In taking stock of the year, I looked back over the site and I noticed something a bit depressing: there were a grand total of nine new entries here in 2015, assuming you don’t count new pages created for publications. And the year before was only about twice as active. Unlike in 2013 where I had only one child and averaged well over a post a week, that means this site has not exactly been a hotbed of activity for a couple of years now. And that’s a shame because I like having reasons to come visit this site other than just “hey there’s a new page for a short story I just got published.”

It’s a shame but it hasn’t been some kind of crisis-level circumstance. Because the truth is I like blogging and doing interviews and free short fiction but those things actively compete for the same time blocks as my regular fiction writing. I’m not currently willing to sacrifice the time I carve for writing on site maintenance. If I had the kind of time that would permit me both, perhaps that would be ideal. But I don’t, so for the past couple years I’ve played the hand dealt to me and tolerated an infrequent posting schedule.

3 o'clock

Hani Amir via Creative Commons

But upon reflection there is more than one way to flay a feline. If I myself lack the time to write special site content, perhaps I could instead solicit interesting things to post. Sure, it’s a little strange to have my site—ostensibly dedicated to my writing—populated by other’s work, but it’s not like it’s unprecedented. And really, this site is more about stories than anything else. I don’t have to have written a story for it to be worth sharing.

So, as an experiment, over the next year (at least), I’ll be dedicating the site to some different types of content beyond the journal-style blogging I may have originally intended to fill this space.

200 CCs

The most exciting thing I’ll be doing is revising my microfiction series as an ezine which will be integrated into the main site feed. Each Friday I’ll feature another flash fiction piece of about 200 words, written by an amazing author who is (probably) not me. If you are a writer and want to contribute, submissions are now open, and I’m a semi-pro paying market. I’ll collect each month’s worth of stories into an issue and will do at least two volumes of six issues. If there’s money and interest to support it, I’d love to release these volumes into a print collection as well.

I’ve already lined up several fantastic stories and you’ll get a special sneak peek next Friday as a bonus Christmas gift with the first guest 200 CCs story.

I can’t tell you how excited I am about this. Not just because it means I get to try my hand at the whole editor-in-chief thing, or because it means if all goes according to plan there should be something new here every week, but mostly because I really like the 200-word format. And, above all else, I can’t wait to see what other writers do with it. Already the stories I have to share are amazing and have stayed with me long after reading.

Publication Showcase

Another thing I want to open up the site to is book tours or published short story promotions. Other authors who have books coming out or who have new fiction publications and want to discuss the behind-the-scenes aspects of writing their stories can have their work discussed and promoted here. This is basically the book tour thing but I’m also interested in featuring shorter fiction than just novels. I have three pre-made questionnaires, one dealing with world building, one for the challenges of editing, and one for characters. If you have a publication you want people to know about, this is the way to get it done.

I would love to have at least one of these per week, but I also have seen other author’s sites get flooded with book tour posts so I’m not too keen on running more than two in a row. That means its probably a good idea to get requests in as early as possible. For more info and contact details, head over to the newly revamped Projects page.

5 Star Reviews

I’ve already been doing this for a little while but I thought I’d state officially that this was a Thing I’m Doing. I try to write at least a little something about each book I read over on Goodreads and for the past six months or so I’ve been cross-posting my reviews of books I rate with five stars here. The reason for focusing on only five star books is that these are basically my top book recommendations and I think it’s in keeping with the theme of the site (awesome stories) to highlight the books I read that mean the most to me.

Admittedly, this is a little tricky because I find occasionally I’m inclined to rate a book five stars (instead of a very strong four star rating) just so I can feature the review here. My internal rating system is a bit fluid to begin with and my opinion about rating things at all is fairly nuanced. But the more I’ve thought about it since starting this, the more I believe having the bar between four star book (which I usually think of as a book I’d recommend to pretty much anyone) and a five star book (which per the cross-posting becomes a de facto recommendation to literally everyone) is useful to have.

