Planting the Decision Tree

Monica Valentinelli is an author who lurks in the dark. Recently, she released a science fiction novella titled “Redwing’s Gambit” which was based on the Bulldogs! RPG. She has over a dozen short stories published and two novellas with more on the way. For more about Monica and her work visit her website.

At some point in your career, you’re going to get some advice on what to do with your written works or your future as an author. Maybe the suggestions will originate from a peer or your mentor. Maybe it’s from an old teacher or a friend of yours. Maybe you spot something on a website just like this.

Getting inundated with advice isn’t always a good thing, because often pieces will conflict with one another or worse – derail you from your current manuscript. This article is geared to help you keep your focus on the page and weigh the benefits of what recommendations you encounter.

Here are a few decision tree matrices that will help you decide what’ll work best for you and your work:

  1. Knowledge – What background information are you required to know before you act on the advice that’s been given to you? How much time are you willing to spend researching the validity of the claim or learning the pieces you aren’t up-to-speed on? While you can’t put a price on knowledge, it is an intrinsic asset and one that may require more effort to attain in specific cases when technology, new forms of writing, etc. are involved.
  2. Achievability – Based on what you’ve been told, how many other authors have successfully replicated that same piece of advice? Or, are you willing to risk everything on the off-chance you’ll be “lightning in a bottle?” Another way of looking at whether or not a piece of advice is valid for you, is if the recommendation hyper-focuses on a trend. Just as one example: the latest zombie craze may sound like an opportunity in disguise, but what’s chic in fiction now has already been written, revised, and edited. If you can leverage that monster-of-the-day, great! If you can’t? Well, then maybe your forte is not braaaaaaaiiiiinnnssss.
  3. Relevancy – You know yourself and your work best. Ask yourself whether or not the advice is relevant to what you want to do, what you’re working on, and where you are now in your career. This is probably one of the most important qualifiers when you process information, because you’ll need to decide how well that fits with what your goals are. If you find yourself questioning your work to the point where you desire to change what you’re doing before it’s completed, then you may want to reconsider who and where your getting the recommendations from.
  4. Distraction – Will the advice prevent (or delay) your completion of what you’re currently working on? If yes, what benefits do you hope to gain from applying the advice and do they outweigh finishing your manuscript? This concept goes back to relevancy, but it also further clarifies whether or not you can acknowledge how the recommendation will negatively impact your manuscript or goals.
  5. Experimentation – If the advice given to you is a risk, is it one you’re willing to take? How much time do you want to spend experimenting versus strengthening your core competency? By identifying opportunities for trial-and-error when they arise, you can help shape where you want to go, provided you’re in a position to accept a positive or negative outcome. After all, speculative ventures are not guaranteed to work. That’s why they’re experiments.
  6. Data Crunching – Can the advice be backed up with good data? Would you be willing to use that data and apply it to your own career? Oft overlooked, data is crucial to any business owner who wants to make fact-based decisions. Mind you, good data can be difficult to obtain and it’s often a snapshot of a larger picture. The idea behind getting data in the first place is to have supported claims and avoid anecdotal bits of advice that are steeped in conjecture. Data removes the emotion right out of the equation and can help keep you grounded when you want facts.
  7. Financials – Will you be able to afford to take the advice you’ve been given? Or does it cut into your time to do other paying work? A lot of advice doesn’t always come down to the “M” word – money – but more often than not hidden costs can start to affect your pocketbook. In addition to time, stress is an invisible expense that can spur you to write or freeze your fingers. When you stop producing, whether they be short stories, novels, articles, etc. you affect your ability to monetize your work. Advice itself may not have a dollar sign attached to it; but the application of it can both positively and negatively influence your bottom line.
  8. Timeliness – Is there an expiration date on the advice? Does your success or failure rely on how fast you can complete the recommendation? The adage timing is everything is often true for pieces of advice that are not only time-sensitive, but also demand your full attention. Understanding the “what” and the “how” of what someone is proposing can pale in comparison to the “when.”

