Writer Gets Lost in Thought, Fails to Write His Way Out…

5 03 2014

I can’t claim writer’s block, not really. I can claim lack of discipline, a sclerotic decay of my drive to produce fiction, but it isn’t a block.

So I got a good job after a very long spell of bad ones. It is a job that fits within my educational background, and one that I greatly enjoy. Good pay, good benefits- all that. Now it is one year on and I haven’t written more than a paragraph in a sitting since I got here. Could it be that I am one of those wanna-be romantics that need suffering to produce? I am really happy these days. Do I so lack in discipline that without 20 hours of writing time available each day I can’t produce a poem? I do often get home just in time to cook dinner, take a bath, do paperwork and go to bed. Is my dachshund too demanding? Well, yes he is, but he always has been.

For the longest time I told myself that as long as I was reading I wasn’t decaying as a writer- I have devoured over 1 million words since the beginning of the year (really closer to 2 million at this point), and that is done in every nook and cranny of free time I can muster. But it isn’t the same. It has been a year since I finished a story and I am in an existential crisis!

Now, usually at this point I would send a long rambling complaint and plea to Maggie Slater (+1) begging for advice, but she has her own things going on so I will ask the two of you for input. -What type of scheduling, rituals, or other tools of implementation to you employ to write, write regularly and write to “The End”?

So open call to tell me what I’m doing wrong.



Evil returns to the world! and other tropes

24 01 2014

“Hmmm,” the hero says, “what could be inside the black, rune-studded can? Let’s open it and see.”

Well if our hero had been reading MY NEW FAVORITE WEBSITEshe would have known that you never want to open up a can of evil. The site, TVTropes.org is so thorough and fantastic that I am really not sure how I survived prior to finding it. It is the collected and described tools of modern storytelling, ruthlessly dissected, exemplified, and cataloged. I discovered it while researching some Vernor Vinge villians (V3’s for you laymen and laywomen) and I came across the trope category of “Sealed Evil in a Can.” Now I never really thought about it that hard, but really, haven’t we all written stories about sealed evil in a can?

I have taken a gander at lists and missives about the common tropes of writing before, and my reaction was always to try and escape those confines, but I don’t have to be Karl Jung to know that YOU CAN’T ESCAPE THE UNIVERSE. Unless I want to just go full on surrealism then I’d better know the tropes. In fact, you can browse the tropes to pick which one you want to write about/with. You’ll never tell an original story, but you can tell an old story with originality. Think of this site as a sort of Tarot Deck for writers. Pick a card, any card. My personal favorites are alien archaeology. What are yours?

So a note about coming back to this. Life is a word that ruins any sentence it preambles. And my life is noneya, but for the scope tscof, I will say I’m no longer working as a house-husband. Back in the sciences (hooray!) and not writing a bit. Oh, I churn out a paragraph or two everyday, but they don’t turn into stories. I’m still reading 2-4 shorts a day and I’ve digested about 600k words in the last three weeks, so that is something I suppose.

For all of my readers that are still subscribed, thanks for sticking around, I will be back soon.



Higgs Boson Found! It could have been found in Texas

14 03 2013

So they found it. The seat of mass in the universe. The little packet of information that tells us to fall down, to be drawn together and to fall apart. I’m hearing No-bells. At any rate, on this wonderful day in the history of science I wanted to take a moment and remind my American readers that this day would have taken place several years ago and be celebrated in North Texas if our congress had not killed the Superconducting Supercollider.

Who cares? I do. I care a whole bunch. My friend Fonsie gave me a book when we were teenagers- The God

My friend Fonsie. We haven’t spoken in fifteen years, but I am forever in his debt for making me a nerdier person. He does that professionally now.

