May 1, 2013
Monday, I posted about my copious collection of rejection slips. How did I get out of the rejection grind and start selling stories? I can pinpoint three things. And they’re not about networking, building an author platform (that concept didn’t even exist 15 years ago), changing the way I submitted, having an inside track, or anything. They’re all about craft.
In 1998 I attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop and I give it and its director Jeanne Cavelos a lot of credit for kicking my ass and helping me get my first sales. The two most important things I learned at Odyssey:
This isn’t so much what the story is about. This is about how the story is structured to pull the reader through it. To make sure that there’s something in the story — a question raised, suspense created — that means readers won’t stop once they start. This is also about the “so what” factor. What’s important about this story, why am I writing it, and how can I get that across? Why should the reader care? Turns out, this is one of the things that separates good stories from “meh” stories, and great stories from the merely good. At Odyssey, Jeanne made me analyze some Ray Bradbury stories for plot. It turns out, even stories where nothing much happens can have plot. This was a revelation.
I write shitty first drafts. Turns out, I’d been submitting shitty first drafts for ten years. Now, I know there are some vocal proponents out there of the “don’t rewrite” philosophy. People who feel that revising kills stories, or who cling to that step in Heinlein’s Rules — “You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.” Well, you have to actually catch an editor’s attention before you’ll ever get an editorial order, and you’re not going to do that with a shitty first draft. Odyssey prompted me to revise stories for the first time — really revise, take them apart, rewrite them from scratch. My last week at the workshop, Jeanne said these magic words: “Your revisions are so much better.” And they are.
For me, learning to revise involved looking at my stories from the reader’s point of view, and realizing that what I had on the page, or what I thought I had on the page, was not what my readers were getting. I wasn’t making myself clear. I wasn’t getting across the story in the best way possible. The first draft is the brain dump, getting down the ideas and scenes and structure and heart. The second draft is making sure it all makes sense to the reader. The good news is, over time I’ve internalized a lot of revision techniques. I no longer have to cut the first five pages of every story because I’ve learned to just start writing later instead of messing around with unnecessary early stuff. Experience has taught me how to get a lot of this right on the first draft. But I still ask a lot of questions of my writing and I still work hard at looking at it fresh, as a new reader.
Most editors have a choice — publish the story that’s already great, rather than try to work with a story that’s only kinda good but has potential. In close to 70 short story sales, I can count on my hands the number of times I’ve gotten “editorial orders.” Might as well make that story great before sending it out, yeah?
I made my first pro sale less than a year after attending Odyssey. But I wasn’t finished learning. Here’s the big one, I think. The one that took years to learn. The one I have no idea how to explain.
Voice is confidence. It’s personality. Voice convinces the reader you know what the hell you’re talking about. Voice makes it real. Perfectly clear, yeah?
Voice is also a matter of taste. To me, writers like Toni Morrison and Peter Beagle just sing. But I know they don’t do that for everyone. You are never going to appeal to absolutely everyone with your writing. You will drive yourself mad trying. This is why we talk about finding your voice. Because that’s what you have that no other writer has, and you’re not going to make anyone happy, least of all yourself, if you’re writing to fill some external mold.
Kitty taught me a lot about voice. That character is so well defined, so chatty, so vivid — I have to be confident when I’m writing her. I have to be absolutely sure what’s going on with her, all the time, and then get that across. In the course of writing about her, I’ve been able to bring that confidence to a lot of my other stories. It’s kind of like jumping into the deep end and just knowing I can swim.
My stories don’t all have the same specific “voice,” I think. My World War II stories necessarily sound different from my stories set in the Renaissance, or the contemporary urban fantasy stories. But I also think they’re all identifiably mine. There’s a quality to the language and characters that comes out of experience, practice, my own philosophies, and over time has turned into a spine that goes through all my writing.
“Voice” was never something I worked on or practiced. It happened over time. I’m still learning, still getting better, and recently my writing seems to have taken another major step forward — some of the best short stories I’ve ever written I’ve done in the last couple of years (and this is after getting the Hugo nomination). (Seriously — I’ve got some great stuff coming up, I can’t wait to show you all.) I was thinking about why that’s happened, and I think a lot of it has to do with voice. Having something to say, and being able to nail that down in a story with confidence. And really, that’s only come after twenty years of working hard, and working hard at getting better.
I’m trying to put together a workshop/lecture about voice. But I also wonder if it’s one of those things that has to come with time and experience. However it happens, I think it’s important, because it separates the stories you remember and the authors you go back to over and over again, from the ones you don’t.
April 29, 2013
I’ve talked about doing this, so here it finally is. My folder of rejection slips:
(With handy dinosaur ruler for scale. That’s over three inches of paper there.)
These aren’t all the rejections I’ve gotten. This doesn’t include all the e-mail rejections, which are quite legion. Or any of the rejections I got before 1995, which are hidden away in some folder I haven’t rediscovered yet. (I started sending stories out in about 1989). The most recent rejection in this pile? Spring 2012. Yup, I still get rejections. People sometimes ask me how many rejections I’ve gotten, and I’ve never counted. I have no intention of counting them now. Just estimating, based on how frequently I was sending stuff out during my busiest submission period (roughly 1995-2006), I have upward of 600. I know this stack is taller than a ream of paper, which is 500 pages. But you know what, I never paid attention to how many there were. I put them in the folder and never looked at them again. Out of sight, out of mind, move on to the next submission.
