Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

Column at Patheos.com, and Other News

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on UnsplashJuggling writing adventures has left me with quite a few loose ends these last few months–including blog updates here!–but there is, happily, some forward momentum.

As of last week, I launched at Patheos.com, under the column name, Another White Atheist in Colombia. I will be posting there twice-weekly, at minimum, and if you like what you read there, I would humbly ask you to consider forwarding links to specific articles, or signing up for regular email updates, or “liking” and following my associated Facebook page. Or, hey! Even better! Joining the conversation!

Now, some folks will see the word “atheist” in the column name, and think my focus is the usual, stand-up-comedy shtick of “So what about those believers, eh?” I have already received some bizarre emails from people close to me who want me to tear down or make fun of X belief with my column. Uh, no. (Way to show how little you know me!)

I am an atheist, sure, and a secular humanist–and this latter label matters more. As such, my focus with this project is secular storytelling. I especially want to see contemporary humanist practice focus on what is shared between persons across the belief/non-belief spectrum, rather than pointing and laughing at difference. I think we have a great deal of unpacking to do of our secular myths in order to improve the world, and I look forward to the opportunity to contribute to those changes with essays and fictions alike.

On the fiction front, too, there is progress. I am finally satisfied with the more integrated and increasingly bilingual voice of my stories, and… I simply need to convince editors of the same! It has been two years now since my last short-story acceptance, but I have grown so much in that time frame, and I look forward to finding just the right venue for some of the stories I have finally been able to write from my new home of Medellín.

(When in doubt, though, I remind myself of all the great writers who never saw their works succeed in their lifetimes. The fact that I have seen any success is a privilege.)

I also look forward to getting back to the Failed Story Project, and I have two more essays about Colombia that I would like to post by the year’s end. I am also struggling to finish the novel, which… has been surprisingly challenging despite how close I am to the end of that first draft. (Certainly, the onboarding process to my new position with Patheos.com has taken up quite a bit of mental energy!) I look forward to being able to dedicate a few more days entirely to that book project, and expect that it will be out in the hands of my first potential literary agents by the end of December.

I’ve also had a touch of success with non-fiction writing, especially with reviews for Strange Horizons, but I’m lagging in freelance pitching. I suspect the problem has a great deal to do with how new the activity is, which leads me to envision that every step will take ever so long to complete. As I gain confidence and learn to handle rejection in a whole new realm, I am sure I can reach a point where 2-3 pitches are sent out weekly. I certainly want to be writing more about Colombia for North American audiences, so at some point I simply need to get over my hang-ups and start letting the pitches fly.

…And granted, too, even as I write all of this down, I recognize that I am trying to do too much. However, I do think this gig at Patheos.com will offer just the framework I need to start making real headway in the fields that matter most. I am a strong believer in the idea that “the work expands to meet the time allotted”–so by having more stringent obligations between the Patheos column and my paid work, I have every confidence that I will gain greater efficiency with what little time for writing and pitching lies between.

How about you fine folks? Where do your creative projects find you? Are you bewildered by their breadth? Their varying degrees of accomplishment? Do you have urgent new literary dreams filling your every spare hour? Are any failures weighing on your hearts?

Wherever you are, whatever setbacks the year has contained for you, I hope you’re able to see the road ahead for what it is: an opportunity, each and every day, to regain focus, purpose, and maybe even a little success in the work that we love most.

Go get ’em, tigers!

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Dhaka Region, Bangladesh, from Pixabay

The Failed Story Project, Part II: “Like the Stars that Are Light-Years from Each Other”

When I published “A Tower for the Coming World” in Clarkesworld two years ago, I felt a tremendous sense of clarity about the kind of voice I wanted to develop going forward: a global voice, a voice that de-centres Western narrative and assists in naturalizing in our canon whole other traditions of thought and speech and action. I wanted to write more and better stories that integrate ideas of restorative justice even for the most difficult members of our society, and to help legitimize a multitude of ways in which people could find satisfaction and purpose in life. I wanted to participate in exposing majority-culture Western readers to more language barriers, and the knowledge that a profound lack of agency does not inherently make certain life stories unworthy of being told.

