Do what you are afraid to do: writing as a daring adventure

Me, Dave, Max & a bit of Philo's head.

Me, Dave, Max & a bit of Philo’s head.

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.―Helen Keller

David Farland, the New York Times bestselling author also known as Dave Wolverton, ran a Professional Writers’ Workshop over March break. He’d told me it was a business class, but since we each submitted 20 pages of our writing beforehand, I liked the idea of combining business with craft. Dave had a completely different approach to novel marketing from what I was used to, i.e. from Dean Smith, Kris Rusch, and Mark Lefebvre.

Dave’s approach is to use traditional publishing.

I’d turned indie in 2011, so this was a shocker. If you haven’t heard about author woes in legacy publishing, Kris outlines some of them in this article.

The whole point of indie publishing is that you don’t have to wait, you choose your partners, you decide how good a product to put out, and you pocket the profits. I like it.

Except for the sales numbers. I’d prefer world domination.

I listened to Dave and realized that he acknowledges all the problems that plague traditional midlist authors. But his solution is this: don’t be a midlist author.

Be a lead. Be a super lead. Go big or go home.

“I think you’re doing yourself a disservice by releasing Stockholm Syndrome as a small book,” said Dave, at our lunch over Italian sandwiches. “There is no question that you can write. You’re a Writers of the Future winner.” He’s the coordinating judge, so he sees a ton of stories every quarter, and sends just eight finalists to the judges every three months. “I was hooked on the proposal. There is nothing missing from it. I could see it as a movie. I’d like to see you go big.”

He knows big. He has guided several New York Times bestsellers like Brandon Sanderson and the one I know the best, Stephanie Meyer. You know that’s a good teacher.

I mulled this over. I’ve been writing for decades. I was a Writers of the Future winner in 1999. I’ve been working on my writing very seriously since 2003, a dozen years ago. My writing has progressed to the point where, yes, I’m shortlisted for the Derringer award this year, and also, perfect strangers on Amazon comment that my books get better and better.

Stockholm Syndrome focuses on a hostage-taking at a hospital, so that’s topical.

I’m a doctor writing medical thrillers. That’s marketable.

Of course all the curses of traditional publishing could befall me. I could not sell my book. I could get a crummy advance. I could lose the rights to my characters, if I didn’t know what I was signing.

But I’ve been learning the business all this time, too. I have the resources and the resolution to hire an intellectual property attorney.

And if I don’t sell it big?

Dave’s solution is to trunk the novel and keep writing until your skills and the traditional market converge and you get the deal you want.

My solution would be to go indie.


Me and Dave, with Justin in the background


Okay, I’d lose a year or more of indie sales by going traditional. But that’s not significant. I’m not reliant on our writing income, so I can afford to gamble.

I’m not doing it for my other books. I’ll keep writing short stories, essays, poems, and books of all stripes. It’s just the one Hope novel.

It sucks for my existing fans. I know that. They’ve supported me for the past few years, and now they’d have to wait years for the next Hope book.

It’s also scary for me. Dave already made some suggestions that shocked me like, “Oh, you could just throw in a sister who got killed, so that’s why she solves crimes.” Or, “Could this be the first book? Her first day on the job?” and wipe out three novels, a radio drama, and a novella in one swoop.

But I don’t have to deal with that yet. Just the possibility that, for this one project, the stars may align with trad pub. Or not.

If the stars align on indie, I get to keep building my world, building my craft, building traction until lightning strikes.

Of course, lightning may not strike.

I’m glad I did this workshop. I’m glad I’m learning from different people, including my classmates.


Dave asked Max to join the picture. I told Max he’d graduated from our class.


For some reason, I didn’t expect to make friends. I didn’t expect Jenn, Tara and Jeanette to offer us rides from Salt Lake City or Jacqui to drive us back and stop at two museums along the way. Y’know what I was saying about generosity?

And knowledge! I sat beside Ali Cross, the bestselling author who co-founded IndieRecon who does martial arts.

Jacqui worked as a nuclear chemist before she decided to throw down, learn everything she could, and write full time for the next two years.

Jean, Jeanette, and Janet are building second careers as writers–I really admire people who succeed at one profession and then set their sights and skills on scaling another.

