Tag Archives: short stories

What Jammed Up TTB?

I started “Test Tube Beneficiary” on January 13, 2008, by creating a project for it in Scrivener and typing out the basic idea for the problem facing the protagonist, and the solution. I thought it would be fairly short, and relatively easy to write — a nice diversion from the novel when I needed a break.

I finished the first draft on March 22. It came in at 12,210 words, firmly in “novelette” territory, at least according to the categories recognized by the SFWA. After my second pass through it, it dropped to 12,100. After I made changes based on suggestions from Mrs. Unfocused and more of my own edits, it grew slightly, to 12,400 words.

That’s where things stood when I printed it out on April 29, for the final proofread. I went through it over the next couple of days, made a dozen or so picky changes, and handed it to Mrs. Unfocused.

She read through it on Saturday afternoon. When she was done, she asked me a question about the actions of one of the supporting characters. She didn’t understand the motivation of this character, because if he did what I had him do in the story, shouldn’t he also do X? Having that character do X, unfortunately, would have required me to completely change the ending, and would have defeated one of the core goals I had for the story.

The problem was that she was absolutely correct. I had taken a shortcut: to avoid going through a lot of rigamarole that wouldn’t be any fun to write and might be boring to read, I had forced one of my characters to do something completely contrary to his interests, and then refused to carry that behavior through to its logical conclusion. It had nagged at me a little when I did it, but I didn’t think too much about it, and who was going to notice, anyway?

My wife, apparently. It wasn’t until her third reading of the story, but it was obvious once she asked the question that another reader could certainly have the same question the first time through. I had to drag myself kicking and screaming to the decision, but I finally made up my mind that I had to change the character’s actions in the story in order to preserve the ending, which meant writing out the rigamarole I wanted to avoid.

Sunday night I plugged another 800 words into the middle of the story; it’s now at 13,200 words. I now need to go back through it and fix all the places where those changes ripple through, which I will try to get done this weekend.

The thing that bothers me the most is that if this is what I’m going through with TTB, the editing process for Meet the Larssons is going to really, really suck.

If I Hate Editing So Much, Why Am I Doing So Much of It?

I took my fourth — and what I think is my last — pass through TTB today and dumped it on Mrs. Unfocused for a final proofread. Once she’s done with that (or sooner, if she tells me she can’t stand to read it again), I’m going to type in the changes and send it out. I think I’ve caught all the typos, tied off the loose ends, cut what could be cut and added what needed to be added, and I am thoroughly sick of the whole process (thus my prior post, I Hate Editing and I Must Be Almost Done Editing), so any further revision would just be pointless mutilation. Which I am wholeheartedly against.

I now have the final title for TTB, and have kissed the working title of “Test Tube Beneficiary” good-bye; I got the title right last night, after trying several that were just awful.

I had to stop myself on several occasions today from making picky word choice edits and just stick to fixing glaring errors. How much editing is too much? The answer, at least for this story: one more minute than I have spent so far.

I’m Done!

The first draft of Test Tube Beneficiary is done, done, done. It’s my first complete work of fiction (not counting the flash fic I posted on my Fiction page last month — it’s still there, if you’re interested) in 16 years. Go, me.

I’m going to print it now, and go to bed.

Update (6:10pm): I published this post originally at 1:03am. I’m finally having my celebratory glass of wine. Most importantly, the Mrs. read TTB this morning, and gave it her seal of approval. I was (and am) very excited that she didn’t hate it — by the time I woke up this morning, I had convinced myself that it would need to be largely rewritten — and, despite the facts that she doesn’t particularly like science fiction and that I used to help her fall asleep by telling her about my cases, she really liked it. The only real issue is whether it’s actually science fiction: she thinks that it may be so near-future, and the extrapolation may be so subtle, that it doesn’t actually qualify as sci-fi. It’s not ready to send out yet — I need to take it through the revision process — but when it is, I’ll have to evaluate the potential markets.

Test Tube Beneficiary: The Final Push

Until Tuesday, progress on “Test Tube Beneficiary,” my short story in progress, had come to a halt while I tried to make some headway on the novel. On Tuesday, though, I brought my MacBook on the train and got a few hundred words written on TTB. On Wednesday morning, I rewrote the last couple of paragraphs I had written on the train home the day before, and realized that while I knew how the story was to end, I had no idea how I was going to get there.

