Storks Eat Babies: Taking the Myth out of Submission

funny-evil-angry-stork-eat-babies-bird-picsI read a lot of writing blogs. I can find some useful nuggets of information in any blog, whether it is a new technique, a new idea, or just some good, old-fashioned inspiration. Writing websites tend to lean toward the romantic. It makes sense. We are writers. Writing is an art, and arts are often thought of romantically.

We push the general notion that art is special, and that our words are somehow divinely inspired, as if the muses sweep down, choose their target, and pour poetry though his blessed lips. Articles on submission can be nearly as romantic as articles on creation. Create something you truly adore, they say. Find the market that would be perfect adoptive parent for your word baby. Drop it off in a basket with a professional cover letter.

It’s a nice idea, sort of like how the stork is a nice idea. Who wouldn’t want their kid dropped off in a crisp white sheet carried by graceful, elegant bird? Except that is not how it happens. Trust me. I was there. Babies are born in to visceral environments full of pain and bodily fluids. They arrive not sleeping, but screaming. By the way, storks eat small mammals. You know what happen to be small mammals? Babies.

I’m not a nice idea guy. They don’t help me that much, and I think they can cause damage when they fall apart. In my experience, they fall apart during the submission process.

You will not love everything you write. I’ll be upfront about that. Some of your writing will speak to you. It will stimulate your brain and leave you with a buzz like nothing else. Some of your writing will seem purely perfunctory. The thing that no one tells you is that the two aren’t that different. If you love it, it’s probably not as good as you think it is. If you don’t love it, it’s probably better than you give it credit for. Not everything you write will be at the same level. But, in general, your writing quality won’t waver that much. As you keep writing, it will become more and more consistent.

The truth is, you may absolutely love a piece and have a rough time trying to sell it while some piece that you thought was just okay gets picked up in a heartbeat. For one, you are too close to your work. Your mind fills in blanks and creates meanings that just aren’t there for the reader. For another, you never know what someone else is looking for.

Finding your perfect market is even more of an issue. You spend hours weeding through listings and websites to find that perfect market, one that is everything that you desire. You send off your polished masterwork of love. You cross your fingers every day as you open your email. Then, days, weeks, or even months later…BAM! Form letter rejection. It’s like dating. You may think that Kate Upton is perfect for you, and that you could make her happy in every way. Unfortunately, Kate Upon may not feel the same about you. She doesn’t want your baby. Besides, Justin Verlander is a big dude. I wouldn’t mess with him.

Feel free to get romantic about certain markets. I have a few that I would love to crack. Cemetery Dance and Black Static, just to name a couple. Unfortunately, they are off cavorting with Stephen King and Jack Ketchum. They don’t even know I exist, sort of like Kate Upton. I take my shot at them. But when I get rejected, I quickly move on. Richard Thomas’s “Chasing Ghosts” is in the current issue of Cemetery Dance. Richard published over a hundred short stories elsewhere before he got accepted there. Do you think he got hung up on the perfect story and the perfect market? He just kept working and kept getting published where he could. Get a general idea of what a market publishes. Find something that seems to fit your tone and style. Follow their guidelines religiously, and then submit. It doesn’t have to be terribly detailed research. I can usually tell in less than five minutes if a publication is my style or not. If you get rejected, find another market in that style and send it out again. Do it immediately. Don’t wait.

Ideally, if you want to take a shot at being a prolific writer, you need to finish everything you write and submit everything you finish. Unless you think it is garbage, submit it. If you DO think it’s garbage, have someone else read it and get their honest opinion. You could be wrong. (It’s good to have other people read your work, in general.) Even though I don’t make my living by writing, I try to approach writing as if I do. I don’t get paid when I write something. I get paid when I publish it. I doubt Stephen King loved everything he ever submitted.

If you only submit the work you fall in love with to the market you think are perfect, you aren’t going to get much out there. Maybe you’ll be Harper Lee. You’ll write your To Kill A Mockingbird and then walk off in to the sunset. Personally, I consider it a great tragedy that Lee never wrote another novel. I want to be Stephen King. I want the sheer physical weight of my writing to bow bookshelves.

I appreciate that articles on writing try to make what we do special. I appreciate the need to use good judgement when submitting to markets so that writers don’t waste their time (not to mention the publisher’s.) But you are going to be rejected. It’s going to hurt. The only way to move past it is to realize that writing is tough, gritty business and that it is difficult for everybody. Writing is hard. Submission is mostly disappointment. Kate Upton doesn’t like you. If you had a stork, it would eat your baby. Suck it up, dig in to the mess, and keep moving on.

Brainstorming Like a Psychopath

???????????????????????????????????????People often ask where writers get ideas. Beginning writers seem to have an overarching concern that their ideas will run dry. First off, I don’t think this can actually happen. I have never sat down to write without some sort of idea forming. Beyond that, I think that your truly original ideas begin to develop after you’ve worked through the obvious tropes and cliches that plague a writer’s earliest ideas.

