Archive for category Publishing

Does This Story Suck?

Mediocrity sucks.

I hope, at this stage in my writing life, I’m not submitting anything truly horrible. I think I can assume that much. But I fear mediocrity, because I’m fully aware I can’t recognize it in my own work.

When I edit myself, I catch outright errors. I recast awkward sentences. I read out loud (or mutter to my laptop while sitting on my couch) and make changes whenever I stumble in my reading. (If I get confused while reading my own work, what horrors might others experience?) I make sure the plot makes sense. I walk around inside the characters, so that their actions ring true. But only rarely can I tell if my work is any more than competent.

I finished a novella last autumn, thought it was all right, but wasn’t super in love with it. At some point though, you have to stop fiddling, so I sent it out. Six months later, it was rejected, but with a note that it had made it to the final round of consideration, and they hoped to see more from me.

Really? I reread the thing. It was better than I remembered. This is good!

I have also reread published stories. Some wear well, and I’m really pleased. Others make me cringe. I won’t say which ones!

On occasion, I have written something I knew was good. These rarities tend to be stories that are relatively easy to write, unlike my usual grinding process. Most of the time, writing is a grind, and I am working in the dark.





Words, Pictures, and Music, Part 2

Words are no easier to discard than music. Getting rid of books can be tough, but what about magazines?

I have a shelf in a walk-in closet which, until a few days ago, held a bunch of copies of Interzone, Science Fiction Age, Weird Tales, Realms of Fantasy, and Pulphouse. About half had never been read. About ten percent are still in their plastic covers. I don’t know what to do with them. I don’t think there’s much of a market–we’re not talking vintage here. And, while libraries will take anthology-type zines, the kind that look like books and can stand up on a shelf, flat floppy ones are less attractive.

Here’s the thing: I have stopped reading paper periodicals almost totally. My exceptions being Locus, Bird Talk, Sunset, and The New York Review of  Science Fiction. No fiction. None. And I don’t do too well on the non-fiction, but I at least look at each of these.

These old magazines are weighing on me. The other day, though, I had occasion to pull them all out. I was looking for an extra copy of Interzone #184, in which my story, “Just A Number,” appears. I wanted to send it to my friend and editor, Eric Heideman, as he is helping me put together a couple five-story collections I plan to publish online. (Thank you, Eric!:)) Okay, so: found the extra copy and sent it off to the great city of Minneapolis along with another issue, then looked at the stacks I had pulled out, and thought, It’s time to let go of these.

I began to go through them, looked at all the authors’ names, and empathized with the joy and pride that comes from seeing one’s work in print. I felt the same for the editors and publishers. I knew that publishing and editing these magazines was loads of work, never glamorous, and often thankless. I grieved, though, at how of their time most of these publications are. Non-fiction articles wear much less well than the fiction…I saw pieces on how to read about science fiction on the newfangled Internet. I saw a quite dismissive review of the original publication of Game of Thrones. (Just another sword & sorcery, we are told. Very violent. Shallow female characters.)

What was clear above all was that few of these items in my closet were of any interest to anybody any longer, other than, perhaps, the authors appearing therein.

I wrote last time of music I haven’t gotten rid of. This is different. This time, I will let go of anything I can, giving it to the library if they’ll take it, or giving it to someone else. Worst-case scenario, they’ll go into recycling. I know that word-history weighs me down in a way music-history never could, and these magazines take up psychological space in a way old LPs never could. I feel I will write new material more freely if I remove these old items from my personal space.

It also has to do with the nature of memory as it attaches to each thing.

Words and music both hold memories, but music–even in the MP3 era–holds shared memories. We listen to music together, even now. Books and magazines, on the other hand, make up  a series of solitary memories, and I believe this is true, even if we talk about them, or discuss them in a book club setting. There is simply something very private about reading and memories of reading. Some of these memories have aged well, some not. None of them, though, can be replayed like a three-minute song. They are over, and it is time for them to go.

Yes, there are classics, stories that won’t go away, that will be published and republished. There are classic, vintage issues of magazines for collectors to collect. I’m not a collector; it’s the content, not the package, that does it for me.

So off they must go, leaving me to contemplate my newly emptied shelf.


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The Pain of Reading Old Work

Toss old ms. into flames--what a quaint idea!

