In September 2021, I made my first sale of speculative fiction in English for my story, The Third Time’s the Charm to Water Dragon Publishing. I was very encouraged by the positive responses I got. As I said in the author’s note, this was actually a story I began more than 15 years ago that was originally like the first chapter of a larger story. It has evolved a lot since then. But the other ideas I had envisioned for these characters were still there.
I have signed the contract for the second story, “For the Favor of a Lady.” The series will be called “Revin’s Heart.” The third and fourth stories are already written and more stories are planned over the coming year, including a couple of side stories.
I find this length of story — a 9000-10000 word novelette — is comfortable for me to write. And I always enjoyed reading serialized fiction, like The Three Musketeers and the Sherlock Holmes stories.
I have other writing projects I’m working on too, but it’s a real treat to have this set of stories serialized. Perhaps it’s partly that, when I read manga, serialization is everything. It hasn’t been that way in fiction in the US for a long time. Oh, it happens, but it’s not treated as a big deal. But it’s a big deal to me: I’m very grateful to Paper Angel Press and I’ll be excited to share more about these characters in the days and months ahead.
One challenge of writing fiction for me is that I have never had any formal training in creative writing. Or literature. Ever. I think that’s literally true. When I was younger, I always knew I was going to be a scientist (BTW: It didn’t work out) and so I always chose courses and experiences in line with that expectation. As a freshman in college, I took one literature course, but the one I selected was in film, so we watched some movies and I wrote a few papers. That was it. The point is, that I really don’t know anything about writing fiction, other than what I’ve picked up along the way through reading and writing.
I’m lucky to have a wonderful group of family and friends who read my manuscripts and comment on them from multiple viewpoints. My son Daniel who, not only offers thoughtful comments, but also hysterical mockery and comedic dramatizations. My brother Phil, who has actually studied speculative fiction writing and often has deep insight into the practice of writing and story structure. My kouhai Andrew-kun who teaches scientific writing with me and frequently has useful insights. And my colleague Zander who always has useful comments and has graciously served as a sensitivity reader for helping me write trans and disabled characters.
I should mention that the first one to read my stories is always my mom Lucy. But she never offers comments, just unwavering support and encouragement.
And, of course, now that I’m working with Paper Angel Press, I have an editor and writing group that I can fall back on. But I don’t want to depend on them to read and comment on my manuscripts until they’re as ready as I can make them.
This morning, Phil provided his critique (he always writes me a formal critique and sends it as an email attachment) and, among his praise (which was unusually lavish, in this instance) he identified a problem. In The Third Time’s the Charm and the follow-on stories I’ve written so far have all been told in third person. And always from Revin’s perspective. But in my current manuscript, there was this sentence:
Grip returned the letter to Revin and then secretly watched his unguarded expressions as he read and reread the letter.
This is from Grip’s perspective. That’s a no-no. I sorta knew this but, again, I’m writing mostly by instinct. So Phil provided a nice summary for me when I asked:
Your story is almost entirely in close-third: The story is only told when Revin is there to know what’s going on, and the reader often has insight into what Revin is thinking.
Another viewpoint option is “omniscient,” where the narrator knows everything, and can dip into various people’s heads to report on what they’re thinking, seeing, etc.
It has become the fashion of late (this wasn’t so true in the 18th and 19th century fiction) not to shift viewpoints willy-nilly, as you do here.
You can write in first: “I was sitting at the desk, drinking a bourbon, staring out the window as night settled over the city, when a dame walked in. You can write in third: “Revin gazed out the window of the airship daydreaming of better times until he realized his mentor was coming this way…” You can even write in second: “You’re in a maze of twisty passages all the same…”
All can be “close” (where you see into people’s heads) or not (where you don’t). The other two are “omniscient,” which I’ve already described, and “cinematic” which is like non-close third: You don’t get in people’s heads, the text just describes what a fly on the wall could see and hear. Dan Brown (of the DaVinci Notebook) did cinematic, which made his books trivially easy to adapt for the screen.
Of course you can mix them. Lots of books are in close-third with the protagonist, and then in non-close third (or cinematic) for the other characters of interest.
