Saturday, July 27, 2013

Response Times

A writing acquaintance recently complained that an editor who normally responded in days was taking an excessive amount of time to get back to her on a submission.

This might seem a casual remark on the face of it, but it speaks to a more fundamental issue between we writers and the editors who hold the power of life and death over our fragile prose.  To the writer suffering under a slow response from one editor means that the next editor on the submission list must wait even longer to read the priceless words forged with sweat and tears on the anvil of the writer's desk. That delay propagates  down the list  until it finally, blessedly reaches a receptive audience and, hopefully, produces a check at best and copies at worst.

For years I have tracked the response times of editors so that I can predict when to expect a response to a submission.  I hear from some within a few days of the predicted time. Others are less predictable and some, sad to say, simply don't bother to respond at all -ever! These last heartless bastards populate the absolute bottom of my list and are given an arbitrary sixty day turn around time.  If they fail to respond on a later submission, they get a "forget it and fuck you" message. Well, that last bit is a lie - one must always stay professional, even to the assholes.

Rejections are a fact of life for short fiction writers.  The output of most of us far exceeds the capacity of the market to absorb.  All but raw beginning writers understand that rejection is no verdict of unworthiness but that that particular piece was not meeting the needs of the editor at that time

I would not be surprised to find that the balance weighed heavily in the hundreds to one ratio of rejections to acceptances.  There is a vast reservoir of unpublished stories by well known writers that will never be read by their fans simply because of "not right for us" evaluations.  This treasure will fade in time as if the words were never written.

The problem with a delay in response sometimes gives rise to the hope that the story might be "under consideration" which is the best scenario but agonizing for the writer, who then feels like a fool when the rejection arrives somewhat beyond the window of expectation. It doesn't matter how many sales a writer has made, how many times this particular editor has said something encouraging, the rejection when it finally comes, is devastating.  Worse, there's nothing a writer can do about it.  We all understand that reading through hundreds of submissions takes time and editors often have other matters to distract them.

But a little consideration of the writer's business might help.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Literary Merit, Altruism, and Friendship

The fast approaching close of the Hugo ballot marks the end of the speculative fiction awards season after recently passed the Seiun and Nebula ballots, not to mention the other seven major awards.  It is no surprise that the lists of finalists include many of the same works.  It is an honor to be on any of these ballots and and achievement to be a finalist.

It is no small feat to keep up with the genre, not when hundreds of new books are produced each year, print magazines arrive daily, and the e-publications proliferate like a viral plague. There are only so many hours in the day and, for the working writer, time taken to read anything detracts from their writing time. One must ignore the cries of children and abandoned friends if they are ever to make even a small dent in their pile of books to be read.  Worse, all your writer friends send you books, lovingly autographed (which makes them unacceptable as donations to the local library) which accrue to the already unread pile.  Even with the best of intentions no one can encompass or even come close to reading the entire output.

As an eligible and reasonably conscientious voter my aim is always to select the best work of genre fiction based on literary merit, inventiveness, and that nebulous "sens-a-wunda" that imbue the finest speculative fiction. Knowing how difficult it is to create stories my admiration for a skillfully produced work demands recognition.

I read what I can, finish a few books a month, and strive to stay current on magazines, but it's a losing battle. As a result, when the ballots arrive, I look at the finalists and try to find something I might have read and frequently find one or two.  This induced guilt sets up a frantic effort to read all of the finalists before the ballot closes, searching through the pile to find those that appeared in yet unread magazine and lacking that, obtaining copies elsewhere. The novels are daunting to complete so I usually attempt to read at least a quarter of the way each through before moving to the next, promising myself I will later return to finish that book, which results in so many books with slips of paper marking my place.

Comes the time to vote and I find myself in a quandary.  Clearly some of the works are better than others but is literary merit enough?  What if two of the candidates are people who have helped me along the way or are good friends? Should I vote to support my friends or give yet another award to someone who  has already received an earlier one? Should I select a new writer who might need a boost in their career or throw a vote to the grizzled veteran who deserves something, for God's sake?

