Keep up with submissions/The printed word descends

11 01 2010

I’ve heard it said that the only writing experience that comes close to making your first sale is getting in print.  I agree. I have had my work printed as a editorial writer and even as a poet (I was no Wallace Stevens), but my science fiction career has been one of online publishing, until this weekend. I’ve told you that Apex Book Company was publishing a new collection called Descended From Darkness, and that I have a story in it, well two days ago it arrived in the mail and it is a thing of beauty. I’m not saying that because I have a story in there, I find it to be a genuinely lovely book. It is trade size and the cover art by Vitaly S. Alexius* is mesmerizing. Apex proves again that they are the finest dark science fiction publisher in the free world.

(*I had Justin Stewart down as the artist for the cover earlier as I got my names mixed up inside the jacket. Justin, your design work was also kick ass. Sorry! Thanks J.S. for pointing that out.)

Now, about me. I had a busy weekend, rough weekend. The book came in a manila mailer wrapped in the new Time magazine. I’d been watching the mailbox for a week and it was Saturday. I’d nearly lost hope. I didn’t open it right away wanting instead to open it later when I could laugh and jump around the room and not seem like a crazy person. When I held it in my hands, smelled the benzine and other long chain petrochemicals that go into processing paper, I felt like I had finally earned a place on my bookshelf. I started selling stories when the final move from print to online publishing had begun. Apex bought my story and I was thrilled because they were one of my favorite publications and were one of the last good ones still printed. I’d never had a story published in print so I was happy that I would finally be able to tell family and friends that I’d sold a story and not need a laptop to prove it. Founder/Editor Jason Sizemore sent me a note a couple of months later informing me that the magazine was moving to online publication and that my story would be in the first online edition. I had mixed feelings about this both for my story and for Apex. I loved Apex in print. It had this really great bone-matte paper and the art was street-cool and honest… perfect (I have issues #1 and #4 on my desk right now). I wanted to be a part of it, to be a part physically. I felt like getting printed in Apex would cement my existence in this reality of imminent deletion and limited data storage. I wanted to be part of the stable anachronism of the printed word. Understand that I’ve long been a believer in online publishing and I take a dim view of magazines and book companies that are not at least partially available online, but I came to reading via a love of printed books. When I was 15 I curled up in bed in that dark little house in the hollar with my copies of At the Mountains of Madness, Stranger in a Strange land, Dragons of Autumn Twilight, and Slaughterhouse Five and I shivered with cold and fear, fought dragonlords and fought WWII. There is an intimacy to the printed word that I wanted to be a part of  and could not. I understood Jason’s reasoning, and he did kick the publishing savings to his authors by bumping up the pay/word (which I unaccountably still regret accepting), but I wanted it. Now I have it and I am so happy it was that same story I sold to Apex to first appear in print.  The whole trajectory of this experience has a nice poetic resonance.  So, as I shelve the first paper and ink book to bear my name between my copies of A Canticle for Leibowitz and A Deepness in the Sky, I want to take a moment to thank Mr. Jason Sizemore, Gill Ainsworth, and the entire staff of Apex Books for making this writer feel like he’s Marcel Proust.

I want my readers to do two things for me to help me thank the Apex people. First, buy the book. It’s full of great fiction with which I’m honored to be included (George Mann’s The Nature of Blood!!!). Secondly visit Apex Books and then recommend visiting it to someone. Traffic builds a website, and these people fight the good fight and in my opinion are the most populist of pro level zines. They’re damn hard to get into, but they are also accessible, kind to writers, kinder to fans, and they love Kentucky, which as the land of my dark birth, makes them a resource worth defending.  So do it. Now!

So I’m sharing my method of tracking my submissions. It’s fairly simple my fellow simpletons (A Canticle for Leibowitz, read it and know). I make a spreadsheet with my stories listed across the top of the columns and the markets I like to submit to at the head of the rows. As I submit to each market I put an ‘S’ in the corresponding cell to mark ‘submitted,’ if I receive a rejection I put an ‘R’ in the cell for the story and market. For under consideration a ‘uc’ and on those rarest of occasions, the wonderful ‘P,’ for purchased, or published, or Please don’t change your mind. I back this up on my dry erase board which is easier than shifting back and forth from my submissions form as it hangs right beside my desk. That is about it. A friend tells me that she has individually printed forms for each market that go into a story file. The forms have each markets requirements and so on printed on them. She files them accordingly. I think she is a crazy person with bizarre control issues and probably has a certain way she like the cups in her cupboard arranged and the items in her medicine chest displayed. So there you go, my method. Whatever method you go with just make sure you have one. When you get more than one story going out into the world it can get damn confusing trying to keep up with who has what and when and why. I admit that I still screw up (my friend tells me she does not, and she color codes her closet), but it isn’t often.
That is the Science of Fiction.

