Thursday, May 28, 2009

What Lies in Wait Beyond the Next Branch

Just some philosophical musing today at the approach of an important anniversary.
One week from tomorrow (June 5th) is the 1 year anniversary of my very first story submission dropped in a mailbox. It's also my 5th wedding anniversary, but that's not what I'm talking about today. :)

I started writing fiction in 2007, and jumped right in, diving head first into writing a novel with no prior experience writing fiction, no critique group and rare feedback from anyone. I finished a rough draft of that novel last year. Over that whole year I hadn't even considered writing short stories. If you want to make it big, I reasoned, you've got to aim high. Book royalties, that's the key. Once I finished writing the entire book, I polished the first 3 chapters to the best shine I knew how, wrote a synopsis for them and dropped them in the mailbox addressed to Tor. Their website at the time estimated 4-6 months for reply to slush, so I figured I had time to polish some more chapters before I had any chance of hearing back from them. I figured most places will take at least as long as the time estimate they give you. Right? Wrong!

I had their rejection in my mailbox 12 days later, a grainy photocopy of a form letter: "Dear Submitter", "signed, the editors". Now what should I do, I thought. Not that many places even take submissions of just 3 chapters + synopsis. Many places require you to work through an agent. Many others require an entire manuscript. I found another publisher that would take 3 + synopsis, Elder Signs Press, and sent it off to them. Once that was out the door I decided I needed a change in tactic.

Since novels take such an ungodly amount of time to write, and since so few publishers will take 3 chapter submissions, I decided I'd better get writing something shorter. So I wrote up my first short story, originally titled The Long-sought Purpose of the Divining Man. It was filled with almost constant exclamation points and semi-colons as I'd had a secret love for these punctuations. It was very long and had all kinds of problems, but of course I thought it was great. :)

I made my very first story post to Baen's Bar, the critiquing forum associated with Jim Baen's Universe. It took me quite a while to work up the courage. What if someone steals my work? What if someone rips my story apart? But I sucked it up, because quite frankly, their money was among the best pay in the short story biz. And of course, the good Barflies there told me what they really thought of it, pointing out all the problems that they could find. "Wow, this is harder than I thought", I said, but at the same time was delighted to get prompt and knowledgeable feedback not only from fellow writers who were more experienced than I, but from the slush readers Edith Maor, Gary Cuba, and Sam Hidaka.

I've used Baen's Bar both to give and receive critiques since then and have yet to see its equal. The critiques I've received there have helped me grow as a writer much more quickly than dogging through it on my own. In the year since I started writing shorts I've learned 10 times what I learned the year before trying on my own.

I also found other useful writing forums like the Writers of the Future forum, and Hatrack River forum where I began wonderful friendships, discussed the ins and outs of writing and of the publishing business, and just had a great time. :)

More recently I've started grabbing writer friends on Facebook, which has been fun. Many of them give frequent updates about tour dates, publications, and you can just interact with them for fun too. It's been awesome. Before you start talking to these people it's easy to put them up on a pedestal and think of them as some sort of strange otherworldly being that can pull prose out of their ears unbidden, but they're folks just like you and me (albeit talented ones).

Anyhoo, I sent that ESP novel submission out over 300 days ago now, and have queried at 6 and 9 months without even an acknowledgment in return. How different would my writing career be nowadays if I had sent that first manuscript off to ESP instead of Tor. I probably would never have started writing short stories, so I wouldn't have come across critique forums like Baen's Bar. I never would've made the awesome friends I've made, and I would be left slogging through the revisions of that novel (or ones of a second novel) with little or no feedback to help me understand what works in stories and what doesn't. ALL it would've taken would have been a different address on that one envelope, and this would be so different.

I'm glad I addressed that first envelope to Tor, it set me on the path I've traveled to be where I am today. :)

Now I just need to get back to revising that novel! Such a daunting task now that I have a pretty good idea what I like and don't like about different stories!

Soon to come: A special guest blogger. Who could it be? More details soon.

5 comments:

ColinF said...

Hey, that's good to know. Maybe I should set aside my epic fantasy/scifi novel series (still in the outlining/planning stages after about 2 years) and start working on shorts too. Certainly the smaller task will allow me to put aside my notion of needing such immense detail set up before beginning the writing part. I just don't have much experience or knowledge of short stories. They're different than novels I think.

Oh, and what the heck were you doing on your 4th wedding anniversary dealing with submitting a novel? You should've been with your wife!

David Steffen said...

It may not be obvious, but it was thoughtful to send out that manuscript on my anniversary. It's not like I wrote the novel that morning. Dropping it in the mailbox provided me a small window of peace in between fiddling obsessively with the manuscript and waiting obsessively by the mailbox for it to come back, so I could actually think about my anniversary. :)

David Steffen said...

Short stories are definitely different than novels:
1. The style is quite different, the hook must grab the reader faster, you don't have hundreds of pages for characterization, you have to get a whole plot arc in the equivalent space of a chapter.
2. It is a heck of a lot easier to get feedback from readers. You can go to critique sites like Critters or Baen's Bar and get near-immediate feedback. Getting people to commit to reading a 15 page manuscript is much easier than getting them to read a 500 page one.
3. If you participate on crit forums, critiquing other people provides a great tool for improving your own work. It's easier to look objectively at another person's writing, and then you can examine it and decide what you like and what you don't. By writing up the critique for the other person, you're making those words more concrete in your own mind, making them easier to apply.

David Steffen said...

If you're like me, your style might change drastically as you learn. My novel manuscript is quite wordy. Through my short story writing, I've come to value conciseness as one of the highest virtues. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph must serve a purpose. So it gives me a headache thinking about all the editing that novel manuscript would need to fit my new criteria.

David Steffen said...

And, while it's a good idea to plan, I think you also need to practice the act of writing itself. It's not easy. There are lots of subtle difficulties you don't anticipate until you run into them. One idea: you could split your time between writing shorts and planning the novel. That way when you're ready to start typing out the novel, you'll be ready.
And then you can get some feedback from critique sites:

Critters: www.critique.org--more of a beginner's critique forum with a stress on politeness. You are required to do a critique a week to maintain your account.

Baen's Bar: bar.baen.com
Not for the faint of heart. People say exactly what they mean, but they (or most of them) are honestly trying to help you make the story the best it can be. You're not required to do critiques to maintain your account. The slush readers of Jim Baen's Universe read and sometimes comment, as well as other writers. If you stop by, I try to critique frequently, with the username "steffenwolf".