Tuesday, October 6, 2009

I'll take "Clueless" for $1,000, Alex

A query I received in my capacity as an editor for Red Deer Press this morning began thus:
I've got a Fiction Novel of 40,000+ words which I am trying to find a publisher for. Front cover has been designed already and it's on it's way for professional editing.
I stopped reading after that, and sent this reply:
I'm very busy, so consider it a kindness that I'm replying at all.

You're doing everything wrong.

First, you don't query editors en masse -- or, if you do, you don't let us all see each others' names in your "To:" field.

Second, you don't say "fiction novel" -- there's no other kind of novel.

Third, 40,000 words in barely a novel by today's standards; most publishers won't touch anything less than 80,000 words.

Fourth, the job of creating the cover belongs to the art director at the publishing company; it's not your job, and, frankly, you are utterly clueless about what will appeal to the buyers at Borders and Barnes and Noble, which are the ones who the cover is created for. Don't have your own cover designed; leave it to the publishing company.

Fifth, if you need an editor to polish your prose before you submit it, fine -- it means you're not good enough to be a writer on your own, and that is indeed an impediment to a writing career, but, as you've found, you can hire professional help. But, for God's sake, keep that dirty little secret to yourself; don't brag about it in your cover letter. If your book is bought by a publisher, the publisher will assign -- and pay for -- an editor to work with you.

Sixth, never query a publisher until you are ready to submit; you said you're not -- you're still having your work edited. When your book is as perfect as you can make, then query editors one at a time, explaining in your cover letter why specifically you've chosen to approach that publishing house (that is, demonstrate that you've done some market research -- you clearly haven't, as they only thing I publish is science-fiction novels by Canadians, and yet you scattershot queried me, wasting your time and mine).

Seventh, you have to be letter-perfect in what you submit. If you don't know the difference between "it's" and "its," you're not ready to be a professional writer, and if you do know the difference, and just couldn't be bothered to proofread your query letter carefully, then you really aren't being respectful of the people whose time you are wasting.

I wish you the best of luck -- but you need more than that; you need to do your homework before bothering editors again.

Please take this in the spirit it's intended -- one of helping you; I rather suspect just about every one of the 46 other editors you addressed your message to won't bother to reply at all.

Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site
and WakeWatchWonder.com

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Friday, February 27, 2009

Patrick Rothfuss's blog

I said very nice things about Patrick Rothfuss's first novel on the book's dustjacket:
"Hail Patrick Rothfuss! A new giant is striding the land. The Name of the Wind is an astonishing novel that just happens to be the writer's first. The bestsellers' lists and the award ballots are beckoning toward Rothfuss, and readers will be clamoring for more of the riveting life story of Kvothe. Bravo, I say! Bravo!" -- Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of Hominids
We are indeed clamoring, but Pat is behind schedule on the second book, and his long blog post today (with cartoons!) about that makes fascinating reading.

Among other things, Pat says:
I say that as a joke, but like most jokes it has a grain of truth to it. That's the reason I've turned the comments off for this blog. I know they would break down roughly like this:

30 considerate, supportive comments.
20 touching, heartfelt comments.
15 funny comments
10 comments saying, "Meh, I already knew."
5 passive-aggressive snarks masquerading as one of the above.
1 comment from some anonymous frothy dickhole.

And you know which comment I'd focus on? Yeah. The last one. It would sit there like a steaming turd in my bowl of cereal. It doesn't matter how delicious the cereal is. It could be Fruity Pebbles, or even Cookie Crisp. But in a situation like this it doesn't matter. You can't just eat around it. All you can do is focus on the turd.
Man, I know exactly how he feels. I turned off anonymous commenting in my blog many months ago because of that. I wonder why people choose to be nasty and snarky and I wonder if they know just how small they are for doing so anonymously or under a pseudonym?

(Tip 'o the hat to Virginia O'Dine for drawing Pat's post today to my attention.)

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Thursday, February 26, 2009

How much do novelists make?

