Guest Post: “Dreams, Horses and the Little Story That Could” by Beth Cato

April 23, 2012

Today I’m pleased to feature a guest blog post by Beth Cato, the author of “Red Dust and Dancing Horses,” a SF tale  featured in the current issue of Stupefying Stories. Beth writes about perseverance and not giving up on the stories you believe in, and I wholeheartedly agree.

###

Dreams, Horses, and the Little Story That Could

By Beth Cato

 

 

There’s something I’ve learned during the past few years. If you want to succeed as a writer, it’s not all about talent. It’s not about developing a thick skin. Rejections make you cry? Scream? Those are valid reactions sometimes. But what enables you to succeed is sheer stubbornness. You send the story out again.

Case in point: my story “Red Dust and Dancing Horses.”

From the time I wrote the rough draft, I knew this story was special. It hit me on a personal level. The tale is a horse story set on Mars, where horses can’t exist. It’s about a young Martian girl who has to accept that her deepest desire–to know horses–will likely never come true.

I was completely horse obsessed from the time I could walk and talk. I adored Rainbow Brite from age 3, but my biggest love was her horse, Starlite. I collected Breyer horses from age 4 (I wasn’t into My Little Ponies as much because they weren’t realistic enough). I read every horse book in the children’s section of the library, and if a new book came in the librarians told me. I knew the difference between a Shire and a Paso Fino, a forelock and a fetlock. My parents owned two acres of property, and I knew exactly where we could build a stable and corral. I took riding lessons. I knew exactly what my dream horse would look like and how his mane swayed in the breeze.

And at age 11, I finally had to accept that I would never have a horse.

I was mature enough to realize we were too poor. Money was tight. My riding lessons stopped as we couldn’t even afford the $10 for my riding lessons every two weeks. How could we afford a horse, or hay, or tack?

The dream died, but my love for horses didn’t.

That was the emotion I put into the story, only using a grittier Martian backdrop instead of a central Californian one. I posted the story on OWW. I revised heavily. I started sending it out to magazines. And this story I loved passionately was soundly rejected by almost every pro science fiction market.

Really, I could see why. It’s a horse story, on Mars. People don’t usually pair horses and sci fi, much less horses from old westerns. But it still hurt. This was a story that I felt was not only one of the best things I had written, but it was also a story I loved.

But I loved it so much, I kept gritting my teeth and sending it out again. It had some close calls. It won an honorable mention in Writers of the Future for the 4th quarter of 2011. But it still didn’t have a home, so I sent it out yet again.

You know what? It has a home now, an amazing one. This is what the editor of Stupefying Stories, Bruce Bethke, said in the forward for this March issue:

I’m about out of space now, but would be remiss if I did not call special attention… especially to my personal favorite in this entire collection, “Red Dust and Dancing Horses” by Beth Cato. If this story doesn’t wind up on several Best of 2012 lists and on the short list for at least one major award, I will be disappointed.

While querying agents, the big mantra is, ‘It only takes one yes.’ That’s true for short stories, too. “Red Dust and Dancing Horses” finally found its YES, and whatever happens from here, I’m happy, because the story finally found some other folks who love it just as much as I do.

The dream lives on.

“Red Dust and Dancing Horses” can be found in Stupefying Stories 1.5, on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

 

 


Publication: “The Traveling Fair” at Every Day Fiction

April 18, 2012

This story was written for one of the Shock Totem contests. Every few months the horror/dark fiction magazine sponsors a contest where a prompt is provided and each author submits their story anonymously, to be judged by fellow entrants. I enjoy the process and try to participate whenever I can, and it often results in pretty good stories. “Spidersong” — my first SFWA sale — was another ST contest story. For “The Traveling Fair” the prompt was to write a story under 1000 words featuring a giant monster and fireworks.

Click  here to read The Traveling Fair at Every Day Fiction, and don’t forget to rate it!

 


Night and Day

April 6, 2012

I’ve always been a night owl. From an early age I found myself to be at my most productive and creative in the evening hours. When I started writing, I fell into a routine where I got most of my new words output done at night, after my wife and son went to sleep and the house became quiet and distraction-free. Some nights I would be too tired to write–exhausted by the day job or various chores that needed doing. Writing being a hobby rather than a career for me, I accepted this loss of productivity and tried my best to make up for it on other evenings, when I had a bit more energy to spare.

