always something to appreciate.  A small kindness from a stranger, good weather, the fact that someone you love is doing well, etc.

And characters should be thankful, too.  Even in the most dystopian societies, even in the bloodiest of wars, there should be a glimmer of hope.  Because everyone wants to find the good under all the bad. 

Hope drives us: from it springs determination and willpower.  A person can overcome the elements and severe injuries because they hope to see their children again.  Never underestimate “silver linings.”  We cling to them to get us through the hard times.  

Even when your character is facing annihilation, thanks and hope will give him or her a reason not to just throw down the sword (blaster, test-tube, joystick–you get the idea) and give up.

I’m thankful that the little things can be a guiding light through the darkest of circumstances.  What are you thankful for?

 ~Marina

61/100

Overcoming Writer’s Block

It’s Wednesday, which means it’s Must-Have-Post day! I have a lot going on this week, and will for the next two months, so my blog hasn’t been in the forefront of my thoughts. I was sitting around last night, trying to think of what topic to tackle today, and nothing came to mind.

I had writer’s block!

Now, I don’t subscribe to writer’s block as an excuse not to write, but I do think it exists (some don’t). For me it usually happens because I have too many things on my mind. My brain is trying to push me onwards to so many other things that I’m prevented from making my neurons fire on the topic at hand.

But, there’s always a way to overcome it. And I’ve got two methods.

Number one is for when I’m trying to start a new project. First I read a short story in the genre I’m currently writing in, then take three objects and stare at them until I get an idea. And all the while I maintain a clear, active focus on what’s right in front of me.

My second method is most helpful when I’m in the middle of a project and have a hiccup for some reason. I’m a (loose) plotter, so it’s not so much a problem of what comes next as how do I execute this properly?

When this happens I’m looking for something even more intangible than concepts and ideas. I’m looking for logical story movement. What gets me from A to B in the character’s mind?

At this point I’ve usually tried to write a scene several times with no apparent luck. It keeps leading my story in bad direction. Some people can just write the bad scene, move on, and come back and fix it later. This is what I usually do, but when I get real writer’s block it’s because the scene isn’t even fixable. It’s trashable, and the rest of the story that spins out of it will continue to deteriorate.

In order to straighten this out I have to do something mindless. Maybe a casual game, but often that’s too mindless and my thoughts start to wander. What I really need is something that keeps my brain active, but is simple.

Like this: www.galaxyzoo.org

It’s a site that lets you help classify galaxies.  I get to contribute to science and outwit my stagnation at the same time.

While I’m classifying galaxies, focusing on a very simple task, the rest of my brain is off mulling over my story. Eventually the scene will pop into the forefront of my mind, and I’ll once again be able to proceed.

So what do you do when you hit that temporary wall? Any special ritual you have to get yourself un-stuck?

~Marina

60/100

I Have Work! (or, Spotlighting Differences Between Writers and Illustrators)

I have been commissioned to illustrate a story in an upcoming semi-pro anthology.  I won’t give any details at the moment, since I haven’t signed a contract yet, but I’m already through the concept art stage, have refined my line art, and any minute now should be starting on my shading.

As I said, it’s semi-pro, which means I’m not getting paid much (if you’re at all familiar with artist’s rates you know semi-pro pay is pretty much the equivalent of writer’s token pay), but I’m cool with that.  Because what I’m really getting out of this is work experience.  I get to see what it’s like to work with an art director, and learn to blend several visions (mine, the writer’s, and the director’s) into one.  I also have to push myself to make the deadline– I had about 11 days starting when I got the assignment (really 13, but I’d rather finish before my father comes to visit), which means I’ve got, hmm, just over a week to get the finished product in.

Unlike with writing, I knew I wanted to start at the semi-pro level with my art.  The rule with writing is always top-down.  It’s not as simple with illustrations.

I’ve only submitted samples at the semi-pro level because I want to make sure I can work up to professional standards before applying for pro work.  Unlike with writing, in which you send in your finished product before you are considered, with illustrations the work doesn’t even begin until you get an acceptance. 

With shorts we often get to set out own deadlines.  Even when we have anthology deadlines to fill we’ve usually got a couple of months to come up with something.  Not so with art.  I’ve heard of ridiculous turn-around times, down to only a couple of days from job offer to completed product.

I’ve got to dog paddle before I do the butterfly stroke. 

Now, some people might protest and say, “Well, couldn’t you learn the same things while getting paid a professional rate?”

To that I say, “Sure!  But what if I fail?” 