Particle, by Leon Lederman, which was selling the project, albeit a bit ex post facto as the final nails had already been put into the coffin of the project’s funding. Clinton said a few words at the funeral. I was there, the flowers were nice. When I went  to work in government I would sometimes sneak away to sit in on the various scientific committee meetings and listen to the shrill and pedantic begging of stamp collector scientists as they begged for more funding. I would hold my thumb and forefinger up in front of my face and crush their heads. They killed our supercollider more than the politicians did. Every climatologist, geneticist, and dendrochronologist that said we couldn’t afford the SSC, because their own “vital work” needed the funding shares the blame. A congressman once told me that, “You couldn’t kill a big public works bill in Texas even if it was useless- especially if it was useless, but that thing got it from all sides.” They should have called it The Ronald Reagan Superconducting Supercollider. 

So why do I care. Science is, after all, an international affair that thrives best when allowed to flow freely without concern for national borders. I agree with that, but I live here. The SSC, with its 40 TeV (nearly three times more than LHC) would have been a vital lab for a generation and during that time thousands of school kids would visit, thousands of PhD’s would move to America and start families, and thousands of satellite installations would spring up. Intellectual centers change the place they’re in. Without Los Alamos, New Mexico wouldn’t be the PhD capital of America; it would be Arizona. The unintended consequences of science- pure science -are what we lost, and to every scientist that helped kill the SSC I say: Vous êtes un groupe de collectionneurs de timbres!  I’m sure the people working at the Large Hadron Collider know what I mean.

A simulation of the proposed "Higgs Boson." We might have fond this particle in the 90's if it weren't for the Higgs Bosos in Congress.

A simulation of the proposed “Higgs Boson.” We might have fond this particle in the 90’s if it weren’t for the Higgs Bosos in Congress.


Next up: I brag some more about correctly picking the Pontiff.




Maggie Slater’s take on submissions: Darkness to Light

14 02 2013

So here is what Maggie Slater has to say about the questions of submissions and acceptance and getting out of bed. So enjoy and learn something!


Well, prior to doing this little exercise, I didn’t have too much trouble getting up out of bed, but NOW… XD Looks like for me, as an author, at least on rough average, I get about 6 acceptances for every 73 rejections<–the depressing part is that I only HAVE 79 attempted submissions at *all*. Yikes. That stings the pride a bit. Sign I need to submit more? Yes, please.

As for on the slushing side, it’s a mixed bag, because what I push up to the EoC doesn’t necessarily make it in the end. Apex itself only publishes 2-3 new stories an issue, so about 24-36 new stories a year (outside of reprints, which I believe are commissioned/requested). I get about ten to fifteen a week to go through, and we’ve got eleven total submissions editors, who probably get about the same amount as I do, so on the thin side of that, we process about 110 submissions a week, 440 submission a month, which works out to about 5280 or so a year? (How do you like my out-loud math workings? XD) So it’s stiff competition to get in. I haven’t crunched the numbers, but I reject probably about all but maybe ten percent of the stuff that crosses my desk. 
Most common reason for rejection? A lack of familiarity with what Apex publishes. Second most common reason? I get a lot of really good, solid stories that fit our magazine’s profile, but just don’t quite stick out from the rest, that don’t quite have the strength to stand up with some of our reprint authors. I typically read a story, and if I like it enough to read it front-to-back all the way through, I’ll flag it and set it aside for a day. If I can remember, the next day, what the story was about/a character/an image/a mood/a location/even a phrase, or have found myself thinking about it when not actively doing Apex work, I’ll push it up. If I look at it, frown for a while, and can’t remember any details, I shoot it back. Lasting power and resonance is important to me. People spread good stories by telling other people about them. If someone reads a story and, like one of those breath-freshener tab thingies, the story just evaporates with a minty puff, easily forgotten, that story isn’t going to generate much buzz, and isn’t going to draw more people to it. You want something that sticks with people, even if only very subtly in the back of their minds, even if only in fragments of “Oh, I totally loved this one story. I think it had a kid in the mid-south with a box or something that contained something evil in it… And I think there was a preacher, maybe, or a travelling snake-oil salesman… Regardless, it was awesome!” <–and that’s one of yours, Sir! 
As a side note: Titles aren’t that important, BUT–they do act as a kind of cover for your short story. At first I thought that meant that a story with a more creative title would stick out in my mind more, but I’ve found that’s not always the case. What matters with titles for conjuring up a story (especially if I *haven’t* been thinking about it on my own time, which is usually a guarantee send-up if I do–and it happens more often than you’d think) in my head a day or so later is the applicability of the title. It can sound generic, like “The Horse”, or something, but if that simple title really clicks with what the story is about, I’ll be able to remember it in a heartbeat. Whereas a story with a title like “Joe Barnaby’s Last Chance, or How Bubblegum Was Really Invented” may not conjure up any story at all if the story doesn’t really fit with it (you’d be amazed the rather dull, uninteresting tales that have fanciful, playful titles–it’s hard to imagine a dull story with a fun title like that, but it happens, unfortunately). A title is a powerful element of the story–just like a person’s name can be important, too. It just has to fit. If you’re writing a beautiful, flowery-language tale, a complex and poetic title would be totally suitable; if you’re writing a quiet, one-inch-of-ivory type tale set in a quiet location, a simpler title might fit better. 
So there you go! Now do yourself a favor and check out the nuggets on her blog!
Make sure you scroll down and check her Wil-E Coyote plans… hilarious.
The Science of Fiction
Next up: Another story makes it to round two… how will this trilogy end???

