Today, in a discussion with fellow writers over Tor.com’s decision to close to unsolicited fiction submissions, I said the following thing:
Well, they’ve got a story from me that they’ve been sitting on for seven months, so here’s hoping!
No less than eighteen seconds after saying this, I went to my e-mail inbox and found a rejection from Tor waiting for me. For some people – perhaps some of you reading this – this seems like some kind of cosmic karmic response to the vocalization of my hopes. “Ah-ha! You should never have said anything! Then it wouldn’t have happened!”
Now, as I’m presuming most people are (loosely) rational creatures, I think most of us understand that the real world does not operate like this in any way, shape, or form. My decision to speak or not speak some combination of magic words does not alter space/time; that rejection was coming to me one way or another. Still, it is very tempting to think that way. “If only I did X and not Y! If only I hadn’t told anybody! If only I had told more people! I should have crossed my fingers before I answered the phone!”
“Rejectomancy,” or the collected term for the superstitious habits of authors seeking to make sales and avoid rejection, happens all the time. It happens because publishing is a world predicated on failure – for every successful submission, there are dozens of rejected ones (probably). For every author that “makes it” there are a hundred who don’t. This process is hard on the ego. If you want to be a writer, you need to face rejection and failure with two unblinking eyes: it’s coming, so figure out how to deal with it or find a different profession. The thing is, rejection letters often seem so arbitrary and you so often seem to have no power over them. We authors are victims of the capricious whims of editors the world over! Woe is us! If only there were some mystical way we could feel that we have agency!
I know! Wear those lucky socks! Don’t start a story with rain (ever)! Only check your writer e-mail on Wednesdays! Only submit stories on a Tuesday afternoon! NEVER WRITE IN ANYTHING BUT COURIER! Etc., etc, etc..
The thing is, though, all that stuff is total bunk. It does not, in fact, give you any power. If it makes you feel good, fine, but don’t go around pretending the world operates on supernatural principles that orient themselves solely around the arbitrary choices of one individual. We merely write fantasy, we ought not live there.
If you want to feel like you have some control over your writerly destiny, the first thing to do is work on getting better at writing. That story that got rejected? You can do better. You should do better. Go out and learn how to do better. Write a new story. Send that one out. Repeat.
Also, just because some editor didn’t like your story doesn’t mean that story is bad. Not in the least! Once you get to a certain level of skill (what I would loosely term “professional quality”) – once you are writing stories that are on the same level as the stories you read in the major publications – well, then, sometimes it’s just plain old luck that decides the rejection or acceptance. Sometimes the editor isn’t grabbed by the ending – not that it was a bad ending, they just didn’t really like it. Sometimes the editor just bought a story very similar to yours. Sometimes you’ve caught them on a bad day. Sometimes they have in mind a theme for the next issue and you don’t really fit. From our end, there is often no way to tell if this is the case.
So, if you get rejected, by all means give the story a once over. Ponder on whether or not you can improve it. If you can’t – if you know this is your best work (at the moment) – send it out again. Turn it around. Rejections might sting, but that’s a sting you need to learn how to deal with. Now, if wearing fuzzy socks every time you send a submission helps you, then go right ahead. But always remember: publishing isn’t magic, it’s a business, and a tough one. The best way to win is to keep playing and up your game, and no superstition will ever trump that.
Over the past three or four weeks, I’ve written four short stories. Ordinarily I would spend my semester break writing a novel, but I was waiting on the edit note from my editor (fun story there – see the note appended to the bottom of this post) and, rather than get deep into a long-term project only to be torn out of it by a more pressing long-term project, I opted to fill out my stable of short stories to have on submission at any one time.
I know a bunch of writers who don’t bother with short stories – either don’t write them at all or don’t really take them seriously if they do. I also know a fair number of writers who seem to write exclusively short stories and quail at the prospect of tackling something as big as a novel. I’m here, today, to make the case for writing both.
Why Novelists Should Write Short Stories
I know what you’re thinking. “Do people even read short stories?” and “You’ll never make a living writing stories all the time!”