However, “A Tower for the Coming World” was also my last science-fiction sale, and as I have tried to live up to the promise of that story in subsequent output, I have hit upon numerous hurdles related to the task of trying to appeal to majority-culture North Americans with stories that do not intrinsically favour or centre our expectations of worthy protagonists and themes and plots.

Not, as it turns out, an easy task.

As such, in this instalment of The Failed Story ProjectI want to look at one piece that exemplifies my problems in this ambition. Before I do, though, I want to make perfectly clear that I know there is already an abundance of writing in the West about other parts of the world, and about marginalized communities closer to home as well. These stories fall loosely into two categories–work by authors from those demographics, and work by authors outside those demographics–and as a writer usually outside those demographics, I am most certainly not trying to suggest that my problems are by any means unique, or that I am discovering anything new. Most likely, as the following story will illustrate, there is simply a certain amount of lacking skill that must account for why I haven’t yet surmounted the problems facing oh so many writers in this vein.

One of the central problems, of course, is that when writers such as myself depict other cultural contexts and demographics, we are too often using these contexts as “flavour”, as “props” for enlightening some centralized majority-culture Western protagonist. (Conversely, if writers from other cultural contexts want to get published, they tend to have to write to suit the expectations of Western readers about other cultural contexts, or else to write for “niche” markets.) This is why the #OwnVoices movement has been so important, and why it is ludicrous to suggest that centring authors who have direct experience within non-majority communities is somehow an attack on any author writing about the same communities from external subject-positions.

In the words of the creator of #OwnVoices, Corinne Duyvis:

Q: Are you saying privileged authors shouldn’t write outside their experiences?

No. People can write whatever they want; that goes both ways.

That said, it’s common for marginalized characters to be written by authors who aren’t part of that marginalized group and who are clueless despite having good intentions. As a result, many portrayals are lacking at best and damaging at worst. Society tends to favor privileged voices even regarding a situation they have zero experience with—just consider the all-white race panels on talk shows.

All #ownvoices does is center the voices that should matter most: those being written about.

I keep this in mind as I reflect on my own, past efforts to de-centre certain norms, and try to learn from my mistakes. For instance, I don’t think Game of Primes is necessarily a bad story, but even putting aside sentence structures sorely in need of another round of editing, I remain pressingly aware of the fact that my protagonist’s neurodiversity is too much a “selling feature” of the story, and not simply a naturalized facet of that particular character’s vantage point. I would write quite a different version of that tale today.

Similarly, I resonate deeply with Aliette de Bodard’s excellent essay for Uncanny Magazine, “The Fallacy of Agency: on Power, Community, and Erasure”, in which she deconstructs one of the most frustrating problems with a great deal of Western SF&F: the idea that stories are only worth telling if they involve people in power or people engaged in dramatic attempts at its reclamation. As she notes:

The other thing about dismissing powerlessness is that it devalues and erases the oppressed. It’s saying, essentially, that the less power one has, the less worthy of a story one is. That if someone is truly oppressed, and the story isn’t about some brash rebellion, some gaining of that overt power, then it’s not worth telling. That being oppressed is some sort of grey, featureless state where nothing worth notice happens—that there are no sorrows, no joys, no everyday struggles, no little victories to be snatched. That, in short, the only story of oppression worth telling is the brazen breaking of it.

(Snowpiercer likewise illustrates the fallacy of so much dystopic fiction in this vein, by advancing the argument that even fixating on breaking a system of power is more often than not still a reification of that system of power. The only way to break the cycle is to blow up the narrative “engine” in its entirety.)

And yet, as much as SF&F editors are sympathetic to this perspective in theory, one of the major criticisms I receive from editors about my writing is the lack of more immersive action right out the gate, which both serves as an indictment of my particular skill-set and hints at a pervasive industry norm. Now, there is a style of writing that does well in the markets today without direct action–a much more lyrical, immersive, free-indirect voice–but  I find that style to have a somewhat classist, workshop-writing feel, and don’t much enjoy using it, except in circumstances where I think the story merits it (e.g. “The Aftermath”, a trauma narrative). As such, when it comes to market-failures, my reluctance to employ a “high literary” approach, though I know these sell better, is entirely my own, stubborn fault.

