This will be brief. We have had our girls in for the holiday, though Winter Storm Elliott very nearly kept our younger daughter in Denver for the weekend. We have managed the cold and kept the house warm with fires in the fireplace and well-placed space heaters. We’ve enjoyed clam dip and cinnamon rolls, homemade soups and Indian-style butter salmon. We’ve even had a couple of meals out.
We’ve exchanged gifts, watched movies, talked and laughed and reminisced. We might even have imbibed a cocktail or two.
I said in a previous post that all I really wanted for the holiday was to be with Nancy and our daughters. That was my wish, and despite a once-in-a-generation weather event, and several cancelled flights, I eventually got exactly that. I am content.
I could say more, but honestly that’s all I feel any need to say.
Except that I hope your holiday brought you joy and laughter, good food and a cup/glass/flute of your favorite beverage, time with loved ones and perhaps a moment or two of solitude, if that was what you needed.
And I hope New Year’s Eve/Day, which, in my experience, tends to be a holiday that disappoints, is enjoyable, safe, and whatever else you hope it will be. I will not be posting on Wednesday, but will, of course, recommence the blog next Monday, January 2, 2023.
The deadline for submissions to Artifice and Craft, the anthology I’m co-editing with Edmund Schubert for Zombies Need Brains, is ten days away. December 31. As of this writing, we are closing in on 400 submissions. The anthology will have a total of fourteen stories, seven of them from anchor authors. Meaning we can accept seven stories from all those submissions. We will likely wind up with about 500 subs — maybe more. They just pour in during the last week.
So far, we have received some very good stories. We have also received far, far more that won’t make the first cut. And so I thought I would go over again, briefly, the things that can make or break a story submission, at least for this editor.
To start, here are three things an author can do that might well doom their chances of having their story accepted.
1) Fail to follow the guidelines. I have said this before and will continue to say it until I’m blue in the face, because it sometimes seems I’m shouting into the wind. Every market for stories (and novels, too) has guidelines — GLs for short — that they want authors to follow. These are basics: acceptable fonts, line spacing, margins, etc., as well as presentation instructions, such as what information should appear on the first page and what a cover letter ought to say. Following GLs could not be easier. All one has to do is read them and then follow them. That’s it. And yet, you would be amazed at the number of submissions that don’t do this.
Will I reject a story simply because it is single-spaced instead of double-spaced? No, I’m not quite that mean. But when reading a story, knowing I have literally dozens more waiting in the queue, I will only tolerate so many flaws before I reject it. Remember, I have 500 stories to choose from. I can and will find what I’m looking for. No story is ever perfect, so ask yourself, do you want to expend one of your flaws on formatting? Or do you want to present your story correctly so that I can judge it on its artistic merits? The answer seems self-evident to me.
2) Fail to write a story that’s on theme. Again, this would seem so obvious as to be silly. And yet . . . . ZNB anthologies are themed. All of them. And those themes are not suggestions, they’re requirements. The anthology’s theme is written out plainly in the call for submissions (along with the GLs). And yes, if a story isn’t right on theme I WILL reject it. It can be the best story ever, but if it’s not on theme, it will not be in the anthology. Period. Full stop.
3) Fail to write a full story. This one is a little less self-evident. The word limit for each submission is 7,500 words. The GLs don’t give a word minimum. But this is my fifth time editing an anthology and never have I given a top rating to any story that was shorter than, say, 2,500 to 3,000 words. It’s not that I’m imposing a minimum of my own. It’s just that these anthologies are not venues for flash fiction. That upper word limit of 7,500 words is sort of a hint telling you that we want to see story depth, character development and arc, narrative complexity. We want to see excellent ideas that are fully realized, and it is very hard to do that with flash fiction. Over the past couple of months, I have read too many pieces of fiction that offered great ideas, but didn’t do nearly enough with them.
Okay, so what three things can authors do to give themselves the best chance of having a story accepted?
1) I abhor the cliché, but think outside the box. As Joshua Palmatier, owner and publisher of Zombies Need Brains, has said, don’t assume your first idea is your best idea. The most obvious ideas often come to us first, and if they’re obvious to us, they’re likely to be obvious to everyone. Make your story stand out by exploring the second or third idea, by looking for an idea that isn’t obvious but is rich with narrative possibility.
