Writing — A Yearly Review

If you’re not into these “writer posts,” move along. I have sometimes considered putting these onto a separate hunk of blog, and separating them out from the main RSS feed as well, since I don’t think most people are interested, but I have writer friends who are, and no hordes of fans teeming in.

Anyway, for now, it’s here, and people who want to read more can click through to the post…

Last year, I got 7 stories accepted by 8 venues. (I use the word venues because seven are magazines — print or paper — while one was a postcard series, and one was a podcast reprint of one of the seven stories.) Only a few of these are so far in print, as a cursory examination of my Publications List reveals, but counting acceptances bolsters the ego a little.

This means 8 acceptances and two pending responses for the year (plus six pendings on poems). In terms of format this includes:

  • 1 piece of flash fiction (500-1000 words)
  • 3 short-shorts (1000-2000 words) & a short-short reprint
  • 2 short stories (~2,000-7,500 words)
  • 1 novelette (~7,500 words – 15,000 words)
  • 1 novella (15,000+ words)

My ratio of [acceptances : rejections] for my fiction is [8 : 19], which means that out of 27 submissions (not including the pending ones), 8 were accepted. This is an acceptance rate of roughly 29.6%, which perhaps would have some people chuffed. Personally, I think it’s just a sign that I’m not sending my stuff out enough, and that for a long time was not sending my stuff to prestigious enough markets.

(But okay, I’m a little chuffed, especially since several of those are pretty big-deal acceptances.)

On the could-do-better side of things, I have not been nearly as cosmpolitan in my submission practices as I ought. I have thus far failed to submit substantially to new (to me) markets that have purchased work from friends of mine (such as Postscripts). I’ve also taken too long to send out manuscripts once they’re already set to go, mostly relying on excuses related to work to keep myself from printing them (a ten minute job at campus print shop, if that) and hurrying to the campus post office (another ten minute job at best). I’ve bought printable labels and I’m hoping this helps, though I’ll need to get my printer working again to find out. I ought to be sending something to On Spec as well… and, indeed, should make a concerted effort this year to get some of my many unpublished (non-genre, regular old poetry) poems into print.

Genre-wise, the stories are mostly SF: the exceptions were one fantasy/retelling-of-a-myth, and one short horror piece. The remainder were SF stories of a variety of types, ranging from goofy transrealist autobiography and quirky alt-history to dark (and/or angry, and/or violent) near-future stuff. Three of the stories were first drafted at Clarion West, and benefitted from feedback of people there who critted them.

Right now, I have six stories and a sheaf of six poems out to various markets. One is pending — I really need to revise another novella and submit there, as the editor was asking whether I had anything else of comparable length to submit — and the others either are at places with a long response times, or were sent out very recently.

But none of this is really about the writing. So here’s the deal:

  • I’ve gotten better at humor. Which is bloody hard, so I am pleased. I’m not that funny, but I have developed a way of using the quirk.
  • I’ve figured out something about writing shorter stories, since I have actually managed to produce a number of stories in the 3,500 – 6,500 word range. (Previously, I’d found that very short and very long were natural, but that mid-range was always hard for me.)
  • I’ve done some new things for me — including fantastical work, as in, work with magic (of a sort), imaginary beasties (of a sort), stuff we wouldn’t really call SF. That’s new. Certain kinds of stories cannot be told except in this way, and the ones I’ve written use it in ways I’m happy with. I don’t think this will be a huge vein for me, but I am happy enough with the things I’ve done, and have a few more brands in the fire in that area.
  • I’ve been working on openings. Not just the openings of stories, but also the openings of scenes within stories, and even, to some extent, paying closer attention to the cascading openings and closings of paragraphs. I’m not sure paying attention has caused me to change what I’m doing all that much in a fundamental sense, at least not yet, but I am more aware of what I’m doing, and can (and do) tweak it more.
  • I’ve been producing more solid first drafts. Meaning perhaps that I’m getting a handle on tellable stories, or perhaps that I’ve found a rut that pleases the people who happen often to crit my second/third drafts.
  • I’ve gotten more ambitious. And it’s harder to achieve the goals I set for myself this way. My story about Crown Prince Sado crashed and burned — well, the early draft of it, though I’ll get back to it again someday — but it did that because I was doing really ambitious stuff. So ambitious that I didn’t even feel bad when I swapped pieces around and emailed it out in a hurry and got back inquiries as to what had happened to the opening, because what began the draft was not, by any means, an opening. Of any kind. Whatsoever.I’ve also learned that ambition and the inherent complexity that comes with it, for me, means more time in the woodshed. More time figuring out what’s working and not working the story, more time rewriting, more time re-re-writing, possibly repeat ad nauseum.
  • I moved beyond Irreducible. That was the title of the novel idea I had which was supposed to contain everything including your kitchen sink. I will probably mine out parts of that, but I will not be working on Irreducible again. It was my monkey puzzle novel draft. Actually, there have been a few of those:
    • Untitled. (Partially-)Drafted: 1987-88. A recounting of the adventures of the characters in the AD&D game I was DMing. A surly dwarf with a pathological drive to lie, an elf of some class I cannot remember — I think a mage or cleric or something — and a female bard who was the lover of one of the gods and bore his child, who sprang as an adult from her side a month after the liaison. The latter was an NPC I ran to fill out the party, since we had too few players.
    • Manichean Jazz. Drafted: 1999-2000. What I would now call a “transreal” autobiographical novel where the protagonist (ie. me) is trapped in purgatory and only escapes from it through a series of flashbacks and help from Virgil-like guides who just happened to be my friends. Only one person read this, and he said to me later, “Why did you send this to me?”
    • Irreducible. Drafted: 2000-2001, Re-Drafted: 2002-2005. Abandoned: 2005. This was supposed to include everything: An ethnically Arabic guy who ends up as a Thai Buddhist monk sent to work among Buddhist eco-evangelists in Alabama; a Chinese-American guy whose father works for Homeland Security and sends his son to live in China, where it’s (relatively) safer; a mysterious, QM-related set of effects that changed from version to version, always to avoid a story Greg Egan had already told, but better; a female character named Synthia whom I will use someday because she’s so perfectly freakish; a young Chinese PLA soldier “on loan” to the WTO/UN serving in various African states where he upholds nasty governments and sweatshops for the sake of “world peace” and a chance at life outside China (where the shortage of women is even worse in his time); a genius French code-monkey living among Buddhist monks working on developing an AI in the mountains of Mongolia; a young female Korean doctor who uncovers a frightening pattern in the most recent (of many) disease outbreaks, suggesting the vector is not biological… as I said, a lot of stuff I could mine out here for short stories.