My final decision only easy when the work itself is of such outstanding merit that no other choice is possible, but that rarely happens given the quality of most of the finalists.  In the end, the ballot choices I make are erratic, sometimes choosing for this reason and sometimes another.  I am human and I vote both rationally and emotionally. I think I am not alone in this.

Which is why the ballots are not so much a competition as a compromise of principles.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

ReaderCon Impressions

I was absolutely thrilled when I got an invitation to ReaderCon 2013 and considered it a mark that finally, at long last, somebody knew that I was a writer - Wow! It was enough to convince me that it might be worth driving the nine exhausting hours to get to Burlington and ReaderCon.

I usually go to the Nebulas and WorldCon as well as local conventions within reasonable driving distance,  such as Confluence, CapClave, Balticon, and Ravencon. There the audiences are modest and mixed in terms of ages, sex, and fannish intensity.  For some insane reason I expected the ReaderCon crowd to be much the same.

Was I ever wrong!  First, the numbers of people attending the panels were much larger, attendees filling all the seats while others stood around the edges.  I have never felt myself under such intense focus as I did on my few panels.  Like a rabbit encountering a fox, I became nervous by the laser-like stares of the audience and their terribly intense INTEREST. At most cons people are just listening to their favorite author's voices and waiting for an opportunity to have a few words, ask a question, or obtain an autograph.  Not so at this one where the audience poured toward the panelists like a surging tsunami of queries.

I was only a panelist on a few sessions and had a hard time deciding which of the others to attend. All were above average in content and focus.  I also learned that I am not alone in bewailing the vows of poverty that we writers must take for our art and the loneliness of working alone in a darkened room.  This is a solitary occupation, let there be no doubt. Adulation and rewards are far too few, it seems.

What was more interesting was that everyone seemed to be people of the book and voracious consumers of the written word in both print and electronic form. From the number of ReaderCon attendees taking copious notes and the quality of questions being asked I suspect there was a high density of English majors.  Surprisingly for me, the sessions seldom (and thankfully briefly) veered off into media territory.

And the writers!! OMG, I spoke to all my heroes and met most that I knew only by their names and stories.  Writers I knew but had not yet met seemed to know who I was (always a surprise) and some of the fans even mentioned stories I once wrote.  These little things might not seem like much, but I was fucking THRILLED!

It was well worth the drive.


Saturday, July 13, 2013


Collaborations are works writers create when they either feel they need to learn something new or just wish to provide a richer narraritive that would otherwise be possible should they do it alone.. It simuiltaneously exposes your working methods yet opens you to new possiblities.
 My first collaboration did not turn out very well, as Jeff Kooistra and I began battling over characters, plots, and scenes by trading drafts over eMail.   After a while, and 90,000 words later, we decided the plot had become so convoluted that it couldn’t be resolved.   We abandoned the effort with no hard feelings since our objective was for me to learn to write better dialogue and Jeff to improve his exposition. 
My second collaboration, with Sarah Zettel, produced a story that got on the final Nebula ballot even though she dropped out of the work soon after the work began, but after we had developed the characters in some detail.
Cat Ranbo and I are now are working on a fusion piece titled "Haunted," which looks as though it might turn out to be a novella or novel, given the amount of material in hand and the depth of the story we've outlined.  

 We’ve been working on a Scrivener project in DropBox.  We first sketched out an outline, changed that into a semi-narrative Story Line, modified that with a few more ideas, and then turned each micro-scene  into corkboard cards* and began inserting words on our chosen cards/scenes.  Currently I am driving Cat batshit with my endless tinkering with the meta-story, structure, metaphoric parallelism, and chronology**. When I get back from Readercon it will be her turn to drive me crazy. 

 I tend to plot a story in fair detail and then try to write scenes in sequence while Cat more or less writes in huge, messy, and random blobs that she can later mold into smooth text. Currently neither one of us is looking carefully*** at what the other is doing since we want to get as many ideas written down as we can.  In addition, both of us are trying to match the other’s process to achieve some measure of synchronicity and, as far as I'm concerned, working outside of the structure seems to be working for me.  At the moment we have a mess of roughly sixteen thousand words and have only half the cards filled out!  Both of us also have stuff written off-line that will eventually get pasted into the cards.  

At some point a few weeks down the road we will call quits to this first round pre-draft foreplay and begin arranging the material in a sensible order (we’ve laid out the cards in chronological order, but that may/might/will change when we start pounding out a first draft.  

After that we’ll really start writing the story.

* We color the cards to show who did what.
**I’ll admit I’m a bit anal, controlling, and impatient, but that’s no reason to think I’m hard to work with.
***This probably seems insane unless you know us.


Friday, July 5, 2013

Convention Boobs

I have deliberately restricted my posts on this blog to the agony and ecstasy of writing as a way of life and steered clear of the swirling controversy surrounding the science fiction "community."

Today, I read a post by Mahenia Delvenni that seemed to conflate SFWA with offensive convention behaviors and obliquely reflected on several parallel discussions with the SFWA community.  I am not defending any point of view but I think the air needs to be cleared a bit for those new to the writing community and/or conventions.

Let's be perfectly clear:  The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) holds only one (1) convention per year and that is the annual Nebula weekend during which we honor the best and brightest writing in our genre.  The Nebula Weekend is the ONLY SFWA-sponsored event that fans can attend.

All, and I repeat ALL other science fiction conventions held around the world are organized, managed, and conducted by groups of dedicated fans.  SFWA members may attend these as guest panelists, to sign autographs, or just schmooz with their fans.  This may give the appearance to the uninformed that SFWA as an organization is somehow involved in the convention. In actuality, SFWA has nothing to do with the way any convention, up to and including WorldCon, is run nor does the organization have any authority over the bad behavior of attendees at these conventions.

Do not distain SFWA for the behavior of a few ignorant boobs.

Those wanting to have a career in the genre would be doing themselves a disservice should they choose not to join SFWA and avail themselves of the many relationships that can be forged there.  The community has a long history of paying-forward by veterans to new writers.  They will also learn that the organization is not an "old-boys club" as some have inaccurately termed it; we have four women and one senior citizen on the SFWA Board of Directors, the Nebula ballot this year was packed with female writers as well as those in non-traditional relationships, of different national origin, and religious dispositions.   SFWA members are a multihued and varied group who are expanding the boundaries of the genre with every word they write. As an often contentious group the members nevertheless talk out their issues, ask the Board to make a decision when they can't, and abide by the results.  SFWA sometimes makes mistakes but when it does, more often than not, we work hard to repair the damage.

That's what a professional organization does.


Monday, July 1, 2013


Sometimes an opening scene arises fully formed in my mind, the words so crystalline clear that it takes but seconds to get them onto the page. That done, the logic of that opening leads to another scene, one that might require backstory, which is fleshed out with little thought so I can continue with the fascinating story unfolding before my eyes.  Oh, here is a flash of insight that turns the scene, that illuminates the character, a bit of technical detail that improves the verisimilitude of the setting. Each word seems golden, each sentence a gem, and the necklaces of paragraphs are priceless jewelry.  The words come so easily, slide onto the page with so little effort that only exhaustion can take me from the keyboard. 

Almost without effort I’m a couple thousand words into a story filled with brilliant repartee, interesting character backstory, and an engaging dynamic.   I have just been cruising along without paying too much attention to my destination while I talk about the scenery.  That's when I abruptly realize that I have no idea of where this is going.  Better, I think, to sleep on it and revisit it with fresh eyes and a clear mind.  

I should have known better.  Revisiting the brilliant output of the previous day finds it less than pleasing.  It is with growing horror that I now see the mistakes, the misspellings, the bad grammar, the stark woodenness of the dialogue, not to mention the rambling narrative that goes nowhere in particular save to end a sequence of events.  How could I have been so entranced by the unfolding story in my head that I didn't see the many, many flaws, the imperfections, and the illogic of the piece?  What had I been thinking?  Had the shit fairies visited the manuscript during the night and changed my brilliant prose to this dreck?

I realize that I had been doing nothing more than composing and settle down to do the REAL writer’s work of correcting the errors and polishing the text word by word, scene by scene, and all the while hoping that those damn fairies won't visit me again.