Announcement: Clarion West Write-a-Thon

This announcement comes from Cassie Alexander, author of the recently-released Nightshifted, who is helping run the Clarion West Write-a-Thon.

Sign up now for Clarion West’s ninth annual Write-a-thon!

The ninth annual Clarion West Write-a-thon is open for participant sign-up now through June 16. Every summer since 2004, famous authors and emerging ones have announced their six-week writing goals on individual web pages hosted by Clarion West. People publicly state what they’d like to do for their own writing over the six weeks that the workshop runs — either word count, pages written, chapters edited, anything writing related is perfect. And then Clarion West gets donations from their supporters when those goals are met.

Michael Swanwick and several others have offered Tuckerized story appearances to their supporting donors, and award-winners Vonda N. McIntyre, Rachel Swirsky, and Nisi Shawl are already signed up. The goal is to have at least 200 participating writers by June 16; four supporters have offered to give Clarion West $2000 if that happens.

More details on how the Write-a-thon works and how you can take part are available at

Clarion West is a 501 c 3 nonprofit organization which presents writing workshops for those preparing for careers as professional writers in the fantastic genres.

If you were looking at a way to encourage yourself to write this summer — for a good cause, no less! — the Write-a-thon is it.

The Highs and the Lows of Becoming an Author

Cassie Alexander is an active registered nurse. Nightshifted is her debut novel, coming out through St. Martin’s Press on May 22, 2012.

I was trying to think of the best way to present this piece without it being frontloaded (or backloaded!) with pain and sorrow. I’ve decided that alternating is best. Presented for your pleasure, or sympathetic pain, here’s the highlight reel of the best decisions and worst decisions I’ve ever made in my 15 year writing career.

Best: Getting an agent

I know, because I’m out there on the internets, that there’s a school of thought that says that now that Amazon’s our new publishing overlord, agents are a thing of the past.

That’s simply not true.

Let me tell you some of the fabulous things my agent, Michelle Brower, and her agency, Folio Lit, have done for me: sold a trilogy at auction, getting me three times as much money for it as was originally offered, obtaining sales of foreign rights to Germany and France. Reading my contract and making sure it was favorable to me, and having the agency lawyer red-pen it to make it even moreso. (Not that Macmillan was out to get me, but generic boilerplate is not always great.)

Those are things I simply couldn’t have done on my own. No way, no how.

And beyond that, she’s read all of my books, sometimes before my editor has, and offered really insightful advice that I was happy to take. She’s helped me come up with a sales proposal for another series, based on her knowledge of the market with her insider ability to see trends, an opportunity I would never have had on my lonely-own.

I’m always bemused when people say they can go it alone. Technically, you can, and yes, a bad agent is worse than no agent, but there’s no way I would have had the opportunities for success that she’s given me without her.

Worst: Getting a Book Doctor

In my weak defense, this was Back In The Day. But I wish someone had told me this sooner, so here, learn from my pain.

Once Upon a Time there was a Well Known Author who had a Spectacular Agent and Purported Ins at a Publishing House. He was also a book doctor, for the small small price of a thousand dollars.

I scrimped and saved until I’d earned that money — I think I had a ten buck an hour job at the time — and sent it and my manuscript (one before Nightshifted) off to him with the hopes that he’d see my intrinsic genius, give me amazing advice, and herald me to his agent and the publishing house he was associated with. It would finally be my in.

Yes, I was naive. And hopeful/desperate. You know, how new writers sometimes are.

Obviously, none of those things happened. Instead, he had some personal drama just after I paid him… and so he took my money and never responded to me. Ever.

I was understanding (naïve! Hopeful! Desperate!) about his personal drama, and I waited. And waited. And waited. After a year when it was clear I wasn’t going to learn the secret handshake from him, I demanded my money back. It took another 6 months to get. When I was eventually repaid he overpaid me, which felt like some sort of hush money to be quiet about his lack of services rendered to me. But, yeah. Overall, a bleak period in my nascent career. (For the record, he no longer offers those services, or I’d out him in a heartbeat.)

I learned then what I ought to have already known, that there’s no shortcuts in this career. Which leads me to my next best decision…

Best: Not Giving Up

I had so many opportunities to give up along the way. The first World Fantasy I went to was in 98, and I’d already written a book by then. Nightshifted (the one that sold) was my tenth book. I’ve had at least 500 rejections for short fiction, probably more, and over 150 agent rejections total over my entire career. 56 of those were for Nightshifted — the one that sold.

I had friends not get what I was doing, relatives and ex-husbands think I was crazy. I stopped telling people I was a writer because after enough times sharing it, I knew the decision tree subsequent conversation would follow — they’d want to know where I was published, and I wasn’t, and then there’d be an awkward silence I’d try to fill by explaining that that wasn’t all that unusual. (Somehow you can be an artist without having gallery shows, and you can be a musician even without a band, but if you say you’re a writer without a book in your hands, hmmph.)

If I’d ever said, “You know, maybe this writing thing isn’t working out for me,” there wouldn’t have been all that many people who’d have tried to stop me. Luckily for me, I was too stubborn to quit.

Worst: The Times I Did Quit

Or, I gave up too soon.

It wasn’t until really late on in my career I realized how often people — even pros! — had to keep submitting stories. I was giving up on submitting stories way too soon. I’d get four or five rejections from professional magazines and then trunk the story, and write a new one. Always writing new stuff was great experience, yes, but I should have been better about sending out the old.

Same for novels. Mind you, a large proportion of this was pre-internet making all the agent searches easy, but… I’d send a book out to 5-10 agents, they’d say no, and then I’d send it into the Tor slushpile to get lost. I didn’t persevere. I didn’t run things into the ground. I’m not sure it would have changed my career much, as Nightshifted is clearly the best thing I’d written up until that time, but it would have been good for me to keep trying.

Best: Going to Conventions

Writing is such a lonely art, and so few people understand why you’re compelled to do it. Going to conventions and meeting other people who take writing seriously gives you the freedom to be among their number, permission to take yourself seriously. That’s always been something that I’ve battled, and am battling still with an increasing sense of irony. Going to conventions really helped me to feel like a Real Writer. Being around people who do what you do and get what you do and why you do it is energizing. I’d come home from a World Fantasy or Worldcon high on being a writer for weeks at a time. It gave me the self esteem about being a writer that I wasn’t able to give myself internally (having known that I’d received 5 rejections that week) or acquire through external measures, such as getting acceptance letters.

At conventions when I was with writers I felt like a writer and it was good for me.

Worst: Flirting at Conventions

In the Venn Diagram of my life, there was a brief period where I was single and attending conventions. The overlapping zone of time was not pretty.

I wrote a lot of SF early on. It’s hard enough to be taken seriously as a woman who writes SF, muchless one who flirts. I don’t think this is fair or anything, but it is what it is, and the brief window of time when you’re at a writing convention is not the place where you’ll manage to overturn the social hierarchy. It’s a shame, because it’s completely a double standard, in that guys can flirt and no one thinks less of them…but be a girl that does it, and suddenly you’re not the SF writer who also sometimes flirts, you’re just a flirty girl. Or, worse yet, a girl trying to flirt to get ahead. Which for some people, negates whatever career progress you’ve made — “no wonder they published your story, you showed clevage.” Gah.

Some people do manage to use their convention time as a pansexual smorgasbord of opportunities. I wasn’t one of the people who could do that well, and in retrospect, I wish I’d never tried. (Except for that one time when it worked out reallllly well. He knows who he is.)

Best: Making Writing Friends

The end result of all the conventions I went to, and online message boards and mailing lists I hung out on, was making writing friends. People I could email on bad days, send stories to, chat ideas out with, get support from when the rejections came in, and celebrate the few successes. While my real life friends are supportive, they don’t bone-deep get it the way my writer friends do.

Conventions and writing groups led me to Daniel, who is my alpha reader for all of my books now, who sees them all when they’re still in progress. (And who yells at me when I’m not writing them fast enough.) He’s a writer, but I met him through his wife who was in a writing group with me at the time. We clicked, and I’m very very very pleased to get to have his input in on all of my books now. He’s really made my writing shine.

And you’ll find in your career that no matter where everyone started, that the people in your social cohort rise together. I think that’s a direct relationship to the critiques, support, and understanding we offer one another. Together, we become our own liferafts and we rise with the tide.

Worse: Being Jealous of Friend’s Careers

Because my heart is not a stoic island. The more awesome people you know, the higher the chance that one of them will be zomg-amazing-bestselling-award-winning awesome. And while I’m always 99.99% happy for their success, especially when as a friend I’ve had the closest seat to their efforts, that .01% of jealousy can be a very bitter draught.

It’s not something I’m proud of. It isn’t that I don’t think they deserve their success, it’s just that I wish/ed that I could be as successful too. Fifteen years with not much to show for it wears a person down. Mostly, I try to remind myself that they’re awesome and deserving, and that eventually my time will come. Hopefully, I’m right.

