Creepy books and lumberjacks

It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned any of my own publications, but I’m delighted to have stories appearing in two wonderful magazines this month.

First, “The Book in Dutch” is at Three-Lobed Burning Eye. It’s a creepy story about a strange book that may have more influence over the life of a book collector than he realizes.

Besides enjoying the chance to write a little bit light horror, this one allowed me to name-drop a number of odd little (and big) books from throughout history. One of my favorites that gets mentioned in passing is Thomas De Quincey’s sarcastic and ghoulishly funny “On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts”. It’s really an essay rather than a book, but it’s appropriate reading for Halloween.

Second, “Fearsome Critters and Friendly Giants” is now at The Red Penny Papers. As you might guess from the title, this is a lumberjack tale. It combines actual lumberjack lore (like the axehandle hound and the terrible hidebehind) with some more modern bits of dressing.

Take Paul Bunyan, who is a secondary character in the story. In all likelihood, actual lumberjacks of the 1880s wouldn’t have recognized the Paul Bunyan we know today. In fact, there’s a good chance they may never have even heard of him. It wasn’t until 1910 that advertising campaigns and magazine stories — not campfire stories in the North Woods — made the character popular.

To be honest, I’ve jumbled up historical facts, legitimate lore, and pure stereotypes so badly in this one that I’d hesitate to let it be published if there were still any actual 1880s lumberjacks alive to take offense at it. One day I hope to write a more accurate lumberjack tale with no Paul Bunyan at all to make up for it.


Introducing the Never Novels

Next month is National Novel Writing Month, which is an event that I’ve always felt a little estranged from. I’m a writer — at least, I think I am — but there are no likely novels on my horizon and no serious attempts in my past. I’m not sure that I’d even recognize a novel-length idea if ever one popped into my head.

So, November is no different from any other month for me. While others are giddily throwing up tottering piles of words and hoping they don’t collapse, I’ll be filing a few hundred words off another short story, trying to get Dick and Jane from conflict to resolution in 4,000 words or less.

But don’t cry for me, NaNoWriMos! Even if I’m never able to join your ranks, I can still shoot for membership in a club that’s just as distinguished. It’s called “the Never Novels”, and I’ve put together brief (of course!) profiles of a few of the founding members. There are others who belong, of course, so if you know any members I’ve forgotten please feel free to add them in the comments!


M.R. JAMES — Considered a master of the English ghost story, M.R. James (no relation to Henry or William, so far as I know) is the quintessential Never Novel. For James, fiction was always a sideline. He was a medieval scholar and antiquarian, eventually becoming director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. He also served as provost of King’s College, Cambridge and Eton College.

In “Stories I Have Tried to Write”, James confesses that he never even attempted to write any stories besides ghost stories. His definition of “ghost stories” is a little broad — everything he wrote was meant to be spooky, but ghosts aren’t always involved — but the point is clear. All together, he produced just 31 stories over the course of twenty-four years. His life’s output of fiction fits neatly into a single pocket paperback, but the influence of his stories is undeniable all the same.

PAUL CAIN — American pulp writer Paul Cain (pseudonym of George Carol Sims) has one novel to his name — sort of. In 1933, he published a book called Fast One, now considered a noir classic. But the book was in actuality a repackaging of five short stories featuring the same character, all originally printed in Black Mask in 1932. (Hemingway was doing something similar with his Harry Morgan stories around the same time, but the resultant novel, To Have and Have Not, wouldn’t be published until 1937.)

Cain was hardly the first writer to cobble a “novel” together out of previously published shorts. Decades earlier, a host of proto-pulp and crime writers like Arthur Conan Doyle, Sax Rohmer, Arthur B. Reeves, Maurice Leblanc, and E.W. Hornung had done the same thing. (Those writers all also wrote more traditional novels which disqualify them from membership here.) Cain’s novel hangs together better than most others do, but it was still conceived as a series of short pieces. In all, Cain wrote 17 short stories and several screenplays, but no real novels.

KATHERINE MANSFIELD — Like some other writers on this list, Katherine Mansfield died young, succumbing to tuberculosis at 35. If she had lived longer, it’s possible she would have eventually turned her pen to novels. But there are countless novelists who at least attempted long work in their twenties or younger. Mansfield, though she left behind a great corpus of shorter work, apparently did not.

A New Zealand writer who had a tempestuous personal life, Mansfield also wrote poems and literary criticism (including a spirited damnation of the stream of consciousness novels gaining popularity at the time), but her stories are what are remembered today. Few writers of English-language fiction manage to earn a lasting reputation without at least one novel in their pockets, but Mansfield pulled it off.

AMBROSE BIERCE — Newspaperman Ambrose Bierce wrote some of his short fiction to fill odd inches leftover in his columns. His stories (many of which are what we might call “flash fiction” today) fall into two broad categories — Civil War stories colored by his own first-hand recollections and tales of the supernatural. Comparing the two, the Civil War tales are often more horrifying.

Bierce also wrote a couple of novellas, but he’s remembered for his best short stories (including “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “The Damned Thing”, both of which are constantly anthologized) and his satirical reference The Devil’s Dictionary. His Collected Works were published in 1909, bringing together his stories, nonfiction, and satire into several volumes. Four years later, Bierce famously disappeared at age 71 while touring Civil War battlefields he had fought at, without ever having written a novel.

WASHINGTON IRVING — The earliest writer on this list, Washington Irving first rose to prominence with The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20). The book was a success both in America and Great Britain, where he was living at the time. This is perhaps a little remarkable, as the acrimonious War of 1812 had only just ended a few years earlier. But Irving had spent a great deal of time in Europe and often wrote flatteringly of life and culture in Britain.

The Sketch-Book is a collection of essays, reflections, bits of folklore, short stories, and other miscellany covering a wide range of styles and topics. Its best known pieces are still familiar to almost every reader — “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. Irving went on to write a couple more books of miscellany, as well as numerous (sometimes tongue-in-cheek) biographies and histories. But though Irving authored eighteen books in all, not one of them was a novel.


EDGAR ALLAN POE — Poe’s literary reputation is rightly built on his short stories and poems. However, he did write one complete novel called The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). A well-researched tale of an ill-fated Antarctic expedition, parts of it were first published pseudonymously in the Southern Literary Messenger. It’s an open question as to whether Poe actually ever finished the novel — the story ends abruptly and unsatisfactorily, with no clear explanations given for its weird happenings. Some see this as Poe’s intent, while others think he simply got bored. (A second novel, The Journal of Julius Rodman, was unambiguously discontinued in 1840 after a dispute with the publisher who was serializing it.)

Poe attempted his two novels because he hoped they would pay better than his short works — a motive that probably drives a few NaNoWriMo participants today as well. Poe later called Arthur Gordon Pym “a very silly book”, and it’s not remembered or read much today, especially compared to his best known short stories and poems (of which there are many). Wikipedia charitably describes it as “one of Poe’s least accessible works”, but it was influential enough in its time to directly inspire such writers as Herman Melville, Jules Verne, and H.P. Lovecraft.

MAX BEERBOHM — Humorist Max Beerbohm is perhaps the only writer who is remembered as much for his caricatures and doodles as for his words. Though he was prolific in writing short stories, essays, and parodies, he produced only one novel in his life — Zuleika Dobson, or An Oxford Love Story (1911).

While Poe’s novel is forgettable and probably has little bearing on his reputation today, Zuleika Dobson is on the other hand revered as a comedic classic and a send-up of early twentieth century dandyism. The Modern Library even voted it one of the 100 best English-language novels of the last century. After publishing Zuleika Dobson, Beerbohm lived and wrote for another forty-five years, but apparently decided to quit with novels while he was ahead.

RAY BRADBURY — The lately departed Ray Bradbury wrote a great many novels, of course. Some of them — like Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes — were composed in the ordinary fashion, as single long works. (Though it’s worth noting that the ideas for both of those books first came to Bradbury in short story form, and were only later expanded into novels.)

But Bradbury also had a knack for combining previously published short stories into longer cohesive works. He even referred to The Martian Chronicles (1950) as “a book of short stories pretending to be a novel”. Bradbury admitted a creative debt to the similarly-constructed Winesburg, Ohio (1919) by Sherwood Anderson, but Anderson never attained the mastery over the form that Bradbury ultimately would.

At least three other novels by Bradbury followed almost the same pattern — Dandelion Wine (1957), Green Shadows, White Whale (1992), and From the Dust Returned (2001). If you’re willing to stretch the point, even The Illustrated Man (1951) can arguably be made to fit. Bradbury wrote enough long works that it would be disingenuous to call him a true member of the Never Novels — but his penchant for building novels out of short stories gives hope even to me that someday I might have a shot at it too.


Women writers in World War I

Recently, I finished reading Tereska Torres’s Women’s Barracks. The book is a 1950 novel based loosely on the years she spent serving in the Free French Forces in London during World War II.

Torres wrote the book partly at the urging of her husband, Meyer Levin, who thought that the anecdotes of barracks life would find a natural audience among American pulp readers. Levin was right — after he translated the novel from French to English and made some changes suggested by the American publisher, it went on to sell 4 million copies.

Much of the book’s success is likely attributable to its more risque elements, as the novel deals frankly and repeatedly with the subject of affairs among the women in the barracks. This made it one of the first lesbian-themed novels from the postwar pulp publishers, and helped kick off a new (and popular) subgenre. When the book is discussed today, it’s usually in this context — as a pioneering work of gay fiction (even though many of the changes that Levin made to the manuscript at the insistence of the publisher involved the injection of traditional moralizing into the novel).

But there’s another side to the novel that I found totally intriguing, and that’s the treatment of war by a woman novelist who herself served in the ranks of the military. Torres wasn’t on the front lines during the years that the novel covers (though she did, like countless other Londoners, live through the Blitz and later bombing campaigns), but she was an enlisted member of Charles de Gaulle’s volunteer corps that worked and fought to liberate France alongside the other Allies.

In that way, Women’s Barracks struck me as both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. War is one of the great and common subjects of 20th century novels, and the list of books written by one-time servicemen that deal directly with World War I (to take just one war as a starting point) is almost endless: Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Ford’s The Good Soldier, Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers and Nineteen Nineteen, e.e. cummings’s The Enormous Room, Jünger’s Storm of Steel, Graves’s Good-Bye to All That, Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, and so on and so on.

For those who want to understand the experiences of male servicemen, the material is almost inexhaustible. But it’s not so easy to find novels and memoirs written by women who served. This is where Women’s Barracks became pleasantly unfamiliar — enough so that it set me in search of more books along the same line.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll be sticking with World War I. Though Women’s Barracks is set during World War II, I’m less familiar with the writers and books of that time. I certainly don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of writers of the “teens” either, but at least I feel on stronger footing.

So what I was looking for was this: Women writers who had served in some active capacity during World War I, and who later wrote about those experiences. I’ve taken a pretty liberal interpretation of “service” — some women were enlisted in the military, but many others served actively in civilian roles as nurses, journalists, secretaries, drivers, propagandists, and so on. Some belonged to volunteer organizations like the Red Cross, others worked for newspapers or government ministries, and others acted more independently.

Because of this broad definition and because of the paucity of easily available biographical information on some writers from this period in their lives, there are very few women writers that I can rule out as having not served at all. However, the list that follows includes those that I feel I can include with some certainty.

Women who served in World War I and later wrote about their experiences:

— Mary Roberts Rinehart. Called the “Agatha Christie of America” (despite beginning her writing career more than a decade before Christie did), Rinehart was a war correspondent in Belgium during the war — one of the few women to have such an assignment. She wrote many novels in her life, most of them mysteries, but at least one, The Amazing Interlude (1918) deals directly with the war.

— May Sinclair. Best remembered today for inventing the phrase “stream of consciousness”, Sinclair was a writer and critic who volunteered with the Munro Ambulance Corps in Belgium. Sinclair only remained at the front for a few weeks, but she wrote about similar fictional ambulance corps in several of her later novels, including Tasker Jevons: The Real Story (1916), The Tree of Heaven (1917), The Romantic (1920) and Anne Severn and the Fieldings (1922).

— Edith Wharton. The American Wharton was living in France at the time of the war. She visited the front lines and did volunteer work to bring relief to displaced refugees fleeing the worst of the fighting. She documented some of her experiences and observations in France, from Dunkerque to Belfort (1915).

— Cicely Hamilton. A playwright (among many other things), Hamilton served in several capacities during the war. She was a nurse in England, then enlisted as an army auxiliary, then head of a troupe that entertained the soldiers. She wrote William – An Englishman (1920), about the effects of World War I on a married couple.

— Colette. A prolific French writer of many short stories and novels about women, Colette operated a hospital out of her husband’s estate at Saint-Malo. She was decorated by the French government for her wartime service. Her novel Mitsou (1919) concerns a woman hiding two lieutenants during the war.

— Gertrude Stein. An American by birth, Stein lived in France for years before the war. She moved to England with her partner Alice B. Toklas in 1914, and then spent the war in England, Spain, and finally France. In France, Stein and Toklas both volunteered as drivers with the American Fund for the French Wounded. Stein included those experiences in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933).

There are a few other women writers who served in World War I, but who may not have ever written about the war. I haven’t extensively reviewed the work of all these women, but my researches so far have not turned up any writings directly related to their war experiences. However, they might exist!

— Jean Rhys. Best known today for her last novel, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Rhys had an early career as a writer in 1920s and 1930s. Before that, she was an actress. During World War I, she was a volunteer worker in a soldier’s canteen. None of her five novels deal with war.

— Agatha Christie. The creator of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Christie joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment and served as a doctor’s aide at a hospital in southwest England. Although her first two novels, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) and The Secret Adversary (1922), both allude to World War I, I’m not aware of any of Christie’s books where the war is more than a background element.

— D.K. Broster. A British novelist and short story writer, Broster shipped out with the Red Cross to serve in a French hospital in 1915 but returned home with a knee infection in 1916. I’m not familiar enough with her writing to know if she ever wrote about the war (though I do know she is remembered for ghost stories and historical fiction).

Several other women writers addressed the war directly in their books, but did not necessarily serve in an active capacity. As alluded to above, I can’t say that these women didn’t serve at all — they may have, and their service may not have been mentioned in the few sources I consulted.

— Rebecca West. West’s first novel was The Return of the Soldier (1918), a “home front” tale of an amnesiac, shell-shocked soldier returning from war, and the women who attempt to shape his future life in England.

— Katherine Anne Porter. An American, Porter spent many of the war years in sanatoriums being treated for tuberculosis. Her novella “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” (1939) is a “home front” tale of the influenza epidemic of 1918 — during which Porter herself almost died.

— L.M. Montgomery. The Canadian writer of the Anne of Green Gables series, Montgomery finished that series with the novel Rilla of Ingleside (1921). The novel sees several characters fighting World War I while the title character (and others) stay behind in wartime Canada.

— Radclyffe Hall. Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) bears some resemblance to Women’s Barracks, as it is about both war and lesbianism. The protagonist, a woman named Stephen, is an ambulance driver in France. Though Hall did not serve in that role herself, she consulted with her friend Toupie Lowther who was commander of similar a woman’s ambulance unit.

— Mildred Aldrich. A friend of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Aldrich was an American journalist who remained in France at the beginning of World War I. She published her own letters of war observations in four collections: A Hilltop on the Marne (1915), On the Edge of the War Zone (1917), The Peak of the Load (1918), and When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1919).

These lists are not meant to be exhaustive or authoritative. In fact, they’re downright haphazard, if you ask me, and I’m sure I’ll think of some important or popular woman writer who I forgot to research as soon as I hit the “post” button on this. But I’ve already got enough new reading material out of this to last me a long while, so I hope others will pick up the baton instead.

One glaring deficiency of this list is that the books listed here come almost exclusively from American and British women, and all except those by Colette were originally published in English. This despite the fact that World War I had global effects. Isak Dinesen, for instance, writes about some of the war’s reverberations as they are felt in Nairobi in Out of Africa (1937) — though the war is a background element there, at best. And no doubt there are many fascinating accounts by women who lived much closer to the front lines — in France, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Russia, Serbia, and so on — which I’m simply not aware of.

I’m always pleased when I read a book like Women’s Barracks which makes me wonder about a subgenre of literature that I hadn’t really considered before. I’m sure if I extended my research to World War II, I’d find much more fascinating material. But one benefit of confining my inquiries to World War I is that many of the books mentioned above are in the public domain in the United States.

American readers should have no difficulty finding free etexts of many of the works by Mary Roberts Rinehart, May Sinclair, Edith Wharton, Agatha Christie, Rebecca West, L.M. Montgomery, and Mildred Aldrich. (Hint: Check Project Gutenberg.) The same is no doubt true for readers in other countries, but alas I’m not aware of all the ins and outs of copyright law elsewhere in the world. Consult your local laws.

As to the book that started this all, there’s a very nice edition of Tereska Torres’s Women’s Barracks from Feminist Press at the City University of New York. It’s part of their Femme Fatales “women write pulp” series, which I’ve become very excited about. The series includes new editions of books by women in several pulp genres, including some with titles you may recognize from well-known noir movies like In a Lonely Place, Bunny Lake Is Missing, and Laura.

In addition to the original American text of Women’s Barracks, the Feminist Press edition includes an illuminating interview with Tereska Torres and a long afterword that places the book in the context of other lesbian literature (particularly “pulp”). Unfortunately, the afterword doesn’t have much to say about the book’s place in war literature by women. This post can’t fill the need for a scholarly discussion of that topic, but I hope it’s at least an imperfect starting point for those who are interested.

If anybody has any additional information related to this topic, please feel free to comment or send me a note. I’d love to hear about it!


A year in review

I started submitting stories for publication in science-fiction magazines way back in 1997. Long ago as that was, I still remember how opaque the process seemed and how little information on my progress seeped back to me. It was hard to even find information about what my expectations should be.

Things are better now in a lot of ways. More publications and more writers are online, and it’s easier to take a temperature of what’s “normal” and “expected”. But that’s only because writers, editors, and publishers have taken it upon themselves to share information. In that spirit, I’d like to share some information on my own activities over the past year (defined as September 2011 through August 2012).

At the beginning of the period in question, I had 15 stories that I thought were worth shopping around to publishers. Over the course of the year, I wrote 43 more.

Eventually, I sold 18 stories and retired 10 that I no longer felt were up to my standards. There were months when I wrote no stories at all, and several months when I wrote five or six. My goal was to write at least two per month, or 24 in total for the year.

For the year, I made about 170 submissions. These were sent to about 50 different markets — mostly science-fiction and fantasy magazines, but not entirely. Many markets received only one submission from me. One or two received as many as 10 submissions from me.

I don’t know how many stories I’ve had on submission on average. For most of the year, I would estimate that I had at least 15 stories on submission at any given time. My goal was to have at least one story on submission at all times.

Selling 18 stories out of 170 submissions puts my acceptance rate for the year around 10%, which I consider very good. These 18 stories were sold to 15 different markets, which means I failed to sell anything to about 35 markets that I submitted to. Two markets bought more than one story from me.

Of those 18 sales, seven were to “professional” markets as defined by SFWA. Some months I sold no stories at all, and one month I sold four. My goal had been to sell one story per month, or 12 for the year.

The 17 sales I made throughout the year were worth just shy of $2,000. About half of that had been paid by the end of the year, and the other half was still due because the stories had not been published yet.

The lowest amount I sold a story for was $5. The highest amount was $425. Only six sales were for more than $100, but they accounted for about 75% of the total. Only three sales were for more than $200, but they accounted for over 55% of the total. In other words, I sold a lot of stories for very little — either because they were short or the market didn’t pay much, or both.

My goal had been to make $2,000 in sales. This was clearly a high goal, given the mix of markets and story lengths I ended up selling. Even though I sold 50% more stories than I had targeted, I still barely reached this goal.

I’m very pleased with what I managed to do this year, and I don’t necessarily expect this to be a “normal” year for me. As such, I’m not planning on revising my goals upward. If I write 24 stories in the coming year and sell 12 for $2,000, I’ll still be very pleased.

Obviously this means I won’t be able to quit my day job any time soon (or, most likely, ever). Since I write only short fiction, that’s to be expected. By necessity, writing will probably always be a hobby for me.


Machine of Death breaking news!

Publisher’s Weekly has scooped everybody with this piece of breaking news about the second volume of Machine of Death:

They spelled my name wrong, but I hear that’s how you know you’ve made it. In case you’re a busy businessperson and you just want the high points, here are the most important facts from the piece:

  • The book will be launched July 2013 at San Diego Comic-con
  • It will be published by Grand Central Publishing, an imprint of Hatchette Book Group
  • The book is going to be so amazing!!!


Okay, the article doesn’t actually state that last point, but I’m sure that’s only because of journalistic objectivity. In any event, we’ll have more to say about this on over the next few weeks. Stay tuned!


All the best, Mr Bradbury

Everybody else is saying better and more thoughtful things in memory of Ray Bradbury than I ever could. But Bradbury was the first writer I obsessed over, the first I tried to imitate, the first I renounced (oh, the follies of youth!), and the first I reconciled with.

If his work failed to move me during certain periods of my life, it was my fault. A little distance from childhood idols isn’t a terrible thing during the formative years of young adulthood, but I’m glad that phase is over. I remember being inspired by Bradbury as a youngster, and I like that I can be inspired by him again today.

My twelve year old self would probably be disappointed that I never learned to write like Bradbury. But I learned to write like me while still appreciating the inimitable style that alternately enraptured and enraged me throughout my reading life. And the unapologetic passion that Ray Bradbury had for his own literary loves shaped my tastes and gave me an easier entry into the wider world of Dickens, Melville, Shakespeare, Poe, Swift, and all the others.

That last was probably the best gift of all. Writers should be the ones to love books most of all, but strangely that’s not always obvious. With Ray Bradbury, it always was — and his love remains a great example for a young (or old!) reader.

So, thanks, Mr Bradbury. All the best to you.


One sentence stories: A dictatorial fiat

I’ve decided not to wait for some kind of popular vote method of determining which of the one sentence stories should get the $50 prize that I offered. Instead, I am going to award it by dictatorial fiat to Carrie Cuinn for her lovely (and long!) tale “Inevitable”. (Click the link to read it if you haven’t yet.)

As Jake Kerr mentioned on Twitter, Carrie’s story is not only well-written and affecting, but the one-sentence structure feels like an organic part of the narrator’s emotional state. All the one-sentence stories I’ve seen so far are amazing — but this one is some kind of ideal. So kudos to Carrie!

You can read all the one-sentence stories here. I believe there are 17 so far, written by 14 different writers. (Ken Liu and Damien Walters Grintalis also participated, but being the sensible writers they are, they chose not to share their stories publicly.)

An even better announcement!
Moving on to another announcement I’m even more excited about… Several folks who participated in the challenge (primarily Alex Shvartsman and Anatoly Belilovsky) have convinced me to publish an anthology of one-sentence stories.

This will be a simple affair — nothing fancy. But I’m hoping to sign up everybody who participated in the original challenge. (Whether they want to contribute the story they’ve already written or a new one is up to them.) I’ll be paying a small amount for the stories — only $10 each, but it’s something at least.

The book will be published as a free PDF, so this isn’t about making money. It’s about making a more lasting artifact to commemorate some of the joyful ephemera that bubbles up from Twitter from time to time. Graphic designer and artist Katie Sekelsky (who is also my fiancee) was excited enough about the idea to agree to design the book at a reduced rate. (You can see another book she designed here.)

Because of other commitments, I don’t expect the book to be published until the end of the year, which means the writers will have until September or so to revise or write a story.

No one except Carrie and Alex have officially signed up to be a part of this yet, but I’m hopeful that others will join up too. Once the original #1ss alumni have had a chance to join in, I will probably open for a few additional submissions as well. (I don’t have an unlimited budget, but I can probably afford 20 – 25 stories.) If I do, it’ll probably happen much the same way the original challenge did — on Twitter and without warning.

If you wrote a one sentence story that’s listed in this post, I’ll be reaching out to you in the next week or so to find out if you’re interested. (You can also drop me a line to say YES PLEASE or NO THANKS if you don’t want to wait.) If you wrote a one sentence story that’s NOT in that list, please let me know!


Why do we publish?

Over at Inpunks a few weeks ago, Erika Holt asked the question “Why do we write?” She comes up with the same fundamental answer that I would give — because it’s fun.

There’s another reason to write, of course, and that’s to make money. But implicit in almost any discussion of writing is the notion is that many of us who call ourselves writers don’t really have to be doing this. In fact, many of us who call ourselves writers will probably never make much money at this. Most of us will always have “day jobs”. We’re in it for something else — we’re in it, presumably, for fun.

So yes, writing is fun. I try to remember that when things aren’t going so well. It’s why I let myself write stories that I enjoy but that I doubt will ever sell. (Sometimes they do anyway.) It’s why I submit to markets that I think will be excited about my work (even if they’re not “prestigious”), rather than trying to bend my stories to whatever specifications I think the “top” markets are looking for.

But there’s always a question in the back of my mind — why publish at all? If I write for fun, then why do I bother with this other part which is often not that much fun? Why do writers deal with the waiting, the rejection, the editorial revisions, and the minor disappointments and slights that can come even with acceptance and publication? Why do we put our stories into somebody else’s hands, knowing that we can’t always control what will happen to them?


I’ve posed this question on Twitter a couple times, and I’ve gotten some good answers. Some folks say they publish for validation. Others do it because they want to be like the people whose stories they’ve been reading all their lives. Others because they hope that someday they might be one of the few to make a living at this, and publishing is how you do that.

Those reasons are all true for me — or at least have been true at some point in my life. These days, I’m not sure I’d want the life of a freelance writer with its manifold uncertainties. And by and large, I’ve already gotten all the validation I need. I don’t mean to say I’ve accomplished everything I’d like to or that I have no room to grow — there are always new challenges to surmount (which is part of the fun). But I’m comfortable enough with my own writing that external validation is no longer a primary motivation. I suspect this is true of many, many other folks who write primarily for fun as well.

So why then? Why do I publish?

For years, I didn’t. For years, I wrote stories and didn’t try to sell them at all — or hardly at all. There were several reasons for that, but one big reason was that I didn’t enjoy it. Getting published just didn’t seem to be worth the hassle and disappointment.

And this wasn’t sour grapes. I was published several times in my early twenties, culminating in the cover story in an issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction in 2005. But then, after that — nothing, not for another six years. I had done it. I’d been validated, and I wasn’t sure I enjoyed it. So, for a long time, I stopped trying.


Earlier this year, I gave a talk to some college undergraduates about the life of a writer. I tried not to let my early experiences with publishing color my talk — just because I didn’t enjoy the life of a writer in my early twenties didn’t mean that these kids wouldn’t.

Things are different now, anyway. With Twitter and other social networks, it’s much easier to build up a support network. It’s also easier to see that other writers (and even editors!) are real people too and that everyone gets frustrated sometimes. There’s less of a sense of isolation, even if you (like me) don’t know any folks in “real life” who read science-fiction magazines, let alone submit to them.

But I wanted to be honest with those students, and one of the things I told them is that, for a writer, rejection is the expected result. During my talk, I framed this in the context of submitting work and querying agents. If you send out twenty stories, expect nineteen (or twenty!) to be rejected. Rejection is not failure — it’s the expected result. Even very good writers are regularly rejected.

But I had other things in my mind besides just submissions. Even when a story is accepted and published, rejection is still the expected result. In this case, rejection can take the form of deafening silence, “bad” reviews, or “bad” reader comments. Of all the stories that get published, only a few get noticed and fewer get praised. A tiny handful get nominated for awards or reprinted in anthologies.

Usually a story appears and disappears without seeming to cause a ripple at all outside of the writer’s own social circle. It’s easy to wonder if anybody’s out there — if anybody is reading — if anybody except the editor even liked what you wrote.

This is what happened to me in my twenties. My stories appeared and disappeared. My friends and family bought that issue of Asimov’s, of course, but that’s all I would expect. If I were writing only for my friends and family, there would be no need to involve a publisher. I could have just given them copies of my story and bypassed the whole submission process.

Thirsty for more, I searched for mentions of my stories online. I didn’t find much, and most of what I found wasn’t that encouraging. Science-fiction fans can be vocal when they don’t agree with something. Some of them found things in my stories to disagree with, and I ended up reading those thoughts.

Rejection is the expected result.


Fast forward to today, almost seven years later. After taking several years off from trying to sell my stories, I’m submitting more now than I ever have before. I’ve been fortunate to have several stories accepted, and a few have already seen print (digitally speaking). The first to generate any real response beyond folks I know is a story from the May 2012 issue of Redstone Science Fiction called “Imagine Cows on Mars”.

Here are the two reviews of that story that I found:


This is the same kind of commentary that I read back in my early twenties, and it’s the same kind of commentary that contributed to my feeling that getting published wasn’t really worth it. But today, even after reading those reviews, I’m still submitting — still trying to get published. I’m even a little excited at the thought of what these reviewers might say about other stories I hope to see in print soon.

But why? What’s different?


The difference is not that I’ve grown a thicker skin or that I don’t care what other people say. I do care — in fact, that’s the whole point. That is exactly the answer to the question of why I try to get published.

I try to get my work published because that’s the only way it’s likely to reach people outside of my social circle. That’s the only way to get it front of folks who don’t already have an opinion about me… Folks who may have wildly different ideas from mine… Folks who may be different from the kind of people I interact with on a daily basis.

Every story is like the opening of a conversation. Once they’re published, it’s up to other people to pick up that conversation and continue it. As writers, not only do we not get to control other people’s reactions to our work, but we shouldn’t want to.

If I were having a beer at the bar with either of the two reviewers I linked to above, I’d probably listen to what they had to say and then respond with, “Yes, but…” They both looked at my story in a different way than I did, they both saw things that I hadn’t thought about, and their perspectives are pretty interesting. I don’t agree entirely with their conclusions, but so what? They don’t agree entirely with my perspective or priorities either — and that’s part of what they’re expressing.

What I’ve now come to understand is that disagreement is not rejection. Even a “bad” review or a “bad” comment is really, at heart, an acceptance — acceptance into a broader discourse where (guess what?) not everybody thinks the same as I do. If I were at the bar saying “Yes, but…” to either or both of these reviewers, we could probably disagree all night and still shake hands afterwards. The Internet is a more impersonal, more faceless, and (alas) more beer-deprived environment, but the principle ought to be the same.


I feel downright silly for not having understood this before. Part of the reason is probably because there aren’t that many people who engage in this particular discourse. Most short stories will still appear and disappear without so much as a ripple — including most of mine. Locus and Tangent make an effort to review as much short fiction as possible, but the vast majority of publications below the pro-paying level will escape notice, simply because there are so many of them and so few people devoted to the task.

If more folks expressed their opinions and engaged in these conversations — if there were five or ten or twenty capsule reviews of “Imagine Cows on Mars” — then there’d likely be a greater diversity of perspectives on display. Heck, there might be folks out there expressing those diverse perspectives right now — but doing so somewhere out of earshot of my extremely cursory Google search.

I still have too much of the undergraduate English major in me to think of the great conversation of literature as primarily concerned with quality assessments. If Edith Wharton or H.G. Wells or Vladimir Nabokov could read the term papers that I wrote about their works in college, they’d probably all say, “Of all the things I put into my story, why on earth did you focus on that?”

The answer, naturally, is because that is the part of the story that struck me most as an individual. That was what happened to ignite my curiosity or raise my hackles or inspire my imagination. That was what was illuminated or obfuscated some broader theory of my own. That was what gave me the needed hook to say what I wanted to say.

It turns out that there’s no cosmic critical teacher handing out “pass” and “fail” grades — there are just people sharing their thoughts and reactions, shaped and proved in crucibles that are highly individual and highly dependent on the context of the moment. (We’ve all, I’m sure, read the same story at two different times in our lives only to have two very different reactions.)

I don’t mean to minimize these reviews when I say this. They are what they are — well thought out, well written, brilliantly economical, and expressions of honest opinion. And they are exactly the critical conversation that I declared I wanted to be a part of as soon as I submitted my story for publication. There are far quicker and easier ways to earn $150. So such reactions as these are obviously the reward I was working for. And these reviews are the physical evidence that those reactions exist — that people really did read my words and that they accepted me as part of their critical universe, even if they didn’t like what I had to say.


But this ultimately isn’t about me or my stories. To be honest, I’m as likely to avoid commentary on my own stories as I am to read it. (There are reams of reactions to Machine of Death that I haven’t looked at — but then again, most of them aren’t written for my benefit.) And even though there are points where I disagree with Lois Tilton and Jo-Anne Odell, I don’t feel any need to respond to them. I already had my say when I wrote the story, and too much additional explanation by authors is more likely to suppress conversation than to encourage it.

What I can do, however, is be better at engaging in conversations about other people’s work. Like I said, that’s the whole point of getting published. (In my view, anyway.) Yet how many stories do I read each year without commenting? How many half-conversations do I let hang there unanswered? I’ve written a few blog posts over the past six months where I’ve tried to point out some stories that I like, but surely I can improve on that substantially.

I’m not going to promise to write about every story I read. But I can try to write about more of them — and to write about them in a more thoughtful way. I can be a little less concerned about causing offense and a little more concerned with adding constructively to a critical conversation. I can try to do my own little part to ensure there are fewer stories that appear and disappear without leaving a ripple behind. After all, the Internet makes it easier than ever to get stories published — but it also makes it easier than ever to talk about the ones that are.


A one sentence story

On Twitter last night, a number of fine writers (inspired by a 90-word sentence in a story by Anatoly Belilovsky) dared each other to write stories in single sentence — with a strong undercurrent of “the longer the better”.

In addition to Anatoly, the guilty culprits included Alex Shvartsman, Ken Liu, Jake Kerr, Carrie Cuinn, Damien Walters Grintalis, Don Pizarro, Tom Dullemond, Amanda C. Davis, and probably others whom I am rudely forgetting. Considering this list of writers, I of course inserted myself into the proceedings as well.

I originally offered to pay $5 to see every one sentence story posted… However, as the list of participants continues to grow, I’m afraid I have to withdraw that offer. But if anybody can figure out a way of picking a “winner” among these run-on tales, I’ll happily send $50 via PayPal either to the winner or to a worthy organization of their choice. (They decide if it’s worthy — not me.)

So far, I’ve seen these one sentence stories emerge.


I will link more as they become available (and as I become aware of them and have time to do the linking). But for now, I am happy to present my own attempt. At only 168 words, it is somewhat less epic than others that have been posted so far… But nevertheless, here it is.

“À Vos Souhaits”

Although I had warned Renard many times (yes, that Renard — the great thief, whom they called, among other things, “the human fly” for his penchant for scaling high-rises) to be careful of his allergy to his lucky rabbit’s foot, I did not have the foresight to warn him that a lucky pair of pants (donned more times than I can now remember) will eventually and naturally develop holes in the pockets, and though it is not true that a lucky penny (worn aerodynamically smooth from much fondling) ejected through one of those holes by a great body-convulsing sneeze and falling from almost the top of the Empire State Building will attain the velocity needed to kill a man who is standing directly below, it is true that the impact may cause him to let go of a belaying rope at the very moment he is most needed to hold it, and put him instantly and simultaneously in sore need of both an eyepatch and a new employer.


Somebody else’s stories — again!

I have been reading tons of short fiction lately, so I have a bunch of new stories that I enjoyed and want to recommend. These are all short ones, so you might as well read them all!

“Little Rattle Belly” by Mae Empson from Enchanted Conversations: A Fairytale Magazine. Before this year, I don’t think I knew that I liked fairy tales. But after recommending three of them in the past couple of weeks, it’s probably time to admit that I do. I think part of the reason is that fairy tales are one province of fantasy where the problems of ordinary folks (wood-cutters and wool-spinners) often take center stage. This story puts a weaver into the story of Rumplestiltskin, with creepy results.

“Twenty-Seven Rules for Coping” by Michael Haynes from Goldfish Grimm. A creepy and quick tale, this one about coping with unusual powers. It’s a story about the effort it takes to pass for “normal” when you are very different indeed.

“Tomorrow’s Dictator” by Rahul Kanakia from Apex Magazine. I really love stories that spend time in forgotten corners of the universe of speculative fiction. This one takes place at a human resources convention in a near future where a few simple “adjustments” can turn people into model employees (or cult members).

“Into Place” by Alter Reiss from Redstone Science Fiction. Another unexpected little journey into a side pocket of the near future. In this world, craftsmen with the ability to put people into individually designed trances have the ability to affect the outcome of all sorts of human interactions, including the custody battles of divorcing couples.