Well, in the first place, yes people do read short stories. Not a tremendous, vast multitude, maybe, but certainly a hell of a lot more people than, say, read your blog. Some of those people happen to be editors, reviewers, and professionals in the genre you’re writing in. Making an impression doesn’t hurt. In the second place, I have to break something to you that you’re probably not going to like hearing: you probably aren’t going to make a living writing much of anything, novel or story. Most writers don’t. We all have day jobs, and you should think about keeping yours (or finding one that affords you time to write) rather than dreaming about making a mint writing the next Hunger Games. Who are you to turn your nose up at a hundred bucks for a story you wrote over the course of two weeks?
And anyway, neither exposure nor wealth are reasons you should write short stories. You should write short stories because they make you a better writer. At worst, they can be seen as practice runs for plot, character, theme, diction, style, and the lot of it. You get to work your writer muscles at a more rapid pace than you do writing a novel. You take a beginning, a middle, and an end and you paste them together and see if it sings to you. If it doesn’t, you break it down and try again. You can do this over the space of a few weeks or days or even hours.
The short story is an unforgiving form – it doesn’t permit indulgence or dithering or random tangents. You’ve got to stay on target, keep it focused, and make it magical. That’s a challenge. The thing is, though, if you can do it in 5000 words, you can certainly do it in 10,000 or 100,000. If you can’t do it in 5000, how are we to expect better from you with more space? I mean sure, you can do it, but while novelists you can’t write stories do exist, somebody who can do both things is usually better off. Or at least I think so.
Why Short Story Writers Should Write Novels
Say you are a master of the short story or, hell, even the short short (flash fiction, under 1000 words – bing, bang, boom, you’re out). You’re comfortable there, in your little story writing niche. You’ve gotten some publications and so on and you figure “yeah, this is nice.”
Well, far be it from me to suggest you vacate your micro-fiction utopia, but the novel is out there, waiting for you to call. Short stories can only do so much – we all know this. They also struggle for readership and, while very flexible, lack the weight and pathos a staying power a good novel can provide. And if you can write a good story, you can also write a good novel. It requires a different set of gears, yeah – a bigger scope, a broader picture, a more populated world – but it also gives you the opportunity to really see what you can do as a writer. To paraphrase Stephen King, you can “dig something big outta the sand.”
You can do it, too. You know you have it in you. I feel we mostly think in terms of novels – the stories of our lives, the stories of our families and our towns and our nations are novel sized stories. They always have been, though we haven’t always told them as novels (there were epics and romances and myth cycles, and so on). I think every writer owes it to him- or herself to make the attempt. To seek out the mountaintop. You’ve been honing these skills – take them out of the yard and see what they can do.
But don’t abandon the story, either. Do both. Write both short and long.
Notes on the Saga of the Redeemed and No Good Deed
I’ve gotten some fan mail recently (fan mail! w00t!) that has been prodding me over book 2 (or 3, or whatever) in Tyvian’s story. So, here’s the deal: book 2 (No Good Deed) is finished and on my editors desk. It has been since May of 2015. I’ve been waiting for her edit notes so that the book can be polished and revised and then be ready for print. I have been waiting since May and the release date as been pushed back twice now (from Jan 21st to February to now April 12th).
My editor is leaving my publisher for a different publishing job (and good for her – she’s great and I hope she’s happy where she’s going). This means, though, that I have a new editor. This new editor needs some time to get familiar with the book before she can give me notes and she also has been slammed with a good number of other writers from my former editor, so things might take a while. This means the release date might be moved back again (though I really hope not). None of this is really my fault (so far as I’m aware), and I’m every bit as anxious to put the next book in your hands as you are to have it there. I promise.
Oh, and I just saw the preliminary cover art, and it looks really, really cool. Can’t share it just yet, but soon. Very soon.
Thanks everybody, and I’ll keep you posted!
You know how your social media feed is starting to sprout all those posts about how hard this year was? This ain’t one of those, folks. Not because it wasn’t hard, but because it was totally awesome.
My (professional) year by the numbers:
Novels Published: Either 1, 2, or 3, depending on how you count. The Iron Ring was released in February, Iron and Blood in June, which are the two halves of The Oldest Trick, released in August. All parts/versions of the same book (my debut), mind you. Yes, it’s complicated. But also awesome.
