RIP: George H. Scithers

Sad news.   SF, Fantasy and Horror editor George H. Scithers has died.

Way back in 1978, George sent me my very first short story rejection.  It was a rubric style form letter with the story’s problems checked off.  It had his personal signature.  I was thrilled.  I had saved that letter, but can no longer find it.  I received a few more rejections from him until I gave up writing because a bad teacher convinced me I couldn’t write.

I wish I had not given up.  Not only did I miss any chance of being published by him at Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, but also missed sending stories to him during his tenure at Weird Tales.  I still have some notes for stories that a bright-eyed and unirascible Deven wrote those thirty plus years ago.  I think I am going to thumb through them and find something that perhaps George would have liked.

My opinion is that Asimov’s SF would not now enjoy its status as one of the “big three” SF/Fantasy genre magazines if it had not been for George’s editorship during its first years.  It still remains my favorite short story venue.

Thank-you, George, for years and years of reading enjoyment.

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The Best of Every Day Fiction Two

The print edition of “The Best of Every Day Fiction Two” is now available in hardback and paperback at the publishers site and on major bookseller sites like Amazon and B&N.

In keeping with my shameless self promotion activities, I am happy to say that this anthology contains my story “Becoming Cottontail”.

But wait, that’s not all.  Those with connections to Waverly, OH will also find “Waiting To Pounce” a terrific little horror story by my friend and fellow Waverly High School class of ’79 alum, Steve Goble.

If having two, count them, two Waverlyites in one volume doesn’t convince you to take a look, then I should probably mention that the anthology also contains 98 other flash stories by many excellent authors.  (For those that don’t know, flash fiction stories contain 1000 or fewer words, which is the perfect length for those of us with short attention spans.)

With apologies to my ego,  “Becoming Cottontail” is not my favorite story in the volume.  That honor goes to Erica Naone’s heartrending tale “Home to Perfect”, which should be read with The Outlaw’s “Green Grass and High Tides” playing in the background.  You can read her story during the guitar break.

Rejectomancy

Many magazines that buy short stories only use form rejection letters because of the volume of stories they receive each day.  These form letter rejections tell the author virtually nothing about why the story was rejected.  The only time to get excited about a rejection from one of these magazines is when you don’t get the form letter, but a personal rejection from the editor.  Personal rejection letters tend to have at least a little information about why the editor is passing on the story.  It also provides the author with the opportunity to take that information and perhaps improve the story before sending it on to the next market.  When the rejection is a form letter the writer has to apply a little magic, a little rejectomancy, to try a figure out for themselves why the story didn’t survive the slush pile.

I have been very excited to get a few personal rejections with comments from the editor.  In each case I have learned something about writing.   For me the only thing better than a personal rejection letter is and acceptance letter.

Today I was happy to get a form rejection letter.  Let me explain.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF) is a market I really want to crack.  Of the big three science fiction genre markets, the other two being Asimov’s and Analog, it is the toughest to sell to.  They also are one of the markets that has a super fast turn around on stories–a full month faster than most other magazines.  Yet despite this fast turn around they have a system for communicating with the author that is very helpful.  Unlike the other markets mentioned above, F&SF uses multiple form rejection letters.  Using a little rejectomancy (and some common sense) it is easy to glean at least a little information about a rejected story.   The slush pile readers at F&SF seem to use three standard form rejections: 1) The story didn’t grab my interest, 2) The story didn’t hold my interest, and 3) The story didn’t quite work for me.

Form letter 1 means that perhaps the opening is to slow or awkward, but could also mean the entire story doesn’t flow well.  I assume by the wording that the slush editor didn’t finish the story.  This is perhaps why F&SF is very fast with turn around on stories; they don’t read every story to the end.  I have accumulated several of these rejections.  A lot of hand wringing and close editing rejectomancy is needed for these stories.  In each case I have made an attempt to make the opening of these stories a little more exciting or interesting before I sent them on to the next market.

Form letter 2 means that perhaps the story was boring or slow in the middle.  What I assume that this letter means is that maybe they finished reading the story, but felt very ho-hum about it.  I know that one of my weak points currently is that my action scenes are slow.  Head scratching rejectomancy is needed for these.  I’ll try to punch up the story, speed it up and keep it interesting, before sending it on to the next market.  Yes, future tense.  I have not received any of these form letters yet.

Form letter 3 means that perhaps the story was just fine, but didn’t work (fit) with the intangibles that give a particular magazine its voice and style.  I think that this is a valid assumption because rejection letter that is a step up from this one is a personal rejection letter from the editor.  I got form letter 3 in the mail today.  The story in question has two previous rejections: a personal rejection and a uninformative form rejection.  Very little rejectomancy is needed here.  I am going to tweak it just a smidgen, but only because I thought of a better way express a bit of one scene after I sent it out, not because of the rejection letter.  As always it will get a close re-read before I send it out to the next market.

