Rejecting Faulkner

January 17, 2012

William Faulkner

 

Rejection sucks.

Every time an author gets that bit of bad news in their mailbox it stings a little. An author is sad and dejected. Unwelcome thoughts run through the back of his mind. Maybe the story is terrible. Or maybe it’s good, but it didn’t match the editor’s taste. Maybe it’s great, but they bought something similar recently. Then, there’s a tiny red guy with a pitchfork lounging on the author’s shoulder. It whispers: The editor is a fool who doesn’t recognize your genius.

Don’t listen to that voice. The latter is almost never the reason your story got rejected. Sure, there are notable exceptions. J.K. Rowling struggled to sell the first Harry Potter novel. James Patterson was rejected many times. But for every Rowling and Patterson there are hundreds of aspiring authors who get rejected because they aren’t good enough yet, because they haven’t thoroughly polished their manuscript, and for dozens of other, perfectly legitimate reasons.

Authors who eventually succeed learn to develop a thick skin when it comes to rejection. Shake it off, send the manuscript to the next market, and work harder on your next one. Those people who don’t handle rejection well end up quitting, including some who have the makings of a great writer. Then there are the angry, bitter writers who blame everyone and everything for their lack of success – except themselves.

Today I read an essay by G.D. McFetridge, who appears to be firmly in the “blame someone else” camp. The essay is titled “Show Us, Mr. Faulkner” and can be found in the winter 2011 issue of Mobius magazine.

To summarize, Mr. McFetridge submitted a slightly modified 4,000-word excerpt from William Faulkner’s “The Hamlet” to a slew of literary magazines, as an original short story. In the essay he proudly shares the rejection slips he got from slush readers and editors, and questions their competence for having rejected Faulkner.

This in itself isn’t really news. Every so often an exasperated writer tries this sort of a nasty trick on the magazines that have been rejecting him. No one except other exasperated, rejection-collecting authors is amused. You can guess how the editors and slush readers feel about this. (Spoiler: They dislike it. A lot.)

In the end, it proves nothing. Stories really are rejected for dozens of reasons. Each publication is seeking a certain kind of voice, style, something fresh. Any magazine worth its salt receives hundreds of submissions for every open slot in their table of contents and must, therefore, reject plenty of great stories. And these are real short stories we’re talking about–I question Mr. McFetridge’s wisdom in yanking a chunk of a 50-year old novel and hoping that Faulkner’s voice alone would magically make it work as a standalone piece.

G.D. McFetridge didn’t stop at plagiarizing Faulkner (yes, I know he wasn’t actually trying to steal somebody else’s work, but …). He went on to submit several stories published in prestigious anthologies under his own name and collected more rejection slips. He then impersonated famous authors and called editors on the phone, asking them to pull the work of his protégé out of the slush pile for a closer look.

He was then scandalized that they obliged.

In a nutshell, Mr. McFetridge’s point is that editors and slush readers at literary markets are incompetent, corrupt, and that a regular Joe has almost no chance of succeeding under this rigged system. To which I say: nonsense.

Let us examine what it is McFetridge decries as being wrong with the publishing word:

  • Big-name authors bypass the slush pile, their stories landing directly on the senior editor’s desk.

What’s wrong with that? They’re big-name authors because they have already proven their ability, by winning awards or by selling copy–either is a fine metric.  A-list Hollywood talent are asked to star in films–they don’t have to pass an audition the way newer actors must.

In speculative fiction magazines, there are many criteria that will get you past the slush reader. You may be an author whose work the editor already enjoys. Some magazines bump up SFWA members, or folks previously published by top markets. Some advance anyone who has attended a prestigious workshop like Viable Paradise or Clarion.

All of these are legitimate decisions that signify meritocracy rather than corruption.

  • Several editors were all-too-happy to pull a story from slush on a recommendation of a (fake) famous author.

Again, what’s wrong with this? If an accomplished author I like and respect suggests that another author’s work is amazing, I am likely to pay attention. This happens all the time – just look at the back of any book cover.

Mr. McFetridge brandishes this as evidence of a broken system, but in reality a recommendation from a mentor can only get a protégé so far. Once the manuscript lands on the editor’s desk it must stand on its own merit. Stephen King himself couldn’t endorse a fledgling author’s bad story strongly enough to get it published.

  • The game is rigged, and you must have some special connections to get published

This is really the crux of Mr. McFetridge’s essay, and the part I disagree with the most. He writes: “The Pretty People Review is open to all submissions, but be forewarned. We hand out special treatment to insiders and the chosen few—and if you ain’t one of them … tough nuggets!”

Yes, you can get special treatment from a magazine. In most cases, there’s good reason for it (as described above). But, in every case, getting past the slush pile will not guarantee a sale. The only way to do that is to submit a great story.

Every single one of those big-name writers the essayist is raging against started out in the slush pile. In his book “On Writing” Stephen King talks about years of rejections he endured early in his career. King, and others like him, made it in the publishing world based on their talent and hard work, and so can anybody, regardless of whatever special connections they may or may not possess.

Ironically, G.D. McFetridge’s own writing is pretty good (based solely on reading his essay). Sure, he could stand to learn the difference between “ascetic” and “aesthetic” (see paragraph 3), but nobody’s perfect. He will probably get published, if he keeps at it. Though, I bet, not by any of the venues he pranked.


Two New Sales and a Reprint

January 16, 2012

 

A few months ago I found out about a new Kindle magazine called Stupefying Stories. It was launched and edited by Mr. Bruce Bethke, the man who coined the term “cyberpunk” back in the day, and has been an influential voice in the science fiction field. Naturally, I wanted to have a story of mine appear in this shiny new ‘zine.

I sent out a piece, and got a “close, but no cigar” rejection. Mr. Bethke did encourage me to send in more stuff, and to send more than one story. I obliged, sending two pieces of flash fiction.

“A Brief Respite from Eternity” is a love story set  in the final stages of the heat death of the universe. “Number Station” is a horror/dark fantasy piece which takes place in modern Russia. They’re two very different stories, in tone, subject and voice. I figured my best bet was to offer a range and hope that Mr. Bethke and other editors would like one or the other.

I was overjoyed to find out, late last night, that they liked and accepted both! I don’t have the publication details yet, but from what I gleaned from the e-mails it sounds like “Brief Respite” will appear first, with “Number Station” to be published sometime in the future.

Yesterday also marked the reappearance of the first story I ever wrote, “The Skeptic,” on the Internet. Its original publisher shut their virtual doors last year and took the site down. Bent Masses stepped in and accepted “The Skeptic” as a reprint. It has been published in their January issue and can be read here.


2011 Writing Statistics and The Secret Formula for Getting Published

January 2, 2012

What a difference a year makes.

At the onset of 2011 I had two stories published in token-paying ‘zines. I set myself a nearly-unattainable goal of making ten more story sales by the end of the year. Not even in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I’d make pro-paying sales, join SFWA, and have a story of mine selected for use in a state-wide aptitude test by the NJ Board of Education. Meanwhile, I have friends whose imagination and writing ability blow me away — yet they still haven’t made their first sale.

So what’s my secret, you ask? I figured out and implemented an amazing strategy that resulted in the total of 19 story sales in 2011 (including stories submitted in late 2010). My secret formula is this:

1. Write lots of stories.

2. Submit them like crazy.

That’s it. That’s the big secret. Let’s go over that in detail:

1. Write lots of stories.

You must keep writing whether you feel like it or not, at the time. You must tinker with drafts you aren’t satisfied with and outline new ideas. You must add words to a story you’ve been slowly working on for months — even if you’re half-convinced at that point that your underlying idea is terrible and the writing is worse. By the time you’re finished, that might end up being one of the best stories you’ve ever written.

Writing on a regular basis makes you better at it. I look back at the stories I wrote a year ago, and I can see tangible improvement. I’m sure that will continue to be the case for a long time to come. Like any other craft, you hone your skills by practicing for hundreds of hours. You also tend to get rusty when you stop.

One good method for maintaining your creative output is to set yourself a daily writing goal. 500 words works for many people. That’s 500 new words — doing revisions and tinkering with your older manuscripts doesn’t count. If you’re an organized person with a stable schedule, you’ll be able to maintain a daily writing routine. You’ll also quickly discover a number that works for you. Some lucky souls can plug away at their keyboards and produce 1000 or even 2000 quality words a day. Others find 500 to be too challenging. If you are in the latter category, don’t despair. Even at 250 words written every day you can have an entire novel draft finished by the end of the year.

This works great if you’re in control of your schedule. Others have day jobs, family commitments, and other important stuff in their lives that may preclude them from writing daily. I belong firmly in this category. In this case, an initiative like Write1Sub1 may be an excellent substitute.

I joined W1S1 as it was being launched in late 2010, committing to write and submit a new story *every week* in 2011. While I have not always stuck to this schedule, it did constantly push me to increase my output. I made up for some skipped weeks with bursts of productivity and managed to finished an impressive number of stories in the past year — far more than I would have written without this self-imposed metric. Needless to say, I will continue to participate in Write1Sub1 in 2012, and you should consider it too.

