Something Worth Doing is Worth Doing Well

This refrain comes up again and again when talking to my writer friends (and not always initiated by me): something worth doing is worth doing well. It’s certainly not a controversial idea, though talking about it is not without its risks (as writer myself, I will not be providing examples of poor work to avoid shooting myself in the foot).

Put another way: we as an industry are going cheap, and it shows.

Usually it starts with the cover—bad art, or weak stock photos, with poor typography. If the cover is bad, the inside is often worse—poor layout, weak font choices, text that’s too small to read, or so big you could read it from across the room. The interior art looks fuzzy, or way too dark. Maybe there’s nothing in particular you can put your finger on, but something just isn’t right—very possibly the paper itself is poorly chosen (or left unconsidered).

Overall, you’re left with a feeling of cheapness—and it’s probably true: not enough money and attention has been put into this product.

Like it or not, this lack of detail negatively impacts the stories themselves. Fewer people will buy the book, and some people will be so turned off by the experience that they will set it aside for good. All of this, regardless of the quality of the stories themselves.

It would be easy to lay blame at the feet of self-publishers, but it’s not limited to that world. Poor quality runs throughout all levels of publishing, at least sporadically, from indies to the big names.

The blame for this lies in a few areas.


It’s been said that there’s little money in publishing, and perhaps that’s true. Spending much on something with little chance of seeing it returned doesn’t make too much sense. To create a work of quality, it does take skill (or money to hire that skill). We are at a point where it requires little to no money to produce books, even printed books—from ebooks to print on demand, a publisher does not need to outlay much cash to get a book to a reader and see a return on investment. Unfortunately, this low-budget approach shows all too often.

Too Many Hats

I’m a jack-of-all-trades kind of guy: I have an art background, I work as an illustrator and designer (and animator, and video guy, and…), I’ve done some sound work, I write. I understand there are people (and publishers) out there that can handle the whole shebang and do a fine job of it. The thing is, the vast majority of people can’t, and even those that can generally are not great at everything—I know this, all too intimately. If you’re trying to take it all on, you probably shouldn’t.

Plus, if you are taking on all of the roles, you will generally suffer from tunnel vision, and miss out on glaring problems. As the wearer of all of the hats, you are probably working in a vacuum, and regardless of problems with teams (group think, lowest common denominator results), more people means more eyes on the end result.

Another quick point here: I’m a big believer in using the right tool (or software) for the right job, but just having that tool does not make you a master of it (and mastering it still doesn’t make you a designer).

Quantity vs. Quality

Perhaps this is a flawed perception, but it appears that some go for the shotgun approach: more products offered, more sales. It may be accurate, too—I haven’t looked for research to disprove this notion—but it seems to me that spreading money across fewer books (and thus more per book) would significantly improve the end results, and the financial gains from each. No doubt there’s a tipping point, where a piece goes from appropriately treated to collector’s edition (with a price to match)—but if this is your concern, this article isn’t really aimed at you.

Contrary to what it might sound like, I’m not trying to say “you all suck!” or that I want fewer books around. I love all kinds of books, and I want to see the publishing world do better by delivering better.

There are solutions to these problems, and not all of them require more money spent (though some expectation of investing in a work should be assumed). Educating yourself, spending smarter, hiring the right people, finding others who will give you honest opinions…these are all steps in the right direction.

And these are all planned future posts. Stay tuned.

On Research

Writing is make-believe, plucking characters and settings from your head and dropping them onto the paper like Rorschach blots, hoping the reader will see a coherent image. But if you want to write something convincing, your story has to be rooted in reality. And if it’s a reality you know nothing about, there’s only one thing to do about it—research.

Oh, hey. I’ve got this, you say. Pull up Wikipedia, copy and paste, and voila.

Not. So. Fast.

The internet is a wonderful thing and it makes research easy, but according to Merriam Webster, the definition of research is: careful study that is done to find and report new knowledge about something.

Careful study.

That implies a little more than copy and paste, doesn’t it?

This isn’t to say that you can’t use the net, but you have to be willing to dig deeper than the first link you find, to pick through the mounds of information and find the good stuff, the right stuff.

(Did you know that the first seven astronauts did their survival training in the Nevada desert? Before I wrote this post, I didn’t. Thanks to some research, I now know that those seven astronauts were left for four days with a spacecraft mockup, a parachute, and a survival scenario. Pretty cool, eh? And yes, I got that information from the net; however, I’m pretty confident I can trust

If you want to write a story about a cellist and you know nothing more than the music the instrument makes is so beautiful it makes you cry, you better do research because you can bet that at least one person who might read that story will know more and will spot your errors a mile away. That isn’t to say you need to root everything in truth. Maybe your cello is a space cello with magical wormhole properties. In that case, you have a little more leeway, but still, you can research how instruments are played in space and wormhole theory. At least I hope you would.

But research isn’t just to make that one reader smile and nod and say yes, this author got it right. If you’re writing a story about a cello, why wouldn’t you do research? Why wouldn’t you want to know the lowest note a cello can play? (Two octaves below middle C.) Why wouldn’t you want to know that when Yo-Yo Ma plays, his instruments of choice are a 1733 Montagnana cello from Venice and a 1712 Davidoff Stradivarius? Even if you’re not a fan of the cello, you have to admit that a musician using a 300-year old instrument is pretty damn interesting.

You might spend days researching, slipping from one rabbit hole to another, picking up bits and pieces of information along the way. And maybe you won’t use those things in your story. Maybe you won’t even finish your story.

That isn’t the point.

Better to do the research and not need it than leave your story full of holes you should’ve filled. You owe it to yourself; you owe it to your readers; you owe it to your story.

