Words from an Absent Willow

An overview of my literary endeavours in the 2010s.

Tl;dr:

I got published

The very first e-mail in ‘Submissions’ folder is from Bob Griffin, the editor of the Absent Willow Review, accepting my story “Blind” for publication. That e-mail changed my life.

I’d submitted stories for publication before then, of course. From the mid-1990s, with a Writer’s Guide to SFF markets in hand, I’d fitfully send out a manuscript and SASE  every decade or so. It was usually the same manuscript, though, because I’d really only written one story, right after college. Nothing had ever come of it.

In late 2009, while taking a break from full-time work, I wrote something new – a story called “Barren Witness”. I sent it to Asimov’s right away, and they rejected it almost as quickly. I went back to pretending I was a writer but only barely writing. Over the next year, I wrote one new story, “Ascension”.

Then, in the fall of 2010, with my full-time employment break starting into a third year, and with a full three stories under my belt, I decided to get organized about writing. I looked for an online version of the Writer’s Guide, and instead ran across something called Duotrope. I used it to send send “Barren Witness” to F&SF, because for me, F&SF is when you make it. I sent out “Blind” as well, just for the heck of it. I chose Absent Willow Review, because it was alphabetically first in the results, and I hadn’t thought to filter by rate or anything else. I sent it to Not One of Us as well, which suggests I was just choosing venues at random. I sent “Ascension” to Shimmer, probably just to spread things across the alphabet.

F&SF rejected “Barren Witness” 6 days later. But the very next day, I heard from Bob Griffin that Absent Willow wanted to publish “Blind”!

Now, I’m not without confidence, but that acceptance was the shot of assurance I hadn’t known I needed. Not only was I a writer, someone who had finished a story, I was about to be an author – published!

That one acceptance, from a non-paying market, set a fire under me. The next day, I decided try taking writing seriously – sitting down at my desk at 8:00 and staying there – writing or no – until 16:00 or so. As expected, I spent my first hours futzing around – opening old story starts, moving commas around, looking at my idea file. After a few hours, though, something magical happened – I actually wrote something. The next day, I tried it again. Another hour or two of futzing, and then more writing. I’d cracked it!

I wrote five days a week – from the moment my spouse walked out the door until shortly before they came home. Sure, I took time for lunch and errands. And sure, I spent the first hour of every day futzing. But the rest was writing time. I got so I was writing almost a story a day – and they were pretty good. I was sure that a Nebula was just around the corner.

I didn’t get any more acceptances, but I got a little more savvy about non-paying, token, and paying markets, and I did get some personalized rejections with feedback (thanks, Apex, and Pseudopod, and BCS). Rejection didn’t bother me, though. I was soon to be a published author, and I was writing five days a week, producing a flood of stories.

Of course, the protagonist soon met an obstacle, which for me came in the form of a long-term job offer, running an under-staffed project in Palestine. I didn’t have time or spare mental capacity to write. But it didn’t matter. “Blind” had come out in Absent Willow in January 2010, and I was a published author. The dam had broken.

Lessons about writing

I didn’t get another acceptance for most of a year. But had a host of stories I’d written before starting work, and I had confidence. I kept submitting. And by now, I knew I could write. It wasn’t something other people did, and it wasn’t something that happened by magic. It was something you worked at, with discipline, and I’m pretty good at discipline. I kept submitting, and occasionally writing, and little by little, among a flood of rejections, a few acceptances trickled in.

You’ve Gotta be Cruel to be Kind

I joined an online critiquing group, got lots of helpful feedback and learned to give some. It hurts to be criticized, and I started off defensive, but because it was strangers doing the hurting, I was able to look at their input a little more objectively. There are all kinds of feedback, but I quickly learned a couple of things. First, the critiques most useful to me were the most blunt. One fellow author frequently excoriated my work (from titles on down) in the harshest terms – but I found they were often right. You don’t have to be cruel to be kind, but it works for me. Second, not all critique is useful. I learned to pick and choose among comments, not based on whether they were nice to me, but on whether I thought they’d understood the story and said something accurate about it.

How to Publish a Book in a few Easy Lessons

I kept writing when I had the chance – getting up at 4 AM before work, writing late at night. These weren’t good times for me, and wasting the first hour futzing when you only have an hour and a half to write isn’t efficient, but by now I knew that discipline was all it took to achieve something. I made slow but steady progress.

I had started to buy e-books, to ease the pain of transporting my library around the world with me. Because many of the first books I got were public domain e-books, and they often had typos, and I’m a little compulsive, I also, perforce, learned how to edit e-books. What I learned was that they weren’t particularly complex. It wasn’t a big step from there to taking a shot at putting my own book together. I self-published a novelette, The Speed of Winter, and, sure that they’d hear about it anyway, warned my family that I’d published a book. It got a couple of nice solicited reviews, and sank quietly under the waves. (But I still have plans for it).

If You Can’t Get What You Want… Make It

After several years, I took another break from work. This time, though, I didn’t futz around. I did a lot of other things, but I kept writing as well. Not at the same breakneck pace, but steadily. I also realized that there wasn’t a venue that really focused on the kind of fiction I wanted to see. There were lots of good magazines, and Shimmer had the prose I liked, but there wasn’t a venue that really focused on what I most enjoyed. I started to daydream about the kind of pro-rate magazine I’d open if I had the time and money.

With my spouse’s encouragement, I gradually realized that I had the time, and that if I started with a semi-pro venue, I had the money. I spent months planning – thinking about mechanics, budgets, tools, etc. – and eventually, Metaphorosis was born. We started publishing on 1 Jan 2016, and by the end of this year, we’ll have published 210 stories – one every Friday without fail for the past 4 years.

I’m intensely proud of Metaphorosis. It’s been a learning process, and I’ve stumbled painfully from time to time, to my cost and that of some authors. But I also think we’ve published some really good work – both written and visual. Putting together the annual Best of, as I’m doing now for 2019, is a painful process every year. There are some stories I know will go in, but there are also a lot of hard decisions. I’m pleased that some authors sold their first stories to us, and think it’s been a good experience for most of them as well.

So many books

I take it as a positive sign that so many Metaphorosis authors have signed on for my side projects as well. In particular, they’ve helped me indulge my fascination with writing – through anthologies that explore the process of creation. We started with Reading 5X5 – looking at how different authors approach the same story idea, then Score – authors writing in a shared emotional world rather than a conceptual one, and very soon Reading 5X5 x2 – a round robin of co-creation, examining how writers’ voices change depending on whom they write with.

I’m also a long-time vegan, and am used, as we all are, to reading ‘around’ the ugly parts of stories – the hunting, the horse-riding, the cooking. The explosion of anthologies by people of color, disabled people, etc., helped me realize that, as a publisher, I could help solve this problem. I started putting together an annual anthology of vegan-friendly SFF stories that’s about to enter its fourth year.

What Didn’t Happen

I didn’t win the Nebula. I didn’t become a household name. I haven’t made any appreciable money as a writer. A lot of things I hoped for – even expected – didn’t happen. But the main thing did – I learned how to write, in a way that makes me happy. And I helped publish a lot of good stories that I hope made other people happy.

I don’t know what’s coming in the next decade. But I do know that, whatever comes, I’ve already accomplished something that means a lot to me, and that I’ll keep writing as much as I can.