Rejection over Acceptance:The Peter M. Ball Ratio

3 02 2013

So my last post was about my new favorite rejection from the kindly ones over at Tor.com. I can honestly say that the rejection they sent me did more to reboot my submission efforts than the last three sales I made put together. Partly it’s due to timing and partly to the fact that it’s, well, it’s Tor. So at the end of the post I mentioned that I wanted to get some input from writers I admire as to their submission/sale ratios and all the nuances that go along with the process of putting your work out there. My “please write my blog for me” requests went out to two people, Peter M. Ball (because I wish I was him) and Maggie F.N. Slater (because she’s my only friend).

I will start with Pete’s response. I think it highlights the type of submission habits that have made Pete one of the great rising stars in the genre, that and the fact that his writing is just fantastic (BASTARD!). So without further ado, here is how Mr. Ball shops his work. Read carefully and perhaps you too can become a household name (even if it’s just in my house).

Peter writes:

“…So the topic du-jour rejection ratios and how I get up in the morning? In answer to the first part: I have no idea. In answer to the second part: very slowly, and usually only when lured forth by coffee. My natural state is staying up until three in the mornings.

There are plenty of things I track quite scrupulously in relation to my writing career. Submissions, despite my answer above, are actually one of those things. The problem simply lies in what I’m tracking and how.

For example, I can give you more-or-less accurate stats for submissions to open call anthology markets and short-story magazines, ’cause up until December of last year I was tracking all of that via Duotrope. I just fired up the excel back-up I downloaded before the Duotrope pay wall came down and it looks like I’ve got a total of 27 stories recorded there, covering everything from flash pieces I wrote very early on to novelette length work I shopped around. I’ve made 142 submissions to magazines and open anthology calls, and racked up 23 acceptances.

So in terms of the ratio you’re tracking that’s, what, one acceptance for every six mail-outs? One for every seven? I could get out a calculator and get that exactly for you, but already I’m looking at that number and I know it’s wrong. In fact, it’s kinda bullshit.

Lets take a closer look at those stats: Of those acceptances, there are 12 that were accepted within the first 5 submissions; I’m pretty happy with that, although one was a story exactly twenty-five words long that I wrote and submitted to prove a point. Four of my acceptances took over 10 submissions before they were accepted, getting rejected again and again for a period of two years before someone finally said yes.

Worse, I’ve recorded fewer submissions as the years go on. Truth is, I’d be much happier if I was clocking up more rejections these days – it’d mean I was writing more, submitting more, and generally doing all the things I’m meant to be doing as a writer. To put things into perspective: 135 of my 142 submissions were made prior to 2010. I submitted exactly 2 stories to open markets in 2011, and all my 2012 submissions were made in the last four months of the year.

Not that I’ve been lazy for the last few years (well, not *entirely*). I’ve written and sold a handful of stories that didn’t make it into my Duotrope tracking ’cause they were to invitation-only anthologies. Or ’cause they were part of my story series for The Edge of Propinquity in 2011, which I sold on spec on the basis of a series pitch back in 2010.

