Friday, November 7, 2008

Interview with Larry Hodges on Community Fridays

Welcome to Community Fridays!

During Community Fridays, I interview authors, editors, publishers, and pretty much anyone else who I can get my hands on from the writing and publishing community. Hope you enjoy, and feel free to suggest new participants. Check out current and past interviews here. Only have a minute? Click here for interviews at a glance.

Today's guest is Larry Hodges, author and semi-retired table-tennis coach.

You're working on your first novel, a science fiction story about politics in the future. At Capclave, you mentioned that you already had an agent lined up. How did you manage this? Many people have difficulties finding an agent even after their novels are finished!

Technically, the agent isn't lined up, but he's asked me to send him the novel as soon as it is done (first draft will be done by December). I went to the six-week Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2006, where I met Canadian SF writer Robert Sawyer (Hugo, Nebula and John Campbell award winner), the writer in residence for a week. He became familiar with my work and recommended me to the agent. So it helps going to workshops and conventions, and meeting people. However, first you must make sure your work is up to snuff, and (usually) make some short story sales. Here's a great article on finding a good agent by Chuck Rothman. However, before signing with any agent you might want to check them out at Writer Beware.

Your list of science fiction and fantasy sales (sales of short stories) reads somewhat like a Who's Who of the SFF magazine industry. Can you tell us a bit about submitting stories to magazines? How is it different from submitting novel manuscripts? Can you provide some pointers about which magazines seem to be interested in which kind of story?

I've sold 23 short science fiction or fantasy stories (most in the past year), although I haven't yet been in many of the really big ones - still working on that! (Here's my science fiction page). I keep track of my submissions and sales on a simple Word document. It's important to keep close track - if you lose track, you'll have great difficulty in getting back on track. I currently have 26 stories on the market, 23 sales, and 12 stories that I no longer am submitting (plus about 40 from long ago). I can tell you the submission history of every one of them in seconds, including every market it went to and when, and when and what the response was.

For most submissions, I have a standard cover letter. You do need to read the guidelines for each market as many tell you specifically what they want in the cover letter, as well as how the manuscript should be formatted. Always use standard manuscript formatting, unless told otherwise. This is covered, along with lots of other stuff you should read, in the SFWA Writing Page. Here are the three parts to my cover letter:

Paragraph one is the intro: "Enclosed [or Attached] is my story, "[The Greatest Story Ever Written]." It was workshopped at [Critters/Odyssey/Tao's Toolbox/other].

Paragraph two is the bio paragraph. Here's mine: "I'm an active member of SFWA with 23 sales, including recent ones to Weird Tales, Abyss & Apex, and On the Brighter Side. I'm a graduate of the six-week 2006 Odyssey Writing Workshop, the 2007 Orson Scott Card Literary Boot Camp, and the two-week 2008 Taos Toolbox Writing Workshop. In the world of non-fiction, I have three books and over 1100 published articles in 79 different publications."

Paragraph three reads, "Enclosed is a SASE. Manuscript is disposable. If you would like me to email the text, let me know. I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you." [If it's an email submission, then "I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you." is all that goes here.]

There's a huge market out there for short stories. However, very few pay well, and those that do are extremely difficult to get into. The major ones often receive 500 or so manuscripts per issue, and can only publish 3-4, if that. (Other slots are reserved for "name" writers.) Even the low-paying ones typically only print at most 10% of what they receive, usually far less. That's why the "real money" is in novels - except they don't pay that well either, until you develop a "name."

If you want to sell short stories, don't fall for the trap of writing a single story, and hoping it sells. Keep writing!!! As noted, I have *26 stories on the market; I'd have more if I hadn't sold 23! Keep writing them, and keep sending them out. However, don't rush them; typically, after writing a story and spending time rewriting it, put it aside for a time, and look at it again a few weeks later, and if possible get others to critique it. Eventually you can do them in almost factory mode, with stories in various stages of progress. All of my stories go through the following stages: outline, writing, rewriting, proofing, critiquing, second rewriting, second proofing, and submission.

(*I'm about to unleash #27, so I'll have an even 50 sold or on the market.)

