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Fantasy Magazine Issue 50 - May 2011

Fantasy Magazine Issue 50 - May 2011

Announced already today over on my (presently) main blog… But today my article, “Now Hiring in the Airship Lounge: Fantasy Archetypes Get Steampunked” was published today in Fantasy Magazine.  Go check it out.

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Constant Reminder

Stephen Watkins, Writer is not wholly abandonned – but for the immediate future, I probably won’t be updating much here.  But never fear, dear friends.  I still update regularly at my main blog, The Undiscovered Author.  Click there on that link to get thee  hither.

At some point in the not-to-distant-future, I’ll be reconfiguring my whole blogging schema.  Right now I like the title “The Undiscovered Author”.  But eventually I’m going to want to focus more on my name and creating a brand around that.  And I’ve been debating, lately, what exactly that means.

It may mean, though I can’t say for certain, that “Stephen Watkins, Writer” is retired (along with “The Undiscovered Author”) in favor of something more specific to the name with which I want to brand myself.  But this is, as I’ve often heard, a marathon, not a sprint, so there will be yet time to make decisions about that.

Photographic Evidence

I’ve seen it written that the Honorable Mention Certificate for the Writers of the Future contest is the best-looking rejection slip ever.  Myself, much to my chagrin, I’ve only ever gotten 3 story rejections in my life (and one was by e-mail).  The two hard-copies were on something like a 5×7 slip of letterhead (I understand this to be standard industry practice) with a short note indicating that the story was not what was being looked for. 

Well, this looks a might bit better, I’ll have to agree.  It’s like an award for not winning, for not making the sale.  It arrived in the mail yesterday.  Behold:

The Greatest Rejection Ever: The Writers of the Future Honorable Mention Certificate

The Greatest Rejection Ever: The Writers of the Future Honorable Mention Certificate, bearing the name of Yours Truly

If ever there were reason to doubt my writing chops, with this I think I can safely lay claim to my own auctorial cred.  I’m a writer, and this is my proof.

I got the news today.  My story, “PFTETD”, has earned an Honorable Mention in the 4th Quarter 2010 Writers of the Future Contest.

So, wow.  This leaves me feeling a lot of emotions.  On one hand, of course, I’m happy. 

I consider it this way: this story started as a silly idea I had back in late 2006/early 2007.  I wrote it then, and it was awful (though I didn’t know it then).  The story then sat in my hard drive, untouched, for several years.  Shortly after a short productive period where I wrote a small handful of stories and started a couple others through mid-2007, I subsequently entered a fallow period.  I didn’t write anything, and I didn’t submit what I had written.  It’s not that I didn’t want to write.  But those were difficult days, for me*.

And then life happened in a flurry.  I met this wonderful woman.  I got married.  I got accepted into grad school to study my MBA in the evening program at a well-ranked institution.  I found a great new job.  There was a lot going on in 2008 and 2009.  But, as the end of 2009 approached, I was truly feeling… like something was missing, and I knew it was writing.  My Dear Wife encouraged me to may do a little revision on a story I had already written and try to send it out to a publisher. 

So starting around Christmas of 2009, I picked up “PFTETD”, dusted it off, and started revising.  Only revising turned into a full-scale rewrite, as I soon discovered how truly awful my original draft of the story was.  About a quarter of the original wordcount was saved, and the rest was brand-new writing.  I got some feedback from a couple readers, and revised it further, and summer of 2010, I was ready to send it out.  It wasn’t well-received (or rather, it wasn’t accepted), but I knew it was my strongest piece, so I had to find it a home.  So, onward.

Now, I come to the end of that long tale.  And, my take-away is this: after a two-year hiatus… nay, after a two-year drought of writing, I was able to jump back into it and be at the top of my game.  Perhaps this story isn’t great writing, which is where I need to be if I want a career in writing… but it’s unequivocably good writing, and good enough to get an Honorable Mention in the most widely respected and widely participated-in contest in the industry.  My story, out of what I understand to be thousands of submissions, was one of the few to earn this honor.

So, naturally, I’m pleased.  But on the other hand, I’m not overflowing with joy, because I feel other, conflicting emotions.  I have a goal.  I want to be a published author.  I want to make a steady, respectable income from my writing – even if it won’t be my primary income source.  And I want to be a really, really, really good writer.  And, I know that winning this contest can be a significant step toward those goals.  So, naturally, I want to win.

But I didn’t win.  Not this round.  I didn’t quite expect to – this was my first time ever participating in this contest.  But I’m looking forward to the future.  What do I need to do, now?  How can I improve my writing ability?  How can I take the next great leap forward in my skill?  What will it take to win?  What will it take to be great?

I don’t have answers to these questions, yet, except to say the obvious: that I need to write more.  But getting this far… it only fans the flames of my hunger.  Now I know where I stand.  This isn’t just a rejection – polite or otherwise.  It’s a mile-marker, a sign-post, an indicator of my potential.  I’m good, but I’m not there yet.  But, I believe I can get there, because I’m clearly heading in the right direction.

As for “PFTETD”, the question is more complicated.  At 12,100-ish words, it’s too long for pretty much every available outlet left for me to submit to that’s worth submitting it to.  Few publishers are interested in stories that are just slightly too long to be called “short stories” and far, far too short to be called “novels” or even “novelas”.

So, in the short term, I’m going to sit on “PFTETD” – not trunk it, per se, but I’m not going to be actively marketing it.  I won’t publish it on my blog – in part because I think it deserves a wider readership than that, and in part because doing so would make it impossible for me to do any further marketing of it in the future.  I may make it available to another round of beta readers (gamma readers?) to help me polish it just a little further, but as is I’m not sure how much better I can make it, or if further tinkering will actually harm it.  And without a viable market for it, as yet, my writing efforts are likely better spent elsewhere.

What’s next, then?  Well, to start, finishing my MBA.  This is the last semester.  And there is a lot that I need to do between now and the end of my time – for school and for my daytime career.  Unfortunately, this means that I effectively will not have any writing time over the next four to six months.  So, I won’t be re-entering Writers of the Future during the next few quarters.  But I have some pretty good story ideas, and when I walk across that stage, snagged that diploma and have properly taken steps to advance my day-job career, then I should find that my writing time opens up.  And when it does… watch out world, because here I come!

But first, according to my wife: it’s time to celebrate my success!

___________________________

*I believe I’ve told the story, before, of those “dark days”, probably somewhere on my main blog at Undiscovered Author.  But if not, well… that’s a story for another day, as this post will be long enough without.

The Long Wait

So here we are, the last day of November, and it’s been nearly four months since I submitted my story to the previously-mentioned contest.

In any ordinary situation, I’d be getting pretty nervous right about now.  Oh, wait.  I already am getting pretty nervous.  But it’s not an ordinary situation, per se.

For one, although I submitted this story near the beginning of August, the contest didn’t close until the end of September.  I was almost two months early.  But it’s not been two months since the contest closed.

Well, I have heard from several people who’ve submitted to this contest in the past that this is not a bad thing.  As a matter-of-fact, they tell me, the people who do not do so well in the contests are typically the first to hear back.  The longer the wait, they tell me, the more likely the result is a good one.  For values of “good”, at least, that include making it past the first round, it seems.

So, I’m in an interesting place.  On one hand, I feel very proud of my story, and very strongly that it’s a very good story.  (If you’ve been over to my Undiscovered Author blog and seen the short stories and flash pieces I’ve posted there, you may be familiar with my self-grading mechanism.  Most of the stories there grade a B or lower.  This story that I submitted, on my own, personal scale, ranks an A.  So far, it’s the only story I’ve completed that warrants that grade.)  And there’s this part of me that keeps trying to say: “See, no news is good news; this story is a really good one.  Every day you don’t hear back is a day closer to getting a really positive response.  Heck, this one could go all the way!”

But then there’s the cautiously optimistic side of me.  It tells me to be more humble and  more circumspect about my chances, not to get my hopes to far up.  “What if they lost your contact info, or you entered it wrong, and you’re already out but they can’t contact you to say so?” it asks.  “Yes,” it says, “This is a good story.  But is it great? You’ll probably make it to the semi-final round, and that’s it.  And hey, what more can you ask?  That’ll be a success in my book.”

Sigh.  And there’s  nothing for it but to wait.  And see.  And sometimes to hope.  Hey, each day that goes by is a day closer, right?  In the meantime, I’d love to say I was working on the next one.  But the present pressures of education and employment make that a difficult proposition.  I’ve got the ideas, and a general outline in place.  But I’ve done no substantive amount writing in the last month, and very little before that.  I see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it still seems so very far off, yet.

Submission 2.0

So, I finally did it.  I resubmitted my current story to a new market.

I don’t know why I took so long to submit the story.  Initially, it was for lack of a 9 x 12 envelope to stuff the thing in.  But then, Dear Wife and I bought a package of 9 x 12 envelopes.  Why didn’t I send it in, then?  I had all the parts: a printed copy of my story in the appropriate format, a cover page, everything was ready but to address and stamp the envelope.  Then, more than a week ago, I discovered that the market I was planning to submit to had decided to allow electronic submissions!  So, I almost immediately started filling out the online submission form.  And yet, I stalled at the last stage: uploading the story and clicking submit.

Chalk it up to fear, I guess.  What if my story’s not good enough?  What if it gets rejected (a second time)?  What if, what if, what if… Well… What if it does?

I’ve ruminated on that, before.  At twelve thousand words, this isn’t just a “short” short story.  It’s a novelette.  And the market for novelettes, no matter what the genre, is very small.  There just aren’t many places I can try to sell this tale.

So, if it does fail in this market, I’ll keep looking.  There may be some place left out there that I’m not yet aware of.  In the mean time, I keep writing.  (And hopefully, as I keep writing, I manage to keep it a bit shorter so I can target more markets.)

So, I finally uploaded the story, and I clicked submit.

The good thing about the market to which I just submitted is that it’s actually a prestigious contest (again, I won’t name names) that is only open to authors who are unpublished at professional levels.  That means that my story is going up against not established authors with name recognition and selling power – a hurdle I cannot hope to overcome – but against other authors who are my real peers: new, unpublished authors.  This will allow my story to rise or fall on its own merits.

And the feedback I’ll get here – even if I get no personal feedback – will tell me whether the story is really any good after all.  If I don’t get far in the contest, I’ll know it’s because my story failed to appeal.   If it does well, even if it doesn’t win, I’ll know I’m on the right track.  And, frankly, that gives me a clue as to whether I need to go back to the drawing board and continue honing my skills, or whether I’m actually a half-decent writer.

Now, only time will tell.  Lots of time.  I don’t expect to hear a response from this market for several months, since the contest doesn’t even close for several months.

Platform

I read a guest-post on Jeff Vandermeer’s blog on the subject of “Author Platforms”.  For those of you who don’t know this bit of newspeak, an “Author Platform” refers to the idea that writers need to have something that defines them and their audience, something that illustrates the writer’s salability.  It’s generally understood to mean that authors need a “built-in audience”, and many writers take the suggestion that they need to start promoting themselves now if they’re ever going to get their novel published.

The reason this idea has grown so popular is that there has been a meme perpetuated on the masses of young, undiscovered writers that agents and editors won’t even look at their book unless they have a “platform”, a “built-in audience”.  The meme goes further to suggest that if said agent or editor googles your name, and you’re not the first hit that comes up then your query is an instant-fail.

And let’s be honest with ourselves: I’ve bought into this meme as much as the next guy.  Why the heck else did I start a blog titled “Stephen Watkins, Writer” to compliment my “Undiscovered Author“?

But this post makes an important point: write first, promote later.  In other words, if there’s nothing to promote, then there’s no point to the promotion.  Okay… raise your hands if you’re guilty.

Guilty.

On the other hand, there’s another side to this, as well.  One thing I’ve learned since starting my first blog is that there is an incredible amount of community support that can be very influential in keeping we undiscovered authors at the keyboards, actually writing.  The fact is, the numbers – the statistics – just aren’t in our favor.  There are so many people who dream of becoming writers – real, honest-to-goodness published writers – and there are so few slots open on publishers schedules that many of us – most of us – simply won’t make it.  That’s a pretty tough pill to swallow.  Many of us will give up, eventually, because of that.

But some of us will not.  And if we don’t give up, and if we do succeed, we’ll largely have the support of our fellow writers-in-training to thank for it.

So, blog on, fellow undiscovered authors.  Blog on.

But also: write.  Write your story.  Finish it.  Please.

Now, to slay the hypocrite within, and actually write something, myself.  Ha!  Soon, perhaps, I shall set words down again.  Now that I’ve got some good ideas for a novel (a different novel than the one which I’ve been writing since forever), I actually have something to write, too, besides short stories…

Quick Response

So, there’s good news and bad news and more good news, with regards to the short story I submitted last week.

First, the good news: I received a response from the publisher to which I submitted my story.  That’s a pretty impressive response time.  I didn’t expect an answer, one way or the other, for another week at best.

The bad news, though, is one you can probably guess: the story was rejected for publication.  This comes as no surprise.  Although the market to which I had submitted was one that I knew best (having been a long-time reader of that magazine) and thus one which I felt this story was well-suited (not because I read the magazine, but because I feel the story is similar in tone to other stories published in that magazine), I also knew that this top-tier market was one that is notoriously difficult to break into.  They have very high standards, and they receive a lot of submissions.

