1. How do you set goals and work under a deadline?
Set word count or time goals. Timers act as external deadlines to help focus.
2. Are writing contests worth it and which ones are good?
Writers of the Future. Maybe the Amazon breakout novel contest.
You should not have to pay to play.
See Writers Beware http://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/
3. How do you make clear that the weird aspects of your world are on purpose?
Hang a flag on it, with characters in world pointing at it.
4. How do you know when to quit or take a break from your writing?
When it's not fun and you don't have a deadline.
5. What is a quick rundown of word count and size limits for first-time authors in different genres?
Go to a convention and ask the editors. For short fiction, under 4000 words is good. Middle grade, 35-50K. YA, 70-80K. SF, 80-90K. Fantasy, 100-120K. Urban Fantasy, under 100K. Thriller, 60-70K.
[Mary] Season Eight, Episode 31.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Micro-Casting.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Mary] I'm totally working on the computer.
[Howard] And I'm not...
[Brandon] Micro-casting comes along and she checks out.
[Dan] Howard, you can say something if you want.
[Howard] I'm done.
[Brandon] We are at the Writing Excuses You're Out Of Excuses retreat. Thank you all for listening over there on the floor.
[Brandon] I'm going to start asking questions really quickly before we degenerate further. All right. How do you set goals and work under a deadline? Any tips for the listeners?
[Mary] I say you multitask by working on the computer while doing a podcast at the same time.
[Mary] It works so well.
[Brandon] She was actually working on something for the podcast, listeners. She was adding in the spreadsheet for producer Jordo. How do you guys... I set word count goals. I... Word count goals at my state in my career work far better than time goals because I'm going to spend the time. Now early in my career, time goals were more important to me than word count goals, because I didn't know my process as well, I couldn't guarantee I'd hit a certain word count, and I could say, "If I spend these four hours sitting here writing and not doing other things, then I can take a break and do something else."
[Mary] I do a mix of word count and time. I have an overall word count goal, but I use time goals to get to the word count goal because I'm a natural procrastinator, and setting a timer forces me to have an external deadline and keeps me from getting up out of the chair to go [back on task?].
[Howard] I have more of a page count goal, really. I break the comic down into rows of work. A Sunday comic is three rows of scripting, three rows of penciling, three rows of inking, and then dailies are each one row of that. So 9×3 is 27. A week of comics is 27 rows of work. Generally speaking, I want to complete at least 10 rows of work per day. Some days suck. I look at it and say, "You know what, I got six rows of work done. I have to call that good because they were really good rows. Other days, I knock it out of the park, and I have an 18 row day. I actually keep track of the rows. I make little indentations in my kneaded eraser that's stuck to the table. So I can see the progress, because each one of those little dots represents about 20 to 30 minutes of work. And that helps me. It's a progress bar, it's a loading bar. It helps.
[Brandon] Right. When I am working under deadline, I do write my word counts in a spreadsheet. I say I started at this word count of my book, and I got to this one, and I will gauge how well I'm doing.
[Dan] I started doing that on this last book. I'd never done it before. It was interesting. My goals that I do are all by scene when I'm writing. I try to complete a scene before lunch or a scene before I have to go do this other thing. Because I want to be able to complete the thought, so to speak.
[Mary] Is that why so many of them are so short?
[Dan] Some of them are very short because I'm hungry and it's time to go.
[Howard] I need to complete this scene before second breakfast.
[Dan] But what that... I mean, the flipside to that is that sometimes it's dinner time and my kids are all screaming and I haven't finished a scene, so I will go back and write for a few more hours again late at night because I want to close that thought.
[Brandon] Are writing contests worth it and which ones are good?
[Howard] Never done one.
[Mary] I submitted a couple of times to Writers of the Future. I know a lot of people have had really good success with that. It totally depends on the writing contest, and what you mean by worth it.
