Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

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Stuff That’s Happened Lately: Late 2020

It’s been a while since I’ve shared news here (I post more often on my Facebook page!).

I attended the virtual MileHiCon the third week in October. This was my first virtual con. I had a tough time getting into it. I love conventions, but the virtual version lost almost everything I like: meetings in the hallways, crowds, room parties, dealers’ room, art show, bar-con, etc. Still, it was better than no con at all, and I did meet up with friends virtually. Fortunately, they recorded many of the panels. Here are the ones I was on:

Creative Parenting

There’s Kissing in My SF

My Favorite Writing Tools

You can cruise through the complete list of recorded panels here.

I attended World Fantasy a week later, where I also did some panels.

For most of the fall I have been working on supporting the release of The Best of James Van Pelt, my huge short story collection. This has included doing interviews and essays. The first rumination on the collection appeared in “My Favorite Bit: James Van Pelt Talks about The Best of James Van Pelt,” which Mary Robinette Kowal hosted. The second one appeared on John Scalzi’s WHATEVER, The Big Idea: James Van Pelt.

Sadly, Covid wiped out this year’s Rain Forest Writers Retreat, which I’ve attended for the last eleven years (sob!). Hopefully the world will right itself by 2022 and conventions and public events will be a part of our regular schedule again.

On the publishing side of things, my novelette, “The Minerva Girls,” was the cover story for the Sept./Oct. Science Fiction Analog. Also, “Ethnoentomology” appeared in Deep Magic, and “After the War” in On Spec. Analog sent the galleys of “I Have Loved the Stars too Fondly” for approval, and Asimov’s bought “The Bahnhof Drive-in.”

In the meantime, I’m truly enjoying being retired, and I’m working on my next stories.

The Best of James Van Pelt

This is the BIG project I’ve been working on for the last few months. Sixty-two stories chosen from almost three decades of publishing, including some previously uncollected work.  Only 200 copies will be released in a signed, numbered, limited edition hardcover with gorgeous wrap-around art. Available at Fairwood Press right now!

Available for preorder now for a November release

Promoting The Experience Arcade and Other Stories

Promoting a book is an interesting activity, and a separate one from writing the book or selling the book to a publisher. Marketing a book is a third challenge, or a third hobby, depending on how you think about it. It requires skills and a mindset that don’t seem related to the first two activities (and those two aren’t related either).

Image may contain: one or more people, possible text that says 'SUMMER OF THE APOCALYPSE JAMES VAN PELT'

I’ve been playing around with FaceBook ads to see how they impact book sales. Last month my son and I built a campaign for SUMMER OF THE APOCALYPSE. We noticed there was a lot of interest in pandemic related stories, so the timing was right. Other than a couple indignant notes from people who thought we were trying to capitalize of death and suffering (I’ve donated all money that came in from the book to relief organizations), I thought the campaign went well. We definitely moved the needle on book sales while we ran ads, although we spent more than we netted.

A nice feature of FB ads is that you can fine tune what audience will see the ad, and then note what works best. There’s a bunch of control for the author.

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For the next month we are working on marketing my last collection, THE EXPERIENCE ARCADE AND OTHER STORIES. This is a collection instead of a novel, and there are features in the book that point it to different audiences than SUMMER OF THE APOCALYPSE. Also, the book is not tied to current events, so our approach is impacted by that (also, I’m unlikely to get letters from people accusing me of profiting from a catastrophe).

Doing this experiment with FaceBook makes me want to learn more about advertising on other platforms. Amazon and Goodreads seem like possibilities. I’ve done some with Goodreads, like doing a giveaway when the book was released, mostly in the hopes it would generate reviews (not as many as I would hope), but I think there’s more to learn than I have discovered.

Free Van Pelt Stories at Curious Fictions

I have been posting about a story a week at one of the best online resources for short fiction you can find, Curious Fictions.

Authors can hide their stories behind paywalls for their subscribers, or offer it for free with the hope for tips and subscribers who would like to support the work.

If you follow an author there, you’ll receive a notification when your author posts new work.

You can also “like” the work, comment on it, and/or tip the author.

