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.
About two months ago I began volunteering as a first reads editor for a small semi-pro science fiction magazine. If you’re a writer who regularly submits fiction to publishing markets, you’ll recognize this role as the “slush reader.” If you’re not a writer, the short explanation is that unsolicited submissions are collected into what is called the slush pile—a stack of stories sent in cold for publishing consideration. The editor-in-chief is usually the person responsible for purchasing stories they want to publish, but in a lot of cases the number of submissions overwhelms the time an editor-in-chief could reasonably devote to reading and making a decision upon.
Many markets use slush readers, almost always volunteers, who comb through the submissions and reject the ones they feel have no chance of being approved by the decision-makers and passing along only those that pass first inspection.
Slush reading has a reputation of being something of a thankless job. Aside from being unpaid, it can take a significant amount of time, depending on the volume of submissions and the current number of active first readers. Plus, there is the perception—true or not—that slush reading means reading a lot of really awful stories.
My reasoning for undertaking this endeavor is that, having spent a year and a half having my writing read by these pre-screeners, I wanted to get a taste of life on the other side of the submissions queue. I have some designs of doing editorial projects in the future and I felt this was a good way to get some experience in editorial-adjacent work. The other factor, and not an insignificant one, is that I heard from a few writer friends who slush read on the side that doing so was beneficial to their own writing. Seeing common mistakes that got stories rejected was good, they said, for helping them avoid similar mistakes in their own work.
So I answered a call for first readers from Plasma Frequency Magazine. My experience with them was fairly limited; I had read a couple of issues as part of my research project to get a sense of what certain markets accept. I submitted one story to them which passed their first two reading tiers and was, eventually, rejected by the editor-in-chief. I had thought about submitting other stuff to them, but decided to see about the position first (volunteer editors are not allowed to submit to PFM).
Once I was brought onboard I began reading through the submissions queue and making decisions. To be honest, at first I didn’t think too closely about it and just tried to be fair about what I thought had a chance at being picked up by the editor-in-chief.
But over the following couple of weeks I started seeing certain things happen that opened my eyes to what might be going on behind the scenes at markets where I had pending submissions. Obviously I can’t assume that my observations map to anyone else’s, or even that the processes of doing first reads are all that comparable (I have only this experience—and a very small sample of it at that—to go on), but thinking about how this plays from both sides of the fence has been interesting at least, and possibly instructive.
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’m doing National Novel Writing Month again this year. I started in 2011, where I completed the challenge by rambling 50,000 words of useless nonsense about a reluctant Djinn and … a guy? …Who wishes for his wife’s boobs to be bigger? I think? I’m not sure. It got weird.
I skipped 2012 intentionally, as I had a lot of other projects I wanted to work on and didn’t want the disappointment of failing. Turns out the disappointment of not even trying wasn’t much of an improvement. So I resolved to go for it again last year, and barely squeaked out my 50K on a fantasy/detective hybrid thing. Again, I didn’t outline the plot (though I did a ridiculous amount of world building prep) and it turns out writing a mystery/noir thriller without a very clear idea where the plot is going is Not A Good Idea. So I finished—from a NaNo perspective—but, as with the Djinn story, it didn’t get any further than that. I may revisit the fantasy/noir later; it’s shelved for now.
Now this year I’m back at it. If you’re following along on Twitter you may have noticed me griping late last month about trying to come up with a project idea. I had a few concept seeds that seemed like they might be worth exploring in a longer format, but I had a hard time making them mesh in any cohesive way. I toyed with crime story frameworks, science fiction trappings, angsty YA-lit variants, all sorts of things to make something click. Eventually I settled on a horror/supernatural story and set out trying to outline the thing.