Writing

Where to find me at Boskone

Attending Boskone this weekend? Here’s where to find me:

Saturday

Gender Roles in Doctor Who (1 PM to 1:50 PM), Harbor III

From the description: “The characters (Companions, foes, etc.) in TV’s Dr. Who have included men, women, and “other.” How have they all conformed to “expected” gender conventions? Discuss notable breaks in tradition, giving examples (this will not be graded.)” With LJ Cohen, Max Gladstone, Julia Rios, and Laurie Mann (M).

Capes, Canes, and Superhero Comics (3 PM to 3:50 PM), Burroughs

From the description: “How we treat our superheroes and villains provides a unique view of our own culture’s beliefs and values regarding ability and disability. Panelists explore the complementary and conflicting nature of superpowers and disabilities. What do the cane bearers and cape wearers from comics reveal about ourselves, our health concerns, and our treatment of those with permanent disabilities and chronic conditions?” With Dana Cameron, Christopher Golden, Brianna Spacekat Wu, Daniel P. Dern (M).

Warning: I have to run after the end of this panel if I’m going to make it to the next one, so I won’t be available to talk immediately after.

From Pixels to Print: The Challenges of Running a Magazine (4 pm to 4:50), Harbor I

Note: I’m moderating this.

From the description: “Got a great idea for a online magazine or podcast that will feature exciting new content, authors, and artists? How do print versus online models compare? Figuring out what you want to do may be the easy part. Now let’s talk about funding, staffing, and managing your organization, and then printing (or enpixeling), distributing, and publicizing your precious products. Successful magazine and podcast veterans tell you how they do it all!” With Scott H. Andrews (Beneath Ceaseless Skies), Neil Clarke (Clarkesworld Magazine), and Shahid Mahmud (Galaxy’s Edge).

Sunday

Flash Fiction Slam (9:30 AM to 10:50 AM), Burroughs

Performing a never-before seen flash fiction story, in under 3 minutes! I may write it the night before! Who knows? Come and cheer me on as I compete against several other authors, some of whom may even be prepared and/or awake!

Writers on Writing: Sex Versus Romance (1 PM to 1:50), Harbor II

From the description: “Authors share ideas and experiences about writing scenes that are erotic as compared to scenes that are romantic. Which is harder? Which is more fun to write? Does your protagonist’s gender or preference make a difference? How do you accommodate audiences of different ages or sexual orientations? Is romance just sex in soft focus?” With Anna Davis, Nancy Holder, and Darlene Marshall (M).

And then I run away home.

The rest of the schedule is online here.

#sfwapro

A Sale, A Review, and A Problematic Story

First, the good:

This week, I sold two SF haiku to Scifaikuest for their August 2014 print issue, and a new review of my latest publication said:

“CL3ANS3 is a beautiful story” and ”Cuinn’s voice and the picture she was able to weave inside my mind was absolutely amazing, her prose was top-notch.” Yay!

The not so good:

A few months ago I shared the opening of a story I was writing, “The Night Hours“. It’s got lots to love: 1930s Innsmouth, a non-white hero navigating a Mythos noir mashup, a strong female character, and more. I thought it would be the start to a series of these stories, maybe even a collection. I researched, wrote, rewrote, finished the story and -

I’ve become hesitant do anything with it. In writing about a main character not normally seen in this type of fiction (Lovecraft’s work was notoriously white-washed, and I’ve been pushing back against that for years) I started from a place of appreciation but ended up wondering if it’ll be read as appropriation. Why? Because too often, white authors will write about non-white characters – usually Asian – to add an exotic flavor to their fiction. Exotic because they assume we’ll read the inclusion of this “other” character as unusual, strange, mysterious, and even sexy – but definitely not normal, average, typical, day to day, or white. And flavor because often these characters are described as food, with “chocolate”, “mocha”, or “cinnamon” skin, and they’re sprinkled into the story for the characteristics the author assumes their race implies, in the same way that a dinner of dim sum and fried rice would be mentioned – because hey! that’s weird food – but when a character eats cereal for breakfast it’s left out.

I wrote that character because I wanted to see something in fiction that I don’t often see – a strong, non-white, lead character doing all of the typical noir things, including getting the girl. I picked a Filipino man as the lead because I felt I knew enough to have a good sense of the character without having to guess at anything. I didn’t want to risk getting it wrong, and if I’d written about a native of the Sudan, for example, I would be inventing instead of relaying. He is like any other guy, white or not, because the real life Filipino men he’s inspired by (not based on any one but an amalgamation of several I’m close to) are the same as white men, which is to say, they’re normal and unique and typical, depending on the moment, just like everyone else. This isn’t a revelation to me and it certainly shouldn’t be to you.