Steven Barnes at Clarion said: “You don’t need any of this stuff. Just write from the heart. These tools are for when a story isn’t working. Then you can take it apart, figure out what’s broken, and fix it.”
He also referenced a book as the definitive guide to writing character viewpoints, but because it’s by an odious person, I don’t think I’ll read it.
As I say, I had already sorta recognized this in that, for example, I’ve identified two stories I want to tell as part of this series but, because they don’t include Revin, they’ll need to be told as side stories. They’re going to be a lot of fun to write.
I’m really enjoying the opportunity to learn the craft of writing better.
When I wrote The Third Time’s the Charm (available via Water Dragon Publishing), I didn’t think too much about genre. That is, it was “just” a fantasy story. But when the story came out, my editor asked me whether or not it was “young adult” (YA). And I honestly didn’t know.
I’ve read about a number of authors, particularly women, who are angry that their work gets pigeonholed as YA. I admitted I didn’t really know, but that I was fine with whatever he wanted to go with. So it got marked as YA and I didn’t think too much about it at at the time.
I’m now working on sequels, some that have darker elements, and so I was a bit concerned that perhaps there are limits that I should stay clear of. So I followed up with my editor who said, “Personally, I think the boundaries are pretty wide.” And sent me a link to a SFWA post. I found a statement by Stacy Whitman about “Edgier YA” to be particularly helpful:
Some break down YA further into two fuzzy categories, young YA and edgy/older YA. […] Edgier YA won’t shy away from more graphic depiction of sex, won’t shy away from using strong language, and will sometimes be gory in violence. Edgier YA characters will often be older teens, but not necessarily.
A YA novel is centrally interested in the experience and growth of
its teenage protagonist(s),
whose dramatized choices, actions, and concerns drive the
and it is narrated with relative immediacy to that teenage perspective.
Now that’s the stuff.
I’m not quite sure why “story” is on a line by itself. I guess to exclude some literary fiction — or maybe slice-of-life stuff?
But the key takeaway for me is the focus of the story: is the arc primarily about how the character changes? Or is it primarily about other events in the world changing in which the character is a player? It’s the role of personal transformation that seems key.
This really brought into focus some choices I had made (unknowingly) but that make the stories fit better in YA than other alternatives. This will help me situate the sequels so that they stay in the genre and don’t wander off.
As far as I can tell, I’ve never written a proper year-end wrap-up of my fiction writing. But I haven’t really done enough fiction writing previously to warrant it. My first fiction publication was in 2006 (Milos kaj Donos) and my first speculative fiction publication was in 2010 (Kion dio farus?). My 2016 story, Krespusko sub Fago, won an honorable mention in the Belartaj Konkursoj. But this year was basically the first year, I made a serious effort to submit fiction in English.
In 2021, beginning on June 12, I made 49 submissions of 10 manuscripts to 25 different markets. Four of the manuscripts were older (the oldest manuscript was started in 2004) though much revised. Six of the manuscripts were newly written in 2021 (including a 22,000 word novella, which was begun in fall 2020).
I received 39 rejections. Eight submissions are still outstanding, not including one “revise and resubmit.” And I received one acceptance.
Most of the rejections were variations on “Unfortunately, this story didn’t work as well for me as I’d hoped” or “Unfortunately, your story isn’t quite what we’re looking for right now.” One wrote, “There were things we enjoyed about it, but overall it didn’t quite work for us.”
I got two rejections that included actual, actionable feedback:
I loved the cooking details and craft details, and that the [MC] tried to think his way out of his fate, but the fable overall felt a bit more simple to me than I needed in order for it to feel satisfying, and the frame narrative to me didn’t have as much of an inextricable role in the story as I was hoping.
While I liked [the MC]’s curiosity, especially as it serves to move the story along, I found I did want to see more of his thoughts on what was happening around him, and to see his world through his own eyes, to see what he would think when he saw the sheep on the surrounding hills, etc.
I’ve learned a lot about writing this year — most of all from my interactions with Paper Angel Press (Water Dragon Publishing is an imprint of Paper Angel Press), the managing editor Steven Radecki, and the lively community of associated writers (aka The Island of Misfit Toys). The feedback I got from the reader panel was very helpful to identify and correct a number of small but significant issues with the manuscript. I learned several really useful things from the editorial process. The most important of these was to report facts via the character’s observations in preference to reporting them as the narrator — this corresponds directly to the comment I got above from one of my rejections, but which I couldn’t really understand until I saw what the editor was doing with my manuscript. Now I can watch for that myself.
