The Jason Stoddard Principle- are you part of the .oo1%?

10 04 2010

So I know that lot’s of people know Mr. Stoddard. He has a devoted group of fans out there (myself included). I discovered him in Futurismic when I used him for a story of the week (note: the story of the week has been on a several week vacation for good reasons which I will mention later). I contacted him with my stock congratulations on his selection, and we’ve been in communication ever since. So the other day I realized that my policy of not asking for interviews with writers was nearing the point of idiocy. This is a blog for writers, right? I think my reasoning was the original stated purpose for the blog: getting your work published for the first time. In that light my thinking went: ask the people with the power to publish you, i.e. the editors. Writers are by their nature wordy and much advice I’ve found in their blogs regarding getting published is self indulgent hooey. So I would question the editors directly, expound on conversations with them, and share concrete experience. As a formula for content it’s worked, but I sort of cut myself out of the equation. I control this thing. If I ask a writer for content and I don’t like it, I don’t have to put it out there. About a month ago an editor really blistered me in ways I won’t go into (ever), but it got me thinking that there really aren’t that many editors out there that will answer my mail so I had better find some writers or my interviews are going to end. So Jason Stoddard was my first choice. I was proven correct. His advice is sage and solid and takes angles that I have neglected. Enjoy first a repost from his blogging followed by an interview.

It’s easy to say, “I’m a workaholic,” and leave it at that. But if I was only a workaholic, I wouldn’t care what I was working on. I could lock myself in my business office, do 14-hour days, and never look back. And I was only interested in making money, I would put more time into my business—or find an entirely different line of work.

More importantly, can other writers benefit from knowing how I juggle two time-intensive careers? Maybe. And that’s what this post is about—trying to distill what I do into truly useful thoughts for working writers. Hopefully without reducing it to meaningless Just-Do-It-esque slogans, glib Tony Robbins posturing, or facile Gary V go-get-em-Joe stuff.

But first, a clarification. “Running a business,” isn’t the same as an 8 to 5 job. Nor is it the same as a I’m-A-Highly-Stressed-Exec-working-9-t0-9-and-Saturday-too. Running a small business is intensely time-consuming, and there’s nobody to fall back on if you screw up. On a good day, a very good day, I’ll wake up around 6AM, write for a couple of hours, and be in the office at 9, for about 6 hours of solid, pen-to-screen work. Then back home around 6, and then maybe 2-4 hours of additional writing. On a bad day, I’ll get up at 6AM, spend two hours doing a crash-out project that came in the night before, run into the office by 8:30, have 12 hours of real work that includes pen-on-screen, meetings, proposal writing, dealing with the surprise tax LA City stuffed us with, a short presentation, a run out to see how the photo shoot is going, discovering the coffee machine has died, overseeing the creative team, brainstorming with tech on new projects, talking to bizdev about ideas to pitch to clients, and doing another last-second project for a client who forgot the deadline was that day, then home exhausted at 9PM, and wondering why I should even bother writing at all. The bad days outnumber the good—and, as an added bonus, you never know when they’re going to come.

I’m currently coming off about 6 weeks of bad days. During which I wrote a script, and 20K words of a novel.

So, how do I keep writing, even on the bad days?

First and foremost: keep a list. Yes. I know. You’re screaming now. “How the hell does a list help me? I thought you said ‘no easy answers!’” But it works. When something is in front of you, in black and white, with a number in front of it, on a pad you carry around all the time, it’s totally different than a vague thought in the back of your head. It’s there staring at you. Daring you to look at it. To remember, amongst all the other stuff you gotta do, you also have to write. And write specifically: 2000 words on new novel. 1000 words on the current story. This is Jay Lake’s story-a-week technique (which I have also used), increased in specificity and put in concrete form. So. Make a list. One list. Carry it around with you. Include the writing you need to do. Cross it off when you do it. And then add a new writing item to the list.

Second: write right now. You’re not going to write better with a four-dollar coffee beverage sitting in front of you, listening to hypercaffeinated moms argue with their overentitled kids about who got the bigger croissant. Or at least I don’t. But even if you’re a writer who thrives on writing in the middle of coffeehouse buzz, consider this: How much writing could you get done if you weren’t heading out to the cafe? How many times have you been stiffed out of a seat once you got there, or found no open plugs? So. Sit down now. Right where you are. Get something on the page. Add some more words after that. Soon, you may find that you’re comfortably deep in the glow of writing. Then, later, if you need coffee (or hand-picked oolong tea, or whatever), reward yourself with a cup.

Third: perform ruthless elimination. Write this equation down. WWt = D – Ct – Ee. Or, in words, a Working Writer’s Time equals the Day, minus Career Time, minus Everything Else. Your job is to minimize the Everything Else. Spend two hours per night watching television? Call the service and cancel it. Seriously. Your life isn’t going to become any less rich for missing a few banal sitcoms. Spend hours per day playing Farmville or Mafia Wars on Facebook, or commenting on friends’ statuses? Delete your Facebook profile. If you can’t resist the call of social media, it’s better not to participate at all. Have a long commute where you can’t write? Strongly consider moving closer to work, or finding another job. Commutes can easily eat 2-3 hours per day, every day. That can be over a thousand hours a year. If you write a thousand words an hour, that’s a million words lost.

Fourth: build strength through stress. “But you don’t understand,” you say. “I’m so stressed at the end of the day, there’s no possible way I could write.” Ah. Yes. And I’ve been there, too—ready to eat charcoal briquettes and crap diamonds. Which is the perfect state to write your confrontation scene. Your battle scene. Or the scene with the interminable meeting. And, you know what? Once you’ve written that scene, you’re frequently calmed down to the point where you can do some, uh, more balanced writing for your work.

Fifth: do it anyway. “But I tried keeping a list, and it doesn’t work, and I can’t eliminate any of my time-wasters, and I’m just never in a state to write anything at all.” Cool. Sit down and do it anyway. It’s so amazingly easy to talk yourself out of writing, so amazingly easy to find distractions that keep you away from it, so amazingly easy to say, “Well hell, there ain’t no use in doing this.” And yeah. You could throw it all away. And become like hundreds of millions of other folks, mindlessly consuming creative from a screen, stuck in a job you hate with no chance of escape, complaining about your life but never changing it. Or you could be creating new ideas and casting them out into the world. So, make a list, sit down, eliminate distractions, use your pain, and do it anyway.

Jason Stoddard- Doomed to wonder America in search of a way to tame the monster within.

lifted from a post on facebook. for more of Mr. Stoddard’s advice follow his link under “Writers I’m Watching on the right hand sidebar.


And now my interview with Jason:

1: Most writers I know would not list “writer” as their day job, yet they consider themselves writers first. As a writer with some significant publishing success how do you describe yourself to strangers? Are you a writer, or are you a “writer*”?

Great question, and I’m afraid I have to admit it’s somewhat conditional. Among friends, I’ll refer to myself as a writer first. Meeting people informally, I’ll usually describe myself as a writer. And I tend to think of myself as a writer, because so much of what I do, both in the “day job” and in fiction, starts with ideas that have to be expressed compellingly, in words.

But, in business meetings, I’m much more guarded. I’ll bring up writing, but I’ll bracket it in such a way that it seems relevant to the people I’m talking to. For example, “We do a lot of forward-looking marketing stuff, and since I write science fiction professionally, we might have a better idea of what’s coming next—which translates to a competitive advantage for you.” Businesspeople are typically a bit skittish when it comes to things that don’t seem to have a concrete result. Which is very, very sad. But that’s a whole different discussion.

2: We’ve looked into your thoughts on time management from your earlier post, and certainly “I don’t have time” is the biggest excuse for people that want to write but don’t. In your experience, is making time something that can become a habit? In other words, does making time get easier?

Short answer: Yes and yes.

Longer answer: The most important phrase to remember is, “Write now.” There are so many free and easy distractions today that it takes exceptional force of will to carve out time. It’s so easy to pick up the iPhone the moment it rings, to answer email the moment your computer bonks, to check your Facebook profile and talk to friends, to Twitter the smart remark about what you’re doing at the moment, to go to Hulu and see what SF shows you missed, to stream something on Netflix, to fire up the PS3 and spend 70 hours on a game.

But the moment you realize that most of that stuff doesn’t need to be done NOW, the moment you sit down and write something you’re really proud of, it gets easier to hide the phone and turn off the automatic email download, to take a sabbatical from Facebook and the screen, and get even more work done. Then it becomes a habit.

3: My first sale was perhaps one of the most special moments of my life. What advice would you give unpublished writers regarding the pursuit of a first sale? (note: go where you want with this question. I’m being vague, but I want you to have extra latitude)

Ha. That’s easy. And very hard.

The easy part is this: selling is a numbers game. The more you submit, and the more markets you submit to, the more likely you are to make a sale. By my spreadsheet, I wrote about 40 stories and submitted about two hundred times before making my first sale.

The hard part is keeping up through the hail of rejections. Can you write another story, after the latest form letter with zero words of encouragement? Can you spend the time to read your markets, write something specifically for them—and do it again when it comes back rejected?

I look at it as a successive application of Sturgeon’s Law. Let’s say 10% of people who want to write actually write something. Maybe 10% of those stories will be good. Maybe 10% of the authors of those stories get up the courage to submit once. Of those, maybe 10% will go on after the first rejection. And maybe 10% will have the gumption to keep it up, rejection after rejection. We’re now down to 0.001% of everyone who wants to write.

If you want to be published, you need to be in that 0.001%. And that’s what really makes a writer: wanting it so bad you keep going.

4: The stock question. Why science fiction?

For me, it was never a question. I’ve never been interested in anything else. Literary or mainstream fiction was never compelling. Never read any of it that wasn’t on a course curriculum. Hell, I moved on to reading science fiction because I exhausted the science books in our local library as a kid, and hey, science fiction at least had “science” in the description. I’ve tried writing horror and fantasy, which I monumentally suck at. So science fiction it is.

5: Publications that stand out to you?

I wish there were more. Futurismic, certainly—its focus on near-future SF with significant societal change is right in the middle of one of my points of interest, and I like a lot of what they publish. Interzone, absolutely—they’re much more willing to take chances than any other market I can think of. I wish Sci Fiction was still around. I wish BoingBoing or i09 would do fiction.

6: …and your favorite science fiction/fantasy writer is?

Can I choose more than one? If you had to pin me down, I’d have to go back to the four that got me interested in SF again, after a long period where I thought the wind had gone out of the genre: Stephenson, Stross, Vinge, and Doctorow.

Here’s why: each one shocked me. Stephenson, for novels that actually went there. Way out there. Stross, for what felt like the first realistic portrayal of the near future in a long, long time (the Accelerando stories.) Vinge for his new takes on grand space operas, and his near futures. Doctorow for his focused, pointed, and very wacky look at some of the radical changes we’ll soon been looking at.

You’ll notice some similarities: big ideas, grand execution, wacked-out scenarios. I’m an ideas guy at heart, and when a writer can make me feel like my head just lifted off my shoulders, I’m gonna love them.

7: Your three (or four, or five) best axioms of advice for a new genre writer?

One: Write a lot. Yeah, everyone says this, but you can’t overstate the importance of writing, writing, and more writing. What finally broke down my barriers was committing to writing a story a week—and then doing it. When you have a backlog that big, you have to submit it somewhere. Everywhere. And that gets results.