Jason came all the way from China. He and Philo and Dave and Jacqui got to chat about the middle kingdom.

Justin and Brock are like me, hands full with a demanding day job but carving out time for writing.

Tara writes in a multitude of genres and Brit is an indie writer, like someone else I know.

Jenn and Katy are brand new fiction writers. Jenn had written articles before, but she met Dave at a conference and leapt right into a professional workshop with a dozen writers. Katy is a multiple Nanowrimo winner who excelled at asking other people questions without bragging about herself, but it turned out that she has eight children and offered that her husband could look after Max too, so you know how good she is. The fact that new writers trusted us with their work humbled me and reminded me that you should always be compassionate when you critique.

I didn’t get to know everyone, but it’s exciting to hang out with passionate people.

My whole life, I’ve been risk-averse when it comes to big ticket/tent pole aspects of my life. Choosing medicine first and writing second. Not having kids until I finished my emerg exams, but we started trying soon afterward. Paying off our mortgage ASAP. Investing conservatively. Holding on to my writing earnings in cash because I may never earn another penny from my words. The only way I let myself go was by writing whatever bizarre stories caught my fancy, by jumping into indie publishing, and by wearing funky clothes. Basically, I took a lot of artistic risks–my motto when I was 16 was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Do what you are afraid to do”–but not for “real life.”

Well, guess what? I’m ready to experiment now. Medical-wise, I got privileges at two new hospitals last year and started speaking at health care conferences. Financially, I did a lot of research and moved our money (including my sacred writing money!) into low-cost index funds and a few GIC’s. Writing-wise, I’m focusing on mysteries now, but I’m doing a fantasy workshop with Kris in April, just for fun. And I want Stockholm Syndrome to light up the sky.

Soar, eat ether, see what has never been seen; depart , be lost, but climb.―Edna St. Vincent Millay

If you knew that your life was merely a phase or short, short segment of your entire existence, how would you live? Knowing nothing ‘real’ was at risk, what would you do? You’d live a gigantic, bold, fun, dazzling life. You know you would. That’s what the ghosts want us to do – all the exciting things they no longer can.
Chuck Palahniuk

Zen Pencils did the best cartoon for daring greatly, both the Roosevelt and the Brene Brown quote.

Want to quit your job? Here’s the best rallying cry, by Jon Morrow.

And if you’re free tomorrow, come celebrate Fifty Shades of Grey’s Anatomy in Williamstown at 10:30!

Stockholm Syndrome talks about a Nickelback song, so now I’ve got these stuck in my head. And Wayne Gretzky could’ve stuck to hockey, but he took risks here:

And this is a revolution, no?

Because I’m a Derringer Award Finalist

I was toiling at the end of my emergency room shift when I got an unusual message. I turned to my colleague and said, “Hey. I’m a finalist for the Derringer Award!”


“Do you know what that is?”

“I assume it’s a writing award.”

“It is. For the best short mystery stories published in the English language.” I revelled in it for a second, and then I said, “Do you know what a Derringer is? It’s a pocket-sized knife–”

“It’s a gun, actually. A small one, easily concealed and favoured by prostitutes.”

I Googled it, and a bunch of gun pictures came up. “Well, still. Because it’s small, it’s a metaphor for the deadly power of short fiction.”

 A Derringer. Not a knife. Who'd have thunk it?

A Derringer. Not a knife. Who’d have thunk it? Plus, this one looks like it’s wearing lipstick.Photo by DuBoix on MorgueFile

“Favoured by prostitutes.”

“Why do you keep saying that?”

Anyway, the important part is that I’ve been shortlisted for the Derringer. So to celebrate, I’ve turned “Because” into an e-book with an essay detailing the genesis of the story at Kris Rusch and Dean Smith’s Oregon mystery workshop, plus observations on the writing life, and what it feels like to hit the Derringer short list, for $2.99.

because fuller

However, since I love you, my people, I’m giving the story away for free right here for the next seven days.

You can also download Code Blues, the first Hope Sze medical mystery, for free exclusively through the Vuze book bundle. Only until March 16th. Then it will disappear like a sociopath’s conscience. So grab it now!

