Critique Circle is a writer’s site that has been listed as one of Writer’s Digest top 101 writing sites four years in a row. I’m a moderator for Critique Circle, and In 2011 I had the opportunity to interview C.S. Friedman, author of the Coldfire Trilogy , The Madness Season , In Conquest Born , This Alien Shore , and The Magister Trilogy . Because Critique Circle is a site for writers who aspire to break in to print, the interview focuses less on Miss Friedman’s writing, and more on her experiences as a professional novelist. This interview appeared in Critique Circle’s Annual Newsletter in November 2011, and is reproduced here for those of you who don’t have a membership (shame on you), but would like to see what this phenomenal writer has to say about the business.
CC: You use your initials in your published name, do you give credence to the idea that a female writer has a harder time attracting a male audience, and if so, is this something exclusive to fantasy?
CSF: It never was true in fantasy. It was true in science fiction when I began writing in 1986. It isn’t now.
Some publishers today, particularly in foreign countries, dislike the use of initials, feeling a book does not sell as well if the author seems anonymous. In several countries I am published under Celia Friedman now.
CC: How plausible is it that a new writer can quit their day job after their first publication?
CSF: Barring the one-in-a-million success stories where your first novel hits the ball out of the park (which is not something you can control or predict), writing is about working very hard to slowly build up an audience and a marketing record, to the point where royalties from a number of books add up to a decent living. Many writers never get there.
Good writers start getting near the ballpark at about 5 books. Tom Deitz, a popular fantasy writer, quit his day job after 8…and eventually took up a job again years later, to have some extra income.
I should note that the phrase "day job" is often used for a second job the writer keeps for reasons other than money. Health insurance is a major issue; some people just will not be able to get it at all without an outside employer. I tutor kids during the day because if I don’t’ get out of the house and interact with other people on some kind of regular schedule, I will become a raving lunatic. Also note that due to our tax system, writing income is hit with a "self-employment tax"… you have to pay double social security on it.
All things told, when I quit my university job, I figured I had to make $50,000 in writing to take home the same amount of cash that came from $35,000 teaching. So it’s a *big* leap, with a number of serious complications. Many writers never even try.
When I was looking for an opportunity to teach creative writing part time at a private high school, I was told the competition for that kind of job was unbelievably fierce, because "that’s what every writer living in this area wants."
CC: An issue commonly raised by our members is the disrespect, ridicule, and sometimes scorn they get from family members and friends for the time "wasted" writing and submitting stories. Do you have any advice for people in that situation?
CSF: Get a thicker skin.
If you get published, you will spend the rest of your life dealing with reviews by people who don’t like your work — often for totally stupid reasons — interviews where you are misquoted, disrespectful buyers and advertisers, and any number of personal annoyances. There are a million fan review blogs out there, of which half seem to thrive on trashing popular books. I’ve seen people on Amazon.com leave bad reviews for books they didn’t even read!
Hell, the last time I refinanced my house I had to write God knows how many letters trying to explain how writers are paid, and why the fact that this year’s income wasn’t as high as last year’s was of absolutely no significance, and why the stuff I was doing should indeed be considered a ‘real job."
If you want to be a professional writer, you have to learn to shrug that kind of stuff off. So think of your family as an opportunity to practice that skill. If you make sure you have a real life, spend time with friends, and keep up with school and/or work, you will get a lot less grief. If you "don’t have a life" , they will blame that on the writing, and there is no way to make that better save by, well, getting a life
When you start getting paid for stories, everything will change. Until then, recognize that in the eyes of your family it is just a hobby, and will never be more than a hobby, so just accept that as a trial to toughen your spirit.
CC: You’ve said that your editor constantly drives you to be better. What advice would you give to writers who view the editor/writer relationship as adversarial?
CSF: If you haven’t sold anything yet, recognize that with your first book, you are pretty much at your editor’s mercy, since you don’t want to argue with the person who is about to give you your big break. So don’t expend energy getting upset over small change they ask for. They know what sells, and you really don’t yet. Choose your battles for when they really matter.
With my first book, I must have rewritten nearly half the manuscript — they were all good changes, and I offered to do them — but there came a point when one of my editors suggested a change to the ending of the story that was so far off the mark for my characters, I just blinked and said, "uh, no. I think that’s a really bad idea."
They didn’t press me on it because I *hadn’t* fought over all the smaller things…so they knew that this one really mattered.
Now, if your question is being asked about someone who is already published, and has a bad relationship with their editor…change editors
I will note that when an editor thinks about buying a book from an unknown author, they are judging you as much as your work. Your first book very well may not make money; you are a long term investment for them. The degree to which they sense you will work well with them, be cooperative, not stand over every word you wrote with a shotgun, threatening to kill anyone who asks you to change your text…that *will* affect whether they buy your work. So take a deep breath before you walk in the door, repeat three times "Hey, I really value your opinion and experience," and do your best to convince them working with you would be a positive experience.
It will not only help sell your book, it will help you establish a good writer-editor relationship from the start.
CC: How much of the promotional side of a new book falls to the author, in other words, how much time do you spend promoting your books?
CSF: Very little falls to the author. In fact, if a publishing house expects you to be responsible for overseeing book promotion, that’s generally regarded as a sign that it’s not a totally kosher enterprise.
Now, you always have the option of doing stuff if you want to. I go to some cons to promote my work, do interviews, do a few book signings. People like to buy the books of people they like, so if you are good at interacting with fans, go ahead and do it. Sometimes there will be a particular event that my publisher will ask me to attend, because the exposure is particularly valuable.