But while a lot of the readers on this story loved it, I noticed an odd split: all of the non-white readers adored it, while some (not all) of the white readers thought it wasn’t believable. I was told that this story would only sell to “certain” markets. One person even asked why the MC had to be a Filipino when I’d “obviously” written a white man and then changed his appearance. I’m already aware of the fine line between celebrating and othering, when it comes to writing about people and places you’re not legitimately a part of, and these crit notes were making me nervous. There’s a lot of non-white authors who’d say that you shouldn’t even try to write non-white characters if you happen to be white, because it’s not your story to tell.

I respect that point of view and I at least agree with part of it – you shouldn’t tell someone else’s story without drawing on your own experiences in some way. But I disagree with the implication that only people of a certain race, color, background, sex, gender, identity expression, neighborhood, and so on should write about characters with those qualities. We should all write everyone, and we should all be careful to write real people with whom we can relate, instead of using a character’s external appearance or birthplace as shorthand.

I want this story out in the world because I think it’s entertaining, well-researched and well-written. I also very much want it out in the world because the idea that [insert any non-white person here] can only be admirable, strong, manly, sexy, or brilliant if we first write a white version and then paint ‘em a different color is something I don’t ever want to hear again. We make SFF a more diverse place by including more diverse characters, regardless of the author. But if readers look at this story and think I’m exaggerating someone’s abilities to make a point, and so use it as proof they’re right to assume non-white peoples are less than in some way – I’m failing my friends and people I love by contributing to that. That’s not fair to them.

The fact that I’ve had to say “non-white” and “white” several times in this post isn’t fair to them either, by the way. We are all so much more complex than a simple “this/that” division could ever express. Do you really want to be “just a white guy”, a stereotype, a bad guy in a certain kind of films? Neither do I.

I don’t have a good answer to this problem yet, and so I’ve got the story tucked away in a file until I decide what to do with it.

This path leads to madness and ruin. Maybe.

I finished moving my scattered notes over to the Drive spreadsheet I’m using now, and updated this post accordingly. Having a detailed tracker helps me to see:

  • My acceptance rate from 2010 to 2013 is 54%
  • I submitted twice as much in 2010 as in any of the years after.
  • I earned $720.94 for those acceptances, from a total of 9 paid sales, with 11 unpaid acceptances (including one I donated to an anthology). The whole of 2010, I only made $7.

It’s tempting to stay on that path – submitting to places I’m fairly certain will be happy to have my work, waiting to be invited to an anthology. There’s a lot less risk involved when you’re not opening yourself up to the possibility of failure or hurt. But, at the beginning of 2014 I resolved to try a new path: no more writing for free, with the exception of a handful of literary markets, and no more letting months go by between submissions.

This means I have to write more, finish the pieces I have started, have them read/critiqued/edited, revise it, and submit. It’s also going to mean a lot more rejections, as I move from smaller markets where I was a big fish, to bigger markets where I’m a tiny guppy. I’ve sent out four submissions this month so far, and three have already been rejected: two form rejections from Clarkesworld, and a personal from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency:

Hi Carrie -

This certainly has its charms, but I’m afraid I’m going to pass. Cracks more smiles than laughs. Appreciate your considering us, though. Hope you’ll try again sometime.*

I’ve put a counter in the top right corner of the site to share my progress this year. Feel free to poke me if you haven’t seen it change in a few weeks.

I don’t know if this experiment will result in me moving up to the next phase of my writing career, or just depress me into a drunken stupor. But I do know that I don’t want to stand in the way of my own happiness, letting my fear or worry keep me from achieving my goals or creating the life I envision for myself.

Risk it is, then.

* A rejection like that is not nothing, but it’s still a “NO”.

Stats: Submissions, Rejections, Acceptances, and Notes from my writing career to date

My amazing writer’s group* has been comparing the number of rejections we’ve all had in the last few years. Rejections are a measure of success because they mean you’ve been submitting your work, giving it a chance to be sold. Other folks in the group have 200, 300+ rejections, which means they’re submitting over a hundred times a year.

I haven’t submitted 100 stories in my lifetime.

