Tag Archives: submissions

Oops. I Finished a Short Story.

I didn’t mean to, honest. A few months ago, I started writing a short story by emailing a few paragraphs to myself on my Blackberry while I waited for my sandwich at Cosi’s. Over the course of a month or two, I emailed half a dozen bits to myself while standing in line to buy lunch or other mundane tasks. Then I lost interest.

Tonight, I opened it up to see where it was. I finished the job of importing the emails into Scrivener, and realized I was just about done. So I took half an hour (hey, it’s my birthday) and finished it.

The first draft of “Dear Mr. President” is 2,080 words long. I’ll try to finish revisions by Sunday night, and submit it Sunday night or Monday morning. There are a few online markets that I think I’ll try; I don’t plan to shoot for the moon with this one, but I won’t consider non-paying markets until I’ve run out of paying options.

Is it my best work? No, probably not. But I think it’s a fun little alternate history story, and there might be a place for it somewhere. I don’t have as much invested in it as I did in “Test Tube Beneficiaries” (no response yet to the second submission, but thanks for asking), which I hope means I won’t need to go through six sets of revisions before I can let it go.

But how about that? When I sat down tonight, I had no plans to work on this story at all, and now I’ve gone and finished the first draft. What the hell, though; it’s my birthday. Yay, me.

I’m a Real Writer Now.

I’m a real writer now because in today’s mail, I received my first rejection slip in 16 years. TTB was turned down by the first place I sent it. It was a very nice rejection: no specific comments, but it wasn’t a total form rejection, either.

I have to say that I’m impressed by the turnaround time. I mailed a 63-page manuscript on May 12, and the editor mailed the rejection on May 28. The guidelines said eight weeks, but it was more like two.

I’m neither surprised nor too unhappy about the rejection.  I don’t enjoy rejection, but it’s the first submission of my first complete work of fiction in 16 years — what do you think I expected to happen?

I’m going to do what I did when I got my first rejection slip on the first story I ever submitted:  turn it around and send it back out on Monday to another of the Big Three magazines, and while it’s out, I’ll review the research I’ve done on potential markets. The concern I have is that it may not be science fiction enough for the skiffy markets, but too genre for the non-genre markets.

Anyway, thanks to all of you who wrote to express your good wishes when I sent it out into the world. I’ll mail it out again on Monday, and let you all know what happens.

In other news, I know I haven’t posted much, and I owe Freshhell a response to her meme. I’ve been traveling for work and generally knocking myself out, so I haven’t had much time for discretionary writing. I hope to get more done this weekend and next week.

What Two Days Worth of Slush Looks Like.

I’m still nosing around at the editors’ blog at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction’s website. This post is a little stale, but still interesting: it’s a picture of two days’ worth of slush submissions.

Somewhere, in a stack that looks just like that, sits TTB. And, if you’ve submitted anything as a hardcopy recently, there sits your story, too.

I’ve Got No Mail!

Technically, that isn’t true.  Two bills, three catalogs, one magazine, and several random flyers were delivered to our mailbox today.  But no response to TTB.

It’s going to be a long eight weeks.

Fly Free, TTB!

This morning I stopped at the post office (how quaint!) to submit, by snail mail, the story formerly known as “Test Tube Beneficiary” to one of the Big Three science fiction magazines. The magazine’s guidelines say they respond within about eight weeks; adding a few days on either end for the mail, I should get a response sometime around the week of July 14, which also happens to be right around my birthday.

Considering the odds against TTB getting accepted, I concede that the mailing was poorly timed.

I finished the typing in the last rounds of edits late last night (the Mrs. and I both prefer marking up hard copy), wrote the cover letter, and then fussed for 45 minutes over getting labels printed for the big envelope and the SASE. When I was finally done, Mrs. Unfocused remarked on the fact that I was wearing my Converse Chuck Taylor high-tops (not one of my original pairs from 1987, but a pair I bought last year for an 80s-themed party), which I hardly ever wear. “Great,” I said. “Now I have an official authorial superstition: whenever I’m about to finish a story or a novel, I’ll have to find my Chuck Ts and make sure I’m wearing them for the big finish.”

On reflection, though, I think that should only apply if the magazine to which I submitted TTB this morning accepts it. There’s no reason to start a superstition over a rejection.

The View From the Other Side of the Slush Pile

Many years ago, when I was a college student searching for summer employment, I realized that I had essentially no marketable skills. I spent the summer working through a temporary agency, and I was almost always assigned out as a receptionist.