But so it goes. Suffice it to say, I have a ways to go to be a more compelling storyteller of tales that de-centre and otherwise challenge Western norms–but if I managed it once, maybe I can again. I just have to learn from failures like those in the story discussed below.

Part II: “Like the Stars that Are Light-Years from Each Other”

Dhaka Region, Bangladesh, from Pixabay

Background

I was moved to write “Like the Stars that Are Light-Years from Each Other” after reading about horrific circumstances for child-labourers in the tanneries of Bangladesh. I couldn’t even imagine what life must be like for such children (like so many other child-labourers the world over). However, in the alien-ness of that subject-position, I found myself returning to a common source of wonder in my life: the idea that we, as a species, will never experience monumental cosmological transformations on an equal footing. As William Gibson has observed, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” And so, after reading this latest example of just that terrible fact, I desperately wanted to write a sci-fi story that highlighted just how uneven that distribution would be even if our species were on the verge, say, of a first-contact scenario.

Recently a story in the news vindicated one of this piece’s other underlying assumptions–namely, that even in an age of advanced computing there will still always be some use for analog systems, even if they mean the waste of whole lifetimes to anonymous drudgery–but mostly, my research for this piece involved immersing myself in Bengali subcultures and trying to anticipate how those cultures might change (or remain unchanged) a few decades down the line. In the process, I gained a deeper appreciation for which parts of the region have a monopoly on media distribution, learned a great deal about tanning processes and the associated chemicals, and integrated pre-existing knowledge about how government policies try to curtail reproductive poverty.

I also read related poetry, watched Bollywood films, and listened to contemporary Bengali classics. For this reason the title of the piece is a translation of a line in a famous song by Mohiner Ghoraguli, in keeping with my strong belief that when a writer uses another cultural context, they have a responsibility to remind readers that the other cultural context has its own, rich artistic tradition already speaking for itself. Margaret Atwood may have notably suggested that the role of the writer is to give voice to the voiceless, but I firmly dissent from the assumptions in that framing: the role of the writer is to call attention to voices that already exist but are not being heard.

One other element in this story’s construction might also have been its downfall: I also wanted my character to have a sexual orientation following–as I do–attraction to the person, not the gender. However, for some reason, when I get hung up on the possibility of doing something subversive (and indeed, when I was writing this story, I felt I was being subversive by trying to integrate a fluidly bisexual character without pointedly calling attention to his sexuality), I tend to get way too subtle in my execution. To me, such stories always feel terribly provocative when I first finish them, but when I read the piece again months later, I am baffled by my initial assumption that the grand reveals were really that grand after all.

Such was the case with “Like the Stars that Are Light-Years from Each Other“–a story in which I wanted to call attention to the fact that many people in the world do not have the agency to engage with the meat-and-potatoes of sci-fi’s grandest adventures; that many of these people are nevertheless used by people in different class strata to achieve their own interstellar ambitions; and that these exploited persons–while lacking in traditional agency–still contain multitudes. What human being does not have their share of guilt and reservation, talent and community, foolishness and yearning? And so I tried–and failed–to write a story where all of these and more were realized in the tale of one young man in a near-future version of the brutal tanneries where so many live and die.

The Verdict:

I only had three places to submit this piece–Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, and Clarkesworld. I knew it wouldn’t work for Analog, and Tor.com has been closed awhile to new short-story submissions. Even then, those three places were a bit of a stretch, because Clarkesworld tends to favour more stylistic experimentalism or snappy action, and C.C. Finlay at F&SF definitely prefers more action.  I think Charlie summed it up rather gently when he wrote,

Dear Maggie,

Thank you for giving me a chance to read “Like The Stars That Are Light-Years From Each Other.” I liked the characters here and I thought this ended in an interesting place, but the narrative developed very slowly for me after the first page or two, and overall the story didn’t quite win me over. I’m going to pass on this one for F&SF, but I wish you best of luck finding the right market for it and hope that you’ll keep us in mind in the future.