I went to the gym over lunch and had a decent run (listening to I Should Be Writing on the iPod, natch), and by the time I was done with my shower, I had the roadmap to the finish. I stood dripping wet in the locker room with a towel wrapped around my waist, tapping away on the crackberry to get it all down in an email to myself (using Gmail so none of it ends up on the firm’s server).

Between the train home and what I wrote after the kids got to bed, I knocked out 2300 words yesterday. I did more on the train this morning. I’ll be done by the end of the weekend, if not before. Then — and this is the key, this is one of the big lessons from reviewing all those rejection slips — I’m going to have to edit the thing. But not before I open up a nice bottle of wine and celebrate a little.

Rejection Slip Review: Lessons Learned

This is the way time slips away from me: it has already been two weeks since I posted my last rejection slips, promising to come back with a post about what I’ve learned from reviewing them 16 years after I stopped submitting. (If you’re looking for the posts with scans of and about the rejection slips themselves, the first one is here, the second one is here, and the last one is here.) Let’s get the most important lesson out of the way, because I think we all got the same message from the Aboriginal Science Fiction rejection slips:

1. Don’t write in Alpha Centaurian.

Writing in Alpha Centaurian is a bad idea, and not just because most word processors have serious trouble rendering the 7,462 life-sized, animated pictograms that make up the standard Alpha Centuarian alphabet. I think perhaps the editor of Aboriginal S.F. was attempting to use humor to make a larger point: your writing, if you intend to submit it to an editor of a publication anywhere in the English-speaking world, should evidence some familiarity with the English language. You do not want to suffer from, as the editor of Asimov’s put it in his form rejection letter, “an obvious lack of basic English compositional skills on the part of the author.”

If that box had been checked on my rejections, I think I would have been too embarrassed to post them, even anonymously.

2. You’re going to get rejected when you don’t think you deserve it.

When I started this little trip on the Way-Back Machine, I had no intention of reviewing the stories I had written; I was interested in the rejections, mostly as a trophies from my misspent youth. Some people have their high school football jerseys, or science fair awards; I have rejection slips.

Digging through my files for the rejections without at least glancing at the stories themselves was nearly impossible, though, and looking back, I can identify numerous flaws in each just from memory, without reading more than the title. The question now isn’t why they were rejected; it’s why they weren’t rejected and the rejection slip stamped “AND DON’T COME BACK.”

Yet when I wrote these stories and submitted them to various magazines, I don’t remember thinking they were clunkers. I didn’t finish “The Laws of Chaos” in my sophomore year of high school and think, “Man, what a godawful cliché, and badly written to boot. I wonder how much Fantasy & Science Fiction will pay me for it?” No, with my limited experience at the time, I thought the story was pretty good.

As I start writing again, I am trying to hold onto this thought. I should not expect everyone — or anyone — to like something that I have written just because I like it. But I think the corollary is also true: just because I’m convinced that something I’ve written is crap, doesn’t mean that everyone — or anyone — else will think so. I need to keep my expectations reasonable and have a certain measure of humility about my work (especially considering that I’m coming back to fiction after a 15 year absence and by my own admission everything I wrote before my hiatus is awful), but I shouldn’t try to be my own critic. There are plenty of other people willing to take that role, such as Mrs. Unfocused.

3. Try, try again.

For more than 15 years, I guaranteed that I would never be a published author, because I simply stopped writing, let alone submitting anything for publication. I kept thinking of myself as a someday writer, as in someday, I’ll sit down and write something. I always thought of myself as a writer, which was odd, because I never wrote anything. I’d jot down story ideas, as if I might soon write them up, but I never, ever did.

None of that is the fault of the editors who rejected my work. Not one of them discouraged me in any way from submitting again or from continuing to write. It was my own inability to stay focused on any particular goal, even if it was one I really, really wanted to achieve, that led me away from doing what, in my head, I always wanted to do. It has taken me until now, staring over the precipice at 40, to realize that if I don’t start, I’ll never get there.