I’d love to see you there. Explore the work from over 600 other authors, and if you’d like, check out the collection of my stuff, stories that have appeared in numerous of the major magazines, been reprinted in several World’s Best anthologies, and also my Nebula Finalist story, “The Last of the O-Forms” (which are offered for free).

James Van Pelt at Curious Fictions.

An Occasional News Post

I have been spending much of my online time in two venues. The first is Curious Fictions where I try to post a story a week, generally on Wednesdays. The site contains a ton of free fiction. Readers can also subscribe to writers they like or give them tips.

Of course, I like tips. You can also follow writers who you want so when they post new stuff, you are notified. There’s a place to “like” stories or to comment on them. My latest contribution is “The Small Astral Object Genius,” which appeared the first time in Asimov’s.

I also have been posting short fiction reviews at Black Gate. Those also appear every two or three weeks and are free to read. The column is called “Stories that Work.” My mission is to comment on stories that I think are successful and what recommends them. I’m not searching for a “best of” necessarily, nor am I reviewing the stories I don’t think work. Here’s my latest for Black Gate.

Of course, I also hang out at Face Book regularly.

Keep safe! Social distance responsibly.

Curious Fictions and Keeping the Word Alive

I see I haven’t posted here for a while. Most of my online time is spent at my Facebook page, which is facing a reality: many people use FaceBook and few visit author’s pages, but, still, I like a dedicated website.

I started my online presence at LiveJournal. I still have an account there, although it’s fairly dusty by now. I haven’t done much with other online media. I have a Linkedin account, but I don’t know why, and I post the occasional video at Youtube. Mostly, as I said, I visit Facebook. Lately, I’ve added Curious Fictions to my activity.

I like the idea of Curious Fictions. It’s a place where authors can reprint their backlist of previously published short stories. Readers can read many of the works in their entirety for free. They they can “like” the stories, comment on the stories, follow authors they enjoy, subscribe to an author (pay them monthly, sort of like Patreon), or leave a tip.

This way, authors can keep their words available and, possibly, generate a little more income from them.

I am posting a story a week there. Since I have over 150 stories to choose from, I have almost three years worth of content. Someone asked me if I was worried that publishing the work online might detract from my short story collection book sales. I’m not. Curious Fictions, if anything, may sell a few books. If someone likes my stuff online, they’re much more likely to look for more of it.

That’s why books exist!

At any rate, if you like short fiction, or you would like to see a sampling of my work, visit Curious Fictions. If you do, leave a comment there, or a “like,” or (cough), money.

Marketing Short Stories

LATE RAINFOREST REPORT. MARKETING SHORT STORIES: Joe Iriarte posted some insider information in the comment thread about his upcoming Daily Science Fiction story about his progress in selling short stories, which reminded me I wanted to do this post. I appreciate when other writers share this kind of information.

Because we had so little connectivity at the Rainforest last month, I wasn’t able to do a detailed report of the days, including my talk on the 52-Story effort. I talked about the process of writing the stories a year ago at Rainforest, the same week I wrote the last story. This year’s talk was a lot about marketing. For the last two years I’ve been hilt deep in marketing short stories, so I’m feeling pretty good about what I know of the state of the marketplace right now. Here’s what I reported to them:

Remember, everyone’s experience in selling stories is unique, so YMMV on these numbers and conclusions.

First, the background. Two years ago I decided to try Ray Bradbury’s challenge to write a story a week for a year. I’ve seen other people do it, although most of them were writing pretty short pieces. I averaged 3,595 words per story, and 186,937 words total. I submitted the first of the stories a couple weeks after I started the challenge. My process generally was to finish the first draft of the story in a week, and then rethink, rewrite and polish the story over the next week while I was writing that week’s story. At my peak, I had over thirty stories circulating at the same time.

I found markets through Ralan, The Submission Grinder, and notifications or invitations for markets on my FB feed.

As of today, two years and a month after starting the project, here are the numbers for the project:

– 33 of the 52 stories have sold
– 6 stories sold to the first market I sent them to
– 125 submissions for stories that sold to the 2nd or subsequent markets
– 149 submissions of the stories that have not sold
– 280 submissions total
– 1 sale for every 8.48 submissions
– 10 rejections is the most any of the sold stories suffered
– 12 rejections is the most for any of the unsold (so far)
– 26 rejections from one unnamed pro market that rejects quickly–this is a market I’ve never cracked
– 3 other markets I’ve never cracked rejected 29 stories between the three of them
– Several stories sold to markets that were new to me
– 12 of the 33 sold to pro-paying markets
– 2 of the submissions resulted in a request for a rewrite
– 1/5 of the rejections were personal.

