This Story Sale is Special

I sold a story yesterday, but this sale is a bit more special to me than many of my others. It has nothing to do with the story per se—I’m proud of all my stories—it has to do with the market. The market isn’t one of the “big ones,” at least not as science fiction magazines go, but it is a market I never thought I would crack, at least not in the way I have always thought of this market.

That market is Nature, a world-renowned scientific journal, sort of the Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy or Asimov’s but for scientists. As a professional biologist, I am very familiar with Nature because in my field, to have an article in Nature is a big, big (did I say big?) deal, and something I am certain will never happen to me.

Yet, Nature is also a pro market for science fiction, and they publish a “hard” science fiction story in every issue. As with any pro market, they are tough to crack, and to be honest I’ve never submitted anything to them because I never thought I had anything “hard” enough for them. I’ll also admit, their reputation in my field of science left me a bit intimidated. Last fall, however, I decided, almost on a whim, to send them a cute story I had just finished about the multiverse, wave functions, and probability densities called “Mementoes of My Lives (Un)Lived.” Many months went by without a peep, but the editor finally contacted me yesterday to accept my cute little story for publication. It feels a bit surreal to be able to say, “I’m going to be published in Nature.”

In Nature.

Did I mention that already? I’m grinning so wide, it almost hurts because . . .

I’m going to be published in Nature, and I can’t wait to tell my colleagues.

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Feels Good to Sell This One

Every acceptance letter is exciting and uplifting, but the one I got last night was particularly gratifying. Apex Magazine, one of the best pro markets for dark speculative fiction, accepted my story “Gift for the Cutter Man.”

This one has been making the rounds since last May even though it’s only been to a couple of places. At each of those stops, it made it through the early cuts only to sit for months and months on the editor’s desk before getting a nice personal rejection. I don’t hold anything against those editors for seemingly sitting on a few stories—they’re busy and most likely underpaid for what they do—but come on, six months! Okay … calm down … water under the bridge and all that.

A couple of things make this sale gratifying. First, I think this is a really good story, and regardless of my gripe above, the fact that it was sitting for so long on the various editorial desks tells me I made it hard for the editors to pass it up. In my experience, good stories can often take a long time to sell. I believe the primary challenge is finding the right magazine and editor because stories that get through the first and second and third readers are all likely deserving of being published, but there are never enough slots to take them all. The ones that get rejected are more of an editorial preference, than an indictment of their quality. Second, it’s been over a year since I’ve made a short story sale. A little petty, sure, but that’s a long drought for me, and it feels great to finally break through again.

If your stories are getting through those first and second readers at the pro markets only to get a nice personal rejection, hang in there. Your stories are competitive, and it’s just a matter of time before you sell one. Pro markets are tough—according to the Submission Grinder, Apex has an acceptance rate below 0.5%, so fewer than 5 of every 1000 stories—so write another one and submit it, and in the meantime, that one they rejected? Send it somewhere else and somewhere else and somewhere else until you find the right editor and magazine for it. Publishing is as much determination as it is talent.

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You Don’t Have Time to Write, You Make it

I may make a living writing, but much to my disappointment, I just don’t do it writing fiction. I hold down a full time job, sometimes more than one, and I have a family. I have a couple of pets, and I like to garden and walk and watch the occasional show on TV. More than one of my friends have asked something along the lines of: “I’d like to write a novel, but I don’t have the time. How do you do it?”

Therein lies the problem. Last I checked, everyone had the same number of hours in the day. Sure, some people can squeeze out a few extra hours by sleeping less, but basically you get up to 24 hours to do with as you choose. While some things are less about choice than a necessity—sleeping, eating, and earning some money to allow those two things to happen—what differs is how a person chooses to use their more “open” time. A long afternoon nap or a trip to the grocery store? Two hours playing the latest go-round of Resident Evil or reading the latest Neil Gaiman book. An hour writing or an hour lounging in a hot bath immersed in a Bach concerto.