I'm lucky, and I know it; most of my colleagues aren't.

Gary Karbon discussed this last year in the blog Culture Feast:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Friday, February 20, 2009

How many dictionaries does it take to tell you how to spell "light bulb"?

The American Heritage English Dictionary says it's two words: "light bulb."

Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary says it's two words: "light bulb."

But Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary says it's one word: "lightbulb."

When a book is being copyedited, the copyeditor must specify which dictionary he or she is conforming to, unless (a) the publisher specifies one, or (b) the author specifies one. But regardless of who chooses it, all spellings in a given book are supposed to conform to a single dictionary's usage (and, yes, I know: Emerson was probably right when he said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds").

I always specify in my notes to the copyeditor the one I'm using, and when I was at Tor I got into the habit of specifying Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (first the 10th edition, now the 11th, known in the trade as Web 10 and Web 11 respectively), which was that publisher's preference, and I've carried that over to the WWW trilogy.

And so in Watch, the one and only reference to an incandescent lighting device is going to be spelled as a single word (even though it looks wrong to me). But, man, you'd think we'd have no ambiguity about such a common term at this late date!

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my! Trilogies everywhere you look!

My friend Melody Friedenthal asked me an intriguing question this morning:
At what point in your creative process did you decide that Wake et al., would be a trilogy? And was it the same point for your first trilogy (or 2nd) or was the first one more of the publisher's choice (as in "this is too long to publish as a single novel; let's break it up into a trilogy")?

Has your plotting evolved over time to be more aware of this sort of thing?
My answer is might be of interest to other writers, so I'm sharing it here:

I've sold twenty novels, and almost half of them -- nine books -- are parts of trilogies:

The Quintaglio Ascension: Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, Foreigner.

The Neanderthal Parallax: Hominids, Humans, Hybrids

WWW: Wake, Watch, and Wonder.

(As it happens, right now, I'm in the final few hours of polishing Watch before submitting it to my publishers; it's due on Monday.)

Each of these trilogies had a different genesis.

I wrote Far-Seer as a standalone -- no intention of doing a series (I'd even killed off the main character in the last chapter).

When it was done, my agent said let's try to sell a sequel, and we did (as with the first episode of Hill Street Blues, where Hill and Renko were gunned down in cold blood, my character's fatal wounds suddenly became merely serious injuries, although I, at least, had the luxury or rewriting the ending so it was apparent that he'd lived).

And then the publisher decided to ask me for another sequel after the first two were done. But after that, I wanted to write something very different (With humans! On Earth! In the near future!), and so I wrote The Terminal Experiment instead of continuing the series (which I think ended at a fine point, anyway).

For the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, it was actually my then-British publisher who said the only things selling in the UK were trilogies or on-going series, and so my next project should be a trilogy; otherwise, Hominids would have been a standalone. The original working title for the standalone book would, in fact, have been Neanderthal Parallax.)

After I turned in the third book, Hybrids, my editor, David G. Hartwell, said I could go on writing Neanderthal books as long as I wanted to -- but I wanted very much to do something different at that point. (For more on this, see my essay Commiting Trilogy: The Origins of "The Neanderthal Parallax".)

For the WWW trilogy, I actually sold it as a standalone (called Webmind) to Tor, and after struggling with it for over a year found I just couldn't do it as a single book; the idea was too big.

So I had a meeting with David G. Hartwell (my editor) and Tom Doherty (Tor's publisher) and told them that, and said I'd like to fulfill the contract instead with a new standalone, and wrote Rollback instead. I then re-envisioned Webmind as a trilogy (writing an outline for it that now bears very little resemblance to what I'm actually doing -- I really hate doing outlines).

If I had my druthers, I'd never write sequels or trilogies -- at least not one book after another; I much prefer writing standalones. But sometimes that's not what the market wants, and sometimes the idea can't be handled properly in a single book.

On the other hand, part of what I hate about trilogies is working back-to-back on the same project for years: I take a year or so to write a book, and spending three years in a row on any set of characters is enough.