    That latter novel, though, was a mess, and after having spent, off-and-on, five years of my life trying to make it work, I am glad to say now that I have no desire to return to it. Other stories that can be told are plentiful in my brains, now, and I’m all to happy to spend the time on them. And I do have one novel draft that I think can be whipped into shape, which is the novel I drafted from January-March 2005: Dead Abroad. I’ll be taking a stab at that one again this year, after getting A Killing in Burma into shape. Funny — while A Killing In Burma is just as crammed with bizarre characters, it’s (relatively) unified in place and time, and somehow thus more manageable, or at least it has been so far.

  • I’ve grown to expect rejections, which makes the acceptances all the more salutary.

So now, what are my goals for the coming year?

  1. I want to sell at least as many stories in 2008 as I did in 2007.
  2. I want to sell more than 2 pieces of “short story” length or longer to “prestigious markets.” (By which I don’t necessarily mean SFWA-approved markets. I consider Interzone and On Spec and LCRW prestigious too.
  3. I will be focusing on my stories this year… not things that are called-for by anthologies. When anthology calls coincide with things I have or plan to work on, or when they coincide with my interests (and allotable time on the schedule), I’ll got for it, but I won’t be cranking out as much as I did this year in hopes of spots in anthologies.
  4. I will be cutting back on external commitments. No editing two textbooks at once. Maybe one is okay, but two? Definitely no. I have to get better at saying no.
  5. I will finish the draft of A Killing in Burma and I will also get through at least one rewrite of Dead Abroad.
  6. I think I’m going to try to learn how to write spooky, creepy stuff. Because my ghost stories just aren’t, and I think even if I don’t believe in ghosts, I am creeped out by the idea of them, and should be able to convey that. (If that makes sense.) This will be useful since at least some of my SF is moving towards a dark, brutal vein.
  7. I’m going to explore new settings, especially working on using a couple of semi-familiar (to Western readers) settings. I don’t want to be the guy whose stuff is all set in Asia. This year, only  three stories that I sold were set in Asia, but there’s tons more pending or waiting to be written. But I need to try imagine what other places will look like someday. A Killing in Burma and Dead Abroad are enough for the Asia kick. (Plus maybe something in Laos, if I’m inspired by my upcoming winter travels there.) After that, I think, Europe. Russia. Britain. France. India, baby.

14 thoughts on “Writing — A Yearly Review

  1. I think real life is always more scary than any ghosts or psychic phenomena or what have you that an author can come up with. I loved Carrie by Stephen King, but it would have been a lot scarier if she had pulled a Columbine than gone on that telepathic rampage.

  2. That’s funny — the scariest ideas to me are SFnal ones… the prospect of wiping out civilization completely, so we’re stuck living on roots and bugs for millennia, or of us bringing the whole ecological roof down on our own heads, these ideas worry me. Columbine? That’s standard primate behaviour + technology, but on a small scale. It’s the standard primate behaviour + tech on a huge scale that truly scares me.

  3. Maybe it’s living in DC and Winnipeg – being a victim of a violent crime in the near future is a much more real possibility than an ecological disaster.

  4. No, that’s just being human — short term threats resonate for us more viscerally. Which makes the threat of ecological disaster much more frightening.

    If you imagine the person who has some special brain damage, and doesn’t realize he’s in mortal danger until the knife is sliding right back out of his chest, that’s pretty spooky.

    Yet that’s a pretty good analogy for how we relate to the environment. The scary question is how close the knife is to the ecological chest right now, and how late we’ll (really) recognize the problem.

