This is the third installment of my posts about lessons learned from slush. You can read the other two parts here: Part One, Part Two.
We read a lot of slush. We’ve written a lot of stuff. Sometimes we see bad habits that we realize we’ve been doing all along. These posts are about lessons we’ve learned.
Short recap of disclaimers:
- I hate canned advice.
- There’s a reason that advice exists.
- This is skewed towards short fiction editors because I am one.
- You can’t account for luck, but you can make choices about your fiction. This is about those choices.
Welcome to part two of “I’ve read a bunch of slush and I think I’ve learned something.” You can find Part One here. You can find Part Three here.
This post also got long, so there will be a part three. Sorry. I babble.
To recap stuff from the other one: we’ve read a bunch of stories over the years, and we’ve noticed things that a lot of writers do that are frustrating as an editor. Many of these things are things we’ve also done as writers, so it’s extra embarrassing. This is a chance to share these insights.
Here’s the super short version of my disclaimers.
- I hate “conventional wisdom.”
- But knowing what editors experience can help.
- I use the term “editor” because I’m an editor. This advice may not apply to other groups.
- This advice is about controlling what you can control, because there’s so much you can’t.
We just finished reading through 240+ stories for our new anthology. Other people have echoed similar sentiments, but reading slush really highlights things I’ve done as a writer that I probably want to rethink. I thought I might share some of the things I’ve seen over five years of slush.
This post got longer than intended so I’m breaking this up into
two three posts. You’re welcome. (Click here for Part Two. Click here for Part Three.)
I’ll try to focus more on things I could do better. When using examples from things we’ve edited, I’ll also try to highlight things from Mad Scientist Journal rather than anything recent.
Before I dig in, here are some disclaimers:
- I dislike the idea of “conventional wisdom.” In part because of survivorship bias. In part because there are constant exceptions to any rule that gets laid down.
- One of the many pearls of wisdom I learned from James Gunn’s writer’s workshop is: never give an editor an excuse to say, “No.” There’s value in knowing why an editor will say no.
- I say “editors” because it’s what I am and what I know. This could apply to agents, publishers, or other literary gatekeepers you want to impress. But I’m just going to say editors because I’m lazy.
- The advice here is about controlling what you can actually control. The universe is fickle and there are variables that you have no way to know about or plan for. So focus on what you can actually do.
A few weeks back, I attended the 31st annual RustyCon, one of our local general fan conventions. It boasts a population of 500-700 attendees and prides itself on being a very family-friendly convention. For this con, I was attending more as a panelist than anything else.
A while back I wrote a bit on the notion of whether or not someone is a writer, prompted by a mean response from Brian Michael Bendis. Even after posting it, I’ve mulled it around a bit. It sometimes takes me a while to process something, and the processing never really ends.
The thing that I keep thinking about is this: Harper Lee.
In 1960, she published To Kill a Mockingbird. It was a bestseller and won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. She published a couple essays after that, but that’s it. According to Wikipedia, she started writing a couple other books, one of them in the 1980s, neither of which she finished.
In 2011, a friend of hers shared the reason she gave for not writing again. “Two reasons: one, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”
But she did start writing other stuff at one point. I wonder at what point she went from working on other projects to not writing anymore. Did she have writer’s block?
If Harper Lee had said she had writer’s block for 20+ years, would you say, “Maybe you’re not a writer?”
Not every writer is Harper Lee. Heck, some writers aren’t even Dan Brown. But if you hit a slump of any sort, at what point do you lose your ability to call yourself a “writer”? There’s no answer beyond the one you decide to believe in. The only real thing you can say that if you aren’t writing something, nothing is getting written.
[Edit: I felt inspired to write a followup post.]
So this thing happened on Tumblr, and everyone lost their shit. Which is the way of Tumblr, I guess. But it started with someone asking Brian Michael Bendis, “what advice do you have for someone that has had writers block for the past 6 or 7 years?”
this will sound harsh but you’re probably not a writer.
writers write every day. it’s ok, not everyone is.
but if you consider yourself one, get off your ass and get back to work!! write about why you haven’t been writing . anything. just write.
This weekend represented the first convention I attended in which I got to appear as a panelist. RustyCon is one of the smaller conventions in the Seattle area that caters to the general fan community. The impression I got is that they consider themselves a bit more of a family friendly convention compared to Norwescon. According to their site they have membership of about 500-600. It didn’t seem that crowded to me, but then there were parts of the convention we just never went to.
I hit 50K on the very last night of National Novel Writing Month. I’d started November off on vacation and then got sick. So a very slow start and then very slow progress due to raw exhaustion. I didn’t see the doctor until the day before Thanksgiving and got antibiotics. So over the course of the last week of November I wrote over 25,000 words. After that I feel like someone’s been beating me in my sleep.
For this year’s NaNoWriMo, I relied entirely on the crude outline I created in the one-day workshop I did with Mark Teppo through Clarion West‘s one-day workshop in early October. For a lot of reasons, mostly involving the build-up to November (including World Fantasy Con and AmberCon Northwest back to back), I didn’t get a blog post about my experience with his workshop. Since the novel came out of the work I did in his workshop, and it’s a great chance to see how that worked for me, I figured it was best to combine those two posts.
This weekend I attended the first of Clarion West’s one day writing workshops. This first one was titled “Alive in the World” and focused on the interaction between character and setting. It was taught by Molly Gloss, who I hadn’t heard of before, but others in the class were familiar with her work. I think this more a sign of how spotty my SF/F reading experience often is. I felt like the class was pretty good. I offer up my thoughts for you on the subject.
My friend and fellow writer, John Worsley, asked me to recap what Nancy Kress taught in her workshop. So this is the very summarized view, recreated from my notes. Since I’m not the best note-taker, this whole post will be kind of rough. I’m trying to recreate the main talking points without me filling in gaps with false details that I’ve confabulated. There were also handouts, which we referred to throughout the course of the talk.
I don’t remember exactly when each page was covered, or what order they were presented in. (I’m mainly vague about #2 and #3 in terms if which came first.) I’ll try to mention them when I think they make the most sense. Part of the delay in this post was that I was waiting for PNWA to post the handouts to their site. I can guarantee the links work now. But I can’t guarantee they’ll be there forever.
For those who would like more information from the source, Nancy Kress has three books on writing that have been published:
Ms. Kress, I’d like to apologize now for any butchering or incorrect statements I make regarding what I learned.