[Brandon] Right. The only one that is worth it monetarily that I know of is Writers of the Future. Now there is also that Amazon breakout novel contest. I'm... I've heard both good things and bad things about that contest. But let's give you a few guidelines. You really shouldn't be paying to enter the contest except maybe a very nominal fee. But most of the contests I know of are free to play. If they aren't, I look... I would look very askance at them, because they may just want you to be giving them money.
[Mary] Actually, if you go to the SFWA website, and again we'll put this link in the liner notes, on Writers Beware, they have a lot of contests to avoid.
[Howard] I would posit... I actually did submit to Writers of the Future once... And there have been a number of illustration contests that I have looked at and then decided not to participate in. I would argue that worth it includes the imposition of an artificial deadline for you. If you need a deadline in order to finish a story for a contest, please finish the story for the contest. I... Be careful. I mean, obviously the Writers Beware stuff is important. There are, in the cartooning and comic book world, there are lot of contests that really are just farming the community for free IP. You have to be careful.
[Brandon] In the writing community, there's a ton of those as well.
[Mary] I actually forgot... My first three sales were essentially a contest. Then I wrote... It was a magazine called The First Line. They... Quarterly... Every story in the magazine starts with the same first sentence. So it wasn't really a contest. It's just... It's a themed...
[Brandon] Here's my take on writing contests. If I kind of boil it down, I say, "Publishing in a magazine as a new writer is a contest in and of itself. Every submission you make to a major magazine is like a contest. So why are you submitting to a contest that pays a $50 prize when you could be sending to a paying market and win quote unquote several hundred dollars and having your publication credit in a major reputable magazine." That's going to go far further for you. The reason Writers of the Future tends to be regarded so highly is because they put a lot of money into it.
[Mary] And there's a workshop that goes with winning.
[Brandon] Yeah. So it is a good contest, and there are other good contests. But look and see. Who are the judges? Are the judges respected in their field? What are they paying out? Is it compared to just selling the story to a legitimate magazine that would pay more and then give you that credit? Ask yourself all these things. Start skeptical, would be my suggestion.
[Brandon] All right. How do you make it clear that the weird aspects of your world are on purpose, and not just bad science? I'm looking at you, Howard, because... Or Mary, you've done a lot of cool science fiction in this way?
[Mary] Well, I actually ran into that with Without a Summer, because I was using a natural event which was... 1816 is the year without a summer. So it was naturally freezing cold. My beta readers all thought it was being caused by magic. So the way I dealt with that was by basically hanging a flag on it. By having characters within the world question the weather and say, "Is it caused by the cold mongers?" And having people... Having reliable witnesses say, "No, of course it's not." So dealing with it in world was pretty much the only way I could handle it.
[Howard] Hang a lantern on it. The... I had the exact same problem with Random-Access Memorabilia. I talked about the gravitation on the surface, and the apparent mass of the object, and readers were emailing me saying, "You realize this doesn't work? That if you have something that dance, it's a black hole on the inside. I already did all the math on this and you've got it totally wrong." Bless their hearts. Five strips later, we've got characters who are saying, "If I'm reading these numbers right, something's really, really wrong. This doesn't sound natural." That was actually part of the puzzle. "We are standing on an artifact in which there may very well be a button that turns off the unnatural aspect of this, and we will all turn into jelly instantly. I no longer feel good about this mission." Yeah, you gotta hang a lantern on it.
[Mary] Yeah. You have to... The trick is also that you have to hang that lantern on at a point before the reader checks out of the story.
[Howard] My problem with updating every 24 hours.
[Dan] I would add that you can be too subtle about this, which I... Is a problem I ran into in the Partials series. I say I ran into this. I did this on purpose, because I was curious to see what happened. One aspect of my post-apocalyptic world is that the climate has changed, the weather has changed. I wanted to see if I could get away with not ever being overt about that. So in the course of the first two books, we cover about 18 months worth of time without ever getting told. There's never snow, we never have winter. But I never mentioned that, because to the characters, it's totally normal.
[Howard] It's been 20 years.
[Dan] What happened... What I've seen is that no one's picked that up except for the French translator who assumed it was wrong and wrote to me to ask. I realized that unless people are reading with that level of granularity, they were just totally missing it as a plot point.