The other good news is not really so much good news as it is positive spin.  The response was not merely a form rejection.  It’s a short, polite, and professional reply, for which I’m appreciative.  On Jay Lake’s Hierarchy of Editorial Responses, I believe this counts as a “neutral rejection”, which is second-from-the-bottom (a better response, in other words, than a rejection with a negative comment).  But, as I said, it was politely written, and ended with a wish of good luck in finding the story a home, which had an ameliorating effect.

What remains, now, is to take the story, dust it back off, and find someone else to submit it to.  Luckily I have another market picked out.  For this one, though, I expect a much longer wait time for a response, because the market in question is actually a contest (one with a fairly prestigious history), so I wouldn’t expect a reply until the contest close date was over.  In some ways, getting this first rejection may have been the better option, because this story might be particularly well-suited to the needs of this contest.

If the story does not do well at the contest, then it’s back to the drawing board.  Generally, you dust yourself off and move on, but it will take some thinking before I can submit to another market after this contest.  That’s because the story in question is a sliver over 12,000 words long – novela length, by SFWA standards – but there are relatively few markets for fantasy fiction that accept works of that length ( can count those I know of on one hand), and roughly zero paying markets will accept a serialized novela.  So, even though the story is quite good (in my opinion, of course), the chances of it seeing the light of day diminish rapidly with each rejection.

One lesson, of course: write shorter stories.  Easier said than done.  I like the complex interplay of themes (it’s how I roll), and the shorter the story, the less you can do in that regard.  The corollary: maybe I should be a novelist instead.

Oh, wait.

The Next Story

Well, I said I would try to start work on my next story pretty soon, and I have fulfilled that promise.  I’ve started some preliminary work on a short story that I’m calling “What Happened in August Valley”.  I’ve got a character list, most of a small plot outline, and about 500 words of prose written.  It’s a semi-autobiographical story that’s heavily altered with some contemporary fantasy mojo.

And that fact makes me wonder.  I can imagine a world in which both this story and the story I just submitted both get published.  That story is also a contemporary fantasy.  If both of my first two published stories are contemporary fantasy, do I threaten to typecast myself as a purely contemporary fantasy writer?

I suspect that the answer is no: two short stories do not a career make nor, for that matter, a trend.  And the splashes I’m likely to make with either story, in the event they are published, will be small at first.  So, that thought is a relief.  Because I don’t want to write just contemporary fantasy.  I want to write epic fantasy, and heroic fantasy, and maybe even occassionally some space opera and science fiction.

So… I’m toying with some very preliminary ideas for my third story… it’s a bit early to think about that, but so it is.  I don’t have a plot, just a milieu in mind, but that one, if I do it, will mix things up a bit for my writing resume.

In the meantime, I have this story I’ve started writing.  It’s proving a little bit tricky.  I have what I think is a nice opening.  I know what the closing line will be.  But… I’m struggling with the climactic moment.  The problem is that the story is loosely based on some events that actually happened to me (events that were, in fact, a little surreal).  But in real life there was no climactic turning point.  (And in real life no one died.  Don’t worry.  The character who dies was volunteered to that fate by the person on whom the character is based, in the same conversation with that friend when he suggested I turn those events into a story.)

I’ll figure it out, hopefully, in the end – though it will be slow going because my focus, right now, is on other, more time-pressing things.  But hopefully, when I do finish it,  it will be as fun a read as the real events were to live through.

Submission Complete

My fate is now in the hands of forces that are beyond the ken of mortal man.

Which means I have submitted my story.  It’s in the mail.  I now leave it in the hands of the editor.

So, here’s where I stand.  I’ve written a good story.  I really believe that.  What I don’t know for sure is whether it’s a really “great” story.  But it’s definitely very good.  I’m fairly confident that it’s an original take on the theme.

That said, there are hundreds of reasons that an editor might not want to buy my story.  I’m hopeful, even optimistic, about the chances of this story making a positive impression.  But I’m realistic.  I understand that it may take me a while to find the right home for this story.  I believe that the right home is my top choice market – to whom the story was sent over the weekend – but even so there’s a sizeable chance that I’m wrong about that.

The story actually went into the mail on Saturday evening.  Dear Wife dropped it off at the Post Office while she was out doing some grocery shopping.  I was at home with B.T. studying.

All that’s left to be said is: wish me luck!