There are a number of online sites that give info on the SF/fantasy/horror markets; my favorite is http://www.ralan.com/, which gives info and links to the guidelines of just about every market. I generally browse over them nearly every day. If you are serious about being a SF/fantasy/horror writer, I strongly suggest spending some time reading over the guidelines for the many markets listed, starting with "Semi- & Pro Markets," then "Paying Markets," then "Anthology Markets." Then you might consider the "4theLuv Markets" and "Contests," and if applicable, "Humor Markets," or others that might fit.

The higher-paying markets, recognized by SFWA as "pro" markets, are listed at the SFWA website. Generally you should start by sending your stories to these. Typically it can take years for a story to go through all the markets; some markets get back to you in a week, but the more typical one is about two months. I have one submission I'm still waiting on from January! There's also a couple from June, but most of them are split roughly evenly from July to present. I've sold stories on their first submission; I sold one story on its 19th submission. I have one story that's now at its 29th market, dating back to July of 2005. (It's a good story, gosh darn it!)

From talking to editors and writers at conventions and workshops, and of course from reading the guidelines, you begin to get a feel for what type of story each magazine tends to like. You learn that F&SF tends toward more "literary" stories, while Baen's is more action-oriented. Realms is a bit literary, doesn't do much humor. Analog is more hard SF (it has to be a good story in the usual respects, with technology or science of some sort central to it), with a liking for linguistic angles and some humor. Weird Tales likes, well, weird stuff. Fantasy Magazine tends to have a mostly female audience, and so likes women protagonists (but not always). The overlap between the markets is large, so the main thing to do is make sure not to send a fantasy story to a strictly SF market, and vice versa. Send horror to those that want it, such as Cemetery Dance, Brutarian and Chizine, and not to SF & fantasy markets, unless they say they want horror as well.

I'm sure people will be interested to know that you spent years as a successful table-tennis coach, which turns out to be a surprisingly lucrative profession. People often talk about leaving a 'desk job' for the glory of a writing career, but you left a decidedly un-desk job. What made you decide to do this? Did your experiences as a table-tennis coach help you get to where you are today in your writing career?

I was a table tennis player, coach and writer for 32 years. In 2003, at age 43, I became the youngest person ever voted into the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame as a contributor (primarily for my coaching and writing, though as a player I've won numerous national and state titles). USATT has been around since 1933, and has 77 players and 41 contributors in their Hall. I've coached Olympic athletes (yes, table tennis is in the Olympics), and during the 1990s coached more gold medal winners at the Junior Olympics and Junior Nationals than all other coaches in the U.S. I also chaired the USATT Coaching Committee for four years and was named the USOC Table Tennis Developmental Coach of the Year in 2002. Plus I've had over 1000 articles and three books on table tennis. (What is a table tennis article? Coaching articles, player profiles, tournament write-ups, equipment reviews, etc. I even wrote a few table tennis fiction stories, such as "Death of a Backhand," where my backhand and forehand were characters.) Here's my table tennis page.

However, after 32 years, I became frustrated by the lack of development of the sport by the sport's leaders. Meanwhile, I was beginning to write SF and fantasy again. In the late 1980s, I was the manager, director and/or coach for table tennis at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for four years. Training took place in the mornings and late afternoons. Since I was free in between, I began to write stories. After two years of rejections they began to sell, including four to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, the top fantasy market at the time, sort of the precursor to Realms of Fantasy. By 1991, I'd sold eight stories. However, after I was hired to edit USA Table Tennis Magazine (the national magazine for table tennis, 8000 circulation), I focused on table tennis, and didn't write any fiction (other than a few table tennis fiction stories) for 13 years. Then, in 2004, I saw a note about a SF class taught at The Writer's Center in Silver Spring, MD, taught by SFWA member Brenda Clough. I signed up, and I've been writing SF & fantasy ever since.

Around March this year, I decided to take a sabbatical from table tennis so I could focus on writing one or two novels. I'm currently living on savings (table tennis coaching pays surprisingly well!) and a few writing sales until I finish my novel, "Campaign 2100." Sometime after it's done (and possibly one other book), I'll have to return to making money, either in table tennis or possibly as a free-lance writer/editor. I'm not sure which yet. (I have twelve years as editor of USA Table Tennis Magazine and all the published articles and books, so there must be something out there I might qualify for that might be interesting - hopefully in SF & fantasy. Any offers?)