And because I want to end on a high note, the final best:

Best: Having My Own Book Come Out

Nightshifted sold at the end of 2010. It came out in Germany earlier this year, which has been awesome — but I can’t wait until it finally comes out in the US. That’s going to be a best for sure, the second that that I can finally see it in a bookstore!

Shutting Down, In a Good Way

Cassie Alexander is an active registered nurse. Nightshifted is her debut novel, coming out through St. Martin’s Press on May 22, 2012.

Protect your time. Protect your time. Protect your time. In fact, protect it so much, that if you already know what I’m going to say here, stop reading, and get back to writing.

The most valuable thing you have as a writer just starting off is time. Time, and taking yourself seriously. I was going to break the serious thing out into another post, but it really fits here, because you won’t make the time for yourself until you do take your writing seriously.
I know how easy it is to let real life waylay your writing time. But if your writing never wins out, you’ll never get anywhere. Ever.

There was a point when I was finishing up Moonshifted, where I shut out the whole world and did nothing but go to work and write. I made one date night a week with my husband…everything else went into the book. A little bit ago, mid-July, post turning the book in, I said to my husband, “I worry our group of friends isn’t hanging out as often as they used to.” And he looked at me like I was insane and said, “No, you’ve just been living in a cave.”

Let me say up front that the type of career I want is fast paced and commercial. If you’re writing a personal memoir or a historical that requires a PHD, etc, my ways are probably not for you. But now that I might be under two deadlines here very soon, and I have to shut down again, very soon, I thought I might talk for a bit about what that means, to me.

Again, this is for me. This may not be for you. Your mileage may vary.

What to shut out?

The big ones are job, family, friends, and society.

My job’s part time. Do you think I planned it that way to give me the best possible chance at a writing career? Damn skippy. My primary reason for becoming a nurse was to have a part time career that paid well. If you burn to be a writer and you’re young enough to switch from a grueling career that takes all your creativity out of you to something with more flexibility — the free time from which you will use wisely, not just to dick around, because you have made Goals (see last post) — do so. Or get a job that lets you leave work at work. Sooner the better.

I don’t have kids. Although I like kids, I’ve never been maternal, and despite my in-laws complaining about it, I’m OK with that. I’m very lucky that I get to hang out with kids at work sometimes, and I have an adorable niece to fill in those spots. Not that there aren’t writers who are also successful mothers (before it gets all J. K. Rowling up in here) — but being a mom is hard. It means sublimating a lot of your personal desires for long stretches of time. Some of you may find that rewarding. I wouldn’t. This is what I want to do, and I’m doing it. I don’t have advice for people who have kids, other than to remember who you are. You may be a parent, but you’re also a writer. Make time for that, whenever, and where ever you can.

My husband supports me and what I do completely. Which, frankly, is amazing. My prior marriage was not like this, and the biggest thing I knew going into the dating world after that relationship was that I wanted someone who got what I was doing, and who was very self-sufficient. I think a lot of women feel the need to please other people before themselves. Spouses of either sex who don’t get why you’re writing or why it’s important to you, are very likely to get jealous of all the time you’re spending alone with your computer, unless they have equal and opposite hobbies/careers to distract themselves as well. You don’t want someone who tries to sabotage your writing or your self esteem. They need to understand that rejection’s the name of the game for a decade or so, maybe longer. If they can’t cheer you on (or at least be quiet) for that period of time, and be truly in your court, ditch them. Now.

If I’m going to pound out two books in a year, I need to have the least amount of stress in my life as possible. It’s impossible to avoid everything — your car’s gonna break down, your cat’s gonna get sick, you’re gonna sprain an ankle — which is why you need to control what you can control, as much as possible.

I won’t be reading news — or I’ll be down to just one news feed, where everything is boiled down for me, by people who I’ve come to trust. Not because I don’t care what’s going on in the world, but because I can’t get mired in a link-tab fest where I’m getting a 360 on current issues. It isn’t that I don’t care — I just don’t have time to care right now.

Turn off the rest of the internet. Or only turn on the portion you can be responsible with. For me, that’s Pandora. Other then that, I log off of twitter, go invisible on gchat, and hunker down. When I got really heavy into things, I downloaded my 3 favorite albums to write to to my little shuffle, and disconnected entirely from the net and used it, so I wouldn’t have any reason to get online. Figure out a way for you to succeed — using a program that shuts off your wireless router, a shuffle, willpower, whatever — and use it. Commit to it.

