After the convention, a prospective writer’s report

Yours truly went to Boston’s four-day sci-fi/fantasy convention, Arisia, this weekend. I did it partly as a fan, but mostly as a prospective writer (i.e., someone who wants to actually make some money and get some recognition for writing). My overall take? Easy to do, hard to do well.

Arisia is a convention that’s held every year in Boston. About 3000 people go to it, and they go for a lot of reasons. There are the readers, who want to talk about their favorite stories and changes in the genres. There are the media fans, which this year included a lot of Doctor Who fans celebrating that show’s 50th anniversary. There are the gamers, who occupy several rooms ’round the clock. There are the costume lovers, who dress up for the whole con, some with truly spectacular outfits. I swear I saw Tasha Yar’s clone. And there are the writers, professional, part-time, aspiring, and would-be. These categories overlap a great deal.

For someone who’s read sci-fi/fantasy since childhood, I’ve gone to very few conventions, as in three, including this one. One of the others was another Arisia a few years ago. Then I went as a reading fan. This time I went as an aspiring writer. I wanted to go to panels to meet successful writers, hear their tips, maybe chat with them, and if I was really lucky, spend some time with a publisher, show them my heart (or manuscript), and have them fall in love with it and make me a millionaire.

The good news is that I didn’t score a million-dollar advance, so you’ll have my blog to read for a while longer. The other good news is that it’s really easy to get published (though not by a major publishing house). The mixed news is that the major publishers in the field apparently are as confused as everyone else about where the business is going. And the final truth is that if you want fame and/or money, you’re going to have to work hard. Or be such a charismatic figure that people will flock to you and read whatever you write and do whatever you say. You may be such a figure; I am emphatically not.

The key problem is reaching a wide audience, otherwise known as distribution and marketing. Self-publication of an e-book through the major services short-cuts the distribution problem, at the cost of excluding you from bricks-and-mortar bookstores, which still have quite a following, if only because people will see your book there. And that still leaves you with marketing to be done all by yourself, and the stigma (and yes, it is still a stigma) of being self-published.

Now the writers on the panels I attended were predominantly published through small presses, some though the majors, and a few were only self-published. (Yes, that is still a level of success and you should not belittle it; most would-be writers even today never really get that far.) What was most interesting was their view that publishers do a better job at distribution than at marketing, and that unless you are one of the top writers for a publisher, you should be prepared to shoulder the burden of most of the marketing yourself.

If you have your heart set on signing with a major publisher, having an agent still seems to be all but a necessity. It’s not just getting your foot in the door, it’s also dealing with the complexities of contracts. There was a dearth of inside information on getting an agent at the panels I attended.

But let’s say you’re willing to take things gradually: do some writing, do some marketing, gradually get more sophisticated and successful at both, and then land a contract with a major publisher (if they’re still around then). My impression is that most writers on the panels I attended would recommend such a course. The issue is that almost anyone can self-publish an e-book, if they want to, so self-publication is no guarantee of quality. The writer’s problem is building up a reputation for quality, expanding the base of readers, and then using those two things to attract a deal from publishers. In short, the would-be successful writer has to take on the roles of writer, lawyer, distribution strategist, technologist (if going the e-book route), marketer, and financier, or have other people help out on these roles (at a price).

None of this was entirely new to me. What made Arisia valuable was hearing a lot of writers say it, support it with their experiences, and lay it out in detail. Being a professional writer can easily become a full-time job, and we’re not talking about spending 8 hours a day writing, either. This explains why so many would-be writers don’t publish, or only publish a few e-books these days. It also explains the tension in the lives of most writers, who depend on a day job for most of their income, and so find they have little time to write, time that’s further reduced by having to manage the other aspects of being a writer as well.

I’m not sure if the writers I saw were representative of the field, but the two sub-genres they discussed the most were epic fantasy and “steampunk” (which seems to have expanded beyond its original lack of definition to include a lot of sci-fi/fantasy with advanced technology set in the past), with “urban fantasy” (which is sometimes coded language for black/Hispanic fiction) coming in third. Everyone wanted to badmouth vampire fiction in the aftermath of Twilight, but no one went so far as to say the sub-genre was dead.

There were quite a few panels on improving your writing, with all of the panelists in agreement that you don’t want to submit crap (shoddily edited work) to a publisher. If you’re not sure about your writing skills, these are worthwhile attending. And while I think I know my strengths and weaknesses, they did mention a problem I’ve noticed in my writing, gave it a name, and suggested a solution. The one major recommendation, above all others: find someone to serve as a reliable editor of your work. That person should note anything in your text, whether grammar, word choice, plot holes, inconsistent characters, and anything else that would make a reader and publisher want to stop reading your work.