2) Write with emotion and passion. Too many of the stories I’ve read consist of dialogue and almost nothing else. Others take a kind of epistolary approach, by telling the story in the form of documents — court transcripts or product descriptions or something similar. Clever, but devoid of character development, and, as such, often devoid of emotion and tension as well. Stories need to touch our hearts. Clever is fun, but in the absence of passion, it’s probably not enough to gain acceptance to such a selective anthology. Delve into the emotions of your characters, because that is how you will reach the emotions of your readers.
3) Give us a twist or two. Just as your first idea might not be the most original, your most obvious narrative path might not be the most fruitful. Beware writing the pat ending, the contrived plot, the convenient “surprise.” Take your story in directions that make sense without being predictable. Yes, that can take work, but no one ever said this was going to be easy.
Best of luck with your submissions! And keep writing!
I write about my father a lot in this blog. Last year at this time, I wrote a long tribute to him commemorating what would have been his one hundred and second birthday. I write about my mother as well (her birthday is in February). We lost both of them way too early, and I miss them both more than I can put into words.
I grew up the youngest of four children in a privileged family, and all of us enjoyed giving as much as we did receiving. Our Christmas mornings tended to be affairs of largess; we all had enormous gift piles. Record albums, clothes, books, the occasional piece of jewelry — as I say, there was always plenty under our tree. The Christmas morning I’m remembering came when I was in my early-to-mid twenties, and was home visiting either from Providence, where I lived after completing college, or California, where I attended graduate school.
All of us were in our usual frenzy of tearing wrapping paper and oohing and aahing over one another’s gifts. Dad sat watching us all, not unwrapping anything himself, but smiling contentedly. One of us said something to him — probably prompting him to open one of his as-yet-unopened gifts, and he waved off the comment.
“This is my present,” he said. “Watching all of you.”
I know: It sounds like a line from a Hallmark holiday movie. Thing is, he meant it. There was nothing he enjoyed more than watching and listening as his kids and his beloved wife talked and laughed.
I remember another time, the last summer we had with him: My mother had died the previous fall, and not long after Dad was diagnosed with leukemia. But during the summer, we rented a house in New England that was huge enough to accommodate all of us — my dad; my brother Bill and his partner, Sandy; my sister, Liz, her husband, and their two young children; my brother Jim, his wife, Karen, and their son (their daughter would come along a year later); and Nancy, Alex, and me (Erin was born three years later).
We had a great week, but there was one night in particular when we put the kids to bed, and dad retired early, leaving my siblings and me and our partners to hang out on our own. We didn’t realize how much sound traveled in the house, but we learned the next morning that Dad had heard us the whole time. He wasn’t at all angry, and he didn’t mind being kept up.
“Listening to you all laughing was better than sleep.”
By that time, of course, I was a father, and was starting to understand what he meant. I didn’t appreciate it fully, though, until after Erin was born.
I have been fortunate to hear live performances by some of the most phenomenal musicians in the world — jazz and classical, blues and bluegrass, rock and country. I have heard remarkable birdsong throughout North America, in New Zealand and Australia, in Costa Rica, in several parts of Europe. I have heard coyotes call in the desert, and Screech Owls trilling on a rainy night in Oregon, and Whip Poor Wills singing on summer nights in Tennessee. There is no sound I have ever heard that compares to the music of my daughters laughing together.
Nancy, the girls, and I have our own Christmases now, of course. There is always plenty under the tree, although this year Nancy and I don’t have much for each other. That’s all right. I won’t miss the presents. Because I’ll be able to sit, as my father did all those years ago, and watch Alex and Erin enjoying their holiday, laughing with each other and with us. That will be my present.
Yes, I know, this probably seems a little crass. But here’s the thing: Creators like me make our livings off the sale of our creations. It really is that simple. If our books (or music or art or whatever) don’t sell, we don’t earn.
Now, many of you are probably saying at this point that you have already bought my books and, I hope, read and enjoyed them. That’s wonderful. Thank you. Truly.
