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Blending In

I’m shopping for a new car. When we bought the last one (sometime in the Late Middle Ages), we made sure to get a green one, because we didn’t want to have the same silver model that everyone else seemed to be ordering. We wanted something that would stand out in the parking lot when we’d forgotten where we parked. This worked well, except when someone else had also bought a green car, since ours was apparently the only model available in green, so there was occasionally confusion. But we never drove off in the wrong car, so it worked out okay.

That doesn’t seem to be an option any more. Try buying a green car. I dare you. Yeah, the Minis and little cars that don’t care who laughs at them because they actually enjoy having a personality come in colors, but mostly you get black, white, and grey/silver. Most brands have five versions of those shades, and maybe one red. One brand had ten colors, including two whites, two dark blues, and two greys. I think they had a red. And a brown. Green? No. Yellow/light blue/purple? Please, you’re making me laugh.

I blame 9/11. Ever since then we’ve been cocooning, hiding from the world, not wanting to stand out. Drive a silver car. Blend with the herd.

Which leads, oddly enough, to a revelation about writing. My writing. My reading tastes were fashioned (as they usually are) as a child. And even though I spent five years at a major university reading literature, my heart was rarely in it, because I don’t like to read “literature.” The problem is that I’d like to write it; at least “literature” as understood by the SF community. (A topic for a later time.) There’s been a lot of controversy lately about awards, and what they should mean. Some of the commenters have stated for the record that they don’t care about awards. Well, I do. I’d love to win one. But that isn’t going to happen if I write silver (Age) fiction. So I’m going to be making a conscious effort to raise my reading standards, in hopes that it will raise my writing standards. We’ll see how that goes.

In the meantime, I’ll be looking for a non-silver, non-black car. Because if you don’t want to blend in, at some point you have to stand out.

#SFWApro

If you’ve had a lot of time on your hands lately, you may have been following the Tor boycott, originated by the Sad Puppies, who once said boycotts were bad, but now apparently they’re okay if undertaken for the right reason, i.e., a reason one supports. (I bought a Tor book a few days ago by an author I’d never heard of just because it was a Tor book.) The oddest thing, perhaps, about the Tor boycott is that at least one of the SPs is a Tor writer who goes to great lengths to say he’s “not supporting the boycott” in a way that shows he totally is, except he doesn’t want to hurt his own bottom line. Which is fine, everyone gets that, but you really ought just to admit it and shut up.

Still, it reminds me of the famous uproar over Orson Scott Card and his Ender’s Game movie. I don’t agree with OSC about gay rights, but I sold a story to him that he published last year. Because hey, money is money, and as long as his magazine doesn’t reflect views I find abhorrent, I’ve got no problem with us making money together. It’s not the first time I was published by right-wingers. I’m an equal opportunity writer: I’ve been published by pagans, too. I’m not going to go out and give every editor and publisher a litmus test. I’d run out of markets.

On the other hand, there was a furor a few years ago about a story in Weird Tales that people complained was racist. I read some of it; it was pretty insensitive, to say the least, but it was also awfully written. I had a sub in at WT at the time, but I eventually withdrew it because I didn’t want to be linked with a magazine that would publish that particular story. Because of the content or the craft? Both, really. But that time it was the magazine that offended me, not the publisher.

I’m seeing, though, that other people (unsurprisingly) have different views. I’ve seen writers admit they won’t sub to certain markets because of the political views of the publishers/editors. This is their right, of course, and I respect their integrity. But I’m also secretly glad that there’s less competition. Because I don’t discriminate on account of who’s behind the curtain.

Oh, wait, yes I do. The leader of the Rabid Puppies, Theodore Beale, runs a publishing house. I’ve not read any of his offerings, but I’m going to, because several are up for Hugos. I’m told they’re awful, but I’ll make that call myself. Regardless, I will never sub anything to that publisher–even if it would make me look good by comparison with their other titles–because I find the publisher’s views ugly and repellent–so much so that if you want to see his blog (which I don’t recommend), you’ll have to find it yourself. I will not link to it. Nor would I want my fiction affiliated with him in any fashion. (I have a suspicion the stories he sells reflect his views, but I don’t know yet.)

