Lexifabricographer For when the right word just won’t do…

December 21, 2014

Contemplating my trunk

Filed under: wordsmithery — Tags: , , , , , , , — lexifab @ 9:17 pm

I’ve hit a new and unwelcome writing milestone: one of my stories appears to be unsellable.

I want to be a paid author. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my goals as a short story writer – learn the craft, improve my skills, become a recognisable name outside my immediate personal circles and eventually cultivate a reputation that results in editors commissioning work from me.

Money isn’t one of my specific benchmarks. I don’t expect to make a living from writing just short stories (the best short story writers in the genre can’t do that, and I’m not arrogant enough to believe that I will ever compete on the level of someone like Ken Liu or Kaaron Warren or Ramsay Campbell or insert-your-favourite-short-story-writer-here).

That said, the quality of the markets that accept my work will provide a rough guide to how I’m doing on that path, and in terms of professional recognition and industry credibility, the better-paying the market, the more confident I can feel that I’m getting it right. So when I submit my (finished, polished) work for publication, I start with the professional markets and work my way down.

There are a lot of markets for fiction. A *lot*. Dozens or maybe hundreds. At the top of the heap are the established print magazines, major online periodicals and anthologies by the top editors in the business – everything from Asimov’s and F&SF to newer places like Tor.com, Clarkesworld Magazine and (locally) Aurealis. These are the targets I’m aiming at, the ones that attract and solicit professional writers with loyal readerships and broad name recognition.

Yeah, I’m not there yet. Maybe I never will be. It’s still a good light to navigate by.

Below that are the semi-pro markets. Semi-pro is generally defined by lower per-word rates of pay (i.e. less than six US cents per word, the SFWA-recognised minimum standard rate) but still with strong name recognition and well-regarded editors. Below those are the token markets, which offer minor payments for first-publication rights, and below that are the non-paying markets, which – well, if I wanted to write for “the exposure”, I really would just slap stuff up on Wattpad and/or my blog.

On my positive days, I reckon I am writing at or near a semi-professional rate. I know I’ve got more work to do to get there with any degree of reliability – my stories miss more often than they hit. But I’ve proven to myself that I can do it, so it only remains to show the rest of the world.

Which brings me to the story in question. I’m very proud of the piece. Perhaps inordinately so. I wrote the first draft as part of a CSFG 24-hour short story challenge, taking a collection of random prompts and translating them into a tale of strange pilgrims, opportunistic inn-keepers and the implosion of a group of friends. The story solidified over a couple of additional editing passes, and eventually I decided I couldn’t make it any better.

So I sent it out to market.

When I was drafting it, I had a specific market in mind – high-end professional online magazine publishing second-world fantasy – and that’s where I submitted it first. They didn’t take it. Mildly disappointing, but not a huge surprise. I sent it out again, picking another website with similar tastes. Another rejection. And so on, and suchlike, all year.

This week I sent the story out for the twentieth time. On the one hand, I regard this as a good sign that I am persevering appropriately. It’s not easy to get an acceptance, and an editor might reject a good story for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality (length, voice, similarity in theme or structure to another piece in that month’s issue, etc). You can’t win without the lottery ticket, and you’ve got to roll with the rejections and you’ve got to develop a thick skin. I’ve probably missed a few hoary old standards, but those are the main ones.

On the other hand, it’s becoming apparent that the story isn’t as good as I think it is. It may well be nearly that good – several of the more personalised responses indicated that it was enjoyable but “not a good fit” or “not what we’re looking for” – but that’s not the same thing as “too good to refuse”.

Over the past fourteen months I’ve pushed it out to every pro and semi-pro market with guidelines that match the piece (it’s second-world or “not-Earth” fantasy, it’s on the longish side of what most publishers are looking for at over 7000 words, and it has mildly adult situations that exclude it from certain markets).

Now I’m down to the markets offering token payments (like ten or twenty bucks, or a contributor copy, or a free e-subscription) and – look, I know it sounds snobbish, but the question I’m asking myself is, is it worth selling my work to a publication that I probably would personally not read?