[Brandon] Now, Dan, you also have our book of the week.
[Dan] I do have the book of the week. It is The Madman's Daughter by Megan Shepherd. This is not a book I expected to like because it is a Gothic romance. But it is also a fantastic Victorian science fiction horror novel. It is a retelling of the Island of Dr. Moreau from the point of view Moreau's teenage daughter who he left behind when he went into exile. She ends up on the island with him and discovers all this stuff. Absolutely breathless Gothic romance girly stuff, but combined with just gruesome Victorian horror and the science fiction of all the animals and everything. I loved every minute of this book. It's fantastic.
[Brandon] Excellent. Howard, how can they get it?
[Howard] audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Start a 30 day free trial membership, download a copy and... Awesome Gothic horror and a retelling of the Island of Dr. Moreau.
[Brandon] All right. Next question. How do you know when to quit or take a break from your writing?
[Mary] When it's not fun.
[Mary] Wait. When it's not fun and you don't have a deadline.
[Brandon] Okay, okay.
[Mary] I say that because I just had to write a thing... And I'm not going to identify to closely, but I just had to write anything that I had sold without having written yet, and had no enthusiasm for. So I had to craft my way through. It's just like all right, here are all the tools. So when it's not fun and you don't have a deadline.
[Brandon] You know the fun... Funny thing about that is, just as an aside, I have found the readers are not very good at telling when you are passionate and where you are crafting your way through it. In fact, they will get that mixed up most of the time. Because once it's gone through the revision process and you've worked on it, you will have worked in the passion and... Anyway, it's actually very interesting that the further I go as a writer, people can't tell which are the bad chapters in which are the good chapters when I originally wrote them.
[Howard] Yeah, that's what my colorist is for.
[Brandon] Dan, you're smirking.
[Dan] That's because it's funny.
[Dan] I don't have anything to add.
[Brandon] Oh, okay. I'm glad you're here.
[Dan] Yeah. Sorry.
[Howard] I'm just happy to be here.
[Brandon] We'll ask you the next one first.
[Brandon] The next question is they would like a quick rundown of word count and size limits for first-time authors in different genres if such a thing exists.
[Dan] They're changing all the time is the problem. When Brandon and I first started going to cons and trying to get published, a first-time author people would tell us do not go over 100,000.
[Brandon] Right. This was epic fantasy, which we were both writing at the time.
[Dan] We were both trying to do epic fantasy at the time. A few years ago, that had gone up to 120 is what I kept hearing from editors. Don't pitch me anything over 120.
[Brandon] Elantris was 250 and I sold it and it was my first book.
[Mary] I think the way to find this out is when you're at conventions, just try to get to a convention...
[Brandon] Ask the editors.
[Mary] Ask the editors, "What length are you looking for?" They'll try to get away with, "Well, you know, the length of the story..." "No, seriously, what length does your line tend to run?"
[Brandon] Let's talk about why this is, though. There are some legit reasons for this that are, granted, becoming less and less as e-books become a bigger part of the market. But a book that is longer costs more for a lot of different reasons. It is...
[Howard] Editing is...
[Brandon] Actually, the editing is the smallest part of it. It is the editing, but the editing is important, it's the things I didn't realize. For instance, a big book like the ones I write do not fit... You can't fit as many on a shelf. So the bookstores will take fewer copies of these because it's less profitable for the bookstore. That's actually the biggest drawback for the new writer. There's also the fact that new readers... Readers picking up an author are much more likely to pick up a short book than a long book by somebody they don't recognize. Even though some of us in epic fantasy love long books and we look for them, the general reader would rather have the short book. And be... That's where these word limits come from, particularly in children's fiction. Where they'll say keep your middle grade novel between 35 and 50,000 words, particularly as a new writer. You can point at Harry Potter and say, "Look, this was bigger." You can point at lots of things. Sure, great things that are bigger will still sell, and you can write something great that's bigger. But if you're asking this question, you're generally curious about it, and these are the reasons. If you want to get that big... That larger audience, you don't want to scare kids off.
