I belong to several organizations, listed to the right. There are plenty of reasons for joining a writing organization:
- To formalize your commitment to write. Once you step over that line to write seriously and seek publication, it helps to meet other writers and remind yourself of your commitment.
- To improve your craft. My local writer organizations (PPW and RMFW) offer regular workshops to their members. They also have yearly conferences (Pikes Peaks Writers Conference and the Colorado Gold), where you can work on improving your plotting, story structure, character arcs/motivation, voice, conflict, setting, point of view, etc. The SFWA provides pages on the craft and business of writing, as well as the invaluable Writer Beware pages that identify the many con artists in the writing world. RWA, where I'm an associate member because I don't write romance, has an amazing amount of resources for their writers. They also put out one of the most informative monthly magazines I've ever seen, with many articles that apply to all commercial fiction writers.
- To learn about publishing. Agents and editors attend these conferences and speak about the industry on panels. You can also pitch a finished project to an agent or editor (note the important word: "finished").
- To find or create a critique group. Everyone needs feedback on their work. However, critique groups can be tricky, ensuring the various personalities mesh and everyone agrees upon the critique process.
- To support each other's work and projects. Let's face it; your spouse and family will never understand why you spend so many hours in front of the computer, working on something that only gives you angst and headaches. Sometimes you need to go where everybody knows you write... (cue the theme song for Cheers).
- And, ultimately, charge yourself up and rebuild your motivation. Sometimes a conference doesn't provide you any new insights. Maybe you've attended the workshops before and seen it all. But just because your logical brain knows your story needs conflict, your characters must grow, and your word choices should be specific, doesn't mean your brain will magically produce such a product. You have to continually motivate yourself while being vigilant against sloppy, easy writing.
But (there's always a "but"), remember these cautions:
- You do not need to go to a conference to pitch to agents. Almost all agents take queries via email (check the submission requirements for each agent--see the sidebar with agent blogs) and plenty of writers get representation without ever meeting their agent.
- No one knows the magic key to attracting readers. That includes those that are published and, to an extent, even agents and editors. Add to this the fact that agents and editors must champion your book, over and over, so they have to love it personally. Just because your work doesn't appeal to agent/editor A, doesn't mean that agent/editor B might not want to throw it against the wall and see if it sticks. That said, you should pay attention to recurring comments that may indicate a problem in your work or its saleability.
- Finally, never use a conference/workshop as an excuse to push your manuscript on an editor, agent, or even another writer. Never ask a writer who hasn't seen your work to recommend you to her agent (yes, I've had it happen, right after introductions).
If you want to be a career novelist, or if you want to be published by a traditional SF/F imprint such as Ace, Roc, DAW, Tor (technically still a publisher, I think), then yes. And, in this genre, getting an agent first will improve your chances. An agent that handles SF/F can put your work on the (virtual) desk of the right editors. For instance, junior editors are more willing to work with new authors, and agents know what these editors are looking for. Having an agent represent your work can help you make your first sale—if you don't believe me, take a look at Jim Hine's survey. And, when it comes to negotiating a contract, agents can protect rights you need to keep as well as increase your advance (by more than their 15% fee, proven in Tobias Buckell's surveys). Many agents don't represent SF/F, so ensure they represent the type of novel you've written and that they're members of AAR before you email your query. Note that some SF/F writers have been published without agents (Jacqueline Carey) and continue to pubish prolifically without an agent (L.E. Modesitt, Jr.), but it doesn't hurt to improve your odds, does it?
There are still only a small, incestuous number of traditional publishers for SF, Fantasy, and Horror. In the 1990s, less than five U.S. SF/F imprints accepted unagented submissions. I know this, because I combed Writers Market for them. However, the environment has changed since then. Small, independent publishers have popped up, as have eBook publishers, presenting unpublished writers with more avenues toward traditional publication. Interestingly, getting in front of editors for independent and eBook publishers doesn't always require an agent, so this is a different route to getting published.
If you want to write science fiction, fantasy, or horror--make sure you read a wide variety of books in the genre. You need to read outside your genre as well. For every two books inside SF/F/H I read, I try to read one outside it (to save time, I cheat and allow non-fiction books to qualify). Basically, you have to read, read, read, so you don't pull a gaffe with an agent by saying, "Nobody's done what I've done!"
The Pitching Trap: But My Work is Different...
