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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Now My Heart Is Full

It took a teachers’ strike to clear the ache between my ribs.

I had tried (again) to set a plan for myself this term: focus on my two jobs, save up, accept that all writing was lost until the end of the year, and… listen. Listen to my natural inclinations when I stumbled upon rare pockets of free time. What did I gravitate towards? What did I honour? What fortified me in my lowest hours?

And some of this worked. The listening, absolutely, worked. I hear my goals in my Spanish practice. I hear my goals in my running and climbing. I hear my goals in my freelance editing and the bursts of writing that enter my tight schedule regardless.

But what made the grandest difference? It was that moment when the threat of a strike at a job where I had been working hard–a job for which I had made such upsetting sacrifices in the first place!–became a reality. The moment I knew the strike was inevitable, that great weight of personal responsibility lifted–because no amount of fretting or scheming could make a damned bit of difference anymore.

As news of the strike spread, I then received many words of comfort: “I’m sure you won’t be out very long.” “At least you’re not picketing too far away.” “At least the weather will be kind this week.” “At least you’re getting some income from strike pay.” But what struck me, at each iteration, was how little I felt I needed the reassurance. Pay is out of my control right now: amid myriad rumours at the start of strike, I believe only the cold, hard truth of whatever eventually ends up in my bank account–which leaves me a great deal of room to be pleasantly surprised. Weather, too, is out of my control right now: there were some decent, brilliantly coloured fall days, and now there are wet, cold, and windy days. So it goes.

So it all goes.

But, listen–amid the picketing I am writing again, because there is time for it and because it is what I love to do; and rediscovering that has made me come alive once more. Granted, I’m slow to finish anything, having been out of the practice for a while, but in the process of renewing these dearest mental muscles, I am also returning to old forms and finding new challenges. I hear myself reclaiming the poetry of life again–in nature, in prose, in myself. The other day, I realized I wanted to write a kind of writing that I had never seen done before, and the mere idea of building a whole line of pieces around this concept, over the many decades in which I have left to grow as a writer, stopped me mid-stride on the sidewalk from sheer excitement. (It also impeded foot traffic for a beat or three, sure–but, that too rectified itself in time.)

And yes, the strike will end–meaning, classes will resume, and my difficult original schedule (much as I love the teaching itself) will return.

But then the  year will end, and oh, the new one holds so much promise.

I know it does, because I’ve been hearing that promise ever since the universe, in all its great indifference to human striving, left me no choice but to walk the ‘line. And oh, what a tremendous gift that added obstacle has proven, at last, to be.

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See you in 2018, all you magnificent dreamers, you!

Plans, Plans, Plans… and Flowers

Among the many projects I started this year is a two-person podcast, aptly titled “Never Try”, which addresses a wide range of failures throughout history. With any luck, the podcast’s 10-episode first season will be published this year, but for now, I’m gratified that the first bit of research I did for my segments involved the difficult personal life of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick. Not everything negative in Melville’s life deserves sympathy; in the throes of his setbacks, failures, and depressive spells, he also caused harm to others, including his wife and children. However, in the sum total of his sadness still lies a pointed reminder: namely, that the giants of our cultural canon were messy human beings, many of whom struggled with little immediate success, and no way of knowing that their lives would have any greater impact.

I’m heartened by this reminder that success has no fixed blueprint, because this has been a grinding and disappointing year for me. I had high hopes for many things, all of which fell through: the transition out of academia, the completion of a novel project, the production by summer’s end of a season of podcast episodes, the achievement of any further writing sales to build on last year’s fortuitous landing in two Year’s Best Anthologies, the accumulation of savings to make moving to a new community a viable option, and the preparation needed to take a post-secondary equivalency exam in physics, so as to build history-of-science writing credentials by other means after withdrawing from my PhD program last November.

More than these individual failures, though, I’ve been shaken by what they suggest on whole about me: in particular, about my (in)ability to establish clear, coherent goals and see them through. There is, of course, always the spectre of type-II bipolar disorder weighing on any large list of unfinished projects (bipolar manic phases being known in part for huge spurts of furious and disorganized energy), but I don’t think this set of failures can be dispelled as simply as that. Rather, I suspect the furious energy involved here has more to do with desperate desire to offset one failure (i.e. the abrupt collapse of my PhD two dissertation drafts into the process) with concrete affirmations that I can develop an accomplished life by other means.

Either way, though, furious energy is rarely effective energy, and the last few months have shown no exception to that rule. A few weeks ago, someone attempted to sympathize by telling me that being intelligent can’t be easy, because there are so many things I could be doing that I must have difficulty a) choosing between them, b) sticking with one path, and c) building my career therein. This friend was being kind in calling me “intelligent”, because the other half of his statement needs no such prerequisite–and it, at least, is true: I have been wavering. I have been frozen by the thought of how many lives there are to live. And then, of course (in the manner common to many persons lucky enough to have such problems), I’ve felt ashamed for wasting my abundance of opportunities–and, in this shame, I’ve wasted even more.