I hope you all keeping up on your reading. It is the single most important thing a writer can do. Next up: I answer a reader’s question from my alternate home town of Philly PA: If I write science fiction will I be considered a hack?

The answer DG from PA is- Yes.

Part 3- Story Time

29 12 2009

You’re sitting in traffic, that song you loved from the early eighties that you never hear on the radio just came on. You look over at the cars around you to make sure no one is watching you sing and realize that every single person in sight is singing the same song. You just had yourself an idea for a science fiction story.

If you’re like me you then proceed to nearly kill yourself trying to write a paragraph, or bit of dialog on a slightly used taco bell napkin crammed between shift column and center console with a half dry sharpy that you never can quite bring yourself to toss out, while a backpack full of notepads and pens bounces around in the trunk. I have drawers full of half legible scrawls from moments of remote inspiration, that’s how I work. We’re going to talk in terms of broad brush strokes here as opposed to delving the minutia of narrative building so if I seem to gloss over important steps I promise I will get back to them one day (you can tell me what you specifically want to hear anytime.)

So you have your idea and now its time to start turning it into a story. If you have been reading this blog for any amount of time you will have noted my insistence on reading. Having read profusely you might have made mental notes on what story structures and narrative approaches have worked for you and what haven’t. It is time to take a structure that you either have developed or admire and run with it. For most people the older, tried and true story structure of the 19th century will serve, but you might want to go all post beat stream of consciousness. It isn’t just a choice between Bradbury or Dick. You are the creator; whatever approach you take is the right one. Sure, you may never publish, but it’s your baby.

So in preparing to write this I glanced over a few websites on writing short stories and I can tell you that most of them tried to offer formulas to “write a great short story.” I can say that, without a doubt, there is no formula for a good short story. There are structural tools that can give direction, but good writing is something you have to work at. This isn’t ad libs.

Basic structural elements to remember:

Plot is the dramatic/comedic drive of your story. The plot is your idea now interacting with the other elements of your story. Two aspects that I like to take special time with are conflict and character. Conflict is the question of your story; it’s Hamlet’s “to be or not to be.” It can be as high minded as, “what do we do with this new nonhuman intelligence that we have wrought,” or as simple as, “I need to find a way to not end up in that things stomach.” After you know your question it’s time to make the being asking that question. Don’t ever think that a conflict is interesting enough to carry weak characters, or vice versa. These two are inextricably linked in the development of your plot.

Don’t write in a vacuum. The world around you is full of details, borrow them. You must create reasonably thorough settings for your story. I often have to remind myself to slow down, enjoy the writing. You will write 99.9 percent of your words for nobody but yourself. If you can’t find some joy in taking your time and building your world then you might be in the wrong business. Don’t get hung up on word counts and page numbers (they’ll bite your butt later), just get your idea across in the best way you can.

Find a voice. Is it your voice? Is it the voice of the main character? Is it a god, omniscient and omnipresent, or just one or the other? Narration, tense, and point of view are all aspects of your voice. I find it best to pick a voice and stick with it. Switching back and forth in a short story tends to lead to trouble, though if you feel the wind at your back by all means sail on little sailer. There are stories that I have loved that I am not sure have any consistent or stable use of the aforementioned basic elements. At the end of the day you need to simply ask these questions:

1: Was my idea conveyed?

2: Did I create a work that could move someone (to cowering in fear or to hopeful inspiration, whatever)?

3: Will anyone be entertained?

It doesn’t matter what your answers are; you are the boss. But if you want this fiction to reach a wider audience then you’d best have some more populist responses.

Economy (stupid) is g0ing to be easy for some, impossible for others. You don’t need to write every detail, but you do need to write relevant detail. I know what a Mercury Topaz is and unless your story is the tale of the topaz, I don’t need six paragraphs illustrating the minutia of a topaz. Over inclusion of detail often is just a cover for a poorly conceived story. The other side of this is overly generic writing, but that is for a later time. Remember, to keep below the magic 10k word count limit you need to make your descriptions count.

