Brian Ruckley's News & Views

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Kerfuffle Aspiring Writers Might Want to Pay Attention To

Not for the first time the inimitable John Scalzi kicked off a bit of an internet fuss recently. The particular feline lobbed unceremoniously into the pigeon house on this occasion was this post laying into a new short story publisher for offering dismally tiny payments to writers. Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth in various bits of the internet (both for and against his views), a nice sample of which can be found in this post, and particularly the lengthy comments thread attached thereunto.

Perhaps the most fruitful outcome of the whole kerfuffle - that I've seen, anyway - is a couple of livejournal posts by Anne Leckie that are, I think, well worth the attention of any aspiring writers out there. Especially writers of short fiction, but wannabe novelists as well. The first explains why getting your short stories published in certain types of venues will not help your nascent writing career, is such a thing is your goal; the second delves into the much more nebulous question of what makes for good fiction. Both are worth a read: there is a good deal of stuff in there that I think aspiring authors (and published ones like yours truly, too) could profitably ponder, whether they agree with it or not.

Much of what's discussed in the links above made me think about where my head was at when I was actively writing and submitting short stories to magazines (note that what follows is decidedly not advice; my route through the thicket of obstacles facing the aspiring writer was my own, and does not remotely constitute a generally applicable map).

Back then, I was just starting to take the idea of one day being a professional writer seriously - i.e. thinking about what was involved in getting there, rather than just daydreaming about it. The crux of it, to my simple and innocent brain, seemed straightforward: if I wanted to be a professional writer, I had to be able to write to a professional standard.

So I worked on some stories - most of which were never submitted anywhere because I was never quite satisfied with them - and sent a few out to magazines. I only sent them to what I thought of as professional-standard magazines, i.e. those paying towards the upper end of the general scale for stories, or those that were clearly high profile and respectable and publishing stories of a certain quality.

I didn't try to place stories with non-paying markets, or obscure magazines making token payments; not because I've got anything in particular against such publications, but because I had a project, and it wasn't a 'get a story published anywhere' project. It was a 'learn how to write to a professional standard' project. So I was only interested in the judgement of those - the editors and publishers - who set that standard by their acquisition decisions. To paraphrase Anne Leckie: I was interested in being a pro, so I aimed for the pros. Aiming lower, I reasoned, would only teach me how to miss my chosen target, not how to hit it.

Now things worked out OK for me, because I did sell a couple of stories in the 90s (which sounds hopeless, but actually wasn't a bad hit rate, because I only ever sent out a handful). But just to prove that mine is not necessarily the example to follow, having tasted that tiny little bit of success, I stopped trying to write and sell the things entirely. Why? Because I'm nuts? Not entirely, though it's arguable. (As it happens, I do often wish I'd held onto the short story habit a bit more firmly. It's got a lot to recommend it.).

No, I stopped for my own, possibly rather eccentric, reasons. The second story I sold (to what was then called The Third Alternative and is now Black Static), was one that, before I sent it out, I was pretty sure was good enough to be publishable in the kind of markets I was interested in. For the first time, I felt I could instinctively identify a piece of my own writing as meeting a basic professional standard. Turned out, I was right.

More importantly, if I'm remembering things rightly, I submitted one further story after that sale. And it was rejected. At which point I basically stopped writing and submitting short stories. Not because I was discouraged, but because I had known, in my heart of hearts, before I sent it out, that that last story was not quite up to the necessary standard. It was OK, with some nice ideas and passages, but it didn't have that feel. Turned out, once again, that I was right.

That was good enough for me. I'd more or less learned what I wanted to. I could, at least on occasion, write to a professionally publishable standard; and I could identify the necessary quality - and its absence - in my stories before the editors passed their own judgement. (Yes, two is a ridiculously small sample size to base such sweeping conclusions on, and I was building on some very dodgy foundations there, but I did say mine wasn't an example to follow). What does that quality consist of? Ah, well ... that's a whole other, decidedly complicated story, and one I'd need a whole other post to even start picking away at. But I do think Anne Leckie's second post offers much food for thought on the subject.

And I will say this - and I guess this, despite what I said earlier about not giving advice, is advice of a sort: irrespective of what mysterious bricks that 'quality' is built from, one of the most important skills anyone who wants to turn their writing into a career can acquire is that of recognising its presence, or absence, in their own work. And the only way you do that is by writing for, submitting to, and probably being rejected by, the markets which define the level of quality you aspire to.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Posting While the Rain Falls

To be honest, there are already enough short fiction podcasts to make it tough to keep up with them, but the latest addition is far too cool to ignore: TTA Press, the publishers of the UK's major sf/fantasy and horror fiction magazines, as well as a rather good (if excessively infrequent) crime one, have launched Transmissions from Beyond, podcasting selected stories from their huge, multi-genre back catalogue. I'll be listening.