While the Short Mystery Fiction Society votes on the Derringers, I do have one weapon in my back pocket. I’m the newest recruit for SleuthSayers, the world’s slickest crew of crime writers and crime fighters. Two of their members, Melodie Campbell and Rob Lopresti, have already won the Derringer (Rob won it twice)! So maybe they’ll help larn me.

In the meantime,


By Melissa Yi

Because you were so fat that I could count the rolls through your T-shirt, and know that they’d build across my belly and back in the exact same way.

Because you spent the check every month, and you never gave me a penny, not even if I needed a new eraser for school. “You just ask your fancy teacher for one. Go on, ask.”

Because I had to ask, and their eyes would burn me with their pity.

Because you’d spend hours painting your nails, but never let me touch any of the bottles, just because I broke one when I was two.

Because I hated the sound of your crinkling chip bags.

Because when Daddy said he was leaving, you said, “Go, then,” and let him walk out the door, even though I screamed and cried.

Read the rest in the format of your choice here ( Thanks for stopping by. Since people do seem to like freebies, I’ll give away more stories in the future. I may try and coordinate them with my biweekly SleuthSayer posts. The next one is March 23rd. Cheers!

Poker, Zappos, and the Writing Business

I have never bought a pair of shoes from Zappos.  I also don’t read a lot of business books, mostly because they bore me.

But I read Tony Hsieh’s book almost straight through because he’s cool.  He thinks outside the box even more than I do.  Like, it would never occur to me to write a sonnet in Morse code and say, “I’ll get an A or an F.”

I paid particular attention to what he learned from poker and applied to business.  A few struck me as applying to writing.  Click here to read his lessons directly on his website.

Now for my own 2 cents.


Evaluating Market Opportunities

.            Table selection is the most important decision you can make.

.            It’s okay to switch tables if you discover it’s too hard to win at your table.

  • If there are too many competitors (some irrational or inexperienced), even if you’re the best it’s a lot harder to win.


The table is crowded right now.  New York publishers are letting good editors go and the remaining ones are pretty gun shy.  I’m still keeping my hand in the ring.  I went to three major conferences in the past few months.  But I’m also open to the idea of switching tables, which is why I looked into radio drama.  Will it pay off?  I don’t know.  But if the traditional, straightforward methods aren’t working, I’m happy to go sideways.



  • The guy who wins the most hands is not the guy who makes the most money in the long run.

.            The guy who never loses a hand is not the guy who makes the most money in the long run.


I learned this lesson in “the Game” with Dean Smith, Kris Rusch and Loren Coleman.  Basically, Kris and Dean have a Master Class and the evenings are spent playing the game where you roll dice and pick random cards to establish your character’s traits.  For example, Karen Abrahamson, one of my classmates, ended up owning a Lexus and paying expensive rent, so she had to sell more books to make up for those costs.

I was lucky.  My expenses were moderate and I happened to write fast (6 books a year).  Steve Mohan, Jr., who happens to be a talented writer and all-around good guy, nicknamed me “Miss Six.”  But whenever Dean asked me if I wanted to risk more–say, roll the dice, and if I won, I could write seven books, but if I lost, I’d go down to five.  I’d always say, “No, thank you.”

Meanwhile, other people were risking more and getting up to my speed, but I didn’t care.  Steve called me risk averse, which is totally true.

When we had the end of class party, some veteran writers walked up to the board and said, “Who won?”

I found it a funny question.  “Gerry Weinberg made the most money and I sold the most books.”

Loren called my career “a typical midlist career.”  I sold a lot of books (won a lot of hands), but not for a lot of money each.  I got some good breaks, like one of my books got optioned by Hollywood, but I had to replace my roof twice, which wiped out some of that.

Was my fictional career a success?  Depends how you define a success.  But I’d have to say, although I didn’t lose many hands, I also didn’t make the most money.


Always be prepared for the worst possible scenario.

Not a problem for me.  Like I said, I’m always risk averse.  However, as Tony points out,

.            Go for positive expected value, not what’s least risky.

.            Make sure your bankroll is large enough for the game you’re playing and the risks you’re taking.

.            Play only with what you can afford to lose.

  • Remember that it’s a long-term game. You will win or lose individual hands or sessions, but it’s what happens in the long term that matters.

I’m slowly starting to take more risks.