I imagine some people are asking, how did I keep going? How could I possibly keep going, after all that rejection? The answer: my writing got better. I could see it getting better. Every story was better than the one before. If the earlier one got rejected, maybe the new one wouldn’t be. Well then — Why didn’t I wait to send my stuff out until I was “good enough?” Answer: I didn’t know what good enough was. I thought I was good enough with the very first story I sent out. I realized very quickly that I wasn’t. Repeat for ten years and several dozen stories. Obviously, I was not the person to be judging if I was good enough. So I sent stuff out and let the editors decide.
I made my first pro sale in 1999, ten years after making my first submission. Now, in 2013, I’m approaching 70 short story sales, plus 15 novels published. Was all that rejection worth it? Yeah, it totally was.
(Update: It just occurred to me to let people know that the story that collected rejections in 2012 was “Astrophilia,” which went on to be published in Clarkesworld and will appear in two “Year’s Best” anthologies this year.)
April 26, 2013
This Sunday at 3 pm I’m signing books at the Broadway Book Mall. (Updated to add: if you want signed books but can’t make it to any of the signings, Ron and Nina at the Broadway Book Mall can hook you up, if you want to place an order with them.)
A new event: August 13, I’m taking part in the SFWA Northwest Reading Series in Seattle. This is right after the release of the next book. Maybe I’ll see you there!
Some book release news:
That right there is the July 2013 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, and that’s my name on the cover! This has my novelette “The Art of Homecoming,” which is the story I wrote while listening to Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports on endless loop. Make of that what you will.
“Astrophilia” is being reprinted in Heiresses of Russ 2013: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction. The ARC is pictured. I think the book is due out in August.
I was interviewed for How Geek Girls Will Rule the World, by Jennifer Thorpe-Moscon.
Here’s some more information on Unfettered, edited by Shawn Speakman, which I think is going to be one of the most anticipated anthologies of the year. My story “Game of Chance” will appear here. Estimated release date: June.
After almost two months of weekly freezing snows, my bulbs pretty much all gave up, so no flowers this year. Except for this daffodil, which is trying so hard! Go, go, little daffodil! You can do it!
April 24, 2013
A friend of mine recently dug up some old Dr. Pepper commercials from the 80′s, and they’re glorious. They take place in horrid post-apocalyptic futures where a cowboy Mad Max hero travels around dispensing the glory of Dr. Pepper. The “Cola Wars” are depicted as having actually destroyed the planet, and all the tropes of the 1980′s post apocalyptic roadtrip movie are there. Via YouTube, here’s “1984,” and here’s “After the Cola Wars.”
This got me thinking, and not just the curmudgeonly, “Wow, they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” (A commercial with references to Metropolis? Inconceivable!) Right now, the post-apocalyptic future seems to be experiencing another round of popularity, in fiction and in movies. But it’s quite different from that classic 1980′s blasted dystopian landscape. Look at Wall-E, the frame story in Cloud Atlas, and two of this summer’s films: Oblivion and After Earth. All these depict an abandoned Earth that can only be visited by shining, polished people in glowing white skinsuits, who use supersleek technology and now live off-world. A sterile, utopian future returning to an ugly past. (The backstory to these always seems to tell us that Earth has been destroyed, that a shattered climate required people to move offworld. But with the exception of Wall-E, the Earths depicted actually seem quite lush and overflowing with life. Just not civilization.)
What I can’t decide is if this is a more positive or more pessimistic view of humanity than the 1980′s post-apocalypse. Is it a gesture of optimism to believe that we will develop the capability to move off the planet someday? Or a gesture of pessimism that we are obviously destined to frak things up so badly that not even Mad Max will be able to survive here?
See, the 1980′s post-apocalyptic movies are about survival. No matter what, something will survive, and there will still be heroes. In the current batch of future-apocalypse movies — all we can do is run away.
I think this may be a function of the types of apocalypses serving as the backdrop for the story. The 1980′s apocalypse is almost always nuclear. It’s a one-and-done blasting of the Earth as we know it, with no time to prepare and no second chance. The current round of apocalypses are environmental — a slow decay, creeping climate change. Lots of time to prepare. And apparently, according to these stories, it’s easier to found a space-based human civilization than it is to fix the problems we’ve seen coming for years. I guess that’s what I find so depressing about it. I want to shout at these characters, “You live in space, and you can’t come up with the technology to fix things?“ But Earth isn’t home anymore — it’s the antagonist.
It feels like an abrogation of responsibility. The environmental apocalypse may be decades slower than nuclear war, we may see it coming — but apparently, it’s just as inexorable and catastrophic. It’s also an example of the kind of conservative, narrow-minded thinking that people are always surprised to find in science fiction, which has a reputation of being so forward and future-minded, but which often serves to show us the worst of all possible outcomes, and the worst of all possible human behaviors.
April 22, 2013
I’m back from Starfest! Thanks again to the folks at Horrorfest for inviting me, and to Ron and Nina for selling books, and for everyone who came out to visit. A lot going on, a lot on my mind. Some of the highlights:
Horrorfest ran a “Face Off” style makeup competition — four competitors, one theme, 2 hours, go! This is their second year doing it, and it’s hugely successful. My favorite thing about it is the constant messaging from the hosts: you can do this, anyone can learn to to this, this is accessible. Yay, art!
I got to see Ben Browder’s Q&A. I hardly ever get to go to these because I’m either cross scheduled, or the event room gets too crowded. He was excellent, personable and engaging, and a true geek. He told stories of his very young children coming to the set of Farscape and “talking” with Rigel. He also said that this con is the closest he’s ever seen to DragonCon, at a smaller scale. I’ve only been to DragonCon once, but I concur.
The ratio of people in costumes to not just keeps going up. At one point on Saturday, I think half the people I saw were in some kind of costume. I love this.
I haven’t really heard anything that’s inspiring me to run out and see Oblivion, alas.
I signed lots of books and talked to lots of folks about books. Met both new fans and old. Hooray!
I was gifted a magnificent KNOB DJ setup, including vintage microphone and “London Calling” on vinyl, by the talented and generous Zoo. Pictures later when I’ve gotten myself better sorted than I am now. (Still catching up on sleep and work stuff.)
And now, onward!
April 19, 2013
This weekend is Starfest in Denver. After taking a break last year, I’m back, at least for Saturday and Sunday. Hey look, I just found the schedule! This means I can figure out if I’ll have the opportunity to see Ben Browder. Because Ben Browder is also going to be there! Squee!
What I’ll be doing at the con: as usual, I’m one of the guests at HorrorFest, the celebration of all things horrifying tucked away in the back corner of the Marriott. It’s a great crew and a great party. I’ll be on a couple of panels and I have a couple of signings scheduled. Who Else Books will have my books for sale. Other than that, I’ll be in the dealer’s room, shopping; or in the bar, drinking. After an emotionally intense and news-laden week, this seems like a really good weekend to be escaping into another world, doesn’t it?
April 17, 2013
It’s been kind of a rough few days, watching too much of the news and feeling wobbly and heartsick over it. Monday is my regular dinner and Castle watching party, and I was intensely grateful for the company, good food (fettuccini quattro formaggi, with homemade fettucini), and lots of wine. Lots of wine. And a foot of snow. A good few days to stay in and get some work done.
Last night, I caught Defiance, SyFy’s latest highly anticipated original series. The short version: 1 part Star Trek, 1 part Mad Max, and 1 part Firefly, right down to the scruffy rogue who was a veteran in the war but would rather not talk about it. I loved a couple of things about it: the setup; the worldbuilding, which has a pretty hardcore SF feel and I don’t get that very often from TV SF; and the characters of Amanda and Kenya, two very different community leaders and sisters who love each other. More of them, please, but only if it doesn’t turn into a ridiculous love triangle with the scruffy rogue, which I’m deeply afraid the show is setting up. Ugh. Also, appearances by Captain Power alums Peter MacNeil and Graham Greene. I always love seeing them.
Unfortunately, a lot of the show frustrated me. They spent all this time and energy on the world and background, then threw the most familiar, predictable story on top of it. They’re going to have to come up with some better stories and characters, far less cliche ridden than what they gave us. Every trope in the thing, front to back, was exhaustingly predictable. (Kind elderly sheriff gets killed? Check. The Rogue with a Heart of Gold gets offered the badge at the end? Check. ”I ain’t in it for you, sweetheart, and I ain’t in it for your rebellion…” Check. The Battle of Helms Deep? Check.) Deftly using classic tropes is one thing. But this show never gets past the top drawer. Very tiresome.
I could wish for the aliens to be a bit more alien. So, the goth alien nightclub? (Yes, there’s an alien race I’m just going to call the Goth aliens.) I think the dancing was supposed to be alien-looking, but I’ve actually seen people at goth clubs dancing like that. So that was hilarious to me. Also, there is apparently a race of Steampunk aliens — no lie, one of them was wearing a top hat with goggles on it. All I can think is, Holy crap guys, really? You couldn’t come up with something better than that? Because aliens arrived and immediately thought, “Hey steampunk, that’s cool!” I mean, I can’t blame them. But really? That’s not thoughtful SF, that’s designing your show based on what the Wall Street Journal says is the next big thing.
So yeah. I’m not sold yet. I’ll give it a couple more chances, but it’s going to have to work superhard to win me over.
(By contrast, I recently re-watched the rebooted Battlestar Galactica miniseries. It’s absolutely riveting. The two opening scenes — the first on the meeting station, with the lone official waiting for…something, and the second that has the long cut of Starbuck jogging on the decks while a million things are going on around her — are so brilliant, so original, so good and delivering information while staying interesting, introducing every character, so full of life…yeah, that’s what I want. That’s the bar these shows have to clear. No wonder so few of them do.)
I’ve only seen one episode of the new season of Doctor Who. ”The people, they’re trapped in the WiFi!” Is that supposed to be a metaphor?