But to my surprise I was recently asked by David Hartwell if I'd consider writing more Quintaglio books (and I might), and I would indeed like to write more about the Neanderthals at some point.

So, who knows about the future? (Answer, according to the Lawgiver in the last Planet of the Apes movie: "Perhaps only the dead." But I digress ...)

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Hey, this scheme really works! I just got $2,800!

No, it's not a scam -- it's the Canadian government's annual kickback to Canadian writers to compensate them for their lost royalties on copies of their books circulated in libraries.

Just about every Western country except the United States has such a scheme. I've got so many books, I easily get the maximum payout each year (which this year was $2,800), but authors with smaller oeuvres can still count on getting something.

If you're a Canadian author, and you haven't yet registered your books, now is the time. You've already missed out on payment for 2008, but registration for 2009 is on right now, and only goes until May 1.

Official details are here, a lengthy blog post by me from three years ago on this topic is here, and a now-dated article I wrote about this system -- called The Public Lending Right -- is here (the biggest change in the system between what I described in that 1992 article and how it works today is back then they surveyed ten randomly chosen libraries, and now they survey seven).

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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What should I write about?

An email I received today from a university student, wanting to write her first novel:
I have just read your advice on writing. I am struggling to come up with what to write about. I am sort of tired of writing about things relating to me. I feel like my head is a confused sea of ideas. Can you help me?
My reply:
For me, ideas to write about come from months and months of research. Pick something that thematically interests you -- the plight of the poor, race relations, the abortion issue, internationalism, whether it makes since to spend money going into space, the question of whether God exists -- and then just immerse yourself in reading nonfiction on that topic looking for ideas and points related to it that lend themselves to dramatic treatment.

Books don't spring full-blown from one's forehead; they are the results of months of research and planning before the first word is written.

Good luck!

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

It begins

We just lost one of the big-four US science fiction and fantasy magazines: Realms of Fantasy, edited by Shawna McCarthy, is closing down. SF Scope (which more and more these days is first with breaking news) has the scoop.

Meanwhile, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction recently switched from 11 issues a year to bimonthly -- but at least it has survived (and because the issues are fatter, only lost 10% of its total annual content). Analog and Asimov's resized, too, and that resulted in 10% reduction of content in each of their issues, as well.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Have I taught you nothing?

The opening of an email I just received:
Dear Editor:

I am seeking the publication of my young adult novel, TITLE, complete at 168,000 words.
My reply:
You'll never get anywhere like this. My guidelines say no YA, and nothing over 100,000 words -- I didn't read anything beyond that in your letter. I wish you luck, but, believe me, all editors just chuck emails that begin "Dear Editor" (our names aren't that hard to find), especially when they show a complete disregard for the guidelines of or an unfamiliarity with the publisher being approached.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

More on pros and cons: choosing panels

A few days ago, I was asked about how a pro might get the most out of attending a science-fiction convention. I gave my advice here, but another point just occurred to me.

I was just directed to the lengthy list of panel topics from which to choose those I wanted to be part of at Norwescon, a con I'll be attending in April 2009 in Seattle. In making my choices, I realized I was picking ones that made it possible for me to cite work of my own in relation to the discussion (not that that's all I'm going to do, but I do want audience members who feel I've had something witty and intelligent to contribute to be able to find a specifically related novel by me to enjoy). Here are some of my picks, and the novel of mine that is obviously connected to the topic to be discussed:

SCI15 Robots' Rights
The real reason we want AI is that we want perfect slaves. Whether they be butlers, bodyguards, intelligent sex toys or whatever, we want Jeeves-like competence with hard-wired loyalty and obedience and without the moral issues involved in enslaving people. But is there a paradox in that? Is it possible for machines (i.e., any combination of hardware and software) to be smart enough to do what we really want them to do without also being self-aware enough to have "human" rights?

(My novel Wake, which is being released just days before Norwescon begins.)