In short: It’s a boring story. I had some hope when Asimov’s kept it in queue for a good month at a time when most folks were getting rejections within a week… but I also tend to notice that Asimov’s slush readers don’t necessarily read submissions in order, so I wasn’t surprised by the ensuing form letter. Nor did the boilerplate rejection from Clarkesworld surprise: ever since Neil took on more slush readers (to handle a monumental submissions load!), there is zero expectation that past publication with Clarkesworld will grant me more rejection commentary even if a story does get to second-round reading (as this one, I am fairly certain, did).

Simply put: this story didn’t work for these three places, and then it ran out of places for consideration. So it goes!

The Take-Away:

I was excited to have found a sense of direction after “A Tower for the Coming World”, but so much went awry in the months after its publication–so much that eventually led, too, to my decision to uproot to another country, and spend quite a bit of time learning the ropes of survival in an entirely different culture. I have a novel that also pursues some of the themes I mentioned above–a true labour of love, and something I value deeply–but I haven’t been able to touch its near-finished manuscript in a year. After “Tower” I found it difficult, in general, to complete fiction while struggling in my post-PhD-program life (a miserably precarious existence that had me working most every day with little hope of light at the end of the tunnel). And then I finished “Like the Stars that Are Light-Years from Each Other”–my first short story after that last publishing success.

I suppose I should be glad of its existence, then, if only as a leaping-off point.

Going forward, though, there are quite a few things I need to keep in mind to better harmonize ambition with output and marketplace viability:

  1. Slow stories do not sell, unless they are highly aesthetic by design.
  2. Subtle stories–when I write them, at least–are too damned understated to be effective narrative engines. I need either to improve in this style or find another.
  3. If I am writing slow and subtle stories as a matter of course when trying to engage with different cultural contexts, I need to ask myself if the story really warrants slowness and “subtlety”… or if I am simply being tentative, as a writer, for fear of erring in my portrayal of some aspect of this different world.
  4. It will take a while to become adept at this kind of storytelling, and I have to give myself that time to improve. Just because I lucked out with one story does not mean I don’t still have significant growth ahead.
  5. If I invest too heavily in any one story, it will be harder to accept its failure when there are so few market opportunities for any story I might envision. Write more. Write diversely. The best ideas will always re-emerge elsewhere.

Questions for Fellow Writers

How much time do you spend on the research phase for your stories?

What narrative factors vary the amount of time you spend in research mode?

How do you keep yourself from getting too caught up in your own preoccupations when writing work that could be regarded as controversial?

Which stories would you write differently if writing them for the first time today?

What are the most pressing themes and focal points in your work on whole?


 

Good luck, and good writing, to you all!

From Pixabay

The Failed Story Project, Part I: “The Lieutenant Colonel Says Goodbye to His Spies”

Failure used to weigh on me. Here in Colombia, though, I have learned to take a great deal more in stride. I’ve had to, because the last six months–ever since I stepped foot in Colombia on my first trip in January–has been a relentless education in adaptation. I have learned to laugh at myself. I have learned to accept defeat. And I have learned how little today’s defeats even matter in the long run.

For most of the past six months, I have used this account to store private-access essays about my transition to life in Colombia–and in the process, to practise writing in a new genre. I think I am two or three essays from the end of that project–one or two tackling the language-learning process, the real culture-shocks, and the emotionally knotty story of taking a tattoo here; and then the last, outlining that moment of clarity in which another person’s homesickness affirmed, for me, that I am exactly where I need to be.

After I finish that last essay, I will then try to pitch the whole collection as a book, and target all future essays about Colombia at magazine markets instead.

Herein, though, lies my current problem: even though I am a writer, even though I have a record of publication, I am still learning (and re-learning) how to get published again. For instance, I haven’t received so much as a response to my many freelance-article pitches in the last few months, and–not surprisingly, considering how few pieces I’ve been sending out–I haven’t managed to sell a short story or novelette yet, either.