Then my wife switched jobs.

She started at the new place two weeks ago. Her new office is very far away, and it takes her nearly two hours to commute there.  This means that she has to leave the house very early, before our son’s day care opens. So now I have to get up early every morning, get Josh ready and drive him to day care. No more sleeping in till 9-10am. And those late-night writing sessions? Forget about it. By midnight my brain feels like a squeezed out sponge.

So, driven by necessity, I fell into new routine. After dropping my son off at day care I get a bit of breakfast and have several uninterrupted, quiet hours in which to write. (I don’t have to be at work till noon). The difference has been night and day–pun very much intended. I am able to attack whatever story idea I’m working on while rested, fresh, and properly caffeinated.  Words are flowing more easily and quality of the output appears to have improved (says the guy who’s notoriously bad at evaluating his own writing).

In the last two weeks I wrote three complete stories from scratch. And although they’re relatively short, none of them are mere flash length, either. There’s a magical realism story I’m especially proud of called “Things We Left Behind” (2500 words) that draws heavily on my personal experiences of uprooting and moving from the Soviet Union to the United States. A 1350 word space opera-ish “The Miracle on Tau Prime” is about the Vatican miracle investigators. In space. And yesterday I wrote a 1500 word SF story “Seven Conversations in Locked Rooms,” completing the first draft in one sitting. One sitting! Normally I struggle to write 500 new words of fiction per day.

I’m liking this new productivity. Well, scratch that. I’m still a night owl at heart. I hate getting up early and going to bed on old people’s time. What I do like are the results.

Could something as simple as a routine change ultimately take me to the next level in terms of both quality and quantity on my writing? Only time will tell. But it’s certainly an intriguing possibility.


2012 Submission Statistics: Three Months In

April 1, 2012

March was an excellent month for me. I sold three new stories (to Nature, Nine, and-just yesterday- to Every Day Fiction), wrote a lot of words I’m happy with, and kept up with my submission, aggressively getting my steadily-increasing inventory of short fiction out there.  The three-month mark seemed like a good time to look over my statistics, and this is what my spreadsheet tells me:

Stories on submission currently (including reprints): 19
Stories still on submission from 2011: 2 (both reprints)
Stories waiting to be re-submitted: 3
Total inventory of original finished but unsold short stories: 17
Total stories sold in 2012: 6 (3 of which were submitted in 2012, the rest in late 2011)
Total 2012 submissions: 73

April is looking to be the month where  a huge chunk of my previously sold stories will finally see the light of day. By my estimation as many as seven of my ‘forthcoming’ stories will go live in the next month. I can’t wait for everyone to read some of them, especially “A Shard Glows in Brooklyn” which is forthcoming in the second issue of Buzzy Magazine.


Awesome Rejections

March 30, 2012

One of the most important skills to being a writer is the ability to deal with rejection. Understanding that  an editor choosing to pass on your work is not personal, and that you will receive a lot more rejection slips than acceptance letters.

Every publication deals with rejections differently. The most common are form rejections. You get a very generalized note that looks something like this:

Dear Author,

Thank you for sending us “Story Title Here.” Unfortunately have have decided not to publish it. Please feel free to submit more of your work to us in the future.

The Editors.

Or some variation of above. It’s short, impersonal and to the point–but it gets the job done.  Some markets will offer small bits of personalized feedback in order to offer encouragement or–better yet–let the writer know about some specific flaw in their story that contributed to its rejection.

But who says rejections have to be boring? There’s a way to inject humor, originality and outright strangeness into the mix!

Consider the famous Rolling Stones rejection sent by Hunter S. Thompson in 1971 (warning: do not click on this link if you’re easily offended by profanity). Had I been on the receiving end of this I would be framing that thing up on my wall. I should probably do that anyway, and look at it any time I get a rejection of my own. I think it’d make me feel better.

Then there’s this poetic rejection, riffing off W.C. Williams:

This is just to say we have taken some plums

we found in our mailbox.

You were hoping it would be

yours. Forgive us,

others seemed

sweeter

or colder

more bold

or whatever.

Again, this is a “make your day a little brighter” kind of bit, at least when you’re seeing it for the first time.

