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Friday, February 22, 2013

The Slush Pile Survival Guide

"The Trouble with Advice"

by Bruce Bethke


Thirty-five years ago I was living in Los Angeles, shopping my demo tape all over Hollywood, and trying to take my musical career to the next level. Auditions and callbacks were few and far-between, though, so I spent a lot of time either in my apartment or else down at the beach, watching the nonstop freak show, scribbling away in my notebook, and doing my best to follow in the unsteady footsteps of Jim Morrison. In my mind's eye the images from those days remain remarkably razor-sharp: I can still see the shape and color of the inside walls of that small apartment, and the way the cockroaches danced and scattered when I flipped on the lights, and the faces and houses in the surrounding low-rent but not altogether unpleasant neighborhood -- and the best places to go for cheap but still edible Asian or Mexican food -- and the near-miraculous way the smog would sometimes lift, sometimes for entire hours at a time, and the skies would clear enough for me to see the mountains, a thousand yards off in the distance. I can still remember all the different back ways and side streets I used to take to walk or bike down to the beach...

Many years later a business trip brought me back to Los Angeles, and one morning I found myself at loose ends in Hollywood with a nice rental car and a few hours to kill. On a lark I decided to drive back to my old neighborhood, to see if anything had changed.

Oh, it'd changed, all right. It was now not so much a low-rent neighborhood as the exterior daylight set for some low-budget post-Apocalyptic sci-fi movie. The ghetto bars on almost every window weren't all that much of a surprise to me, but I didn't expect to see the coils of concertina wire on the perimeter fences and rooftops of the remaining businesses, or the gang graffiti tags on pretty much every flat vertical surface, or the knots and clots of young men standing around on the sidewalks and street corners, glaring at me with narrowed eyes, as if trying to decide whether I was worth the effort of car-jacking or if they should just bust a cap on my fool ass for trespassing on their turf.

I took a few heartbeats to soak it all in, then hit the gas, found the nearest freeway entrance ramp, and just about kicked the accelerator pedal through the floor in my desire to light up the afterburners and get the flaming flying hell out of there.
_____

L. P. Hartley once wrote, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." This is not merely a truism but a serious problem for those in the advice trade, both those who would like to give it and those who hope to receive it. Maps both physical and cognitive are constantly changing, and the best we on the giving side can do is tell you what the landscape looked like when we last went that way.

To those who hope to receive advice, remember: any advice you receive from someone who's already been there and done that is by definition old. It may be useful as-is. More likely it will require some straining and filtering to be useful in the here and now. Much of it might be completely irrelevant, and some of it -- such as the mental map of a certain neighborhood in Los Angeles that I drew back in the 1970s -- might actually get you into serious trouble if you were to try to apply it now.

Case in point, when I first decided to get serious about writing science fiction for professional publication, about thirty years ago, there were six "pro" magazines on the newsstands, perhaps two dozen good-paying semi-pro mags, and at least a half-dozen book publishers with healthy lines of mass-market paperback originals. The typical editorial response time ranged from four to six weeks, and if you lived reasonably frugally it was possible to pay the month's rent with one decent short-story sale.

Since I wasn't haven't consistent success at first, I decided to sponge up all the advice I could find from the established Old School pros. It took me years to realize that their advice was in turn rooted in a time when there were two mail deliveries daily, no paperback originals market, a lot of pulp magazines on the newsstands -- for that matter, a lot of newsstands -- and far fewer writers competing for the available publication space. Back in their day, if you lived in New York, it was possible to mail a story to Astounding in the morning, get it back with comments from John Campbell that afternoon, rewrite it overnight and remail it the next morning, and have Campbell's check in-hand the following evening -- and that was at a time when 5-cents per word was serious money.

Now? There are, what, three major pro magazines left? A vast plethora of minor pro and semi-pro markets ranging from brilliant to awful, a paperback originals market that's coughing blood, an entry on the Endangered Species List for "neighborhood bookstores" tagged Believed Extinct in the Wild, and a good short-story sale might... Pay your cell phone bill for a month, and leave enough left over for lunch at Taco John's?

So how much of the advice that I sponged up from the Old School pros -- or even that I developed myself, from my own experiences in the 1980s and 1990s -- do you suppose is relevant now?
_____

There is no going back to the way things were. Heck, there's not much point in going back more than a decade. When I first decided to revive The Slush Pile Survival Guide, I thought, "This will be easy. I've been writing this kind of stuff for twenty years! I'll just go back into the deep archives, exhume my old columns, and -- "

And discover that the world has changed in the years since then, far more than I imagined. True, many aspects of good story-telling haven't changed since the Neolithic age, but the business of selling your fiction and getting it published has changed almost beyond recognition in just the past ten years. A few of my old columns are still useful as-is, and a few more contain nuggets of information that might conceivably be reworked into something useful now, but most are now better off taken to the county hazardous waste site and left for safe disposal.

That is the challenge you face, when you read advice from any established old pro. You must be a discerning reader; you must weigh and evaluate what you see and determine what's relevant to you. I can't tell you with absolute assurance how to break into publication in today's fiction market, because I didn't do it, and I'm not the one who's trying to do it now.

Remember, I became a successful and award-winning fiction writer in a different century. And in a foreign country.

4 comments:

Survival Gardener, AKA David the Good said...

Brilliant advice.

Chuck Bordell said...

Good article, Bruce. It's pretty much the same as the freelance art biz, too.

JC Hemphill said...

Another problem with advice, as I see it, is that art is a personal experience, and trying to force it into another person's box might destroy the 'art' altogether. What worked for Dickens--over-plotting, writing and rewriting one section to perfection at a time before writing the entire first draft--might not work for Stephen King. Those two guys might give totally different advice, and it would be good advice, as long as your personality happens to sync with said advisor. The best advice I can think of when it comes to art (and, by my own definition, reader, this advice should be summarily disregarded as you read it) is to find your own way, blaze your own trail, take the road less traveled, or [insert generic cliche of self-discovery here].

Edward said...

It's always useful to hear another's story... I published some short SF in the 90s, and coming back to it in the teens, I find a different world... I made a few grand, back then, but spent about a third of that on paper and postage. E submissions have changed the game in lots of ways...back then, I was taken aback by how little feedback I got on my stories...today, the only feedback I've ever gotten on a story is a form reject, or a sale. In 40 submissions I didn't get a _single word of comment_, until selling two stories to Asimovs in a space of 4 weeks. There doesn't seem to be time for any other kind of feedback--I shudder to think how many stories editors see nowdays, now that the paper and postage is no longer a hurdle. The waiting, then as now, was the hardest part. (Cue Tom Petty song.) So I was very happy to hear back from you in less than an hour this morning. Very. Happy. So, writers, don't expect any attaboys, anything positive, until you sell something. The days of john w campbell sending stories back with feedback longer than the story itself are long long gone. And that's OK. Welcome to the future; not utopia or dystopia, always something halfway between. You just have to know the world you're living in, and adjust your expectations accordingly.