[Howard] I remember in Montréal when we interviewed Moshe for the podcast, he said when I look at a manuscript, one of his criteria is how much work do I think this is going to take to fix. Because every manuscript is going to take work to fix. As a first-time author, you are an unknown quantity. If they look at the manuscript and say, "Oh, this is about ready." Well, that's awesome. But if they look at the average manuscript, "Well, this manuscript is going to need some work. It's 180,000 words long and I don't know this authors. I don't know how long they took to write this. I don't know what the turnaround's going to be like. The schedule is completely up in the air." It's a... They're taking a real risk.
[Brandon] Right. No, that's very astute.
[Mary] The other thing... The other aspect of the length in break-in writers is of course the short fiction. When I was starting, because print was the thing, I found that 4000 word stories were pretty darn easy to sell. Comparatively speaking. That's because an editor taking a chance on an unknown author, I'm not... With a magazine, the name... They're looking for... They're looking for an Asimov, but someone who's alive. They're looking for a name to go on the cover, because that's what gets people to pick up the magazine. So the unknown person is someone that they're kind of investing in to hopefully have them be a name later. But they want something that will fill in the spaces between the name.
[Dan] It's also a function of, speaking of print magazines, of how much space they have. They have room for one novella and five short stories. You're going to be able to sell a short story more easily.
[Mary] That... Although the physical limitations have gone away with online magazines, the budgetary limitations have not gone away. So the budget... You still have that we have the budget for this many words. As a new writer, if you can stay short, it'll serve you. The other thing that I will say is that when you are writing short fiction, the ones that I have reprinted the most are the ones that are under 4000 words.
[Brandon] So a quick rundown of this, I mean, write the story you want to write, but 4000 words on short stories. Trying to sell a novella to a magazine as an unknown name is really hard because the big names like to write novellas and they're going to take those spots and those spots are going to be on the cover. For middle grade, I've heard 35,000 be a really solid number, and even 50,000... I wrote a middle grade at 55,000, they actually told me that was too long. YA... The doors have been blasted off on YA, but I still try and keep your story around 70 and 80,000. Science fiction, 80 to 90. Epic fantasy, or any type of fantasy, 120. Urban fantasy, underneath that. But I sold a 250 as a new author. You can do it, but keeping these word counts in mind and keeping the idea of generally shorter is going to serve you better is a good way to go.
[Dan] Another genre that you didn't mention is thriller.
[Dan] Which is down in the YA range. These tend to be very short.
[Brandon] Yeah. In fact, a lot of the really solid thrillers by new writers are like 60,000 words or 70. They're tiny.
[Dan] Yeah. I mean, go check out a James Patterson novel. Those are around 50 or 60,000 words.
[Howard] At risk of over generalizing, if you are a new author submitting, you may also be a new writer. If you have one novel under your belt and it's your 250,000 word magnum opus, that's going to be a tough sell. I think you're better off writing some 70,000, 80,000, 100,000 words things, get some more things finished, so that you have more to sell.
[Brandon] I'm going to... I'm going to [point out] though, I didn't write a single one under 200,000 words. Never did. The ones that I tried were bad. I am naturally a longer length writer.
[Mary] Yeah, I was going to say that. Also the... Whatever you've got that's finished, you should be submitting it, you should not...
[Howard] Yes. Yes, yes.
[Brandon] Even if they are telling you... We do need to end. We're way over length.
[Brandon] Does anyone have a writing prompt that's occurred to them?
[Brandon] Okay, I've got one.
[Howard] I was actually... Oh, go ahead.
[Brandon] I've got one. I actually think the deadline thing would be a nice thing to try. If you have never done it, I'd like you to try keeping track of your word count for a day in a spreadsheet and try to watch hourly how much you're writing for an hour. Set yourself a goal that's a stretch for your next writing session. See what you do naturally, and then try and up it and see what that does. All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.