So there are places I won’t go to make a sale. Everybody’s line in the sand is different. But at the same time, when does someone become so anathema that you won’t do business with him? Does that ever change? Maybe that’s why lines are drawn in the sand; every once in a while you can wipe them out and draw new ones.

#SFWApro

There’s a thing that writers do that no one else does. Okay, there are a lot of things that writers do that no one else does, but I’m only going to focus on one. Writers try to learn from their failures.

“Wait a second,” you say immediately. “Everybody tries to learn from his mistakes. It’s part of growing up.” And that’s very true, but writers do it a little differently than other people. First of all, they don’t grow up. Second, they don’t make “mistakes,” they have “failures.” Because writers live In that charmed humanities-major world where there is no one right answer, there is only the answer that will persuade an editor to buy your story. (And if no one likes your story, then the editor has made a “mistake,” not you.)

But more often than not for most of us, we don’t persuade the editor. And that’s when we try to learn from our failures. This is called “rejectomancy.” There is more than one way to do this, based on whether we have received positive or negative feedback. It gets really complicated when the negative feedback is “negative” as in the it-doesn’t-exist sense. Let me explain.

The easiest form of rejectomancy (also called rejectonomy, although that implies too much scientific method for most applications) is when you get a personal rejection. The personal rejection will tell you flat out–or in a way the editor believes is clear, in any case–why the editor didn’t choose your story. Maybe it’s the story, maybe it’s an extrinsic factor like your story was too similar to one the editor just bought last week. If the reject cites a flaw in your story, you can take it for what it’s worth and edit or not as you please.

The next easiest is when markets allow you to follow your submission’s progress through the editorial process. Some use submission systems which let you track where you are in the queue of submissions. (See Lightspeed.) If stories near you in the queue are being rejected (which you track through the Submission Grinder or Duotrope), you can expect that your response will come soon. When it doesn’t, then the rejectomancy starts. Am I being held over? Do different slush readers respond at different speeds? At least in this case you don’t worry so much your submission was lost. At this point, the rejectomancer and the rejectonomer are pretty even.

Then things get murky. Say you get a form rejection. A form rejection tells you nothing, right? Well, not to the practiced rejectomancer. (Here’s where the rejectonomer gets lost.) He has followed his story’s progress. If it took longer than the average, he may well presume his story was held over and handed to higher editor; this is particularly true when the story took a lot longer than usual. Some magazines even use coded rejections. Bear in mind the rejectomancer doesn’t know anything. It’s all guesswork–but it’s comforting guesswork. On the other hand, an average or quicker rejection becomes a sad occasion. It’s an occupational hazard.

Finally, there is the “negative-negative” response. Most markets still have no way of tracking submissions from submitters side. But you can still gauge how submissions are faring in that market by watching the Grinder or Duotrope. Are subs younger than yours being rejected? If so, it’s nail-biting time. Either you’ve been held over, or your story was lost. (Things used to be worse; before the Internet you had no idea of average wait times, nor any way of knowing if you ms. was lost in the mail, unless you included a postcard with your sub that the magazine could send back when it opened the envelope.)

In the end, of course, you only know how you’ve done when someone buys your story. Then rejectomancy gives way to reviewomancy, which is a highly dangerous art shunned by all serious practitioners. Until we’re alone, and no one can see us. Then we read our reviews. Because we’re never done with rejectomancy. Whether it’s with editors or readers, we just can’t help ourselves; we’re more confused by this writing stuff than you are.

#SFWApro

This riffs off of the current SF/Hugo Awards controversy, but it is not about that, so you can go ahead and read it.

For the past few months, the science fiction/fantasy fan community has been clogging its own little corner of the Internet with a fight over the history, meaning, and future of the Hugo Awards, given out annually by the members of the World Science Fiction Convention. The specifics of the controversy are irrelevant, and easily locatable (although I warn the uninitiated that catching up could literally occupy the rest of the year). From the lowliest fan to the very highest level of “pro’s with TV shows,” this is the subject du jour, tous les jours.

What a waste of time.

Why is it that crowds (in this case, let’s define “crowds” as “dozens”) of people, both articulate and not, will spend so much of their free time and energy on questions which are not only incapable of objective resolution (e.g., what is a good story, what defines “best of the year,” what criteria should awards follow?), but really don’t matter a hydroelectric dam in the larger world?

