Strategic Writing

Posted: September 1st, 2023 under Craft, Editing, Life beyond writing, Marketing, Revisions, the writing life.

Since early 2001, I have been the only earning member of our family.   Luckily for me, the timing coincided with the largest advance I’ve ever received.  But a writer’s income depends on continued writing–even with books already out earning royalties, they eventually slide down the publisher’s priority list as their sales drop.   Gaps in publishing lead to sagging income and when it sags enough, the writer starts burning through savings, if they’re lucky enough and canny enough to have them.  Or, as I did, have a relative who leaves them something more substantial than “dinner out after the funeral” or debts, which is what many are left with.   My last full-size book came out in 2018, five years ago.  Five years in publishing is easily the average employment time for editors in some companies, and being out of the mix for five years is…not great.  If the Horngard novel sells to someone, it still would not be out until 2025, most likely.  That’s 7 years without a release.  I’m well down the staircase.  Which is way better than it could be.

The good response to Deeds of Youth and going to ArmadilloCon gave me enough confidence to break out of the concussion + Covid inertia I’d also struggled with, and join an online writing group on Discord (for which I purchased an actual webcam and microphone because I could not remember the password for the laptop…I wasn’t using it enough.)   The online writing group does the usual “read stuff, discuss the stuff,” thing, which I used to find very helpful with my first-readers, but my original first-readers are now (but for one, who’s in that writing group and got me into it)  older, have health and/or vision problems, and just can’t respond quickly.  It took a few weeks, but this past week the group sank its collective teeth into the new shorter piece, “Final Honors.”  I should mention that nobody else in the group is writing anything like what I write, even those nominally within the umbrella of SF/F.   I like that.   It’s a check on whether what I write might be attractive to people who aren’t already fans, or even reading in the genre.   The comments I got were very, very valuable in helping me consider the revision of that story…and the Horngard novel.  Editors are always looking, in series/same universe works, for the possibility (or not) of introducing new readers to that body of work.  I’ve never been that great at it in fantasy, though I’ve been successful (to a point) with SF.

As well as the question (from several) “Are you considering this for appeal to your current fans or people unfamiliar with your work?” one bold person asked “Are you looking to make money, or just write for yourself and friends?”   I think I blinked about four times, processing that.  Because I do write for myself, always have even when making money at it…AND I depend on an income because I like to eat (maybe too much) and so does my family including two horses.  The consensus of the group was that the short story needed considerable work to make it accessible to readers not familiar with my work (and pointing out things I hadn’t thought of as lacking–which is good to know–like making clear which unfamiliar names are people and which are cities) and then a lack of consensus on the story’s possible appropriate length.   At the end of the discussion, I was full of new ideas, new insights, which is the best possible outcome of having your work looked at.  More than one person, more than one viewpoint coming out of a different readership.  Story is Story, but there are places where SF/F demands more of readers than most other genres, and if you want to expand the total readership of the genre, as well as your own work, you need to provide clues as well as handholds.

Hence this post, because I’ve spend several days looking back at recent work, finding the same gaps and rough spots as in “Final Honors” in the other stories, in terms of making the work more accessible, and those gaps and rough spots would be a serious barrier to acceptance of the Horngard novel even within genre.  Eyes wide open here.  So what to do about it, given the limited writing time enforced by eyesight, health, probably length of life?  Like many writers, I have a perfectly functional (?) *practical* brain  alongside WriterBrain’s wild talent for running off in the wilderness and coming home with big game in the form of books.  Practical Brain is in large part shaped by my mother’s Engineer Brain and it is willing to look firmly at numbers, probabilities, stress points, failure analysis…all that stuff.  So the challenge is “1. How to write what will satisfy me when it’s done..2. .satisfy my existing fans when it’s done…and 3. at least not repel (and preferably attract) new readers.  I want to write within Paksworld for awhile, both long and short, because the Plot Daemon’s successor generates better plot there.  I know that background best, I’m able to stay “in character” there best.  And I want stories that are true to Paksworld, not “other.”   I’m reasonably sure that existing Paksworld fans will be happy with those, though if I can get back to the earlier “tighter” writing, they’d probably like that better, and they never did seem to like anything fluffy or too lightweight.  Keep the depth of place and character.  And those fans–you readers among them–won’t want boring infodump in the service of bringing in new readers.   Insert all necessary handrails on the stairways, and light switches in the deep levels, to give new readers a fair chance of following a story.  The group I’m in can definitely help me with that, by telling me what they stumbled on, where they felt lost, etc.