Another new podcast: Reality Break is putting out interviews with authors, most of them originally done for radio in the 1990s. Some notably big guns have already been deployed: Will Eisner, Cory Doctorow and the late Robert Jordan.

Free Fantasy Reading: you can download a free pdf of Black Gate magazine no. 12. Got to admit I haven't actually read it, but the magazine's got a pretty good reputation, and there's certainly a lot of content: 224 pages of it.

Since Watchmen featured in the last post here, thought I'd mention an interesting transcript of a 1988 round table discussion about the series. But first: BEWARE! This is as SPOILERIFIC a discussion as could possibly be contrived by the wit of Man. If you have not yet read Watchmen, or if you want to see the upcoming movie without actually knowing every last detail of the plot in advance (and, believe me, you really do), FLEE! The imminent link will utterly and completely ruin the whole thing, including all of the many surprises the story has up its sleeves. Seriously. For those who have already read Watchmen, it's a fascinating discussion, because Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons are involved, and it unpicks in great detail a lot of the story's many layers, influences and concerns. It can be found here.

An interesting historical side note: The Picts appear to have had a whole lot more going on in their part of the world (Scotland) than was previously thought.

Thanks to everyone who's e-mailed asking about a release date for Fall of Thanes. It's nice that people care enough to be interested! I wish I had a more definitive answer to offer, but at the moment I don't. It's taken longer than I hoped and intended to finish the thing off, for a mixture of writing and non-writing related reasons, but it is almost done. Should be going to the publisher for consideration in the next few weeks. In the past, it's taken about a year to get from that point to publication. Sorry I can't be any more specific than that yet. More news as and when it's available.

It has been raining all day. Raining hard, for a lot of it. Frankly, it's all a bit disappointing, as the weather has been for weeks and weeks. So I thought I'd post a photo, grabbed in one of the few sunny interludes I remember from the last couple of months. It commemorates the chance discovery of a wonderful country lane, thick with wildflowers, bees and butterflies. As I sit here listening to the rain gurgling along the gutters and down the drainpipes, perhaps it will provide a little remembered warmth, and remind me that we do still notionally have things called summers, even if these last couple of years the only possible description of that season has been 'damp squib'.

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Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Few Quick Links

Blogger Play is a website that consists entirely of a slideshow of photos people have recently put up on their blogs. Clicking on any photo takes you straight to the relevant blog post. It's completely pointless, but an interesting way of going on a random walk through the world's blogs for a few minutes.

After many delays, including last-minute printing palavers, Black Static magazine has finally made it off the starting blocks. I've not seen the first issue yet, but I confidently predict it'll be worth checking out for those who like their fiction dark and unsettling. It's the successor to what I thought was the most interesting UK short fiction mag of the 1990s, The Third Alternative, so it ought to be good.

There's a bit of a mini-eruption of Winterbirth reviews around the interwebs at the moment, a couple of which have caught my eye for one reason or another.

I particularly like this one, because it says about the battle scenes: 'if Braveheart was put into writing, I think it would be something like this'. I like that partly because I was consciously trying for a vaguely cinematic, vivid feeling in the action scenes, and it's nice to see it working for at least one reader. Secondly, I loved the battles in Braveheart: at the time, I thought they were the most exciting and convincingly vicious imitation of medieval combat I'd ever seen in the cinema. Not sure they've been surpassed even now.

The other review I found particularly interesting is this one. It's brief and very positive, but what surprised me about it is that it's been put out by the Associated Press news agency. I, in my ignorance, hadn't even registered that organisations like AP or Reuters put out reviews like this - I guess I assumed they just did news items. Anyway, will be interested to see if the review turns up anywhere else now it's gone out on the AP 'wire' or whatever it is that happens to such things ...

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Monday, March 19, 2007

The Short Stuff

Short story ideas wriggle about in my head like seductive caterpillars, tempting me to try and catch them and turn them into butterflies. More often than not, when I've attempted that transformative trick in the past, I've ended up with ... well, not butterflies. Still, the siren call of those caterpillars is persistent. It reminded me that I'm a bit out of touch with the world of UK sf/f/h magazines, so I had a mini spending spree.

Interzone is an old acquaintance, but it's still pretty much the gold standard for this kind of thing, and has now reached its 25th anniversary. That's an immensely advanced age as sf magazines go, and well deserved given the quality of its design, fiction and non-fiction.

There are some newer mags around these days that tickle my fancy too, though. Postscripts has been going for a little while, and seems pretty well thought of. Judging by the one issue I've now read, it's a class act: good, varied stories, a clean and clear layout and really nice covers. It's the most expensive of the magazines, but then it is a bit chunkier than the others. The next issue, #10, looks to be a giant-sized cornucopia of dark fiction.