A last bit of advice. Write badly! You have that luxury. Get your idea down as fast and poorly as possible, then fix it in the rinse. Rewriting will save you. If you have a rough draft and do extensive rewrites you know exactly how your story is going to end and that has advantages. Get your story down, then the real work begins.

That is the Science of Fiction

Next time: Part-3 continues with even more story time.

Part 2: The Idea

27 12 2009

Where do ideas come from?  Do we find them in our dreams, or tease them out of pure intellectual energy. Do ideas come from our theft of earlier efforts? Probably all that. For me they are an eruptive thing. I recently was sitting out on the back porch watching the dogs and two ideas came upon me nearly back to back. One came from a word only, the other from something odd that was always in front of me. This is fairly random idea generation, and I don’t think it is terribly helpful to impart, suffice to say that you need to always keep your work in the back of your head. Sometimes vignettes or notions that could really work as a story pop up and disappear because the writer isn’t focused on idea collection while they are daydreaming. Beyond this passive form of idea farming there are several approaches that yield plot lines. One thing to remember is that you don’t need an entire story idea, just a snippet, an image or fragment of dialog that you can build around. An idea is not the story. You’re the writer, your job is to build the story around the idea.

Idea generators-

1: read- You are going to see a theme emerging here. I’m going to be telling you to read all the time. Not only is it the easiest way to improve one’s writing, it’s a powerful method of finding ideas. I rarely get science fiction or horror ideas from reading science fiction and horror. I find my best ideas come from history, pure science, and recently, my stacks of old National Geographics. Read, read widely and diversely and always keep that little idea thief in your head alert and ready.

2: borrow, beg and steal- People are full of ideas for stories they’d write if they had time (or skill, squid bless them), and they’ll tell you about these ideas if you ask. Many people get positively gushy when you tell them you’re a writer. I’ve gotten at least one fantastic story idea from someone who wanted to bug me over my beer. It was his idea for a novel and I half listened, but the idea thief was doing its dirty job. I asked this guy, “Can I steal that?” He replied, “sure, have at it. I’m not going to use it.” This kills me. I won’t so much as hint at what ideas I’m working on until the story is in the bag, and then only to friends. I consider my story ideas valuable intellectual property. Most people don’t share this notion so they will give you their great ideas.

3: Steal some more- Other people’s lives also have idea value. In the last post I told you about my former music teacher’s experience with the smell of burning human flesh. I can also tell you I have dissected that anecdote a hundred ways in my own work. The lives of people you know are fair game for fiction so long s you take the effort to change the skin (names, places, etc.) and just keep the guts of what the story really is. Now of course if your friend is telling you the story of the true founding of Phoenix Arizona, then places and names are going to be difficult to alter, but have a go at it anyway. Everyone has a profound life. Ask about their stories.

4: All the news that’s fit to reprint- The national papers and the big news websites are fine and dandy to rip ideas from, but remember that there are a bunch of eyes doing that already. It’s rare that a really good story in a paper hasn’t been optioned from four different angles before the ink is dry, so originality will take more cunning at that point. You also deal with the problem of major news outlet writers being professional writers already. They are telling a story for you. Bleh! You want something unique? Cruise the classifieds on craigslist, or in the papers that can still afford to run them. Even better, get a small town paper. These papers are often operated by the same people that do the reporting, editing and office cleaning, so the reporters are run ragged and will often (accidentally I should think) report the more bizarre and local details of life. Here is your idea gold mine. One such tag from a local paper I found years ago: Lizard turns Forty!! Happy birthday Lizard!!!


5: Get out of the house! (the phone call is coming from inside the house!)

No it’s not, really. Travel is your friend. Maybe if you’re Emily Dickinson you can lock yourself in the attic and write a couple of thousand poems, and if you are then why are reading this? For the rest of us travel is the second easiest way to generate ideas (reading, do more of it). You don’t have to travel far, or even someplace new, just keep your idea thief alert. It’s really more of a scout than a thief at this point. Things you see beside the road, odd people you meet, even just the act of moving through space might generate a workable idea. Travel is such an effective idea generator that it has several of its own genres. The first modern English language novel was a collection of travel tales. There is gold in them there hills, now get on your bike and find it.

