Getting Published is Hard

I got off to a somewhat atypical start in this writing business. My first collection of short stories was picked up by an independent publisher which then folded almost immediately. So in a sense, I'm a traditionally published author, but as the book is now out of print, I don't have much to show for it.

Luckily, I'm difficult to discourage. I've soldiered on, making a few measured forays into the self-publishing world, and having some moderate success. But because I'm not satisfied with anything less than the undying adoration of all of humanity, I've been trying to shop my stories around the world of traditional publishing. And so far, I have a 100% failure rate.

The traditional path for a fiction writer frequently involves writing short stories at first. It's a great way to cut your teeth as an author, and getting published is quicker than it is with novels, especially in the digital age. Writers submit short stories to print or online magazines, who then put those stories in front of their readership. Some magazines pay professional per-word rates, some pay semi-pro rates, some pay a nominal acceptance sum, and others don't pay at all.

Each genre has its big names. For Sci-fi, it's Asimov's Science Fiction, Analog Magazine, and several others. For Literary Fiction, The New Yorker is huge, as well as Glimmer Train, and dozens of others. But to get into those magazines, you have to be a) very lucky, b) a genius, or c) have experience publishing in smaller magazines.

These days, most publications are a mixture of print and online content. Some publish more online than they do in print, since it's cheaper. Web-only publications generally offer lower rates, and many offer nothing at all--and still turn hundreds of authors away. Given the proliferation of markets, and the difficulty of getting published, one might think the best strategy is to put one's stories out to as many publications as possible.

The problem with shopping stuff to multiple outlets is that the vast majority do not take simultaneous submissions, meaning if you submit something to one place, you can't submit it anywhere else until you get an acceptance or rejection letter. From an author's standpoint, that blows bigtime, because response rates run as long as six months. But from an editor's standpoint, I get it. I'd hate to write an author to accept their piece, only to find out it's already been accepted somewhere else, and I've wasted my time. If an author did that to me, I'd probably never read anything of theirs ever again. And that is, in fact, how it plays out. From what I'm told. So it's a long, arduous process. A lot of authors ignore the simultaneous subs rule, but at the risk of burning bridges. I try to be more patient and cautious.

As frustrating and outdated as this system sounds, I'm a big believer in it. Because the world needs gatekeepers. I mean, just look at all the garbage that gets self-published on Amazon. Trying to rise out of that scrap heap is like trying to weave a rope out of sand. Money helps, but unfortunately most authors don't have money to throw at an advertising budget.

Online-only publications have gate keepers that are as tough as any. Those editors reject the majority of the material they see, but since most of the magazines don't pay, getting published in one doesn't really earn you much respect as an author. Unless someone is willing to shell out hard cash for your writing, you're in the bottom 99%. If you want to be in the top 1% (actually, fiction writers who earn any money from their work probably make up less than that), your writing and self-marketing skills have to be good enough to get someone to pay you to write down junk from your imagination. As much as people love to read, there just isn't that big of a demand for authors in this world. We could probably get by with, what, fifty at any given time?

Networking is, of course, massively important. Once you get accepted to a particular publication, you form a relationship with that editor. The door to that publication typically remains open to you, and other doors open as well. If you're savvy, this is the time when self-promotion really matters. But until that point, passing muster with an editor is far more important than self-marketing.

There are other ways to get a break, but this is by far the most common path, and you can't count on being the exception. For my novel, I plan to seek representation from a literary agent, but agents get as many query letters as editors, and if you're the agent, you're gonna go for the author that has a solid resume in publishing, nine times out of ten. So aspiring authors are always on the lookout for ways to distinguish themselves, and one of the most popular is by blogging. Heck, that's part of why this blog exists.

Blogs are great. Social media makes it pretty easy to get noticed, and if nothing else, a blog keeps you writing. But the thing is, you generally won't see writers sharing fiction on a blog. You see them doing what I'm doing right now: writing nonfiction about the art of fiction. Which is good. It's a great way to stay immersed in the craft, and you'll wind up teaching yourself a lot. But at the end of the day, you're not really displaying your skills as a fiction writer. So why not just post your stories on a blog? Well...

The problem with posting fiction on a blog is that people read fiction and nonfiction differently. Blogs, news, Medium articles, and Buzzfeed posts can be read a few words at a time, on a commute, or even while doing something else. Heck I can carry on a conversation while reading and still get what I want from the average blog article.

Fiction is meant to be immersive, and it's difficult to enjoy and appreciate it without giving it your undivided attention. If I'm, say, in the bathroom for a while, I will typically read Reddit, or something like that--something I can take in small doses. If I don't finish a given article, I don't really care. I read fiction too, but chances are I'd never start a short story, even if I had time. I don't usually settle in to read fiction unless I know I've got time to really get into it. I have to be able to allow the possibility that it will suck me in and keep me glued to the spot for hours. If there's a chance I won't have time to read to a stopping point, I won't start. And that's pretty typical, from what I see. Fiction is probably the toughest sell when it comes to how people shell out their attention.