2. Submit them like crazy.

As I wrote above, coming up with new material is the hard part. Submitting is easy. At least that’s the case for me. Other writers I know of have no problem writing new tales, but getting them to consistently submit their work for publication is more difficult than herding cats.

Some people have a hard time dealing with rejection (and there’s LOTS of rejection to be had, even if you’re a pro). Others struggle under the mountain of their creative inventory, uncertain of the status of their submissions, which stories have been to which markets, and which are idling in the dark corners of their hard drive.

Over the course of the previous year I’ve learned (or am still learning) the following facts about submissions:

* Never self-reject. If you think that your story might not be good enough for a specific magazine and you choose not to send it in, your end result is an equivalent of a rejection. If you *do* submit your story there, rejection becomes only a worst-case scenario.

* Submit your story to the best markets and continue to submit it until you run out places you can possibly stick it. Given the breadth of speculative fiction markets cataloged on sites like duotrope.com and ralan.com this shouldn’t happen for years. In the 18 months or so since I began writing, I have yet to retire a story (though I’ve tinkered with them plenty, to make sure that the level of writing in each story is the best I can currently manage)

* Don’t let a harsh personal rejection faze you. In 2011 I’ve had two separate instances where an editor rejected a story and ripped it to shreds in their comments — and then the story sold to the very next market I sent it to, with *zero* changes made. Just like with anything else in life, one editor’s trash is another editor’s treasure.

* Don’t be mad at the editors for “not getting” your story. You may disagree with them on the specific feedback they provide, but recognize that they took the time to make the comments in the first place. Every decent editor is inundated with hundreds of submissions. The fact that they offered you feedback instead of a form rejection is a gift, and should be treated as such.

* Don’t let the story languish on your hard drive. Send it out there. If you get a rejection, try to resubmit it somewhere else within 24 hours.

* New markets open all the time. If there isn’t a suitable market open for a particular story you have, chances are one will pop up in the next month or two. However, it’s even more likely that you haven’t looked hard enough. After a year and a half, I’m still discovering “new” places to submit to, all of which have been around far longer than I’ve been writing.

* Maintain a database tracking your submissions, so you always have a clear idea of where they’ve already been, and what isn’t out on submission at the moment.

So yeah — I’ve been submitting like crazy. In the past year I’ve made a total of 150 submissions (including reprints). Here are my annual statistics:

Submitted: 150

Currently out on submission: 18

Lost / Never responded: 2

Rejected: 114

Accepted: 16

The breakdown of accepted stories by market type:

Pro Pay ($0.05+/word): 5

Semi-pro ($0.01 – $0.05/word): 7

Token (under $0.01/word or royalty pay): 4

I sold a total of 19 stories in 2011. Of those, 17 were original stories and 2 were reprints. Two were micro stories (one Twitter length and one 100-word), 8 were flash (under 1000 words) and the rest ranged between 1200 and 5000 words.

In 2012 I’ll continue to write lots of stories and bombard editors with my submissions. I’m confident I can break my record of 150 subs. In fact, I think I’ll break 200.

If you want to see your fiction published in 2012, then so should you.


“The Getaway” sold to Earthbound Fiction

December 9, 2011

Today I signed the contract for and can officially announce the sale of “The Getaway” to Earthbound Fiction.

Earthbound Fiction is a new publisher, soliciting short stories for their SF and Fantasy anthologies. They’re also running a monthly contest, with the winning story posted on their site. Although my story did not win the November contest, they enjoyed it enough to pick up for their forthcoming flash fiction anthology.

“The Getaway” is a tiny flash fiction story and its genre is somewhere between humor and suspense – so it doesn’t fit into either of their current anthologies, so I must assume they’ll be publishing it in a Flash antho sometime later next year. Either way, this is an odd duck of the story that I really like, and I was happy that it found a good home.

This month’s contest is themed. Earthbound is looking for holiday stories under 500 words – so if you have something appropriate, consider sending it their way. After all, the more great stories they buy, the sooner an anthology that includes “The Getaway” can be published 🙂

 

 

 


Plan of Attack

December 8, 2011

I like to set myself ambitious goals. When I began writing fiction in the summer of 2010 I had a straightforward yet difficult first target: to sell a story that year. Many freshman writers struggle for years before they accomplish that first sale, but I’m not patient enough to wait that long. Luckily I didn’t have to. I managed to get not one, but two stories published in 2010. Both sold to relatively modest markets, but nothing to be embarrassed by.

