Word counts: a phrase that strikes utter apathy in the hearts of people everywhere. Well, most people. If you’re a writer or editor, you probably care (at least some) about word counts. They are a rough measure of the size of a piece of writing, and in shorter works (journal articles, short fiction, etc) they can be a measure of effort for use in paying writers. Typically book-length work is paid based on unit sales and/or other complicated algorithms so it matters less how many words something is once it reaches that scope. Now, determining what lengths qualify as “novel” versus, say, “novella” is a whole other discussion, but let’s focus on the fact that word counts are used to determine relative size and values for works that tend to be collected or anthologized.
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.
Today marks the second anniversary of my efforts to become a published writer. I suppose I might mark my progress based on when I began writing in earnest instead, but to be honest the specific date is hazy and anyway lost to memory. But I do know for sure when I sent out my first submission, and that was April 9, 2013. It pre-dates this site, even.
In the past 24 months, I’ve sent out over 200 submissions, totaling well over 800,000 words read by more than 120 different markets. I’ve received somewhere north of 150 rejections. My skin is tougher.
I’ve also received just over a dozen acceptances. Alas, at least one of those will never turn into a publication. But I’m slowly cobbling together a list of published work. I’ve made some money (not a lot! still, some) by selling these works. In the time I’ve spent submitting these stories, I’ve written over 250,000 additional words across a couple of novels and roughly 30 new short pieces. I think—I hope—I’m getting better.
I’ve made some wonderful friends along the way, made some mistakes, learned new things. To those who have read the stories, commented, critiqued, retweeted, signal boosted, even detested the work, I am deeply grateful. The writing would continue regardless, but the sharing of stories is what makes an idle pastime into a thrilling endeavor. Opening my imagination in a way that makes another person feel something, or think, or laugh, or just be entertained, that is the principal joy for me. I am honored and indebted to anyone who has taken time out of their lives to spend with my work.
Of course, nothing in these past two years would have been possible without the support of my family. They have all sacrificed in ways big and small for me to pursue this mad dream I sometimes wish could be discarded but cannot. My wife, who has endured my self-doubt, my existential whinging, my failed experiments, and who has cheered me on and celebrated each small triumph along the way. My children, who inspire me with their imagination and their love. They have all given generously; time, encouragement, understanding, sometimes welcome distraction. I am awash in good fortune.
Onward and upward.
I’ve been trying to write a post to provide some updates for various happenings in the past month or so. But my efforts to make such a post informative and clever have run up against my decided lack of cleverness. Therefore I will leave the frills behind and simply info dump a few assorted tidbits.
- I had a piece set for publication last month (it was Lost And Found, if you’re curious). Then a week or so before the issue it was to appear came out, the publication shut down. It was disappointing, but from talking to some of my other writer buddies, this happens a not-insignificant amount of the time.
- So, while that temporarily kept me in the land of the unpublished, I’m hopeful that my next acceptance will actually see print. The wonderful folks at Buffalo Almanack picked up my story, From The Blog Of Exceptional-Man, and its issue should drop in a mere five days. @BuffaloAlmanack has been tweeting about it (and the other intriguing-sounding stories in the issue) for a little while now so I’m pretty excited. I should mention here that based on the ironsoap.com ratings system, had this been published here I would have rated it R for strong language. It deals with angry Internet postings, so if you spend any time online it’s not something you don’t see a thousand times a day. Still, fair warning.
- I participated in, and completed, NaNoWriMo last month. They call it “winning” in the sponsoring organization’s materials, but I don’t really like the idea of referring to it as such. The implication is that the people who attempted it and did not complete are somehow losers. In any case, I made it to 50,000 words on a novel I titled Lessons In Necromancy. I intend to have a much longer post about the experience, but on the very real chance I won’t get to it, I wanted to at least highlight the accomplishment once.
- One of the side effects of the madness that accompanied my efforts to finish NaNo was that I totally dropped the ball on Aspiring Voices for a couple of weeks there. If you’ve been enjoying the series, I’m sorry for the interruption. But, in addition to slipping on the posting schedule, I’ve also been falling behind on the in-progress interviews as well, so I may run into a position where I don’t have any completed ones in the next couple of weeks. Tomorrow you’ll see my interview with the fascinating and unique mind that is Alexander Chantal. Following that, though, there will be a break which we’ll call the holiday break until the new year. I have some great young and working authors lined up, too, so look for 2014 to start off strong.
- However, while we’re on the subject of Aspiring Voices interview subjects, I thought I’d put out a wider call for additional volunteers and/or recommendations and requests. If there is someone you’d like me to interview, or if you’re a writer working to break in and would like to be featured in the series, add a comment to this post or drop me a line at email@example.com. For Aspiring Voices, I have a loose guideline that the subjects should be writers who do not write full time (i.e. their income is not entirely earned through writing). It’s my site and my feature so I can make exceptions if I want, although in some cases I’d be happy to interview people who are more well established, it just may not be posted under the Aspiring Voices banner.
