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!

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Notes on a Dead Year, & Thoughts for the One to Come

I started 2016 with high hopes and a raging head cold.

This year, no head cold–but my optimism is firmly tempered.

Last year I was simply thankful to reach 30, despite many crises in my twenties that made planning for the future difficult. I had lost much in preceding years, and sadness reigned when I thought of all the negativity present in the universe in part because of me. Calmness reigned when I looked, instead, ahead, as someone who at last had triumphed over their traumas.

That sense of triumph did not last long. I taught my first course, but felt like I was blundering through the material I had so lovingly put together. I tried to mend the more exhausting relationships in my life, and ended up estranged from a great deal of community for months. I created some healthy distances in my life, but only with great strife, while the intensity of my work schedule made it hard to build better connections in their place.

I suspect I was wounded most, though, by my own ego. In some communities, 30 is supposed to be an age of wisdom: the earliest age of candidacy for some political offices; the age of rabbinical viability for figures from both the Old Testament and the New. But of course, even the character of Christ has his failings, like his temper tantrum over a fig tree–and there’s something comforting about that, even as an atheist: knowing that people can have their missteps overtly acknowledged, and still be celebrated for other, ostensibly more constructive acts.[1] Meanwhile, other traditions recognize 30 simply as the beginning of a new phase in personal growth. In Plato’s Republic, the character of Socrates purports that 30 is the age when the dialectic can first be taught with any measure of protection against the “insanity” of youthful eristicism–and even then, only with great care and prolonged study, after which

they must be sent down again into the den and compelled to hold any military or other office which young men are qualified to hold: in this way they will get their experience of life, and there will be an opportunity of trying whether, when they are drawn all manner of ways by temptation, they will stand firm or flinch.

Only after this, and much more, does Plato’s Socrates suggest that the survivors at 50 will have wisdom enough to rule over their own lives, let alone provide vital leadership to the rest. I have a ways to go, then, before I require further excuses for failing to achieve a better balance in my own life–and in 2017, I intend to make full use of this extension.

In the wake of 2016’s global politics, for instance, a final gear seems to have fixed itself in my heart, driving an engine of conviction that has, if not a clear endpoint, at least a direction: a sense that the time for play is over, and the real work must begin. Not since 9/11 have I felt so present in my own era, or so certain that “big history” is stirring–overtly and inscrutably–all around me. On the one hand, I know that these are dangerous feelings, because a deep immersion in political histories can distract a body from the specifics of a given cultural context. To this end, I wonder sometimes if my current fears are out of proportion with the actual extent of today’s threats to forty years of (already uneven) social advancement.

But then again, so what if these fears are out of proportion? Because, on the other hand, the greater danger lies in waiting until the world is burning in order to say, See? I was right all along! If the worst price we’ll have to pay for advocating harder, right now, for our most vulnerable populations and democratic institutions is the risk that, years later, others might shrug at the thought that either was ever really threatened in the first place, so be it. Let us live to mark that privileged future as the truest sign of our victory in the present.

There are, after all, more futile ways to spend one’s energy. I dedicated a great deal of 2016 to a project I wanted very much to succeed: a dissertation on representations of astronomy in the 19th century, which would have paved the way for a career in scientific non-fiction, which would in turn have allowed me to advocate for scientific literacy as both educator and writer. To this end, I wrote and researched little else in 2016 between three jobs, and let the rest of my life fall away. Time for fiction-writing became a particular rarity, and even when I did write stories, I was not ignorant of the fact that most pooled around 9 to 11,000 words–the same length, give or take, as my dissertation chapters. That PhD project was, for all intents and purposes, my life in 2016. It consumed everything–and to an end that as of yet remains uncertain.

What I do know is that I will be pivoting hard in 2017, and finishing a novel draft by April. One of my constant refrains as a writing mentor is that, if you let go of the story that isn’t working, the story that has failed to find its place in the world, then the best ideas in that story, and the themes that matter most to you, will be freed up to resurface in future works. Moreover, when they do–however long that process might take–they will almost always emerge more seamlessly than in any versions come before. So it is with my current project, where, for the first time ever, I am finding a confluence of ideas and character types and reading practices that have been flitting about in novel and story drafts since I was at least 17. I already know the shape of this project from beginning to end, and–despite its reliance on a narrative structure that scares me–I am beginning to think that, if I pull this off, the book will contain everything I have been trying to say about what storytelling means to me for years.

And yes, I know, that is a lofty bar to set so early on. This, though, is the crux of what I want to bring with me to the year to come: Decisiveness. Self-confidence. The surety that, at this point in my life, irrespective of any ongoing sadnesses and setbacks, I can lay claim to a certain set of skills, and that–in consequence–I have a responsibility to use them.

In a few days I begin to teach another course: a writing course, wherein I hope to help others find and hone their voices in turn. A part of me is preemptively grieving the possibility that this tremendous opportunity will also be my last–but the rest of me knows that where life goes on, growth goes on. There will always be other communities, other spaces in which to become a better ally in hopefulness about the world.

With this in mind, I am hoping this year that I will always be in a space to repeat to myself–at the next, inevitable downturn in mood or life outcome–that 2017 may be an arbitrary turning point, but it is our arbitrary turning point, and that ownership gives us both license and responsibility to make the very best of the time ahead.

I lay no claim to knowing exactly what that will look like–“making the very best of the time ahead”–but my head is clear and my heart is certain: I know I still have to try.

A Happy New Year to you all, then–for I know you will as well.


[1] Granted, the tribalism, pro-slavery sentiment, scientific ignorance, failed prophesies, indifference to animal welfare and social change in the mortal lifespan, and dubious rabbinical counsel are often overlooked because billions consider Christ a god, which makes the elision of his flaws as troubling as they are inevitable, in keeping with his purported superiority over the rest of humankind. Nevertheless, the general principle holds. Wouldn’t it be splendid if we could hold each other’s failings up–not to undermine each other’s successes, but so as to recognize the fullness and the complexity of other lives, and to stand firm against the glorifying impulse that makes it so easy to be disillusioned when any human being, however charming or socially constructive, fails to be perfect on all accords? This secular humanist can always dream.