As with most things I might want to do, I don’t just miraculously have time to write, I must make the time to write. You see, life is a zero sum game. For those of you not familiar with the concept of zero sum, it’s a situation in game theory where every gain must be offset by a loss of an equal amount. So, for every hour I spend writing, I cannot spend that hour watching TV or going for a walk or working. I must prioritize what I want to do with my time. Some things by necessity need to have a high priority. I must sleep and eat. I must earn money, so I must work. I must spend time with my family. But those remaining hours? Those are more flexible in how I can choose to spend them, and I like to write, and I want to write. It’s important to me, so I make the time to write by not doing something else that I might also like to do. I prioritize my writing and thus make the time.

In this day and age, I believe almost everyone has the time to write or read or garden or play video games. They likely don’t have the time to do all or maybe even a few of these things, but they have the time somewhere in the day if it is a high enough priority. If you want to write a novel or a short story, the time is there for the taking, but is it important enough to you to give up something else you might want to do? That is the real question in my mind.

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Where Writers Earn Their Money

I’ve mentioned several times over the past few months that I’m writing a YA novel as part of a collaboration. For my part, I’ve taken on the task of writing the first draft, which will then be joint-edited by my co-author and me. I’ve been writing into the draft nearly every day since early January, so for about 60 days, thereabouts. A few days ago, I cruised past the halfway point and entered into the third quarter of the novel.

For most stories, I find this stretch of the writing to be the hardest. If you’ve ever run a marathon or done anything that is endurance-based, the third quarter of your activity is generally the most grueling. Your fresh start has passed, and the milestone of the halfway point has slid behind you, yet the finish line still lies far in the distance, and your body and mind are tired and ready to stop. This is where the newness of the story idea has faded into the reality of what you’re putting on paper (or screen, as the case may be!), and the adrenaline high of the story’s climax is still many key scenes away.

This is where writers earn their money. At this point, it’s easy to abandon a project if you hit even the slightest adversity. I know because I’ve done it, more times than I’d like to admit. But I’ve also come to understand that if I cannot keep moving forward, I will never succeed as a writer. Whoever said, “writers must write,” didn’t phrase it properly, in my opinion. Sure, writers must write, but more accurately, writers must write to the finish.

Over the years, I’ve become a more mentally-strong author, and I’ve developed ways to handle what I have called the doldrums. I may not have hit the doldrums yet for my YA novel, but I know I’m getting close because I’ve started to dabble with short story starts. This means my attention has started to wander somewhat. It hasn’t gotten bad yet; I’ve managed to return nearly every day to the novel manuscript and set down a fresh 500-to-a-1000 words, which exceeds my daily writing goal. I’m sure this is for two primary reasons: I have an incredibly strong story outline assembled by my co-author, and I still believe in the story and its characters. If I can push through the next three weeks, I’ll be entering the home stretch, which I know will be easier. So, much like the marathon runner, it’s one word after the other, with each word bringing me closer to the finish.

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The Little Story that Couldn’t

I suspect every writer has a story that they really believe in, and try as they might, they can’t seem to sell it to anyone. Mine is a flash story that I wrote about eight years ago, and has had an eventful life making the rounds. It’s actually sold once, but never got published because the magazine “lost it,” and I reclaimed the rights because I had lost faith in that publisher (they “lost” another of my stories, too). It’s been shortlisted or made it through the first cuts at at least a dozen publications, including pro, semi-pro and token markets. It’s gotten kind personal rejections, but in the end has always been passed over as “not quite the right fit.”

It came back again this week, after making it to the final cut again, only to stumble before the finish line.

Sigh.

I know selling fiction is as much finding the right market and editor as it is having a strong story. I once had a story that was among the finalists for the Writer’s of the Future Contest (it didn’t win) that went on to rack up nearly two dozen rejections before finding a nice home in a semi-pro magazine. I’m convinced that success in the publishing game is more about persistence than talent, although talent is certainly important. There are many good stories making the rounds, so don’t get discouraged when your good story comes back with a sorry-but-this-wasn’t-the-right-fit-for-us rejection.

I still believe in this one. I like my little ugly duckling’s spunk and its never-say-die attitude. It’s already headed back out the door to find a home that will allow others to enjoy it as much as I do. I’ll keep sending it out until I run out of markets in which I would be proud to see it appear or I lose faith in it, which I hope never happens. It’s a good story, and I’m confident it will eventually find the right editor who sees it the same as I do.