SCI04 The Science of Immortality
Some scientists think that the human lifespan is set at a point around 120 years. Others are coming up with creative ways to extend that point out to centuries, or even millennia. Which theories on extending life are the most popular, and which are the most provocative? What individuals and companies are pursuing the dream of eternal life? And when will you be able to get your own "longevity pill" or stroll on down to the clinic for an "immortality treatment"?

(My Hugo Award-nominated Rollback)

SCI18 Order in the (Alien?) Court!
What happens when you're accused of a crime on another planet? How have writers handled this in the past--from Heinlein's Have Spacesuit, will Travel to the Klingon court in The Undiscovered Country? Is it possible to write about methods of dispensing justice without depending on Terran history? Is the idea of justice itself an Earth concept?

(My Seiun Award-winning Illegal Alien)

SCI43 Backups: Eternal Life or Eternal Death?
Let's say we could record a person's mind and play it back into a new body, so that the new person couldn't be told from the old. Would that lead to immortality? Or would it lead to an endless series of deaths followed by the creation of a new person who just thinks he's the old one? Essentially, what does it mean to be oneself?

(My John W. Campbell Memorial Award-winning Mindscan)

WRI70 Alternate Prehistory
Do new discoveries in paleontology offer ideas for alternate history? Is this prehistory an untapped resource for alternate history?

(My Hugo Award-winning Hominids)

So, yes, as a pro, by all means pick topics that excite you, but if you are hoping that panel participation might actually sell a book or two, do choose panels that are relevant to your work.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Habitable Planets for Man

Holy crap! Just discovered that the Rand Corporation has made its landmark 1964 study Habitable Planets for Man by Stephen H. Dole available for free as PDF (scroll down to the link to the free download, of just click here). This is it, folks, the world-building bible; I paid a fortune years ago for a used hard copy ... Enjoy!

Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site
and WakeWatchWonder.com

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Rejected Rob

To my surprise, I'm mentioned in a column by Robert Fulford in today's National Post newspaper here in Canada. It's about writers who have had work rejected, and he cites me and Ursula K. LeGuin, among others:
Robert J. Sawyer, the highly successful Canadian science-fiction writer, recently noted that he has 142 rejection slips in his file. He usually puts a rejected story right back in the mail, on the same day, sending it off to another magazine. One story was rejected 18 times. On the 19th submission it found a good home and within days after publication was chosen for an anthology.
The story of mine he's referring to, by the way, is "Lost in the Mail," still one of my favourites. Fictionwise has it here on their RJS page, and I say a few words about it here, in a comment written at the time it was a finalist for the Aurora Award.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Friday, February 17, 2006

Public Lending Right

Things like the Book Lover's Ball (see the next entry) are one of the reasons I love being an author in Canada -- it's hard to imagine a genre-fiction writer being so well treated in the States.

Another thing I love is that my federal government sends me a kickback every February to compensate me for royalties lost through the circulation of my books through public libraries. (Most Western countries do this for their domestic authors, recognizing the principle that it's unfair to tax an author and then use those tax dollars to finance a system that deprives the author of income; the U.S. is a notable exception, in not offering such payments to authors). It's called "The Public Lending Right," and the cheque I got was for $2,873.50, which was the maximum any one author was allowed to receive this year.

The system is based on surveying the card catalogs of seven randomly selected mid-sized libraries. If a specific title of yours is in one of the libraries (regardless of how many copies that library has of that title), you get a "hit" worth (this year) $41.05; if you're in all seven libraries with that title, you get seven times that amount, which is $287.35. You get a half-hit for translated editions. In aggregate, my hits happened to be worth $5,529.46 -- but, as I said, there's a maximum, to keep the most-popular authors from taking all the money out of the pool.

If you're curious about the math of such things, have a look here (a PDF file showing my hit schedule for this year). I was pleased to see that the English editions of every single one of my novels are in every one of the libraries, and even oddball stuff like my small-press essay collection Relativity was in three of the seven libraries searched.

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