6: Be silent, be still- Yoda was right on this one. You will not force the force. The reason I say that you must have an idea thief on alert in the back of your brain is that you will never muscle an idea into existence. Coming up with ideas is a passive exercise, though I have given you a group of actions to pursue it with. You must have a level of relaxed readiness when looking for ideas. You need to know, not think, know that when an idea appears to you, you will take it. This sound rather metaphysical, but it will also help you stave off the feedback loop of self-doubt and frustration that is writer’s block. Writer’s block is not a condition so much as it’s an attempt to use force on a process where force will not be effective.  In the novel 1984, the Party is actively trying to remove the ability of people to have ideas at all. They do this not by going out and putting a gun to everyones heads,  but by systematically robbing them of any sense of peace or security or calm.  Protagonist Winston Smith has one tiny corner of his apartment where he knows he can not be spied upon by the Party. In this relatively safe, secure place he has his idea and scrawls, “I hat big brother.” across a notebook. You need to find your nook. Be  Yoda.

That is La science de la fiction.

Next time. Part 3- Beyond ideas. Story time.

My interview with Apex Submissions Editor Maggie Jamison- And now I have nothing else to write about for a month.

21 12 2009
So I started reading Apex with issue 1 in paper. I picked it up at this little used bookstore that my friend Matt Haughton ran. It was really out of place, perched on the top shelf amongst the local poetry chapbooks and straight fiction treatises. There were five or six copies of it on the shelf (the same five or six copies that some weird guy named Jason had brought in in the first place). I was there to finally pay off a hardback first press copy of Tolkien’s Silmarillion and Collected Letters. I passed on the Silmarillion and walked out with Apex #1 tucked inside J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters. My life was never the same. I purchased every one, sometimes with change and Jason told me a few years later that I was the only person that ever bought one at that store. It certainly didn’t fit in that place, but it was the single most important moment in my science fiction writing career.
Apex Issue #1

After reading a story in issue 4 about a guy to crashes on an desert planet and begins eating, well, everyone, I realized that I was ready to start seriously shopping my work around again. I had given up on publishing a few years earlier and just wrote for my own amusement. Apex changed this. I realized seeing that awesome, self made magazine that we own science fiction; the readers, writers, and fans are all that matters and if we wait for major corporate entities to give us our stories then we will be eating spoonfuls of crap.  I started writing and submitting. I haven’t always been as productive as I am these days, but I have never stopped.

With all this being said it is my particular honor to present my interview with Maggie Jamison, submissions editor for Apex Digest. So many young and new writers begin to understand the business of publishing their work through a fog that only parts with the slow illumination of multiple failures and rarer successes. Maggie goes a long way toward piercing the fog. I’ve been beating my head against the market for years and I learned a ton. Enjoy! Visit her blog! (She likes robots… or understands inevitability.)
Andrew) How is working at Apex Books?

M.J) It’s a lot of fun. My co-editors are all brilliant and evil in the best ways, and I’ve learned a ton about the “biz” from them. It can also be very time-consuming, so time management is something I’ve had to learn, too, just to get everything done! But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Andrew) What made you want to work in such a glamorous field?By ‘glamorous’ I mean a field where you bosses are always putting glamours, spells and hexes on you.

M.J.) I believe it was a brain slug secretly slipped into one of my winter caps by editor-in-chief Jason Sizemore, but—according the brain slug—I had always wanted to get involved in the publishing industry.

The longer story is this: I was an English major in college, and had recently turned my sights on taking my writing more seriously as a possible—though not lucrative—career. I’d picked up a copy of Apex’s print magazines at my local bookstore, and got hooked. So when Jason put out a call for submissions editors, I jumped at the opportunity. It helped that I’d done some intern work for the State University of New York Press, mostly in their marketing department, and marketing experience was what Jason was looking for at the time.

Andrew) How many submissions do you deal with on a day to day basis?

M.J.) Depends on the day, really! Most days, I tackle my submissions and other Apex work (often more marketing related) during my lunch break at my day job. Taking length-of-story, success-of-story, and the amount of time I actually have available, I usually move through between two and six per day, every day. (Two, if the stories are long and good; six, if they’re short and not well done.) I usually received about twenty submissions a week via our excellent slush-wrangler Chris, though lately we’ve lost a few of our submissions editors in the great battle for world domination, so I’m probably getting a few more now to help catch up on what was left in their inboxes.