Mur Lafferty, of the I Should Be Writing podcast, said in one of her recent episodes (I’m paraphrasing), “I may not be the best writer, but if the best writer gives up and I’m still in there plugging away, I’m the one who’s going to make the sale.” I can live with that, and meantime, I can actually write the stories that go with all of the ideas I’ve been noting on index cards all this time.

My Last Rejection Slips (so far)

This is the last in a series of three posts, discussing rejections I received from science fiction magazines years ago for stories I wrote in high school and college. My prior posts are here and here.

My most recent rejection slips are also in the file, both from Aboriginal Science Fiction. I didn’t make notes on these, and I didn’t save a copy of my cover letters, so I can only estimate when these stories were submitted and rejected. Based on the address I used on the cover sheet, I would have written these stories during my senior year of college or the year after, between October, 1990 and June, 1992. I wrote these stories (“Return of the Chicago Tribune” and “Encounter in a Bar”) on my first real computer, a Mac SE with 1Mb RAM and a 20Mb hard drive. I printed them either at the University’s main computer center or at Kinko’s — I didn’t own a printer at that point — which means I saved it onto a floppy disk and walked the disk over to USite or Kinko’s, probably late at night. Here are the rejections (the first is for “Return of the Chicago Tribune”):

abo1b


Just following the checked off categories of badness, “Return of the Chicago Tribune” was too expository (I told, instead of showing), the characters weren’t alive and/or were too bland, and the plot wasn’t strong enough. I flipped through the ms, and I agree with all of those. Plus, the whole idea (involving the 1948 Chicago Tribune edition with the “Dewey Beats Truman” headline) was pretty bad. At least by the time I wrote this story (age 21 or 22), I had started to gain some historical perspective; after three or four years of college, I had learned something, which I think must be helpful even for fiction writers — you can’t make up everything.

The next one is for “Encounter in a Bar,” which I wrote around the same time:

abo2b

“Encounter in a Bar” had all of the same problems as “Return of the Chicago Tribune,” according to the editor who rejected it, and one more: the underlying idea had been used so often as to have become a cliche. At least it was a different cliche than the one that made up the plot of my first attempt at publication, “The Laws of Chaos.” I didn’t have to read “Encounter in a Bar” to remember the plot; it all came back to me as soon as I saw the title. I am happy to share it with you, because this blog is anonymous: the main character is in a bar, meets a guy, who puts to him the time traveler’s classic dilemma — if you could go back in time and kill Hitler, preventing the Holocaust and World War II, would you? The main character says of course, and the other guy pulls out a gun and blows him away, because it turns out that he actually is a time traveler, and the main character would, in a few years, get elected president and start a horrible global thermonuclear war. The end.

Like the idea? It’s yours. I’d tell you not to submit it to Aboriginal Science Fiction, but it’s gone now. Wikipedia describes it (at least today) as “a high-circulation semi-professional science fiction magazine,” and that it ran from 1986 through 2001, which is consistent with what I remember. Whatever the former editor, Charles C. Ryan, is doing now, I owe him a debt of gratitude. The checklist may come off as a little impersonal, but the guy took the time to handwrite my name at the top, check the boxes he thought applied to my story, and sign his own name at the bottom. Even if he just had an intern do it, I had no idea; it just meant a lot to me at the time that someone in the business was giving me real feedback.

I have a lot of trouble remembering the process of writing from that far back; was it easy? was it hard? did the ideas flow, or was every paragraph like pulling teeth? I have no idea. Based on the brevity of the stories, it looks like my main concern was getting out of the chair as quickly as I could.

What I do know just from looking at the hard copies is that in just those 5-7 years from “The Laws of Chaos” to “Encounter in a Bar,” the speed at which I could have been writing would have changed significantly, because once I moved to the Mac, I didn’t have to load up a new piece of paper every 300 words. The physical process of writing, if nothing else, had become much simpler.

So why did I stop? I didn’t, entirely. I also found, stuck in the same file with all of my rejected science fiction stories, the never-completed draft of my first attempt at a novel. It was a coming of age story set, unsurprisingly, in Hyde Park, with a first person main character who had just graduated from college and couldn’t find a job — strikingly similar to my own situation at the moment I started the novel, except that to add to the main character’s misery, he didn’t have a girlfriend, while I was living with the future Mrs. Unfocused in a little basement apartment an easy walk from the lake. I stopped writing science fiction stories because I thought I should be working on the novel, and I stopped writing the novel because I was so undisciplined that by the time I got 75 pages into it, I had finished my first year of law school and the story of this lazy, self-pitying kid no longer interested me.