So I’ve gone in and consulted WriterBrain, who was chomping at the bit to get back to writing itself, explained that we were going to have to revisit several stories and re-vision them, and so far (not having actually started) WriterBrain is willing to do that, as long as it doesn’t mean “just cutting.”   And WriterBrain would like more input from the critics.  OK.  That can be arranged, every Tuesday evening.   There is a danger that this group’s ability to be “the outsiders” to my work may decay with constant exposure to it, but since they prefer to chomp down on what are to me *minute* amounts per person per week (very practical,  but for a LOOOONNNGGG form writer like me, 1500 words isn’t even a day’s work, let alone a week’s)  that probably won’t happen for several years.  And–despite grumbling over the need (self-created) to get the webcam and the microphone…wow is the image and sound quality better.   The friend who rescued me back in May from the tech collapse and office chaos told me which to buy.   They’re not built into the computer–they’re completely separate and stored elsewhere when not in use because I’ve heard about what happens if you have a live cam on your computer all the time–eventually you forget it’s live, with unfortunate world wide exposure you didn’t want.

Now that I’ve written down what the plan is, I can go back to throwing ingredients into the bowl without measuring, stir them up with whatever implement is handy, and bake until the kitchen smells “right”.    WriterBrain is happy with that.  PracticalBrain would like a flowchart and blueprint, *with* dimensions, thank you, but is muttering only softly when I say “You’re a consultant, not the designer. We’ll get back to you.”  PracticalBrain, who sounds like my mother, never gives up completely.  It’s WriterBrain who if really upset goes off in a huff for days.

See you later.  I’m opening WriterBrain’s gate.


  • Comment by Eva-Maria — September 1, 2023 @ 2:17 pm


    Hi, in the nineties I read one of the Paks books in Swedish, probably the middle one. I seem to have missed that there was more, maybe not translated yet.
    A couple of weeks ago I started reading Girds’s Legacy, went on to read the trilogy of Paksenarrion, then Paladin’s Legacy, Deeds of Honor and Deeds of youth.
    I am so happy to hear that more is coming.
    Since you have got a webcam and microphone, I would suggest that you get in touch with some youtubers that mainly focus on fantasy. That would be a really good way to reach out to new and old readers.
    Selfpublishing has grown a lot, so that might be an alternative to traditional publishing.
    Many authors publish through fundraising as well, Brandon Sanderson and Michael J Sullivan among others.
    I would just be happy to get the books as fast as possible.
    Good luck with writing and publishing.

  • Comment by elizabeth — September 1, 2023 @ 2:41 pm


    Thank you for letting me know you’ve read all those books! And like them! Makes a lift to my day.
    The two short fiction collections, Deeds of Youth and Deeds of Honor, are “sort of” self-published through my agent (a service he does for his clients) and I will be doing more of those. The next novel is just moving slowly through the final editing phase. I hope it will be a traditional book because it’s so BIG.

  • Comment by Annabel Smyth — September 1, 2023 @ 4:54 pm


    I think I must be really odd, or something, because I actually quite like infodumps. Although they can be tedious if they are repeated in every book in the series – one writer coped with the need to bring new readers up to speed by having the characters tell one another who is doing what, but not in the “Please tell my brother the terrorist that our father the prime minister will….” clunky way that some authors (not you) adopt. But done well, an infodump can be interesting and draw one into the story so far.