I wrote about my 2011 goals over here. I joined Write1Sub1, committing to write one short story every week in 2011. The goal was 10 story sales.  To date, I’ve had a total of 17 short story sales this year, including three to professional markets and a sole reprint to the NJ Board of Education. And the year isn’t even over yet.  I also joined SFWA, which was originally one of my goals for 2012.

So what is it I want to accomplish next year? Here’s a list:

Write longer stuff. I will probably write less stories next year, but they will hopefully be better, longer stories. Flash fiction has become my comfort zone, so I will push myself to write longer fiction until I feel as comfortable in the 3-5K word range as I do in under 1000.

To accomplish this, I will spend more time outlining and plotting each story before sitting down to write it. This is contrary to what I’ve done to date, which is to write mostly by the seat of my pants. I will also continue to participate in Write1Sub1, but at the rate of one story per month instead of one per week.

Be consistent. I will try to write at least 500 new words every day. That’s all-new content – editing previously written manuscripts doesn’t count. My biggest problem this year has been falling off the writing wagon for a few days or even a few weeks at a time. Training myself to write a little daily is a good start to accomplishing all of the other goals.

Upgrade SFWA membership  – I’m currently an associate member. Full membership requires 3+ pro sales totaling $250+. I’m at 2 qualifying sales and around $150 – so a single short story sale or a couple of flash sales to pro markets will put me over the top.

Socialize. I have never attended a science fiction convention, nor met many of my fellow writers in person. Next year I will strive to fix that. We are planning a special launch event for an anthology I’m in (more details on that in January) so I will get to meet folks there, but I also hope to attend at least one major SF con in 2012.

Blog. Now that I have this spiffy WordPress blog, I am resolved to update it regularly. The goal is at least once a week, but possibly even more often if I have something interesting to talk about.

Novel! The above goals aren’t particularly ambitious. But this one is, for me. I’m completely lost and intimidated when it comes to undertaking a novel. As I continue to work on short fiction, I will research, outline and begin writing a novel. I don’t necessarily expect to finish it in 2012. In fact, I probably won’t start on it till later in the year. Until then I will continue to work on improving my writing, read books and articles on the craft, and maybe even attend a workshop.

This post is part of a W1S1 blog chain where a number of Absolute Write regulars talk about their writing goals for 2012 and how they plan to accomplish them.  Samuel Mae started the chain on his blog this morning. Next up is A. G. Carpenter.  Please check out their blogs, and those of all the other excellent people who hang out at the Absolute Write W1S1 sub-forum.

 


Writing What You Don’t Know or In the Footsteps of Jules Verne

December 5, 2011

Jules Verne, a science fiction pioneer

Some of the most basic writing advice out there is “show, don’t tell,” “avoid adverbs like the plague” and “write what you know.” While the former two adages are more or less universal, it’s a lot harder for a speculative fiction author to follow the third. After all, what writer could have the first-hand experience navigating a faster-than-light starship, traveling back in time, or casting magic spells?

In most cases a healthy amount of research will do the trick. Jules Verne, renowned for his lush descriptions of exotic and faraway places, hardly ever left his armchair. He learned about Africa, India and other settings outside of Europe by reading books and studying maps. One can only imagine what kind of adventures the grandmaster would have thought up if he had access to the Internet. Or perhaps his productivity would have been stunted by World of Warcraft and Words With Friends – just like the rest of us… Or is that just me? But I digress.

Research is how I cope with writing about stuff I don’t necessarily know much about. I don’t have to become an expert in every field — I just learn enough to fake sounding like one on paper. After all,  if I can’t fake a little knowledge, how can I write convincing accounts of telepathic alien spiders or bad-ass magic wielders on the streets of Brooklyn?

A good portion of my allotted writing time is spent on Wikipedia, looking up various subjects. And the subjects are only getting stranger. Recently some of the stuff I had to look up online for my stories included:

* Manhattan Municipal Building
* Mose the Fireboy
* Persimmons
* Variations of Shakespeare’s “To Be or not to Be” soliloquy in “Hamlet”
* Kaballah and Jewish mysticism
* Sunset Park waterfront
* Sumatra
* Year the JFK airport was renamed as such
* Common Greek names
* Volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompeii.

These aren’t all for the same story (although, if they were, it’d be a doozie!). On second thought, I looked at the list again and SIX of the ten examples I listed are all research for just one story – a sequel to “A Shard Glows in Brooklyn” titled “Requiem for a Druid.” I really doubt anyone would be able to figure out which six, but feel free to give it your best shot in the comments.