That being said, you can train your brain to passively create ideas for you. This involves making creative connections. A good writer doesn’t come up with an idea because of something literal that happens to him. An original idea is developed because of the connections that individual writer makes. Those connections are what make your ideas different from mind, and mine different from Stephen King’s.There are techniques and tools to help you foster this ability. Ultimately, they boil down to brainstorming.

In my first fiction writing class, my professor had an interesting way of doing this. I call it Psychopathic Brainstorming.

1) Get a blank notebook. Any cheap back-to-school notebook will do.

2) Get a bunch of recycled magazines. Any magazine. It doesn’t matter. They are easy to come up with.

3) Cut random, interesting words out of the magazine. This is the psychopath part. You will end up with a pile of words that looks like you are preparing to send a ransom note to the New York Times.

4) Tape one word to the top of each page.

Congratulations. You have built an idea journal. When you need an idea, go to a blank page, and look at the word at the top of the page. Start writing about that word. Free associate. What does that word mean to you? What comes to mind when you see it, even if it isn’t related on the surface? You chose certain words for your journal for a reason. It may be totally subliminal, but those words mean something to you.

By making new connections with those words, you are making associations that are unique to you. That is where ideas come from. Somewhere along the line, you may get an idea. If nothing else, you will have developed a theme to build a story idea around.

Even better, you will be on your way to developing the instinct to constantly make creative connections in your daily life, even without the journal to prompt you. Then you will understand why writers talk about having too many ideas, rather than not enough. My friend R.L. Naquin compares it to having a head full of bees. For me, it’s a constant pressure against my skull. (It’s not a tumah!) The problem isn’t getting an idea, but getting the rest of them to stop distracting you long enough to develop it.

Good luck, and get to writing.

Jack

P.S.

One quick news update. My short story “The Polka Man” will be appearing in the anthology Faed from A Murder of Storytellers. I will be sure to post links when the anthology is available for purchase.

What Is in a Name? Jack Campbell, Jack Campbell, Jr. and John Campbell, Jr.

Pictured: Not my book.

Pictured: Not my book.

When I started seeking publication of my short stories, I had to make a decision. Did I write under my own name or under a pseudonym? I have nothing particularly against pseudonyms. After all, some very famous, very successful writers have used them. However, I like my name, and I wanted to have my writing associated with my true identity. There was only one hiccup. When I did an internet search for “Jack Campbell author,” it returned a rather prominent writer of military science fiction.

John Hemry, also known by his pseudonym “Jack Campbell,” is probably best known for The Lost Fleet series of books, but he’s written a bunch of novels and short stories under his real name. Obviously, I write literary horror not military science fiction. However, there is a bit of crossover in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. I didn’t want him or anyone else thinking that I was trying to make a buck off of his name. After a bit of a debate, I turned to the most obvious person for advice. John Hemry.

We had an email conversation during which he was very supportive, encouraged me to write as Jack Campbell Jr., and said he hoped to see my name on the shelf next to his someday. Even though I write under my real name, having his blessing was a bit of a relief to me. Still, I knew there was at least a small chance for confusion. A couple of weeks ago, it finally came up.

I contacted another writer regarding a blog he wrote. I’ll leave his name out of it, in case he is embarrassed. We both got ripped off by the same magazine publisher, and I sent him an email asking if he ever got anywhere with his emails to the owner. During the conversation, he asked me to do an interview. Being a nice guy, I agreed. After reading a few of the past interviews, I started getting a bit concerned. Nearly all the guests were straight sci-fi and fantasy and had far deeper credentials than I do. I’m a nice guy. I think I am a talented writer, but at this point in my career, I haven’t amassed the publication history that many of the guests had. I sent him an email as a sort of feeler to see if I was the type of writer he really wanted, going in to my publication history, my planned publications for the next year, and some personal information.

A few minutes later, I got the return email. “Wait a minute. I’m confused. This isn’t the Jack Campbell that writes the Lost Fleet?”

No, it is not. I can understand the confusion, and I actually find it pretty funny. I hope the writer isn’t embarrassed, because it doesn’t bother me, at all. My mom did a double take in Wal-Mart when she saw the latest Lost Fleet book. I get second looks at conventions because of the name tag, although I am obviously younger than Hemry. If you go search for me on Amazon, you have to dig through Hemry’s stuff in order to find my magazine and anthology publications. Both of us get mixed in with John W. Campbell, Jr., the legendary and influential science fiction writer and editor of Astounding Science Fiction. Still a name is a name, and all a writer can do is build his own the best he can.

I’m proud to say that my own literary footprint continues to grow. I hope that someday I do walk in to a bookstore and see the three of us sitting next to each other on a bookshelf. That would make my day. I will continue doing everything that I can to make that happen. With that said, it’s time to go write stuff.

In the meantime, no I am not THAT Jack Campbell, although he seems like a Hell of a guy and he has a great pseudonym.