  • Comment by elizabeth — September 1, 2023 @ 6:53 pm


    When I as a little kid (5-6 or so) there was a series of books about “The Bobbsey Twins.” Two sets of twins, both boy/girl; the younger pair were Flossie and Freddy, and I can’t now remember the names of the older pair (when I was their age I was long past reading those books.) They had titles like “The Bobbsey Twins at the Beach,” etc. The older pair were often tasked with looking after the younger pair; the boys got to do all the interesting things; Flossie (in particular) had to be rescued from things at least once per book. Nan was the older girl, and she sometimes had to be rescued from a bully by her twin. Anyway: Every book had, in the first few pages, an inroduction to the Bobbsey family–parents and children–and it was exactly the same in every book and I grew to hate it.

    OTOH, as a young reader, interested in many different things and eager for more knowledge, infodump about horses, airplanes, making maple syrup, rocks, wildlife, native plants, and much more didn’t bore me at all.

  • Comment by Marian — September 2, 2023 @ 3:25 am


    O..K …
    Asking an established writer “Are you looking to make money, or just write for yourself and friends?” verges on insulting. Says more about the group than about you. And “Are you considering this for appeal to your current fans or people unfamiliar with your work?” smacks of jealousy that you are established and they are not.
    I am really not sure they are that good for you, more likely to underline and increase any (subconscious) anxiety. 1500 word bites is not really representative, nor best practice for editing. True, you may need to tighten up some short stories. I really think I would rely more on your experience.
    It may be that Horngard needed tightening – but it was your first long effort after the break, and your editors in the past have always asked you to cut and tighten slower passages. Has your agent not managed to place it for you?
    I have every confidence that your writing will be successful. If you choose not to publish this comment I will understand.

  • Comment by Jonathan Schor — September 2, 2023 @ 6:33 am


    Hello – The starving garret syndrome of the artist. Of course you are not living in a garret and hopefully you are not contemplating how many meals you can get out of the horses. The conflict between good writing and sellable writing is very real. I have always found your writing very good. As to its sale ability I can not say – I was in Barnes & Noble just yesterday as is my want I looked in the Science Fiction/fantasy section looking for my favorite authors. CJ Cherryh was there but to my sorrow no Elizabeth Moon. I really don’t know what to say and it’s a little late for you to re-up with the Marines. I would offer to become one of your loyal pre-readers but I am afraid I have become too invested in your published works to read critically. All I can offer is to consult with your agent as to what will sell now a days and the best way to sell. You might have to hold your nose in your writing as would your slavering fans, but I also would not like to contemplate how many meals the horses would provide – and besides, what do you do when they are gone. Stay strong and zen hugs.

  • Comment by elizabeth — September 2, 2023 @ 8:12 am


    Jonathan–The horses are fat and happy and not in any danger of being eaten. Clearly I did something wrong in introducing this topic of how a writer might shift emphasis a little for good reasons. SIGH. Yeah, I know there’s none of my stuff in stores now. I have to recuild “the brand” as they say now. And I have to do it fast because, like everyone else on the planet, both normal aging and climate related stuff is against me. Few writers these days are really productive (mentally or financially) past 80 and just about none past 90. Writing is work. It takes energy. It takes seat of pants in seat of chair (or feet on floor at standing desk) every day, and a brain that can generate Story over and over and over and over and a body that will stand the physical strain of being used for the same kind of work for years. Writers wear out. Nonfiction writers wear out later–I think because they don’t have to generate Story and can always fall back on telling something concrete about something they can physically touch and see, which is why there are more 90+ nonfiction writers still writing well when the fiction writers are moving toward teaching/lecturing/etc if they’ve got their academic chops. Meanwhile, time does not stop for anyone, including people who get potentially career-ending injuries: ask a pro athlete about that. One moment you’re a star, then you’re flat on your back in the hospital with doctors going “Hmmm…” and “That doesn’t look good, that bit there…” and soon it’s “We’ll see what rehab can do,” and then the team drops you and you have to sell the sportcar you can no longer drive because it’s not built to accept those hand controls and you can’t afford the fuel anyway. Etc. Happens to them younger, with less time to prepare, and so forth. Happened to me in early 70s, past retirement age for many. A writer with more academic chops in English Lit would already have been filling in their schedule with college gigs in teaching or workshops. I did look, sometime back, but I don’t have that background (they want at least masters degrees and preferably doctorates in a literary field); publication OF fiction in genre isn’t preferred even for teaching in genre.) Just to be crystal clear, we’re not on our last sack of beans or anywhere close to it. Very conservative management (not the MAGA sort of “conservative” which I consider not conservative at all, BTW) has kept us well into the black, horses and all, and my share of my father’s estate was a welcome boost, now being managed well by someone with a track record. I’m lucky, and by whole-planet standards, rich enough. We’ve survived having two legs of our retirement plans cut off, and as long as Social Security doesn’t fall to the MAGAts, and nobody has a shattering type health crash, two of us should arrive at Final Moments with enough left over for the youngest to be OK. However…I’m not comfortable with a one-legged stool, AND am constantly being poked by stories that want to be written (though distinctly harder to write than before) and would really appreciate bringing in some new writing income. I am NOT capable of running a self-publishing career on my own, as some people I know have done, some temporarily to cover a sudden publisher collapse, and some permanently, alone on in groups like BookView Cafe. All praise to those who can, but using Patreon or BVC or straight up solo self-publishing requires skills that I don’t have and are crosswise to my innate abilities. The child who cannot sell even one box of Girl Scout Cookies grows into the writer who can’t really sell her own books out of a box, either. (Well, sort of, I have once, but I am in awe of writers who do it all the time and easily, with out the bowels of their being twisted into knots.)

    So, anyway, don’t worry. If you worry too much, I’ll start worrying that I should be worrying, not just planning on spec. Worrying is bad for my writing. I did worry about losing the second retirement leg, but once it was truly gone, the worry didn’t last as long as I’d thought it would. Planning, though…my Engineer Mother was a planning professional, as engineers are. She could “run the figures” in her head, right alongside everything else; I have to stop and have paper and pencil (and calculator) at hand. She had contingency plans on her contingency plans, plans layers deep. That’s how a divorced woman, with a serious health condition, in an era when she was paid less than half what men with her duties & abilities was paid, managed to give me a life with some luxuries in it as well as rock solid limitations. She died sane and solvent and happy with her life, which is a blessing not everyone has. I also have contingency plans, and plans behind every branch, but mine are sketchier than hers. It’s OK. The older you get, the more you don’t have to worry about really long range planning. Solid mid-range will do. I want to write the books I would have written in the past five years, and write them well, and see them launched into the world.

  • Comment by elizabeth — September 2, 2023 @ 8:42 am


    Marian: The comment was neither meant as, nor did I take it as, an insult. In the context of the conversation (remember, this was on Discord, with camera and microphones, so I could read both facial expression and voice tone) it was a reasonable question, since we both knew that trying to expand the audience (after a long absence, particularly) would involve changes in the strategy of the writing. It wasn’t jealousy; it was reality. I came out of that meeting feeling energiized, encouraged to think “diagonally” again (one of the things that’s bothered me is feeling stuck in linear thinking when I used to be able to switch gears, switch tracks, etc.) Not discouraged. I would’ve been discouraged by any group 2-3 years ago, because I wasn’t (and knew I wasn’t) writing at the level of “novice” even. But now I also know that my stuff is professional, just not at the top of what I used to write. I trust my agent’s judgment–he and I both want the same thing for my work and he knows the editors and industry better than I do. He hasn’t sent Horngard out because it’s NOT where it needs to be yet, to send it out as an Elizabeth Moon book. All writers fall into habits of writing that, uncorrected, lead to declining quality. (Books tend to get longer, more diffuse, more filled with the writer’s pets…not the darlings, those are easily managed, but the pets…ideas, phrases, common situational drivers…are now snuggled into the household, curled up on the hearth rug, handy to be petted from every chair the writer sits in, increasingly part of every chapter in every book. We have a saying in the Episcopal church (the women do, anyway) that doing anything *once* makes it “tradition.” It’s possible to start new traditions *easily*, but changing an older tradition? Not so easy. (In every parish I’ve been in but one, choir practice has been on Wednesday. That one had it on Thursday. I still wonder who got it moved to Thursday, and how and when. Was it Joe the organist? It could’ve been, because his wife played in the San Antonio Symphony, and Wednesday could’ve been one of their standard rehearsal nights.

  • Comment by Nadine Bowlus — September 2, 2023 @ 7:29 pm


    Just a friendly message from a long-time reader and fan who depends on escape to the various sci-fi and fantasy worlds you have created. When “here” is too intense, “there” is where I go for relief.

    And I fully empathize with you on wanting to do more writing, or for me sewing and quilting, than aging bodies will permit.

    Best wishes,
    Nadine Bowlus

  • Comment by Jim DeWItt — September 3, 2023 @ 6:54 am


    I think your point about older writers is generally true, but there are certainly exceptions. Misty Lackey (73?) continues her prodigious output. Ditto Stephen King (78?). Arthur Clark proofed his last book just a few weeks before he died, at 90 (despite very serious post-polio syndrome). I just finished an excellent new book of John McPhee essays (92).

    I think the critical thing as we age is to keep doing stuff. You know, “use it or lose it.” The bits of our bodies we continue to exercise are the ones that serve us best as we age. The capacity for imagination, in particular. I saw in “Deeds of Youth” every indication you’ve kept your writing skills sharp. I look forward to more.

  • Comment by elizabeth — September 3, 2023 @ 8:47 am


    McPhee is one of my favorite nonfiction writers, and I was thinking of him when I said I suspected more nonfiction writers made it into the 90s still producing. McPhee lost (to death) his longtime and favorite editor in the last two years; that will be hard on him, too–not just the friendship but the way he and his editor had understood each other’s skills. Absolutely the trick, if there is a trick, is to keep doing what got you there. It’s why I put in the effort, when the concussion injury itself hung on and hung on, to try over and over every day. I fell short in other aspects of recovery “keeping on” because I just could not summon the energy for it. If I’d not lost the ability to drive safely at night, I’d have been better off because the music part of me needed to sing in the group…music for me is healing. But definitely “using helps keep you from losing” both mental and physical skills. So I need to get up NOW and do the daily squats that I’ve been kinda slacking on this summer, off and on doing, which is better than not doing at all, but…I’ll finish this reply in a few.

    There we go. Conjunto music from San Antonio, a few squats, five minutes dancing the quick parts with the extra steps. (Optional for each couple.) Ahhhh.

