Contract vs. Spec

One of the things I touched upon in my talk at the Fairfield Library last month was the difference between writing a book under contract and writing a book on spec.  I like to expand on that here.

In general, working writers — by which I mean those who intend that the fruits of their creativity will form as a significant part of their income stream, and who intend to labor in the fields of their creativity for A Long Time — working writers prefer to write under contract.

There are a couple of good and compelling reasons for this:

1.  A contract brings with it an advance (i.e. “advance against royalties”), aka Money Up Front, which is always welcome.

2.  A contract is a publisher’s commitment to publish.  It’s. . .comforting to know that your finished work will be available for readers to purchase.

Like anything else, there’s also some downside to writing under contract:

1.  You have a deadline by which your work must be turned in.

2.  Within reason, you’re obligated to write the book your editor bought.

When you write on spec (“speculation”), the advantages and disadvantages are reversed.

1.  You’re working for nothing and living on dreams.  You get neither up-front money or guarantee that your book will ever be published.


2.  No deadline for delivery means you can take as long as you want or need; and you can polish every word like a pearl.  If the book flips on you in the middle, a stand-alone suddenly becomes a duology,  or a duology a single book — you can go with the flow.

Carousel Tides was written on spec, and for no other reason than I wanted to write it.  Writers get these notions in their heads, sometimes.  I took eighteen months to finish it — a longish time — and it was two-and-a-half or three years’ finding a publisher.  I was fortunate that Madame the Agent handled the submissions, because having an agent greatly speeds up response-time from publishers.

Most of the novel-length work Steve and I have done together, since, oh, 1998, has, fortunately, been written under contract.  I say — and mean — “fortunately” because of the way freelance income flows, if it flows at all.

Ideally, a freelance writer should have a backlist of work generating royalty payments, to support the advances received on new works, and to keep the cash flowing in years when there may not be a new book under contract.  This is why (among other reasons) that it’s a Bad Idea to quit your day-job with the publication of your first novel.  A one-book backlist isn’t enough to stake your mortgage payment on.  Not to mention cat food.

Now, you recall that I said writing on spec gives you freedom to go with the story wherever it takes you, a freedom that contract books do not, entirely, enjoy.

The challenge for a writer under contract is to write the best  book they possibly can, and still keep to deadline and the terms of the contract.  This is not a trivial challenge, and I am all admiration for those writers who manage the trick two, three, or even four times in a calendar year.

The argument exists, that contracts make for inferior books.  I’m not certain, myself, that this is inevitably — or even usually — the case.  While most writers’ first novel is, by necessity, written on spec, someone who wishes to be a working writer cannot afford to write only on spec.  Nor is there much evidence that writing on speculation produces a “better” novel than writing to contract.

In general, I think that contracts work better for readers, if only because books under contract have a great chance of being written and published.

What do you think?

Lee and Miller’s Duckon Schedule

The newest iteration of the Master Schedule for Duckon 19 is up over thisaway.  There are also a bunch of really interesting Special Events listed

The Lee and Miller subset looks to be something like this:


7 PM: Opening Ceremonies


10AM: Creating a large story arc – Sharon Lee & Steve Miller

Noon: Fact and Features vs Fiction–The Fallacy of Exclusion – Steve Miller

2PM: A Philosphy of Character Building – Steve Miller

2PM: World Building: How The Elements Evolve – Sharon Lee

4PM: Reading — Sharon Lee & Steve Miller

5PM: Collaboration: Working as A Team — Sharon Lee & Steve Miller


8AM: Friends of Liad Breakfast in the hotel restaurant

10AM: Steve Miller Young Fan Programming – Build your own Spaceship/aircraft

2PM: Our Publishing Experience Sharon Lee & Steve Miller

3PM: Closing Ceremonies

Musings, Various, With Bonus Brainstorming Question

…Or:  Five Things Make a Post

1.  I think I forgot to mention here that the mass market edition of Fledgling hit number 10 on the Locus Bestseller List for paperbacks sold in March 2010 and reported in the June edition.

2.  Yesterday — or maybe Thursday — a DVD of my talk at the Fairfield Public Library arrived in the PO Box, kindly sent on by Station Manager Laura Guite.  Steve and I viewed it — him, because he hadn’t been able to attend (the talk had originally been his gig, but he had a conflict with the meeting of the Board of Trustees for our own town’s library, so he suggested me), and me because I never get a chance to see myself give a presentation and I was curious.