There’s certain friends and family members I’ll be seeing/calling/emailing less of. If there’s someone in your life who is high drama — I get it, that shit’s fun for awhile, yeah. But when the day ends, if you’re spending more energy dealing with somebody else’s problems (that they’re making yours) instead of dealing with your writing, it’s not worth it. Be prepared for some backlash — if you’ve been a willing accomplice or a supportive friend in the past, they may not get your change of heart now, they may even be threatened by it. But it’s worth it for you to be a clean slate and not stew over what your homophobic uncle said last week when you next sit down.

If someone — friends or family — makes fun of you because you want to be a writer, or because you are writing, drop them. Like a stone. You will get so much other rejection in this choice of careers (reward too, but so much rejection first) that you don’t need your self-esteem assailed from any other angle. Again, they’re just threatened that you’re deciding to follow a dream. Not many people past the age of 16 get to do that, and they’ll see in you everything they ever tried at and failed to succeed in. Or things that they didn’t even muster the strength to try. You don’t need that in your life. Segue out of the relationship and move on.

What to Let In?

Good friends and relatives. If you have true friends who get what you’re doing and are supportive of your career, keep them close. Be up front with your friends. If they know you’re on deadline — publisher imposed or personal — they should get it. After all, they’ve been on deadlines before too, right? (This is assuming your friends are responsible non-stoner types.) Tell them you may not be checking on facebook so often, but call them when you have a break too short to write in, or drop them an email or text. You’re gonna have some rocky times in your life, and you don’t want to be an island when those events happen. Just a text or two can let someone know you’re thinking of them and that you still want in on their life.

Make time for yourself. You serve no one if you’re hunchbacked and have RSI from writing too much. For me, this me-time is yoga. For you, it could be 15 minutes of book reading before bed, or a Starbucks latte. Whatever it is, do it for yourself, sheerly for the pleasure of doing it for yourself. Be nice to yourself. No one else will be/has to be nice to you — except for you. Let you be on your own side. (Being nice to yourself will be a whole other post in this series. It’s very important.)

Your Responsiblities?

Don’t be a dick. Don’t let your family starve because you’re being an artiste. Don’t let your work be an excuse for you to hide from people or personal obligations. (Art, the introvert’s shield maiden.) Work your hardest when you’ve set aside the time for you to work, but set aside some time to play, too.

If someone needs you — in a yo, my grandma died way, not a high drama way — get your ass over there. ASAP.

Attend the occasional social activity. I know people humblebrag on twitter about parties they’re missing because their writing, like whoa. It’s fun to pretend that writing consumes your whole life. (Look at this post, for instance! :P) I find open ended parties can get a bit rough for me — 6 till ???, heh — but I like to schedule lunches and dinners with friends. That way, I know that I can be fully present and social for an hour, but not get nervous about getting behind when I’m on the clock.

When you’re not under crazy deadline, get connected with humanity. Volunteer. Read non-fiction. Explore the issues you’ve been avoiding for half the year, to really figure out what’s going on. Being connected with humanity — living, breathing, good and bad humanity — is what’s going to give you actual grist for your work. You can’t write in a box — you’ll die, and worse yet, your work’ll be flat. Find a way to get out some, when you can.

Know that people need you to write what’s true — and you need them to read it, once you’re done. Humanity’s a two way street. Don’t abandon it for your art, or your art will mean nothing to anyone.

How To Find An Agent or Editor Without Making Yourself Insane

Cassie Alexander is an active registered nurse. Nightshifted is her debut novel, coming out through St. Martin’s Press on May 22, 2012.

You’re done with your book, you’ve edited it tons, other people (not your mom) have looked at it, and you’ve taken their input into account, and you feel deep down in your gut that you’re done… what next?
Someone posed this question elsewhere, and I teasingly said they needed to start stalking agents — which got me to thinking of what you really need to do, how, and why.

First things first — become a member of Publishers Marketplace for a month, and use their deals search to figure out who is repping/selling your type of material. If you can afford to keep your membership, read the deal list every day for your genre just to keep a toe in the water. If you can only afford one month, pay for it, and then use their deal search to make a massive list of possible agents and editors who might be interested in your stuff.

There are agents who are too cool to publish their sales in PM, but for the most part if you plug in epic fantasy, or inspirational romance, etc, you’ll get a skad of hits.

With that info, you can start checking out agent websites and reputations. By virtue of them already being on PM, you know they’ve made pro sales (sales to reputable publishing houses) so there’s that. From their # of sales to how $$$ those sales were, you can get a good feel for how much of a player they are, and how accessible they might be.