Two: Experiment. I’ve written near future, far future, alternate history, space travel, fantasy, horror, positive, negative, and pretty much everything in-between. In the process, I’ve discovered some things I’m good at, and some things I’m amazingly bad at. My greatest recognition (finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award) was for a subgenre I’m not known for—alternate history. But, paradoxically, I’ve been terrible at selling alternate history, though I have a big backlog of it. If I’d concentrated only on alternate history, I might not have been as successful as I am now. So: experiment. Try new things. If someone (especially an editor) says, “What if?” or “I wonder if you can write . . .” you say, “Yes.” And try it. You might surprise yourself.

Three: Submit everywhere. Don’t let preconceived notions keep you from sending a story to a market. Any market. Pro. Semipro. Contests. Hell, I’ll even grab the third rail and say, you should also write for television, movies, and games if you have any chance at all to get something in front of them. Who knows? You may be very, very good at it.

Four: Be ruthless. I know a lot of writers with a story they’ve been polishing for years. None of them are published. If something isn’t working, write something else. If that doesn’t work, write something different. If it’s too long, cut it down. If you can’t get the authorial distance you need to do this, find a writing group. A good one. One with members who will be ruthless for you.

Five: Do it again. Remember that 0.001%.

8: What was your first sale?

My first sale was actually a first-place contest win in the Writers of the Future contest in 2003, for a novella entitled, “Kinship.” (Remember: submit everywhere.) It was a far-future, hard-SF piece that was set in the same universe as later stories that include True History and Softly Shining in the Forbidden Dark, as well as a never-to-be-published trunk novel. Shortly afterwards, I made sales to Strange Horizons, Interzone, and Sci Fiction.

9: I must admit that I am a fan of your fiction. You are also the first writer I’ve interviewed breaking my former moratorium on interviewing writers. All that said: why is my blog awesome? Lie if you must.

Your stories. One thing that’s missing in my workaholic life is true adventure. Starving in Spain, living in Cambridge—when I travel, it’s usually to speak in front of a crowd of people who only want to know if I can help them make more money. Life is awesome, and perhaps someday I’ll live beyond the boundaries of my imagination. For now, imagination is enough.

One thing you need, though: a bibliography. Now I want to read your stuff (especially after the next question.)

10: My last question. There are many sub-genres in sci-fi. One of the things I love about your work is that it simply does not conform to any single one of these. That being said, there are certainly advantages to writing short stories with the “rules” of the punk du jour in mind. How would you advise young writers to deal with the subs of science fiction? Is there room for more 19th century sci-fi?

I’m actually less than convinced there is a “punk du jour.” I think you can get almost any subgenre of science fiction published—if you write it with incredible vigor, in a fresh and interesting way. Consider that one of my earliest sales was considered a “thou shalt not write” story for new writers, a Mars story (Winning Mars, Interzone 196.) If you can make something compelling, even something that has been done many times before, I think there’s a market for it.

(And, personally, I’d love to read more 19th century SF—though I copped out and set Panacea in 1980, the roots of that alternate history started in 1873, and some day I’ll do a follow-on with Jung. I hope. If I can just do a couple more stories first . . .)

That be the Science of Fiction. Sorry for the hiatus. Dental invasion waits for no man. At this point I look like a vet of the NHL. The reason for no story of the week for, well, weeks is that I am deeply buried in research for a novel. It’s spring after all. I can tell you only two things about this novel. It involves no main characters under sixty and it is not science fiction. Apostate I.

Next up: A discussion of Fantasy concepts of history with an eye on the evolution of plants- or: Were Bilbo Baggins hostas genetically retarded?

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2 responses

11 04 2010
Jason Stoddard, Strange and Happy » Blog Archive » Interviews On SFSignal and The Science of Fiction

[…] From Andrew Porter, of The Science of Fiction, an interview on his blog. […]

14 04 2010
The Jason Stoddard Principle « Jim Steel's Cave of Doom

[…] The Jason Stoddard Principle Andrew C. Porter interviews Jason Stoddard. […]

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