Am I better off retiring the story from circulation, and either dumping it in a folder of shame on Dropbox – the modern equivalent of dropping the manuscript in a trunk in the attic, never to be seen again in my lifetime – or putting it up on a “free stories” page on my website? Bearing in mind that I have every intention anyway of posting up any stories that I’ve sold, once their online publication rights revert to me?

In effect, should I give up on this one, or keep plugging away until it finally finds a home, no matter how modest or tucked-away? Certain regular correspondents have already expressed opinions (hi Clam!) and those opinions are by no means invalid. At least putting it up on my website allows for the possibility that a few people will read it, which is always gratifying.

The question I struggle with, though, is whether I should be thinking of this as a setback or an inevitable by-product of the submission grind? Or both? Or neither?

I dunno.

What I do know is that right at the moment I am writing a story that is best summed up as “magic robots versus werewolves”, and it is self-evidently the best thing I have ever written.

Or at the very least, the latest.

14 Comments »

  1. There is one point of mine which you may agree or disagree with. That is that what publishers are looking for is writers that are either reasonably well known/published somewhere, with something- or have some notoriety of sorts, at least to the imagined target for the publisher.
    Tools of that kind of thing are a blog or freely available story that strikes a chord and goes somewhat viral- with you as the author. This is the difficult part. Chicken and egg. How to get notoriety wilt published works, and how to get works published without notoriety?

    I would place the most outrageous (but perhaps legal) short story you have written and perhaps try to Google bomb it with something appropriate with the help of friends. It’s a fine line, but the choice of literary work to post freely has to have something like that in mind. I wouldn’t put in any book which you are trying to publish for money, but perhaps a less recent one that you think people would get a kick out of and remember you for having written it.

    Comment by Marco — December 27, 2014 @ 9:18 pm

  2. I’m happy to help out with any Googlebombing efforts!

    Comment by Dr Clam — December 28, 2014 @ 7:46 am

  3. Hi Clam. Are you any good at visualising shapes in 3D? I need some boba fide forensic scientists that know a little about using photogrammetry to prove a match in 3D (without a similar precedent, unless you count coastline matching to prove tectonic plate theory) I have a similar problem with trying to get the attention of scientists who work on comets for a living to take a serious look at it.
    If you haven’t already, try to see if you can visualise it with the wordy descriptions and images on http://scute1133site.wordpress.com/ if you are satisfied that it is legitimate and possibly incontrovertible evidence, then see if you know someone who is up to the task of doing it more formally and officially.

    Comment by Marco — December 28, 2014 @ 8:57 am

  4. (Sorry for slow comments; I’ve been on holidays away from my PC and most of my electrons)

    Marco – not sure what you’re getting at, exactly? I’m not especially interested in cultivating notoriety. That works for some authors, but from the specific examples I’ve witnessed it generally involves being an acknowledged genius who acts like an unmitigated arsehole because he (invariably he) can. I’m not an acknowledged genius in any form, and even if I were I can’t see any long-term benefit from being a stunt-pulling jerkwad.

    I don’t want to be famous because of a stunt [1]. I just want to find ways to get my stories in front of people who might enjoy them, and short of creating my own channels for mass communication – which I think would not be a meaningful description of this blog – I want to use the media that other people have created for that purpose. The barrier to entry on that is creating something that the owners of those channels want to read and publish on their own terms. Which means writing good stories, and then writing better stories after that. It’s a long-term strategy that I’m perfectly happy to pursue for the moment. If the occasional setback slows my progress, like not being able to sell a story that I personally think is good enough to a vendor with a decent in-built audience, that doesn’t invalidate the strategy.

    (Clam – Ron Laura remains a tedious self-promoter with genuinely upsetting facial hair, who may or may not have sound ideas but I will never know because his website does not contain a single sentence that doesn’t make me want to punch language in the face).

    [1] – I will accept becoming famous because I happen to write something that people happen to love, but as “runaway success” os something that luck and circumstance have more control over than I, I’m not going to sweat on that part.

    Comment by lexifab — January 3, 2015 @ 9:14 pm

  5. I’m not really sure where you’re getting your comparison from, or your imagined genius example. If it was a real example, I’d probably know what you were talking about, and counter with, “I wasn’t talking about anything like that!”