Inspired by David Gaughran’s Let’s Get Digital I am exploring the pros and cons of self-publishing my novel (when it’s finished) as an e-book. My post today isn’t about pros and cons, or even about the process of formatting, marketing, and so forth. It’s about the basic issue: content.

My novel is months away from being ready. I don’t know how many months, but less than a year, I hope. I would love to test the waters with something now, say some short stories. I have some already written–two dozen or so published since the late 1980s, and a handful of unpublished works. The published ones are somewhat obscure. Most were in the very excellent Tales of the Unanticipated, and five were in the British semi-prozine Interzone.

I’m in the middle of reading them all now, to see what kind of mini-collection I could put together.

Reading old work. Whoa. Scary. Weird. Some concerns emerge.

#1: Anachronisms. Oddly, this affects the science fiction and the fantasy equally. In the 1990s, I utterly sucked at foreseeing what techno marvels would come to wow us a mere decade later. Oh yeah, I’d read Phillip K. Dick while listening to a compact disk, and sneer at him for having his characters listening to their music in 1990-something on reel-to-reel tape. I never saw the mp3 player coming. My idea of an up-to-date modern household in 2050 is a big-screen flat TV and robotic vacuum. Pathetic.

My fantasy fares no better. A single cell phone can collapse an entire plot line, and a lack thereof can seem really weird in a story that’s meant to be happening in the present, turning it into a really nebulous no-time period piece. Giant shoulder pads and big hair lurk offstage.

#2: It’s old. Those handful of readers who have read my work (most of whom I hope would want to read more) want to see something new from me. It would seem cheesy to slap some old thing up on Amazon, etc., that they’ve read before and ask them to pay money for it. There has to be some previously unpublished work up there, which means I would have to write some new material, short stories, to be specific. Darn. I was hoping to have something to sell without actually having to write something.

Before I toss those old mss. into the flames, there is one other consideration: Some of this earlier work is pretty good, and I would like to see it out there again.

Possible solution: Find a way to combine old and new material in such a way, like a themed mini-collection, that would appeal to old and new readers alike. Yeah. Guess I have some work to do.

For now, I’ll keep reading.

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Banging the Drum All Day (Not)

The details are clear, but everything else–exactly where or when this happened–is fuzzy.

My husband, daughter, and I were on some sort of road trip, perhaps taking her to college (?) or on a ski trip (?). We were leaving a large sporting goods store (?). They had a blaring loudspeaker system, which was playing the 1983 Todd Rudgren song, “Bang the Drum All Day.” You know the one:

I don’t want to work

I want to bang on the drum all day

I don’t want to play

I just want to bang on the drum all day

My daughter said, “That’s a stupid song.”

My husband said, “It is a stupid song.”

I said, “I’ve always liked it.”

I was hit with a barrage of incredulity. “Why?!!?” they asked/shouted in unison. “It’s stupid!”

I explained it to them, as I will now explain it to you.

This song is played as an anti-work song, even played, I understand as a taunt by conservative pundits against unions and others they consider to be lazy. But the song is not celebrating sloth. Look at the third line. Not only does he not want to work, he does not want to play either! He only wants to practice his art, which happens to be playing the drum.

I don’t have to approve of his lifestyle or even agree that drumming is an art form, you understand, but the narrator of this song certainly does, and that is the basis upon which I approach it. This is a song about art, not about goofing off.

When it first came out, I was still working a job in a field that bored me. I wanted only to be a full-time writer. A famous writer. A rich and famous writer. This song, widely played in those days, ran through my head. I hummed it off and on all day long. I no longer wanted to work at my boring job of course, but I noticed something else: that when I reached a sweet spot in the writing of a story, I didn’t want to play either. I didn’t want to go hang out with friends, shop, or party. I only wanted to bang on my drum. I only wanted to keep writing, like the song says.

I go through several phases in the process of creating a story. I begin with an idea, usually just a situation, a short scene perhaps lasting only a few seconds. A “what if?”. This is giddy stuff, as several related ideas spring up as well, and I anxiously scribble them down. This is a Bang The Drum All Day phase.

The giddy beginning is followed by the task of actually putting the story on paper. By this time, I have a solid beginning, and possibly know the ending. Not always. The middle is still total mush. This part is hard to get through, as I have shared in the previous post. At this point, I am infinitely distractible, and am more than willing to go hang out, go do laundry, solve your family crisis, and even take a paying job in order to escape the creative mess I’ve made. It is not “banging the drum all day.” It is horrifying, because at this point, the work is so bad.

