It Takes a Village

Back in October, at Can-Con, I pitched to the editor of a small press and wangled an invitation to submit thirty pages of Avians of Celadon in January. That’s not unprecedented; I’ve submitted the first two or three chapters before, with varying degrees of failure. I decided that this time, I was going to do everything I could to make those thirty pages the best they could be.

I began with two key points from a pertinent Blue Pencil session. I’m a big believer in immersive world-building as opposed to exposition, but I got renewed feedback that my first description of Celadon’s rings is ambiguous or confusing. Editors and Beta-readers alike have begged me to call a spade a spade and clearly identify them as planetary rings. This rankles, because we earthlings never describe our moon as a planetary satellite, and I feel that the Celadonese would take their rings for granted in a similar way. But those expert readers can’t all be wrong, so I bit the bullet and started looking for excuses to have Raisa take a real look at the sky and describe them. Another priority from the Blue Pencil was about a patch of dialogue. When a mother and daughter have been arguing about something for weeks, it rings false if they preface the latest spat with an explanation of what they’re fighting about. Without meaning to, I had done an “as you know, Bob.”

So I set out to fix both those things and for good measure, I planned to run the new pages past my critique group.

Long story short. Lindsay, a writer I have exchanged novel drafts with, brought a friend to my Chi-Series reading last summer, and in the fall, I was invited to join Fantasy Five, who were losing a member. I drive into Winnipeg once a month to meet with them now.

November’s meeting produced a lot of ideas. I was sitting to the left of Susie, and as the others pointed out issues, I could see that she had drawn boxes around huge swathes of my text on the opening page. I couldn’t wait to hear what she had to say, because I still felt as if the scene didn’t flow. Worse, all the revisions were starting to give it a cobbled together feel. Sure enough, there was a lot of stuff Susie didn’t like, and her analysis led to a powerful brain-storming session with the group that spat out dozens of ideas.  Digesting them kept me excited all through the long drive home. One of her key comments was that if Raisa is going to fly gliders, there should be one on the first page. Bam. There was my excuse to have Raisa watching the sky. I moved her to the garden, and I did better than put it on the first page, I put it in the first line:

Raisa watched the glider, careful not to lift her face toward the sky.

With that opening, I was on my way to build intrigue and conflict with Raisa’s mother, and a description of the rings wouldn’t seem too contrived. I reshaped the scene, and I was looking forward to presenting it at the December meeting. My plan was to fine-tune the early chapters over the holidays and submit them in the first week of January.

December’s meeting had to be cancelled. Having seen the value of a critique group, I decided to hold off on my submission until after the January meeting. I could still get my excerpt in by the middle of the month. I made another important decision: I contacted Samantha, my freelance editor. We revised the whole novel a year or so ago, but now the opening chapters were so drastically rewritten I thought she should take a look. She was available on the crucial day, and she gave me a good deal.

Somewhere in here, I shortened the part where Raisa spars with her mother, reducing it to just five lines of dialogue. It’s less expository, and it has far more feel. It still leads nicely to the teaser at the end of the scene.

At January’s meeting, I got some good feedback on the first three pages. I told everyone I was sending the thirty pages in within days, and Lindsay and Daria did something stunning for me. They sat down the next evening and critiqued the full thirty page sample in time for my deadline. Daria made quite a few notes on syntax and clarity, and it was clear that they clustered in the newest parts, the parts never cleaned up by Samantha. Lindsay showed me some areas that undermined clarity and plot. Those ran a little deeper, and took a bit more effort to address through rewriting, but they were worth every minute.

Making those changes took me most of a morning, so Samantha didn’t get her copy until nearly mid-day. She had them back to me within hours, cleaned up and with a couple of new points to address.

I was able to fix those in time to get the whole thing away on the fourteenth of January. For once, I didn’t have cold feet after I hit send. With the help of a team, the first three chapters were the strongest they had ever been.

The editor I sent them to agreed. He responded within two days, characterizing the excerpt as nearly perfect and asking for the full manuscript.

There are two common pieces of advice given to new writers: join a critique group and hire an editor. I hope this entry shows why. I’ll add one of my own. Blue Pencil sessions can be strangely effective. Usually only about fifteen minutes is allotted to both read and comment, so you might think they’d be hopelessly superficial. Perhaps. But that focus on flaws that jump out at the first glance can be a powerful tool.

Yup, it’s in there.

One of my stories has reached publication in the latest issue of “Far Gone” is about the terrible sacrifices a crew must make on a long journey to deliver their precious human cargo to a new world. It’s also a prequel to my novel, Avians of Celadon.

The novel began as a story about girl pilots, eco-friendly gliders and solar powered airships. To make that work, I had to build a whole world, with the kind of society that would drive young girls to take dangerous work. That raised questions: How was Celadon colonized? Why the divide between the technological Haves and Have-nots? Why do the locals marry so early, and why not for love?