Please don't go down this tired and well-trod road, particularly with an editor. Got technology mixed with magic, a big city with skyrail, railway, airships, populated by bug-people, eagle-people, and human thaumaturges? See China Miéville's Perdido Street Station. Got steam technology, with or without magic? That's a whole sub-genre (steampunk). Distopian? Trapped in the machine? Post-apocolyptic? Join the club. Apocolyptic humor? See Gaimon and Pratchett's Good Omens. Future post-humans quantum-teleporting like gods and forcing a reenactment of Homer's Iliad on Mars? See Dan Simmons Illium and Olympos. Got a twisted fairy tale, ancient mythology/gods impinging on the modern world, Victorian magical dectective, elf/dwarf/fairy Chandler-esque mystery, humorous SF/F/H, vampire/demon noir, fae-ish erotica, dragons, unicorns, sword-and-sorcery, gunpowder-and-alchemy, blobby spaceships hooked to human brains, zombie-creating fog...? Face it, everything has been done before. But here's the point: while high-level concepts may sound similar, everyone's story is different. What you present the reader is different plot twists and you evoke different emotions, with unique protagonists and internal struggles.
The trick is that you need to give readers something different, yet your work should be comparible to someone else's published work. When you're pitching your novel to an agent or editor, it's essential that they can imagine the spine of your book on the shelves at a bookstore, next to... other SF/F. It also helps, immensely, if an editor can picture the cover and loglines and back copy--at that point, they're getting excited about your work. If you're still wondering why you need to fit within expectations, remember that editors are in the business to sell books:
- Editors know readers stay with familiar themes, genres, and authors (before you protest that editors are not considering your reading habits, realize that you're being outvoted by other readers' dollars).
- Editors choose covers that tell the readers they're getting their familiar sub-genre, whether it be hard SF, military SF, alternate history, space opera, traditional fantasy, urban fantasy, contemporary fantasy... but an editor can't communicate an undefined category.
- When an editor takes on your novel, she has to convince several publishing committees that it'll be worth the work. This means the editor has to create a profit & loss statement, but how can she do that guesswork with an unknown author? That's right, she picks a published author/novel on which to base her P&L statement. In my case, I was told which author my books were being patterned after--meaning my publisher hoped my books would appeal to that author's readers.
Here's some resources for keeping up with what's published, what's winning awards, etc. I also recommend getting to fan conferences, because that's the best, perhaps only, chance to mingle with a large amount of readers.
- Locus Magazine follows speculative fiction, and it's probably the best reference on what's being published in the genre. Each year, around February, Locus does a review of the previous year. This is where you'll see the state of SF/F/H publishing for the past year. Besides magazine subscriptions, they offer Locus Online (www.locusmag.com).
- If you want to search for authors and what they've published, use the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (www.isfdb.org). I've found this useful for puncturing my "what a unique title I have" bubble.
- The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, or SFWA, has useful blog entries (www.sfwa.org). Anyone can receive their news bulletin, but full membership is based upon making sales (see their web site). The membership bestows the Nebula Awards. Also, be sure to check their 'Writer Beware' section for frauds masquerading as agents and publishers. Check out Patricia Wrede's Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions, which are good for fleshing out your worlds.
- If you write shorter fiction and want to find markets, check out Ralan.com and Duotrope's Digest.
- The World Science Fiction Convention, otherwise known as "WorldCon," occurs somewhere in the world around August or September. The 2010 WorldCon is in Australia, which is too much of a monetary stretch for me. Sigh. For 2011 WorldCon, however, I'm pretty sure I can get to Reno, NV. The readers at WorldCon bestow the Hugo Awards (note the difference from the Nebula, which is given by writers).
- The World Fantasy Convention is supposed to be a lot of fun, but I've yet to justify the expense. Perhaps when I can get some fantasy published. The 2010 location is Columbus, OH, and the 2011 location is San Diego, CA.
- MileHiCon is the largest Science-Fiction Literary Convention in the Rocky Mountain Region, usually held in late October. Granted, it's a "local" conference for me, but I've been going to it for years and I like it. They'll have over 80 authors and speakers each year, with panels/workshops/presentations on Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Science, Music, Filking, Movies, Publishing, and more (sometimes astronomy, cosmology, etc).
- There are also huge multimedia conventions, such as DragonCon in Atlanta, which orients more on visual media such as film, TV, and art. SF/F/H authors participate here and there in the programming, but will be dwarfed by the movie and TV stars that attend. I am not saying this is good or bad, since I enjoy plenty of SF shows and films--but it's a fact that the U.S. publishing industry is small potatoes compared to film/TV (as is the number of U.S. readers versus U.S. filmgoers and TV watchers). There's also Comic Con (Comic-Con, ComicCon?), which covers all things superhero. I'm unsure whether the big one in San Diego is considered the Comic Con-- so here's a link to multiple conventions.