Steve Miller on Building a Writing Life (Writing for the Long Haul series)

Steve Miller sold his first story in the 1970s and, with his wife and collaborator Sharon Lee, has been building a career around words ever since. Today he joins the long haul series to talk about the many threads that can go into a writing life and about centering that life around the work we most want to do.

To make a long story short, I’m a professional writer. I’m in this for the long haul.

I’ve always intended to be a professional writer, that is, once I got over my childhood ambition to make a living as a chauffeur polishing and driving fancy Cadillacs. In high school I bought writing magazines and my grandmother sent me books on writing – including a fateful Writer’s Market, full of dozens, nay, hundreds, nay, thousands of places willing to pay me to write, if only I wrote what they wanted.

I started out as a poet; my first few publications were poetry and for some time I made a semi-life by writing poetry, doing coffee houses, guesting at parties as a poet, and covering (as a substitute teacher) the dreaded “poetry sections” for beaten-down English teachers. I made very little money from the writing (you’ve got to sell a lot of poems at $3 or $5 each to cover the rent!) and I made not much more as a substitute, and eventually I put the poetry aside.

But wait. There’s another thread. You see, in college I wrote for the college paper – a paying gig! – starting off as Chess Reporter and moving rapidly into a News Editor slot. I made decent money in that part-time job, learned a lot, and started writing reviews of books and movies and reporting. I made more money as a reporter and editor than I did as a poet, yessir! Just before I dropped out of college following the Kent State shootings one of my articles on the protests was syndicated across the country. I started working then as a freelancer for the local community tabloids, paid by the inch.

Oh, another thread! When I was in college I also was writing for science fiction fanzines, back in the days that they weren’t crowded with fanfic but were discussing fannishness and interpreting the field, and were filled with reviews and commentary. Sometimes they paid in copies, more often in egoboo, but they also led me to the semi-pro zines paying 1/4 or 1/2 cent a word (this was many years ago, I assure you!) for features and, yes — for original fiction. I started submitting to the semi-pro magazines and the first real success I had was with a story that won a $25 prize … and which has since been anthologized multiple times, earning far more than that original prize.

There’s something else: in high school I helped with the literary magazine, and in my senior year, I was Editor. I learned a lot, including how to make chapbooks.

What all of these disparate things say about that busily confused period in my life is that 1) I centered my life on writing, and 2) I was writing for money. Writing was always my way forward.

By the time I met Sharon Lee — now my partner, wife, and frequent co-author — I’d had bylines in dozens of publications in this country and abroad, was a regular chess columnist in several papers, had been translated, and had unexpectedly blossomed into one of the Baltimore-Washington area’s premier — um, music reviewers. It was an accident, I swear.

What happened next is a very mixed history of desperate times mediated by short-term successes and then longer term success, one that over and over again fell back on the understanding that this house is a house centered on, and yes, even powered by, word work.

We traveled in SF art and books for awhile — even starting a bookstore — while our stories started earning attention and a little cash. When the bookstore lost its lease I ended up managing editor of a short-lived SF-oriented newspaper, Sharon went to work for an ad agency as a secretary but leveraged that into a copy writing job. The newspaper folded and I got a job as assistant manager in a rapidly expanding game store chain — and when that died, I took my last $35 and started a monthly newspaper. Sharon started a copy writing service and ad agency.

We never stopped writing and we started selling more frequently, and when we sold three books to Del Rey we were set — we thought — and moved to a small town in Maine, where I had landed a newspaper job that turned out to be vaporware.

lee_crystalsoldierThen, Del Rey’s sudden new editor was a disaster for us, halting the Liaden series in its tracks, and we got by for awhile as writing instructors. I taught a local adult ed class and we both taught correspondence students for the British American School of Writing. We got a well-paying gig writing a novella for a game company (a project which was never published, though) and Sharon got a job editing night-side news for the local daily paper while I did columns and computer articles for the same paper. I also was picking up part-time hours as children’s librarian for a nearby library, and when that proved a dead-end I moved to managing a computer store — where I ran the newsletter, wrote the TV ads.

