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.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Slush Pile Survival Guide

"About That Secret Handshake"

by Bruce Holland Rogers

Pity the poor writer who feels that he or she is perpetually this close to selling novels or short stories. There is no discouragement quite like hers. She has studied her craft, she has tried her manuscripts out on test readers who have helped her sharpen her stories, and she has researched markets to make certain she's sending her work to the editors who publish that sort of thing. Yet her manuscripts keep coming back, either with form rejections or, sometimes, with rejections that offer a word or two of praise without ever saying, “Change the last word to nimbus and I will buy this story.”

Pity that writer, because she is being worn down in a particularly painful way. She has done all the work, has created something that she puts her name on as a way of saying, “Here is my say, my contribution to the conversation that is literature, that is art,” and the reply she gets time after time is, “Sorry. We can't use this.”

Because she feels close to breaking through, a writer in this position begins to think that there must be something right under her nose, some riddle that, once solved, would turn those rejections into acceptances. As the editor of STUPEFYING STORIES once wrote to me, “I hear from a lot of aspiring writers who seem to be searching for that special person who's going to whap them on the head with a magic wand and turn them into a Real Writer, or teach them the secret handshake, or reveal unto them how to decode the secret language of rejection slips.” That last bit is especially common. Tea leaves never get as much close scrutiny as a personalized rejection slip. However, efforts to find the special person, to learn the handshake, to decode the secret language are doomed to failure. I say this as a writer who craved those very things with every fiber of my body for years and years.

I once had a conversation about this with the late and much-lamented Damon Knight. Besides being a wonderful writer, Damon had also edited twenty-one volumes of the influential anthology series, Orbit. “What those frustrated writers need to understand,” Damon said, “is that the rejection message, 'I can't use this,' is actually a secret code that means: 'I can't use this.'”

The message of a rejection slip really is as straightforward as that. Even a rejection letter that says, “I especially liked the ending” is still a rejection that comes down to, “I can't use this.”

Consider this metaphor. The editor is a carpenter. Instead of assembling a magazine or a publishing line, he is framing a house. With the job partly finished, he's looking for some more lumber with which to finish the job. And here is the writer, now a supplier of wood, and on the bed of her truck rests the most beautiful block of polished mahogany ever seen.

The carpenter looks at the block of mahogany and may say to himself, “Wow! That is beautiful! Look at the subtle colors! Look at the grain!” But the carpenter is also going to say, “Sorry, but I need studs and joists and beams. This is beautiful, but it's the wrong shape. I can't use it.”

That is very often what an editor is saying. “I don't have a place for this in the issue I'm putting together. I already have a story too much like this one. I already have a novelist on my list whose topics are too similar to yours.”

In fact, with work that is competently written, that is almost always what an editor is saying. The work may be publishable elsewhere. With different timing, it might have been publishable here. But what the writer is offering isn't a match to the editor's current needs.

Now, that doesn't mean that most of what an editor rejects is gorgeous mahogany with subtle color and intriguing grain. Many unsolicited submissions are twigs, loose sawdust, bent boards or rotten logs. That is, many submissions come from beginners who haven't mastered the first principles of sentence composition or storytelling. But those aren't the writers who are longing to learn the secret handshake. The writers sending wood shavings to the carpenter are full of self-confidence and delusion, and they are either going to discover their defects and start correcting them, or are going to quit. The writers looking for the secret handshake are definitely not quitters.

So what should those frustrated writers do?

First, they should make certain that their work is delivering the effects they intend. They should test their manuscripts on honest, articulate readers; readers who don't have a reason to say, “Um, it was fine!” in order to avoid hurt feelings. But by the time writers are craving the secret code of rejection letters, they have probably been testing their work out on trusted readers. The problem probably is not raw quality. The problem is one of matching the manuscript with the right market at the right time.

There are only so many elements in this formula: suitable manuscript, right market, good timing. So the most obvious answer to the writer is: persist. Keep writing, keep investigating other markets, keep circulating the manuscripts. If you are writing round pegs, you will eventually find the corresponding round hole that isn't already occupied by someone else's manuscript.

Of course, persistence does you little good if you are writing square pegs and there just aren't any markets that are square holes. Or, to return to our block of mahogany, persistence will do you little good if you insist on trying to peddle your mahogany block, as-is, to the carpenter who is framing a house. But if you can be honest about the carpenter's needs and clear-eyed about what you have, then maybe you can saw your block up, glue it in sections, and offer the carpenter a mahogany roof beam. Alternatively, you can admit that your block, which gorgeous, isn't suitable for the carpenter. You can display it in your living room for friends to admire. You can try building your own museum of fine woods and charge admission.

What the writer shouldn't do, however, is imagine that there is a secret or a magical solution, or think of editors as gatekeepers who are deciding who gets into the A-list club and who gets to stand on the sidewalk all night with the other peasants. Editing decisions aren't personal. Even though we're talking about the acceptance or rejection of art, editorial decisions are as objective as lumber purchases.

I said above that the pain of literary rejection wears writers down. It does. What we write is the work of our hearts. But to keep writing and maintain some sanity, you need to arrive at a place where you put your heart into your work as you write it, and then turn around and treat it like lumber. If you can do that, you'll be living in the real world.

Stories by Bruce Holland Rogers have been translated into over two dozen languages and have won two Nebula Awards, two Micro Awards, two World Fantasy Awards, and a Pushcart Prize. He teaches fiction writing at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts and is the author of Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer

To learn more about him and see more of his work, check out his website: