10 November, 2008

First publication feels good.

Orson Scott Card's first editor, Ben Bova, contends that a successful writer needs three attributes:

Talent, which no one can teach you.
Craft, which can be learned and must be practised.
Perseverence, which is by far the most important.

It is through perseverence that we find the courage to let our talents manifest as ambitions. It is also through perseverence in the form of hard work that our ambitions are realised. Without perseverence, one does not practise, so one does not learn. All three attributes are reliant on the final one. We'll talk alot about all three in this blog, mostly about craft, but we'll almost always come back to perseverence.

There is another thing a writer needs, though, and that's a sense of realism. You need a realistic attitude towards the market. I can't tell you how many writers I know who think they're just waiting for their lucky break, or for the market to accept them. They will keep waiting until they give up. Waiting isn't working. It isn't persevering. They complain about how some published books are terribly written and can't understand why thiers doesn't get published.

There are so many wrong things with that sentiment that it's hard to know where to begin. Here goes. First off, if you think your book should be published on the grounds that it stinks, but not compared to some other crap, you really don't believe in your work, do you? More importantly, there are probably things about the books you hate that make them good, vivid experiences for some readers. I, for instance, don't read chick lit. It doesn't interest me. That doesn't stop me from thinking Sophie Kinsella is an exceptionally good writer. Most importantly, get off your duff, or rather place your duff infront of your computer for a couple of hours every day and write, but not with the view of creating the greatest work of art ever, just with the view of practising the craft.

You also need a realistic attitude to where your work stands in the market. This requires a pretty deep understanding of craft. You need to know where to send your stories, and have no delusions about playing out of your league. Whether you are overly modest, thinking that you should be publishing for peanuts when actually you're ready for the majors, or you're too proud to submit to semi-pro or amateur markets and getting nothing but form rejections from the majors, you're wrong. Be realistic. Send it to the place it belongs. The same can be said for not querying an agent with a book until the book is ready. They don't want you to keep bugging them about the same project they rejected, saying "It's better now, honest!" Odds are, it isn't. If you could write, you'd be realistic.

I sent my first ever story off to Weird Tales, which is probably the most famous fiction magazine in the world. It was called The God Machine. Cool title, cool idea, terrible story. I got a form rejection. No advice. Then I sent them another one called Brother Wolf. Cool title, cool idea, not such a bad story, nowhere near ready for Weird Tales and probably worse than alot of the stuff they reject with form letters. My rejection had a whole paragraph of personal advice from George H. Scithers, one of the most famous editors in the business.


I had improved. In terms of craft, Brother Wolf was far better than The God Machine. I had shown George H. Scithers that I would persevere. My next story was also rejected. On its rejection were the words "we hope to see work from you in the future." Editors don't say that unless they mean it. I know because I've seen plenty of form rejections, and none of them are encouraging. I had improved again. I was still not ready, but the editor now trusts that next time I will be closer, or even possibly there. You see, the market may be daunting, but it's also run by human beings. They want you to succeed. They love reading stories as much as writers love writing them. Realism isn't all bad.

Around the time I became realistic, about a year before I started my MA in the summer of '07, I sent an old story that I thought was particularly good to a semi-pro market. I wanted to see what would happen.

On the 8th of November my first fiction sale was published in an E-zine called Chaos Theory: Tales Askew, edited by Arthur A. Roberts. Like most semi-pro publications, it's free for all to read. The story is called Wardens of Dust. I wrote Wardens of Dust four years ago, submitted it and got rejected, but the rejection included a note from the editor saying that he liked the story but didn't feel it was good enough. I replied by saying I was about to start an MA in Creative Writing and asked if he'd like a re-write. He told me to go ahead, but warned me that he doesn't pay very much and by the end of my MA I'd probably be able to sell stories for more money elsewhere. I didn't care about that. Once I write a story I don't want to waste time re-working it beyond a certain extent, so I wasn't doing a re-write after the MA. It's much better practise and it's better professionally to write something new, because a novice story will have many innate problems that cannot be fixed via editing. If you have to start anew, start a new story. I replied to him the same day and promised to send the polished draft within a fortnight.

A story in Chaos Theory lets me know I'm on my way. It's good to know that publication actually happens. The goal seems attainable now with both feet planted firmly on a stepping stone. Some writers linger in the semi-pro markets for years, fizzle out and disappear. Other writers, like me, constantly improve. I'm fortunate to have an extraordinary tutor named Scott Bradfield, who is a technically amazing writer. If you like satire, you should look his books up on Amazon, or wherever you buy books.

Before I started the MA I knew there was something wrong with my stories. They didn't look quite like the published books I loved. They were close, which is what I kept hearing from editors, but that's just another way of saying they weren't good enough. I had no idea how to solve the problem. Scott showed me what good writers do that bad writers don't. The skills are consistent and have nothing to do with genre. I'll write extensively about those skills in future posts.

Now it's all just a matter of practise, and something I wrote before I had a clue was good enough for a semi-pro market. That feels good. Just bear in mind if you read it that the stories I write now are much better.

Here's the link to the magazine:


My story is called Wardens of Dust. The fact that I could write a better one now doesn't stop Wardens of Dust from being good. CTTA is an excellent semi-pro e-zine, worthy of respect. I may write a post with some comments on the story's technical problems for the benefit of those of you who want to write. You can learn from my mistakes.

Wardens of Dust is a post-apocalyptic homage to Robert E. Howard. Hope you enjoy! If you do, I write many stories along similar themes still. I won't stop writing post-apocalyptic fiction unless it actually happens and books are no longer printed, which as far as I see it would be the most tragic result of the downfall of civilisation. All culture and thus all advancement is attributable to story-tellers. Ours is a tough job, but someone's got to do it.

Best of luck with all of your work.

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