I’ll end this series of posts in the next couple of days with some thoughts about what I’ve learned from this little trip down memory lane.

In the meantime, I made good progress yesterday in Meet the Larssons, 2450 words. I’ve brought my MacBook on the train the last couple of days, which has let me write around 450 words each day just during my commute (I have a short train ride, and don’t always get a seat in the morning), which has been helpful, too. I took advantage of the warm weather this morning and went for my first outdoor run in weeks — it was gray, and the sun wasn’t entirely up yet, but still, it was great. All in all, a pretty good couple of days.

Now it’s back to the election coverage. Unfocused Girl is rooting for Hillary, but will be happy enough if Barack does well, since he’s from Chicago, too. Junior doesn’t have an opinion, except that he likes to say “Baaaaa-rock.”

A Few More Rejection Slips

To continue the thread from Friday’s post: I didn’t give up submitting my science fiction stories to professional magazines after my first rejection for “The Laws of Chaos.” I had completely forgotten about that story until I dug out my old story file on Thursday night. I haven’t had the guts to read it, but even without reviewing my likely abominable teenage writing, I can tell you why it was, and should have been, rejected: the ending reveals that it was all a dream, a horrible, horrible dream. In other words, it was all a cliche, a horrible, horrible cliche.

You may find this hard to believe, but when I resubmitted it to Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Gardner Dozois rejected it, too. Shocking, really.

But I was persistent. Just for example, on October 29, 1985, IASFM rejected “Democracy”:

iasfm-10291985-3.jpg

I thought it was particularly kind that Mr. Dozois did not add “In your case, it was all of the above.” That would have been wrong, of course; my spelling, even in high school, has always been pretty good (unlike my handwriting).

The hits just kept on coming, but really, what did it cost me? Some paper (which I “borrowed” from my parents, anyway), but not much, because my stories were always very short, because (1) I had read that shorter stories were easier to sell, and (2) I had a very short attention span. The cost of envelopes and postage. Some stories I sent in cheap plastic report covers, because I thought it made them look more professional.

The only real cost was my time, and I didn’t count that, because I would have been writing anyway. I could have written more, I suppose, but I had the usual high school student distractions: friends, girls, a demanding after-school job at a local newspaper, and writing for an underground high school zine loosely modeled after The Weekly World News. So when it came to fiction writing, I was productive, but not prolific.

I kept writing in college, but I definitely slowed down. I moved to a new city (Chicago), had much harder classes which I occasionally had to attend, fell into theater and later the newspaper, and met the future Mrs. Unfocused (then known as Unfocused Girlfriend). I still wrote, on a little electric typewriter/primitive word processor, with a two-line screen and a 2K memory, which meant I could type for about two pages before I had to print, instead of my father’s old Royal. I still sent the stories off, but not nearly as often as in high school.

Apparently, this was no great loss to the science fiction publishing world. From my freshman year, here’s a January 14, 1988 rejection from Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact for a story called “Exposure”:

ASF 01141988

The IASFM and ASF rejection slips acted as FAQs for authors. Why was my story rejected? What can I do to improve my story and my chances of getting published in your magazine? Every time I received one of these forms, I reread it as if it would tell me something new. I did try, I think, to follow the advice contained in the rejections. I was young, undisciplined, and, in the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “Lord help me, I’m just not that bright.” I’m perfectly capable of making the same mistakes over and over again.

I think the biggest problem with my writing in high school and college (aside from a lack of an original plot, sympathetic characters, or interesting dialogue) was that I refused to even consider editing a story once I finished it. I had read that Robert Heinlein never rewrote anything (Robert J. Sawyer lists this as Heinlein’s Third Rule of Writing: “You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order”). Ladies and gentlemen, I am here to tell you that I have read a lot of Robert Heinlein novels and stories, I feel like I know Robert Heinlein, and I am no Robert Heinlein. If 13 years of drafting briefs, motions, and nastygrams has taught me anything, it is that for me, rewriting is not just a good idea, it’s the law.

But I didn’t know that then. In the next day or two, I’ll post my last rejection slips.