Andrew) Is there a typical point at which you know you are dealing with a worthwhile story?

M.J.) If I look at the page-number and see that I’ve flown past page five without even realizing I’ve been reading that long, usually I know I’m dealing with a good one. Then it just depends on the ending. If I’m having to fight to get to page five, that’s a story I usually pass on.

Sometimes, though, it can be faster. I’ve had a few stories that grabbed me right off the bat, and by style, by voice, and by idea, I just knew they were going to work.

Andrew) Have you ever passed on a story based on a first line? Do you remember what it might have been?

M.J.) Yes, I have. I don’t recall what the sentence was specifically, but I recall that there were three grammatical errors in it, and the entire document had no paragraphs. If someone’s not going to take the time to edit their work—especially the first sentence!—there’s no reason for me to waste my time reading it.

Andrew) How important are titles for you?

M.J.) Surprisingly, I’ve found proper titling makes a significant difference for me as a submissions reader. There are some titles that give away so much of the main idea that I actually know what the ending will be long before I get there. And there are others which grab my attention and stoke up my interest before I even start to read. Even so, a bad title won’t get a story rejected, but a good one sets the stage and whets the appetite for everything that follows.

Andrew) Most editors and writers I know believe that patient editing and work-shopping can make a marginal story into a great story, but you are not teaching creative writing or running a workshop. Do you ever run across stories you know are diamonds in the rough, but just too rough to consider? How do you communicate this to the writer?

M.J.) Usually, I try to let him or her know that the idea is really, really good, but that the way it’s currently told doesn’t work for it. I see a lot of these actually, usually in the form of “twist” or “surprise” endings, in which the main chunk of the story is a slow, plodding, and awkward set-up for the amazing moment at the end. But then, I’ve usually only seen that “moment” because I skimmed past everything else. For most of these kinds of stories, the idea at the end can be very good, but the story should have started with that idea, instead of holding it at arm’s length and hiding it away at the finish.

Andrew) Grammar problems that make you curse?

M.J.) I’m not too much of a grammar-hound, but one that does drive me nuts is improper punctuation at the end of dialogue.


“So sue me,” he said.


“So sue me.” He said.

(And it’s = it is, where as its = belonging to it.)

Andrew)Science fiction in the last thirty years has really broken down the expository forms of its earlier eras, but how experimental is too experimental?

M.J.)This is a little tricky to define. I think what it really comes down to for me is this: it’s too experimental if it can’t be enjoyed as a story. I like experimental stuff, but I’ve got to be able to enjoy it, even if I’m pretty sure I don’t “get” it.

Andrew) “I was just an average private eye trying to get by in this big city when she walked through my door…” How does that make you feel?

M.J.) Like grimacing, but only because we get a lot of sci-detectives, and almost all of them going for the “noir” feel start like that. Not that I’ve ever seen one with a female detective saying the same for a handsome, rich, young man walking into her office…

And it’d give me the good kind of chills if it were the beginning of a Sam Spade novel or a Humphrey Bogart movie, because I love actual noir detective stories!

Andrew) The most interesting up and comer is? Why?

M.J.) Hmm… That’s a good question! Most of what I read these days is slush (though that’s changing!) which doesn’t leave me nearly as much time to read new stuff just coming out. But if I had to go with someone, I’d say Peter M. Ball because his stories always linger in my mind after I’ve read them, and they make my soul smile. We’ve got two of his stories in APEX MAGAZINE, “To Dream of Stars: An Astronomer’s Lament” and “Clockwork, Patchwork, and Ravens” (which actually came through my submission pile!). I expect big things from him in years to come.


“Clockwork, Patchwork…”

“To Dream of Stars…”’s-lament-by-peter-m-ball/

Andrew) “Astronomer’s Lament” is one of the most original tales I have encountered in awhile and it represents a really fresh take on the “alternate history” story. What balance of science to fiction do you try to strike in your selections?