Now, these are early days yet, but I want to try something a little different with this blog going forward. On Medium.com, starting mid-week, I am going to start publishing the non-fiction essays that don’t find an audience after multiple pitches. But here? Here, I hope to start posting a different calibre of failure: my stories at market’s end.

The Failed Story Project will draw from writing that has been rejected by all relevant, professionally paying markets. Many writers struggle to let go of stories at this point, but for me it is important to accept when a work has failed to find its audience, to let it go, and to focus instead on the work ahead. My literary philosophy is simple: If something about a given story really matters to you, that concept will return to you in future writing–and almost always for the better. Give it space to resurface. Move on.

That said, I have written a lot of failed work. My duotrope account (an online submissions manager) lists 83 works of fiction, including one novella and a dozen novelettes, that I felt strong enough about to submit to paying markets over the last six years. If I’m lucky this summer, I should also finish a novel for submission by September 30. If I succeed it will be my third such project at that length.

Obviously, then, not every story is going to make it to The Failed Story Project. I want to focus, rather, on the stories that were almost good enough–the ones that had promise, and from which I can benefit most from a little dissection of what was missing. It is my hope that other writers might benefit from this, too.

At the very least, it will be an excellent exercise in letting things go.

Part I:

“The Lieutenant Colonel Says Goodbye to His Spies”

From Pixabay

Background

There were a few motivating factors for this story. For one, I had just finished a riveting biography of Vladimir Putin, and what struck me most were moments in the narrative when I felt genuine empathy for the man–despite knowing what kind of leader he is now; despite knowing, too, all the harm he did others along the way. As a failed PhD candidate, I especially resonated with the sense of loss that can accompany many hard years’ work abruptly stripped of their value–as was the case for a young Putin when the files in his outpost became irrelevant overnight due to broader political changes. No matter what the nature of one’s work is, surely that sense of displacement in its absence is universal?

I wanted to write, then, a story that explored the humanity we share even with people whose work is brutal and destructive–a story, furthermore, that perhaps could illustrate how failure to recognize this shared humanity is the surest way to overlook the perpetuation of that brutal work by other, future means.

To create some distance from the source material, though, I chose another cultural context–a near-future Panamanian outpost at the close of hostilities between humanity and an alien race. I was excited, if also nervous, about trying out my Spanish for the first time in a short story. Panamanian Spanish differs from Colombian in many of its phrases, and its register, but the real problem was that, at this juncture, I hadn’t been to a Latin American country even once. So, I had research to do, to fill in gaps while still trying something new. I listened to Panamanian music. I read Panamanian poetry. I scoured floral and faunal catalogues and literature about the national parks. I creeped for an hour on Google Street View to try to get a sense of the region on hand.

And then I wrote my story, which you can read here.

The Verdict

I actually received a positive first rejection for this piece. Trevor was tremendously kind when he wrote:

Hi Maggie,

Thanks for letting me see “The Lieutenant Colonel Says Goodbye to His Spies.” It’s a good story – maybe my personal favorite of what I’ve seen from you, in fact – but it’s a bit light on the actual “science fiction” bits for it to be a good fit for ANALOG. So, regretfully, I’m going to pass on it. I’m sure you’ll have no trouble placing it elsewhere, and I look forward to seeing your next.

I had seen some lighter historical sci-fi in the magazine, so I’d hoped that my near-future Cold-War scenario would be a good fit in that vein, but no–technological ideas are far more important for this publication, which has been kind enough to publish me five times–and that is an excellent working note for future submissions.

Trevor’s suggestion, “I’m sure you’ll have no trouble placing it elsewhere,” was also very kind–but inaccurate. I sent the piece to Fantasy & Science Fiction, then Clarkesworld, then Asimov’s. It got to round two at Clarkesworld before I received a boilerplate form rejection. Asimov’s sent a boilerplate letter, too. But C.C. Finlay, as always, was tremendously kind in his own rejection note, wherein he wrote:

Dear Maggie,

Thank you for giving me a chance to read “The Lieutenant Colonel Says Goodbye to His Spies.” I liked the quality of the prose, the characters, and the theme of this, but I thought the narrative needed more of an arc, and overall the story didn’t quite win me over. I’m going to pass on this one for Fantasy & Science Fiction, but I wish you best of luck finding the right market for it and hope that you’ll keep us in mind in the future.