Still, compared to the massive tear I went on between 2007 and 2010, I feel pretty damn slow and sluggish.

Here are some other things that don’t appear in my tracking document: years of submitting poetry and getting rejected; years of submitting scripts and getting rejected; years of submitting short stories to markets that aren’t SF markets and getting rejection. Three years where I didn’t submit anything, ’cause I was working on a thesis I didn’t end up finishing. Years when I disappeared into the d20 RPG boom and worked like a bastard, simply ’cause I loved gaming and suddenly you could make some cash writing gaming things and self-publishing it.

The excel file I used to gather my statistics covers about six years, from February of 2007 up until December of last year. Six years that are among my most successful, I’ll admit, but still just six years out of the eighteen I’ve devoted to writing.

I mean, one acceptance for every six rejections over those six years? I like those stats. They make me feel all warm and glowy and vaguely competent at this writing gig. Unfortunately, I’m acutely aware that whatever marginal level of success I’ve achieved – and believe me, there are days when it feels pretty damn marginal – it’s not a complete picture.

I’d love to give you overall career stats, but unfortunately I started this gig back when it was easier to track stuff on paper than a computer, so I’d have to spend about forty-eight hours trawling through the stuff I’ve got in storage to find the submission logs.

Instead, I’ll just ask you to take it on faith: I got rejected a whole damn lot. Most of the time people were pretty nice about it. Sometimes, they weren’t. There are two, in particular, that stick in my mind: a rejection that basically wrote off of my first SF short stories with the dismissal that there was nothing in my fiction they couldn’t get from listening to a Morrissey album; my first failed university assignment where a tutor rejected my script as callow slapstick with no real redeeming features.

That first rejection sent me away from writing SF for a few years. Not because it hurt, just because I only knew of two SF markets at the time, and I figured there was more productive methods of using my writing time.

The second one, well, I kept writing shitty scripts and eventually I wrote some less shitty scripts and at some point someone picked them up and made a couple of plays from them. And then I realised that I wasn’t a big fan of writing theatre scripts, ’cause I’m something of a control freak and I had no desire to direct. That said, the guy who told me I wrote callow slapstick became my thesis supervisor after I stuck around in writing classes, kept turning in work, and generally made it apparent to everyone that I wasn’t going away so they should probably just teach me how to write.

Which brings me to the getting up the morning part, I guess, and the other reason charting my acceptance ratio is probably a waste of time.

No two writers follow the same path. They don’t their craft in the same way.

This, I think, is the problem with submission stats: they don’t take into account the fact that every writing career is different and every writer develops in different ways. My one-in-six hit rate is the result of a lot of rejection in the twelve years prior, a lot of study, and a life where I more-or-less decided I had no interest in a job that wasn’t writing and therefore avoided full-time work until I was thirty-five or so.

Most of that time was spent doing sessional work for universities, which is basically twenty-six weeks a year where you work a single twelve-hour day every week and get paid really, really well. The other twenty-six weeks of the year are spent scrambling to pay rent. Even that was designed to advance my writing in some way: I’d routinely get given a pile of 100 short stories to mark and comment on. You read a lot of terrible stories doing that, and you have to figure out a way to tell every single student how to make their terrible story better.

That did a lot to improve my writing. Probably more than it did for the students, to be honest.

People never used to believe me when I told them I was a really slow writer. Largely this is ’cause I had a whole lot of time devoted to writing, and a stubborn refusal to give up on anything. If you changed the ratio we were measuring to writing-time-versus-acceptances, I’d be in all kinds of trouble. It’s also why, as I’ve slowly become more enthused by my day job over the last two years, my output has dropped dramatically.

Getting up in the morning is actually kind of easy: this is what I do. I don’t mean that in the cranky way writers usually do, where they sit there and say you have to love it and want to do it more than anything; if you can do anything else, you probably should.

That, I think, is bullshit. I like to own my decisions in this respect: I could have done plenty of other things with my life. There were a handful of times where I actually thought about it. Every time, I figured writing was worth it. It was an active choice to say this is what I’m doing with my life, no matter what.