M.J.) For APEX, the science needs to be believable and central. There are always a few stories in which the fiction angle is very strong, but the science just isn’t there, and it’s been hard to turn those stories away. But our readers are intelligent folks, and they’ll know if the science is off. For “Astronomer’s Lament”, I remember all of us editors having a lengthy conversation about whether or not it was sci-fi enough. In the end, we determined that it was, and pushed it out to our readers. But I’ve read others that were downright brilliant horror stories, but had no sci-fi element. I’ll admit, I died a little on the inside having to turn a few of those away. But I’m reading for APEX, and APEX wants sci-fi, pure and simple. In fact, as I recall, there were a few Peter M. Ball stories that were more fantasy than sci-fi that we did have to turn down earlier. Boy, was that hard!

Andrew) The most interesting recent market in the sci-fi/fantasy/horror arena?

M.J.) Recent market… hmm… I’ve heard good things about Morpheus Tales, but I haven’t had a chance to read their magazine in-full yet. The samples I’ve read of their print stuff has been very good so far!

Andrew) How much does having no publication history hurt a new writer?

M.J.) To me, not at all. Truth be told, I don’t even read the cover letters until I’ve read the story. So whether it’s No Name Sue or Mr. Five-Times Nebula-Nominated, it always comes down to the individual story. One thing I’ve learned: just because you have publishing credits doesn’t mean that every story you write is good. In fact, I suspect that the moment you start thinking like that, the writing quality goes down the drain.

Andrew) Do you ever rely on the ‘form’ rejection or do try and give notes? Is there a quality threshold that triggers a personal reply (negative or positive qualities to be sure).

M.J.) Most times, these days, I do use the form rejection letter APEX has, though it is modified so that we can check-off the specific category a story fell into that made it be a “no” rather than a “go”. (Most used explanations being: “no sufficient sci-fi element”, and “didn’t hold interest”, though lately I’ve been using the “poorly-edited manuscript” choice much too often.) I do have a section on my form letters that I’ll leave in if I want to make a comment. I tend to take at least brief notes while reading a story, jotting down what page I start losing interest, what irks me, what works for me, and if there’s something constructive I can say, I usually try to say it. I always make comments if a story is really close to what we’re looking for, but just doesn’t quite measure up, particularly if it’s a mechanical issue (there’s too much standing-and-talking to explain the back story; or,  I love the idea, but I didn’t feel anything for the main character).

I think the only time I’d comment for a negative—usually I just check a box and send it on its way—is if someone does something stupid in a cover letter, and there’s really only one thing people can do to annoy me enough to comment on it: don’t tell me how many times your story has been rejected. I’ve always been surprised that folks would actually volunteer that information, but some do! I’m not sure what they’re hoping to accomplish by doing so; usually it just makes me think, “So you think we publish stuff no one else wants?” You don’t want that in my head before I start reading your story. Needless to say, none of the stories that have announced their rejection count have ever been particularly good, much less pushed up—at least not by me!—or bought by APEX.

Andrew) If I change my name to “Arthur McAwesomeington,” will my chances of a sale improve? If I change my name to “Neil Gaiman?”

M.J.) Not at all. Though it might irritate me right off the bat, and annoying the submissions reader is the one thing every submitter should strive to avoid.

Andrew) Insert your own best advice to new and aspiring writers here:

M.J.) Never forget to world-build. Whether your story takes place in modern present-day, the distant past, or the far future: take the time to think through as much of the backdrop as you can. What kind of foods are popular? What do people wear? What keeps people socially connected (or not)? What kind of jobs do people have? What matters to these people—honor, a good TV show, a beautifully displayed corpse? All the stories that ultimately get “pushed up” to our editor-in-chief tend to have one thing in common: they take place in rich, real-feeling worlds.

I tend to mention this when critiquing fiction, too: a story should feel like a window. The world your characters live and die in has existed long before the reader ever picks up the story, and it will continue to exist long after the reader puts it down. The story itself is just a glimpse into a parallel universe.

Andrew) Is Jason Sizemore a member of a radical Michigan based group bent on overthrowing the government?

M.J.) I’m sorry. My brain slug is telling me there’s no such person as “Jason Sizemore”, and no such place as “Michigan”. But my brain slug does get updates from Wikipedia, so it may just have been poorly edited.

Maggie with favorite editing tool.

Just in time for Cristmas: The Turkey City Lexicon and Formatting for begginers!