Spidersong

October 16, 2011

"Spidersong" will be published at Daily Science Fiction tomorrow. Or a week from now, depending on how you look at it.

DSF offers an e-mail subscription service. They'll send a shiny new story to your mailbox 5 times a week. Four of these are flash stories, short enough to read on your cell phone or during a lunch break. On Friday you get a longer story to enjoy over the weekend. If you don't subscribe to their mailing list (and there's really no reason not to, it's free and the fiction is of excellent quality), you can read the same stories on their web site. The only catch is that they are posted online a week later. So if you want to read "Spidersong" it'll be in your inbox on October 17 and then posted on their front page on October 24.

"Spidersong" was originally written for a flash fiction contest sponsored by the Shock Totem magazine. The prompt for their contest was a number of photos of trees shrouded in spiderwebs, like this one:

This surreal image is a result of heavy flooding in Pakistan. Thousands of spiders escaped the rising water into the trees, and made a home there. You can see more photos over at National Geographic or read about it at Gizmodo.

So, of course, after looking at the photos what immediately came to my twisted mind was giant alien spiders. Giant alien *telepathic* spiders. Who sing.

I had a lot of fun with this story along the way. I chose to write it in plural first person AND in present tense, which is a very unusual format in which to frame fiction. Hope you like the end result!


On The Last Afternoon

April 13, 2011

This story was published at Every Day Fiction today. It’s linked here.

There are a lot of "end of the world" stories out there. Some concentrate on the heroics of averting the disaster last minute, while others work overtime to wring every ounce of emotional sap from readers/viewers (think "2012"). Precious few are about regular people – folks who have no major role to play in what’s coming. How would they cope with the situation? Might it cause them to make some rash, foolish decisions the way my protagonist does? That’s the story I wanted to tell.

I also enjoyed writing a story set in my home town. Authors are often advised to "write what they know." For a speculative fiction writer, it can be difficult to apply this recommendation to stories set in a wizard’s tower or outer space. Setting a scene on the Verrazano Bridge, which I cross fairly often, was a refreshing change of pace. I’ve since written a much longer story that is set in Brooklyn and plan on several more.


“The Candidate” published by Gary Games

February 23, 2011

“The Candidate” is the only sword and sorcery fantasy I’ve written so far. It is also the only story that is set in the world I did not imagine on my own. Instead I was working with the background created by Justin Gary and other fine folks over at Gary Games for their excellent board game “Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer.”

I was given a set of mythology/events they developed for the game, plus whatever hints I could pick up from artwork and flavor text printed on the game’s cards. However, I also had plenty of creative freedom. Kaer and his people were entirely my addition (though Ahrans already existed in the world of Ascension). All individual non-deity characters in the story I got to make up on my own. Justin and Co. even took some of my advice in changing parts of the fundamental mythology of Ascension in the process.

In writing this story, my goal was to introduce Ascension fans to the fundamentals of the imaginary world in which they are playing. For those who haven’t played it yet (and you should!), Ascension is a deck building game in which players race to collect the most powerful assortment of weapons and spells while defeating monsters on the board. Players are never in direct conflict with each other as they would be in a game like Risk. They are all working toward the common goal – defeating an evil god. However, there can be only one winner, so the game mechanics allow players to occasionally make moves that temporarily set back their opponents (much like moving a Robber in Settlers of Catan, or placing a tile to mess up a competitor’s city in Carcassonne).

In the end, there can be only one Godslayer – but there are many Candidates (players) in the game. What motivates them? Some are obviously in it for the Big Prize (this will be covered in the story, but the game’s title in itself is a pretty big hint). Others… not so much.

The end result was a rather long (5000+ words) story which will be published in four installments on the Gary Games web site. Today you can read the first part here. Stay tuned to the official Ascension web site, or to this blog, for the next chapter.


Secret Origins of The Skeptic

November 18, 2010

This week my fantasy short story “The Skeptic” was published at Absent Willow Review. You can read it here (and you should, before you continue reading this post, because you don’t want me to spoil it for you!)

Done?

Very well. Now here is the fun part. The Skeptic is based on a true story. Well, maybe not the twist (although you never know, right?) – but the actual setup did happen. There was indeed a guru so full of himself, he accepted the challenge of killing his detractor on national television. Hilarity ensued, as can be witnessed in this YouTube video:

There was also an excellent article describing this event here, at the British newspaper The Sunday Times.

So you see, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. All I had to do was write it all down.