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The Writing Doldrums

I write at several lengths, from flash fiction to short stories to novellas and novels. Each length presents its own challenges, but one thing that I find common to all lengths is something I call the “writing doldrums.” In almost every story, I inevitably reach a point where that initial rush of excitement at starting a new work wears off, the end of the story is still so far down the tunnel as to be hard to see, and the flow of words slows. While certainly a more common challenge in lengthier pieces, I’ve had it happen in flash stories, too, so the writing doldrums are not restricted to novella and novel lengths.

I know to be a successful writer, I need to finish my stories, which means finding the motivation to work through the doldrums and cross the finish line. I’m not always successful at this, but over the years I’ve become more successful at fighting through the doldrums because I have figured out some of the main reasons they happen to me, and that is most of the battle.

If I understand my enemy, I improve my chances of defeating it.

The most common reason for me hitting the writing doldrums is that I don’t know my story as well as I should . While every writer is different, I’ve learned that I should not start writing a story until I know at least my main character and the ending of their story. The better I know this, the easier it is for me to get to the finish.

So where does the challenge come in?

Sometimes I don’t know my main character as well as I thought. Perhaps I don’t really understand their intended character arc, or motivation, or their conflict. That makes it particularly difficult for me to get from point A (the inciting action) to Point B (the resolution). In extreme cases, this could even turn the original ending I have into the wrong ending, so I no longer have a target towards which to write.

I find this my underlying problem when my story starts to wander around without much purpose, or I’m stuck going around and around in the same scene, or I am writing a series of scenes that are uninteresting because they lack or fail to build tension. When this happens, I know I need to stop writing and flesh out my main character, especially their character arc. Once I clearly understand what they want and their climax, I can usually think of a series of scenes and challenges that can act as intermediate milestones. Then I can write to these closer points, and even if the words are coming hard, I can usually brute force my way through to the end. Once there, I can solve a lot of the remaining issues during revisions.

Alternatively, I sometimes get fascinated by a side character, and this secondary character will take over a scene or sometimes even the story. This tells me my main character is not interesting enough to me because I don’t understand who they are and what they want. To solve this, I again need to step away and delve into my main character’s conflict and motivation. Understanding who a character is, and most importantly why I should care about them, usually allows me to figure out a path forward, and like above, I can come up with a series of scenes and challenges to milepost my story to the end. Sometimes during this “fleshing out” process I realize my original ending was the wrong one, and if that happens, the new ending usually becomes apparent, which I find can also solve a lot of my problems.

The second most common reason for my writing doldrums is simply that writing can be tedious and hard work. After that initial shiny new story glow rubs off, the act of putting words on paper becomes like running a marathon—I just need to keep putting one foot in front the other until I get to the finish line. For me, this one is easy to identify because I tend to know exactly where I am going, and what the scenes should be accomplishing. It becomes more a matter of just making it happen. The best way I found to combat this form of the doldrums is to simply write every day and make small progress. I use a daily word count approach, where I ensure that I write at least 500 words every single day. Most days I write more, and on occasion I write less, but my goal is to average at least 500 words every day, which works out to over 182,000 words a year, or about 1-2 novels worth of words.

My reasons for hitting the writing doldrums are likely specific to me, but I think for any writer to be successful, they need to figure out how to finish stories. When you hit that wall in your story, you need to find a way through it (or over it or around it), and I think the best way to do that is to figure out the root cause of the problem. Once you do that, the chances of finding a workable solution should increase. That doesn’t mean it will be easy—if writing were easy, everyone would be a bestselling author—but figuring out how to overcome writing challenges is critical to your success, regardless of where you are a writing novice or a pro.

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The Challenge of Putting Music into Words

One of my current works in progress is a young adult book about a group of teenagers in a band who need to use their musical prowess to stave off Armageddon. It’s sort of a Percy-Jackson-meets-King-Crimson story, where the plucky heroes must overcome all sorts of weirdness while learning about progressive rock music (yeah, progressive rock plays a key role), figuring out what it means to be in a band, and struggling with their burgeoning adulthood.