Hopefully, these eight concepts will help remind you what you already know, that advice is cheap if not free. However, nothing can replace the precious time you spend in front of your monitor, typewriter, or notebook writing. Regardless of what anyone says, you’re the only author qualified enough to shape where you’ll go. By training your inner voice to critically think about how the advice you receive applies to your work – you’ll be able to do just that.

Against Craft

Writing is often described as a craft, and usually in counterposition to art. In the Romantic Era, art was seen as the precinct of special, sensitive people, who were inspired by a Muse. Craft, on the other hand, involved practice, tradition, and the perfection of skills. Today, professional writers are almost a single mind—writing is a craft, not an art.

There are a few good reasons to ally with craft. Writing is hard work, and revision thankless. Yet, plenty of non-writers just imagine writers “being creative” and generating stories. Then the money flows on in. Writing skills can be learned, though mostly just by reading widely, and so it has a lot in common with other crafts. Practice makes…improvement. (Not perfect.) Then there’s the publishing aspect. Writers take assignments, write to certain themes or lengths, and many pride themselves on their ability to write anything.
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Consider Booklife for the Holidays!

Dear Reader:

It’s now been a year since my writing strategy book Booklife came out, and it’s received lots of praise, leading to an interview on National NPR, among other opportunities like speaking at MIT and the Library of Congress. I’ve even had artists and musicians tell me they picked it up and found that the advice in it worked for them as well.

I know there are more of you out there, so if you’ve enjoyed Booklife and/or reading new content on this website, it would be wonderful if you’d be willing to blog about it this week, recommending the book as a holiday gift. (Or tweet or facebook if that’s more your style. Or even re-post something you wrote when the book came out.) Monies from sales will be directly reflected in my next couple of royalty statements and help off-set the cost of a couple of important projects my wife Ann and I are taking on gratis.

If you do decide to blog, here are a few possible links to include:

Booklife at Amazon

Booklife Kindle edition

Booklife at Indiebound

Booklife at Indiebound (ebook)

Booklife at Powells

Direct from the publisher, Tachyon

As importantly, I’m interested to know how Booklife was of use to you (or, even, where you wished it would’ve been of more help), and will write a follow-up post here and on Booklifenow that links your post. If you tweet or facebook post, consider echoing into the comments thread here.

Finally, thanks for considering Booklife as a holiday gift for the creatives in your life!

Don’t Prejudge Editorial Taste

One bit of advice I think beginning writers sometimes need to hear is that it’s easy to fall into a pattern of trying to predict what an editor will like or not like, based not on the substance of a magazine or anthology’s guidelines but by wanting to read between the lines to gain an advantage. Guidelines are among the roughest and least precise of god’s creatures. They’re usually there simply to ward off the most inappropriate of submissions—for example, children’s stories about ponies to a magazine of dark horror or a novella to a market that only takes stories up to 4,000 words.

The editor behind those guidelines is generally much more complex and nuanced, and, while maintaining a main focus for their publication or book project, may also be inclined to mix in some more esoteric material, or material that doesn’t hit the center of their brief. Further, it makes sense from a proactive point of view to send in even stories that you think for some reason may not appeal to an editor from a political or social point of view. You might be surprised, you might realize that you’ve pegged an editor incorrectly based on a very small sample of interviews or back issues. Editors’ tastes also change over time, and they react to new directions in whatever general area of fiction they’re involved with.

So, as long as your story doesn’t violate a prime commandment of the guidelines, it’s generally not a good idea to otherwise presume to guess an editor’s tastes—or to try to parse subtext out of the way guidelines are written. Even back issues of a magazine may not fully illuminate for a writer the editor’s tastes because the editor may not have received a good example of a particular type of story and therefore hasn’t yet published that type or that particular approach.

Editors, like all human beings, are complex organisms and should be treated as such.