“Far Gone” is what I like to call licking the spoon. I baked up a whole cake planet, and I had all these stories left over. It’s a sad and bitter story, I think, and I find it strange that it has been one of my first to find success. If you click on the NewMyths link above and read it, you might be interested to follow developments a little further- “Freezer Burn” is a flash fiction piece about one of the first colonists of Celadon, and it appeared in January’s issue of Antipodean SF.

Publication in NewMyths counts as my first semi-pro sale. That is, they pay, but not at the professional rates endorsed by the Science Fiction Writers of America. After some thought, I decided to frame the cheque rather than cash it. It hangs on the wall of my cluttered office, just above a certificate for a story that won a contest. Still looking for a home for that story – “Fermi High” is about being the new kid, struggling to fit in… and roller-skating on the moon. Cute, positive and slightly romantic, it’s proving a tough sell. Anyone know a good place for something like that?

You may have noticed that all three of those stories have two-word titles beginning with F. It’s not a thing. “Flesh is Weak” has a three-word title. It’s making the rounds now, but it’s SF Horror, so that means I had to research a different market. So far my list of likely publishers is short, and just because I think it’s right for a particular magazine doesn’t mean that the editor will agree. Seriously, the F thing is a coincidence. Two word titles are a thing, despite the exception. Two words is short enough to be concise and memorable, long enough to be original and evocative.

All this activity means that my submissions spreadsheet is growing longer. And wider. I have added a column for Rights. This is where I note, in shorthand, what rights a publisher has acquired to one of my works, and what they paid for them. For instance, many magazines reserve the right to reprint a story in a “Best of…” anthology. I wish! I keep an eye on that clause for the word exclusive. Maybe one day, I’ll assemble some of my spoon-lickers into a Celadon anthology.

500 words. Time to stop.

A Downer and a Conundrum

When I started this blog, I was looking forward to charting the ups and downs of a nascent writing career. I should have considered that there were likely to be more downs than ups!

Last week’s Downer. I see on that a potential publisher has declined my novel manuscript. It’s been that way for a week now, so it doesn’t look like I’m getting an email rejection at all. It would be wonderful to get a hint as to why this novel ‘is not for them,’ but I know publishers are not in the business of critiquing hundreds of novels a week. Decisions have to be made. Yes or no. No.

This week’s Conundrum. I had high hopes for a short story I sent to Apex Magazine. On September 14th, I got an encouraging email informing me that my submission had been forwarded to Editor Sigrid Ellis “for further consideration”. That sounded promising, and I was keeping my fingers crossed. But I see on Apex’s submission page that the Editor-in-Chief is now Jason Sizemore. Uh-oh. An entry by him on the magazine’s blog dated September 18th informs me that he took over four days after my story landed on Ms. Ellis’ desk. He will be honouring Sigrid’s commitments. Sadly, I have no such commitment. Although the whole process is electronic, I cannot help but envision a large cardboard box full of stories that Ms. Ellis was supposed to read going in the dumpster as Mr. Sizemore rearranges the office. I’d guess my chances of hearing anything further on that one are slim. So how long do I wait before sending it somewhere else? Sigh.

This morning’s mini-downer. My entry in Apex’s “Steal the Spotlight” contest didn’t win. Well, duh. They had nearly three hundred entries in my category. Mine was dashed off in under an hour, a wonderful frenzy of writing that had me leap off the couch when the final pre-writing concept gelled in my head. I’m not a horror kind of guy, but my tongue-in-cheek micro-story about mind-controlling lab rats was a hoot to write, and I was surprised to find I was doing it entirely in dialogue. Normally, I’m sparing with dialogue, but it seemed to fit the tale. Normally I’m sparing with hyphens, too, but I see a sentence there that’s practically a hyphoon!

Coming up soon, the Secret Agent Contest, which will see the first 250 words of my novel subjected to an acid test. Also, I learned to write a logline, a one or two sentence summary of a novel intended for the eyes of an editor or agent. That makes it very different from the kind of blurb you might use to tempt readers. Despite my ongoing doubts about whether my book will appeal more to adults or kids, I am entering it as Middle-Grade.

In the next week or so, I hope to hear back from my youngest Beta-reader on whether Avians is the kind of thing his classmates would want to read. Looking forward to hearing from him, but I wonder what he will make of the fact that most of my characters are female. Will he feel alienated or intrigued?

After that, a blue-pencil session with my freelance editor Samantha Beiko, courtesy of the Manitoba Writers Guild. I’m torn. I could take her the first pages of my sequel novel. I’m still messing with them, so some direction might be helpful. Or I could take her the story that is MIA at Apex, and get her ideas on how to tune it up before submitting it somewhere else.

I may be down, but I’m not out!