There is a problem with rejectomancy.  Use too much of it and you can destroy a story.  Robert Heinlein supposedly gave the advice to only edit under direct request of an editor.  Good advice for a writer that has already honed his craft.  For those of us still improving our craft, we should use a little rejectomancy and then edit with care.

2009: My Writing Year

2009 was a good year for me. I continued to have sales. I consider it a highpoint that I made it completely out of the slush pile a few times, even though those stories were ultimately rejected. I got some really good feedback from the editors on these and because these stories were longer than flash length they felt like wins.
I continued to tackle the backlog of stories that I have accumulated over the years. Some of these old stories, especially the ones from the 1970’s and early 80’s will probably get complete rewrites.

I started out 2009 with a serious effort to write some fiction each day. While I did not actually write fiction each day, I did meet my 36500 word count goal for the year. I stopped counting when I passed goal and don’t have a year long total.

Successes
I wrote or rewrote 6 stories. Less than last year, but only two were flash.

I sold two stories, and had another selected for a reprint. All three were flash.
“VPN Doesn’t Work” and “How the Human Got His Free Will” both sold to Every Day Fiction and both were published in 2009.
“Becoming Cottontail” was selected to be in the Best Of Every Day Fiction 2, a print anthology to be published 2010.
“Language Barrier” appeared in the March 2009 print issue of Abandoned Towers.

Postponed Success

The publication date for “An Awakening of Shadows” is still to be announced.

Success in Limbo

As of one second till midnight, 31 December 2009, three stories were out in the wilds of submission.
I have nine stories currently undergoing editing/rewrites. I have only one story started in 2009 that I did not complete. I realized I had the POV character wrong and shelved it for a bit.
I did not permanently park any stories in 2009.

2009 Stats

6 Stories written
25 Submissions
2 Acceptances
1 Reprint Acceptance/Selection
0 Rewrite Requests
20 Rejections
3 Publications
3 Pending in Submission
11 Unsold stories, from this and previous years, being edited or looking for a market

Free Will

My latest story “How The Human Got His Free Will” is live today at Every Day Fiction. Follow the link, read it, rate it, and/or comment about it. Because I still consider myself a beginning writer, I crave honest feedback.

This story has as its theme the notion that humans somehow can obtain free will no matter the circumstances. When I wrote the story, I had that thought in mind. This was a little different for me because usually when I write a story I start out thinking about a plot device, a setting or a character. At some point during the writing process a strong theme may emerge. When I recognize a theme, I’ll sometimes edit the story to enhance it, or to tone it down. This was the first time I consciously thought about the theme before and during the writing.

Free will is an interesting topic with room for lots of themes. An addict can lose their free will to their addiction. Workers can express their free will by standing up in support of a great idea or against a bad one. Inmates are told when they can piss. Facebook users can choose not to cut and paste to their own status a viral status update that tries to guilt them into following the herd about this or that “hot button” issue of the moment.

I chose to write a story. An editor liked it. I hope you do too; but that decision is totally up to you and your own free will.

How the Human Got His Free Will

Every Day Fiction has decided to publish my story, “How the Human Got His Free Will” as part of their November line up.

The framework for this story started as part of my desire to create modern stories in the vein of Kipling’s ‘just so’ stories. You know, “How the Camel Got His Hump” and the rest. While I had intended to have social commentary as part of the story, I did not intend for the commentary to become the story. Alas, as it is in most cases, this story turned out much differently than I had originally envisioned it and it is likely a much better story because of it. If is going to be published on November 25th, 2009.

Summer and Autumn distractions have really eaten into my writing time. I have gotten good feedback from critique readers and editors on a number of stories. I haven’t done anything with it. The stories are just sitting there waiting for revisions. I really need to do a better job at time management.

Becoming Anthologized

Good news about one of my short stories.
Every Day Fiction has chosen my story “Becoming Cottontail” to be part of their “Best of Every Day Fiction 2009” anthology. I am stoked about this.

Sadly, the old cottontail rabbit that was the inspiration for getting this story started was not around this spring and summer. Last year she would sit in our front yard and watch us. We could exit the house, slam the door, stomp up and down the sidewalk and she would just sit there watching, only running if we approached her within five or six feet.

A Good Rejection; and Another Not So…

First the good rejection. My story, “The Last Ride of Harvey Mushman” survived the slush pile at Abyss & Apex, an award winning semi-pro magazine. The personal rejection that arrived this morning from the Editor-in-chief was very straight forward. There were no problems with the story other than it didn’t fit the personal tastes of the editor.
I can see that. Not everyone would automatically like stories with a motorcycle race as the setting. What I am taking away from this rejection is that there were no problems with the story, craft or otherwise. It just was not a good fit. Off to another market with this one. ASAP.

Now the bad rejection… “History” sat at a market for a very long time. They had been closed to submissions for nearly a year when they announced recently that they were reopening to submissions on August 1st. Previously, their guidelines page had told authors not to query the status of stories, that the slush pile was so large that they needed time to deal with it, but not to worry they would contact everyone as soon as a decision had been made.
With the re-opening to submissions announcement they removed the ban on submission queries, and since they were going to be open to submissions in a few days, I decided yesterday that it was a good time to query.
Yesterday, I got a form letter rejection.
The response to my query was very fast. Either they had decided to reject it before my query and failed to inform me, or they made a snap judgment about it after sitting on it for 455 days. (That’s right; a year and a quarter!) Very unsatisfying. Very.