As writers we can send any number of bad stories to an editor, and they won’t remember.  They read so much mediocre-to-horrible stuff it all blurs together.  As a critter and a reader I know this to be true.  So, I can send out bad product after bad product and not fear that my subsequently good products will suffer for it.

Not so with art.  When an editor looks at your samples he can throw them out the window and not remember you the next time you send better samples, sure.  But what happens when you get the job based on samples that took months each to create, and are then given two weeks to come through with your commissioned illustrations?  Maybe it turns out well… but what if it doesn’t?  You think that magazine/anthology/webzine will hire you again if you turn in a bad illustration?  No way.  You’ve burned a bridge.

I don’t have enough bridges to lose one to a blaze, thank you.

So, that’s why I started with semi-pro.  I feel confident I can do the work, but I want the real life experience to prove it.  I want to finish this illustration in a week, hand it in, and finally see it in print and be proud.  I want to be happy with the work and happy with myself, knowing I can meet the demands of the industry.  That’s worth way more than money on the art side right now.

I’ll let you all know when the anthology comes out.  Looking forward to it!

~Marina

P.S.  What do you think?  Is there some experience you think valuable enough to your career that you’d be willing to accept lower fiscal compensation for your work to get it?

60/100

Why Copyright Extends Long after You are Gone

I’m referring everyone I can to these two blog posts, because if you own intellectual property it’s important to know your rights.

First, Copyright is People, a guest post by Michael Capobianco for Writer Beware™ blogs:

http://accrispin.blogspot.com/2011/10/guest-blog-post-copyright-is-people.html

Next is a post by Neil Gaiman, Important. And Pass It on…:

http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2006/10/important-and-pass-it-on.html

In the second post there is a link to a very basic will that all IP owners should take a look at.

Intellectual property is just like any other property you own:  It’s yours.  You can do whatever you want with it.

Say you go into your attic and find a stunning piece of Ming Dynasty pottery.  It’s yours, you own it.  You can put it on display in your living room if you like.  You can sell it at auction.  You can give it as a present.  Or you can leave it in your attic. 

You can even smash it to bits if you’d like, though I wouldn’t recommend it.

After all, it’s yours.

Intellectual property is the same.  If an author wants to sell or lease the rights, they can.  If the author wants to sit on the work and never let it see the light of day, that’s within their legal rights as well.  If they want to gift the rights, or will them to their children, they can do that, too.

No one can come into your house, go up to your attic, take that Ming vase and say, “This is ours now to share with the public. After all, you weren’t using it.”

This is not a use it or lose it situation.

Your copyright extends seven decades after your death for a reason.  Because it’s property your family can benefit from.  It protects the right of your heirs to continue to reproduce and profit from the work.

Essentially, as a writer you are a business.  And like any small business you can leave it to your family after you’re gone.  Or sell it while you’re still alive.  Or dismantle it all together. 

Don’t let any amount of hand-waving and talk of “the benefit of the community” take that from you.  Writing is not a civic duty.  If you want to give your work away for free that’s your prerogative, but no one gets to force your hand.

No one else is made to work hard for “exposure” and “good feelings” alone.  Why should we?

What do you all think about this situation with HathiTrust?  Have you ever encountered someone who felt writers should naturally write for little or even for free?

I saw a comment on another blog the other day where someone cited $25 as “normal” compensation for a short story.  Sheesh.

~Marina

ETA: P.S.  If you support copyright, please comment on the Writer Beware blog post to make sure your feelings are known.  The more people stand up in favor of copyright, the less other people will be able to infringe upon it with impunity. 

59/100

 

Happy Halloween 2011

I love costumes.  If it were socially acceptable to do so, I’d wear them out on a regular basis.  So, logically, I adore Halloween.

Halloween comes early for me these days.  My husband’s office party is usually the Friday before the holiday, so everything I need is rearing to go by the time Halloween actually gets here. 

This year we went as steampunk pirates (or cowboys…my husband told it differently each time), and unofficially won the costume contest (we pick out all the contest prizes, so we pull ourselves from eligibility.  We can’t technically win, but people vote for us anyway).

There’s also a pumpkin carving contest.  I made myself a steampunk pumpkin–complete with metal parts, goggles, and copper enamel–and came in 3rd

Yesterday we did some more pumpkin carving, and my brother took part.  Below are a few photos of the results (office party pumpkins included).

Steampunk Pumpkin

Steampunk pumpkin in daylight.  Looks like a normal Jack-o-Lantern in the dark.

All the Pumpkins

All the pretty pumpkins.  From left to right, top row:  My brother’s lantern on a stick and his Heartless.  Left to right, bottom row: My steampunk pumpkin, my husband’s ghost, my t-rex, my husband’s cowboy skull, and my brother’s screw head (it’s got a bunch of rusty nails sticking out of it).

