Friday, June 9, 2017

Ego Calling, Line Two

Once upon a time, a book sold. It was the author's first. The reviews were good, but then, the book was declared a finalist in two categories in a nationally recognized contest. That's when things got weird.

The author's agent started saying things like, "You're brilliant."
Readers and other writers started treating the writer as if she were suddenly an expert in the art of peering into the future of publishing. There were interviews and generally just attention that this writer simply wasn't accustomed to. Then the editor echoed the agent's words. "You're brilliant."

Terror sent the author racing to the hotel room and the phone for a call to Mom - to someone who could speak sense and point out that the writer hadn't changed. She was still herself. The flattering attention, while startling, was part and parcel of the profession. So it was up to the author to find her ground before her ego started feeding off of the attention like some kind of emotional vampire. The author need not have worried. The attention didn't last. It couldn't.

But the author did come up with some resolutions to keep the ego on an ultra short leash, should it ever again be needed:
  1. Clean the cat boxes. Nothing keeps you from imagining you're hot shit than scooping some other critter's poop. If there are no pets, do the dishes. Scrub your toilet. Anything less than glamourous that reminds you that you aren't exempt from being human.
  2. Ground. You keep your feet on the ground by returning to the places where you're rooted - the places where you are most purely you. For some that's within the family. For others, it's a retreat in the woods/desert/mountains/by the sea. It can also be that group of friends who laugh and gently puncture you when ego starts inflating.
  3. Ask the agents/editors/whoever to rephrase the praise. No saying 'you're brilliant.' Want to say 'brilliant?' Fine. Say the writing is brilliant. It's a fine line, but it's praise for the work, not for the person.
  4. Work. Keep your eyes on the next story. And the next. And instruct the crit group(s) or beta readers to slap the crap out of you should you imagine you're too important to be edited.
  5. Be of service. This is especially useful at conferences when the spotlight might feel a little unrelenting. Go cart boxes for other authors. Volunteer to help set up a room or clean up a room. Stuff reader bags. Whatever the conference needs done. It helps to be reminded that this is for the readers. Not for the author.
Not that you can't have some fun. Drinks in the bar are absolutely within reason. Just make sure that if other people are buying you drinks that you buy for someone else. Spread the good will.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Ego Check

The topic this week from the SFF Seven is "How do you keep your ego in check?"
And I'm just thinking-- pretty much by being a midlist fantasy writer.  Frankly, I can't imagine anyone getting too big of a head doing this work.  
More to the point, you have to get in the absolute top levels of this industry to even be in danger of getting a big head.  Unless you were already the type of person for whom any level of success would inflate your ego.  To an extent, that's some Dunning-Kruger territory.  
Look, I don't want to give the sense that I'm not thrilled, absolutely thrilled that this is my life, and that I'm incredibly fortunate that my hard work has paid off as well as it has, that I get to tell the story of Maradaine and all the champions within that magical city.  That I get to keep telling it.  It's amazing.
But aside from a few brief moments, rarely does anything in this business actually charge your ego up.  It's far more of a Keep Your Chin Up So They Don't Grind You Down sort of industry.
I still love it, though.  I love the work.  Time to get back to it.   

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

How Do I Keep Humble?

Wrapped in foil, not clingwrap. It's all about reheating.  Wut? I'm talking about...

Literal  Pie.

Humble Pie, ladies and gents, can be a wonderful thing. Yes, it's essentially leftovers wrapped in dough. The term is derived from the French word for scraps, "nomble," which suffered Misheard Lyrics Syndrome and became " 'omble," which got prettied up to be "humble." Hard "h."

Traditionally, Humble Pie is a savory, meaty pie. Give the beef, lamb, or duck versions a try. They can be really good depending on who's in the kitchen and what veggies and fruit are thrown into the mix. Word to the wise, don't ask what cuts of meat are in the pie. It's usually made from the viscera. I know, anything involving the word "viscera" brings to mind that scene from Braveheart. ~crosses legs~  Focus on the awesome aroma of the pie.

My favorite is the Humble Fruit Pie. I'll bust out a flaky crust (store-bought, 'cause I'm lazy) and fill that sucker with fruit that might be a bit damaged, bruised, mutated, or nearing its end-date (food that embodies your emo is awesome, right?) Emo fruit is often available at a discount at your local farmer's market if you ask the vendor if he has baking fruit. They don't tend to put the less-than-pretties on display, but they do tend to bring 'em. A sale is a sale. What's the difference between Humble Fruit Pie and Regular Fruit Pie? No idea. Possibly the tears you shed while exulting in its glory?

Want to try your hand at Humble Pie?  Here's King Arthur's Flour recipe:, see if your pie comes out as pretty as their picture.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Ego That Walked Like A Man

Naturally, Jeffe is right.

Listen, everyone has an ego. I'll even go so far as to say it's a necessity in the writing business. To paraphrase Harlan Ellison ( I think it was in the foreword to his DANGEROUS VISIONS anthology, volume one) Every writer has to have an ego. First to presume that anyone would want to read what the writer has written and then to presume that anyone would want to pay for the privilege. Again, paraphrasing, but you know what? He's right. That's a damned big leap.

Still, we all have that dream, don't we?

A little ego is a good thing. Like a little anger. In the right doses both can motivate a person to do better. Get angry enough at whatever ever you decide is annoying you and it can be a driving force, You remember to get up and dust yourself off on those days that just plain suck the will to live away. Of course you're going to keep trying, if only to prove to the naysayers that you can get it done. That is anger focused into motivation.

Ego tells you you're getting it right, especially on those days when you feel in your soul that you are getting it wrong. Fake it until you make it. Ego can be a balm to soothe a crushed self confidence. But just as easily it can become bloated and tell you that you are something special. Never listen to that voice. Instead listen to the voice that reminds you to take out the trash, that reminds you that you are so damned lucky that anyone every believed in you or that anyone, ever has taken the time to by and read your books.

Ultimately, that's the voice that matters. You wrote a story? Awesome! People like it? Amazing! You got published and paid? How very, very lucky you are. Is talent a part of it? of course. Are drive and determination significant? Hell yes, and you better believe it.

Practice, hard work, honing your skills constantly and remembering that this is the life you chose. Those are all part of it. Celebrate your victories, but don't let them fill you with the belief that you and you alone are responsible for all that has happened in a positive light, not when it comers to your career.

I can tell you, and with a certain amount of truth in the statement, that I have busted my butt to get where I am. I can also tell you with that same element of truth that some people have had a harder time and others have had an easier time getting to the same point. None of that makes a lick of difference at the end of the day. I write damned near every day. I've done it for a quarter of a century and sooner or later determination and the law of averages says I'll sell something to someone. Trial and error and a lot of patience have led to a modicum of wisdom. I have no doubt that luck has played a part as well.

Lucky. Damned lucky. Somewhere along the way a few editors looked at my stuff and saw potential enough to take a chance.  Somewhere along the way a few readers decided I didn't suck and they bought more than one story.  Some of them even buy most if not all of my stuff. I can never thank them enough. I am grateful.

My ego? I keep it locked away for the bad days when I look at he screen and the words refuse to show themselves because I've let self doubt get out of its cage again.

When self doubt is once again penned, I lock ego away, too. getting cocky means thinking my work is perfect, and that an editor's possible wisdom is a waste. I'd rather listen to the advice and consider it carefully than brush it away. I'd rathe, at the end of the day, remember how lucky I am than think for even a moment that I am deserving of every bit of praise.

Ego is a tool to use, not a crown to wear.

James A. Moore

Look at this one and look at the names attached, I am LUCKY. I am BLESSED. I have NO IDEA how I managed to get my name in this particular hat.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Watch What You Feed that Ego

For those who don't follow me on Instagram or Twitter, this is our agave flower spike. It's fixing to bloom any day now. Really spectacular!

Some of my friends find this monster spike unsettling and alien. More than one has compared it to the flesh-eating, massively growing plant in Little Shop of Horrors.

I can see their (okay, pretty melodramatic) point. But there was something about that manipulative plant, whose hunger for human flesh could never be sated, that sticks in our heads and still gives us the creeps.

We could say it's that atavistic and animal instinct to avoid the predator. I'd go a step further and say that stories of this type warn us of another great peril of being human: the overweening ego. That's our topic this week, asking each other "How Do You Keep It Humble?" aka "Great Cautionary Tales: the Enormous Ego Edition."

Now, there's nothing wrong with a healthy ego. In fact, I'd posit that it's crucial to being a successful author. You need that ego to believe in your own work enough to survive all the criticism, rejections, and those (So Not) helpful advice givers who counsel you to give up on your silly, impossible dreams. Ego is good, because that's what gets a writer through it all. We need a strong ego.

But a strong ego is like a strong body - it should be made of muscle and bone, not fat. An ego built on a solid foundation will be a workhorse. An ego made of lean, well-trained strength is an asset to fight off all attackers.

An overfat ego, or an obese ego, is a liability. It grows huge and bloated on a poor diet of flattery, lies, and denial. It gets in the way. No longer is the ego a responsive weapon and foundation, but it becomes an insatiable monster demanding ever more to feed it. It craves flattery and attention. The truth burns, so it fosters lies and denial. The overfed, bloated ego lives and grows only to serve itself.

That's the greatest danger told by these cautionary tales. In the beginning, the plant offers Seymour gifts, wishes granted, in exchange for food. But in the end, it consumed everything good in his life.

That's what a bloated ego does. It loves only itself, and it will devour everything if not controlled.

So, how do you keep that healthy ego fit and in fighting trim? Watch what you feed it.

  • It's wonderful to have your work praised, but keep it in perspective. Remember that it's the work that's wonderful, not YOU.
  • Consider the source. There's a lot of suck-ups out there who will tell you everything you want to hear. Your true friends will call you on your bullshit, too. Treasure them.
  • Be brutally honest with yourself. Graciously and joyfully accept the good things that come your way, but always treat them like gifts, not your just due.
  • It ain't just a river in Egypt. Guard against denial. Even on the little things, make sure you're seeing things clearly, not the way that makes you look the best.
  • Acknowledge the role of serendipity and blessings. We achieve success through hard work, but also through the grace of the universe. Whatever you believe in, give thanks daily for the luck that brings you good things.
  • Ask "why me?" One of my favorite religious studies professors said, "When bad things occur, we raise our gaze to heaven and ask God, 'why me?' But when good things happen, do we ever question it?" This has stood me in excellent stead. When something terrific happens, I ask "why me?" and then I give thanks.
  • Observe the cautionary tales. When that writer does something that makes you roll your eyes at their huge ego? Quit rolling and pay attention. It can happen to any of us. Be vigilant!
And, please, don't feed the plants. ;-)

Saturday, June 3, 2017

I Won't Publish the Book Without the Editor's Input

I’ve been on the record forever as stating that a book must have a professional editor. As my friends have said all week, the author is too close to the story to catch everything that might need revision, or to think of some cool twist that resolves a plot issue or even to see a plot issue sometimes. I absolutely will not release a book that hasn't been through both my developmental editor (our primary topic here) and a professional copy editor. I hire my developmental editor to review my novellas and short stories for anthologies as well.

And the editor does need to be a professional, not just someone who likes to read books or who is good at grammar. Ask those people to be beta readers perhaps. Your editor should understand your genre and the tropes and traditions of that genre. Even if you’re writing something you think is genre-busting, it helps to have a second, knowledgeable eye. Also, you may have fallen into a few lazy writing habits that the editor can check you on. Sometimes if you read enough books by an author you come to know all their heroines will be named Mary and have red hair. Or that there’ll be certain lines that get used verbatim in every book, for example.