CONCLUSIONS:
– I was able to find places to submit all the stories pretty much all the time. If there are that many markets, then the short story marketplace is robust. The Submission Grinder lists 25 markets in science fiction that will pay six cents or more per word. There are many more, beautifully done, semi-pro magazines that I’m proud to submit to who pay less.
– This is an old lesson, but if you are going to write short stories and submit them on spec, you have to be thick-skinned. I have been submitting stories seriously since the 80s. I’ve sold 145 stories, been a finalist for the Nebula, and the Theodore Sturgeon Award. I’ve appeared in several Year’s Best collections. I think I’m doing okay, but I’m still rejected at an 8 to 1 ratio. Mike Resnick doesn’t suffer from this ratio, I’ll bet, but there’s only one Mike.
– On a side note, if you want to sell more of what you write and be rejected less often (and as a whole be paid better for it), write non-fiction. Unfortunately, I like what I like. Writing on spec is what I do.
– Submitting is way faster now that almost all markets take electronic submissions, but it still takes time. Knowing the marketplace, Submitting in the correct form, keeping correspondence professional, etc. is a part of the process and it isn’t instantaneous.
– I think if you regularly use Ralan and the Submission Grinder, you should send them donations. I also pay for NPR. If I’m getting value from someone, I owe them that.
– Submitting regularly is how you learn the market. It’s also how you develop relationships with editors. I’d been submitting to George Scithers for several years before he bought something from me. Because I kept submitting, he started sending personal rejects. After a while, we had a healthy pen-pal relationship. I sent 5,000-word long letters in the form of a short story, and he sent back a page with a sentence or two that was personal. Still, I felt a connection. I’m not into writing science fiction just to sell the things. I like that I meet other people, some of them whose contributions to the field are awesome. Communicating with the people who have provided so much reading enjoyment to me and others is fulfilling all by itself.

Sunday Writing: Making the Abstract Concrete

tell tale heartMost everyone who has been responding to my posts seems well beyond beginner status as writers, but I’ve found that going back to the basics has always been good for me.  For example, two of the best books I have on writing are ones that were written for rank beginners, but I keep revisiting them.  Maybe it’s because I’m slow and simple, or maybe because reviewing the basics keeps me anchored.  I figure if my basics are solid, my experimental flights of fancy may have a better chance of working.

Here are two great books that would be good for newbies that I still find helpful today:

What a Writer Needs, by Ralph Fletcher, which is this really, really down to earth discussion of teaching writing that only uses elementary school kids’ writing for examples.

Poetry in the Making, by Ted Hughes, which is the book version of a series of lessons he gave for the BBC Schools Broadcasting Department for the program, “Listening and Writing.”

So, with the proviso that this is basic, here’s a lesson that I get considerable mileage from.

MAKING THE ABSTRACT CONCRETE

One of the qualities we have identified that a good writer has is the ability to be specific.  That means that good writers will avoid the use of unsupported generalities or abstractions and try to make those generalities specific and the abstractions concrete.

For example, time is an abstraction.  You can’t see, hear, taste, touch or smell it.  It is an abstract idea.  The author Ray Bradbury recognized this problem in his short story, “Night Meeting,” which is about the nature of time, so he made the abstraction concrete for the reader with this description (I’ve taken his prose passage and recast it as a poem so you can see the parts better):
There was the smell of Time in the air tonight.
He smiled and turned the fancy in his mind.
There was a thought.
What did Time smell like?
Like dust and clocks and people.
And if you wondered what Time sounded like
it sounded like water running in a dark cave
and voices crying
and dirt dripping down
upon hollow box lids, and rain.
And, going further, what did Time look like?
Time looked like snow dropping silently into a black room
or it looked like a silent film
in an ancient theater,
one hundred billion faces falling like those New Year balloons,
down and down into nothing.
That was how Time smell and looked and sounded.
And tonight–Tomas shoved a hand
into the wind outside the truck–
tonight you could almost touch Time.

