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

January 3, 2015

Late exit to 2014

I’ve been away up the coast for a week, so I missed the usual barrage of blog posts summarising my 2014. Just because I’m late doesn’t mean I’m not going to do it though.

Just to note, this is mainly for my benefit, holding myself to account for my plans for the year, as articulated way back in January in this subtly-named post.

Checking the checklist:

1) Finish the current draft of the novel: Done. Man, it feels like such a long time ago that I even thought about my novel (well, not strictly true, since I thought about it today during the fourteen-hour drive back from northern NSW [1]). I finished up the full-rewrite draft of the novel (working title Ms Cole’s Arrangements) a couple of days into March, then immediately put it on the back burner. Two full drafts through, I still can’t work out whether it should be one novel, two novels, or a novel and two novellas; the shape of the story just defeats me every time I try to think about it. I’m quite sure there’s a decent yarn in there, but I honestly don’t know if I can hang it on a framework that will make it readable. I know I have to go back to it sooner or later, but I don’t mind admitting that I’m still intimidated by it. I met my word count goal, but I didn’t really knock over the target.

2) Write 10 publishable short stories: Partial credit. “Should be a doddle”, I said. Ho ho ho. I sort of achieved this goal and sort of not. I got 7 stories polished to the point where I was happy to start sending them out for submission (identified by truncated titles here): Feast, Dogs, Hat Trick, Season One, Teahouse, Lighthouse, Violin. Pleasingly, one of them – The Teahouse of Serendipitous Unions – sold to the professional market it was written for. However, a sale isn’t the benchmark here, completion is.

I also wrote complete drafts of School Hall and Incidental, both of which I have yet to finish revising (soon!), I wrote about 10,000 words all up on multiple versions of Serpentine Precipice and The Countess, though neither is yet complete. I wrote about fifteen incomplete flash fiction pieces i.e. ideas that I couldn’t work out how to turn into an actual story i.e. they don’t count here. And on the morning of the 31st of December I wrote the first half of a mildly comic crime story which I will finish later tonight or tomorrow morning.

So that’s seven that fit the criteria, two more that would have were I a more diligent editor, two major dead ends which might still lead somewhere later, and a start on the new year. Not a clean landing, but I tried a lot of different things and I’m happy with the overall results.

3) Submit 25 times: Done and then some. Between the couple of existing stories and the new material, I made a total of 45 submissions (and resubmissions) in 2014. Of those, *one* was accepted for publication. I learned yesterday afternoon that another one (written last year) has been shortlisted for a competition, so that one is in with a chance. Everything else is in the hands of the gods (defined here as “bored slush readers and overworked/underpaid magazine editors”). This business is a slow grind, people. I won’t be happy until I have at least 10 stories in circulation. Preferably more. In terms of diligence and application to the grind of reading and complying with submission guidelines and finding new ways to write the same damn cover letter over and over again, I did what I set out to do.

4) Non-specific target markets: To do. I wrote a few pieces this year with specific markets in mind. Teahouse hit the mark, but Lighthouse didn’t and the jury is still out on Violin. I mentioned on Facebook that the Australia-based Ticonderoga themed anthologies are becoming my white whale – I write to them, with some of my best work, and haven’t yet broken through. I haven’t even tried to get into Cosmos yet (because I haven’t written any science fiction this year, but also because I know what it takes to make it and I’m not there yet). In terms of international markets, I will probably still be trying to get into Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Clarkesworld, in particular, in five years time. I’m not going to stop trying though.

 

2014 could have been better in a lot of ways, but in terms of my writing I achieved close enough to everything I set out to. In retrospect I probably set the bar a little too low and then didn’t really push myself very hard. Over the course of the year I worked up outlines for several novels, any one of which I might reasonably have had a stab at writing. In all honesty I’m not confident of my ability to write to a novel length – my attempts to date have been unsatisfying, but in ways where I haven’t felt like I’ve learned something useful. I feel like I should take that ignorance as a challenge and learn-by-doing and then learn-by-doing-again. But I have yet to make the mental leap to convince myself that a failed attempt is not a waste of time or misapplied effort. Right now it seems like an awful lot of work to write a novel only to confirm that I don’t know how to write a novel

But then again I made the conscious decision at the start of the year to focus on short stories. And I’m proud of the work that I’ve done, which certainly includes some of the best stories I’ve ever written. Over the course of the year and across the various projects I’ve completed, I’ve had a distinct feeling of gradually but decisively leveling up my skill. Definitely not misapplied effort, even if individual stories never find the readership that I think (in my egotistical heart) they deserve.

I think that at least for the first couple of months of 2015 short stories are where I’ll continue to put my energy. I want to get a few more under my belt before I decide whether to change tack and try for a novel. But that’s a post for another day.

 

[1] Sorry Clam, there was absolutely no time for a surprise visit. One of these days though!

May 14, 2014

Where are the short stories and stuff?

In the comments of the previous entry, Marco asked “Where are the short stories and stuff?”

I thank the Honourable Member for his question and for the opportunity to detail exactly what the Government of Lexifabricogristan is doing to support and enhance the worldwide glut of speculative short fiction of questionable cultural, dramatic and grammatical value.

Ahem. The short stories are churning along. I’ve been holding to my minimum wordcount of 400 new words of fiction per day for…hm, 18 days now. That doesn’t sound like much, I admit, but it’s decent chunk of wordcount that didn’t exist before, so I am more than happy with it. I’ve also been diving deep on critiquing novels and short stories and drafting outlines for various projects so that I always have something new on the boil.

That’s probably not what you were really asking. You were *probably* asking why I haven’t been putting any fiction up here on the blog lately. The answer is that I’m being selfish and greedy (or career-minded, if you prefer the apirational/positive spin). I am working with as much dedication as I can muster towards having a published body of work, so I haven’t posted any new fiction on the website since January last year. Most fiction markets pay for first publication rights, which means that a work of fiction cannot have been published anywhere prior to acceptance. That includes even blogs like this one, with its nigh-subterranean reader numbers.

Anything I finish to an adequate level of polish, I have been submitting to professional and semi-professional short fiction markets – mainly online publications and print anthologies. Typically what happens then is that they sit in slush piles for weeks or months on end, until a commissioning editor reads it and either rejects it (likely) or decides they like it enough to pay me, pending edits (unlikely but possible and highly desired). As soon as a story is rejected – and I should note that rejections from professional short story editors can happen *very* quickly, my personal best being a four-hour wait from ‘hit send’ to ‘no thanks’ – I repackage it with a new cover letter and send it straight back out again to the next market.

Sometimes, though not every time, the rejection will come back with some feedback about why it was not accepted. I always take a look at the feedback, see if I agree with any advice on how to strengthen the story, and then either apply some edits or not. Sometimes the feedback amounts to “this story is not a good fit for our publication”, which is what it is. So far I’ve been lucky enough not to get feedback to the effect that “this is a bunch of unmitigated dog faeces that if published would bankrupt us and ruin lives”, so that’s nice. Either way, unless I feel I’ve run out of places that I could send it, the story goes back out into the wild again to earn its keep. I have yet to hit the limit of potential markets for any particular story; I submitted one story thirteen times before it was accepted somewhere. True story – I was pretty close to giving up on it, in which case I would have posted it here for everyone to read. Sorry about that, I guess.

So what’s my publication hit count? I still have one (1) published story: ‘Imported Goods – Aisle Nine’ in Next. That came out over a year ago. Whee, doesn’t time fly?

I’ve got four stories out in circulation at the moment – one has been accepted pending a space in a publication schedule (that’s the thirteenth-time-lucky one), and the other three are in submission queues (aka ‘slushpiles’). At least one of those is in a second round of reading, which means that at least one person at the publishing entity liked it enough not to reject it outright.

I’ve got two more stories in preparation. One is a first draft awaiting revision, the other is a half-draft. I’ve set myself a goal of finishing at least ten stories this year to what I consider a submittable standard, of which I have so far completed one. Miles to go there.

Apart from Step 1 – Completing the things I start, I have some other goals. The first is that I want to be published in a notable Australian speculative fiction market. Apart from the CSfG anthology (it opens for submissions in a few weeks, but I haven’t come up with an idea yet), there are various spec fic journals (Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Aurealis, SQ Magazine) as well as regular anthologies from publishers like Ticonderoga and Fablecroft. I’m loving what Brisbane-based Tiny Owl Workshop are doing at the moment – I’d love to work with them. There are many others.

My second goal is that I want to break into overseas markets that publish stuff I like to read, like Clarkesworld and Beneath Ceaseless Skies (to name just a couple). That’s a little more ambitious, but I’m confident that it’s within reach or almost so.

Either of those goals could happen literally any time now. When it does, and when I’m allowed to say anything because of contracts or whatever, you can bet your favourite phalanges I will trumpet it here and on Twitter and over a beer if you happen to pass within my gravitational vicinity. Damn, but I am looking forward to my next celebratory Beer of Publication.

In the meantime, I wait patiently, I keep writing and I turn out new stories.

November 5, 2013

TMoRP Day 12 – The short stories of March

None of the stories I read in March seem to have made a lasting impression on me. Still, looking over my list I see that there are quite a few that struck me as high quality yarns without being life-changing events, so I hereby dedicate this TMoRP entry to a handful of stories I thought were well worth a read.

