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!

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.

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 13, 2013

TMoRP Day 17 – Short stories of April

This is not going to be easy to pin down. According to my spreadsheet, I read 98 short stories in April 2013.

Ninety. Eight.

There would be very few times in my life when I would have read more short stories than that in a year, let alone in one month. In terms of the short fiction form, I guess this is my golden age. That’s almost entirely down to having ready access to a wealth of anthologies through the Kindle, although I’ve supplemented my library by picking up a lot of collecvtions by Australian writers in particular.

Anyway, this month the bulk of my reading came from four main sources:

  • Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (specifically issue 56) – a mildly quirky Australian quarterly magazine of science fiction and fantasy short stories. I like it a lot, although the fondness with which I respond to it varies from issue to issue, probably according to which member of its shadowy collective/cabal is sitting in the editorial big chair that month. Your mileage will likely vary.
  • Daily Science Fiction – a site that emails subscribers a new science fiction or (more often) fantasy short story every day. many of these are flash-fiction lengths i.e. around 1000 words. I recommend it, because despite the fact that I only think about half the stories are good (and very few are great), it’s a steady source of new material, and it doesn’t take much time to read them. The stories almost never exceed 4000 words.
  • Thoraiya Dyer’s Twelve Planets collection Asymmetry, about which I blogged earlier in the year. It’s good.
  • Stoneskin Press’ anthology (edited by Robin D Laws) of Aesopian fables for the modern world The Lion and the Aardvark. I didn’t do a full review, but here’s what I said on Goodreads.

Anyway, with that many stories, it’s impossible to narrow it down to just one or two. Here’s the ones I thought stood head and shoulders above the others.

‘Spirit Gum’ by Mike Resnick and Jordan Ellinger in Daily Science Fiction is the story of a stage illusionist who becomes a professional debunker, with tragic consequences.

‘Illegal’ by Pete Aldin and Kevin Ikenberry in ASIM 56, a police procedural, set in the outer solar system, about stateless refugees – three flavours that mash together to moving effect in this case.

‘The Wisdom of Ants’ by Thoraiya Dyer, on the Clarkesworld Podcast. She won the Ditmar for this at this year’s awards ceremony. It’s good, just go and read it. Then feel free to speculate on who genetically engineered the weird-arse metal-eating ants and why anyone would do that.

‘The Blind Pig’ by Lyn Battersby is a creepy fantasy set in a Prohibition-era speakeasy. I wish there were a version of it online, I’d love to chat about that one.

‘After Hours’ by Thoraiya Dyer in Asymmetry. This was the werewolf one. I’m a sucker for werewolf stories. This was an outstanding example of finding something new to do with them.

There’s about sixty stories in The Lion and the Aardvark, most of them of flash-fiction length. I particularly liked: ‘The Loquacious Cadaver’ by Kyla Ward; ‘The Minotaurs and the Signal Ghosts’ by Peter M Ball; ‘The Coyote and the High-Density Feed Lot’ by Greg Stolze (great name for a story!); ‘The Stray Dogs Learn Their Lesson’ by Nick Mamatas; and ‘The Unicorn at the Soiree’ by Rich Dansky. But come on, there’s sixty stories in this volume. There are at least a couple fo dozen more that are almost as good as the ones I mentioned.

The wealth of great new short stories out there is almost too rich to contemplate. This is just a smattering of what apepals to me.

What are you putting through your eye-jellies at the moment? What do you recommend? What will I be reading after I finish reading this unnervingly tall to-be-read pile?

 

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.

June 10, 2013

AWWC 2013 Review – Asymmetry by Thoraiya Dyer

This is a review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013. It’s apparently only my fourth review, which is a bit slack, since I know I’ve read more than four books that meet the criteria. But nearly all of my writing time lately has gone into novel writing, so I’ve allowed a bit of a backlog to emerge. I’m going to try to deal with that by writing a few – gasp – shorter reviews. That’s the plan, anyway.

By now it should be obvious to anyone who reads my reviews that I have complete faith in the Twelve Planets Series from Twelfth Planet Press. This volume – Asymmetry – presents four new stories from Thoraiya Dyer, whose short story ‘The Wisdom of Ants’ (first published by Clarkesworld Magazine) was the winner for Best Short Story at the 2013 Ditmar Awards for Australian science fiction and fantasy. I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of the stories in this collection in the running next year.

Asymmetry is excellent. If there’s a unifying theme, I’m not up to the job of identifying it, though Nancy Kress takes a good stab at it in her introduction. Then again, I’m quite content with no theme at all, if the stories are this good. I’m going to do my best not to spoil any of them.

‘After Hours’ is the story of a veterinarian assigned to treat security dogs on a military airbase. She struggles to cope with the military mindset of her patients’ handlers, only to discover that their belligerent, obstructive attitudes have an uncanny explanation. ‘Zadie, Scythe of the West’ is a military fantasy about a character trying to escape the rigid expectations of her family, society and religion – and the costs of taking shortcuts. In ‘Wish Me Luck’, a man begs and borrows luck from sympathetic passers-by so that he can be reunited with his lost love. (It may not sound like hard science fiction, but it is). Finally, in ‘Seven Days in Paris’ a woman is subjected to what seems like a pointless and grotesque social experiment, but her impatient handlers have a desperate purpose.

‘After Hours’ is probably my favourite story ever of its kind, though I won’t say what kind that is (even if the back cover blurb does kind of give it away). However all four stories are excellent (and the sample chapters from Dyer’s novella ‘The Company Articles of Edward Teach’ are an intriguing bonus).

Like the rest of the Twelve Planets books, Asymmetry does a fantastic job of showcasing the talents of a remarkable Australian speculative fiction writer. I am comfortable adding Thoraiya Dyer’s name to my list of must-read authors on the basis of this collection.

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