In the coming four months, though, I have a work schedule that does not allow for much striving, and I’m hoping to use this restriction to my benefit. I will be stretching myself thin on the work front, so to avoid a level of crankiness experienced in previous terms when working 2-3 jobs with little financial security over the full week, I’m limiting my social media, prioritizing a rigorous climbing and running schedule, and curtailing evening social encounters (especially where there is the opportunity to drink). Mostly, though, I want to see what I lean towards in the small moments of freedom this schedule allows for, and try to listen to those natural inclinations, and build upon them for whatever comes next.

I’m sure this sounds easy, but if I’ve learned anything about myself this summer, it is that I am terrible at defending what want to do when confronted with resistance. In the last few months, while failing at things I have striven for, I’ve had a disorienting number of people encourage me… not to pick myself up and try again, but rather to stop striving so hard at all: to take the paths of least resistance when offered; to put off dramatic risks; to give up trying to accomplish so much; to just “enjoy the journey”.

Now, on the one hand, this feels like a sure way to give up on dreams that require long-term planning, diligence, and sacrifice. Moreover, when I think in terms of this loss, I feel most acutely the absence in my life of a fellow-traveller: a person who would always champion those biggest dreams, and push me to take the risks needed to achieve them, and support me (as I would them) along the way. Granted, I know such people are rarities–and furthermore, that my own experience involves people who drain time, money, and energy for their own survival or ambitions, and frequently have no interest in my interests at all. But, despite the pragmatic reality, the theoretical sticking point remains: the sense of having failed at so many other things in the past few years because I failed first, when I was younger, to achieve the right sort of ally-ship in life. So be it, though: if that’s the problem, that’s one I cannot fix overnight.

On the other hand, though, I think I know what people are really saying, when they encourage me to relax. They’re saying: Learn to see the successes in the everyday. Seek out more pleasure in being present. Build a sense of accomplishment around the miracle of being alive at all, and celebrate that wonder with other such miracles while you can.

I have enough examples, after all, to know that these are rich lives, full of purpose, too.

In the building where I live, for instance, an older lady named Margarida tends a small plot of flowers. Margarida is Portuguese, and although we’d conversed many times before, I felt we bonded most one predawn in our shared laundry room, when she told me about a then-upcoming trip to Portugal: a trip that she was treating as a final goodbye to a sister in decline. Was this sad? Yes, of course, but she was thankful for having the opportunity at all–“So long as my sister doesn’t surprise me by dying before I get there.” But the trip, when I saw her on her return, went even better than expected: a rare opportunity for both to reflect upon the long arcs of their lives–the sorrows, the joys, but most of all the little quirks that made their worlds their own. She was satisfied, she said, to have had the chance to reflect on a life well lived.

If Margarida has particularly sad days, I never see them. What I do see is the side she shares with most of the world: the side that wears and trusts in her cross with pride, but makes a less overt display of all the little things she does for her community, even though her impact is plainly felt: in the baked goods she brings to local vendors, in the time she spends with less independent residents of our building, and, of course, in the flowers.

I didn’t realize, until I ran into her one morning, weeding the lot and picking detritus from between the stems, that the flowerbed was entirely of Margarida’s own construction: a labour of love over a decade old, and not just a standard facet of the building owner’s designs for the apartment complex. Perhaps if I’d looked closer, sooner, I’d have realized this wasn’t the work of a contractor… but to be honest, I had taken the whole thing for granted throughout my four years in the building. When I mentioned my surprise to Margarida, though, she laughed. She told me that she worked on this flower garden for two reasons: first, for the pleasure of the work itself–that sense of achievement in seeing something so fragile come into its own; and second, for the joy of brightening her neighbours’ world, whether they knew it was by her hand or not.

These, too, are valuable lives, and I’d hate to think that I’m impugning similar in my friends groups, and my broader networks, by not being satisfied with the sheer act of being alive, and all the little joys that come from being present in and for my community. I live in an area surrounded by people who have–for reasons of brain injury, addiction, degenerating age, or extreme mental health concern–lost the ability to produce anything like the output I long for; but then there are also a great abundance of locals who do have the ability to produce similar, and simply have no interest in it. Or, if they do have interest, their working lives and child-rearing lives and attendant slings of financial and social stress have entrenched them in a sense of defeat about artistic practice. And in this body of experience, they, too, offer lessons in what constitutes a life well lived. Who the hell am I not to listen? Am I just spinning wheels for the sake of spinning wheels? Using my immense amount of busy work, and all my goals and ambitions, to pretend my way to a life of meaning?