Then, working patiently, sometimes interminably slowly, I resolve the mess. This part is about as much fun as prepping for a colonoscopy. This goes on and on, but suddenly, I reach a point. Suddenly, I see how it can all make sense. It’s time to bang on the drum all day. Except, of course, I don’t get to. No one does. We’ve all our other stuff to do.

That’s where I’m at now with my novel, happily anticipating my writing time each day. I don’t always wait for writing time. Characters pop up throughout my day to talk to me and advise me on details of plot and setting. And yeah, some of my ability to concentrate on ordinary activities is compromised. I’m kind of a space cadet, losing my sunglasses, my keys, my shoes, and not sure where I left my car.

On the plus side, I’m way more pleasant and fun to be around.

I always wanted to write, and I still do. The rich and famous part has faded for me, though, in more ways than one. The odds of winning that kind of lottery fade with passing time–my personal time as well as the world’s. Even many award-winning, critically acclaimed writers can’t make a living these days. And fame…particularly the sort where people on the street recognize you…seems like no fun at all for an introvert like me anyway.

What I’m left with is the writing, and the relatively small group of people who will read it and enjoy it. I do want to get my novel published; I do want to be out there. I do want some money for my effort, as much as I can get. I can work toward the fame and money, but I can’t control that end of it. All I can control is the work itself, and for now, that is pure joy.


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Heavenly Visions From Back Here on Earth

Here is my vision, my personal wish list, in order of priority.

In Heaven there will be:

1) No leaf blowers or other noisy garden tools

2) Universal peace and love

3) An independent brick and mortar bookstore on every block, wedged between a coffee place and a really yummy restaurant.

The bookstores would all be different from one another. Some would specialize in a genre, such as speculative fiction, or lit fic, or mysteries, or whatever. There would even be a store specializing in books I would absolutely hate and think are pure trash.

Each store would be owned and operated by an individual, or couple, or very small group of partners, and would represent the taste and interests of the owner/operators, whose decisions would reign supreme. They could do special orders for anyone who asked, but would not be guided by popular taste in which books they would put on their shelves. No one could ban a book, or be able to remove a book from a store window. The bookseller’s decision is absolute. Blindfolds and white canes would be provided for the easily offended.

I want to be surprised by what I see. It’s great to know what I want and be able to get it, but I also enjoy not knowing what I want, the pure entertainment provided by the idiosyncratic collection of books someone else finds interesting. It is Bookstore as Art. I don’t like everything I see, but I love that it exists. I would visit the genre stores I liked, but would also tag along with my historical romance friends to the stores they liked. I love ideas, variety, comparing and contrasting, and finding the occasional treasure I never would have known existed without the unique perspective of one individual bookseller, not to mention my fellow book buyers.

That is Heaven.

Back here on Earth, we must make do with less. People do try. At B&N, we are familiar with the shelf dedicated to staff picks. It’s not nearly enough; it seems like a minor indulgence, and the individual picks do not form a whole. B&N varies by store, with some locations pretty fun to look at, and others oddly devoid or what I call “real books.” A celebrity weight-loss book by an actress is not a real book to me. Neither is a memoir by the adolescent daughter of a former governor. I wish they wouldn’t use their space so poorly. Give me real books, please. (Yes, I did specify that there would be a bookstore in Heaven specializing in books I hate, didn’t I?)

Bad bookstores need no longer prevent us from having what we want. Just about anything every published is available online, but how does one browse anything so vast? The search functions don’t do it for me.

These days, I do buy most of my books online, some ebooks, some traditional. I buy a lot of books from Mark and Cindy Ziesing, at, and they are able to give me that “browsing” experience, minus the good restaurant and coffee shop next door, alas. The Ziesings are wildly idiosyncratic in their tastes, offering a fair amount of speculative fiction, but also mainstream, slipstream, erotica, downright silly, and unclassifiable. And if they bring a book to my attention, I feel I must buy it from them, and not from Amazon, even if it costs me a couple extra bucks. Call it a finder’s fee. Without booksellers like these, I would have only my own taste to rely upon.

(Examples of books brought to my attention by the Ziesings: Amberville, by Tim Davys, Swamplandia, by Karen Russell, and The Manual of Dectection, by Jedediah Berry. I recommend them all.)