Guest Post: The Road to Clarion: Allowing Myself to Say Yes

Haralambi Markov is a Bulgarian fiction writer, blogger and reviewer with a background in Marketing and SEO, who currently operates as a freelance writer. Generally off-kilter, but most pleasant, you can find Markov sitting somewhere with fingers on some sort of keyboard. You can find him rambling at his blog The Alternative Typewriter and on his Twitter at @HaralambiMarkov.

This year, I made a promise to myself that I’ll stop denying myself my dreams. I promised I’d do something crazy. Try my hand at a real adventure. Allow myself to shoot for the big bright stars even if I didn’t have all the coordinates figured out; even if I didn’t know how I’d launch myself in space first.

It was a silent promise made on New Year’s Eve, when so many others like it are being born and then soon forgotten. Yet, where other promises faded, this one took root and didn’t let go. I found myself hungry for doing something for myself. Something that would make me happy rather than play to someone else’s satisfaction and I have nothing but time and ability as I’ve said goodbye to higher education (for now) and the freelancer gig isn’t going that bad.

Enter Clarion, the ability to enroll and the possibility to be accepted.

I didn’t put any serious thought into applying until two weeks ago and I’m going to walk you through my thought process, which at one point led to seriously binge watching TV shows to get my brain to shut up:

“Why not? Wasn’t I published in a couple of great places last year? But how am I going to get there? I don’t have any money. It would be such a waste to put so much effort and then not go at all. I shouldn’t. I really shouldn’t. But I know so many people who went there and urge me to go! I should. Yeah, as if anyone is going to accept me. I didn’t write at all last year. I have nothing to show. I have learned no new skills. I can’t even sell my backlog of finished pieces. Nope. Not going to do. I’ll spend this year writing and I’ll apply next year, ya know. God, but I want to. But I will fail. I’ve failed in just about everything I’ve tried. This will be a glorious failure for everyone I know to learn.

“But, but, but… It’s the VanderMeers, Catherynne Valente, Nora Jemisin and Gregory Frost and Geoff Ryman. Holy fuck… I’d get to meet them. I’d get to discuss my writing for once. Learn so many things. But it might not happen. I’m bilingual. I’m fake. They’ll know. These people WILL know. It probably will never happen. So what? Lots of things never happen. I’ll just do it until I get in or I die in the process.”

That’s actually the most difficult part of the application process for me. Allowing myself to say yes and overcome the mentality that limits me with what’s reasonable and what’s viable and what’s most likely to happen. My life has been about doing what’s right, what’s expected and what’s reasonable. Going to a writer’s resort for six weeks halfway across the world is so far removed from my reality it took so much pushing and mustering courage to actually make the first step.

I’ve just gathered all the critiques for both stories I’m submitting and I really can’t thank my friends who have taken their time and put so much effort to show me how I can be better. It’s empowering to hear people I admire like Angela Slatter, David Edison, Jonathan Wood, Jaym Gates, Natania Barron, Jacques Barcia and Theresa Bazelli say so many positive things about my writing and think I can do it, I can get in.

It’s proof I’m not fake, even though I’ve been discriminated against in the past just because I did not grow up in an English speaking country and therefore my writing is subpar. The road to Clarion is hard on my mind as I find myself wrestling with demons I thought I’d won against, but I’m doing the work. I’m editing my stories, gathering information and hoping for the best.

The Future, Man

I originally posted this as a FB status, but it seemed to hit a note and I wanted to explore and expand on it.

The other day, I read an article about how anything resembling the Enterprise was many years in the future, and for some reason, it’s been bothering me ever since.

History is full of people saying, “Yeah, haha, that can’t happen for another HUNDRED YEARS!”, usually with the result that this impossible tech shows up within the next couple of years. And that was in the beginning of the technological revolution.

For all of our social ills, our scientific problems, and our problematic governments, we’re in an age where we have possibly more potential than ever before. We have people like Elon Musk and even James Cameron, who have big dreams and the money and connections to make it happen. There are pieces of technology that haven’t been utilized to their fullest, and a huge crop, worldwide, of brilliant people looking to build a new piece of the future. The Internet makes it possible for big dreamers to find support networks, resources, and outlets. We have calls for Martian settlers, tests for anti-grav technology, and biotechnology that would make the SF writers of twenty (TWENTY!) years ago green with envy. And they aren’t claims or projects by crackpots, but by leading scientists and entrepreneurs.

Moreover, we have writers–of novels, movies, games, nonfiction–who are positing and contemplating the technical and social aspects of these new developments, creating an incredibly rich environment of possibilities. I believe that one of the biggest aspects of any new development is the understanding of its effect on the world and its users, and with the so-called ‘soft sciences’ like psychology, sociology, and family sciences slowly gaining recognition and respect, there’s a wider outlet for those examinations than ever.

Dr. Michio Kaku’s “Physics of the Future” talks about how futurist predictions are almost always wrong because they look at the trajectory that things are on at the time, and project that into the future, when, in fact, progress happens in leaps and bounds, plateauing for a while and then springing forward with huge strides.

I know I’ve complained in the past that it seemed like SF’s push and imagination had sort of stalled out and gotten left behind, but in the last couple of years, it seems like that is a hurdle that’s been overcome. This is particularly noticeable in short stories, where the industry is seeing an absolute burst of highly-talented authors. (A lot of those award-winners are heading into novel-length fiction now, and I look forward to seeing what they will add to that field.)

It may be that something like the Enterprise is 30 or 50 or 100 years in our future, but I think we have reached a point where we have to be careful in claiming that anything is too impossible, or too far in our future, because announcements are made weekly about new things once only found in SF.

Besides, isn’t it our job to bring the future right to our doorstep?