I’ve also learned a lot about publishing — and about promoting myself. I’ve never felt comfortable engaging in self-promotion, but it’s clearly become an increasing important part of the publishing process. To paraphrase the demotivator: “The only consistent feature of all your unprofitable books is you.” I’m even using Facebook (Ugh). But I’ve drawn the line at Instagram.
I learned from various other experiences as well. I attended two writing conferences, Readercon 31 and Discon III. In both cases, due to the pandemic, I was a virtual attendee. Readercon did a fantastic job of creating opportunities to meet and interact with people, perhaps because it was virtual only. (And also due to a particularly talented organizer who managed the technical landscape like a virtuoso.) It was at Readercon where I met the friendly folks from Water Dragon. I didn’t feel like I really met anyone at Discon III which was split between a face-to-face environment and a virtual environment. The virtual part of the conference felt like a balkanized afterthought.
I also investigated two local writing-support organizations: Straw Dog Writers and Amherst Writers. I attended one writing workshop (by Straw Dog) “Darling, You’re Making a Scene.” It was well organized and I learned some stuff. I haven’t joined either organization yet, but I probably should — for self-promotion reasons, if for no other.
In the new year, I’ve identified several things I want to work on. I recognize I need to get better at story structure. This is hard because I like my stories the way they are and I don’t necessarily want to write stories where the stakes are higher or the main character has to “risk everything”. That may be a hill I’m willing to die on. (Or maybe not, thinking about my most recent writing.)
I also want to get better at titles for my stories. I was fascinated when I learned that the author wrote I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter, in part, because it was a meme and they wanted to co-opt and subvert the meme. Note: I’m not saying I want to have my titles embroiled in the same kind of controversy (or any kind of controversy, honestly) — but that watching these events unfold that brought home to me how important titles are and that I need to put more thought and effort into choosing titles because I suck at it.
I would also like to join a writing group. Unfortunately, I’ve not had good experiences with most of the writing groups I’ve joined previously. Many of them were organized by, and primarily peopled with, women and felt unwelcoming to me. I do have a small circle of readers who have graciously read my manuscripts and provide excellent, thoughtful feedback, but I think I need more in-depth critiques. Maybe I should consider taking a class. Or I would love to attend Viable Paradise. But those are hard to do while I’m employed full time. And when I do have time, I want to spend it writing.
I’m also hoping to attend several writing conferences in 2022. I’ve already signed up for Arisia and Chicon. And I’ve agreed to attend the Rhode Island ComicCon to help table for Paper Angel Press in November (though I’ve not yet registered). But the Omicron variant of COVID may prevent me from attending Arisia. And we’ll have to see what conditions are like next fall.
Mostly, though, I’m just going to keep writing because, for the first time in a long time, I’m finding that I’m happy. In no small part, this is the result of working with Paper Angel Press and Steven Radecki. I’m constantly impressed by their energy, professionalism, and support. I’d been unhappy for so long that this year has been a revelation to me. For the first time in almost as long as I can remember, I’m genuinely looking forward to what the next year will bring.
Someone asked me recently how I would measure success as a writer. After a brief digression on the futility of “measuring” dimensionless variables with no units, I decided to reflect on what success might look like.
A few years ago, Wayne Chang was invited to speak several times by my employer. He had recently sold his start-up to Twitter for $100 million and was being extensively courted to donate. His talks were interesting, focused on encouraging students to be introspective about their goals and values and pursue their interests:
“Real founders are driven by purpose. All the other [motives], including the money itself, are byproducts of this purpose.”
After his talk, he was surrounded by students who kept asking him about how to make a lot of money and who almost seemed to be trying to brush up against him, as though some magic pixie dust might rub off on them. It was pretty embarrassing, to be honest: the guy already answered that.
That said, money isn’t irrelevant to success either.
But it’s not the most important thing either, like the classic joke:
A farmer wins the lottery and a reporter asks him: “What are you going to do with all that money?” The farmer answers, “I’m just gonna keep on farming ’til the money runs out.”