For my book launches, this year, I ended up buying the books at an author’s discount and selling basically all of them (31 Indian Country Noir and 26 Dragon and the Stars).  I took the risk and I made the profit.

When everyone’s paid me for their copies, I should have approximately doubled what I made on straight short story payments.  I probably could have made more money by buying more copies and taking more of a risk, but we already know I’m taking baby steps at this.  Eric Choi pointed out that giving away copies can be good promo, which had honestly never occurred to me, so intent was I on making my money back.  But this time, I experimented on giving the occasional discount (once I’d made my money back) and the copy I’m shipping to Sandra Kasturi in T.O., I will only break even because shipping is prohibitive, but I figure it’s worth it because Sandra is a poetry editor and a reader and a way of expanding my audience.



.            Don’t play games that you don’t understand, even if you see lots of other people making money from them.

  • Figure out the game when the stakes aren’t high.


And now I’m looking at the future.

I have pretty much ignored e-publishing up ’til now.  I have written a bucketload of novels, but I had my heart set on printing them the traditional way.

I also have very little idea how to go about e-publishing–how to format it (Smashwords?), where to post it (sure, I want everything from Kindle to .pdfs, but this’ll take time), how to make a good-looking book cover (like pornography, I recognize it when I see it, but how do I create my own–book cover, I mean, not porn.  I ain’t that desperate.  Dean uses Powerpoint, but it’ll obviously be a learning curve).

Once I do feel comfortable, I’ve decided to put up some of my published work–short stories, poems, my medical non-fiction–and just have fun with it.   I’ve always kind of liked my photography.  Why not make a book cover out of some of my pictures?

If I make 35 cents on a 99 cent short story sale, cool.  If I don’t, I’ll live.  I’m pretty terrible at re-selling the rights to my stories because I can hardly manage to keep my encyclopedia of unpublished stories and novels in the mail (as well as aiming for 1000 words/day) without bothering about reprints.  This way, I’ll wet my feet in the e-market and maybe make a few bucks, but it’s the risk-taking that’s imporant and new for me.

One final word on Tony Hsieh.  One thing I like about him is that he’s not that interested in money.  He likes taking risks and building a tribe in pursuit of happiness.  He’s a millionaire, but more importantly, he seems happy.  His bio is that he lives in SF and “sort of has a cat.”

I’m no millionaire.  I’m not the richest doctor and I’m certainly not making a living off my writing.  But I know I would be miserable if my family consisted of a part-time cat, no matter how much money I made or how much my corporation and my friends reflected my values.  (I know he’s joking, but I’m just sayin’.)  I’d rather save a few lives, write and publish some good stories, and end the day with my sweethearts, none of whom are feline.

In the end, we are all authors of our own happiness, and that’s what’s most important.

Zen Marketing 101

One thing all successful writers have in common:  a stomach for failing.  Repeatedly.  Perhaps for years on end.  –Larry Wilde, Chicken Soup for the Writers’ Soul

Plant a tree  –Geri Larkin

I recently joined a writers’ group.  One member had written a story for a market that paid one PDF copy and two percent of royalties.  Translation:  bupkes.  That’s fine if you just want to practice and get some sales under your belt.  But why not aim high?  You might not sell, but a) on the other hand, you might, and b) you’d probably force yourself to work harder, playing up to the game.

The real reason why not?  Rejection hurts.

You have to be able to stomach that, to develop what Karen Joy Fowler called the _pachydermal skin_ of writers.

Let’s start with some basic tools.  You have to know where to send your work.  You already know that you should read the book imprint or magazines that you submit to.

Duotrope lets you search by genre, length, electronic vs. postal submission–a stroke of brilliance.

Ralan covers a lot of speculative fiction markets.  I always check the “pro” and “anthology” sections.

For books, I pay $20 U.S. a month to Publishers Marketplace so I can search deals and cull email addresses and figure out who’s buying what.  Publishers Weekly is great, but I don’t have easy access to it.  In Canada, the equivalent is Quill and Quire.