Hub is the really new kid on the block, with only one issue out so far. It's got a distinctive design and layout - which maybe needs a little tweaking - but there's some decent stories there, and a ton of potential. Definitely deserves the chance to establish itself. Dark Tales and Forgotten Worlds are rather more basic productions, though Dark Tales in particular is quite nicely put together. Both of them quite appeal to me, for their enthusiasm as much as anything.

I haven't managed to get hold of a copy of Farthing yet (I did try, honestly), so all I can say about it is that I love the covers. Gorgeousness. And the magazine I most want to buy, I can't, because it doesn't exist yet: Black Static, the much-anticipated reincarnation of The Third Alternative, which was arguably the best UK short fiction magazine of any kind in the 1990s.

My main, earth-shattering conclusion: I like sf/f/h short story magazines. I like them as objects, I like their enthusiasm, I like the whole idea of them. There's a lot of people putting in a lot of effort to produce these things (much of it for minimal, or negative, financial reward, I imagine) and it warms the cockles of me heart it does. Short fiction is the fertile humus of the genre (certainly for sf, somewhat less so for fantasy maybe) where many of its innovations and quite a few of its novelists germinate.

What the long term future for print magazines is, who knows (see this for one view), but personally I'm a fan of the whole paper and ink thing. As Cory Doctorow has pointed out, there's reader resistance to e-books, and in my case that resistance extends to e-zines. I'm happy to read all kinds of stuff from a computer screen, but not, it turns out, fiction. I think I find the whole exercise of reading fiction on a monitor too cold and non-immersive. The technology seems to have a distancing effect that a good old-fashioned book or magazine doesn't for me. It's irrational in many ways, but a physical magazine somehow feels to me less disposable, more deserving and more demanding of my attention. Maybe that makes me a dinosaur, but if so I'm happy in my dinosaurhood, for now at least.

Anyway, there's 42 stories in the magazines pictured, each one of them a different world and different voice. You might not like all of them - in fact it'd be downright odd if you did - but somewhere in there is stuff you'd love: go on, give one or two of them a test drive.


Monday, December 11, 2006

Odds & Ends

There's a very friendly review of Winterbirth over at Pat's Fantasy Hotlist. If all goes according to plan, I should be doing an interview for that site soon, too.

A PS to my last post about Interzone: I discover (via the excellent UK SF Book News) that there's an ambitious newcomer on the UK sf/f/h short fiction scene: Hub Magazine. While idly poking about their website, I further discover that they have a competition in their first issue, in which they seem to be giving away copies of Winterbirth. Now if that doesn't tempt the masses into subscribing nothing will. Maybe. Or not. Anyway, quite aside from their excellent taste in competition prizes, any new fish in the small pond of UK genre magazines is to be welcomed.

Plus: Looks like another European sale of the Godless World trilogy is sorted out, this time for the Czech Republic. Hooray.

And finally: I'm looking forward to this. Rumour has it, it's pretty good once it gets going.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Twenty-two years elapsed between the publication of these two issues (#s 9 and 207, the first I ever bought and the most recent) of INTERZONE, Britain's leading sf short story magazine. In fact, next year is Interzone's 25th anniversary. That kind of longevity, given the nature of the UK short fiction market, is a frankly astounding achievement. Much of the credit belongs to David Pringle, who was a key player in the magazine's creation and, from the late 80s on, its sole editor and driving force, and to Andy Cox who took over the reins a couple of years ago and re-invented it (perhaps even saved it) for the 21st century.

#s 206 and 207 are the first issues I've read cover to cover in a while, and they're good enough to make me think I should get a subscription again, having let my last one lapse years ago. I'd almost forgotten how much I like a good short story mag - there's a particular kind of uncertain, optimistic anticipation, since you never know quite what you're going to find inside, and somehow reading a magazine always feels to me like a more participatory experience than reading a book. Anyone who likes their sf varied, well-written and nicely presented (not to mention accompanied by some good non-fiction) should give at least one issue of INTERZONE a try.

That illegible list of contributors on the cover of #9, by the way: Brian Aldiss, JG Ballard, Thomas M Disch, M John Harrison. Wow. Those were the days.

I bought my Interzones from Transreal Fiction (doing my bit to support my local independent bookseller and all that) which gives me a tenuous but convenient excuse to mention the signed copies thing. I didn't imagine there'd be any particular interest in getting my autograph on copies of Winterbirth, which just goes to show how little I know (fortunately, I'm sufficiently accustomed to being proved wrong that it came as a mere surprise rather than some kind of terrible shock). There's still just about time to join in. Contact Transreal - details on their website - and they'll willingly sell you a signed (and dedicated, if you like) copy: the perfect Xmas present, since it not only makes the giver and receiver happy but also me and the guy who runs Transreal. Everybody wins!