I learn from my developmental editor’s comments and now avoid some mistakes I used to make every time, although I suspect I’m probably developing new ones. I had a bad habit of kind of skipping over parts I wasn’t too interested in writing (to get to other parts I was very excited about writing) – in Mission to Mahjundar there’s a dramatic escape across a raging river, which takes up almost an entire chapter in the finished book. It was one sentence in the manuscript. “They crossed the river and rode on.” My editor very properly gave me a hard time over that and basically demanded I flesh that episode out, which I did. In two of my ancient Egyptian novels, the early drafts pretty much said “they sailed up (or down) the Nile for two weeks” at a certain point in the narrative. What is it with me and rivers??? At any rate, the editor refused to settle for that and gave me suggestions, which I then enlarged upon and ended up writing quite a bit of hopefully interesting plot that shed more light on the characters and their motivations. In Warrior of the Nile her ideas really upped the stakes and the tension.

Nowadays I catch myself when I realize I’m about to skip writing some portion of the story and I go back and ask my Muse what I could add to the tale at this point.

 The other thing which is also a joke between me and my editor is what we call “slime trails.” In an early draft of Escape From Zulaire I wrote this really cool, shape shifting alien and then in what I thought was a further amazing burst of late night creativity, I had it leave a slime trail when it moved. Uh duh, if the alien has shifted into the shape of a human for example, won’t the other humans in the vicinity think it a mite odd (and disgusting) that ‘Sam’ leaves a slime trail LOL? I did a similar thing in another story idea that hasn’t been written yet where it was tactfully pointed out to me that if I included cool plot point X, I’d be undoing the entire established history of my worldbuilding. This is why I don’t write time travel.

I think some authors have the mistaken thought that if they have an editor, then they must follow that person’s inputs blindly, that it isn’t entirely their own book any more…maybe that’s how it was in trad pub. I can’t say because I never was traditionally published. My two books with Carina Press were the closest I came and I loved my editor there. She gave me great feedback but – leading to my key point here – I did not accept everything she suggested. A few things I felt were ‘wrong’ for what I wanted with the book and a couple of others I said, “Oh, okay, not exactly this but maybe I can do that instead,” and we were both satisfied.

On Star Survivor my editor felt I could cut out a couple of scenes with Nick and Mara (the lead characters in the first book, Wreck of the Nebula Dream) but my instinct was that my readers had been waiting about five years for this book and would feel cheated if they didn’t get to spend some meaningful time with the couple, even though this book focuses on Khevan the assassin and Twilka the interstellar celebrity. So I left both sections the editor suggested trimming and I have had reader feedback and reviews about enjoying the chance to catch up with Nick and Mara, and see them in action. I think she was probably correct about the scenes not being absolutely necessary to the plot but I stand by my final judgment that they were necessary to fully satisfying the readers.

It’s always going to be your book, you call the shots as an independently published author, but you want to present your readers with the best story possible. A strong, professional editor can and will help you polish that diamond to its brightest sheen.

(Award winning Escape From Zulaire is free by the way, if you want to see what happened to that alien and its slime trail.)

Friday, June 2, 2017

To Edit or Not To Edit

To edit or not to edit. That is the question.

Fortunately for us all, I'm not Shakespeare, nor am I currently sufficiently caffeinated to offer you a two hour treatise in iambic pentameter that would convince you the answer to the editing question is yes. Always yes.

I can have the tendency to be the contrarian here on the blog. But not with this issue. You've had a legion of excellent reasons from excellent writers on why you should hire at least one editor for your work. I'll add another.

Let's suppose your work is polished and clean. You've even had some beta readers. Their feedback was generally good and you fixed all of the typos and misplaced commas they called out. You're golden right?