The holidays, though, offer an opportunity to share with others the things that you have enjoyed. Maybe a relative or friend loves historical fiction. Turn them on to the Thieftaker books! Maybe someone you know and love enjoys thrillers — Radiants and Invasives might be just the books they’re looking for. Maybe you have a fan of time travel on your holiday gift list. The Islevale Cycle books are time travel blended with epic fantasy. Sounds perfect, right?
Someone else you know might be a huge fan of short fiction, in which case, I would recommend you to the Zombies Need Brains site for any number of speculative fiction anthologies.
As you know, early in 2023 I will be coming out with a new urban fantasy series that is steeped in Celtic mythology. Before working on this series, I hadn’t known much about Celtic lore. But I did my research, learned all I could, and then started to imagine ways in which I might blend those Celtic traditions with my vision for the stories I wanted to write. I tried to be respectful of traditions that are not my own, while also having fun and writing something I hoped would be fun for my readers.
Two years ago at this time, I was revising Radiants and starting to organize my plans for Invasives, the second book in the sequence. I had never written a supernatural thriller before, but I had the idea and wanted to give it a go.
Two years before that I had just released the second Islevale book and was working on Time’s Demon, the second book in the trilogy. These were my first forays into writing time travel and while I knew there were tremendous pitfalls to writing in that particular subgenre, I wanted to give it a try. Plotting a time travel series is probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever attempted as a professional writer; I doubt I will ever try it again, but I’m glad I did it once.
Around that same time, I was also reading submissions for the Temporally Deactivated anthology, my first co-editing venture. Last year I opened my freelance editing business, and a year ago at this time, I was editing a manuscript for a client.
Back in 2015-2016, again at this time of year, I was working on the Author’s Edit of the LonTobyn Chronicle, my first series. Up until then, I had never re-released any of my old work, but I had the rights back, and I knew I could improve the books with a deep edit of the original manuscripts.
Yes, there is a point to all of this.
Last week, I wrote about planning out my professional activities for the coming year. This week, I want to discuss a different element of professional planning. My point in starting off with a list of those projects from past years is that just about every year, I try to take on a new challenge, something I’ve never attempted before. I didn’t start off doing this consciously — I didn’t say to myself, “I’m going to start doing something new each year, just to shake things up.” It just sort of happened.
As it turns out, these new challenges have brought me to a place where I can say, in all candor, that I have never been happier in my work than I am now. Each time I try something new, I reinvigorate myself as a creator. I force myself out of the tried-and-true, the comfortable. With each of the new projects I mentioned above I had a moment of doubt. I wondered if I was capable of accomplishing what I set out to do. Now, I’m a pretty confident guy when it comes to my writing chops and my ability to help others improve their writing, so those doubts didn’t last long. But they were there each time.
Indeed, part of the joy of taking on the projects lay in pushing myself, in overcoming the doubts and getting the work done. As I’ve written before, writing is hard in any number of ways. We help ourselves when we can self-define our successes, rather than relying on a fickle, difficult marketplace to define them for us. Each of the aforementioned projects boosted my sense of self worth.
But those new challenges did more than that. They kept my professional routine fresh. I am a creature of habit. I try to write/edit/work every day, so in a general sense, my work days and work weeks don’t change all that much. By varying the content of my job — by writing new kinds of stories and expanding my professional portfolio to include editing as well as writing — I made the routine feel new and shiny and exciting. And at the same time, these new projects made it possible to return to some old favorites, notably the Thieftaker series, with renewed enthusiasm.
I also made myself better at my craft and deepened my understanding of and appreciation for the nuances of storytelling. I learned a ton by revising my first books. I saw old mistakes that I was still making, and also gained a fresh appreciation for the ways I had improved as a writer. Writing time travel strengthened my plotting by forcing me to look for the loose ends that might have escaped my notice had my characters not possessed the ability to go back in time and undo my choices! Editing has taught me a ton about my own writing by showing me, in unfamiliar narrative contexts, what story elements work best (and worst).
My point is this: As you begin to plan your professional activities and ambitions for 2023, try to put in your calendar something new and different. It is fine to set as a goal the completion of that novel you’ve been working on for a long time, or the publication of a series you’ve had written for a little while now but haven’t yet sent out into the world. Those are laudable aims, and I wish you every success with them.
