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Monday, April 16, 2018

Notes Towards a Manifesto

Part 2 • “Where we are,” by Bruce Bethke •

Funny how writing something out in detail and then letting it sit for a day before re-reading it can reveal a fundamental error in your thinking. When I wrote Part 1, I thought I had a solid grasp on the plan I was about to lay out in Part 2. I was going to spin a wonderful little analogy comparing Stupefying Stories to my garden, explaining that I plant a garden each year not because I need to but because I want to, and then talking about how much I enjoy the surprise of seeing what takes root and develops. I was going to explain that the best part of this job is seeing the names of writers who we were the first, or one of the first, to publish, show up years later on the short lists for major awards, or on the covers of major magazines, or on the bestseller lists. For example, if you look closely at issue #6, August 2012, you’ll see the name of this year’s Newbery Medal winner on the list of contributors.

Once I actually wrote it all down, though, I spotted a serious flaw in my thinking. To be blunt, I caught myself failing to follow my own often-given advice, which I usually present in words like these:
“To succeed as a writer, you need talent, good craft skills, good work habits, and at least some good luck. Since you can’t control how much talent or luck you have, if you want to take your game to the next level, you must concentrate on developing good craft skills and work habits.”
Hmm. Doesn’t exactly sync with the puttery, hobbyish, aleatoric nature of my garden analogy, does it? To make it worse, though, that thought collided head-on with something I wrote in Part 1:
“There is a distinctly generational component in the fiction writer’s life-cycle. At first we write to impress our elders, because they’re our parents, our teachers, and eventually, if we’re lucky, our editors and publishers. Then we write to impress our contemporaries, because they’re our friends and peers, and in general, they share our language, vocabulary, common assumptions, innate value judgments, and experiential base.

“The trouble comes in the third stage, when we’re writing to try to impress those younger than ourselves...”
Double-hmm. Who exactly am I trying to impress with Stupefying Stories? Certainly not my elders. They’re nearly all gone now. Probably not my contemporaries. There are fewer of them every day, and it’s hard to get the attention of those who remain. For the most part they’re focused on running out the clocks on their own careers, and have little interest in a new magazine unless it’s someplace where they can dump their old trunk stories for pro word rates.

Which leaves...

And this is when the fundamental error in my thinking rose up and slapped me in the face. For the past eight years, I have been treating Stupefying Stories as a puttery, hobbyish, aleatoric thing that I have been doing for my own amusement and to impress my contemporaries. I have been thinking like a writer, operating in a loose collection of writer-to-writer relationships, and giving scant thought to building the readership. I need to work on—

Not my craft skills as a writer. Not even my craft skills as an editor. But my craft skills as a publisher.

This makes me nervous. Writers hate and fear publishers, and usually for good reason. But the question we’ve been tap-dancing around since last Wednesday is this: what’s more important now? For me to be liked, or for Rampant Loon Press to become a successful business?

Tomorrow: Part 3 • “The Part Previously Known as Part 2”   

1 comment:

Unknown said...

It MAY be possible to do both -- though you won't be liked by "everyone", nor will you likely be "wildly successful".

However, being liked by many and neatly successful in a niche...THAT is possible. (Example: by no stretch of the imagination are even LIGHTSPEED, ANALOG, F&SF, or ASIMOV'S "wildly successful" (even taken all together). Their circulations don't even come close to the magazine with the top circulation in the US -- and "No, it's not TIME, NEWSWEEK, or any other serious magazine."

It's AARP Magazine with 35,000,000 readers...

The Spec Fic magazines can certainly be ranked in their niche; but their niche is (by definition) just a tiny place in the grand scheme of things.

So, be well-liked and successful in your niche (whatever you decide that it) and go for it.