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Occasionally, a rejection will be personal. As I’ve discussed before, such an event is cause for, if not minor celebration, at least a sigh acknowledging that your story was well-received enough to make some comment upon, if not to buy. An editor reading five hundred stories a month doesn’t have time to comment on every one of them, so if he/she commented on yours, that’s progress. The reasons for such rejections are varied, but one of the most valued (and most frustrating) is, “Sorry, we recently bought a story just like yours.”

That did not happen to me.

What did happen was that I sent a story to a certain magazine known for its consistent turnaround–except in cases where the story is sent up to the editor, in which case it can take several weeks longer to get an answer. My story was sent up to the editor where it spent several weeks on his desk(top) before being sent back with no comment. Not a personal, but I knew it was in the running for publication due to the extended length of its stay at that market. I simply didn’t know why it was not purchased. Since I had tried to write that story specifically with that market in mind (a rare occurrence), I would really like to have known why it was rejected, but I was happy to know that my efforts had not gone completely awry.

Then, a few days ago, I read a story from that magazine that was very similar to my own. One of the lines in it was eerily similar to my opening in my own story. This was not a case of plagiarism (not that the similarities rose to that level anyway), but I realized this was why my story had been rejected–they really had recently bought a story about the same subject!

I don’t know if our two stories were under consideration at the same time; if they were, I’m really pleased, because the other author is far better known than I, and if I was even considered competition for that author, that’s cool. Regardless, my story was under serious consideration, and it was (probably) rejected for reasons beyond my control.

It’s not a “personal,” but I’ll count it.

It is pretty commonly accepted nowadays that parents want their kids to experience a wide variety of activities, like soccer, ballet, kick-boxing, etc. (and even reading), but they also don’t want their kids exposed to any type of danger, or even unpleasantness. Kids are growing up with more allergies, for example, and it’s theorized that it’s because they’re not allowed to get dirty. It seems reasonable to me, but I don’t know the science.

What I do know is books. I’ve been an avid reader since I learned how. My house had a lot of books in it (although not as many as I have now), and no one ever told me what I could or couldn’t read. I tried reading House of the Seven Gables way too early, for example, and gave up after a few pages, but nobody told me I couldn’t read it. (Note: Must read House of the Seven Gables sometime.) This extended even to those (few) books that contained racy material. My parents knew they were there (they had bought them, after all), but nothing was forbidden. And although I skimmed a few tomes to find the juicy parts, I wasn’t permanently scarred. (I didn’t write Fifty Shades of Grey, for example.) The point is, my parents trusted me to make my own decisions about what to read. (Maybe they thought I should read less and play outside more, but that’s another subject.)

Apparently, however, you no longer have to trust your kids. In fact, it is now possible to feed them adult literature without the adult parts. Why you would want to do this is a mystery to me.

Let’s say that you want your kids to read classic literature, like, say, Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote what was, for the 16th century, some pretty bawdy stuff. Do you take that out? “No,” you say, because your child won’t understand the subtext anyway. To which I ask, “Then why is he reading it?” If you don’t allow for the full experience, warts and all, the child will not benefit. You don’t read great literature to learn to read; you learn to read to read great literature.

The first rule of fiction is “Take out anything that doesn’t count.” In other words, only include what’s necessary. This is more applicable to short fiction than to novels (and some very famous authors have thrown the rule out of the window right around the half-way point of their seven-book series), but the rule is still the rule. There are’t many hard-and-fast rules in writing, but this is one of them.

The corollary to this rule is that anything the writer left in, he intended to leave in. He intended that you should read it. That includes swear words. My stories, as a self-serving example, tend to have few swear words. But I have written at least one story where the viewpoint character spouts the F-word almost continuously. Why? Because he’s an F-ing serial killer, and a lousy excuse for a human being, and that’s how he talks. If you remove those words, you take something away from my story–and not what I want you to take away from it.

Life is messy. Literature is life imbued with order. But that order was invested in this world by the author, the author who is trying to tell a story, and make a point thereby. You mess with the story, you mess with the point.

Life is messy. You can throw a bubble around your child, but bubbles burst. Literature can be messy, too, but it’s a contained space where a child can dabble in the world’s dirt before going out into it.

After all, you wouldn’t want your kid to be allergic to literature, would you?

In the wake of SFWA’s recent decision to consider membership based solely on self-publishing, a panel on self-publishing I attended at a recent convention, and of course my personal experience with the subject, I would like to address some areas that few, if any, others have—at least in my sight. The problem with all of these essays and panels is that you only hear from those who have Made It, at least to the extent where they can claim sales sufficient to make up a significant portion of their income. You never hear from people who Haven’t Made It; common wisdom says that people who haven’t succeeded are generally not thought to have useful information to impart. (It also says those who can’t do, teach. Which is why people who succeed rarely adhere to common wisdom. It can’t make up its mind.)

So if you’re willing to listen to me, an undistinguished toiler, here’s what I wish I had known about self-publishing before I started.

1. Nobody knows anything about successful self-publishing. You see, not only am I flouting common wisdom, I am contradicting myself. The truth is, lots of people know a lot about self-publishing, but in keeping with publishing of all kinds, nobody knows anything about why they know what they know. Forget the nuts and bolts (see below), no one knows how to succeed at this stuff. They only know how they succeeded, which is little to no help to the rest of us.

2. You have to be able to write fast. Self-publishing is a numbers game. You’re now a publisher. How do you know what books will sell? You don’t. So you need to offer many different books. But you’re also the writer, and you have to provide all that content. If you can’t write 2 – 3 books a year, you’re in the wrong business.

3. Write the same book over and over. Well, not really. But you need to write a series, or at least a trilogy. Readers crave returning to worlds they love.

4. You should be technically savvy. You don’t have to know coding to self-publish. You don’t have to be able to do anything but follow instructions (assuming you’ve already written a book). But knowing something about your publishing platform, i.e., the Internet, will serve you well. It’s hard to follow the marketing advice of those who’ve Made It if you don’t have any clue what they’re talking about. If your response to “Try Mailchimp,” is “Mailchimp? What’s Mailchimp?” you could be in for some trouble.

5. Patience is a necessity, not a virtue. If you think you’re going to hit a home run your first time up, you’re wrong. You will strike out a lot. (See no. 2.) Even getting on base can take a while.

Successful self-publishing is one of those things that’s a lot harder than it looks, because the “self-publishing” part is so easy (and cheap). But doing it right requires knowledge, patience, skill, and discipline. Take it from someone who has Done It, if not exactly Made It. That may not be common wisdom, but you want to succeed, don’t you?

If you are an SF “fan,” in the con-going sense, you are likely familiar with the Sad Puppies/Hugo Award controversy. If you are not, Google it. I’ll wait. I also gave an opinion here.

Now that Hugo nominations are in, we are all wondering who will be included, who excluded–or, to be honest, we’re all dying to know if anyone on the Sad Puppies list will make the ballot again this year. (Last year a few did, only to be clobbered in the voting.) But to occupy my time while waiting, I would like to consider: Why are the Sad Puppies limited to the Hugo Awards?

As near as I can tell, the S.P.s have not taken any stand on the Nebulas (or any other award), even though cross-over between the Hugos and Nebulas is pretty common. It is exciting, but not rare, for a work to receive both nominations. So why have the Sad Puppies concentrated on the Hugos and ignored the Nebulas? (Disclaimer: I do not know any of these people, nor have I ever spoken to them. What follows is entirely my speculation.)

I can think of two reasons: First, the S.P.s think they have a better chance of swaying fandom than the pro ranks; or second, it’s all for the PR and attacking the Hugos gets you more bang for your buck.

If it’s the first, then the S.P.s may be barking up the wrong tree. Although Nebula nominating and voting is solely the prerogative of SFWA members, the Nebula voting pool is far smaller than the Hugo population. And whether your beef is with political correctness, or the types of “literary” stories that get nominated, there is as wide a political/literary spectrum in SFWA as in the greater fannish universe. You could easily get such a conversation started in SFWA (assuming you’re a member, which these guys are/could be–except for one, but I’m not going there). And it would take far fewer votes on your side to accomplish your aim. It looks like a good idea…

So why not the Nebulas? Well, there’s reason no. 2: it’s all for the PR. Not necessarily for the founders of the movement, but for the type of fiction they want to see more widely read. There is some proof of this, since they recently pushed a series of “book bombs” for their slate, and profess to be happy with the results. There’s nothing wrong with that; Lord knows pushing your book or story–even when traditionally published–is a constant slog, so these guys are just paying it forward. But that’s not what they tell us this is all about. In their own terms, it’s supposed to be about pushing the kind of books and stories the “elites” don’t want read, or at least don’t want to read.

And yet, by some meaningful standard, SFWA members are the “elite.” Certainly many (if not most) fans want to be part of the group. So why not to try to sway them? Because doesn’t serve their agenda.

SFWA members are a much more compact set of voters. They know each other, hang out at special meetings. And if you think fans react poorly to perceived manipulation, you haven’t talked to writers. Taking on the Hugos creates buzz among readers; “Sad Puppies for the Nebulas” would start a huge kerfuffle amongst writers.

And maybe they just don’t want that kind of publicity.

I don’t write fan fiction, but like anyone else I like to dream about mixing up some of my favorite shows, and pretending that characters on different TV shows are somehow related through actors who play on both. (Example: If one actress plays the mom on two different shows, then her “children” on those respective shows are siblings, right?)

In that vein, I have envisioned some cross-overs of genre interest. Some are silly, most are ridiculous, and some are downright impossible, but a few of them really get the nerves jumping. “What if–?” we ask. It is, after all, the essence of speculative fiction.

Flash Dancing with the Stars

Once Upon a Time Lord

Star Trek: Atlantis

Touched by Angel

The Amazing Super-Man

Battlestargate Galactica

Kyle XY Files

The V Diaries

Arrow the Vampire Slayer

Tell me there aren’t some seriously cool ideas here.

There was a discussion in my peer group concerning the passing of Leonard Nimoy, and whether it qualified as “untimely.” It was pointed out that he lived to be 83 years old, well past the American average, and that he had, not ironically, “lived long” (as well as “prospered”). Given that fact, although we were not prepared to see him go, we should consider that he had lived well and fully.

Not surprisingly, this lead to more thoughts about death, specifically about those I have known who did not have a chance to “live long.” I have lost three friends from college now, bright people who were never able to fulfill their promise because they left this life too soon. I wondered what they might have accomplished given more time, and the thought reflected back: You have the time they didn’t. You’ve been given the chance they weren’t. What are you doing?

I like to say, “Don’t ask yourself where the time has gone. Ask yourself where it’s going.” And with me, as with most of us, it’s going toward working, commuting, catching up with “Downton Abbey”–and writing the occasional piece of fiction. I haven’t done anything great with my life, and odds are I will never make the difference in people’s lives that Leonard Nimoy made. Few of us ever have that opportunity, and fewer take it.

But that’s no reason to despair, or to panic, because as long as I’m alive, I may have that opportunity still. We look at famous people now and we recognize them, but who on that train knew the name J.K. Rowling the day she dreamed up Harry Potter? Did you know who Leonard Nimoy was before “Star Trek”?

I’ve seen it happen time and again: one day you’re in the dumps because it’s all going nowhere, and the next day you’re in a TV series, or you’re nominated for a Hugo, or maybe you just sell a story, and suddenly life is all about possibilities, and people know your name.

Some gain success early. It may build, it may peak and die away, leaving one to wonder what he’s going to do for the rest of a life that may already have seen its apex. The thing I’ve noticed about success, though, is that it’s never really in your grasp. The success I’ve gained in the last few years would look really impressive to the seventeen-year-old who first started writing sword-and-sorcery stories on a manual typewriter in his bedroom, but it’s not enough for me. I dream of being a full-time writer, but I know enough full-time writers to know that even that is only a step, not a culmination. So we keep at it. You have to; resting on your laurels is comfortable, but it never gets any better.

I’m pretty sure that I haven’t peaked already. I don’t know if I ever will. But I know that I will die trying. And that’s the way I want it.

I currently have a grand total of two stories out on submission. It was only a few months ago that my submissions numbered 11, a high-water mark reflecting the dual realities that (a) I had more saleable fiction to offer than ever before, and (b) there were more fiction markets out there. Alas, no matter how large a number (b) is, the agreement on (a) seems limited. And now (b) has shrunk because trying to draw water over and over from the same well with the same leaky bucket is no good (and ticks off the well’s editor).

I tried to stave off the inevitable by pushing stories on reprint markets. This had some success, making the paucity of available stories a good thing. I even tried subbing to markets where I knew I stood little chance of success, just to generate something in my in-box, even if it was a quick and impersonal rejection. (This is not to say that I subbed to inappropriate markets. I wouldn’t send a novelette about a crime-solving 26th-century billionaire playboy to a magazine that only takes alternate history shorts set prior to the 20th century–although I do have such a story if anyone is interested.)

Why would you send out stories only to be rejected? you ask, and well you might. The thing is, writing is a lonely business (surprise!) and any human contact is welcome, although some forms are more welcome than others. And I see my friends on writing boards reporting their successes/failures, making me wish I had more to contribute, to get in on the conversation. So, yes, I’m just pathetic. But if you can’t live with that fact, you shouldn’t be a writer. Get into a business with a higher success rate, like acting or lottery player.

The bright side (read: excuse) is that my lack of submissible stories is largely due to the fact that I have been concentrating on a novel for the past year. (The downside of that is that it was supposed to be done by now, but life gets in the way.) And there are new markets appearing pretty often these days, so things won’t always be so bleak. Not to mention that I now have three novels and a non-fiction booklet out there in e-book form; their continuing struggle to be noticed gives me another outlet for manic number-checking.

And yes, there’s this right here. My blog allows me take a break from paying work and just publish a little bit of what I want, unfettered by worries about sales or pleasing an editor. In the end, I guess we all just want to be heard. And that’s all I have to say today.

Unless I go out on Twitter…

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