Overall, a good convention is a decent resource for the would-be writer, in that she or he can learn from the experience and advice in detail from several people who have already made it so far. I’ve got a lot more information than I’ve covered here that I need to review and digest.

Oh, and the t-shirt with the dragon-headed walking stick? A case of not thinking it through. At a con where there are hundreds of people walking around in costumes, a t-shirt with a unique design is still almost invisible. Glad I had it done up and will use it again somewhere else. But at the con, I would have attracted more attention by wearing a codpiece.

This would have looked normal at Arisia

This would have looked normal at Arisia

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About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
This entry was posted in Writing fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to After the convention, a prospective writer’s report

  1. Russell says:

    Excellent post, Brian — I feel like I got most of the benefit of going to Arisia as an Aspiring, without the trouble of wearing a codpiece.
    Given what you’ve learned, do you think you’ll be doing anything different from now on, esp as you’re done with DLS?
    BTW, I agree on the crucial role of good editing. Good Lord, be an Aspiring is hard work. No matter what project you take on next, I’ll consider it a great privilege to have your thoughts on my writing whenever you have time to comment. I wish I could offer you more than a promise to do the same in return!

    • Brian Bixby says:

      There is more, Russell. I’ll try to cover some of it in subsequent posts (“My life as aspiring author, part XLIV”). I’m still assimilating the information and have to check out more of it before deciding how things will change.
      Notwithstanding the above, I was working on the successor to DLS for this blog, at least the current likely candidate, in spare moments during the con Sunday.

      One of the best editors? Put it in a drawer for a week, a month, a year, and then read it over again yourself. If you can’t find a reliable editor any other way, time and practice will teach you something, if anything can. One reason I was working on the likely successor is that it’s a prequel to a story I’ll call PDS, which I wrote some months ago and which I now know is greatly in need of revision.

      • Russell says:

        Look forward to part XLIV, then.
        I hope that aging a draft before airing it is not your new advice based on DLS, and your reading of E&A 🙂
        In seriousness, the drawer method has saved me, in the past, from submitting some embarrassing stuff. However, after writing six chapters of E&A and feeling it held up well, I decided it was time for me to try a new approach.
        I know there will be revisions when I’m done, but I also believe that DLS, E&A, Neve and FF are as good as work folks pay to read. As a result, I hope we won’t always be voices crying in the e-wilderness.

        • Brian Bixby says:

          No, no, I’m not targeting your E&A or CP’s two stories with that observation, if only because you’re both better stylists than I am. 🙂

          Partly encouraged by CP’s comments, I’ve been thinking of taking a week (or two) off between DLS and its successor story to do a retrospective on writing DLS: how and why it’s the way it is, what I think worked, what didn’t work all that well. That might be a good place to have a more extended discussion on “your inner editor.”

          Speaking of which, you mention you’ve shifted gears after chapter 6. Why not write a post about it?

          • Russell says:

            I know you weren’t, and I certainly wouldn’t claim any edge over your prose, though we all have quite different styles.

            I was mainly curious if what you’ve learned has casued you to reconsider the serial format, but I agree with yu and CP that more of your writing about writing wudl be welcome, so I’ ll wait for your posts on that subject.

            Yes, I’d love to post on any number of subjects, but right now, I can’t do what needs doing in a day and still make time for E&A without sleeping less, and I don’t think that would be wise. Maybe on my hiatus between E&A and my next project. Thanks for your encouragement!

            • Brian Bixby says:

              Oh, serial format! OK, must not have had enough caffeine this morning. The brief answer is “yes, but no,” in that my thinking about its advantages and disadvantages has become more complex. I will write at length on this in February, but for now the biggest advantage has been self-discipline, the biggest disadvantage struggling with a work in progress in public.

  2. S. L. says:

    Great post. Glad to hear that the field doesn’t totally, er, write off self-published authors.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Ah, S.L., your comment got routed to my spam folder. I’m glad I actually look at my spam folder, else I would have missed your clever play on words.

      I bought two books while at the con. One was a novel from a small press, written by someone whose comic books I used to read. The other was a self-published e-book I ordered while I was home, based on the author’s description at a panel. So, trying to do my part, as well.

  3. crimsonprose says:

    Good to see you’ve returned from the convention loaded with good advice and, more importantly, the impetus to stay with it, press on, and not be deterred by what can seem a grim outlook for the would-be (aspiring) writer.