Hire that dev editor. Reason being that the dev editor exists to call you on your story-crafting shorthand. We all have it. It's the reflex gesture or the phrases we use so habitually that they become invisible to us. Unless you are an extraordinarily unusual writer, you have information about your scenes, your characters and your conflict that are in your head, but that never made it to the page. Also, that slow scene just before the climax? The one you've spent so much time telling yourself is just fine but you only half believe it? Yeah. It's not okay. And a good dev editor will call it out and even suggest options for fixing it.

I have a critique group. Two, in fact. On that meets in person and one virtual. All of my books go through those groups. That's four multi-published authors and several very experienced writers  who well on their way to being published reading my stuff and yelling at me when I mess something up. That should be good enough, shouldn't it? I mean. That many eyes on my writing makes for some very clean stuff.  Except.

Because these people know me, they know my modes of expression, both in person and in writing. When they read my text, they hear MY voice reading it, not their own. It's gotten to the point that major plot holes have been missed because these lovely writers know me well enough now to know what I meant even if I didn't say it on the page. This is natural and normal human behavior. The key is acknowledging it. The groups bring tremendous value to my process, especially early in a book's life cycle. But it's on me to accept that these groups no longer call me on every last bit of my story shorthand.

So. Editor. Editor. Editor. Editor.

The edit letter will annoy you. It usually does me. You get 24 hours of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then you suck it up and you objectively evaluate what you were told about your book and you fix it. Your readers will thank you. I'd like to tell you that you'll be a better writer - and maybe at some point you will, but all I can see is that I keep finding new mistakes to make. So ymmv.

Apologies for the late post. The week has defined shitty. Starting with Saturday night, when Autolycus informed us that he was done with this life. He died Saturday night. He had acute renal failure likely brought on by bladder cancer. He was 18.  

Thursday, June 1, 2017

On editing and editors

So, I had a few different angles I considered taking on this.  Do I talk about my editing process?  I considered that, but that's largely only useful to you if you think my nuts-and-bolts method is something you can use.  Do I talk about the value of beta-readers & editors and getting other eyes and opinions?  I could, but you know that.  Or, rather, if you're looking for writing advice of any kind, you've already seen that, and have absorbed it, or it's bounced off you and nothing I say will change your opinion on the subject.
Instead, let's talk about specific editors.  Namely, my editor, Sheila Gilbert, who I adore. She won the Hugo for Best Editor Long Form last year, and she's nominated again this year.  Now, you may say to yourself, "Hey, she won last year, should she really win again this year?"  I say: hell yes.  And that sort of thing is hardly unprecedented.  Heck, in the history of the Best Editor Award, before it was split into Long and Short, over thirty years there were only nine different winners.  NINE.  And after it was split, Patrick Nielsen Hayden won three times, and David Hartwell won twice in a row.  So there's plenty of precedent for Sheila to win twice, and she totally should.
Now, you're going to ask me, why should she, Marshall?  What does she do that puts her above the rest of the crowd?  (The rest of the crowd is 80% excellent, of course.)
The obvious answer is, she publishes my books.  This makes me biased, certainly, but it's an important point from my point of view.  But you want something a bit less subjective.
So, let me put something else on the table, in terms of What Editors Do, since it often seems so very nebulous.  I often go to conventions, meet other authors, do the barcon thing, and so on.  There's a lot of in-the-trenches horror stories.  Stories about editors butchering manuscripts, demanding changes that would fundamentally alter the story.  Stories about copy-edits that went outside of the bounds of the copy-edit.  Stories about horrendous covers that the author got stuck with, deeply unhappy with how their books were going to look.
These horror stories are part-and-parcel with the industry.  I've heard them from big names and midlisters and newbies.  
And I don't have one.
I do not have one of those editorial horror stories, and that's because Sheila has been there to keep me from having them.  Even when I've had cover art come in with problems, she's right with me saying, "Yes, let's fix this."  That's what makes someone a Best Editor, in my book.  All five books, in fact, with the sixth, seventh and eighth on the way.
(Speaking of, I have editing to do on that eighth one.  Off to it...)