Stories Sold: 3 (to WoTF, Escape Pod, and Fantasy and Science Fiction)
Awards Won: Writers of the Future Award, 2nd Place, 1st Quarter 2014 (award ceremony was in April)
Memberships Achieved: SFWA Active Membership
Conventions/Workshops Attended: 3 (WoTF Workshop, ITVFest, World Fantasy Convention)
Novels Written: 2 (3, if you count total rewrites)
Stories Written: 6 (only counting complete, saleable stories currently on submission/accepted)
Total Words Written: ~300,000 (an average of about 820 words per day)
Along the way of this bang-up year, I made a bunch of new friends, found new groups of support and keen eyes to read, made a bunch of fans (I think/hope), and even got some fanmail. Hard to beat that.
As for this blog, its followership continues to grow. I’m up over 1300 followers now, which is really cool (and thank you, all of you, for reading…assuming you do. But since you’re reading this that would seem to imply that you…you know what? Never mind.).
What About Next Year?
Well, I’ll still be posting here, of course. In terms of Writing, No Good Deed is slated to come out, though it’s been moved back AGAIN by my publisher to April (no idea why). I would expect to see a few more stories from me to come out, given the contracts I have in hand (or will have shortly). My personal goal is to write more short fiction and publish more of same, score another book deal (hopefully extending The Saga of the Redeemed by another two books, if possible), and maybe even nab myself one of those elusive literary agents.
Stay tuned, folks! I’ll see you on the other side of the New Year!
You may have all noticed that I won’t shut up about this story competition I won (preorder the anthology here! It’s awesome!). Well, for one thing that’s because the release date for the anthology is May 4th, which is also known as “this Monday,” and I’m working my little heart out here trying to make that launch a success, and this blog is probably the best way I have of doing that. That’s not all, though. I’m also trumpeting about this thing because I’m damned proud of myself and of my fellow winners, all of whom are spectacularly talented and all of whom deserve to get noticed by the reading public. This anthology is one of the best ways for our names to get “out there,” and I’m going to try and make the most of it.
However, you lovely people are probably tired of all the publicity yakkity yak, so I’m going to take a page from my friend, Martin Shoemaker, and have substantive discussion about how my winning story, “A Revolutionary’s Guide to Practical Conjuration,” came into existence.
First, listen to the dulcet tones of Mr. Scott Parkin reading the first few paragraphs:
Michelangelo once said that his sculptures weren’t things he made so much as uncovered – they had been there all along, hiding in the stone just waiting for him to chip the extra bits away. I feel that way about my story, too. I didn’t so much “tell” this story as “find” it.
The world of Alandar and, most particularly, the West is a place I have fashioned slowly over the course of more than a decade of world-building. When I create a world (and I am always creating worlds, mind you), they begin as broad, historical narratives or epic mythology – they are unpopulated, as it were. I start with the big (How does magic work here? What are the dangers of this world? Who holds the power and why? What are the world’s religions and creation myths?) and narrow it down until I get so close that, suddenly, I find I need characters to have the place make any sense. That level is usually right about at the “what kind of jobs do people do here” and “what do people eat on a daily basis” point. All of that little stuff, you see, is informed by the bigger stuff. Think of it this way: why do you eat hot dogs at a baseball game? Here’s a food imported by Germans (and adapted for American tastes) being ritually consumed at a sport descended from cricket and made popular in the late 19th century. Seems odd, doesn’t it? Yet, you can trace those things back to large religious and political movements which are themselves side-effects of things like geography, climate, and biology.
So, here we have the city of Illin. You can read my full treatise on the city and its environs here, if you’re so inclined, but in brief, Illin is a city built on the tip of a swampy peninsula commanding the outlet of a major trade river. It was designed as a way to control and limit the access the Kalsaari Empire (political and religious rivals to the Western nations) had to Western trade routes. Gradually, this city and principality became more militarized. As it is poor in material resources and arable land, it remained a poor nation propped up by its neighbors as a kind of buffer state. It has been invaded many times over the centuries, but this past time was by far the most successful and destructive invasion the Kalsaaris ever implemented. To win, they used sorcery in a way unseen in millennia. To win it back, the West did the same. Who was caught in the middle? Illin and, most particularly, its poorest citizens (i.e. the people who always pay the highest price when wars are fought).