    I read the blogs on WP, and am impressed by the professional standard of writing (I particularly include you and Russell’s A&E). Yet I pick up a book, published by the ‘giants’ and wail at the diminishing standards there displayed, especially beyond page 30! It’s true that self-published still carries the stigma of vanity press. And that’s not helped when too many self-pubished books would greatly benefit from passing beneath the eyes of an editor.

    My advice, for what it’s worth, is to keep at it.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      One of the more amusing and yet disheartening points brought up at Arisia was that publishers stop editing writers after a few successful books. The rationale is that the cost of editing and delaying the book reaching the market is so high compared to any possible improvement in sales that it is not worthwhile. Everyone’s favorite example? The later Harry Potter novels. (I have to admit to being one of the four people left on the Planet Earth who have read none of them, and the other three people are all monoglot speakers living in Papua New Guinea.)

      • crimsonprose says:

        Five people. Me neither.

        • Russell says:

          Number six here. Not to be disingenuous, I did sample a few chapters of first novel way back to see what the fuss was about. Rowling is a better writer than others whose works are currently going gangbusters, but there are few original ideas in the HP series — it’s standard fantasy stuff with some clever twists (I’m basing this on what I’ve seen of the movies, mind you). I think the only thing actually invented might be Quidditch? This is all to say that what kept people on the hook (aside from those riding the juggernaut of a bandwagon) were some seriously dynamic plots and characters people really came to care about. I think there’s considerable latitude, even in popular fiction, for what can be done with plot, setting, style — all for naught without characters people grow to love, or hate, just not put down.

          • Brian Bixby says:

            And that is what many panelists emphasized at Arisia: you have to develop and write about good characters. Oddly enough, very few people talked about plot development; even world-building got more attention.

            • Russell says:

              Interesting, I suppose the pendulum is always swinging between character and plot, and once there are worlds populated with fascinating characters who have nothing to do but tweet, the focus will come back to action. I’m kidding. Maybe. I do think if you have good characters, they will naturally get up to interesting things, but a nifty plot alone will not hold interest past short story.

              • crimsonprose says:

                It is said we remember the characters long after we’ve forgotten the plot. I’m not sure that is entirely true. Remembering books I read in my ‘long ago years’ it is actually the plots I remember clearest, and maybe the quirkier parts of a character or two. Though that may be because I was reading supposedly shallow sci-fi.

                Of the HP books, my daughter followed the series through and says the appeal was, to some degree, in the way that the characters matured apace with the readers.

  4. Judy says:

    I read this post on my iPhone of all things and only wanted to weigh in on the issue of self pub. As you know publishing and print in general is changing rapidly. I design nature cards and have left traditional printing where you have to do 1,000s of the same picture. Now I am trying a more Print on Demand method..so I am like an indie writer only indie cards. My sister went through the process of getting appointments and pitching her manuscript/s at the Romance Writers conventions…she’s in the Romantic Paranormal category. Pitching to agents and publishers, sending out synopsis and chapters etc. Ultimately went the self pub route. Traditional publishers naturally want only things they feel they can make money on so will reject many things that are economically viable. Some self pub writers have been subsequently pursued by traditional publishing. I think if you can traditional publishing might be the way. But, do not let any thoughts of negative stigma stop you from getting your stories out. That is the beauty of this new world. Is the downside the ability of bad writing to be put out or good writing put out prematurely..yes absolutely. But, I can tell you as a reader I’d rather risk it and have the chance to discover something wonderful or delightfully quirky that other wise might not have seen the light of day. You are most assuredly a story teller in a most delightful way and so pursue whatever avenue works. Self pub does require a bit of learning…formatting the manuscript itself, cover design, hooking up with Smashwords and thereby B & N and Amazon etc. But, its very doable. If you do, you’ve got at least one presold customer here!!

    PS: Reading Dragonlady, I could see you as YA even. I suppose you have to decide where you belong.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Thanks for the account of your personal experiences and those of your sister, too. It is a strange and wonderful world out there.

      Where I fit myself remains to be seen. I expect to be spending a lot of time in the coming month trying to figure that out. I have two other book-length stories sitting on my laptop that have seen limited circulation that I need to revise before trying to publish. Unless I have a change of mind, the story that will start up after “Dragon Lady” will be a prequel to one of them (but will stand on its own, even so). I thank you for your kind and appreciate words.

      FYI, the book I just reviewed in my newest blog post, “Timepiece,” is a self-published e-book.

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