But my favorite form rejection (and the one that prompted me to write this blog post) is one not being used by any magazine or anthology. It is a hypothetical rejection letter written by a friend and fellow New York SF writer Anatoly Belilovsky.  If I’m ever in position of some editorial authority, I hope to make use of the following, at least once:

Your stories soar like birds,

I wish I could acquire ’em,

but I seek only words

fit for an aquarium.

 

 


Publication: “The Take” in Daily Science Fiction

March 11, 2012

Image

 

 

Those of you who subscribe to e-mails from Daily Science Fiction will receive my flash SF story “The Take” late tonight. Subscription is free, so you should sign up! And if you’re one of those holdouts who don’t like receiving free, awesome stories via e-mail, you’ll be able to read this story on DailyScienceFiction.com in one week.

“The Take” was inspired by the “Memory Eater” anthology. Although the story made it to the final round of consideration there, they ultimately passed on it. I made minor changes to remove references to the Memory Eater technology and sent the updated version of the story to Daily Science Fiction. I love DSF to death and they are almost always the first to see my stories, so I was thrilled to have “The Take” accepted there.

But wait, there’s more.

There’s a supporting character in the story named Charlie Tan. It wasn’t until after the story was accepted at DSF that I realized that my character shares a name with a well-known SF blogger Charles A. Tan. The editors at DSF realized this too, and wanted to know whether the reference was intentional.

My first instinct was to change the character’s name. But the more I thought about it, the more amused I became by the coincidence. So instead of changing the name, I reached out to Mr. Tan and asked his permission to leave it in. He was amenable to the idea and has officially become the first person to be tuckerized in one of my stories.

So read “The Take” and, if you enjoyed it, be sure to stop by the DSF Facebook page and leave a comment. Because I almost always have another submission in their slush pile, and a well-received story can’t possibly hurt 🙂


Guest Post on Write1Sub1.com

March 7, 2012

Sorry the blog hasn’t been very active lately. I was away for a family vacation in Key Largo, FL, where I enjoyed all sorts of cool stuff such as kayaking, visiting an alligator farm, and watching awesome sunsets like this one:

 

I did not, however, get a nearly as much writing done a I would have liked. And now I’m preparing for yet another trip next week, to a conference in Las Vegas. Will this cut into my writing time? Almost certainly. I’m trying to make up for it as much as possible this week, and I’m definitely keeping up with writing one new story per week so far, but I’m not racing ahead of my self-imposed schedule with submissions and writing as I have been in the first six weeks of the year.

 

 

Some of that “getting ahead” writing included penning a guest blog for Write1Sub1.com which went live today. It’s about the submission metrics and I make the case for setting yourself clear submission goals in addition to word count/story total goals. My 2012 submission total stands at 48 as of today, well ahead of the benchmarks I set for myself at the beginning of the year. If I continue at this pace, I may just have to challenge myself with a higher submission goal. Would 366 submissions be utterly insane? That’s one for every day of this leap year. I won’t commit to that just yet, but will reexamine my goals in another month or so to make sure they’re ambitious enough to make me work harder, yet achievable.

 


Jake Kerr’s Eleven Rules On How To Get Great Critiques

February 24, 2012

 

Jake Kerr recently wrote an incredibly insightful post on Codex Writers–a private forum both of us belong to.  He graciously allowed me to share it here. Jake’s novelette “The Old Equations” was recently nominated for a Nebula Award. You can visit his website at www.jakekerr.com

 

1. Cast your net wide.

What’s better than two critiques? Four critiques. What’s better than four critiques? Eight critiques. When you start, your goal should be to identify a stable of people who will have a keen eye on identifying the mistakes that you consistently make but can’t seem to catch yourself. I call these blind spots, because they don’t indicate that you are a poor writer. They just indicate areas where your personal shit detector appears to be broken. These are different for everyone, which is why one person’s awesome critiquer is another person’s waste of time.

The good news is that you can find good critiquers anywhere. Ken Liu asks for people to critique his stuff on Twitter. I’ve done the same and found at least one person that has provided me with awesome feedback. That said, there are places you should ask for critiques with knowledge that the quality will most likely be better–fellow Codexians, online groups like Critters or OWW, local critique groups, etc. The point is that you’re looking far and wide for people that aren’t afraid to point out things you haven’t noticed.

I have had dozens of people critique my work. I’m down to a group of 5-7 now that I send stuff, too, but I will occasionally cast that net out again via Twitter or Codex or what have you. Because it is my belief that a few more strokes with the whetstone will always make the blade sharper.

2. ASK FOR CRITIQUES.

The great thing about the writing community is that we’re generally a supportive and helpful bunch. Our instincts are that we LIKE to help others. We LOVE to see writers improve. So you, as a writer, need to tap into that, and you can’t be passive about it. Ask someone to critique your work. Don’t be shy. They’ll say “no” if they don’t have time. Browse the Codex critique folder. Read the critiques of others. If someone is saying something that resonates as something you need to hear, contact them directly and ask them to critique your work.

Don’t be annoyed if people say, “No.” Some will, of course, and that’s their right, and you should respect that. But just because the first four people you ask say “no” doesn’t mean that they resent you for asking or that it is a wasted exercise. This is obviously not limited to Codex. I’m sure you have friends that are writers. You should ask them. You should ask them if they have someone they like using. Again, don’t be shy. This is all part of casting your net wide, and has been mentioned in another thread, fishing in the fertile waters can be very helpful.

3. Identify your weaknesses and focus on the people who are very good at identifying them.

We’re all neo-pros here. We should have at least a halfway decent personal shit detector. We know we have flaws, but it SO DAMN HARD TO IDENTIFY THEM. The good news is that when people point them out it’s like someone turned the light on in a room where you were squinting to see. It’s suddenly, “Holy shit, that’s exactly what this story was missing. HOW DID I MISS THAT?” Those are the people who will help you the most.

4. Ignore all the general advice like “If eight people point it out, it’s probably a flaw. If two do, it’s probably not.” This and similar advice is kinda bullshit.

Focus on two points: 1) Is the critical comment supported by the critiquer in a compelling way and 2) Does it just plain make sense to you. This isn’t a democracy. It’s a method of refining art where some people are just better than others.

So, it’s entirely possible that only one or two of the people critiquing your work have a halfway decent shit detector. It’s entirely possible that you have eight critiquers that just love the story and don’t mind that the characters are wooden or that the gap between scene two and three doesn’t make sense because, dammit, they just love when the princess proves to be a badass and when you did that thing in scene four it made everything else right. Uh, no it didn’t. Be happy you have a kickass scene four, but if ONE person says your scene two to scene three transition makes no sense and you immediately go, “Oh yeah, that’s true.” Then follow the freakin’ advice of the one person. OR, if you don’t understand it instinctively but the critiquer provides plenty of evidence that seems to make sense, at least take a closer look at what he or she is saying.

5. Mercilessly prune people who give unhelpful critiques

If someone gives you an unhelpful critique they are wasting your time and theirs. Don’t ask them again for critiques, and if it’s a group setting where you are required to hear and receive their critiques, then just thank them and toss their critique in the trash or delete it.

Remember, the goal here isn’t to make friends. The goal is also not to be an asshole. So it is perfectly fine to be firm in narrowing down who will see your work, and this can certainly be done without being a jerk. If someone takes offense to it, then you just need to be prepared for that and file it away as their problem, not yours. I know this can be tough, but it’s really the only way to handle it.

Going back to point 3, if eight people LOVE your work, and their critiques make you feel good, but they don’t really help you. Those aren’t the ones you need. If two people identify things that the others don’t, and those things make you uncomfortable or ask questions that you have a hard time answering. Those are the ones who are probably being the most helpful.

6. Don’t ever send your edited manuscript back to the people who critique your work.

When someone critiques your work, they are emotionally invested in it. It is too easy for them to feel hurt if you ignored half of their advice. Never mind that the half you DID take could have been hugely beneficial, many people will be annoyed that you didn’t listen to everything they said. The reality is that you should make your critiquers feel like they are being helpful. After all, you’ve already pruned all the unhelpful ones, right? But you certainly don’t need to justify that by showing them that you’ve taken 20% of their suggestions last time, and this time you took 40%.

This can be difficult when someone specifically asks to see the edited document, but you should still just say, “No.” There is absolutely no reason for them to see it. Their job was to help you, and they did that. They may ask you where you are submitting the story, and it’s fine to tell them, but if a critiquer becomes someone who is constantly asking you for updates, then you know that he or she is WAY too invested in your work. That’s not healthy in a critiquer, and–even if they’ve been helpful–you should consider not using them any more.