Therefore, the media that work for nonfiction don't work as well for fiction. I'm not saying it can't be done, but again, you can't count on being the exception. Fiction readers prefer fiction packaged in books and ebooks, just like they prefer music packaged in albums and streaming services. Putting fiction in a magazine is like getting a song on the radio. Putting fiction on your blog is about like broadcasting your song on a CB radio. It's going to have a lot harder time making an impact.

Editors like to see a history of effort, so self-publishing and blogging are great things to have on your resume, and if you can find some backdoor to build an audience (like publishing fiction on Medium), that's great. But it's about like having volunteer work on a traditional resume. All it really shows is that you're a go-getter. It doesn't necessarily prove you can do the job.

It's a tough path I've chosen, but it's the only thing I'm any good at, so here I am. No regrets.

Technical Difficulties

I'm having technical difficulties, so I'm making this test post.

Here is a picture of a puppy


Whiplash, and Other Things

It's been a good long while since I posted anything, and for that I apologize. I moved into a new house, found out my wife was pregnant with our first child, and agreed to take in a Great Dane for an indeterminate amount of time, and had holidays to deal with, so that's my excuse.

But the time for excuses is over. I'm back, and I'm going to keep on building this site and going on unprovoked rants about things only I care about. So those of you who were hoping I had disappeared forever...tough shit!


I watched a movie today that really got my gears turning: Whiplash. It was up for Best Picture in 2015, and I usually try to see the best picture nominees, but this one slipped by me. Actually, that's not accurate; I saw Birdman, and it ruined my appetite for 'high art' for a while. Did I already write about Birdman? If not, maybe I will next week.

In any case, the end of Whiplash nearly gave me a heart attack. This is a story about what it means to be great, and it has all the hallmarks of great storytelling. It concerns the battle of wills between an aspiring jazz drummer, and the cruel teacher who ultimately brings out the best in him.

Whiplash | Final Scene (2014) from Wes Candela • Voices Film & TV on Vimeo.

This movie really resonated with me, because I played drums when I was younger. I was in concert band from 5th grade to Junior year in high school, and I did three years of jazz band in high school as well. In retrospect, I really wish I had pushed myself harder, because I always loved music, and even though I didn't really appreciate jazz at that age, I do now. If I had stuck with it, who knows what might have happened.

Our band teacher, who did concert and jazz, was easily as mean as Terrence Fletcher, but half as talented (he was a drunk too). After seeing Whiplash, I have a new understanding of the man, because I suspect that he, like Fletcher, cared deeply about music, and was frustrated with the hordes of his students who didn't.

I would give anything to learn at the feet of a teacher like Fletcher, because I believe in the argument that Whiplash makes. I believe that "good job" is the most destructive thing an artist can hear. I believe that greatness is born of adversity. I believe that great people need to be pushed, and that the greatest people don't need a mentor, they need an enemy. And that's what this movie was really about.

In the final scene, Andrew Neyman finally earns Fletcher's respect the only way he can: by defying him. And you can see it in Fletcher's face the moment he catches on (thanks in no small part to the amazing performance of J.K. Simmons). The battle of wills depicted in this scene is riveting enough, but set to the tune of a virtuoso performance of the jazz standard "Caravan" it's absolutely heart-stopping.

To me, it's obvious that Neyman's ultimate defiance is exactly what Fletcher wanted from him. But Fletcher could never let Neyman know that, or Neyman would have his permission to defy him, and that would make it easy. It would be just as destructive as saying "good job". Fletcher always knew that the student he was searching for would have to defeat him at his most vicious and cold-blooded. So when he sabotages Neyman early in the recital, he's giving his final exam. Neyman, thankfully, rises to the challenge, and gives the performance of his life. And Fletcher knows it almost immediately.

The game between Fletcher and Neyman works on two levels. There is the surface game of Neyman vs. Fletcher. In the final scene, it's boiled down to that simple rivalry; who is in control of the concert? But there is a deeper game at play: Neyman's potential vs. his hesitation, and that's the only game Fletcher was ever really playing. Neyman is meant to play the surface game, always suspecting the existence of the deeper game, but never being sure. The deeper game needed to stay hidden, in order to force Neyman into taking that leap of faith, and being sure of his own talent. To push him to that point, Fletcher needed to become his enemy.

The subtlety of that scene is masterful. None of the above is explicitly stated, but it's all there, plain as the nose on your face. Impossible to miss, in fact. That, friends, is the stuff of great storytelling.

I won't argue that Whiplash should have won best picture (though it was certainly better than Birdman). It was up against some hefty competition. Its subject matter is a little obscure to some people. And its story argument is an uncomfortable one. It makes us realize that most of us are mediocre. Most of us have never been forged in fire like this, even if we deserved to be. And it probably makes some of us (certainly myself) wish we had been, even if we didn't deserve to be.

In short, this movie was quite an experience for me, and I'm not likely to forget it soon.