Start with the big dogs first — google search away. Depending on who they sell too, how much they sell, how often they sell, or if they rep someone whose work you love, or whose work you think yours matches up with, make an list in order of interest. This part is a little hard, depending on your familiarity with names and faces in your chosen market. Hopefully, you’ve got an idea of what publisher matches your work — because you’re reading their books all the time — or a certain author you want to emulate, etc, so you can start off with that place/person. Most writers list their agents somewhere on their website, or the info’s on the internet.

If they keep a blog or twitter feed, you can stalk them that way to see if they seem up to date and sane. (You can also drop info from their blog into your query in a completely-non-stalkery way. Only do this if you know you can do it right. “I love it when you post cute pix of your dog, Boo” is one thing. “I will come and slaughter Boo in the middle of the night if you don’t ask for my full, j/k!” is not.)
If they’re too busy for blogs/twitter things (my agent is) then you just look at who else they’ve sold, and go on reputation.

Another place you can get a feel for agent reps is in the Absolute Write forums. People there have their ears to the ground, and often seem the first to know when someone’s gone from intern to agent, and what material they’re looking for now, in a way that that person’s blogs might not say, and PM sales data might not make clear. Some agents have open windows, and then close when they get too full — AW is a great place to keep track of that. If you sign up with them (it’s free) you can do a search, and see what people are saying about particular agents and agencies. People are refreshingly honest on there about things, which is nice.

Perfect your query letter and synopsis. Query Shark and the Miss Snark archives are great for this. Also bounce them off a few pro friends, if you can. (Synopsis writing is its own torture, which deserves a separate post when I’m more coherent.)

Send your query, plus synopsis (if they ask for it!), plus pages (if they ask for them!) to the first 1-5 agents on your wishlist. Send them only what they want.

It is a huge pain. Each agent wants different things — some want the first 3.5 pgs of your manuscript pasted into your email with your cover letter attached in comic sans font. Okay, not really, but it feels like that, after awhile. But if you want to seem professional, you’ll keep jumping through all the hoops they present, and do things exactly how they want them. Use the last line/paragraph of your query — before the Best Regards, YOUR NAME HERE — to say, “My first ten pages” or whatever precise thing they want “is attached.” This is your one and only chance to prove that you can follow instructions. Use it wisely, do it well.

Hold off for a week, then send out five more. And five more, the week after that. No matter how many email addresses and PO boxes you’ve got raring to go. Eventually, you’ll start getting feedback. Either requests or rejections. If it’s straight rejections, rethink your query. This is why you didn’t send everything out all at once — if your query stunk, you have a chance to change it, now, and fresh agents to show it to.

Wash, rinse, repeat until you have some responses — in which case do something celebratory! and continue to follow instructions precisely as they’re given! — or some outstanding queries.

It’s tough, because you don’t always know if silence is a no. Sometimes agents really do take half a year to get to things. (I know. It’s painful. I so know.) BEFORE you requery them — check back on Absolute Write to see what’s going on for other people who have queries out with them. Or, go to (also a free sign up to search) — it’ll have a ton of people tracking queries they’ve sent to that agency too, which’ll give you a feel if the wait’s a good thing, if they’re being slow, just had a kid, or if that’s just that agent’s way of saying no. If an agent’s website says they respond to everything within a certain time period, go ahead and re-query, but doublecheck using the other websites if you can first, you can save yourself some time. (Keep the requery polite, too. For all you know, your original one got missed. The agent doesn’t owe you anything.)

Publishers Marketplace will give you editor info too, so you can repeat all the steps above with editors, should you choose. And then you’ll recognize names for all the people to watch out for at conventions, to go to their panels, or try to chat up at the bar.

So! There. You can do all that with much less stalking and worry than I did. There was this one weekend when, after requesting my full and sitting on it for 3 months, A Certain Agent tweeted that they’d be clearing their inbox decks over the weekend. I made myself crazed that weekend, dreaming of them signing me and my book. They didn’t wind up getting through everything that weekend, and then they made snarky comments on twitter about not getting through stuff and jeez guys, would you all stop bugging me — because many people who didn’t get a response assumed that agent had lost their stuff, and emailed to ask. I had the wisdom not to pester, but it really lowered my estimation of that person for not following through on their public promise, and/or not updating to say, “You know what, I screwed up, sorry about that.” Apologizing should have been the way to go there, not mocking people for caring about their books so much. (That agent wound up dropping out of agenting all together, heh.) All the worry of that weekend — it was worthless energy that I wish I hadn’t spent. I don’t recommend doing that to anyone. So know your limits, don’t get too involved. Your best use of energy — apart from sending off those five queries like clockwork — is in writing your next book.
Be patient, and good luck!