You don’t need drama and people identifying with your success as an author. You need a cold ruthless eye wielding a word scalpal who is invested in good stories.

7. Don’t give your next draft back to the same critiquers who read the first draft.

This is basically the same as No. 5, but I want to underscore that it is even true for when you go through multiple rounds of edits. When someone critiques a piece, they have just put themselves in the same role you have–they have become invested in the piece and lost objectivity. Their second glance will be more focused on “Did he or she listen to my advice” and less on “is this a better piece.” Certainly there are exceptions, but this is human nature, and it is perhaps unfair for someone to not judge a revised work based solely on how much you took his or her advice. Besides, a fresh set of eyes is always helpful.

8. Don’t focus on efficiency, focus on results.

If you have a critiquer who provides you with 95% crap advice, but on one specific thing where you have trouble, they are incredibly helpful, keep them and embrace them. There is no acceptable percentage of edits that you need to integrate into a piece. The acceptable number is how many improve the piece. The key is just that–are you getting advice that improves the piece.

So be ruthless not just in pruning bad critiquers, be ruthless in pruning irrelevant advice from good critiquers. This happens all the freaking time, and if your expectation is that you’re getting bad critiques because everyone is giving you some bad advice, then I have a secret for you: EVERYONE will give you bad advice. The good news is that quite a few people also give you good advice while giving you bad advice. Your job is to be comfortable with ignoring the irrelevant from the important.

This is another reason why not to give edited manuscripts back to critiquers, by the way. If their expectation is that you’ll take all of their advice, they’re going to be disappointed. If you took 100% of the advice of even one critiquer, you probably made a mistake.

9. If everyone is giving you horrible critiques, then you probably need to re-think your own critical eye.

Just like you should never expect a critiquer to be 100% perfect, you should not expect a large number of critiquers to be 100% wrong, too. Odds are in those circumstances that you are too emotionally invested in your work to accept objective criticism.

A huge indicator of this is if you get defensive over specific critiques. It’s certainly acceptable to laugh when someone incorrectly changes the spelling of a word you used, but if you find yourself getting upset over an issue and the critiquer is presenting you with a logical reason for his or her critique, you really need to take a step back and examine whether you actually are right. Ultimately, if you are going through critique after critique and getting frustrated at how bad they all are at misunderstanding your skillful narrative complexities or how it is just sad how biased every critiquer is in defining a character as a stereotype when you created her to be a robust anti-stereotype, then you should take a hard look at yourself.

10. If improving yourself isn’t a big goal, then don’t bother with critiques.

If it is more important (and fun!) for you to just write a story and toss it out there, devil may care, then you probably shouldn’t even embrace critiques. They are time-consuming and clearly add a layer of effort to your writing that wouldn’t exist otherwise. If they kill the fun, then just don’t do them. The joy of writing should always be paramount, at least to me.

11. Return the favor

While you should treat critiques with ultimate selfishness, you should not treat the relationship with your critquers that way. In fact, you should be just as responsive to them as they are to you. And remember the rules above–do your best to provide the best critique possible, but don’t become invested in the critique to such a degree that you feel that their work is yours. It isn’t. They may take your advice or they may not. Don’t sweat it. Just keep helping others as they help you. That’s the real spirit of the writing community.

 

 


“A Thousand Cuts” accepted at One Buck Horror

January 27, 2012

 

I’m pleased to announce that One Buck Horror will be publishing my short story “A Thousand Cuts.”

This story was originally submitted to a Cafe Doom horror writing contest. The top prize for this contest was publication at One Buck Horror. Although “A Thousand Cuts” comfortably made it into the top 10 (based on anonymous popular vote by the entrants) among 50 or so entries, it was not ultimately selected as a finalist by OBH editor Christopher Hawkins.

But then, a really cool thing happened. Mr. Hawkins was kind enough to offer feedback to any of the top 10 finishers who asked for it. I contacted him and, upon reading the story again, Mr. Hawkins offered some suggestions and invited me to resubmit an updated version to OBH.

I was happy to comply. I spent a few days working on the rewrites and ended up with a slightly longer story that followed the same general plot, but was different in tone and feel. I then submitted this new version of the story, and waited.

Six weeks later Mr. Hawkins got back to me, letting me know that he did not like the rewrite as much as the original. He felt that the longer version lost the dreamlike quality of the original. However, he was willing to make some edits and send them to me, so I could try again.

For those of you who don’t submit stories I must explain that this is a rare thing. Most of the time editors are going to either accept or reject a submission. They rarely have the time to work on the story that’s *almost* there, and a second rewrite request is exceedingly rare. Needless to say, I was thrilled to work with him on the changes.

Turned out, the changes he wanted were smaller and more subtle than I was shooting for in my original rewrite. However, they did smooth out and further improve the story! Over the course of a couple of days we had a version we were both happy with. I’m proud to announce the upcoming publication with special thanks to Christopher Hawkins. who believed in the story enough and had the patience to work with me to make this happen.

 


From The Desk of Mr. McFetridge

January 20, 2012

The following is a comment left in the “Rejecting Faulkner” thread by G.D. McFetridge, the essayist whose actions I took issue with in that post, and my response. Enjoy:

G. D. McFetridge says:

January 20, 2012 at 4:25 pm

Alex (who?),

You’re hardly worth the effort, but I’m bored. First of all, you don’t know who I am, I’m published under more than one name. Your shallow attack reveals more about you than me. Are you a republican, or just a cohort of FJ’s? The selective way in which you drew from my essay excluded any chance of your rant being objective, a rant clearly meant to elevate your little ego at my expense. Good for you. But you’re way out of the loop. “Show Us, Mr. Faulkner” was first published over ten years ago; in its various evolutions it has now been published 10 or 11 times, including the UK, where, unlike any of your work, it got high praise from John Jenkins. It also won an academic literary award in 2006 for the year’s best creative nonfiction. The editor of the “Harvard Review” said: “Although we do not have a place for your work in the upcoming issue, we thought your nonfiction essay stood out from the rest of the crowd.” Arkansas Review (Janelle Collins wrote: I found your submission, “Show Us, Mr. Faulkner,” a fascinating read … It’s well written and witty. And a fine reminder that journals exist because of writers and that each submission deserves the resepct of a careful reading.” In closing I want to thank you for adding to my celebrity, because of course the second best thing is good press, the best thing is bad! Just ask Charlie Sheen. Go to Temple and talk to someone, you’ll feel better about yourself. Oh, and by the way, how many of your essays have been published ten times? Love ya, sweetie, say hi to your wife, GD

GD,

Thanks for stopping by and sharing more of your wisdom with my readers. Taking the time out of the busy writing schedule your alter egos and pseudonyms are having, and all that.

Clearly my shallow attack on your person has failed. In my inadequate attempt to warp and subvert the meaning of your essay I foolishly linked to your actual essay. My idol FJ (whoever that is) will be sorely disappointed in me.

I’m glad to hear that you’ve had more success in shopping around your essay than your fiction. Having it published 10 or 11 times in as many years must’ve been quite a feat. Especially in the UK. Personally, I was only published in the UK once and I humbly concede that getting paid in Pound Sterling is quite nice.

I should have known better than to express my disagreement with your assertions on my blog. I’m definitely outmatched. From a mere 1000 word “rant” you’ve been able to draw conclusions about my political affiliation, religious beliefs and state of mind. If I could jump to conclusions like that perhaps one day I’d be eligible for an academic literary award, too.

I was especially impressed with the rejection letters you quoted to prove that you wrote a good essay. It was easy to convince me since I, too, stated in my “rant” that your essay was well-written. I had no issues at all with the style or wit of your article.

My issue was with the fact that you put your name on other authors’ work.

My issue was with you wasting the time of editors and slush readers and then calling them out for a totally subjective and personal decision of rejecting the manuscripts you sent them, under false pretenses.

And my biggest issue was with your conclusion that the system is rigged and that you can’t (or at least aren’t likely to) get published based purely on the merit of your writing. I strongly disagree with this assertion, which is why I chose to discuss your essay on my blog.

You did not address any of these points in your reply, choosing instead to concentrate on “winning” the debate, Charlie Sheen style, the crux of your argument being that I’m a nobody, and how dare I speak out.

Oh, and I actually feel quite good about myself, thanks for asking.

Alex