What is it about people (not just SF fans) that they are willing to spend so much time on insignificant matters when they could be discussing the Big Questions? I would bet that SF fandom includes a higher proportion of scientists than the general population. And I’m talking the sciences where you actually have to study math: physicists, chemists, astronomers, meteorologists, geologists, biologists, physicians, computer scientists… These are people who have the brains and the education to do something. Invent a new fuel. Solve global warming. Design higher-yielding crops.

And if you can’t do any of that, because you’re not scientific or it’s not your field or you’re still a teenager or whatever, you can still talk about it. And write about it. And encourage others to do the same. Which isn’t happening. Instead, dozens (or hundreds) of people are producing tens of thousands of words relating to how approximately 3000 people should vote on an bunch of awards that have almost no effect on anyone but the eight or ten recipients.

Now, some have said that the Hugos are emblematic of the larger “culture wars,” which are, by anyone’s measurement, a much larger subject affecting a great many people, at least in America. Or would be, if the “culture wars” actually existed. Which they don’t, except in the minds of those who think they are can somehow halt the progress of History. Which they can’t. Two hundred years ago, Americans owned slaves. Now they don’t, and they never will (legally) again. One hundred years ago, women in this country couldn’t vote. Now they can, and they will always be able to do so. There were wars (cultural and literal) over these questions, but we have moved past them.* History marches to a progressive beat. You can’t argue with it, and you can’t stop it. You may slow it down, but if you look back now at the people who have tried, in many cases you don’t want to be one of those people.

The question is, who do you want to be? And what do you want to spend your precious few years on Earth arguing about?

*Please do not leave a comment to the effect that the Civil War was not about slavery. I know that. You might as well argue the Hugo voting is rigged, for all that you will accomplish.

Yeah, it’s another Sad Puppies post. Sorry, but writers gotta write.

There is a subtext to the name “Sad Puppies” which the originators of the movement probably did not mean to include, and whose relevance perhaps do not even acknowledge. But it is relevant; they it know deep in their heart of hearts. And that is why sad puppies are, you know, sad.

Because they’ve failed. They are not going to get what they want. Ain’t gonna happen.

What they want, if you take them at their word, is to get under-appreciated authors more notice. In that sense, they didn’t fail, but reallly, they did–because what they really want is to change the make-up of the SF community on their way to changing the world. And that is not going to happen.

Think of it like Ralph Nader in 2000. (Ironic, I know.) Nader wanted to change the political paradigm, introduce a third leg to the two-party system. Trouble is, he tried to change the system from the top. Not only did he fail spectacularly, dumping his party’s chances of someday being a recognized political force into the garbage, but he actually managed to accomplish the opposite of what he wanted, enabling the election of George W. Bush, about as diametrically opposed to Nader as you could imagine. I won’t say that the country wasn’t already polarized, but the GWB presidency certainly made the problem worse.

So it is with the Puppies. Instead of blogging and speaking about how conservative fans and authors were being marginalized, ramping up their arguments as they gained attention, they ran straight to the head of the line and tried to topple the system in one bold move. And, like Nader, they will fail.

I’m not saying their slate might not garner some Hugos; it might. (Although to be truthful, it’s really the Rabid slate that won the nominations; the Sads failed at that too.) I’m saying that the Sad Puppies are not going to change fandom. All they’ve done is polarize an already fractious crowd and galvanize their opponents. The Puppies have not changed any minds. Nor will they. The only change in fandom will be in the number of people who longer speak to each other.

A consummation devoutly to make you howl.