I write for two reasons: to be read, and to be paid. Editors have to say yes for either of those things to happen, but I have no control over that. All I can do is put as much of my best work out there as I can so there’s plenty of opportunities for them to say yes, this one, we’ll take it and we’ll send you a cheque.

In that respect, rejection doesn’t bother me. It’s a sign that I’m doing my job.

And I really like my job, even if I’m not a morning person.”


And that my friends, is how he does it. I must admit that I picked up some real solid tips from this. So I want you all to thank Mr. Ball by visiting his site and telling him how great he is. Also I want to collectively mourn Duotrope and the economic reality of E-commerce. I used that site like a hypocrite uses the bible and now I have to pay for it. I haven’t yet, but I really should.

Next up: what Maggie has to say.

Keep submitting and never… submit????

Andrew C. Porter

The Science of Fiction

Enjoy the puppy bowl

Best Rejection… EVER! Tor.com makes me want to live another day, or “How I learned to quit worrying and love the Liz Gorinsky

25 01 2013

I get roughly 75 rejections for every sale. I really can’t say what other writers deal with. I’ve Heard Peter M. Ball actually sells more stories than he submits, but that could be rumor. Of course this means that in order to get published you must submit, submit, SUBMIT! I have friends that like to write stories yet find themselves terribly discouraged when they cannot get published. Yet when I ask about their submission rates they tell me that they have submitted to, “that one place that rejected me…”  Well that won’t work. You push on, submit, write more so you have more to submit, rinse and repeat. Try not to let it get you down.

Nothing feels better than a sale. I mean really. The last time I made a sale I wore a grin that made my neighbors little girl cry and her little boy hide behind his mother’s leg. But you can’t live for that feeling. It is too elusive. Instead, you have to find other fixes to get you by. Workshop, blogging, honing your craft, reading- all good ways to survive the lean months (years) between the pure, unadulterated amphetamine that is, “We are happy to inform you that we would like to publish your story.” I have discovered another pleasant mediator- the good rejection.

I don’t get many of these. Good rejections are as rare as sales. Last night I got a really good one from none other than Tor.com.  Tor.com is a really special place, a nexus of sci-fi/fantasy and mainstream culture. It is well written, well funded, and well… a lot of people visit the place. I put a sub in there about six months ago and forgot about it. Last night I received this:

Dear Mr. Porter,

Thanks so much for your patience while we evaluated “The Stone
Flowers,” which finally made it to the top of the long queue of the
very oldest stories in our Tor.com submissions pile. The good news is
that you were on that queue because you were in the second look pile.
The less good news is that you were moved there shortly after we
opened the market to the general public and got a huge influx of great
submissions, and I’ve been playing catch-up ever since. We very much
appreciate your patience during the process.

Unfortunately, now that I’ve had a chance to read the story, I
don’t think this one is quite right for us. As I mentioned, our first
readers all found things to admire, remarking, “This was a little slow
at first, but pretty soon I couldn’t look away. I may be biased
because I love octopuses, but this is also different than anything
else I’ve ever read, and it was strangely emotional for having such an
alien point of view,” “Very cool premise, and the ending is great. I
think the writing isn’t quite effortless enough,” and “Yeah, there are
points in the beginning when the writing feels totally clunky, but the
emotional journey is profound and the concepts interesting and

While I did find the alienness of this perspective intriguing, I’m
afraid it moved too slowly for my tastes and I found the prose to be
not quite interesting enough–at times it felt more like a synopsis of
a story than the story itself.

That said, despite my reservations about the story, it was a close
call for us, and we would be happy to look at anything you choose to
send us in the future, if you’re not well and truly fed up with us. I
do hope things will speed up considerably now that we’ve recovered
from the massive initial flood and have several more hands on deck to
do first reads.

Liz Gorinsky

So that is without a doubt my favorite rejection…EVER!