Around the time John Hodgman wrote Vacationland, he did a show in Northampton that was wonderful. One of the questions he was struggling with (in the book and the show) was the ineffable quality of success. Because people kept asking the secret to his success and he was stumped. He’d been working on stuff right along and, at some point, some things got traction and he became a celebrity. But what was different about those things and all the other stuff he’d been doing? He couldn’t tell. He was utterly unable to guess why these five things got traction, while 10 before/during and the 10 during/after did not. And so his best answer was to just keep putting stuff out there. Because although you can’t predict which thing might become successful, if you’re not putting anything out there, you can’t be successful.
For me, success has always been about being able to pursue my own work and do what I think is right. And, in that regard, I’ve been pretty successful. My occupation has allowed me great latitude to choose the projects I want to work on. Or, at least, it did. Recently, I’ve become quite unhappy at work. All of public higher education has been distorted because the oligarchs would like to see it destroyed. And it was crushing to realize, after 25 years, that my work was being used as a come-on by the rentier class to get young people to indenture themselves at high interest rates to the money economy. So what now?
I started writing more seriously only quite recently primarily as a displacement activity. It was a way to get my thoughts away from topics that were making me panicked and sad and onto something safe. And, with my satisfying career not quite so satisfying lately, I was looking for something more.
Jane McGonigal, in her book Reality is Broken, identified four qualities that make for a happy life: (1) Satisfying work to do, (2) The experience of being good at something, (3) Time spent with people we like, and (4) The chance to be a part of something bigger. She was talking in the context of gamification: using games to give people a more satisfactory life experience. To me — someone who despises gamification — it was always about trying to fix the world so it would provide more satisfactory life experiences, rather than just pasting a band aid over the sucking chest wound of life. But I digress.
Those principles are a good guide to what I’m looking for from my writing career. Writing is very satisfying. I love going back and reading what what I’ve written — and feeling like I’m getting better at it. And especially since getting involved with Water Dragon Publishing, I love the small, quirky community I’ve become immersed in: I joke that it’s like the Island of Misfit Toys, but nobody belongs there more than I. And especially treasure the opportunity to feel like we’re a community working together on satisfying projects. Like writing this blog post.
So, that’s what I’m looking for. The money isn’t nothing. But it’s certainly not everything — and not even the most important thing for me. I’m very lucky in that regard. Finding a way to channel my activity toward something fulfilling is my reason for writing. And I think I’ve been pretty successful already.
As someone with little formal training in creative writing and literature, I’m learning a lot by submitting stories and getting feedback. (When I get any feedback on my submissions, which is rare but not never). And this morning I had an insight which may prove helpful.
In my teaching on scientific writing, I’m constantly telling my students to avoid conversational writing. That is, to not describe the mental states and motivations for activity (e.g. want, feel, need, believe) but simply to objectively describe the rationale and activity directly (e.g. “To facilitate meaningful comparisons, I used a matched-pair experimental design…”) In looking at my fiction, I find that I’m reluctant to describe characters’ intentions or mental states.
Part of this is probably also a reaction to the “show don’t tell” mantra. I don’t want to merely describe the character’s emotional state — instead, I want to demonstrate through their actions how the character is feeling. But a few comments I’ve seen from editors suggest that readers want more about what characters are thinking.
It doesn’t seem like it ought to be that hard to do. And yet… It reminds me of a philosophy class I took as a sophomore where I struggled with a similar issue. The professor wanted us to write essays that included, not just arguments based on reason, but also based on feelings and intentions. I failed for half a semester before I realized that I just needed to write a bunch of stream-of-consciousness bullshit. The professor was happy and I ended up with a C. Maybe the same approach will work here.
I (virtually) attended Worldcon this year. Having recently published my first story, The Third Time’s the Charm, it was interesting to attend the biggest scifi/fantasy convention and see what writers, editors, and fans are talking about. It was a lot of fun, plus I got to hang out with my virtual writing community that were all also attending virtually.