    Comment by Marco — January 4, 2015 @ 12:41 pm

  6. Hey, I called “I don’t know what you’re talking about” first!

    Comment by lexifab — January 4, 2015 @ 2:08 pm

  7. (The genius bit refers to the fact that you can arguably get away with being dickish if you are also a genius, but not otherwise)

    Comment by lexifab — January 4, 2015 @ 2:14 pm

  8. The question is, did now-famous writers use tactics to get noticed before they were “noticed” by an agent? If they did, they would hardly tell everybody what they did if they want to get known for the quality of their work instead. They would make out that it was the quality of their work that got them noticed.

    Comment by Marco — January 4, 2015 @ 2:52 pm

  9. Oh, okay. I don’t know of any specific examples, but I would guess that most people fall somewhere on the spectrum from “Relentless Self-Promotion” to “Let the work speak for itself”. Some people are more extroverted than others, either online or off, and I expect that plays a part in how assertively one seeks attention.

    “Tactics” of some kind is probably a legitimate tool in the belt, but I would personally be very reluctant to do anything overtly attention-getting without something solid to justify it (such as having a new book to flog).

    Comment by lexifab — January 4, 2015 @ 3:44 pm

  10. You have a new book to flog, right? Or a short story? No reason you can’t get creative in the self promotion as part of an overall strategy. Not that I have anything particular in mind, but something in the public sphere that might get read and have some sort of virality.

    Comment by Marco — January 4, 2015 @ 9:24 pm

  11. No to a book, not really to a short story. And I mean, submitting to well-regarded magazines and sites with wide readerships is likely to be a far more effective way of reaching the public sphere than posting up the odd bit of free fiction on my web site. I have reasonable expectations that anything that appears on Lexifabricographer will be roundly ignored by all but twelve people, though it is a public forum. I could also pop something on Facebook, pointing to the freebie, and that would generate a bit more traffic, but probably only from people I know.

    Case in point: I put a couple of short stories on Wattpad about a year ago. Between them they have been viewed a total of 72 times, and not rated by a single user. The indifference to my free fiction could not be overstated. That’s an absolute minimum of effort on my part, granted – the stories are available but completely unpromoted. I have no reason to expect any other reaction from an audience that is drowning in options.

    Wattpad claims 40 million active users, and even allowing for a certain flexibility in accounting standards, that’s probably two to three orders of magnitude more potential readers than I would get from even the best professional magazine sale. The thing is, I’m pretty sure I can get more attention from those relatively few avid science fiction and fantasy readers checking out Clarkesworld or Fantastic Stories of the Imagination than I can from the undifferentiated mass of humanity over at Wattpad stabbing the refresh key for their latest hit of One Direction erotica.

    (The logical conclusion here is to work harder on exploiting Wattpad, which is on my radar for when I produce something appropriate to the format – they like serialised fiction over there, which is not something I’m doing at the moment for a variety of reasons)

    All of which is not to say that you’re wrong, mind you. But if I’m going to promote myself, I feel like I need a more solid grounding that I do at the moment.

    Comment by lexifab — January 4, 2015 @ 10:21 pm

  12. I’m sorry Marco, I’m not invested enough in the ‘living comet’ theory to get enthusiastic about modelling comet stretching. 🙁 I’m sure scute1133 will manage to access some photogrammetric software/experts and do the job properly, they seem to have more than enough enthusiasm for the task.

    Comment by Dr Clam — January 5, 2015 @ 7:52 am

  13. Hiya Clam. With comets, I am just trying to get you to check the photogrammetry for yourself and get your opinion only about the photogrammetry. Forget about my crazy theories for a few months. Surely something that can be scientifically conclusive (a match) is infinitely more interesting than open ended speculation about which the conclusive match would decide it unambiguously.
    If the comet stretched, just in itself this would be a huge scientific breakthrough, as it has not been mentioned as a possibility, and implicitly ruled out, so far. I am not interested in modelling stretching until the experts accept that stretching has been proven.

    Comment by Marco — January 6, 2015 @ 1:35 pm

  14. You don’t have to model how someone got to a murder scene, or even be interested in how, to prove that someone was at a murder scene.

    Comment by Marco — January 6, 2015 @ 1:42 pm

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