Here's a rather strange claim to fame. I'm fairly certain I'm the top science fiction writer in USATT (8000 ranked players), and I know I'm the top table tennis player in SFWA (1400 members). Any challengers? (Oh please . . . bring large sums of money!)

You've attended a good number of writer's workshops of the several-weeks-long variety. I've never been to one, so can you give me some details? How long do these tend to be? How intensive are they? Are food and lodging generally included in the price? What are the benefits you've seen from attending?

I went to the six-week Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2006. It was an incredible experience, very intense, and impossible to describe, so I'll now briefly describe it. Basically, you spent mornings and afternoon in classes or critiquing other classmates work (or listening to their critiques), and nights writing and reading/critiquing stories from others. It's an intensive workshop, not for the faint-of-heart. But if you are serious about writing SF/fantasy/horror, I strongly urge you to go to Odyssey or one of the Clarions writing workshops. Here are links to write-ups by other graduates of their experiences there. (If you are looking to get published, see the list of publications by graduates.)

If you absolutely, positively can't get off six weeks, there is also Tao's Toolbox (two weeks), Orson Scott Card's Literary Boot Camp (one week), Center for the Study of Science Fiction Workshops (varying lengths) and Viable Paradise (one week). There are also online workshops where others critique your work, and vice versa; I was active with Critters for years, and strongly recommend it. There's also Seton Hill University's "Writing Popular Fiction" Master's Program, which I've heard a lot of good things about. It's an MFA program that takes two years, most of it done at home.

You never know what you will learn at these workshops. I learned all sorts of writing stuff from Jeanne Cavelos, the Odyssey director/instructor. From Robert J. Sawyer, the writer in residence for a week, I learned to write with a theme. Previous to that, I'd come up with a story idea, then characters, and then I'd write the story. Now I start with a theme, and from that come up with a story idea, characters, etc. Without a theme, a great story is basically great fluff. There's a place for fluff - mindless entertainment - but it's not memorable.

One of the things that allowed you to take these workshops was leaving your day job behind. I imagine this took a lot of careful plotting and planning. How did you manage to do this? Would you encourage others who want a career in fiction writing to follow your lead? Do you have any advice for would-be job-quitters?

At the time I went to Odyssey in 2006, I was editor of USA Table Tennis Magazine (a near-fulltime job), and coaching full-time. To get time off, I did one issue of the bi-monthly magazine early, scheduled the next one late, and hired someone to do some work on it while I was gone. During my stay at Odyssey, I only had to spend a few nights on magazine work. As to my table tennis coaching, it was put on hold while I was away - so there are a lot of table tennis players out there who will never be as good as they could have been. :)

A workshop like Odyssey, if you are a serious writer, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you'll never forget. Talk to your boss (or husband/wife), bribe them, blackmail them, and try to get the time off. You won't regret it. (Though once there, you'll curse my name during those late-night working hours. I'll be laughing at you in spirit.)

Lastly, because this feature is about establishing bonds within the writing and publishing industries, can you name one author, editor or publisher who's doing great things right now, and why?

It's hard to limit it to one. I'm going to mention three.

Jeanne Cavelos is the force behind Odyssey. While Clarion brings in different instructors each week for six weeks, Jeanne is there all six weeks of Odyssey, and so gets to know all the writers, their strengths and weaknesses, and so you get better and better feedback from her. She's probably done more for SF/fantasy/horror writing than anyone else this past decade or so.

I'd also like to mention Walter Jon Williams, who started up Tao's Toolbox, a two-week workshop in New Mexico. He always brings in a second writer to assist. This year it was Kelly Link; last year it was Connie Willis. I attended it this past summer, and it was another memorable experience.

Finally, there's John Scalzi and his "Whatever" blog. The key thing there is his "Big Ideas" feature, where he regularly features novels with a big central idea to it. I'm looking forward to submitting the idea for my novel, once it's ready. (The big idea in "Campaign 2100"? The theme is moderation in politics, as portrayed in a third-party challenge in the election of 2100 for president of Earth.)

Thanks for the choosing me for this interview!

© Emma Larkins and Larry Hodges
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