But maybe you’ve never tried writing short fiction, or you’ve written stories but never submitted any of them. Maybe you’ve written fantasy but never tried science fiction, or thrillers, or romance. Set as a goal for 2023 taking on one of those new tasks. Allow yourself to accomplish something unfamiliar. At the very least, doing so will force you to grow as an artist, which is always a good thing. And perhaps you will discover a previously unexplored talent and passion for something you hadn’t even considered trying.
This post probably isn’t about what you think it is.
Nancy and I are nearing the end of what has been an exhausting and at times terribly difficult year. I won’t catalogue our burdens because they are, frankly, no worse than those faced by many of you. We have things in our lives that mitigate the challenges, things for which we are incredibly grateful. But we’ve had a rough year — the third in a row, actually. Again, this doesn’t set us apart from others. There may be differences in the specifics, but there are far more similarities of kind. We have all faced struggles.
That’s not really what this post is about.
After Thanksgiving, as we were mapping out a very busy December, we made a decision not to have a Christmas tree this year. Mostly, I made the decision. I am the one who goes down into the valley to buy a tree. I’m the one who sets it up, who waters it daily, who takes it down at the end of the season. And I just didn’t feel like dealing with it this year.
When I informed our daughters of this they were disappointed, to say the least. They don’t live with us anymore, but when they come home for the holidays, they like to have the house looking festive, the way it did when they were kids and Christmas was everything. I justified the decision to skip having a tree this year by assuring them this was not something permanent. We would surely have a tree again next year. But this year it felt like too much, everything was too fraught. We went back and forth, but eventually they accepted my decision, albeit reluctantly.
And then, this past week, on a rainy afternoon, I went down and bought a tree after all. Nothing had changed, of course. Nothing happened to make the past year suddenly, magically turn easy. The work of setting up and maintaining the tree remains. I changed my mind.
To be clear, this is not a post about the Christmas spirit suddenly moving me to want a tree, though in a way I suppose it did. It is not about the importance of doing something nice for my kids, although that is, of course, incredibly important, and it was gratifying to know how pleased they were by my/our change of heart.
In the end, my choice regarding the tree was about me, about what I needed, what I realized I had to do even though I didn’t really want to.
I have written a bit recently about my uncertainty regarding my next writing project. I have been unable to choose from among several possible projects, and I am starting to understand that my inability to make that choice is not about creative impulses, or marketing uncertainties, or even an inability to decide what possibility excites me the most.
I’m simply stuck. For reasons I haven’t sussed out quite yet, I can’t get myself to make that professional choice and move forward with it. And, I realized this week, the whole Christmas tree thing was sourced in a similar lack of motivation and momentum. I was stuck personally as well as professionally. Too many things going on, too much occupying my thoughts, too many emotional impulses pushing me one way and another. And my first reaction to all of this was to stop. The push-me/pull-you of life was more than I cared to address in any way, and so I simply dug in my heels. The tree, ridiculous as this now seems as I type it out, was the bridge-too-far, the thing I decided was too much.
What made me realize this I was doing this?
Honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe it was the reaction from my kids. Maybe it was the recognition that, despite knowing it meant a bit of effort and work, I actually wanted a tree, almost as much as my daughters did. I love having a tree. There’s a reason I’m the one who usually does the work required each year. I enjoy the smell, the lights, the ritual, the departure from routine, the sight of the tree with its lights on, glowing in the middle of the family room. Suddenly, denying myself that pleasure, denying Nancy and the girls that pleasure, didn’t make much sense to me.
And in the same way, I know I want to begin work on my next writing project, even though I feel stuck, even though none of the projects is really calling to me right now. I believe I need to do with my work what I did this past week with the tree. I need to get off my butt and start working on something, even if I’m not sure it’s THE project I should be writing now.
All of us find ourselves in circumstances like these now and again. Sometimes they manifest in the professional realm; sometimes they show up in our personal lives. For some of us, the inertia I’m describing works its way into everything. I have glibly written of my decision to “snap out of it” with respect to the tree. I don’t mean to make it sound easy. This week has been hard for me. I suffer from anxiety and panic disorders, and recently both have been troubling me more than usual. Breaking out of these patterns takes work. For some it takes enormous courage as well.