From my non-professional viewpoint, I do believe independents can survive and even flourish online, as long as people know they are there. I suspect the non-ebook will become something of an artifact, that future readers will not have as many books on their shelves, but that those they have will be prettier, perhaps signed, or special editions of some sort. I don’t see quickly-yellowing mass-market paperbacks in our future. There is simply no need for them. Trade paperbacks and hardbacks will survive, and I will enjoy them for the rest of my life.

I’m not willing to speculate what happens after that. But if I awaken from death surrounded by celebrity bios, political blowhard tracts, and weight-loss books, and if that’s the only bookstore there is…well, I’ll know I didn’t make it to Heaven.

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The Future of Reading

Our daughter came home from college this Thanksgiving weekend, and gave us the heads-up that she would like an e-reader for Christmas. She did not want an iPad (too big, and a lot of money considering she only wants it to e-read), and was leaning toward the Kindle, but wanted to look at B&N’s Nook as well. We went to one of our local malls, where both were available to play with, and we went to the Apple store as well, because…well, why not. As a result of her research, she is now leaning toward the Nook.

The entire subject of e-readers fueled a discussion. We hear that e-readers are a big gift item this Christmas. I heard a discussion on NPR Friday about how reading a Kindle is more like reading a book, brainwave-wise, while reading an LED screen (PCs, iPads, Nooks) cause entirely different parts of the brain to light up and tire us out more. Will this change the very functioning of our brains? Who knows! This morning’s L.A. Times carried a column (a paper blog!) in which the columnist raved about his and his wife’s respective Kindles. He was concerned, however, that e-readers were ringing the death knell for the local bookstore.

This bothers me as well. Wandering through a bookstore counts as a favorite activity, although the opportunities for such wandering are rare these days, and stores disappear and the big chains cut back their selections. Many of my favorite science fiction and fantasy writers are missing from my local B & N or Borders, and I end up buying many of my books from a mail order and online bookseller, Mark Ziesing. Mark and Cindy have been in the mail order order business for decades. They easily made the transition to online (, but I fear e-books will do folks like them in.

Hey, what about book signings? What happens to them?

My daughter points out that e-books save trees. This is a good thing, I agree, especially if said book is some kind of trashy celeb bio I feel I must read. Celeb bios are almost never literature, except for Julia Child’s My Life in France, and Bob Dylan’s ChroniclesVolume One. (Still waiting for volume two, Bob!) She also notes that e-books are nice for plane travel; you can put a whole bunch of them on a single device, which is good for weather delays and the like. I counter that, unlike a conventional book, e-books will have to be turned off during takeoff and landing. One other negative about e-books is that you can’t pass them around. My husband is currently enjoying the Keith Richards autobiography on his iPad. I can’t sneak a look at it when he puts it down, because he takes it with him when he leaves the house, nor can I just read it when he’s done.

Ambience is lost when we lose the physical book. One of my favorite dreamscape scenarios is finding myself in a giant phenomenal library, with room after room of floor-to-ceiling books, and ladders that go up into the vanishing heights. There is no one at the front desk, no one to tell me I can’t climb the ladders, can’t get the books for myself. There are big long tables of dark, glossy wood, and massive crystal chandeliers for me to read by. There is that smell, that lovely, musty smell that books have, and probably enough dust to make me cough a little.

Looks like I need to replace that with a different scenario, perhaps with a room all in white and stainless steel. A picture window looking out over the lights of the city. A glass of white wine, or maybe a cup of coffee. Next to it, a black, shiny tablet, containing everything that’s ever been published in the history of the world.

All right. I guess that sounds nice. I know the dust wasn’t good for me anyway.

I don’t know what the future of reading is, but here is my best guess: Mass-market paperbacks will begin to go away as electronic readers become as cheap as digital calculators. These are the books the pages of which turn brown after only a few years. They can indeed be done away with. Specialty publication, in the form of quality paperback and hardcover, will continue. Physical books will become more expensive, eventually to be considered a luxury item. There will be book signings for these items, and booksellers–a few, anyway–will make a living off of selling them. People–some of us, anyway–will continue to read for entertainment and information, in spite of all the other distractions, troubles, and drudgery of staying alive.

Check that: We will continue to read because of the distractions, troubles, and drudgery of life.

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