21 12 2009

So here is something helpful that I use to keep track of my submissions. I keep a word file on my desktop and in this ‘submission’ file I have a master list of every market and  submitted story. As I get rejections I mark them down and then put in my next submission. I was surprised today as I added submissions to Shimmer and Weird Tales, that I now have eighteen pending submissions. Some are to the rare outlets that allow simultaneous submissions, and are thus the same story, but most are rotating my catalog. I am telling you this to encourage you in your own writing/rejection process. I fully expect to cycle through several times before I make a sale; that is the nature of the beast and it shouldn’t get you down. I know that I have good work in my catalog and my rejections are getting closer to acceptances. The key is finding the right outlet at the right time. Sometimes a story is good enough, but not the right story for the issue the editor is working on. They could keep your story for a future issue, but that creates all kinds of chaos and you really should keep shopping your work. Now on to the fun stuff!

The Turkey City Lexicon is a much storied and continually evolving list of all the tropes of sci fi. It has an interesting history that begins in an Austin science fiction workshop and the link I have provided contains a more thorough history which I hope you will read. The point of this expanded lexicon is to list the tropes of science fiction. In the simplest terms a trope is a theme, or motif, or approach to structure that occur again and again in a medium over time. This reduces these themes’, motifs’, and structural approaches’ impact in many cases to the level of cliche’. Here is an example from the lexicon:

  • “Burly Detective” Syndrome

This useful term is taken from SF’s cousin-genre, the detective-pulp. The hack writers of the Mike Shayne series showed an odd reluctance to use Shayne’s proper name, preferring such euphemisms as “the burly detective” or “the red-headed sleuth.” This syndrome arises from a wrong-headed conviction that the same word should not be used twice in close succession. This is only true of particularly strong and visible words, such as “vertiginous.” Better to re-use a simple tag or phrase than to contrive cumbersome methods of avoiding it.

There are literally hundreds of these in the lexicon. Here is another one:

  • False Interiorization

A cheap labor-saving technique in which the author, too lazy to describe the surroundings, afflicts the viewpoint-character with a blindfold, an attack of space-sickness, the urge to play marathon whist-games in the smoking-room, etc.

I have gone through the lexicon many times during the last few years and I never fail to find a few of them in everything I write. The problem with this is that there is no problem. You will never escape every trope completely. In some ways the very nature of a genre is the persistence of themes and approaches that by definition are tropes.

Augusto Monterrosso’s famous short story that reads in its entirety:

“When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.”

Falls afoul of so many of the tropes in the T.C.L. that you would by that yardstick conclude that Monterrosso was a total hack. It doesn’t work like that! Good writing will take the weight of a an over used trope. That is really what the lexicon is: a list of bad writing cliches and simple failures of exposition. Read it and you can avoid pitfalls, but don’t become a slave to it.

So I’m opting out of discussion of formatting until I can rope together some better examples… plus it just seem boring when I have better things to talk about. Tomorrow.

That is the science of Fiction:

Wednesday: Experience in the every day, or when aliens land, it will be in somebody’s backyard.

But Tomorrow: My interview with Apex Books editor Maggie Jamison!! You must read this. She answers questions that every writer should be answering, including what to feed your brainslug.

Finishing a story… editing a story. A new writers guide to self indulgence.

18 12 2009

So I finished a story today. I have habits in my writing (but no hobbits). I tend to get ideas all at once and, in a very nebulous way, complete in the major elements. This story came to me while reading a 1989 issue of National Geographic. I read one  sentence and I stood up and went to work on what would become my latest story. It is of course my best story. Whatever I most recently finish seems to me to be the best thing I have ever written. I don’t know why, but it feels that way. Usually after four or five rejections I calm down and my opinion becomes more subdued.

When I say that I have finished a story, I don’t mean that I wrote the last sentence. I did that several days ago. What I mean is that I have completed the minimum rounds of editing that allow me to feel comfortable with converting the file into RTF (more on that later) and sending it out into the world. Everyone has a different editing process and you need to find one that works for you, but I suggest that you do a minimum of three thorough reads. Your first read you want to keep focused on basic grammar and syntax. Here are my constant mistakes:

Form instead of From

Lose instead of Loose

It’s instead of Its

Their instead of There or They’re

And many many more in both directions. Also keep an eye on your narrator, 1st person, omniscient third, limited third, be consistent. If you don’t have the chops for subject/verb agreement to jump out at you when it’s wrong, read it out loud. I read mine out loud just about every time when I am editing. you will find sentences that, while grammatically correct, just don’t work. Slog through it, focus on the language. Remember, you are a painter and words are your paint. You don’t have to be an English teacher, but if you are screwing up your vision because you don’t know how to handle a dangling modifier, it’s time to bone up on your 101. (Here is a good article on dangling modifiers).