It. . .wasn’t too bad.  I talk too fast, but I know that; otherwise, I looked calm and relaxed and friendly, and made my points like I knew what the heck I was talking about.  Thirty years ago, if you would’ve told me that I would willingly stand up in front of — not only a roomful of people, but a television! camera! — and Given a Talk, I would’ve fainted dead away.  I guess that’s one part of getting older that’s positive.  Yes, I do have this stuff cold, thank you.

3.  We have word from a bookseller friend that Mouse and Dragon is moving quite briskly of f the shelves of his store, which, he said, he had expected.  He also mentioned that The Dragon Variation is doing much better than he had anticipated, which is gratifying, but brings up a concern.

What can we do to get the word out to potential readers of the Liaden Universe® — you know, those folks who would love our work, if only they knew it existed — that The Dragon Variation is an excellent way to sample the Liaden Universe®, and, hopefully, start a long and beautiful journey with the members of Clan Korval and their friends?  Ideas?  Suggestions?

4.  The National Carousel Association sends word of its Annual Convention, the “Carousels of Discovery” tour, based in Spokane.

The convention includes trips to and rides on six operating carousels — a 1909 Looff Carousel (optional Tech Day with this carousel, as well, with mechanical and technical demos and operator training course, as well as an overview of the carousel’s restoration — I’d give, well, not my eye-teeth, ’cause you never know when they’ll come in handy, but something appropriately precious just to be able to attend this one session); a 1910 Dolle-Carmel-Borelli restoration now named The Three Rivers Carousel; a ride, with ice cream cones!, on the Great Northern Towne Center Carousel in Helena, Montana; a ride on the molded aluminum horses of the Boulder River Carousel, and a visit with the Spirit of Columbia Gardens Carousel (a restoration, it says here, but nothing about the construction, or if, in fact, the restoration is complete), then a side trip to Silverwood to ride the 1954 Herschel carousel and tour the amusement park.

Sigh.  Sounds like a fun time, if you’re interested in vintage carousels and have an extra $650 plus transportation to and fro burning a hole in your pocket.

5.  Got some solid work done on Ghost Ship today, after a long spell of Not  Much.  Hoping for another tomorrow, and that the damn dam has finally broken.

In Which Yr Hmbl Hostess Has Not Had Enough Caffeine

Bruce Sterling is trying to make a point over here.  Mind you, I’m not sure what his point is.  It sorta smacks of the old assurance from A Certain Male SF Writer that his female colleagues didn’t have to write fantasy!  They could, with only a little research, learn to write science fiction, too.

Lack of caffeine, right.

Anyhow, Mr. Sterling provides a list, lifted from a Must Read SF posting at The Galaxy Express, with the note that there is not a single male author appearing.  One of the authors listed is Steve Miller, who, last time I checked — quite recently, in fact — was male.  And an author.

When this was pointed out to Mr. Sterling, he amended his editorial to exclaim that there was a male author of half a book! on the list.

Since there were three books listed by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, Mr. Sterling clearly can’t do arithmetic, either.

Back to the point of the thing.

If there is only a single male author of SFRomance on the list compiled by Galaxy Express, does that mean there are no men writing SFRomance?  I confess that I can’t think of a name — ref. lack of caffeine — but perhaps someone else can?

And!  If there are “no” men writing SFRomance, does that automatically make SFRomance an Inferior Form, as Mr. Sterling’s commentary seems to suggest?


Let Us Sum Up

1.  Saltation, the Second Book of Theo Waitley, published by Baen Books in hardcover with a street date of April 13, 2010, sold out at the warehouse before the subscriber copies were shipped to Maine.

1a.  The authors are aware that the book has been for sale from bookstores for A Really, Really Long Time

1b.  The authors are also aware that subscriber copies have not yet been mailed

1c.  Really, they are

2. Upon learning of the sell-out, Baen Books immediately ordered a new printing of Saltation.

2a.  It takes time to print books

2b.  It takes time ship books

3.  The subscriber copies of Saltation arrived in Maine on Tuesday, June 8.

3a.  That’s 1200 subscriber copies

4.  Each book must be:




*in addition, there is considerable database wrangling involved

4a.  The above tasks take time

5.  The authors are going to a convention from June 17 through June 21.

5a.  This has been in the works for a Very Long Time; it is a professional commitment.  While we are away, no books will be processed.

5b.  Had matters gone as originally planned, Saltation would have arrived in Maine at the end of April and we could have begun the process of signing-and-shipping before we left for Oasis.  Conceivably, some folks would have had their books by now.

5c. Pursuant to 1, above, that didn’t happen

6.  We will begin the process of getting the books to subscribers when we return from Duckon

6a.  As with Fledgling and pursuant to 4 and 4a above, the process of getting books to subscribers will take time.  Steve basically does the mailing single-handedly, and mailing 1200 books is non-trivial.