Now, that’s just the tip of it all – there’s a hell of a lot more, but most of that world-building stuff never makes it to the page. It just exists in the back of the author’s mind, ready to be accessed if needed, but mostly there to fill out the picture of the place in the author’s mind. I’ve been to Illin, to the extent that anyone has been. I’ve run role-playing games with my friends set there. I’ve written poetry about it (bad poetry, mind you). I like to think I know how it smells.
But that’s just a city, not a character and certainly not a story.
In our workshop out in LA, Dave Farland (aka Dave Wolverton) said something that really struck me. He talked about how setting makes character and story more than anything else, so he always starts with the setting. I realized that I, also, do that (I just didn’t fully realize it). It isn’t until I have world that I feel like I could live in that I figure out who actually lives there. This is where Abe comes from. What would a young man from the Undercity think of his world? What would he want? How would he try to get it? All of these questions can be answered if the world is well-developed enough. And they were.
What’s interesting about the end of this story, though, is that I put the story down – trunked it, basically – for almost a year without an ending. I just couldn’t think of one. I’d painted Abe into such a corner that he was basically doomed (this, incidentally, was something Tim Powers told us was a good way to go, so, again, I was accidentally doing something right!). I had to put it down and walk away. When I (finally) came back, the end was as clear as day. Just goes to show you how fickle the imagination can be sometimes.
As a final note: for fans of The Saga of the Redeemed, this story is set about 12 years or so prior to Tyvian’s day and, obviously, in Illin and not Galaspin/Freegate. Yes, the man in the tooka den is Carlo diCarlo (a younger, thinner Carlo, though). Yes, that does mean young Tyvian (about twenty years old) is somewhere in Illin at that exact moment, doing something untoward. Yes, I do think of these things. Maybe, someday, I’ll tell that story too. Illin, though, does not give up its secrets easily.
Hey, everybody! I’m back! Bad news first: I didn’t finish everything I wanted to in the summer. Good News: I have a short story out in Analog‘s November 2014 issue, available now! Check it out here!
Presumably, at some point there will be hard copies for sale somewhere (at least I *think* so), or maybe you need to buy a subscription, but whatever. If you have a Kindle or similar e-reader (which at this point includes everybody except my mom) go and read my story “Mercy, Killer” in there! You’ll like it, I promise (oh, and being one of the top scifi markets in the business, the other stories are pretty good, too).
Stay tuned for more actual content on this blog in the coming weeks. For now, you’ll have to settle for going out into the world and reading my fiction. Life is hard sometimes.
It is August, which means the Fall approaches, which means the Fall Semester looms. My time for writing and revising grows short. The hour is later than I think, sayeth Saruman. In the next three weeks, I’ve got a small pile of meetings to attend, four classes to prepare, and most of a novel to revise. Also, my editor could shoot me an e-mail at any time between now and October in which she will give me the revision notes for an entirely different novel, which I will then need to revise by October.
Accordingly, I think it perhaps prudent that this blog goes on a little hiatus until the dust settles a bit. I will be certain to post and update you good readers on any further publishing or release news regarding my short fiction exploits, The Oldest Trick, etc, but otherwise I need to put my nose to the grindstone and get the real work done. No more pointless rambling from yours truly until I’m out of the woods.
See you, hopefully, in September. Or, perhaps, I will lose you to a summer love. Either way.
I bid you all a temporary and fair adieu. Fare thee well, wherever you fare. Peace out.
I never intended to write much short fiction in my writer-ly life. I, like a lot of writers out there, set my sights on the big prize – the novel. The thing is, though, that in the time you write one decent novel, you could have written at least a half-dozen short stories. As I journeyed down my long road to professional publication, it occurred to me that writing short fiction was a good way to get your toe into the market, so to speak. It was a good way to hone your craft, get publication credits, and make connections in the industry without having to wait years and years between novel drafts and agent responses and so on.