The virtual conference experience was only mediocre. They used Discord, but it was not used nearly as well as at Readercon. In particular, they had a chat tool that appeared in the browser window next to the videos of presentations, but it was clunky, didn’t scroll back very far (100 entries) and was lost once the window closed. It would have been a lot better if they used Discord for all of the chats, to provide more scrollback and to keep all of the conversations in the same place. And don’t get me started on the Virtual Dealer Room: it was just a webpage with unrequested motion all over it (which makes it unusable for people with vestibular disorders, like myself.) But to participate at all during a global pandemic is kind of a miracle, so I don’t want to make it seem like I’m actually complaining.
The first panel I attended, How Magazines are Changing, had a diverse, international group of magazine editors. I was curious to understand the economic pressures magazines are under, how they’re responding, and how that is creating change in their business and practices. In particular, I’m particularly interested in understanding how if magazines are using some external source of funding (e.g. kickstarter), does it really make sense to talk about magazines as being “markets” for fiction? Instead the discussion was almost entirely focused on the cultural changes associated with decentering publishing from whiteness, cisness, heterosexualness, and maleness. As a white, cis-het man, it was slightly uncomfortable to be in the room while my characteristics were identified as everything that’s seemingly wrong with publishing. The two, white, male panelists, spoke little and both made statements disclaiming their views as white, cis-het men.
The second panel, Publishing in Africa, had a diverse pool of native and diaspora African authors and editors who had a far ranging conversation about the challenges of supporting a native publishing industry in Africa. Hearing about the huge differences among the different countries reminded me of something: In Ugly Delicious, David Chang’s television program about food and diaspora, he refused to identify ethnic food by nationality. That is, he talked about food from India and China without using the terms “Indian food” and “Chinese food”. I eventually realized this was an intentional decision to reject reductivist labels that ignore regional diversity. This conversation made me wonder: Is Africa monolithic enough to have “African” be meaningful as a label? Or are there essential regional differences that require being approached separately?
I also attended a panel about Gender and African SF with mostly African women. Many countries in Africa have draconian laws and cultural practices policing gender and sexual identity. I was kind of distracted during this panel and didn’t take many notes. My take away quote from this presentation was by Tlotlo Tsamaase: “Stories about us can be damaging, but stories BY us can be so much more damaging.”
The panel Beyond the Hero’s Journey was a lot of fun. Since I’ve basically never really studied literature, I have much less familiarity with story structure than most authors or editors. The result was that I felt kind of lost through a lot of the panel as people put up and then shot down various straw men about the hero’s journey as an archetypal organizing myth. This was perhaps the most passionate panel of the entire convention for me, but a lot of it went over my head. I did relate when someone mentioned how anime and manga were exposing readers in the west to alternative models, like slice-of-life stories. One panelist reminded participants that “the structure serves the story.” OK. If you say so.
An international panel discussed Decolonising Secondary World Fantasy. I didn’t take a lot of notes during this presentation either. There was a fair amount of discussion of why secondary worlds end up looking so much like our history and whether it’s just lazy worldbuilding to not imagine structures that are more different.
The Prejudices of Urban Fantasy panel seemed to spend a lot of time just arguing about labels. Is it Urban Fantasy if it’s set in the past? How big does the city the story is set in for it to qualify as “urban”? It made me wonder if I was writing “rural fantasy.” I kind of lost interest in arguing about the semantic differences among labels, which didn’t really delve into story structure all that much, as far as I could tell.
Our own Steven Radecki presented Preparing Your Manuscript for Submission. As I had been able to preview this presentation, I knew what to expect. But I learned several things. Steven prefers a more formal and lengthy “cover letter” than I had been lead to expect from other resources I had read, which recommended a truly minimal cover letter. He also requests a synopsis or story summary that is longer than I was expecting to write. I’ve generally written something more like a logline for these. I asked a couple of questions: (1) What are ways authors can get involved to learn more about the editorial/publication process? (Attend conventions, remember that writing/publishing is a business, and an agent can help with the business side of things) and (2) Is becoming a slush reader useful? How can you find these opportunities? (Maybe, if you want to read a bunch of bad writing, just ask.)