The reliable Beneath Ceaseless Skies magazine website gave us the extravagantly-entitled “The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Her Field-General, and Their Wounds” by Seth Dickinson. It’s a tense, uncomfortable story about the final test of loyalty of a bureaucrat who led and betrayed a rebel uprising against an oppressive Throne. The titular character’s battle-inflicted left-side brain damage has left her oblivious to the right side of her world, an injury she employs to great effect to ignore the inconvenient parts of her difficult situation. Re-reading it this morning has bumped it up in my estimation. It’s a fine examination of the two sides of leadership qualities – strength and moral character versus selfishness and cruelty – and the necessity for both.

In March I read the previous CSfG anthology, Winds of Change, edited by Elizabeth Fitzgerald and available now in ebook format (sorry – as a new CSfG council member, I feel a small obligation to plug the wares). I consumed the anthology across the month, and while it’s a strong collection in general, I recommend it for a few stories in particular: ‘Wraiths’, by Jason Nahrung, set in a spirit-blighted post-apocalyptic Australia; ‘The Tether of Time’, Leife Shallcross’ mythic variant of the Flying Dutchman legend; and the late James Goodrum’s haunted-child story ‘By Watcher’s Pool’. Those are just the ones that stood out in my mind, though – WoC, like Next, is a fat volume that represents an excellent cross-section of Australia’s speculative fiction scene.

Finally I have to give a shout-out to Lisa Hannett’s ‘Sweet Subtleties’, which is probably the only piece of confectionery-based erotic speculative fiction you are ever likely to encounter. It’s beautiful, grotesque, absurd and difficult to describe in terms of plot: Una is a sentient or possibly haunted sculpture crafted by the confectioner Javier over and over again, for the amusement and consumption of decadent and sometimes depraced clients. It’s one of those stories that is not outright horror, but still finds several different ways to be upsetting, but fascinating and memorable with it. I listened to a reading by Kate Baker on the Clarkesworld Podcast, but it’s also there to read on the website.

October 19, 2013

TMoRP Day 3 – Stories by Ian McHugh (January)

To kick off my month by month look back at the best short stories I’ve read this year, I’m going to immediately break my rules. I said I was going to take a look at a single story for each month, but for January 2013 I’m going to look instead at two stories by a single author. The man in question is Ian McHugh, who is one of the luminaries of our Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. But I’m not writing about him because he happens to be a mate and a bit of a mentor, but because he wrote two flat-out terrific stories that I happened to read in January this year.

The first was Bitter Dreams, which I read in the Year’s Best Australian Science Fiction & Fantasy Fifth Annual Volume. Up until recently, editors Bill Congreve (and sometimes Michelle Marquardt, though not this particular volume) put out one of these collections every year. The title kind of gives away what’s in them, and from my reading of three of the five volumes available, they are well worth picking up for a good cross-section of writing in the speculative genre. The Year Five volume (covering 2009 publications) is pretty damned dark, though, be warned – most of this particular issue seems to be dark fantasy or horror.

But this is about Bitter Dreams. Bitter Dreams is a slice of colonial-era dark fantasy, using the extremely haunted alternate Australia setting he’s used in a few of his stories. Structurally it’s not unlike a wild west story, with a lawman putting together a posse of locals to investigate a murder and mysterious goings-on in an out of the way Victorian settlement. Of course, under McHugh’s sure hand, everything goes horribly, violently wrong. It’s a horror story with set dressing from Rush (he said, making a pop culture reference from, like, forty years ago. For something a little more contemporary, imagine The Tracker, but instead of Gary Sweet going bonkers, you’ve got extraordinarily hostile ghosts). Ian’s published it on his website, so you can read it yourself.

The second McHugh story I read was Red Dirt, which is currently available online at the Beneath Ceaseless Skies website. I read it in the Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year Three ebook compilation. BCS focuses on weird, fantastic (mostly second-world) fantasy, and nearly everything I’ve seen there is well worth a look. They have several best-of anthologies for four bucks in all ebook formats. They have my endorsement.

Red Dirt is set in an alternate history in which the Dutch have established a foothold on the Australian continent (Nieuw Holland rather than Australia) and are competing with the English for territory. As with Bitter Dreams, the ancient, terrible alien land is unconcerned with European politics. It seems determined to drive off the invaders, send them insane or just to eat them. This story concerns a French ship’s captain negotiating corrupt port officials, wayward crewmen and stalking, nightmarish dream-horrors. You may be startled to learn that, like Bitter Dreams, this story involves  gruesome encounters with the supernatural and a high body count, both typical features in McHugh’s writing.

Check ’em out, yo. They’re free, and they’re great!

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