Now for the problems. I was explaining to Dear Maggie today that the story- so sweetly rejected -has made it to the finalist spot at about half a dozen top pro magazines. Intergalactic Medicine Show asked to hold it for nearly a year “trying to find a place for it,” or so they said. I love this story. I wrote it about my friend Dana in Nashville after she lost a parent and it contains some very genuine feeling. The biggest problem: I have submitted this story to just about every place I can think of and it just can’t find a home. What’s more, the six “bigguns” that rejected it all gave me very nice rejections with thoughtful advice on how to improve it… and the advice is almost entirely contradictory. I know better than to worry about it. The above rejection didn’t really offer advice so  much as state why it didn’t quite make the grade (they were very fair with that and that’s why it’s my favorite rejection). I won’t give up. I love this story and I believe (with all my sugar coated heart) that it has a loving place waiting for it out there.

Thems the breaks.

So hats of to Tor.com for being awesome. One note, they were awesome before this rejection, now they’re just more so.

Science of Fiction.

I want some input from friends on their rejection ratios and how they get up in the morning. I will ask around and post.



The Butler County in my Head, Part II

19 01 2013

My Computer is sick. It has reached its mid-twenties in computer years and much like humans, its inherent instabilities are manifesting. If only their were a USB Prozac I could plug into the thing and make everything alright. I can’t count the number of friends I have that drifted into insanity, addiction or just out-and-out weirdness as they transitioned from adolescence to middle age. One minute you”re sitting in a bar with a friend talking about the relative merits of knees and elbows and the next minute that friend is being carried out of the bar screaming French at the cops while the mini-skirt he’s wearing rides up to expose his junk flopping around like a boneless appendage signing the guilty plea to his third indecent exposure charge in as many weeks. That was an interesting evening. I couldn’t help but think that he wasn’t really all that into the whole transvestite gig as the skirt was made of cheap black jersey material and the top didn’t even try to match. What a digression.

My computer is getting drunk and wearing a miniskirt from K-mart. I’d call it a cry for attention, but it’s going to have to go Macy’s if it wants me to notice. I’m all class. That being said, with my machine getting sick, I’ve been creating zip files of all my work and emailing them to trusted friends as well as making zip drive backups which I’m scattering to the four winds. Understand- I don’t think that a lost War and Peace is buried in my old writing, but I do have about as many words as War and Peace, and that’s just a lot of work to trust to the fickle whims of the digital format alone. In the process of copying files I had to make a place for the smallest of my folders- PUBLISHED STORIES! It is a woefully thin folder, but one that is filled with pride (yes, I’d rather there be about half as much pride and twice as many stories, but you take what you can get). As I looked through the stories that have seen the light of publishing day I noticed something: they all share a setting. A dozen or so stories I’ve sold have been set in my native county in Kentucky (Okay, all but one- that story was set on the moon). It is quite interesting to me that of all the stories I’ve finished and submitted- around fifty stories- nearly all that were sold were set in my home town.

About my home town. About a year ago I outlined why Butler County makes for good settings in my particular breed of dark sci-fi. It is perhaps just as interesting that I started this post exactly one year to the day that I posted about BC last time. I’ve probably mentioned that Butler County is mentioned in the film Village of the Damned, the John Carpenter film starring Christopher Reeves. At the opening of the film the doctor, played by Reeves, mentions that he has just returned from Butler County where he delivered a child. How do I know this is a reference to my Butler County? John Carpenter grew up one town over from me and every film he makes contains one or two geographical references to the area. Fittingly, our reference came from Village of the Damned. 

So what to do with this information, this revelation? It certainly plays into the “write what you know” adage that I find to be such a hackneyed cliche. I don’t want to think that the stories I’ve sold are my best work. In truth some of these stories are, in retrospect, not all that good. Yet they sold, some to semi-pro, some to pro. I don’t think for a second that if I wrote another story set in Butler County that it would sell, yet I when I look at the half a hundred finished short stories I have written every one set in Butler County has sold.

Perhaps it’s an “unponderable,” as Tolkien liked to put it. I haven’t sold a story since last spring so I need to get cracking on something somebody wants. I might as well write what I know (will sell). It’s time to return to Butler County, a strange place that straddles north and south and rests in the shadow of Paradise.



Paradise Coal Plant. Behind it you see Butler County, my native land.