    Yesterday, I actually opened my Greek-English lexicon again to look up a Greek reference I found in the OED…the energy was there. With the OED here, in the same room, where getting to it doesn’t involve driving somewhere…the urge to “consult the source” is returning, and spreading out to my other resource books beyond IDing plants & animals on the land. The more areas in which I exercise the brain, the more it will come back. I used to have (longer ago–for 20 years at least, research on neurological stuff to help me with our son’s disability drove previous habits into hiding for awhile) a regular round of review of all the sources I’d used in the Paks books, including the legal codes and texts I’d used as foundation for the Code of Gird, re-reading classics of Greek & Roman lit (but not in their original languages, though I made a stab now and then at some.) Keeping the brain learning and reviewing and learning more was a priority since graduation from Rice, because a year or so later, in a visit to the history chair, Dr. Drew, she mentioned how she felt it disappointing at times to visit former students and find only the books from their time in college on their shelves. That college should be just the beginning of one’s education, not the end. I agreed, and started thinking about a plan that would likely work in any situation, with only minor adjustments. It certainly worked between 23 and 38, when our son was born, and by that time was solid habit. When I needed to learn more about neurology, I just put that in the place of the formal study rotation, which had sent me into multiple new fields in the meantime. Starting at the bottom and coming up to speed in one thing after another had become a familiar process, intellectually and physically. My plan, the original three-pronged form, including studying something in a three semester year–either in formal “take a night class in this” or at home study a couple hours every evening, practice or learn (or both) a new outdoor skill each year, and practice or learn a new indoor skill. Helped that we did not have a TV for 17 years. Staring at sitcoms did not happen. Skills I didn’t like after trying them for six months could be dropped, replaced with something I did like…which then had to improve. When I was in a full-time academic program, that counted on the brain side but the physical skill stuff had to be done too. It wasn’t *hard*…I knew if I made it hard all the time I’d get resistant…but it was relentless, as time went on because I was used to asking myself “what have you actually learned in the past week/month/semester/year? What will you do next?” It’s made life lively, interesting, fun…the difficulties more “new terrain to get over” than “disasters.” And that’s enough bragging and very likely way too much of it.

  • Comment by elizabeth — September 3, 2023 @ 8:48 am


    Thank you, Nadine. Knowing the work helps someone else is the biggest motivation. I’m off to look at chapter three of Horngard *right now*.

  • Comment by OtterB — September 4, 2023 @ 7:18 am


    I am looking forward to the opportunity to read Horngard when you and your agent (and, of course, an editor) think it’s ready to be sent into the world, and glad that you’re finding things that bring you more energy for the thinking and the writing.

    It’s probably time I reread Paladin’s Legacy, which is my favorite of all your work.

  • Comment by Daniel Glover — September 6, 2023 @ 9:34 am


    I keep pushing your work whenever it seems appropriate. I recently had someone wonder what to do in their RPG when their players insisted they didn’t need help in managing their small army because they didn’t want to have the “expense” and “could do it on their own while off playing the hero(ine)”. I suggested requiring them to read all your work–even the SF stuff.

    All the day to day military stuff you made so approachable that helps set the context for why you need the top level help–even if they “aren’t story” are part of what I appreciate in your writing. Yes, it’s in fantastical settings, but it is still “real” and not all hack and slash/shoot ’em up like some writers in the genre.

    My brother, who is a peer-reviewed journal editorial assistant, and I have had the conversion you mention about writers (or reviewers) getting stuck in a lane, thinking something is entirely new when it really is a small tweak of what they’ve been doing for the past XX years. So it happens not just to fiction writers.

    I could feel your excitement about purchasing the OED in your writing about it. So I’m glad to see it is helping in so many ways.

    Daniel Glover

  • Comment by Dale — September 11, 2023 @ 10:34 am


    Last week I had to travel for work for the first time in a while, and thoroughly enjoyed taking advantage of some of the “travel time” reading through Deeds of Youth. It felt like a reunion with friends not seen for far too long, especially the bits with Kieri.

    Part of me still hopes some rich Hollywood mogul will adapt your Paks or Vatta stories for the screen. Part of me hopes they don’t since so many wonderful stories get ruined in the process. Have film rights ever seriously been brought up to you?

  • Comment by Eva-Maria — September 20, 2023 @ 2:16 pm


    Thank you for the answer.
    I guess that I am just so impatient, so hoping for a fast publishing.
    Today had to continue reading through tears, when I read the last chapters in the last Serrano book.
    Starting today with the Vatta War books.

  • Comment by Eowyn — September 25, 2023 @ 12:26 pm


    I appreciate your sharing all of the processes you are dealing with. I have been getting A Word A Day for years and enjoy that bit of intellectual interest. I seem to recall that your hands (and ability to sit at a computer) are part of the limitations. Is there a chance that you could dictate stuff and have someone type it?

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