7.  The authors thank you for your understanding.

The Last Out of the Nest Fledgling Sale

What could be more exciting than a cleaning out the closet sale?

…frankly, not much.  I have a damned impressive closet; its depths surprise even me.

However! Running a very close second is a sale to clear the decks at SRM Galactic Headquarters in preparation of the Grand Signing and Mailing of…


As of this typing, we have at Headquarters five cases — about one hundred copies — of the first hardcover printing of Fledgling.  We believe that all subscribers have received their books.  (If you feel that you ought to have received a book, and didn’t, write to me NOW at fledgling AT korval dot com.  I’m not kidding.)  These hundred books therefore constitute overstock and they’re taking up valuable and much-needed floor space.

We are therefore and immediately declaring open season on Fledgling!

Here are the rules:

1.  If you would like to purchase a hardcover of Fledgling signed by the authors (no personalizations; I’m sorry), please do one of the following

a.  PayPal  $32* to fledgling AT korval dot com making sure that your shipping address is correct

Edited to Add:  If you live outside of the United States, please write to me.  The postage will be higher.  We will honor the single order already received because I forgot.

b. Write to me at fledgling AT korval dot com, telling me that you are putting a check or money order for $32* in US funds only in the mail to Sharon Lee, PO Box 707, Waterville ME  04903-0707.  Remember to include your shipping address.

2.  Sales are first come, first served.  The sale is over when all the Fledglings have found homes.

3.  We will do fulfillment after we return to Maine from Duckon — that is, after June 23, coincidentally Science Fiction Writers Day!

4.  Questions to fledgling AT korval dot com, please

Take off!

Thank you for your attention.


*this price reflects the absurd increase in postage, as well as the cost of boxes and other shipping materials

On Living Happily Ever After

I begin with a disclaimer:  I am not a writer of genre Romance.

This likely says more about me than it does about genre Romance, and really, for a while I thought that I would write Romance.  It could’ve gone that way; my reading, ‘way back when mass market paperbacks cost 35, 45, 60 U.S. cents, was split between SF and Romance, with a hearty side of Mystery.

At that time, Romance was pretty much all relationship, all the time; and SF was pretty much action-adventure with some cool shiny things tossed in for squee, and relationships both few and shallow. Obviously, this over-simplifies, but grant that the past is a distant country and we did things differently there.

What I found as a reader, ‘way back then, was that each genre was wanting in something that I did want — more action in the love story, and more love in the action story.  It could, as I said, have gone either way when I finally uttered that Fateful and Explosive Sentence “I can do better than that!” which graduates Readers to Writers.  But, when I landed, I came down on the side of SF, and have ever since plotted to include relationships (not just romantic relationships) in my work.

It might have been that the action-adventure in SF that seduced me, but I think, now, that I knew subconsciously even as a proto-writer that I could not do my best work under the constraints of HEA.

For those who are not Romance readers, “HEA” means “Happily Ever After” and it was for many years the mandated Romance novel ending.  I have been on Romance writer lists where the HEA is often a topic of intense conversation.  I think that perhaps the field is expanded enough now — and enough of the newer writers who came down on the Romance side of the equation had a love of SF/F or action-adventure — that there is a little give, some room for ambiguous endings.

Notice that I say ambiguous.  In genre literature it is of course one of the writer’s goals to leave the reader wanting more of this.  Therefore, a story that ends “and then they all died” (while apparently appealing to a certain subset of readers) really isn’t the way to go if the writer envisions a long-term career.

Ideally, a genre story gives the reader hope for the future, and a nice kick of satisfaction — the hero and heroine pledge their love; the murderer is discovered; the world is saved — each according to its own peculiar and particular rules.

Ideally, the ending of any particular story is predicated by everything that has gone before.  The ending ought not devalue the characters, nor their sacrifices and lessons.  This is why (IMNSHO) not all stories can have happy endings.

I was on a panel discussing SF Romance and Romantic SF at Oasis.  One of the very interesting questions posed by the moderator was how each of the panelists made their characters worthy of a happy ending.

This is a question that makes sense to a Romance writer, and to Romance readers.  The characters will have a happy ending; it’s mandated by the form. Therefore an important part of the tension of the story is how the reward will be earned.

In SF — and in Fantasy — it is by no means certain that the characters will achieve a personal happy ending.  They may do everything “right,” grow morally and spiritually; be brave, upstanding, true; see the resolution of their efforts fulfilled — and still be denied a Happy Ever After with the love(s) of their life.