So you fix your unique spelling of the word, ‘spaceship’ and you are ready to get past copy and go for content. Your next read through should still keep grammar and spelling in mind but what you are really looking for are shifts in plot and action that have occurred at the end of your story so as to make sure there are no contradictions in the beginning. I have a published work that has a character changing names for a couple of lines. I missed it. The editors missed it. Several readers did not miss it. It still bugs me. So you want to be careful and keep consistency in mind. As you look for plot holes and non sequiturs you also want to take the opportunity to change or add to parts of your story that will aid in the development of the plot and its conclusion. This is a type of partial rewrite and you can make it it’s own read through. For complex stories that is exactly what I do.

Your last read through should be one of enjoyment. Sit back, and enjoy your creation. Laugh with your characters, cry with them, die with them. It’s your story and it’s almost ready for graduation, so savor the time the two of you have together before the judging eyes of the world turn you both into bitter, jaded, and hate filled shadows of your former exuberance. After your done. Put the story away for a few days, then read it again.

From this point you can either A: do a rewrite

B: Give it to a friend or take it to a workshop for opinions and return to step A or

C: Throw caution to the wind and start trying to sell that sucker!

I prefer step B, but not always. I always go with step A, I need to see if I change my mind or get a new idea as I think about the story, but I have certainly just said ‘to hell with it’ and shipped a story off. Sometimes it has worked. It has also bitten me in the ass, but hey, it’s your ass after all. Maybe it needs biting.

So that’s that. Editing your work. Remember if you are really new to this and don’t have much or any workshop experience I recommend you get some. Nothing will improve your self editing like editing other people and listening to how they edited you. It is worth the price of a course at the local college or bookstore to get this experience. Search the web, but up a post, but find a group of people who will help you with this. I can’t stress it enough, you need to get practice!  Write, read, edit- repeat.

That is the science of fiction.

Next time: The Turkey City Lexicon or Tropes I have loved, and some notes on formatting for submission.

on the horizon: SIZE MATTERS- a treatise on why 8,999 words might sell, but add two more and your getting a rejection slip buddy.

The art and science of getting a sale.

15 12 2009

Getting published is never easy, no matter what the genre, but it is particularly difficult in what I would call the flooded genres: i.e. the genres that everyone assumes they can write. Detective fiction, fantasy, horror, and science fiction provide the world with millions of fans who believe that because they are reading things that rarely win the straight fiction prizes (Pulitzer, Nobel, Booker etc.) that any hack can write in their favored genre. I believe in native talents, Arthur Rimbaud produced his greatest works by the age of eighteen, but for the rest of us drooling masses writing is a work of patient cultivation of our skills. Most slush pile editors could hand you a stack of stories by authors whose only qualifications are that they really love science fiction movies. There is nothing wrong with a love of ones chosen genre; I find straight fiction writers who dabble in the ‘low forms’ often produce crummy work (especially in crime writing). Yet if you want to get published you must start looking at writing as a craft, like woodworking or cooking, that with patient practice and determination you can get better at.

This blog has a two fold purpose. The first is to help other writers in the science fiction genre. I have been writing for years and I have been writing science fiction most of that time. I have put together a useful pallet of experience that I want to share and expand. Of course, more generally, I would like to aid the writers of all second genre fiction. Crime fiction, fantasy etc, you will have a home here too. In the near future I will be going over ways to find a venue for your writing as well as methods for improving your craft.

The second purpose here is to document my own quest to continue getting published. This second purpose is ultimately in service to the first. In this regard I will be sharing rejections, edit requests, and venues that seem …sketchy with you my non-existent reader.

Well, that is post #1. Next time on The Science of Fiction I will share with you the greatest single resource for shopping your work their ever was! Yes, the greatest, none greater. I know this seems out of order. I should post on how to improve your work first, but frankly I want to get this handy little secret out of the way now while no one is watching. I can’t ethically hide it, but I can wrap it in obscurity!