I’m learning that one of the biggest challenges I’m facing is capturing the sound and majesty of music with words. Many years ago, I read an interview with George R. R. Martin about his book The Armageddon Rag, in which he made the comment that writing stories in which music plays a central role was incredibly difficult because of the challenge of translating a powerful aural experience into written words. At the time, I remember appreciating his observation, but I didn’t think much of it. I had intended to dive into The Armageddon Rag, but life got in the way, and some fifteen years later, the book is still on my shelf, waiting for me to read it.

I really should read it, if for no other reason than it might help me with my YA book, but also because Martin’s pre-Game of Thrones books are exceptional (I recommend his debut novel, Dying of the Light.)

Having now written several scenes where my intrepid band of heroes plays music, I now appreciate the challenge that Martin described. Capturing music with words alone is tough, especially when trying to capture the beauty or the power or the emotional depth of a particular song while still given the reader of sense of what it actually sounds like. For my story, it’s not enough to just talk about the “effect” of the music on the characters. That would be relatively easy. In this story, the actual songs are important, and one of the goals my co-author and I have for this book is to introduce readers to music we love. That means it’s important for us to give enough description of the music to potentially entice our readers to seek out and listen to the songs. (All this is further complicated by the fact that music publishers are notoriously aggressive when it comes to policing their rights, so mentioning lyrics is also a sticky proposition and one I’ve decided to avoid entirely.)

Are my drafts of scenes where the music plays a key role in the events successful? I’m not sure just yet, but it is first draft material for me, so I know it’s not overly compelling stuff. My writing usually improves significantly after a round of editing, so at this stage, what I’m looking to achieve is a solid framework onto which I can build.

I’d like to find more examples of fiction where the authors have successfully described music. If you have any suggestions for novels or short stories where music plays a central role and you think the author did a great job is describing the music, please drop your recommendations in the comments. I’d love to check them out, and maybe learn a few things in the process.

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Rounded Characters and Compelling Arcs

The success of a story often hangs on the presence of a compelling character.

When I first started writing fiction and submitting it to magazines, I was fortunate to receive feedback from editors (perhaps they recognized my newbie status) via rejection letters. In particular, Charles Ryan at Aboriginal Science Fiction used to send a checklist of reasons for his rejections, often with a little hand scrawled note of encouragement. My most often rejection reason from Mr. Ryan was a lack of character depth, or what is sometimes call “flat” characters. Basically, my characters weren’t compelling.

Over the years, I’ve worked hard to write stronger characters, and while I don’t think they are necessarily my greatest strength, I also don’t think my characters tend to hold back my stories anymore. Over time I believe I have developed a feel for what makes a compelling character. I’m not saying I have the all the answers, but I thought I’d share my process for character development. When developing a main character (as opposed to a supporting character), I consider four important facets:

their arc

their agency

their motivation

their stakes

If I can develop each of these well enough to engage a reader, then I likely have a compelling character on hands, and one that can support a short story.

I think the most important feature of a main character is that they undergo a “character arc” over the course of the story. This simply means that the events of the story should cause the main character to experience a change, either in their external or internal condition (or both). I believe the most compelling arcs include an internal transformation, usually a fundamental change in who the character is. It is this transformation that makes the events of the story meaningful. Basically, a character arc should tell what that character has learned and how they have chosen to use that information.

A main character must have agency, that is they must be the source of their own change. This usually happens through the character making a critical decision, usually at the climax of the story. The events of the story must drive the main character to this critical juncture, and once there, the main character must be the one who decides what they are going to do. This decision should not be made for them by another character. Sometimes this is referred to as having an “active” versus a “passive” main character. Main characters who are victims to the bitter end, or a tossed by events beyond their control, or are simple doormats for other characters are seldom compelling to read about. A main character must have the means to make choices and must make them.

In real life, people do things because they are motivated. The more motivated the individual, the more they apply themselves. Main characters should do the same. Characters should have reasons for doing what they do. In general, the more personal the motivation, the more compelling the character. For example, a character could have many reasons for robbing a bank, but it is generally more compelling to the reader if they are robbing the bank to get money to pay for their child’s life-saving cancer treatments, than if they simply want the money to buy a fancy car. Motivations matter, otherwise, characters appear to being doing thing for no reason, who in the real world does that?

