I watched the Hugo Awards and the attendant Puppies drama this year from more or less beginning to end without ever feeling the need to comment or engage. I have my opinions, I’m certain no one else cares about them. Mostly, it was pretty good as far as Internet Dramas go. Entertaining, you know? I follow genre awards primarily in the same way Little Leaguers follow the MLB. It’s aspirational, to a degree; maybe a little bit cautionary.
But, as the post-ceremony furor is fading, Eric Flint posts an essay about the divergence between awards and popularity. Whether I agree with his thesis, methods of analysis, or conclusion is beside the point. It was an interesting read in any case. But it lured me into reflective comment because, as a wannabe author in this space, it made me consider the real shape and form of my goals. The past four years have seen me driving (slowly but consistently) toward an end point. Considering that the previous twelve years were spent putting forth zero concerted effort (generously granting that post-college would have been the proper time to pursue my dreams, despite them being articulated aspirations as far back as 1990—21 years before I got my act together), that’s not insignificant.
However, that actual end point is a little more nebulous than I typically care to think about. There are plenty of ways to wave in the direction of a concrete goal. “I want to be a writer.” Or, “I want to be a published writer.” Or, “I want to make money by writing.” If you don’t stare too hard or add too many qualifying criteria to these nebulous statements, I have achieved all of them. But, honestly, to date that’s as far as my specificity has gone.
And I realized that pursuing dreams is all well and good but you have to put some effort into visualizing what success is going to look like. Otherwise, how will I know when I get there? But then, as I unpack this further, I realize there are steps along the way. In the short term I’d like to qualify for an Active Membership in SFWA (whether or not I actually choose to join) through short fiction sales. That means 10,000 words or more of professional-level pay (six cents a word) across at least three different story sales. Beyond that, getting an agent would be a significant milestone. But how do I really say, “dream achieved?”
Is it when I publish my first novel? When I reach the bestseller list? When I win my first major award? Eric Flint points out that popularity and acclaim don’t always go hand-in-hand, so it’s possible choosing one could mean having to live without the other.
I think the conventional wisdom is that awards are nice to have. Relying on them for a measure of success is, perhaps, a foolish yardstick. Luck is a factor, certainly. But then again, a case could be made that relying on measures of popularity like bestseller status is no good, either. Luck plays a part in that, too. And in both cases it might be chasing the dragon. I won a Nebula! But I’m Hugoless (I’m a failure). I’m on the bestseller list! But only at #25 (I’m a failure). It’s easy to think from my current humble position that anything even in the parking lot of these ballparks would be a triumph, but unless it’s clear where I’m trying to go, there will always be another pinnacle I haven’t reached.
It’s tempting to say, “I’ll keep my expectations low, thereby increasing my chances of success.” But that’s not really a dream, then, is it? It’s more of a to-do item. If I want to merely have a book published, I could quickly polish and self-pub one of my existing manuscripts. Bam. Achievement unlocked.
Upon reflection the distinction between goal, measure of success, and dream is the heart of this matter. The goals are the steps, often linear, necessary for progress. I can set a goal of selling three stories to pro markets. I can set a goal of securing an advance for a novel. And, with hard work, I can achieve those goals. It’s not “no problemo” level stuff, but it’s doable. What those are progressing toward is the measure of success. And that should be a big, hairy, audacious sort of end point. It’s almost indistinguishable from the dream. It might even be close enough. But it has to be within my power, more or less. The dream is the stuff that orbits around that point, the kind of thing I can’t really plan for or depend on to justify my efforts. The goals don’t directly feed the dream, even if they (maybe) enable opportunity for it to come true. Awards are the dream. I mean, yeah, a Hugo with my name on it? I don’t mind wasting some time idly fantasizing about such a thing.
But the thing that drives me, the measure I use to determine if I still need to set goals because I’m not yet where I want to be? That has nothing to do with recognition. That one is simple. I’ll be successful when I can support my family with my writing. That’s it. When I can quit my day job and focus full time on writing without any discernible drop in quality of life, that’s when I move out of achievement mode and into maintenance mode.
From that perspective, given Eric Flint’s theory that popularity—particularly, it seems, long-term popularity—does not track with award-based recognition, I’d rather be popular than acclaimed. I’d even be okay with not being mega-popular as long as I can be just popular enough to devote all my time to what I love. Sure, it would be lovely to have the critical and commercial crossover success (not to mention the multimedia influence) of a John Scalzi or a Neil Gaiman. But that’s dream country. I’ll take the mid-lister’s unsung 35-year career in a hot minute, no regrets.
I won’t get there without the goals. And I won’t accomplish those goals without writing. So for now, that’s what I’m doing. And compared to the guy from twelve years ago who dreamed without measure or goals or effort or any of it? I’m closer to success than ever.
I decided to do some datamining to understand how insular my own reading world may be. The results were perhaps predictable (in part because I read a lot of “mainstream” books), but disheartening. Of the 66 books I checked—and note that I omitted graphic novels and anthologies because of their multi-creator aspects—I came up with these numbers:
Now there is some margin of error there. I didn’t research very much so this was largely based on my existing knowledge of the authors. But I think the takeaway is pretty clear: there’s not a lot of diversity happening here. Particularly problematic is the extreme whiteness of the authors represented here, which is exactly the sort of thing #weneeddiversebooks and others are talking about.
So now that I know, I’ll be making a much more concerted effort to diversify my literature. I think for the remainder of the year I will eschew a book if it doesn’t fit into at least one of the non-white, non-straight, non-male categories above. It’s a small step, but it’s a start.
Have you seen this Hemingwrite thing? Basically it’s a dedicated word processor with an typewriter design aesthetic but some modern technology touches like cloud-syncing and an e-Ink digital screen.
I’ll be honest, I think the thing is sexy as can be. I have a certain fetish for typewriters to begin with, so this preys directly upon that sensibility while neatly sidestepping the fact that, romanticism aside, writing on such a device would require a huge sacrifice in the convenience department. But I can’t lie and say it’s not alluring to be presented with the opportunity to have some of that nostalgic cake and digitize it, too.
But then I read the kickstarter page, and I realize this is a product that is being sold to fix a problem it can’t reasonably be expected to address. And it’s not the first product to take aim at the hapless writer this way, either. Continue reading →
Because my traipsing through short fiction venues is designed to be one-stop, it’s necessary to note that I won’t be bothering with serialized content. I say necessary in the case of Fireside’s October 2014 issue, because the bulk of the issue seems to be devoted to Lilith Saintcrow’s serialized She Wolf And Cub, including a prologue, and then Chapter One. Which is fine because it makes this inaugural edition of The Short List a rather breezy one, consisting of just three stories to read and a short note from editor Brian J. White. That is absolutely not an indictment of She Wolf And Cub—but if I get hooked on every serialized piece I stumble across, I’ll end up doing nothing but catching up on those by the third or fourth Short List. I’m intentionally avoiding it. And that’s actually something worthwhile to note about reading short fiction publications: feel free to skip over anything that doesn’t grab you right away or that just doesn’t sound interesting. With so many other stories to choose from, there’s no sense getting stuck on one that you won’t finish or that isn’t working out for you.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years trying to improve my writing skills by focusing on short fiction. Along the way I’ve read a ton of it, both to learn from what was out there and to see what was selling as I tried to align my submissions to markets that were (more) likely to buy my work. And in the process I developed a love of short fiction.
I could easily say that liking short stories isn’t particularly a recent development. But considering how well short work scratches the reading itch without the commitment inherent in choosing a new novel, it’s kind of surprising that it took me this long and this particular circumstance to get me truly invested in it. It simply didn’t occur to me earlier to seek out short fiction—other than the occasional author collection or intriguing theme anthology. I certainly never thought about subscribing to or buying fiction magazines.
I recently had a conversation with some other writers in which it was observed that sometimes it feels like short story readers have a 1-to-1 overlap with short story writers. That basically the only people who care about literary or genre magazines which run less-than-novel-sized pieces are people who are writing in that format. Maybe that’s untrue or unfair. But what I don’t think is controversial is the idea that short stories could be getting more attention than they are from pure readers.