When the local paper went though a series of layoffs Sharon found herself freelancing for a weekly, turning out features like mad. I was working with a dotcom by then

Suddenly, and without warning, after eight years or more of being “former novelists” we got a phone call — an offer to reprint the three Liaden novels — but that turned into a sale of those three books and four more – seven in one fell swoop! Because we’d continued to write we had four new Liaden books to offer as well as the standalone The Tomorrow Log, and we had a publisher who suddenly wanted whatever we could turn out for him — including an anthology. We were invited to be Guests of Honor at a convention, and then at another … So we worked with that company until they were caught in an over-expansion just when the market was contracting.

In the meantime, though, we’d diversified somewhat, starting our own small press and selling chapbooks and t-shirts to the burgeoning Liaden fandom.  With our publisher suddenly gone we then finagled our mortgage and such with our chapbooks for another few months while Sharon went to work as a secretary at a local college and we also went direct to the internet, doing an early private crowdsourcing arrangement to write Fledgling, and then Saltation, online.

miller_saltationA publisher came to us for ebooks, and then for all our books; Sharon stayed at the college for awhile, where she single-handedly out-published the English department for several years.

And so it goes. We’ve got a five book contract in hand now, which means we’ve sold more than twenty five books together, and we’re doing what we’ve always done — we’re focusing on the words. We’ve had agents along the way, and friends and fans who’ve helped us tremendously. We didn’t do this alone, yes, that’s true. But the core of our experience, the key to being here as writers now, is that we kept looking to the word work whenever things got tough, and when they weren’t tough, we were doing the words.

Advice? Center your life around what you want to do. Immerse yourself in the culture but continue to keep your own visions — and to make them central to your work. If you’re writing a series make sure there are multiple ways in for new readers, so they won’t be overwhelmed by the weight of what’s gone before. Vary your protagonists. Write a book without a villain. Keep an eye out for side-work of short stories or articles, but maintain a clear sight of what your aim is — to pay the bills while enjoying the heck out of life.

So let me make a point. I got my first check for writing in 1969. My byline’s been on fiction, reviews, features, news, poetry, how-to articles, and columns. I’ve also done radio and TV ads, greeting card verse, and store openings. I don’t disdain any of my work, and some of my earliest fiction continues to earn money for me going on forty years after it was written.

To make a long story short, I’m a professional writer. I’m in this for the long haul.

Ebook pioneer Steve Miller is a lapsed reporter, book reviewer, publisher, con-running fan, poet, and librarian who writes Science Fiction and Fantasy, most frequently in the Liaden Universe® he shares with Sharon Lee. He attended Clarion West, was Founding Curator at the UMBC SF Research Library and has been a Guest of Honor, Special Guest, and panelist at SF conventions across North America. Steve sold his first professional fiction to Amazing in the mid 1970s and since then his byline has appeared on dozens of books and dozens more chapbooks and short works of fiction as well as numerous newspaper and magazine articles.

Steve and Sharon shared NESFA’s Skylark Award in 2012 to go along with various individual and joint accolades over the years. Trade Secret, the latest Liaden novel, was published November 5 by Baen in paper and electronically and by Audible for the audiobook market. Steve and Sharon have just started on their latest five book contract for Baen.

Previous Writing for the Long Haul Posts

Sharon Lee on remembering we’re not alone
Betty G. Birney on always challenging ourselves
Nora Raleigh Baskin on making deals with the writing gods
Sean Williams on unpredictability and luck
Deborah J. Ross on writing through crisis
Sharon Shinn on managing time
Marge Pellegrino on feeding the restless yearning to write
Sarah Zettel on embracing ignorance and writing your passions
Uma Krishnaswami on honoring unreasonable exuberance
Jennifer J. Stewart on finding community and support
Sherwood Smith on keeping inspiration alive
Mette Ivie Harrison on defining success
Jeffrey J. Mariotte on why we write
Judith Tarr on reinventing ourselves
Kathi Appelt on the power of story
Cynthia Leitich Smith on balancing business and creativity

2 thoughts on “Steve Miller on Building a Writing Life (Writing for the Long Haul series)”

  1. I adore this series, and was really intrigued by Steve Miller’s advice on series writing. And how he and Sharon Lee cobbled together a living for years, switching from one kind of writing to another, but always keeping the fiction fires burning. Thanks, Steve!

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