I went over my notes from 2010 to now, and compiled my stats:

I have submitted 37 pieces (1 essay, 1 poem, and 35 fiction submissions) so far.

Sold/placed 24, had 13 rejections.

The rejections represent 9 pieces I haven’t yet been able to place (including a couple that I’ve trunked now). Of these, two ended up in my collection, so I’ve sold them that way, but they weren’t accepted by someone else.

4 personal rejections, 5 form, 3 maybe-form rejections, one “market closed while my piece was on sub”.

Of the sales, one was a reprint, a couple were micro-fiction, one was a pro-rate story (“Call Center Blues” to DSF)**, one was non-speculative noir. Three were for invite-only anthologies, and one of those was the essay. Less than 1/2 of the paying sales were for flash, which surprised me; I always thought of myself as more successful with flash, and it’s true that I’ve sold nearly all of it that I’ve written, but I’ve made more sales overall of longer pieces (for $) which means I must be writing more short stories than I thought.

This doesn’t count all of the non-paying non-fiction work I’ve done: guest essays, podcasts, blog posts, and my columns for Functional Nerds and SF Signal. Those weren’t things that were really going to be rejected, and other than building my resume/fan base, they don’t help my fiction career.

On the upside, my acceptance rate is pretty high, but that’s because I carefully research my markets, very selectively submit, and haven’t been subbing to many pro-markets. I didn’t aim low but I didn’t aim too high, either. I’ve started to change that this year, with my first submission of the year to Clarkesworld Magazine (and my first rejection, from them, 48 hours later).

As I get more out, I know my enviable ratio is going to drop like a stone. That’s the price of moving forward, and I’m willing to pay it if it means a more successful 2014.

* which includes Julie Day, Michael J. DeLucaAdam MillsDon PizarroAngela Still, and Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam. Aren’t I lucky?

**  which made me eligible for the Campbell in 2012 and 2013, but I never felt I’d sold enough to warrant publicizing myself as such, and I’ve now expired out.

Taking it on the chin

Sometimes, you put your work out there, and you get criticized. As writers, that’s part of the gig. A reader can fail to connect with your character, they can dislike your tone, or not get any of your references, and for them, the story will fall flat. Other times, readers are disappointed because you didn’t give them the end they thought they’d get from the opening paragraph, or because they wanted the characters or plot to be something they weren’t (even if you delivered on what you’d promised.)

It happens. Ask any writer and they’ll probably tell you, “Never argue with a reviewer, kid. It makes them hate you and makes you look like an ass.” Sound advice, and I follow it myself.

But there’s a certain distance between you and the work when you write fiction, that makes a badnegative review a little easier to take. It’s not really about you, it’s about the story. What if you are the story? I recently sent a new story out to a bunch of readers, including my wonderful writing group, and they came back with a lot of similar comments. The short version is this:

A girl with a (favored) younger sister and a single mom goes through being picked on, hit, yelled at, ignored, pushed away, and more – a generally unhappy life – which culminates in her finding someone who does care about her only to lose them again.

There’s more, hints at aliens and an alt-history dystopia, but the core of the story is this girl and her childhood. The comments I got said the writing was clean and the transitions between scenes were great, but no one wanted to see an ending where the girl’s life didn’t get better. They also didn’t see why I needed to put in multiple examples of abuse/neglect, because they “got the point” early on. Basically, it wasn’t believable or satisfying. But it was all true. I picked a couple of moments out of what was a pretty common occurrence in my life, and put them into a piece of fiction, and it’s not believable. How do you take that criticism?

You do. That’s just it. It’s not a critique of me as a person, it’s a critique of a story that I wrote and submitted and want other people to read/buy. To make it marketable, I have to listen to my reviewers and either trunk the story (give up) or change it.

Nothing you ever write will be critiqued as harshly as putting your own life into a piece and having it dismissed as “wrong”. But no matter what you write, if it’s meant to be fiction, it’s no longer a part of you, and that’s how you need to treat it. Pay attention to what didn’t work. Listen to why a story didn’t speak to the people who read it. Decide which of those comments you’re hearing the most often, and which “fixes” you can make without losing too much of what you wanted to say in the first place.

There’s no finished piece of writing without editing, and you have to take a step back when it’s time to cut and revise and clean up your first draft into your finished one. Whatever you’ve drawn from to create the story, it becomes words on the page once you’ve written it down, and if I can give you one piece of advice, young authors, it’s this: let it go.