I also search for editors’ conference bios, interviews and blogs to get more of a feel for what they like.  I read book acknowledgements, noting the editor or agent being thanked.  I like the movers and shakers, but if they’ve got a little spark to their personality–they buy books that push the envelope, or they say something that makes me laugh–that works better for me.  I’ve had at least one editor tell me straight that she wasn’t sure her readers would connect with my voice.  That means she didn’t like my voice.  Which is fine, but it means I have to find the people who do.  (Just like I enjoy wearing my Fête Montreal leggings with one black leg and one white leg.  A guy in the grocery store glanced over me and I could see he thought, “Freak.”  But it didn’t bother me.  He is not my tribe.  If he were an editor, he wouldn’t buy my books.)

Contests.  I generally don’t pay to enter contests because, as Kris Rush and Dean Smith emphasize, money should flow to the writer.  I made an exception for the CBC and Golden Heart–basically, if I think the benefits outweigh the pain of forking over the money.  I prefer free contests by generous souls like Brian Agincourt Massey and the Glass Woman Prize, individuals who take their own time and money to foster the arts.

Education.  I attend Kris and Dean’s workshops as often as I can to force my writing craft to a new level, to learn about the business, and to meet a ton of dedicated, hilarious fellow writers.

Finally, if you are at all serious about making your living through your work, read Kris Rusch’s Freelance Survival Guide.  She covers everything from the nuts and bolts of negotiation and when to quit your day job to how to deal with mental mind traps.  If you can’t afford their workshops (or even if you can), read these as an excellent roadmap on how to deal.

Now I hear you asking, where’s the Zen buddhism?

A lot of people think Buddhism means aspiring to nothingness, but the tenet I apply here is that clinging causes suffering.  So if you are stalking editors at conferences while they try to use the bathroom, you are clinging.  If you are beating yourself up (Why didn’t I start writing seriously when I was 16?  Why don’t I submit more?  Why did I eat a bag of chips and watch _What Happens in Vegas_ instead of writing tonight?), you are clinging.  In fact, you are practicing mental violence against yourself.

C’mon.  We’ve all been there.  If I’d been a risk-taker, I would’ve skipped medicine and arguably university altogether and started writing seriously out of high school.  I never market as much as I want to.  And I just watched _What Stays in Vegas_ as a reward for finishing my novel.  I ate chips, too.  I could cling endlessly about that and many other issues.

Buddhism doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive.  It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write or try to achieve publication.  It just means you should do your best every day, in this moment, without attaching yourself to the outcome.

Will I become a bestselling author with my fans sending whatever I fancy, including embroidered Korean toilet paper a la Diana Galbaldon?

Who knows?  All I know is this:  I set a daily goal for writing and marketing and then I try to just enjoy whatever I’m doing, whether that’s playing Thomas the Tank engine with Max or cleaning up the kitchen with my husband.  I know that makes my life sound super glamourous, but that’s where I find joy every day.

I can’t redo my life.  And when I’m honest with myself, I like the intellectual challenge and economic security of medicine (my father called it my “iron rice bowl,” meaning it was a solid way to earn my living).  Plus the whole life-saving thing is pretty cool.  Even if I don’t achieve as much as a writer or doctor or a mother as I would if I’d concentrated on one job, overall, I am happy.  And that is what matters.  See Anna Quindlen for more about figuring out your own measure of success.

I keep writing.  I market.  I plant my trees.  Even if the world is heating up.  Even though we are all going to die.

I’ll end with two Geri Larkin stories.  I can’t find her books, so I’m paraphrasing.  The first is from _Plant Seed, Pull Weed._  She’s agonizing about global warming and what to do.  An enlightened guy keeps responding, “Plant a tree.”  “But what if it’s your absolute day on earth?”  “Plant a tree.”  “What if we get hit by meteors?”  “Plant a tree.”  In other words, keep going.

The second is from _The Chocolate Cake Sutra_, I think.  Geri’s teacher sends her out with a difficult problem and says, “You have 24 hours to solve this.”  She meditates, she prostrates, she tears her hair out for the next day, but she can’t figure it out.  In the morning, she goes to see her teacher and says, “I’m sorry.  I failed.”  He looks at her with great compassion and says, “You have 10,000 years.”  Her whole body relaxes, just knowing that she has time.

This is what I’m trying to do.  I’m planting trees.  I’m sending my stories out.  And whether I have 10,000 seconds or 10,000 years, I’m putting one foot in front of the other.