    (Really, because while we talk about it, we’re not doing much. More money’s spent on throwaway crap than on addressing this.)

  5. Well, when I own beachfront property I’m sure I’ll think Waterworld is the scariest movie ever made, but for now I’ll stick with The Evil Dead

  6. Which is exactly why we won’t do a damned thing until it’s far too late. Economics and a sense of property seem, like religion, to be perniciously more believable than the actual concrete reality around us. After all, the massive amphibian die-off isn’t affecting the stock market or property values, is it?

  7. But on a pure, visceral level, a psycho running around with a chainsaw is scarier than a bunch of dead amphibians. I’m sure the ecological disaster can be a scary thing (The Mist had it’s moments), but right now you sound kind of like Count Floyd.

  8. Mark,

    I didn’t know couldn’t remember who Count Floyd was until I googled him. Never got much into SCTV.

    Your comments about the chainsaw-weilding psycho pretty much bear out my observation. We’re “scared” of things that are essentially silly fantasy, and unmoved by the quotidian stuff that could spell our extinction, and may very well be signs of a “too late” tipping point that came years, or maybe even decades, ago.

    The dead amphibians aren’t scary, it’s the process they signal — subtle shifts in ecology having massive, complex destabilizing effects that scares the crap out of me. If you can track down a copy of the BBC documentary on Global Dimming, you’ll see what I mean. A couple of degrees warmer on the ocean floor could mean the end of humanity. Just like that. This is only one small scenario, but it’s not like mass extinction events haven’t happened before. They’re well-documented precedents.

    Your comment about The Mist (which I haven’t seen yet, mind you) bears out my sense that our fantasies have so distracted us — not just filmic or fictional ones, but also fantasies like the absolute primacy of economic markets, nation-states as permanent entities, and the consumerist pseudo-culture that both have fostered in anyplace fertile enough — that our pure visceral reactions are out of touch with the reality.

    Okay, it’s not all consumerism: we evolved to fear the megafauna we hunted in groups. It was a useful adaptation then. But we haven’t had time to adapt to new circumstances. We don’t instinctively fear the bucket of Roundup off to the side. When a guy drops his watch into the bucket, he isn’t instinctively prevented from reaching into it to get the watch… even though it will kill him. (And people occasionally do just that.)

    So yeah, you’re right: our evolved capacity to fear is mainly concerned with the immediate threat. Big teeth and claws. Roaring. Stuff that can rip us into pieces. And that, you see, is precisely why the stuff we don’t fear scares me so much on a deeper level… because our lack of fear is the root of our current inertia dealing with the threats to our species’ long-term survival. Which do exist, and which most people don’t even really see as such.

    Seriously. Not even The Exorcist scared me as much as the possibility of nuclear winter, when I was an elementary schoolkid. I went one night sleepless over The Exorcist but seeing a documentary on nuclear war and how it would actually unfold one afternoon on PBS, that utterly changed me for life. My father found me in shock, hiding behind the boiler in the basement, braced for the end of the world. And while we managed (so far) not to cook ourselves in a nuclear holocaust, we’ve chosen to do nothing as it’s been revealed we’re on the slow-roast right now. We’re hoping that, like nuclear war, the bulk of the danger will just pass us by if we do nothing.

    But we’re not doing nothing, are we? We’re making it worse by the day. In other words, it’s like watching a whole group of deaf/blind people run towards the guy with the chainsaw, with no idea what’s about to happen. And the group of deaf-blind people includes almost everyone you know and love. And even yourself.

    Brr.

  9. Well, at this stage in the thread I’m not sure if we’re having the same discussion. I’m a non-believer, but I thought The Excorcist was a good film – good structure and pacing, and it has it’s share of creepy moments. Waterworld, well, I’ve never been able to get into it. It doesn’t really matter what your slant or message is – if you aren’t entertaining, you aren’t going to put bums in seats or eyeballs in front of pages.

  10. Mmm. I think we are sort of discussing different things. However, I’m also just sort of riffing on the wider implications of the things you’re talking about.

    By the way, I didn’t really get why everyone hated Waterworld so much. It’s not as if it was as bad as Battlefield Earth or something. But then, I also thought The Postman was alright.

    Really dedicated readers are a marginal population, and dedicated SF readers are marginal within that, but there are SF writers who’ve attained an audience writing about the bigger issues that could kill us… in ways that are fascinating, and powerful, but not necessarily “entertaining” in any simple or straightforward way. Right now I’m reading Peter Watts’ Blindsight (among other books) and it’s fascinating, riveting, very well-written, but dreadfully dark as well. Lots of people I know would not read it just because of that. But my reader-friends would shrug and say, “We’ll they’re missing out.” And someone will probably make a film out of it 50 years from now…

    (… if we are still around 50 years from now…)

  11. I would define “entertain” very broadly myself – if it holds the readers (or viewers) attention from start to finish I consider it an “entertaining work”.

  12. Gotcha. Sorry to misinterpret, but my impression is that most people don’t define “entertain” in that way, I guess. (Which accounts for what kinds of movies get made, and to some degree also controls what proportion of books truly challenge readers.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *