Ken Scholes: Evolution of a Writing Career

These are notes from Ken Scholes's presentation at OryCon 33 on Evolution of a Writer Career.


Ken Scholes
Evolution of a Writing Career
OryCon 33
  • Evolution of a career
    • Wrote as a teenager, got a dozen rejection letters.
    • World Fantasy Con - the big business con: agents and editors
    • Took three years of serious, solid writing and seventy rejections before selling his first short story
      • Having written 10-15 in high school and 15-20 in later life
      • Probably published ~50 stories by now
    • Took Swenson’s writing class in 98, learned about Tale Bones.
    • Sold first story in 1999 -- to Tale Bones. 
    • Second one in 2000. 
    • In 2001, sold another story. Met Jay Lake. Became good friends.
    • Norwest Con
    • 2002: sold 4th story - his 2nd story for the 2nd time.
    • Didn’t sell another story until 2004.
    • Then in 2004, something happened. Sold a bunch of stories
    • In 2005, won third prize for one of his short stories
    • L. Ron Hubard Writers of the Future
    • In 2005, decided he would not longer treat writing as a hobby. started tracking receipts. took a different job that took less of his brain, left him more for writing. took writing more seriously.
    • In 2006: people taunting him to write a novel. Jay Lake said “if you have a first draft by World Fantasy Con, I’ll introduce you to everyone I know.”
    • Jay Lake introduced him to his agent.
    • In October 2007, Tor said “We want all five books”.
    • In 2009, Lamentation came out, started selling well. earned out by third book.
    • In 2011, have novels out in many countries. Doing quite well.
    • Still has a day job.
    • His career is making years in the making. What seems like a lot of success in 2009-2011 is really the result of 14 years of serious writing plus lots of history before that.
    • Make friends in the industry. Spent time in the industry.
  • Questions and Answers
    • Q: How to transition from writing short story to novels
      • Same tools you use to build, but the process is different (e.g. like building a shed vs a house).
      • Don’t write a novel. Instead, practice writing a novel. See where the practice takes you.
      • Or... don’t spend time thinking about it. Just do it as quickly as possible.
      • The biggest part is: don’t quit. Even if it feels like the shittiest book ever, don’t give up. He thought Lamentation was the worst book he ever read: flat characters, action happens off-screen, etc.
      • Most of the time we quit too fast.
    • Q: How do you decide what Con to go to?
      • My first was World Fantasy Con. Then OryCon. Then Norwest Con.
      • World Fantasty Con is really business driven. The agents and publishers all go.
      • Depending on where you are in your career, go for what you need. To learn craft, etc.
      • But go to make friends. Those friends will be really helpful throughout your career. Build relationships.
      • Now that he’s progressed in his career, he goes to the bigger cons to do business and network.  WorldCon, WorldFantasyCon.
      • It’s easier to sit down and talk to people, even big people at the smaller, local conferences. 
      • Send thank you notes and follow ups to everyone you meet.
        • “Greet meeting you at...”
      • Find out the publishers and editors that you love, and where they go.
    • Q: Agent recently said “not enough creative and unique manuscripts being sent”. Any thoughts?
      • It takes about a million bad words before your own voice really emerges.
    • Q: How do you assure you’ll get pay
      • You can report it through SFWA
      • If it’s a short story, the publication credit may matter more. Don’t worry too much about it.
      • Even the pro markets are very slow in payment: He has books out around the world, three novels, since 2009, and he still needs a day job and struggles to pay the bills.
    • Q: For short stories: How do you end it, and when is soon enough?
      • What’s the promise at the beginning of the story?
      • You start with a person that feels believable. They are in a setting. They are given a problem, always on the first page in a short story.
      • When they have solved the problem, and received whatever it is they get for solving the problem, that’s the ending.
    • Q: Finding agents
      • Willamette Writers
      • Suri
      • Cascade Writers 
      • you can meet editors more easily than agents
    • Q: How do you balance research, deliberate practice, and action creation of new content?