Closeup

Closeup.

Lantern  Light Play

Lantern light-play on the wall.

So, what are your favorite parts of Halloween?

~Marina

P.S.  Just in case you were wondering, my previous post meant I’ll at least post on Wednesdays, not only on Wednesdays. 

59/100

Blogroll!

Good morning,

Or afternoon or evening, depending on your current local.

Wanted to pop in today to point out the brand-new blogroll over there to the left of the page.  If you haven’t encountered any of these writers or illustrators before I suggest you take the time to peek at their sites. 

The blogroll, like this blog and my as-of-yet unpublished official website, is a work in progress.  As I make new writing acquaintances, more links will go up.

If you’re on my blogroll and see a mistake, please let me know.  I might have put initials where some of you prefer your full name, or misspelled something, or the link may be wrong.  And, of course, if you prefer I take the link down, I’ll be happy to do so.

There are several people I would like to add to the list who don’t appear to have websites.  Get with the program, you!  I’m looking to promote your webpage, and I can’t do that if it doesn’t exist.

That’s about it for now.  I plan on posting something every Wednesday, as my stats are still showing Thursday as the highest trafficked day.

On another note, who’s still in for Writers of the Future Q4 2011?  Anyone struggling with Q1? 

~Marina

57/100

New Blog and Aesthetics

Hello all!

New post and a shiny-new blog to go with it.

For my first post at my new home, I’d like to talk about to present yourself on the internet.  I’m not going the comments-and-behavior route with this one.  I’d specifically like to discuss aesthetics. 

First, if you’ve never been there before (but chances are you just came from there), here’s what my old blog looks like (and here’s a link http://marinajlostetter.blogspot.com/): 

Now, is there anything there that suggests–visually–that I am a science fiction and fantasy author and illustrator? 

Hell no.  It is not sleek.  It is not whimsical.  It isn’t even eye-catching.  It is about at pedestrian as you can get.

Bad spec-fic artist, bad.

I believe that a blog or website should be treated as a book-cover.  Its appearance should immediately give an impression of what you or your business is all about.  And it should be explicitly designed to “sell.”  As in, just like a book cover, it needs to be as professional as you are capable of making it.

Poorly designed websites turn people off.  It’s sad, but true.  Just like with bad book covers.  Though in reality the quality of the book rarely has anything to do with the quality of the cover (other than signaling what kind of investment the publishers were willing to make), people do judge books that way. 

So, even if it’s subconscious, people often see a bad website as a sign of unprofessionalism.  Doesn’t matter if you are a great small business doing well for yourself and your employees–if your online presence is ugly, your online business probably will be to.

This works differently for authors than it does for illustrators.  Luckily for authors, your website isn’t typically aimed at the people you are directly selling your product to: publishers.  It’s aimed at readers.  If you’ve got enough of a back-log out there that you’ve developed a real fan base, you’re probably good to go no matter what your site looks like.  The only people you might loose are newbies looking to find out who you are for the first time.  And even then your sales won’t suffer, you’ll just probably have fewer visitors to your site.

Artists, on the other hand, have a lot invested in their online presentation.  For one, as a monger of visual medium, if you have an underdeveloped website it will lose you customers.  Because not only fans visit, but also people who can lease your work, and buy prints, and commission new works.  And the first thing they notice probably won’t be your latest piece of art, even if it’s on the front page.  They’ll notice your layout.

And if you can’t come up with a well composed web page, what’s to make them think you can come up with a well composed painting?

Sure, they’ll see your work.  They’ll click through to the gallery.  But that initial momentum is gone.  Why do we put paintings in nice frames?  To show the work off better.  Your web site layout is the frame for your entire gallery.  It is important.

Now, this is not to say that what I’ve got now is fantastic.  But this blog is loads better than my previous one.  Not only is it more attractive, but it feels more representative of what I do.

Similarly, if you want to advertise your cake company you don’t start out with lots of barbed-wire and nuclear explosions on the first page, do you?  If you write westerns you don’t want to go with a Grecian motif, right?  Likewise, a speculative fiction author or artist should probably shy away from the obviously mundane. I’ll be changing the banner in the future to further reflect the theme of my work (right now that piece only really has a touch of the spec).  And I chose black and white because it’s classic, simple, and sleek.

I will be expanding in the future, to a full on web site and gallery, but for now it’s just a new blog and a few links to a new Deviant Art page.  Hope you’ll keep checking back to see how it all develops.

~Marina

P.S.  Let me know what you think: How much should artists and writers worry about their online presentation? 

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