My final placement that summer was with a small, middle/highbrow publishing house, focused mostly on literary fiction. I spent a week and a half filling in for the receptionist, but when she came back early, they didn’t end the assignment, probably because they had committed to use me for two full weeks. My supervisor, whomever she or he was, gave me an empty office (unassigned, really; it was extremely cluttered) to work in, and showed me the slush pile. It really was a pile of manuscripts; several piles, , actually, some of them in the process of collapsing into each other. For the next two or three days, my job would be to get through as much of it as I could.

There I was, 19 or 20 years old, never having taken a college-level literature class, with no more than five minutes of training, reading the manuscripts hopeful authors had poured their souls into. My instructions were simple: If I thought a manuscript was worth an editor’s time, I had to read the entire thing, fill out a one-page form, and prepare a synopsis. If I decided at any point while reading a submission that it should be rejected, I could stop immediately, fill out the form, and send it back to the author (if a self-addressed, stamped envelope had been enclosed), without writing the synopsis. My incentives were clear: The path of least effort for me would be to make decisions quickly, and reject almost everything.

In other words,

iminurslushpile.jpg

(LOLcat built from original photo by sutefani in orlando, under a Creative Commons-Attribution license by way of Flickr.)

Although I reviewed a number of manuscripts, I remember only two: one I rejected, and one I flagged for review by somebody competent. The one I rejected was some kind of thriller, and I read about half of it before I finally gave up, turned off by what seemed like an interminable technical discussion about the architecture of nuclear power plants.

The novel I sent up the ladder was a drama about high school students, set in the contemporary rural South. I hated it. I didn’t like the style, I couldn’t identify with the characters, and it was sexually graphic without being the least bit titillating. It was, however, very well written, and I found myself unable to put it down — like watching a slow-motion train wreck, I wanted to see what (horrible) thing happened to these (idiotic) characters next. When I was done, I decided that I had no idea whether this was the kind of thing my employer would want to publish, but I thought somebody probably would. I filled out the form, wrote the synopsis, and left it for the professionals to deal with. I have no idea whether they, or anyone, ever published the book. I was also too stupid to try to maintain the contacts at the publishing house, which might have been useful to an aspiring writer.

As a wannabe novelist, I should have been horrified that someone like me was making decisions about the slush pile, but at 20, I was sufficiently vapid or arrogant not to be bothered by it. I’m horrified now, of course, but now it’s too late. The guy who wrote the nuclear plant thriller probably would have been the next Tom Clancy if a competent editor had looked at his novel and thought, “It gets a little wordy, but if he’d be willing to cut four pages from Chapter 14, we could have a blockbuster on our hands!” Maybe another publisher did. But I have this uncomfortable feeling that when the time comes to send out Meet the Larssons, my karmic debt is going to have to be repaid.

In other news, I’ve been too busy at work this week to post until now, so I haven’t been able to comment on the death of Gary Gygax, one of the creators of Dungeons & Dragons. I started playing D&D regularly when I was about 11, and played consistently until I was around 16, and then intermittently until college. Many thanks, GG. Here’s a link to Uncle Monsterface’s tribute song (thanks to GeekDad for pointing me to it), which captures the sentiment exactly.

To see the previous posts in my rejection slips series, click here, here, here, and here.

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.

My First Rejection Slip

If you put a gun to my head, I couldn’t find all the documents I’d need to prepare our tax return in under an hour. But ask me to find my old rejection slips from my submissions to science fiction magazines during high school and college, and apparently it will take me less than a minute. There they were, clipped to copies of the stories themselves. Here is the very first one I ever received, from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction:

My First Rejection Slip

In case you can’t read my handwritten note at the top, apparently I received this slip on March 5, 1985, for a story called “The Laws of Chaos.” It was the first story I had ever submitted for publication; I was a sophomore in high school. I typed it on a manual typewriter, my father’s old Royal portable (which means it lived in a large square box and weighed less than 20 pounds).

Damn, that makes me feel old.

I remember discussing my early rejection slips, that year or the year following, with a friend of mine who also wrote science fiction stories. He was surprised that I’d actually had the guts to send my work to real magazines, and I asked him, “What’s the worst thing that could happen? I get another rejection?” (That friend, by the way, has been a professional writer since he graduated from college, and his work has appeared in Spy (remember Spy?), Playboy, The New Yorker, and various other markets. He has apparently gotten over his shyness about his writing.)

The Mrs., who met me just a couple of years later, tells me that I was remarkably incautious back then, and — she was trying to be tactful — “not suffering from a lack of confidence.” I’m not sure how that makes me different from every other teen-aged male of the species, except that because I didn’t know how to drive, my recklessness came out in occasionally unusual ways. I certainly got more rejections. I’ll post about some of them tomorrow.