Yesterday I was asked, as I have been a few times before “I’m trying to write but what’s it take to be an author?” The simple answer is to write and keep writing. It takes hundreds of hours to complete a book, and you need to have several books if you really want to make a go at it. But I don’t believe people ask that question for that simple response. I take the question to mean: how do you get published (or publish yourself) and generate a following?
I don’t have a great answer on that level, as I’m pretty new to the game myself. My work that’s out there and the people that believe in me liked my ideas. I don’t have a magic formula there. But I did have to present them. Why have some big name authors pushed me, given me blurbs, let me be on their blogs, blogged about me, etc? Well, because I asked. For every one you see, ten have told me no over the years. Part of the game is just getting used to rejection and not really caring when it happens.
By the same token I noticed that there’s been a distinct change in my attitude toward my works as well as the way I produce them. It’s something that I couldn’t have done four or five years ago when I was still figuring out my voice, figuring out the basics of the craft, and I by no means am recommending just putting up first drafts of your first works and calling it a day — that will end poorly for you (and would for me as well… you should see how bad my first draft of my first book is. You won’t see it, and nor did anyone else for that matter. Star Realms: Rescue Run is my third novel, and that went through an intensive outline, 3 major drafts and then some before getting to you, dear reader).
However, once you have the basics down, it really is like most other things in life. Confidence is king. Naturally it helps to gain confidence when you’ve got nearly 50 reviews on Amazon and all but a couple are glowing, but you can generate confidence internally. Confidence both helps you project that you’re professional to others, giving them interest in you and your work, and it helps you to take risks in writing that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
For a long time, I was trapped in sci-fi in trying hard for realism, thinking that unless it felt real, readers would shun me. What tripped me up there was what I mentioned on Declan Finn’s Catholic Geek Radio podcast last weekend. I was in a talk with the publisher of Baen books (in a writing lesson at Jody Lynn Nye’s Dragon*Con class — which I highly recommend for novice/apprentice level writers), and she fielded a question on aliens that stressed a sort of hard science fiction take on aliens — that they have to be realistic that there has to be some evolutionary science behind walking, talking humanoid aliens that interact in books, otherwise publishers wouldn’t be interested. This scared the crap out of me. My work at the time almost exclusively featured such aliens (and the stuff I’m still working on still does). I needed hard science backgrounds to figure them out and quickly… and I saw that my work really didn’t have room for that. That made my potential space opera books unpublishable by Baen standards.
I’m not saying that Toni’s advice at the time is necessarily wrong. It is right for a lot of books, but in having studied space opera in depth — you really don’t need as much as to fret about your book’s content like that as long as you have a well developed idea of their culture, and you make them distinct from humans. What’s important is the gripping moments that make people turn the page. It’s about creating a strange new world that’s fun to explore. All sorts of writers have had aliens with varying level of detail in their space operas — Poul Anderson (as I’m on a kick reading him as of late), Anne McCaffrey, more recently Sharon Lee, they all have walking, talking humanoids to their works, and depending on the book, can be very loose in their descriptions of back history and origins. Look at Star Trek and Star Wars — they have tons of that as well, and we accept the species because they’re fun and drive conflict. What fits one story doesn’t necessarily fit another. Striving for absolute realism in science fiction doesn’t work because once you have humans meeting aliens in space to begin with as it violates the laws of physics.
Once I freed myself of the fear of rejection there, I could write about my worlds and my aliens without caring how others would critique it. I wrote and write to entertain myself first and foremost. I like science fiction a lot, and so if it entertains me, it probably will entertain science fiction readers as a whole. It comes back to confidence, and having the confidence to write whatever sounds good in the moment, whatever evokes feeling– as that’s what readers will want at the end of the day. If they’re having fun, they won’t be judging you negatively by the million year backstory evolution of your alien species, or the lack thereof.
Work hard, develop things to where it feels good to you, add a little twist to it after the first draft through and you’ll have a good work on your hands. Do it again. Then do it again. It never ends, content production, in any form. If you stagnate, that’s when you die. As far as my aliens, if all goes well, you’ll be seeing the alien race that I’ve been fretting about since around 2010 later this year or early next. I am satisfied where they’re at and think they’re awesome. More details soon.
So what’s the difference between someone who’s “trying to write” and an “author? It’s confidence, as stated before. Stay confident in your writing, in your editing, and in the way you project yourself to others. You’ll have people who think your book is great, you’ll have a couple who won’t like it. Such is life. There’s even people out there who call Tolkien boring and trash, proving that there is no way to please everyone. If you stay confident, however, you’ll find your following and they will enjoy what you produce.