Have I mentioned how lovely the editors in the SF&F world can be?

I knew it was a bit of a long-shot with Charlie because he loves a gripping hook and an action-driven narrative, while my pieces tend towards the understated, which makes them harder sells for sure. One day I will find, for him, that perfect balance of action-oriented narrative and the deeper, chewier philosophical questions I so enjoy… but it certainly won’t be with works like this one.

And after those four? Well, then I’d run out of markets, because Tor.com and Lightspeed are almost always closed to submissions, and there aren’t any other major players wherein this piece would be a good fit. (Strange Horizons, for instance, is not the place to pitch a sympathy-for-the-devil narrative!) So, with one glowingly positive rejection, one encouraging rejection, and two form letters, “The Lieutenant Colonel Says Goodbye To His Spies” entered the dustbin.

The Take-Away

  1. I could have had the Analog sale if I had embedded even one far more explicitly hard-sci-fi component, so truly, this was my sale to lose thanks to poor market planning.
  2. Although I prefer stories that are more nuanced and understated, I know that the SF&F markets favour either deeply poetic or more explicit and arresting narrative. I need to find a better balance in my work: stories I can stand by that still fulfill market preferences on whole.
  3. My first foray into writing a story with Spanish was not bad, exactly–but my self-consciousness is apparent in how the Spanish components exist as a kind of textual seasoning, rather than as a seamless part of the narrative. A dear friend pointed this out after the fact, and though it was disheartening to hear–because the last thing I wanted was to exoticize Latin America–the feedback has had a huge impact on my approach to integrating other languages going forward.
  4. I do still want to write stories about deeply flawed people, but I know SF&F publication will be an uphill battle for many of these tales. I’ve had some success to date–with “Hydroponics 101” and “Belly Up” in particular–but Analog is the only market that seems to bite with such tales. “A Tower for the Coming World” at Clarkesworld offers some insight into how to make such tales work for others, though, so it’s hardly a lost cause. All in good time.
  5. For now, this is a story I would love to be able to slip into a short-story collection down the line… but let’s not count chickens before they’re hatched, no? As it stands, “The Lieutenant Colonel Says Goodbye to His Spies” was–if nothing else–an important warm-up round to a new era of bilingual writing, and a tool for clarifying the acceptance parameters for editors at major markets in my field. (Also, truly, a pleasure just to write–and really, where’s the failure in that?)

Questions for Fellow Writers

When you start tinkering with a story idea, do you have your ideal market in mind?

How much do you find you bend or shape your idea to fit that market if you do?

Which professional markets do you feel produce work most in line with your stories?

Which professional markets in your genre produce work the least in line with yours?


 

Good luck, and good writing, to you all!

Update and New Writing Outlet!

Tomorrow I will post a long-overdue essay about “routine”, and the sneaky way it creeps up on a body even when still adapting to a new context.

Today, though, I started posting on Patheos.com, as a part of the group blog The Secular Spectrum. I will be posting twice-weekly there, and if I am successful at building an audience, I will get a blog of my own for the site. I am delighted by the opportunity to blend my observations on religion, secularism, Canadian culture, Colombian culture, and world politics in general on that forum. Not only is this a good step towards a different sort of writing success, but it is also a relief to find a more public forum for many of my currently restricted thoughts about the transition to life here.

My first post, A Humanist in Colombia: Lessons for a Hurting World, offers background info for tomorrow’s Colombian presidential election, and outlines a general concern about polarizing politics (in faith and nation-state discourse alike) that should compel us to learn more from the world outside North America. On Wednesday, I will post about something a little closer to North America, but it will still be interweaving global politics with humanist and religious practice.

If you find it worth your while to read my posts on Patheos.com, please consider sharing them with your friends. As with so much online, my ability to succeed as a writer here will be contigent on the “hustle”. To that end, thank you for reading even this far!

Warmest wishes–and a proper, full essay tomorrow!