Now, if you hit the big time, and you are on Oprah, or do book signings with ten thousand copies, that’s another story…but for your average, hardworking author, the marketing department of your publisher will handle 99% of everything that needs to be done.
CC: On a related note, how important is it to have a facebook/myspace or other social networking site? Do you recommend a web page, etc.?
CSF: Well, I got to be a bestselling author without that stuff, so it can be done 😉
That said, people who do social networking seem to sell more books, I just launched a Facebook page and I have to say, I’m kind of enjoying being able to post notes for my fans. (go join my page! It’s under "C. S. Friedman", not my full name) It’s a great way to keep everyone updated.
An author should have a web page. People need a place to go for info about your work, and a way to contact you. I get a lot of visitors, and a lot of mail to me channels through my site (www.csfriedman.com). I also use it as a repository for info that I am repeatedly asked for, so anyone who needs it can just copy it from there. I keep my bio up there, pictures, info on my books, and a FAQ based on fan letters I’ve received.
Any time someone needs biographical info on me, I can just send them there.
CC: You mention that the beginning of a book should be "breathtakingly awesome," can you give us an idea of what that means?
CSF: It means a stranger picks up your book, starts to read, and can’t put it down.
It means they don’t have to wait 20 page for a hint that something interesting is going on, or "work at" understanding what is happening. From the first page, it grabs their interest. Maybe there is a great action scene. Maybe mysteries are hinted at. Whatever it is, by the time they hit page 3, they don’t want to put it down.
First readers generally know within three pages if something is not worth their time. So if your good stuff starts on page 4, they may never see it.
My editor has said that she knows within 3 pages if someone is a real writer or not. Among other things, she’s looking for people with a true mastery of the written language. So if you have grammatical errors in your first few pages, you’re going to get weeded out on the first pass.
CC: You mention that the Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, is an important book for writers to study. While it’s clear that a writer should have basic English skills, how important is it to pursue creative writing or other college courses? Is it necessary to have a degree in English?
CSF: I’ve never taken a creative writing course and I don’t have an English degree, so I guess not
As a matter of fact, I was turned down in college when I applied to join a creative writing course, because my writing wasn’t good enough. The piece I turned in later became a chapter in my first bestselling novel that launched my career. Go figure.
So if there is a good teacher or a class covering something you want to learn, do go and sign up. But just getting an English degree to put on your resume has zero relevance to getting published. It DOES, however, impact whether you can teach writing later in life. I myself can no longer teach creative writing in high school in Virginia because I do not have an English degree. That’s doubly annoying because I have a Master’s degree, in addition to twenty years as a professional author. But the Master’s is not in English, and Virginia does not count professional work towards certification.
CC: You’re known for the complexity of the worlds you build in your books, how important is it to build worlds, and is this exclusive to fantasy or does it apply to other genres?
CSF: Well, first, I started off as a science fiction writer. My fantasy work came later.
A writer once analyzed "why people like to read science fiction", and identified the other genres that science fiction readers tended to enjoy. They were: fantasy, historical fiction, and mysteries. What all those have in common, the writer suggested, is that they are dependent upon world creation. The setting is an active part of the story, and learning about that setting is part of what you are reading for.
CC: New writers dream of success, could you share with us some of the downside of being a professional writer, if any?
CSF: Health insurance issues, irregular income, major stress if inspiration takes a holiday, and a generally lonely lifestyle unless you do other things to make sure that doesn’t happen.
CC: How important is it to have an agent review a contract?
CSF: I assume you mean, how important is it to have an agent? Well, I used to say, not all that important, since I sold three books before I had an agent, and I had a publisher who was giving me good terms…but then I discovered recently that there are a few categories of things where the terms are different, depending on whether there is an agent involved or not…if I had known that back then, I would have signed on with an agent sooner in my career. So, if you can get one, do.
CC: Should you write for a specific audience, or for yourself?
CSF: If you are writing to sell your work, you are writing for an audience.
Learning to do that is one of the things that makes someone a professional author.
CC: How carefully do you plot out your stories, is every element conceived in advance, or do you write with a loose outline and let the story tell itself?
CSF: Both. I plan things out in advance, but I do it in segments, working from a loose outline and then refining the section directly ahead of me. This allows me to add in stuff I developed as I was writing.
My story never "tells itself". I control it. In this I differ from many authors, but I think I get the best ending out of a book if I am carefully planning all the hints and clues and plot devices that lead there. Letting the story take control means you don’t know where it’s going, so you can’t do that.
CC: What advice would you give someone who hopes to make their living from their writing?
CSF: Don’t focus on becoming a writer. Focus on writing. Learn your art, become a kick-ass writer, turn out some really good work, and send it in. Publishers are always looking for good new writers.
CC: How much of your time goes into promo work/interviews/readings etc.?
CSF: Depends on how often interviewers nag me about answering their mail, Jon.
CC: What can a new author expect from a publisher if their story is accepted?
CSF: Well for a story, they will ask for whatever changes they want, then if they like the final product, send you a contract and a check. It’s pretty simple.
When it is finally published you will hold it in your hands in amazement, open it to look inside, and then whisper, in an awed tone, "Wow, it has words in it, and everything."
No matter how many contracts you sign, you don’t really believe it’s happening until you see that it’s really your words inside…
Novels are way more complicated and that is a VERY long answer. Let’s save it for the next interview