To make the abstraction concrete, Bradbury made “appeals to the senses.”  He gave examples of what he meant when he talked about time.  He was specific.

This idea that abstractions should be made concrete play out in numerous ways in fiction, but mostly, I think, they are most important when we’re trying to communicate moods or feelings.  Saying that a character is afraid, for example, or that a setting is threatening attempts to evoke the abstraction by naming it, but no reader is ever scared by the word “afraid” or made nervous by the word “threatening.”  What we should be trying to do as we write is to provide enough concrete details and evocative metaphorical descriptions to make the reader conclude that the character is “afraid,” or that the scene is a “threatening” one.

A pretty good editing pass on a manuscript you think is complete is to look for words that are abstractions.  They can work in dialogue sometimes, or when they are paired with concrete appeals, but they shouldn’t be doing the heavy lifting by themselves.  Remember that readers hardly ever go to fiction to be told stuff.  They read because they want to feel and experience.  If that wasn’t true then someone telling us that the rollercoaster they went on was terrifying would be all we would ever need, and we’d never try a rollercoaster ourselves.

For me, one of the first stories that actually evoked terror and suspense in my young soul was Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.”  I have no idea how that story appears in elementary school fiction anthologies, but it did (along with “The Black Cat,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and “Masque of the Red Death).

When I reread “The Tell Tale Heart” today, I see how Poe works hard to make his abstractions concrete.  I write better when I remember the lessons he demonstrated.

Today’s Writing Prompt

Using Bradbury as a model, take four of the following abstractions and make them concrete.  Do not use single word examples, like “Death is a grave.”  Expand your examples.

Friendship
Grief
Freedom
Fear
Democracy
Slavery
Hope
Love
Death
Humor
Compassion
Pity
Revenge
Capitalism
Joy
Triumph
Failure
Compromise

Sunday Writing: First Sale

martian chroniclesSometime when I was a little kid, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I’d always been a reader. The Tom Swift stories, Tom Corbett: Space Cadet, A Wrinkle in Time, The Princess of Mars, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, and the other usual suspects. Anything with a spaceship on the binding in the library, that’s what I read.

I didn’t want to be a writer at first. I loved reading books. But books have a gazillion pages! In 4th grade it took me a weekend to write a one-page report for my social studies class. Nobody that I knew could write a book. In fact, the most science fictional idea in my life was that a person could compose an entire book.

Then I read The Martian Chronicles. Some of those stories made me laugh. A lot made me cry. They all thrilled me. And they were short! I couldn’t write The Door Into Summer, but maybe, just maybe, I could stick with it long enough to write a story the length of “Night Meeting” or “The Silent Towns.”

I remember looking through the science fiction books in the library to see where they would shelve my version of The Martian Chronicles when I finished it. I put my finger between Jack Vance and A.E. Van Vogt to show the space where my book would fit.

I might have been nine or ten.

Fast forward almost twenty years. I still read a lot, but writing stayed on the back burner. It was never out of my mind, existing in that sphere where other unpursued dreams resided, like getting in shape for a marathon or learning guitar. It wasn’t until my first marriage fell apart that I really started writing and submitting work. Nothing like misery to drive a young man to the typewriter! I stayed alone in my office, didn’t come to bed until late at night, thinking deeply about stuff other than my life. Perfect.

The problem with sending work out for publication, though, was that nobody wanted it. I started submitting for real in 1983 or so, when I was twenty-nine. I photo-copied the relevant pages from The Writers Digest Writers’ Market. Also, I hung out at the big comic store in Denver that sold all the genre fiction magazines so I could see what was happening currently. Lots of great magazines that don’t exist anymore. My favorite was Twilight Zone Magazine.

In the meantime, rejections piled up. For a while, I taped them to the wall in my bathroom until I found I didn’t want to go into that bathroom anymore. One of my first rejections came from the great George Scithers at Amazing Stories. He said, “I hope while you were waiting to hear from us on this story that you were working on your next.”