Because I read at inconsistent rates and there’s no guarantee about how many really great books I’ll read in a given period of time, these are going to be far less frequent and very unscheduled. Since I write them regardless of inclusion here, I feel it’s a nice way to talk about great stories here with no additional loss of writing time.

Love Story

Atilla Kefeli via Creative Commons

Other?

I haven’t totally abandoned the freeform, journal-style, or random unformatted fiction options, either. Like I said, I enjoy writing those; I just can’t justify the time commitment it would take to populate a site with them. And of course I’ll still be updating the Published Work section with new stories as they get published.

My hope, of course, is that all this will result in a site that is worth visiting regularly, especially if you’re in the mood to read or hear about great stories. It’s what I’m all about.

Two Years Before the Mast

Don McCullough via Creative Commons

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.

A few things converged recently to get me thinking about physical spaces, in particular the spaces that we spend the most time in. The first is that I read Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up“, in which a Japanese tidying consultant suggests her method for getting rid of clutter in one’s home. The second was that I purchased a new eReader, and the third was that I had a series of home storage-based issues crop up during an extended period where I was away from work.
Bookshelf

David Orban via Creative Commons

The core of Kondo’s approach is to get rid of everything you own that you don’t absolutely love. She has some specific ideas about how one should go about this, but the idea is to drastically decrease one’s possessions so that what remains are things that are, in a manner of speaking, indispensable. Her criteria is that only those things that “spark joy” should be kept. I kind of like this idea, although as some critics have pointed out, it’s pretty tough to describe the feeling one gets for, say, a spatula as anything even in the neighborhood of joy. And yet, throwing out every spatula in the house might not be prudent no matter how much space it might save.
But I get the sentiment at the heart of Kondo’s regimen: all that stuff everyone has “just in case” or because it was a gift or because “what if…” is just crowding the things that are actually valued in our surroundings. The picture she paints of having a sparsely decorated and ornamented living space full of only things that facilitate simple joys is, to me anyway, very compelling.

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2014 Winner NaNoWriMo

Used with permission from National Novel Writing Month

Well, I managed to finish the NaNoWriMo project—from their 50,000-word guideline perspective anyway—once again at or near the midnight hour. I have been terribly off pace since early in the month and it’s taken a lot of gritted teeth to power through to the finish line. I think, more so than anything else, the challenge this year has been simply that there are other things I would have rather been working on. At no point did this novel ever really capture my imagination and demand to be written down. But as I said going into the month, that’s probably a good thing. Having the luxury of working on the latest inspiration isn’t something it would be wise to come to expect. So I set the goal and I stuck with it, even when it was difficult. Because this year, more so than the other two where I participated, there were times that I really wanted to just call it off. To pack it in and shrug it off. It’s just a silly self-directed contest, after all.

Right?

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Halfway House Cafe BBQ

Andrew Morrell via Creative Commons

Just a quick check in today to update a few things.

  • Halfway through the NaNoWriMo month and … well, I’m behind. I don’t think it’s yet at the point where all is lost, but I should be at the 25,000 word mark and I’m about 7,000 words off the pace. Now, that’s not something I can’t overcome: I’ve written 3,500-4,000 words in a day plenty of times. But it’s a daunting place to be in. Looking back on last year, I see that I was woefully behind around mid-month then as well and I ended up rallying and coming through with a strong second half. I hope that’s the case again. I’m still struggling to get into this story the way I would like, which worries me because at least last year I was enthusiastic about the problem, even if I was struggling with having been laid off right around the beginning of the month. Most days this time around I feel like it’s a chore to reach the standard 1,667 words. But I’m still plugging away as best I can, hoping I can find some inspiration somewhere and finish strong.
  • A small part of my NaNo struggles also come down to the number of other related tasks I’m dealing with. I’ve been trying to keep this blog more frequently updated, and part of that involves doing some reading for the Short List series that I’m still enthusiastic about. Plus I’m reading a really good book right now and a lot of my friends keep getting really great stories published which are piling up on me. I’ve also been reading chapter books (not picture books) to my oldest daughter at bedtime, which has been fun and I want to write some new reviews of these children’s books based on the new readings and the conversations they spark with her, but finding time is so challenging. Not to mention I’m still trying to check in on the slush reading gig regularly. And, of course, there are non-literary issues to contend with including a baby who’s teething and not sleeping well, illnesses that keep nagging our family, and a renewed effort on my part to fix some of my health issues by eating better and exercising. These are things every person—and particularly every writer, I’m sure—contends with, but sometimes they seem to pile up a little higher and this month feels like one of those periods.
  • On the bright side, some writer friends of mine turned me on to QuarterReads, a new site for writers and readers that operates a little on the microtransaction model that was sort of hot a number of years ago. Basically you drop $10 into the site and that gives you 40 reads at twenty-five cents. The stories are all under 2,000 words and most of the money goes directly to the author. If you like the story, you can tip up to another seventy-five cents. They do read and vet each submission which gives some quality control to the site so you know you’re not getting unfiltered, unedited garbage. And there are some pretty heavy hitters posting work there now, such as Ken Liu, Cat Rambo, and a couple of people I know and can personally vouch for: Alexis A. Hunter and Natalia Theodoridou. Anyway, I think it’s a really interesting model, and I genuinely hope it succeeds. I even have a story up there now, Corkscrew, which you may recall appeared on the Toasted Cake podcast earlier this year. This is the first print version of the story available, so if you missed it first time around, here’s another chance to catch it.
  • Speaking of publications, it seems that October ended my rather unlikely streak of publications. From April through September of this year, I had a new publication come out every month. I have one publication pending, an anthology I’m thrilled to be a part of and can’t wait to see come out. But even my most optimistic hopes for it wouldn’t permit the streak to stay alive; the publishers are putting out an advance review copy (ARC) and only finalized the contributors list in September. Not too much chance of a one-month turnaround there. Still, I’m amazed and humbled by this past year’s small step forward. Six stories this year was more than I could have hoped for, and in the meantime I’ve continued to write and (hopefully!) improve, so I’d like to say this is only the beginning. For those who have supported me by reading or signal boosting—in particular my ever-patient wife who also manages to make time to be my biggest cheerleader—I thank you. I write for me, but I try hard to be better for you.

I’ve been submitting my fiction to markets for publication for over a year now. In that time I’ve sent out my work one hundred times. It’s not a massive amount of experience, truth be told. And this isn’t even an advice post, because I probably don’t have any advice worth offering. But I wanted to mark the round-number milestone of my triple-digit submissions by reflecting back on some of the things I learned and achieved along the way.

Submit Button

Johannes P Osterhoff via Creative Commons

Rejections, We’ve Got A Few

While I’ve submitted 100 times, if I waited until I had 100 submissions processed, I wouldn’t be able to post this until probably around year two. Submitting to the slush pile is a slow, tedious process. And I tend to target markets with fast turnarounds, too. But I’ve churned through about 83 submissions and my acceptance percentage is… 8%. Duotrope says this is a higher than average rate for other authors who submit to similar markets, but it doesn’t say how much higher or what that average is. Not really hanging much significance on that.

Most of the rejections I’ve received have been form rejects. You know, “We have to pass, as it unfortunately does not fit our needs at this time.” I have gotten some personal ones and while those are really the kind of rejections you look for as a submitting author, some of them can be bitter pills to swallow. Here’s my favorite from the past year:

“The story itself isn’t very compelling. You don’t really have much of a plot here.”

It helps to remember that, ultimately, each acceptance or rejection is a personal preference. The rejection above, for example, was for Corkscrew, which went on to be accepted by Toasted Cake and quite a few people later told me it had a great story and was very compelling. So, to each his or her own.

I’ve also come to understand the exquisite pain of the shortlist. Several times in the last 100 submissions, I received a notification that my work had made it past a first reader and was being sent up the chain. Once I made it past two rounds of vetting. When this happens and you get an acceptance, the needled anticipation of the shortlist is quickly forgotten in the triumph. But when the reviewing editor or an editorial board receives the work (usually indicating an even longer wait for response) and then chooses to pass, it’s pretty rough. You can’t get an acceptance in some markets without this process. But since submissions are a numbers game anyway, and one you try to steel yourself against optimism while you play, anything that smacks of hope is kind of like the enemy.

I Accept Your Acceptance

I keep a list of statistics on the master spreadsheet I use to track my submissions. Sure, I subscribe to and use Duotrope extensively, but for me the value in that site is their market database, not the tracking feature. Since I have occasionally submitted to markets that aren’t in their database and I was submitting before I subscribed, I need a master list to track everything I’ve done.

Some of the stats I keep on that spreadsheet surprised me. For example, all those submissions I’ve made have only come from 18 “completed” pieces of writing. Which means over a quarter of the finished pieces I’ve tried sending out have been picked up. It sounds impressive until you realize that 13 finished works of short fiction is not much of a backlog. I have writer friends with dozens and dozens of stories they’re trying to find homes for. What this really says to me is that I need to write more.

But getting those acceptances has been wonderfully fulfilling and flattering. The trick is that so far it hasn’t been particularly lucrative. Getting work out where people can see it has been vital to my development as a writer. But the goal is to use those as stepping stones to sharpen my skills to the point where I can crack those pro-paying, high-circulation markets. There may be another dozen or two vanity indies or token-paying niche publications in front of me before I get to that point. I just have to remember it’s a marathon.

Progress Is Moving Forward

However, I can take some solace from the fact that for the most part the stories I’ve finished more recently are noticeably better than the crop I started with when I began submitting last spring. Some of those earlier works, even the ones I thought were my best work ever, have labored into double-digit rejects. A few of them are now undergoing heavy rewrites to bring them up to par with my current work. The things I’m writing now feel more promising than those I was convinced would get my writing career off the ground.

And through the slow and necessarily painful process of trial and error, I’m starting to see some of the weaknesses my writing suffers beneath, and taking steps to correct them. Or unlearn the habits. Or consciously fight to avoid. I’m trying to take bigger risks, let go of my crutches, dig deeper into my characters, and push myself so I’m not satisfied with anything unless it’s as phenomenal as I can make it.

So here’s to the next year and the next 100 submissions. Rejections or acceptances, there’s no way forward except through the gatekeepers. My ultimate goal is to one day submit something so relentlessly awesome an editor with no space left in the current issue has to order extra pages because they can’t imagine not buying and publishing my story as soon as humanly possible.

I won’t rest until I get there.

 

Laboratory

tk-link via Creative Commons

Shock Totem, a horror zine, held a flash fiction contest early last month. One thousand words based on a photograph of a rusting roller coaster in the mist. Each participant had one week to submit their story. Then all submissions were anonymized and posted for the participants to read, vote on, and provide some feedback. After a month, the votes were tallied and the feedback posted, along with the winners.

Now, I didn’t really get my hopes up too high. Several of the submissions were truly great, so I knew the competition would be rough. But after reading all 45 or so of the other entries, I felt my story had an original take on the prompt that maybe would set it apart from the others. When the results came back and I didn’t win, I wasn’t that surprised. I was happy to get a bunch of feedback on my writing, though. But then I looked at it.

And I got confused.

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Pacifica OceanFriday night in the suburbs, a small family puts their lone daughter to bed and sits down to watch some recorded television and pay the bills. My wife and I exchange silent looks. Remember when Fridays used to be fun? the look says. Out loud, she sighs, “I could really use a beach getaway.” Practicality being what it is, we can’t afford a long trip or the time off. The bills stare at me, gluey tongues mocking from windowed envelopes, tangible reminders of the cruel taskmaster named responsibility.

“Let me see what I can do,” I say. Life, it’s said, is for living.

We get going later on Saturday than I expect. There’s a stop for lunch, a stop at a department store for some beach towels and sunscreen, traffic on the highways. But the hotel is pleasant, overlooking the waves, even if the highway in between drowns the noise of the surf. We don’t get to the shore until almost five, but it’s summer and time is on our side.

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Rejection NoticeYesterday 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.”

“I am!”

“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.