Finally, a main character must face ramifications for their actions (or inactions). They must have something at stake, and like their motivation, I believe the more personal the stakes, the more compelling the character. The stakes should be meaningful, clearly at risk, and be as large as possible. Competing stakes should exist to make the character’s decision as difficult as possible. In my bank robbing example above, my main character risks losing their child if they are unable to raise the money. If they do not attempt to rob the bank, their child will most likely imminently die. However, if they decide to rob the bank, it introduces a different set of competing stakes. By deciding to rob the bank, my character risks incarceration if caught or perhaps even being killed during the robbery. These seems like high stakes to me, and this main character is in a real bind.

While I certainly don’t have the answers to character development, I have found that compelling main characters need to be well-developed, such they have arcs, agency, motivation, and stakes at risk. As every write is different, this approach may work for you or not. If you’ve found another way to create compelling characters, please drop me a comment. I am always looking for ways to improve my characters and may writing.

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“The Memory Plague” Available for Free Reading

My story, “The Memory Plague,” published in the January 2021 issue of Lightspeed Magazine, is now available for free reading online. Please check it out if you haven’t already.

Or if you prefer, the story has also been recorded for the Lightspeed Magazine podcast, and you can listen to Stefan Rudnick’s reading of my story via their podcast page.

Finally, if you’ve ever wondered about the story behind a story, I’ve added some thoughts about “The Memory Plague” in series I call “Story Inspirations.” Pop over to here if you would like to what inspired this unusual alien first contact story.

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Inspiration: “The Memory Plague”

Sometimes writing a story can be easy. An idea comes to you, and the words flow out like a river. Editing goes quickly, and if you’re fortunate, you sell it on your first try.

I’ve had that happen a few times, but for me, short story writing is usually a bit more of a process. My stories tend to take time to gel, the first drafts are often meandering and weak, and the editing process is agonizingly slow (but still my favorite part). Selling a story can take months or sometimes, years.

“The Memory Plague,” which is available in the January 2021 issue of Lightspeed Magazine, is likely my most extreme example of this. “The Memory Plague” had its origins back around 2016, when the title just jumped into my head one day. I had no story to go with the title, but something about the juxtaposition of those two words made it stick in my head, and I knew I wanted to write a story that would fit it.

Around this same time, I learned that my mom had Alzheimer’s. This disease affected her memory, and over the next few years, I watched my mom slip away from me, piece by piece, as her memories were consumed. She became an entirely different person—she even took on a different appearance—and I realized that we are our memories, and it is that collective set of memories that makes us who we are. If those memories are lost or changed, we become fundamentally different people. This became the core of what would eventually become “The Memory Plague.”

Several months later, the first pieces of “The Memory Plague” started to coalesce. I decide I wanted this to be a different take on an alien first-contact story, but I just didn’t know what. I also decided that I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the aliens, and I wanted that perspective to be as strange as possible, while still allowing me to tell a very human story. I am often disappointed by the portrayal of aliens in science fiction because they simply aren’t that alien, so I wanted to challenge myself and this convention. The alien Vortive were born from this desire.

I don’t want to give away too much if you have yet to read “The Memory Plague,” so I won’t say more about story itself. Suffice to say, my first draft, completed near the end 2016, was not very good. The story was long and unfocused, and simply put, had no heart.

So, I put it away, and a short time later I stopped writing short stories to focus on my book series, The Calypto Cycle. That doesn’t mean I forgot about “The Memory Plague.” It stuck in my mind, like a musical earworm, and over the coming years I dusted it off several times and tried to re-work it. I must have failed a half dozen times, and after each failure, I would put it back on the shelf, only to be drawn back to it a few months later. In 2019, I again pulled the story out determined to finish it, and after many days of hard work, I knew I had something special. I knew I finally had it right.

“The Memory Plague” is very personal to me. It’s the hardest story I have ever written, and thus one of which I am very proud. I am saddened that my mom never got to see this one. She passed away several years ago to Alzheimer’s, but she still lives on in my collective memories. I guess I could say, “We are Audu.”

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