I see you. I understand and I sympathize. Perhaps that’s why I chose to share this story with you today. The holidays can be a struggle in all kinds of ways. These past few years have taken a toll. Maybe this post was about all of that after all.
December has come to my little corner of the Cumberland Plateau. The trees are bare, days of gray skies and cold winds outnumber the blue, chickadees and nuthatches, titmice and woodpeckers and cardinals flock to my feeders. Yes, we still have nearly a month left in 2022, but already these remaining weeks feel foreshortened. The holidays will gobble up much of our time and energy in the closing days of the month, and we will be distracted by all the preparations for family get-togethers and the like.
Which is as it should be. The past two years have seen our holidays strained and, for some, ruined by the pandemic. We deserve a holiday season.
Already, though, my professional thinking has turned to 2023. In past years, I have written about my penchant for mapping out my professional year, trying to plan for the many projects I intend to take on in the months to come. I didn’t write a post of this sort last year, because of the uncertainty surrounding our daughter’s health, and the fresh memory of how so many of my plans were upended in 2020 and 2021 by the pandemic, by family issues, by emotional strain, etc. The fact is, my professional plans are always just that: plans, intentions, hopes even. Nothing more.
And so I approach the coming year with a bit more humility than I did in the years before Covid and before my family’s health crisis. Any work calendar I create will be written in pencil, not pen.
But I also understand that planning out my work calendar helps me, and I believe you might find it helpful to create a similar plan for your coming year.
Right now, I am struggling to decide what major writing project I will take on next. I have posted about this before, and have asked for input from followers of my work and this blog. Yet, still I haven’t been able to decide on a path forward. That’s fine for now. I have stories to read for the Artifice and Craft anthology. I have a story to write for the Dragonesque anthology. I have a couple of editing clients interested in engaging me for some work. In short, I have no shortage of things to keep me busy.
I’d be lying, though, if I said I wasn’t missing the allure of the new shiny. One of the things a work calendar does is keep me looking forward. Often a project supplies its own momentum. The desire to see it through to the end, to complete the damn thing, is usually enough to keep me on task. Now and then, though, I need the carrot of the next project to pull me through. “When I finish this, I get to work on X.”
Put another way, I don’t have to decide right now what major writing project to take on in 2023. I am certain, however, that if I can decide and hold that next project out as the prize I get for completing other things, it will make reading anthology slush a little easier.
I also find a work calendar helpful as I seek to manage my own professional expectations. It’s easy to look at a blank calendar and think, “I have all year to get X,Y, and Z finished.” As it happens, this is rarely the case. Already I know that I’ll be editing short stories for much of January and preparing for the releases of The Chalace War books starting in February and continuing through the spring. (Oh, and here’s the art for book I again, just because I love it so much . . . .) Plus, non-writing stuff is bound to impinge on my writing time. We need to do some work on our house, and that will also probably come in the spring. The work promises to be disruptive. There is no way I’ll be as productive as usual while it’s going on.
I need to take all of this into account while planning my schedule. Because even if some of my deadlines are self-imposed (rather than coming from a publisher) I know that missing them can disrupt the work to follow. It can also have an impact on my mood, on my self-confidence as an artist. We should always keep our expectations for ourselves realistic. The last thing we want to do is set ourselves up for repeated failures by expecting too much from ourselves and not taking into account time commitments we have to make to other parts of our lives. This is not to say that we should budget too much time for projects. There is a balance to be found. We want to push ourselves to accomplish tasks that matter to us, without expecting so much that we can’t help but fail. A work calendar helps me with that.
So as the year winds down, and as I sit in front of a fire, or in front of yet another World Cup soccer match, I will be working on my work calendar, mapping out a strategy for getting done all I hope to accomplish, and also for managing the inevitable disruptions that life — both professional and private — tends to throw in our path. It’s easy to do. I receive calendars in the mail all the time from the various charities we give to each year. I always reserve one of those calendars for this.