There are days when I want to leave, and live an anonymous life in a small community teaching English halfway across the world–maybe translating and writing in the quiet of the evenings or the lull of predawn; but always, in this fantasy, without all the attendant worries about “wasting” time and failing to achieve any recognition for the work. Who really needs another book about histories of science? Another short story, or poem, or tediously long-winded blog post? It’s no wonder I’m told so often to stop striving, to relax, to just go with the flow of life. None of these things I care about matter. Nothing really does–but not in the nihilist sense of the phrase; more in the sense of “so why are you breaking yourself over any of this?”

It’s a fair point, and so–for now, while I work a difficult schedule and figure out how to cope with the terrible decision I have allowed myself to be pushed into–I am going put off bigger goals, and as much coherent striving as possible. I’m going to focus on just getting through these next few months, and–in the process–listen: to other lives, yes–other ways of finding meaning in existence-but also, to myself. I want to see what comes most naturally to the quiet spells between necessary labour. I want to see where my heart really lies–what sorts of “gardens” I’m inclined, on my own, to tend–and then, without all the frantic performance, all the desperate urgency that has marked so much of these last few months full of failure… to tend to them: quietly, patiently, and with more love for the daily labour than any hope of a grand result.

Whatever successes you have and have not achieved in your own creative practice, I hope you’ve at least found the gardens most worth tending to in your lives.

If not, then I wish you well on your own, impending hunts.

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Professional Update: April 23 – May 31

As I noted in my last post, I’m trying to move past oversharing on a personal level, and hoping to focus instead on the professional. I know it’s not healthy to be so overwhelmed by simple questions like “How are you?” that catching up with most people becomes a dread-filled exercise, but–right now it is, and so it goes. Many months of feeling trapped in conversations about my failure have taken their toll, and I’d just like to focus on the work to come.

To this end, tomorrow I hope to distribute the last of the thank-you letters I owe to people who helped tremendously with my teaching work this past term. With any luck, I can then focus on sending long-overdue notes to others who have reached out and been met with silence over these past few months, but–one thing at a time.

After tomorrow, it’s on to prepping for a condensed course, Intro to Science Fiction, that I will be teaching at a different institution in May. I have quite a bit of work to do this week to get the course ready, but I am looking forward to a body of meaningful conversations about the genre with a highly practicality-oriented cohort of college students.

On the writing front, the sudden emergence of this course meant giving up on finishing the novel by the end of April. This was a bit deflating, because the novel was supposed to be my transition project–a way of restoring confidence in the wake of last year’s failure–and I’d originally booked a 10-day window off all work (now rescinded) to revise it for submission in mid-May. Now I won’t be able to touch the draft in any meaningful way again until June 1, because between my two main jobs in May, I only have one day off. Nevertheless, my main concern here is not burning myself out, the way I did while juggling PhD work amid two to three jobs for three years. So, life goes on, and I can try to finish the novel again soon enough.

In the meantime, if I’m lucky, I’ll be able to squeeze out a story submission in the next few weeks, but mostly I have non-fiction projects on hand: two book reviews due in early May, one article I hope to send out April 30, and a host of freelance editing to support a local writer I’m honoured to be assisting in the production of their first book of poetry.

For most of May, though, I expect I’ll have quite a bit of evening marking and lecture prep for this condensed course. And that’s okay. There are worse things for a sci-fi writer to be doing than reviewing their genre and contemplating its next directions for a while.

In June, Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2017 will be published, containing one of my novelettes from Analog; and in July, Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fourth Annual Collection hits the stands with my last Clarkesworld story. I’m not sure when my next Analog story comes out, but these two reprints and that new work are it for now. It’s… a strange feeling, not having anything substantial in queue (or even written) on the short-story front, but there was a logic to my choice in January to focus on the novel instead.

June will arrive in due course–and with it, a fresh chance to finish the novel, start work on a new collaborative creative venture, and return to short-story-writing practice.

For now, though, I am in the middle of a significant energy deficit (i.e. work tasks these last two weeks all took far longer than they should have; I feel like I’m treading water in molasses these days), and between the aforementioned projects, I don’t see that I will have much time for anything else. But–so it goes sometimes. My original plan for May had been a slow, calm withdrawal from one professional field into another–but now that my trajectory’s changed, I am simply trying to be present in my circumstances, and to see where this new current takes me.

I also remain hopeful, though, that amid my new responsibilities I can still do a better job promoting other people’s creative excellence. With this in mind, wherever your own artistic projects and lives might take you in the coming weeks, I wish you all every success.