My hypothesis is that maybe these publications just don’t get enough non-writer-y attention. Perhaps if someone explored some of the available options with a focus on their value to readers; if there was a concerted effort to get conversations started the way they’re started about books—with the added benefit of more inclusiveness since it’s much easier to get a group of people to read a ten-page story than a 300-page book—the short fiction community might not feel so insular.
Enter The Short List. This will be an experiment. For as long as it feels fun and engaging, I’ll choose a different publication for each installment and offer mini-synopses, reviews, and essays about the selected issue. My intent is to spread the focus around: professional-paying, high-profile publications will sit alongside indie and niche collections. I want to do genre magazines and eclectic anthologies. But more than anything I’m going to focus on these selections from a reader’s perspective. What’s the value like? How fun are the stories to read? How likely is it readers will find themselves sharing their favorites with friends? I specifically won’t be talking about the publications’ submission process or pay rates. Cover price may be a factor, art design might come up. What won’t be discussed are topics like the ease of working with the editors, what kind of submissions they’re looking for, or how frequently they respond with personal feedback.
The format may change and evolve over time. I do want to consider this a somewhat critical evaluation of each selection, but I don’t really care to fixate on ripping apart stories (and authors) I don’t care for. I also don’t have much interest in carefully curating my selection of a given publication based on issue or theme. The way I see it, any reader should be able to pick up any issue and be well-rewarded for their time and money. So I won’t be cherry-picking too much.
But here’s my hope: if you love to read, I hope you’ll read along with me, at least sometimes. I want to start conversations, introduce people who love to read to stories they might not otherwise have seen, connect new fans with new favorite writers, and get people excited about short fiction publications for the joy of reading bite-sized stories.
Stay tuned for the first edition of this feature coming very soon.
Aspiring Voices is going on a short hiatus through the end of the year, but we’re stepping out on a high note with the spirited and unique Alexander Chantal. I spoke with Alexander about his unique take on forms, the scientific perspective he brings to crafting a narrative, and the eclectic array of authors that have influenced him.
Paul: Tell me a little bit about how you got started writing. Was it something you always enjoyed, or did you come into it at a later point in time?
Alexander:When I was young, I enjoyed writing little bits and pieces here and there. My mother got me a “My First 500 Words” book when I was very little. I read it all in little or no time, it was fun. Then I was given eights volumes of an encyclopedia, at that point in time I realized three things: I wanted to write small stories with the stuff I already knew, I loved science and reading was like alcohol, once you’re addicted, there is no way out.
I didn’t start off writing like most people, writing small stories on a notebook, but rather making board games with ridiculously elaborate stories and rules. It was crazy, but then and there I realized I loved Sci-Fi. What really got me writing was the Left Behind series. I was’t much of a religious person, but the story was so interesting, then my love for anime grew in intensity.
Initially, I started writing poetry. Didn’t think for a second I’d try and become a writer. A poet, that’s what ran through my mind. Seven years ago, I started writing my first story, I never gave it a name, and then my recent work-in-progress: Adagio for Canon.
Eight years with Jamie began to feel like a relationship with a child’s talking doll, just a series of catchphrases repeated regardless of context or appropriateness. Priscilla thought she might have a clean getaway, but she couldn’t find her cat or her keys and the latch on her suitcase refused to snap. Jamie came home early, saw the pile of belongings.
“You’re leaving.” Jamie made it into a half question.
“Do I get to ask why?” Catchphrase. “Did I miss something?” Catchphrase.
Priscilla picked at a fingernail. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Little late for that.” Those green eyes looked flat, painted on.
“You weren’t supposed to see.”
“I think I’d have figured it out.” Jamie stood. “I don’t get it. Didn’t I give you everything? Everything you wanted?” Catchphrase. The catchphrase. An arm reached for Priscilla, “Cil—“
“No!” she withdrew. “Not everything! Of all the times you asked me that, did you ever bother to find out from me what I wanted? You gave me everything you thought I wanted.” Tears fell.
There was a pause. “That’s not the same thing, is it?” Jamie asked.