Tilting at Hugos

I often talk about how hard it is to be a writer, sometimes in jest, sometimes in earnest. I do this because, in the end, while it is not so hard to be a writer, it’s hard to be a good writer, and ever so much harder to be a successful writer. Of course, there are as many definitions of “success” as there are people, but let’s just settle for defining “successful” as having made sales to paying markets, or having significant success in self-publishing. Yes, that leaves grey areas that could span galaxies, but bear with me. It’s not relevant to my point anyway. You can also define successful as “award-winning,” and that is relevant. Let’s take a writer who has had sold half a dozen stories to paying markets. He wants to be more successful. He wants to place stories in top-notch magazines. He wants to sell a novel to a Big Publisher. At this point, he’s risen above the crowd. He has the skills. If he perseveres, he will probably sell to the best magazines, and he might at some point sell a novel. But he wants even more than that: He wants respect, from his readers, from his peers. He wants awards. Well, that, as he soon finds, is an entirely different kettle of fish. See, there are literally dozens of fiction markets out there today (again, using SF as our world). These markets demand scores of stories every month, and while there are thousands of writers trying to break into them, he’s already done it several times, which puts him in the 95th percentile, at least. He can honestly hope that a significant percentage of his output will sell. But awards? You can count the major awards on one hand, and they don’t all have a short fiction category, and each of those only has a handful of nominees and one winner per year. You see the problem. And that’s only the external problem. It’s merely a matter of mathematics. There are ways to improve the writer’s odds; some markets produce more award nominees than others, because of circulation, or public perception, or just because the editors are that good. He can target these markets, study them, and if he cracks them, his odds go up. That’s the easy part. There’s also an internal problem. Maybe the writer just isn’t the type who writes award-winning stories. Award winners tend to the avant-garde, or the deeply emotional. Even editors of award-winning magazines do not pick only award-winning stories. Sometimes they like to balance deeply-affecting tragedies with rock ’em sock ’em space operas. Maybe that’s what the writer sells. Nothing wrong with that, but it probably won’t win any awards. (Yes, this year is apparently an anomaly in the Hugo nominations, but such an anomaly won’t help our friend the writer.) Now our writer, descending from his post-sale high to his more typical slightly-depressed “what have I done today?” state, has to confront the truth: He may not be an award-winning writer. He may be good, but never great. (It’s possible he could achieve “great” through sheer sales volume, but honestly, he’s better off hoping to win a Nebula.) What does the writer do? This is not an academic question, this is his career. This is what he has dreamt of all of his life. And now he has to face the fact that, just as not all writers can be successful, not all successful writers can be great. Hold on, you say, no one can predict the future. New writers rise to fame from obscurity all the time. And even if the writer will never win an award, Robert Browning said that, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?” Really? Hope should never obscure reality; shouldn’t even someone who has conquered the gigantic odds against being published at all be able to recognize that his scope is limited? Should the writer use his newfound knowledge as a crutch, or a lever? Will he be happier if he accepts his lot, or will he regret not following Don Quixote to tilt at those Hugos? And how does he decide? #sfwapro

We all know that it’s hard to start a story. (So hard that most people have never even tried it. Which is too bad because a lot of people have something to say that they’re not even aware someone else would like to read.) What most don’t realize, however, that starting a story is really quite simple–finishing it, on the other hand, can be a major pain in the pen.

It’s not just that you have to decide where to end the story, but you have to decide when to end it. In other words, how long is your story going to be? And to know that, you have to know what to put into the story (and more importantly, what to leave out).

All right, now we have “where,” “when,” and “what.” This is starting to sound like a journalism lesson.

But how do you know how long to make your story? This question bedevils the beginning writer, particularly if he wants to write to a specific market. The answer to this is: You’re asking the wrong question. After all, how long is a piece of string? It can be any length, but the best length is the one that makes it sufficient for your needs. And that’s how stories work.

You write a story to make a point. The point may be, “Big business is choking the life out of the middle class,” or it may be, “Lose yourself in a world of fairies and monsters for twenty minutes.” Doesn’t matter. You put in enough facts to make your point, and you get the heck out of Dodge. Maybe you can say what you want to say in 700 words; my first publication was less than 700 words. Maybe your point is bigger; my longest sale was 7600 words. In each case, the story defined its own length.

A 1000-word story in a 4000-word body is bloated, overblown, and dull. A 4000-word story told in 1000 words is be a head-scratching riddle because most of the essential facts are missing. But the writer doesn’t determine which is right; the story does. The best the writer can do is treat each draft as a bonsai tree, requiring careful and precise trimming until the soul of the piece is revealed.

So you shouldn’t sweat how hard it is to write, because as the writer of the story, you’re not all that important. The story dictates its own length, characters are famous for taking over their own narratives… really, writing a story–your story–isn’t all that hard. Get started.

#sfwapro

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