Short stories, though, aren’t really anything like novels. Well, not really, anyway. Some of the basic writing craft is identical – a good description or a good character in a short story and a novel are more or less the same. The trouble with short stories is, though, that they’re, well, short. What’s more, the shorter they are, but better odds you have of getting them published (as they represent less investment and less risk on the part of the publisher and, furthermore, everybody these days has short attention spans for such things). If you tend to write stories in the upper end of the story world (7500 words), publication opportunities dwindle. God forbid if you’re most comfortable writing short stories in the novelette range (7500 to 14000 words or so), because then you’re looking at a rather short list of markets, especially if you write science fiction and fantasy, as I do.
The difference between a short story and a novel is analogous to the difference between a joke and an anecdote. An anecdote has many ups and downs, several good laughs, several turns of phrase, and so on. A joke has, essentially, one moving part. Maybe two. You don’t edit it from the inside out, you just rewrite the whole damned thing – it’s like building a bicycle frame: there’s not much to it, but every last part of it is important. That’s pretty damned hard, when you come right down to it. I can plot out epic adventures across a couple hundred pages of a novel, but a twenty page short story can stump me like nothing else.
Then, of course, there’s the interesting fact that people just don’t read a whole lot of short fiction, on average. Even in the science fiction world, which has a very healthy short fiction market, sales are low and competition for publications is very, very high. You won’t make a living at this. These days its tough to even make a name for yourself.
So why do it? Well, because short fiction gives you an opportunity to experiment in ways a novel doesn’t. You don’t have to worry about sustaining a new voice through hundreds of pages – just a few dozen. You learn a lot about what you’re capable of as a writer. While I still don’t consider short fiction my first love, I have come to appreciate how much it has done for me, both in my career and in my personal development. Yeah, I’m not exactly sitting on top of the writing world (yet…), but a lot of where I am has come from deciding to buckle down and really take a serious swing at writing the short story. I’ll keep doing it, too, as they let me grow, and growth is essential for any healthy artist (if that’s what I’m calling myself these days, which seems pretentious for a guy writing about robots and wizards).
Now, I think I might have to take a crack at the short-short. That, I fear, brings me down a road that strays so close to poetry I’m might burn myself. Still, if Daily Science Fiction wants it…
The Writers of the Future Contest has been running now for 30 years. It seeks to publish the best in new science fiction and fantasy writers each year and only those who haven’t yet become full professionals (as defined by the contest) may enter. It is designed to find the new voices in the speculative fiction world and give them a platform off of which to build their career. Its judges include folks like Dave Wolverton, Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, and other luminaries in the field. Each year, only twelve people win.
This year, I’m one of them.
This is the tenth or eleventh time I’ve entered the contest (each year you can enter four times, once for each quarter; I’ve been entering about twice a year now for five-ish years, maybe more). I’ve racked up one Honorable Mention, two Semi-finalist finishes, one finalist, and now this: Second place in the First Quarter of 2014/Volume 31. This is a huge, huge deal. My story will be published in the anthology next year, they will fly me out to LA for a week long writing workshop with the pros, there will be a party and an awards ceremony and I’ll get to wear a tuxedo and so on. Oh, yeah, and I win some prize money, too.
It still doesn’t quite seem real to me. I keep expecting them to call me back and explain that it was some giant mistake and that, actually, they meant to call the other guy named Auston. I haven’t gotten that call, though. This is the real deal. It’s like winning the American Idol of science fiction writers, except nobody is going to make me sing some crappy song written by a bunch of monkeys with typewriters. Well, at least I don’t think so.
Anyway, come next April, I’ll let you all know.
The next month is going to be full of great news for my writing career, so let’s kick it off with the release of a short fiction anthology featuring my story “Dreamflight of the Katatha.”
The Ways of Magic anthology, released by Deepwood Publishing, is now available via Amazon as well as Barnes and Noble and Kobo. I encourage you to check it out, as I’m proud of the story within it and have every confidence the whole thing is a good read. If story anthologies are your thing, then you’ve got a lot of good news coming your way, as I’ve got two more like this coming out in the next couple weeks (one of which has an advance copy sitting on my desk right now).
And then, of course, is my Big News, which is still under wraps, but never fear – you’ll find out soon enough!
Enough listening to me gab, though – go out and buy this book!