I keep my chin up because the good rejections are out numbering the bad ones.

Pins and Needles can sting

This is one of those typical bad news, good news posts.

I have been waiting on pins and needles for well over a month now to hear back from an editor about the status of one of my stories. The story had survived the slush pile, and all the subsequent readings and opinions by the editorial staff until it reached the managing editor. The bad news it that it was rejected.

But then there is the good news. The magazine was a professional market that is recognized by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). To have a story get past initial slush was an accomplishment; to have it survive the winnowing process until it was rejected by the editor that makes the final decisions was remarkable; to receive personal feedback by the magazine’s editorial team was unexpected, and I am grateful for the experience.

Understand that the rejection stings. The longer the story survived the selection process, the more hopeful I became. I was really wanting an acceptance. Who wouldn’t?

But as the disappointment wanes I am already thinking of the editors’ (yes, plural) insightful comments. I have already decided that two small tweaks can make the story stronger. I have also decided which market to send it to next.

The magazine? Flash Fiction Online.

This Post is About Something

I have been a writer my entire life. I made up stories before I could write. My sister and I would create the most amazing silliness out of the most mundane. I remember acting out skits that we learned from listening to comedy records and disc jockeys. After one particularly silly ‘for the family only’ performance, we slipped into a bit from the Wizard of Oz, linked arms and did the yellow brick road stutter step walk out of the dining room (our stage) singing the phrase “We’re off” over and over and over like a broken record caught in a endless loop. Not only were we telling our family that the improv show was over, but we were also fessing up that we knew were not the Ozzie and Harriet definition of normal. That was really something for kids our age to be aware of! I learned the lesson that creativity, and flash stories in particular, need to be about something not just about some things. Somehow I forgot that.

Writers get asked “where do you get your ideas.” Let me tell you that ideas are everywhere. I have a list of great ideas. Laundry lists of things that I could write about. Clever stuff. Original thoughts. Earth shattering “would you look at that” things. Just last night I had an idea about a guy who forgot that his vocal cords are not twenty years old anymore. But ideas are not stories.
For example, I had a clever thought back in the mid-90’s. It tied animal created paths to purpose built roads and then on to interstellar travel on not-so-original ‘warp lanes’. It was clever enough to make a few people chuckle. But that was all there was, and for most people the cleverness wasn’t enough. It was in all honesty very boring.

An idea, a thing, a clever turn of phrase alone can never be a good story. I don’t throw away these ideas. I keep them. They tumble around in my very quirky and very weird brain. They are still important ingredients for a story. They just lack something.

I kept that clever warp lane idea. One day it collided with another not-so-original clever idea that involved David Brin-ish intelligent Koala bears. Koala bears traveling up and down the warp lane tickled the silliness in me. But it wasn’t until I started thinking about why a sapient Koala would want to travel the warp lane that a story formed.

The ‘why’ gave me the something that the story needed. The something that knitted these clever and silly ideas together and gave them a reason to be told. Everyone, or so I think, experiences some form of prejudice. Mine was being a dirt poor kid growing up on a farm with poor dirt. My sister and I created stories for a reason. We were too poor to replace the television that had fried when a lightening bolt hit the antenna. Even if I had been popular, there wasn’t a lot of time to socialize. I had chores to do after school and on nearly every summer day. The garden wasn’t for a few fresh veggies to highlight an autumn feast, it fed us during the long winter. I was teased by my peers because my jeans had patches on them, my tennis shoes had plastic soles instead of rubber, and because my hand-me-down clothes didn’t fit well. I have listened to acquaintances talk of acts of prejudice that make my experiences diminish to nothing in comparison. But because of my experiences I had the hint of a hope that I could relate to the abuses they had endured. I cling to a lot of similar hints. They too are some things that can become part of a story.

It occurred to me that even a Koala rich enough to travel up and down the warp lane, no matter how smart or how dapper he may also be, would be considered uppity or someone to fear by others simply because he was different. Now that is something.
I typed out 95 words and The Journey was begun. I had a story.

But I didn’t recognize the lesson. I stumbled into a handful of other clever ideas that happened to get immersed in something that made them into stories. Prejudice is a common theme for me. One I really didn’t recognize fully until I had the clever idea for this post. But even this strong idea that resonates with so many people is still just a thing. Relating acts and effects of prejudice do not make a story. There has to be something; something more. It is a subtle distinction. Editors recognize it and sometimes even tell us that ‘something’ is missing. I can’t define this ‘something’ any better than with the examples I have given above. Maybe this is what people are really asking when they want to know where a writer’s ideas come from.

Here I am. It took me two full years of purposeful writing to remember a lesson I had learned as a child. A story has to be about something, not just about some things.