Wednesday, October 20, 2021

In which Jayme rages at the machine

In my Armadillocon 43 report, I mentioned that I came home from the convention enthused and inspired to write, but all that positive energy had a downside to that. This is the post in which I lay into that, pissing and moaning whilst I wallow in self-pity. I normally try to keep my personal angst pretty close to the vest, but I feel the need for an unfettered vent, professionalism be damned. If this is the kind of self-flagellation you like, read on. If public tantrums make you queasy, then you'd best avert your eyes. If overly-long navel-gazing grates on your nerves, then I recommend fleeing to distant corners of the interwebz, post haste.

I've made no secret that I haven't written much fiction in the past two years. I'd managed good progress on my Sailing Venus novel through most of 2018, but that petered out around the 2/3 mark. Writer's block wasn't the problem, antipathy was. I developed an aversion to writing. I went into Armadillocon hoping to get my creative juices flowing again, and by golly, it worked. I returned home ready to jump right into it. My first order of business was to submit a couple of stories to market.

This is where things went sideways for me. For reasons convoluted and boring, I'd ended up with a whole bunch of files corrupted a year or so back, including my story submission record dating back to 1996. I've not done a thorough housecleaning and reconstruction of the mess that are my fiction files, so that's on me. But to submit a story, I have to double check all my emails to ensure I hadn't already subbed a particular story to a particular market (an imperfect science, at best) and then review said story to ensure, say, the text doesn't suddenly reverse direction halfway through. Realize that I haven't looked at most of my writings for several years, and while I have broad feelings of fondness for my works, I do not retain detailed memories of my writings. As I'm skimming over the words, there is an unfamiliarity to them. Whilst I recall the narrative in a general manner, the characters, scenes and details are wholly new to me. It's as if I'm reading something written by someone else's hand. The novelty doesn't wear off, but rather intensifies the deeper I get into each story. I start out thinking, "Heh. This isn't bad," rapidly progress to, "This is actually rather good," to, "Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick, this kicks all kinds of ass!"*

Please understand I share this with no intent of hubris. Having published a bit of fiction in professional markets over the years, plus 30 years or so as a continuously working journalist, my writing skills on a technical level are a given. It's my storytelling ability that comes into question. Over the years I've served as an instructor in numerous writers workshops, worked as a fiction editor for RevolutionSF where stories I published earned multiple Year's Best honorable mentions from various quarters, and survived multiple Turkey City Writers Workshops as a participant. Objectively, I can recognize when a story works and when it doesn't. Objectively speaking, these stories of mine that barely remembered didn't just work, they sang with the angels. The startled me, surprised me, made me laugh, made me weep. Again, it was as if I was reading the work of somebody else. When I could not fathom how a particular conundrum would resolve, I was wowed by my past self's elegant solution. Just to be sure I wasn't wholly deluding myself, I dug out another older work of mine, one I remembered as a valiant effort but ultimately a failure, and read it. I experienced much the same as with the previous stories, but instead of growing delight, I experienced increasing unease. Flaws unremembered and unexpected crept into view. The central idea, which I once thought clever, revealed itself to be merely pedestrian. I'd long held the notion that I would return to this story and fix it once sufficient time had passed to give me perspective, but revisiting it now laid those thoughts to rest. It was not a good story. It was not terrible, either, but rather firmly mediocre. I may well be deluding myself, but this sufficiently confirmed a level of objectivity toward my own works, given sufficient distance from their initial creation.

It was at this point I became angry. It started as a mere flickering ember but soon erupted into a Krakatoa-esque geyser of molten rage and explosive victimhood. There was nothing wrong with these stories. On the contrary, they were as good as anything published in the past 20 years, and a damn sight better than most. I am a fucking good writer! I've lost sight of that fact over the past few years, but it's true. I haven't alwasys been, to be sure, and there's no guarantee that I always will be, but right now at this particular point in time that is a statement of fact. And it enrages me that these stories have not been published. That every single one of them have multiple rejections weighing them down, making me question their worth.

It's galling. I look at one story, the first unequivocally excellent story I ever wrote (I had professional publications by this time, oh yes) and remember how a veteran SF author read it and told me it could very well win the Nebula Award. Another SF author, even more veteran than the first, opined that they thought the ending went on maybe a page too long, but other than that it was very good and would sell quickly. I look at another story that one well-known editor dismissed out of hand because of an "error" on page 2. It wasn't an error at all, of course, but it stung that a professional with whom I was well acquainted with didn't trust me more as a writer. Another couple stories were rejected by another editor because they didn't have happy endings. There are more, of course, excuses not to buy my work, not reasons. The worst of all is the dreaded "Not what we're looking for at this time."

And that's the crux: Anyone in this game long enough knows that editors aren't ever looking for manuscripts to publish. They get far too many submissions for that kind of luxury. No, they're looking for reasons to reject submissions. I, along with every other competent writer out there, we're not competing with the 90% of submissions that are mediocre. Those submitted with sans-serif fonts and ALL CAPS reject themselves. No, the good writers are all competing against each other... but even that's not entirely true. We're competing for the editor's attention, yes, but it ultimately comes down to personal taste. An editor can recognize two stories as equal in quality, but choose one over the other because the cadence of the sentence structure, or the evocative descriptions, or even something as mundane as the character names appealing to them more in one than the other. Writers who break out often have the good fortune of finding an editor who groks their style and looks forward to the next submission. They become a literary advocate, as it were. One editor publishes an author regularly, and others take notice. Readers take notice. The uncertainty of public taste still comes into play, and it is incumbent upon the author to continue an output of quality fiction, but all things being equal, finding an editor on your same wavelength is what every author hopes for, if they ever give such things a thought.

I, for one, am sick and tired of being second runner-up.

The fact that my writing career is perpetually stuck in neutral is as much my own fault as anything, mind you. I am clear-eyed about that. As a writer, I am not prolific. I'm not disciplined enough to produce the volume of work I am capable of. I have too many novels abandoned before reaching the halfway mark. In the late 2000s, the one time in my life where I had multiple short fiction sales in succession and was producing new short stories on a regular basis, I feel I was approaching the fabled "critical mass" where productivity and sales would begin to feed into each other, resulting in a self-sustaining literary cold fusion of sorts. It was at that point I put my fiction career on hold and spent the next six years researching and writing a non-fiction history of the La Grange Chicken Ranch--a book nobody asked for and one most publishers and all literary agents viewed as a quixotic folly at best. The fact that certain populations I'd looked to for support dismissed the book as meaningless or turned their collective backs on me en mass stung. I've got to be honest here, I'm still a little bitter. I got great support from many folks hither and yon, some of whom cheered me on from day one, but people in positions to make a difference in its success or failure washed their hands of me. I'm proud of Inside the Chicken Ranch, but also feel it was form of career suicide. Hell, even my interview collection, Voices of Vision, was completely kneecapped by the most nightmare-inducing cover ever inflicted upon a book by my well-meaning but utterly clueless publisher. More people came up to me and said they'd like to buy the book but wouldn't because the cover art disturbed them than actually bought the book. No lie--I've got the publishing reports to back it up.

Even when I break through the breaks still seem to go against me (yes, I'm whining here. It's my blog. Roll with it). A decade ago I sold "The Makeover Men" to HelixSF. This was the most provocative story I'd ever written, an envelope-pushing examination of toxic masculinity and misogyny that took me to some insanely dark places. I recognized that it would be an easy story to misinterpret, so braced myslef for potentially nasty blowback... that never came. Nothing came, actually. A near as I can tell, nobody ever read that story. Nobody commented. No reaction whatsoever. It vanished without a trace. Not too long after that, I was fortunate enough to have "The Final Voyage of La Riaza" published in Interzone. It was intended to be the cover story--which would've been my first! Art was commissioned, gorgeous artwork, but then at the last minute I was bumped from the cover. I was sorely disappointed, but happy for the publication. Some time after the fact, I learned that Gardner Dosois had read it and been impressed enough to include it in his annual Best SF volume for that year... except that my story was almost 12,000 words long, so in the end he talked himself into bumping my story and instead running three other, much shorter stories by other authors instead. But hey, all was not lost! Another annual best-of anthology also read my story and was impressed with it. Impressed enough to not bump it in favor multiple shorter stories. Yes, my story was all set to be featured in this volume... except that the publisher had fallen behind schedule, and in order to get back on track made the executive decision to cancel that year's best of volume outright and just skip ahead to the next years. There's more where that came from, a parade of examples where the universe went out of its way to screw with me.

Fuck that shit.

I've got half a dozen stories that should've seen publication years ago, yet still languish, homeless, like some literary Island of Misfit Stories. In the decades since I made my first professional sale, the markets have contracted significantly. There are fewer places to sell short fiction today than there was back then, and there will be still fewer tomorrow. To make matters worse, most markets have gone to an electronic submissions format. In general, this is good--I spent a shit ton on postage back in the day, single-handedly keeping the U.S. Postal Service solvent, so my bank account appreciates the relief. But electronic submissions allows markets to permanently record and archive all submissions, and I've run into some that absolutely refuse to allow resubmissions even after an editorial change. I'm sorry, but my story is pre-rejected because an editor three years prior with entirely different tastes from the current one didn't buy it? That's some serious bullshit there. Compounding matters is the fact that my seemingly natural storytelling length falls within the 10,000-12,000 word range, which vanishingly few markets will even consider. Hell, there's one market that explicitly states it will consider works shorter than 6,000 words and longer than 17,000 words, but nothing in between. I feel personally attacked. How can I not?

The punch line, of course, is that every professional writer out there feels the same way. These demons are universal--only the details change. There are aspiring writers who would desperately love to attain my level of success. There are full-time pro writers who are prolific, sell practically everything they write and live in borderline poverty, envious of my stable income afforded by my day job. The grass is always greener, right? I don't begrudge any writer their success. I've known authors far more talented than I whose promising careers went into a steep nose dive because of the publisher's miscalculations. Some miraculously recovered and are now enjoying unprecedented poularity. Others were unable to arrest that death spiral and, sadly, are no longer with us. I celebrate all of their works.

When I look at my works, I see the three best things I've ever written languishing and gathering dust, while other stories I've written since then that are objectively lesser works find homes in various markets... there is no reason in this world. Deserve's got nothing to do with it. I'm nothing special, and the universe--much less the publishing universe--doesn't owe me any special treatment.

But that doesn't mean I won't stoke my anger like an overclocked boiler on a runaway steam locomotive, fueling my creative fires until I am finally, completely creatively spent or the world's editors pull their collective heads out of their collective butts and finally recognize my prose for its inherent brilliance. Whichever comes first.

*To answer the unacknowledged elephant in the room, yes, I made new submissions that very night. Less than 24 hours later I received my first "does not suit our needs" rejection, which did wonders for my disposition, I can assure you.

Now Playing: Aerosmith Unplugged
Chicken Ranch Central

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I never realized that electronic submissions would be used as a cudgel against the same story ever being resubbed, even after editorial change. This reminds me of one rule I saw all the time when I was querying agents at large agencies: "A rejection from one is a rejection from all," so even if there are five agents in an agency who seem like they might be a good fit, if the first one bounces your work, that's it for the entire agency. Great.

    I tried playing the submit-and-query game for years. I really did. Got nowhere, except for rejections with encouraging notes scrawled in the margins (which got less encouraging the more I got) and a few manuscript requests...that ended up going nowhere. The whole thing is a goddamned crapshoot, and at my age I'm not interested in crapshoots. I'll almost certainly never be successful as an indie, but I'm writing what I want and making it the best I can. And I'm fine with that. It DOES piss me off how much mainstream folks look down at indies--why indie writing is a "lesser" thing when we profess so much love for indie music, indie movies, indie comics, and indie anything else, I'll never know--but there's not a whole lot I can do about that, save producing the best work I can. So be it.