Best of luck with your 2023, whether or not you map it out ahead of time.
The holidays are upon us, and chances are you — like me, like everyone I know — have
been caught up in the spirit of gift-giving. We want to find those perfect presents for the people we love most. We want to surprise and delight. For Nancy and me, shopping for our daughters, who are grown and very much aware of the things they want and need, has become fairly easy, if unexciting. They give us lists, we do our best to find the things on those lists, and everyone is happy.
A few years ago, we surprised them with special presents we’d spent a good deal of time planning and acquiring, and we still try to do that when we can, but our lives are busy, and these days the holidays really are much more about being together than about stuff. Which is as it should be.
But I wanted to share with you two brief stories about the two most thoughtful, memorable, wonderful gifts I have ever received. Because I think of them often this time of year.
When I was very young — about seven years old — my brother Jim, who is six years older than I am, developed an interest in birding. How that came about is his story to tell, but the important point is that his love of birds soon infected our older brother, Bill, and me. We began to go on bird walks together whenever possible. Jim and I were both living at home still, and during spring migration we would get up early in the morning, even on school days, to check out the warblers, orioles, tanagers, vireos, thrushes, and grosbeaks moving through our neighborhood. Bill, fifteen years my senior, nine years Jim’s senior, joined us whenever he came home to visit, or whenever we went to visit him.
Again, I was seven, Jim was thirteen, Bill was twenty-two. We ought to have had little in common. But birds and birdwatching shaped and cemented our love. Other shared interests and passions contributed as well, but our love of birds, of nature in the broader sense, was formative.
As birders, Jim and I started getting serious about keeping track of what we saw and when, and about a year later, on Christmas day 1971, Jim surprised me with what was, to my mind, an amazing gift. [Geek warning: What a young birder thinks is an amazing gift may not match what you think is an amazing gift . . . .] It was a binder with custom made bird checklists for my year lists, my life lists, my lists for our little town. He had typed up the life lists, created a “template” for the year lists (back when that meant using a typewriter and a ruler and a marker) and actually filled out my life list up to that point based on his own memories of our earliest excursions, which were clearer than mine.
The amount of work involved, the effort, the attention to detail, the amazing thoughtfulness of the present, from someone who was fourteen at the time, for his annoying little brother — it all still boggles my mind.
I still have that binder. I don’t use it for much anymore, but I will NEVER throw it away.
The other thing that bound Jim, Bill, and me together was music. They introduced me to so much of the music I still listen to today. Jim was my gateway to jazz. Bill, though, was my gateway to rock, and to blues, and to bluegrass. He was my guru. As I said, he was fifteen years older, and as I entered my teen years, and was diving into music in a serious way, as both a listener and a budding musician, he was the person to whom I looked for guidance. He was an incredible musician in his own right, he was in a very cool band, and he was a student of music, particularly classic rock.
Sometime in my late teens, I can’t remember the exact year, he gave me two gifts for Christmas. The first, I could tell right away, was a record. An LP, because back then that was pretty much all we had. The second gift I couldn’t figure out. It felt and looked like a thin sheaf of papers.
“Open the album first,” he told me.
I did. Exile on Main Street, by the Rolling Stones. A legendary double-album by the rock band of the era. “I think you’re ready for this,” he said.
I could stop this story right there. My older brother, my rock ‘n roll mentor, he of the effortless cool, telling me I was ready for what I knew was his favorite album of all time? That was gift enough. But then he told me to open the other package.
Exile on Main Street didn’t come with a lyric sheet. The Stones couldn’t be bothered with such trifles. And so Bill had transcribed the lyrics to every song on the album. This was before the internet, before personal computers. He listened to the two records over and over again — he later told me he had to replace his copy of the album, because he wore the grooves down so much — trying to decipher the mumblings and rantings of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, men not known for their clarity of speech. And he typed them up for me. I still have the album, of course. I am ashamed to say, I don’t know where those lyric sheets have gone.
Two sparkling, wonderful gifts, from my two brothers. Both shine in my memory to this day. They were born of love and thoughtfulness and a type of generosity that can’t be measured in dollars and cents.
Something to think about as we approach the holidays.