For five years I collected rejections. Most were impersonal. No one gave me a hint that I was getting close, and I didn’t even feel close. Published stories started to read to me as something magical. How did the writers do it? I returned to Bradbury’s stories. They were perfect! How did he write “The Veldt” or “Ylla” or “I Sing the Body Electric”? The barrier between the quality of what I was doing and what “real” writers did seemed insurmountable. And writers as people began to feel mythical to me. Even when I met a couple, they didn’t quite seem human. I met Ed Bryant, the multiple award-winning science fiction author, and his personality was bigger than life. Then I met Joanne Greenberg, the author of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. I was so rattled that the first thing I said to her was, “I thought you were dead.”

The idea of being a “writer” consumed me, not because I thought they lead glamorous lifestyles (Ed Bryant looked tired, and Joanne Greenberg resembled a PTA mom), but because I wanted my words to do what their words did. I wanted words that got out of their own way and moved readers the way Ed Bryant’s and Joanne Greenberg’s words moved me.

I wanted strangers to validate my literary existence through reading a story I sent to them uninvited and deciding that they liked it enough, and that their readers would like it enough, that they would send me money for it.

I wanted a first sale.

In 1987 or so, four years after I started my real push to publication, I read an article in Writer’s Digest that I think was supposed to be funny. The author said she had heard somewhere that you weren’t really a writer until you’d collected 100 rejections. I don’t know how many I had at that point, but I must have been approaching the century mark. The author said she’d sent her first story out, and it was immediately rejected. She was so proud: one down, ninety-nine to go. The problem was, she sold her second story. Surely, she thought, this was a bump in the road on her quest for 100 rejections, but the third and fourth stories sold too. At the article’s end, she wailed about how she’d never get to be a writer because her stories kept selling.

I hated her. I’ll bet Writer’s Digest lost a few subscriptions from that issue.

At conventions I have sat in auditoriums with hundreds of people just like me, listening to published writers at the front of the room talk about their careers. Like me, most everyone else in the room was unpublished. The yearning was palpable.

Gordon Van Gelder, the long-time editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction told me once that when he finished a week-long gig as an instructor at a writing workshop, he attended an end-of-session party with the wanna-be writers. He said at one point they surrounded him, all chatting, all being polite, but he could feel the subtext beating like a whale’s heart in the room. “Choose me! Choose me!” was its rhythm.

In 1988 I went to U.C. Davis to start a master’s degree in Creative Writing. We had a sort of publishing club that met once a week to talk about selling our work. The ticket into the meeting was a manuscript in an envelope, stamped and addressed to a market. We talked about publishing, pored over writers’ guidelines and commiserated over our rejections.

Finally, in 1990, I took a phone call in my tiny, Davis apartment. The guy on the other end didn’t introduce himself but started talking about a story I’d written earlier. It took a couple of minutes for me to realize it was the editor of After Hours, a tiny horror magazine. He wanted to buy a short story of mine called “No Small Change.”

I’d made my first sale.

I’d like to be able to tell you that this first sale changed my life in a way I could feel, that my writing afterwards became more subtly imbued with the essence of publishability. I’d like to say that I became more confident and bolder, that my next blank page became less intimidating.

Sadly, none of this happened.

But I can tell you that I was smiling when I hung up the phone with that publisher, and that on some level I’ve been smiling ever since. In most ways, a first sale changed nothing at all.

And it changed everything. My first sale was awesome.

If you’re a writer who hasn’t sold anything yet, you have my best wishes. Somewhere out there in your future an editor will pluck your manuscript from the slush and love it. If you’re a published writer, then you have your own first sale story. I hope yours means as much to you as mine means to me.

Interzone #264 has Arrived!

interzone 264I received my contributor copy of INTERZONE #264 with my short story, “Mars, Aphids and Your Cheating Heart” within. Andy Cox puts together a beautiful magazine. Is there a print magazine in the genres that rival it for production values?

I messed with all kinds of stuff writing this piece. It’s present tense, second person omniscience (quite literally). I very much enjoyed writing it, and I believe my path to the piece was through the story-a-week challenge, where I said, “What the heck. Let’s break a few narrative ‘rules.'”

At any rate, to celebrate the appearance of the issue, you should subscribe or order the issue on line, and while you’re at it, go to Fairwood Press or Amazon and order a copy of PANDORA’S GUN just for the heck of it.

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