      • Follow my muse.
      • Sometimes the research leads to a story.
      • Sometimes I just fly by the seat of my pants.
      • I’d rather have my muse push me in the direction of production. 
    • Q: How do you figure out where your prospective readers are online?
      • Absolute Write
      • I tend to build my community at convention.
      • Mary Rosenblum’s panel on social media on Saturday.
      • Use Facebook because it’s easy.
    • Q: How do you know when your novel is ready to submit?
      • Get it as good as done you can get for that moment, then it’s ready.
      • Don’t spend your life revising one book.
      • As soon as some people who are not your immediate family say it’s good, then it’s ready.
      • You need to have some writers who can give you critical feedback. You also need to have some people who are just readers, not writers, who can simply say “good” or not.
      • You have to have a next thing to get excited about it. 
      • You will not grow by simply rehashing old stuff. You have to write new stuff.
      • If an editor says “do this”, then do it, because they’ll pay you.
    • Q: What if the most effective marketing program for selling your book?
      • Knowing what you want, where you want to go. Ken knew he wanted to go with Tor.
      • Go to cons.
      • And keep writing new stuff. Don’t fret about the stuff that’s out there. If you keep writing new stuff, it’ll build over time.
    • Q: Motivation
      • I write so I can know who I am.
      • I write so I can share a story with people that they might enjoy reading.
      • I write because I have daycare bills. If I finish this book, I can get a check.
      • Now Ken’s career is at a tipping point: Wouldn’t it be great if Ken didn’t have to have two jobs? 
    • Q: How do you convey non-human characters to readers without losing characteristic of non-human? (e.g. dragons)
      • You don’t want to have something so far from human that they aren’t enjoyable. People want to read for both the unique stuff as well as human qualities.
      • MSU: the great university of writers. Make Stuff Up.
    • Q: How do you effectively edit a novel?
      • I write good clean first drafts. The story is intact. It’s just spelling and word choice.
      • That’s the product of practice: lots and lots of words written, lots of short stories. In short stories you learn to make each word do three or four things.
      • Don’t spend years and years making it right.
      • Crank out a book a year.
      • If you want to make a living doing this, you can’t do a book every five or six years. You have to write faster than that.
      • Don’t take more than one or two or three passes through a novel before putting it out to market.
      • Effectively == quickly.
      • Figure out the strengths of the people who are reading it. Are they plot people or character people or what? If they are a character person and they complain about the plot, then don’t worry about it. If they complain about character, then listen carefully.
    • Q: Does speaking in front of an audience help you write?
      • I was a quiet introvert in high school.
      • I expanded - to choir, to music, to being a preacher.
      • If you are able to hold your own at a party, teach classes, give presentations, it gives you more opportunities.
      • But in the end, a writing conference is going to take a great writer who is a mediocre speaker than a great speaker who is a bad writer. So focus on writing.
    • Not willing to self-publish. Willing to do small presses for short story. Short stories are a reasonably small investment of time. For novels, it is a big investment of time. I wrote enough in the short story world that my first novel was good enough to be marketed.
    • Start at the top, and work your way down.
    • There are people who would have been with big publishers, and they settled for small publishers.
    • For people who have some readership, then self-publishing may work.
    • For small publishers, they don’t have the money to distribute you effectively.
      • Then you become a person who has to self-promote. Then you don’t have the energy to write.
    • Go through all the pro markets first.
    • Q: Mind hacks to keep writing
      • Music
      • Access to water and food so I don’t have to leave
      • Audience: the progress bar in scrivener
    •  Q: Does writing short stories help you improve as a writer faster than writing novels?
      • Yes.
      • Q: So if you are not inclined to write short stories, should you do it?
        • No.
        • But, what would it cost you to try? If you are used to writing 100,000 word novels, what would it take you to write five 5k-10k short stories? Try it.
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