Jamie said, at last, the phrase Priscilla had waited to hear.
We’re back after a short break with a new installment of Aspiring Voices. This week I’m happy to welcome Susan Stuckey to the interviewee seat. She talks about the spirited inspiration that keeps her writing, the challenges of staying on track with your vision, and highlights the importance of teachers.
Paul: What would you say was the catalyst for making the pursuit of writing a priority for yourself?
Susan: Back when i first started writing I was told by a member of a writing group I belonged to that i would never write anything worth reading. I decided to prove that statement wrong.
Paul: That’s an incredibly positive response to such negativity. Have you found a different (hopefully) better in-person writing group, or did that experience kind of turn you off from the whole scene?
Susan: There aren’t any “in-person” writing groups anywhere nearby, and feedback is important. I searched for on-line groups. Tried several of them. Found one that was tolerable (better than the others in most ways).
Paul: Is there a part of writing that you find particularly difficult?
Paul: Describe your process a little. Do you plan and outline extensively? Do you discovery-write?
Susan: I think that is has become part of the motivation issue. When I first started I was a pantser. All I knew when I started writing was the beginning and the ending – and the adventure was finding out what came between those two points. Then I was convinced by others that I should outline. I tried. I really, really tried, but discovered I couldn’t work with an outline. But I think the damage was done and the stall induced by trying to outline just continues now fed by my own self-doubt.
Paul: What would happen when you tried to write with an outline? Did the structure get in the way of your process? What are you doing now to try and overcome that doubt?
Susan: With an outline it means you know it all already – you have point “X” beginning & point “Y” and everything inbetween. So where’s the adventure, the fun of discovery? So I wrote nothing. After I realized the issue, I tossed out the outlining and and now trying to recapture my old “pantser” fun (and frustration when the writing heads down a sidetrack).
Paul: So when you discovery-write, do you have any idea of the ending or are you taking the journey along with the characters, as clueless as they are where it will lead? You mentioned the sidetracks that pantsing can sometimes lead to. How do you identify when a discovery-written story has gone off the rails and what do you do to bring it back?
Susan: I know the beginning and a general ending. The “off track” is either discovered in editing – or when a block is reached and I’m trying to figure out why the story won’t progress. Usually those scenes/chapters etc that are off track are snipped out and put in another file. They sometimes become another story.
Paul: What was the first story you remember writing where you finished and thought, “Yeah, there’s something here”?
Susan: I wrote a ghost story in high school. I kinda thought it was “cute” but the English Teacher called me into her office to talk about it. You have to understand this English teacher was demanding, strict, and didn’t believe in false praise. I was scared to death (knees quaking, hands sweating etc) as I made my way to her office. She totally floored me because she loved the story and told me I had talent and from now on she wouldn’t accept anything but the best from me.
Paul: This is a nice flip side to the writer’s group thing. Was this teacher instrumental in shaping your interest for writing? Have there been other teachers that helped ignite that fire to write?
Susan: Just the one about writing, but there were several who encouraged and ignited the “fire” to always do one’s best.
Paul: Tell me about the best book you’ve read recently.
Susan: Wheel of Time: A Memory of Light. The book has been discussed to death by people. Suffice it to say that I thought it was an amazing conclusion to the fourteen book series and very well done.
Paul: Were you familiar with Brandon Sanderson when he took over the series after Jordan passed away? What did you think of his handling of the series’ end? Did you notice a distinct shift post-Jordan?
Susan: I had no idea who Sanderson was before the announcement. I thought the books he wrote from Jordan’s notes were some of the best of the series.
Paul: Have you read any of his solo books? I actually gave up on the Wheel of Time before Sanderson took it over, but I’ve read a couple of his Mistborn books and found them to be really great.
Susan: I’ve read his Mistborn Trilogy. I started the first book of another series he wrote, can’t remember the name of the book now, but I couldn’t finish it then. I’ll pick it up again one of these days and try it again.
Always an avid reader, Susan wrote her first fantasy story on an Apple 2E – and lost it when the computer died. She resumed her affair with writing when the “nest” emptied and has continued writing (off and on–usually off) until the present day.