The last panel I attended was Manifestations of Gender that had three short presentations: Jennifer Zwahr-Castro: Author and Character gender in the Hugos, Nick Hubble: Where Will it All Lead?: Gwyneth Jones’s Life, and Marcia D. Nichols: Gynoids, Fembots, and other Mechanized Women. The first was mostly a presentation about the gender (male or female) of both the authors and characters of Hugo award nominees and winners by decade. It showed that that in earlier decades, they were almost all male, and there has been a trend toward equity. OK. The second presentation was about comparing literature stuff I don’t know anything about. OK. The final presentation was about very early sci-fi or pre-sci-fi stories about men building female robots as sex objects and the madness, mayhem, and death that universally followed. I asked a question about how this story compared with the early history of android stories. The presenter responded that the main difference was that people didn’t view androids as sex objects, which seems fair. One participant made several statements about how old white men should be thrown off Worldcon panels. I felt a bit sorry for the older white male panelist. And a panelist reported that RBG had a made a statement that the SCOTUS should have 12 (sic) female jurists that several commenters enthusiastically endorsed — as if the injustice that prevented women from serving on the supreme court for generations was a model that should be replicated. Sigh…
When I was very young, I submitted something for publication and then wrote a letter pressing the editor for a response. I blush to think of it now, how impatient I was for success. It takes a long time to become successful in writing (unless you’re some kind of a savant, I suppose). But now that I’m older, I’m reflecting on how important patience is for writing in ways I had never recognized before.
To begin with, you can’t just write something and submit it. You need to write something and then have some patience and wait for a bit, before you go back and edit it. But it takes more that that.
It takes a lot of time and effort over years to hone your craft in order to produce writing worthy of submission in the first place. You need patience while you write and get feedback and then write some more. But it takes more that that.
After you’ve submitted your manuscript, you need to get ready and wait again. Some publications will get back to you in hours or days, but some will take months to get back to you. You need patience to submit something and then wait and wait and wait. But it takes more than that.
After your story has been accepted, get ready to wait yet again. Oh, you’ll need to deal with revisions and submit a bio and a photo and other stuff. But at best, it will be a month or two — and perhaps much longer — before your piece actually appears in print.
And then you’ll still be waiting on reviews and award nominations and those accolades you, no doubt, fully merit. For those, you might need to keep waiting your whole life.
When I was younger, it was hard to stay focused across such long time scales. A month seemed like an eternity when I was a teenager. Now the months evaporate like fog in the sunshine and bring one’s impending death into crystal-sharp focus. But that will require a little patience too.
This evening, I crossed a huge milestone in my writing career: I got paid. It wasn’t a huge sum. It was not some gigantic Scalzian advance. It was just for a short story — novelette — The Third Time’s the Charm. And Water Dragon Publishing does not pay SFWA “pro” rates. But it was meaningful to me, having spent the better part of a year writing and submitting stories, to finally have one earning returns.
And who knows? Since I also get royalties, if like three or four million people buy my story, I’ll be a millionaire! It could happen, right?
I’m planning to use my proceeds to advance my writing career. First, I’m planning to buy some books (surprise, surprise). I’m also thinking I can pay for my conference registrations for upcoming writing conferences.
To be honest, earning money was never high on my priority list for writing. For me, it’s been more about the fun and adventure of trying something new. But getting paid is definitely part of the fun. And who knows? In the topsy-turvy world we live in having an alternative revenue stream might become important (although if things got that bad, I suspect my writing revenue would dry up too.)
In any event, here’s to the first of what I hope will be many happy (tax) returns.
I mentioned elsewhere that for several years, I had difficulty doing creative work. But last fall, in the depth of the pandemic, I started being able to write again. But why? I think I finally have an answer.
During the pandemic, I found myself suffering from crippling anxiety. Trying to fall asleep at night, I would find myself on the hamster wheel of doom, where thinking about one stressful thing would lead to another. And another. And another. And eventually back to the first one. When this happened, I would become so disturbed, I would look at my phone for manga (but too frequently doomscrolling) and then, after a bit, try again. But it didn’t really help. Eventually, I started plotting a fantasy story in my head. And this, I found, was safe.
Thinking about a fantasy let me escape from my otherwise dark and panicked thoughts. And that’s still how I’m using it today. Charm was just published. But now I’ve written the sequel Favor. And I’m starting to plot out Charm 3 (which does not yet have a working title). Safe. Saaaaaafe.