The Real Work

It’s been about six weeks since I decided to devote myself to writing short stories.  The first few weeks I spent polishing and rewriting trunk stories of mine that never got the due diligence they deserved when they were first written.  Prior to this renewed effort, my attempt to publish was limited to being rejected by Analog and Asimov’s after which I would simply tuck the story into a drawer and go back to working on my novel.

But here’s the thing, in the old days I was able to get agents to give serious attention to my novel manuscripts merely on the strength of my writing.  Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, and early 2000s I was able to secure no less than four agents without having ever published a short story.  Essentially, cutting to the head of the line without bona fides.

That is no longer the case.  The internet has changed everything and there is far more competition now — not necessarily strong competition, most people out there are terrible, sloppy writers who know nothing of the craft but if Stephenie Meyer can do it surely they stand a chance. There used to be some barriers to entering the market. You spent lots of time at the Post Office, for one thing — all that shoveling of manuscripts into manilla envelopes and making sure you had a SASE was a real thrill — but now that everyone with a keyboard can simply email their stuff out, agents and editors are drowning in all that dross.  All of which makes it more and more difficult for the serious writer to get on anyone’s radar.  

If you want to get an agent’s attention now, you need to do them a favor and come to them complete with prior editorial approval in the form of a publishing history and, if possible, an active membership in the SFWA.  To get that membership you have to be paid a minimum of six cents a word for 10,000 words and to get those qualifying magazines, the ones who pay six cents a word or better, to read your stuff you need to come at them with some bona fides.  

That means you start at the bottom of the food chain.  You go to the fanzines, the ezines, those magazines that pay nothing because even if you don’t make one thin dime by putting a story in their pages, they give you proof of prior editorial approval.  

And let’s not soft pedal the real benefit here which is readers.  You may not get paid much for putting your story in their magazines but people will read it and that is, in the end, the true goal of any writer.

I remember when I got my first check.  It was from a magazine called Electric Spec and it didn’t matter that it was only for 25$.  That was a by God publishing credit.  Proof of prior editorial approval.  Unfortunately, I didn’t follow up with more stories because I was still busy telling myself that I was only interested in writing novels.

It wasn’t until I got hooked reading the biographies of Heinlein, Bradbury, Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick and now Asimov, that I saw how they did it.  They wrote their asses off and they submitted everything everywhere.  They submitted those stories, sometimes for years, until either the damned thing got published (and many never did) or they ran out of magazines to submit them to.

Philip K. Dick once received seventeen rejections is a single day.  His response was to take the stories out of the envelopes, address them to seventeen new markets, and send them off again.

In the last six weeks I’ve revitalized some stories that were already good, reworked and rewritten others that were good ideas poorly executed, and written four completely new stories from scratch.  As a result, I now have 14 stories in play.  And I’m working on my 15th.

It turns out that when you stop telling yourself you’re not good at something and just start doing it, you can discover that you had a knack for it all along.  

The thing to remember is this: It’s a ladder.  This is particularly difficult for me because I’ve already climbed one ladder.  I’ve made my sacrifices, I’ve swallowed my humiliations, and I’ve done my 10,000 hours of practice to become a senior software developer and I make a nice living from it.  

But that’s programming, not writing.  With writing I’m starting all over at the bottom rung.  I start by submitting every story at the top of the list of qualifying magazines even though I stand the least chance of getting published there because that’s where the prize is.  Once I get rejected from the qualifying magazines, I move onto the ones who pay slightly less than the qualifying rate, and then down and down until it’s contributor’s copies or sometimes nothing but a byline.

Which is fine because I don’t need the money.  I need the prior editorial approval.  But having more than a dozen stories in play means lots of rejections.  You have to be strong and listen to what editors have been saying forever: A rejection doesn’t mean your story is bad, just that it wasn’t right for them at that time.  

You have to look for the small positives.  Before the acceptances start to come in, you’ll get the “Good, but not for us” rejections and sometimes there will even be a “feel free to submit something else” on there.  That’s a huge victory at this point.  That is an editor saying they like your writing but this story wasn’t a fit for their magazine.

Right now about half of my rejections are form letters and the other half contain encouragement and constructive criticism along the lines of “I liked the narrative but the plot developed a little slowly for me.”  

This is how things work in the real world if your uncle isn’t an editor at a major publishing house.  You do the hard work for little money and no motivation while you chip away at the wall between you and success.  

Thirty years ago, I would stay up late at night teaching myself to program.  I’d come home from a job I hated and sit down and challenge myself to learn something new every day.  I didn’t have a college degree to pave the way for me and back then it wouldn’t have done much good anyway.  PCs were new.  Unix was new.  They were still teaching card decks in most university programs.  To get started, I had to take a job that paid nearly nothing just to put something on my resume that said I was a programmer.

The problem with my writing career so far has been that the model for success as it was laid out in my brain was totally broken.  It was constructed on the idea that I could write a novel and without knowing anyone in the business, publish a bestseller.  That’s kind of like founding your business on a lottery based strategy.  

And it’s hard to maintain faith in a plan like that because it doesn’t even feel real.  That’s not how things work in the world, at least not in my world.  Fairy godmother’s don’t appear out of nowhere and offer me a career in something.  I have to work for it.  Writing these stories, keeping them in play, taking the rejections, that’s working for it.  That’s something that feels real to me.

NOTE: Have you ever thought so hard about doing something that you get the idea you actually did it even though you very much did not?  This has happened to me several times with blog entries that I write in my head but never manage to publish.  One of those entries had to do with my decision to commit myself to writing short stories in order to obtain my bona fides before submitting my novel to anymore publishers.

That’s why there is a strange gap in the logic between the July 15th entry where I talk about outlining an 8th draft of my novel and the July 16th entry in which I talk about having dedicated myself to writing short stories.  

My best guess is that I had that post about outlining lying around and accidentally published it instead of the one about switching my aim to short fiction.  I’ve done stupider things, I just can’t remember when.