- I also slipped and goofed a bit on the 200 CCs schedule over the last couple of months. Planning for the future is hard. Anyway, I had originally thought I was set through November (the idea being I didn’t want to have to worry about pumping out two flash pieces per week on top of my NaNoWriMo word count), so as of earlier this month I finally burned through all my backlog of 200 word stories. So when I sat down to write some more I thought back to earlier stories I had done and, recalling Deep Carolina, thought it might be fun to do something else in that vein. So I came up with the Fifty States Of Crime sub-series. Basically I’ll do one 200 word crime story for each of the 50 US states. Sometimes the state-specificity may not be all that heavy. This is intended to be an exercise in quick research and thematic variation, not an effort to capture to the true essence of a bunch of places I’ve never been. As with all my 200 CCs posts, I expect them to be hit or miss. I do these quickly with minimal editing and almost no outside feedback. They’re basically my writer’s scratchpad to try new things and flex my creativity a bit. But I think this will be fun detour. As always, if you see any of these you particularly like, I’d truly appreciate a retweet, Facebook like, Tumblr share, Pin, whatever suits you. They take a few seconds to read and the exposure of getting my work in front of new readers is invaluable.
The Aspiring Voices Contest
So, while we’re on the subjects of social media and site features, to compensate for the slippage in posting and the sort of unplanned holiday break on the interviews, I thought I’d take a minute to look back on the wonderful guest writers I’ve had the pleasure to talk with and take the opportunity to try and spread the word a little as well as get these amazing writers’ words in front of some new people. I am going to need your help, but I’m willing to game it up a little to make it worth your while.
I’m running a contest with the astoundingly original name The Aspiring Voices Contest. I’ve asked each of my guests so far to tell me about the best book they’ve read recently. They had some fantastic recommendations. I’m going to give away a copy of one of those recommended books to anyone who promotes an Aspiring Voices interview on social media between now and December 31st.
There are some minor stipulations. One is that you have to be able to prove you promo’d the article. This means the easiest way to enter is to promote on a public network and post the link in the comments. You may also promo interviews on private networks (I’m thinking here of Facebook shares behind privacy settings), but you’ll have to provide a screenshot or some other method of showcasing the signal boost. In any case you must comment on this post with a point of contact, the name of the author whose interview you are recommending, the method/network used, and some kind of verification to be eligible. The post must include a direct link to the interview and be an original coming from you (i.e. retweeting someone else’s promo does not count, you have to post it yourself). Also, maybe it goes without saying, but you must be complimentary to the featured authors. I’m not going to reward you for bashing one of my fellow writers. And you don’t have to promote the interview where the book you want is recommended, but I think that adds a nice bit of synchronicity to the deal.
On January 1st I’ll select one verified signal boost from the qualifying entries and ship them a copy of the book that looks the most interesting to them from the following list:
Note that these are just the available prize titles. You may promote any Aspiring Voices interview that is posted between now and the end of the contest. Also, there are 13 instead of 12 because Sam cheated and recommended two titles. That scoundrel. Personally, I think any of these books would be a great choice, so I don’t envy you trying to choose.
So get posting and win yourself a free book!
Regular readers may remember this week’s Aspiring Voices spotlight writer from her excellent guest fiction post, The Gun’s Fear, earlier this month. I chatted with her about her past life as a dancer, the role of criticism in improving your skill, the nature of success and how one defines “making it” as an author. Plus, she teaches me about Kinetic Fiction.
Paul: What was the first story you remember writing where you finished and thought, “Yeah, there’s something here”?
Alisia: The first story that really changed my view on writing was something I wrote in ninth grade. I had just finished reading On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony and was inspired to write my own short introduction to Thanatos. The piece was only about 500 words, but it was the first time I had finished a story with a sense of accomplishment. I had never had the urge to share any of my previous writings, but I was so proud of this piece that I mustered up the courage to post it on Fictionpress. I didn’t get many views on my story, but one person left me a very flattering comment. She told me my story was the best she’d ever read on the site and she urged me to write more. Sometimes all it takes is a kind word from a stranger for you to realize that not everything you write is complete garbage.
For this week’s Aspiring Voices, I talk with the savvy and articulate Alexandra Lynwood about her experience self-publishing and the opportunities opening up for new authors. We also talk about getting in The Zone, the siren song of the Xbox, and what still draws crowds into bookstores.
Yesterday afternoon I received my first official publication rejection for my short story, The Bookseller. I got the reply email on my phone and after I read its short, two sentence notification, I turned to my wife and said, “I just got my first rejection!” She looked at me with a crooked eyebrow.
“You seem happy about that.”
“Why would you be happy about that,” she asked.
“Because I didn’t expect to get accepted on the first try. I’m sure to get tons of rejections. But now I got the first one out of the way!”
It would be a lie if I said I was one hundred percent ecstatic about this, although the explanation I provided to Nik was honest and I was genuinely happy. I expected nothing more, that’s the truth. But there’s no way you can attempt something and not think, “Well… maybe.” Rejection was only very probable, not guaranteed. The principal uplifting thing I found about receiving the notice was that it didn’t, in fact, crush my soul and make me never want to write again.
The most disappointing aspect of the rejection was that it didn’t come with any feedback. I think the journal I submitted to may have specifically said they weren’t able to provide any, but the against-odds outcome I think I was hoping for was not a few hundred bucks and a publication credit but an editor breaking policy and emailing me some harsh advice such as, “Don’t you dare ever waste my time with magical realism again.” Or something.
In any case, that milestone is out of the way and I responded by simultaneously submitting that same story to a handful of other high-profile outlets. I’ve still got more hope for feedback than for publication, but part of that—with this story at least—is that I’m aiming very high (either pro-rate pay or high prestige). In my opinion it’s the best I’ve written so I feel I owe it to that story to take extra risks with it.