I personally believe that this is. . .truer, and more resonant.  Sadly, I have read SF Romances (Science Fiction written from the stance of the conventions of the Romance genre) where the mandated HEA warped the entire shape of the story and negated everything that the characters had achieved.

In Romantic Science Fiction (Science Fiction that includes a strong Romance sub-plot while adhering to the conventions of the SF genre), the lovers may part, if the plot so demands, perhaps to meet again — or not —  when their respective work is done, thus allowing the character’s growth to continue beyond the end of the story.

One of the many interesting things said by my co-panelists at Oasis was the observation by Gennita Low, who writes espionage romances, that she tries to give her characters a happy ending, while realizing that — given the nature of her characters, in this example a professional assassin — the happy ending cannot be forever, or even, perhaps, for very long.

This felt true to me.  “And they lived happily ever after, for as long as they could,” is something I can accept, as a reader, and as a writer.

Notice that the Liaden Universe® novels tend to deliver “And they lived happily ever after, for as long as they could,” endings.  Given our characters, and the lives they lead, it does sometimes happen that a major character will die.  We try to keep these deaths to a minimum, and to handle them as respectfully as possible — by which I mean, as the character would have wished.  But!  Our characters know they live dangerously, and they know that sometimes things Just Go Horribly Wrong. On more than one occasion one character or another has given voice to a variation of, “Life isn’t safe; people die here.”  Which is something that we all know to be true.

As a writer, I would say that this knowledge increases the tension for the characters and for the reader, but it’s certainly not something that I could get away with in a HEA mandated Romance novel.

So, that’s why I write SF/F, and why I’m interested in the shift toward a middle ground, as Romance woos SF and SF tries to commit to relationships.

Books Read in 2010

Deceiver, C.J.Cherryh

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson

Half Magic, Edward Eager

Unknown, Rachel Caine

The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson

Sunshine, Robin McKinley

Bone Crossed, Patricia Briggs

‘Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis

The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield

The Ten-Cent Plague, David Hajdu

Bridge of Birds, Barry Hughart

Lee and Miller’s Oasis 23 Schedule

If you’re coming to Oasis and want to be sure to see (or avoid) us, our schedule is below.  We’ll probably also be findable in the art show, the dealers room, and any conveniently placed sofa.  The full program schedule is here.

Friday 03:00 PM What is the Future of Publishing?
E-publishing, self-publishing, The I-pad, the Nook, the Kindle. What will we be reading and how in 10 years?
Balder, Cowden, Fielding, Gittens, Miller, Roen(m), Wilson

Friday 04:00 PM Writers You Have Never Heard of, But Should Have Your favorite SF writers discuss who they are reading and recommending.
Byers, Lee, Miller, Wilber(m)

Friday 07:00 PM Opening Ceremonies and Cthulhu Chili Contest
Meet our guests and taste some great chilis.
Balder, Hinman, Lee, Miller

Friday 08:00 PM Favorite Characters, Favorite Books
Hear our panel of writers talk about some of their favorites from their own books.
Bova, Lee, McDevitt, Miller

Friday 09:00 PM Alien Artifacts
Our intergalactic archeologists evaluate rare objects from around the galaxy. They have all the answers; they just never agree.
Balder, Caldwell(m), Conrad, Lee, Miller, Mitchell

Saturday 09:00 AM Friends of Liad Breakfast in the Livingston Street Cafe (inside the convention hotel)  Join us for coffee! and breakfast!  and coffee!  and good company!  Did I mention coffee?

Saturday 01:00 PM Writer Guests of Honor — Steve Miller and Sharon Lee
Our writer guests of honor discuss their work and answer questions.

Saturday 02:00 PM Signings
Bova, Lee, McDevitt, Miller

Saturday 05:00 PM Science Fiction and Comedy: Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock
Come discuss your favorite SF comedies.
Balder, Finkelstein, Finkelstein, Hinman, Lee, Ranson

Sunday 10:00 AM Romance in SF and Fantasy
How is a work of fiction defined? What about a story classifies it as a romance as opposed to SF or fantasy. Was “Gone With the Wind” just another romance novel?
Dolamore, Lee, Low, Wilson(m)

Sunday 01:00 PM How to Make Sure Your Manuscript Gets Rejected
Authors discuss how they got published and what you shouldn’t do if you want to be published.
Dolamore, Lee, McDevitt(m), Miller, Roen, Wilson

Sunday 03:00 PM Closing Ceremonies
Balder, Hinman, Lee, Livingston, Miller