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.

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.

Post-NaNoWriMo: The End is the Beginning

thumbI did it. I won NaNoWriMo, and I wrote all about it over at The Confabulator Cafe. Stop by to see how it went and what plans I have for the near future.

NaNoWriMo Week 4: The Homestretch

thumbMy live-blogging of NaNoWriMo continues with my latest Confabulator Cafe posting. We are heading in to the finale. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

Check it out.

A Goodbye for a Nice Dog

2003 marked a definitive change in my life. I returned to college, effectively abandoning a potential career in journalism to pursue English, effectively changing my focus to fiction writing. That was also the year that my ex-wife told me that she wanted to adopt Tippie after finding her in an Ames animal shelter.

Tippie always had this ability to make herself look smaller than she was. There were times, even recently, when she would seem tiny and vulnerable, curled in a small ball in the corner of her bead. That is how I remember her in the animal shelter that first day, sitting on the concrete pad inside her cage, looking up at us with these eyes that always seemed slightly worried. She was so timid and so quiet.

The second day, that changed entirely. Tippie was an adult when we adopted her, probably two or three years old. She had two owners prior, one for a very short time. That turnover seemed to make her anxious. Every time one of us would leave the apartment, she would get upset and bark until we were out of sight. In the last several months, she had stopped barking. She had stopped doing much of anything other than lying in one of her beds and watching us.

Tippie proved to be too smart for her own good. When we tried to train her, we quickly discovered that she already knew sit, lay down, stay. We added roll over, but she got so used to the pattern that she would start rolling around on the floor, doing dog somersaults as soon as the treat came out. She was an escape artist and loved to get out where she could run. Tippie was part Italian Greyhound and could really run. She loved the chase, to race anything, but rarely knew what to do when she caught it. There were several times when she took off and I wondered if I would ever be able to find her again, but she always came back. A couple of weeks ago, she wandered off, her back legs having lost the ability to run or jump, or even get up on the couch where she often sat watch from the upstairs window, guarding her domain like a dedicated watchman. I found her after three hours, cold and lost. I’d nearly given up then.

She would test her limits on a near-daily basis. One day, when I got locked out of the house, she saw me on the patio outside the kitchen. In an attempt to goad me to coming inside, she jumped up on the table and laid right in the center, taunting me. She had a war with Sara over the trashcans. If there was a trashcan available, she would dump it over, if only to pull out the liner. She would eat chocolate if she could get to it, and would never show ill-effects. She wasn’t always a good dog. She listened when she wanted to listen and rebelled when she wanted to rebel. She was almost more cat than dog sometimes. But she was a nice dog, and she was there through many changes in our lives, whether she was with me or my ex-wife.

This morning, Sara and I took Tippie to the vet. She hasn’t been eating much. She’d lost a third of her body weight in the last couple of months. She was in obvious pain while walking. Her breathing had become erratic. When the doctor walked in, it was obvious the diagnosis wouldn’t be good. After blood draws and chest x-rays, we learned that the time had come to say goodbye. Her body was shutting down and there was nothing we could do about it.

It has been twelve years since I made that change from Journalism to English, since I decided that, for better or for worse, I was a writer. Tippie was there through all of it, often curled up in a tiny ball just a few feet away from where I sat typing story after story. It will be strange to continue my career without her, to finish Very Dangerous People for NaNoWriMo and then push through to the next project.

The house will be too silent, slightly colder at night without her sleeping nearby. I will miss my dog very much, as I know she will be missed by others. Just as she had the ability to make body so tiny, she had an equally prevalent ability to make her presence incredibly large.


November is Hell, NaNoWriMo Week 2

thumbI have a new post up at The Confabulator Cafe detailing how the writing of Very Dangerous People is going. November really is the worst month for me to have NaNoWriMo. See my complaints here.  Only twenty more days, right? I think I will go have a cry.

By the way, I am in discussions with an anthology publisher about using one of my short stories. I hope to have news on a potential release within the next few weeks.

Very Dangerous People, NaNoWriMo Week 1

I am live-blogging my NaNoWriMo progress over at The Confabulator Cafe. Check out my latest entry on my first week of November and how life always seems to try to push writing aside. Also, a small note about how my latest novel, the Lovecraftian hitman thriller Very Dangerous People is progressing.


4 Tips for Surviving Online Grad School

I would say that online education is the way of the future, but that would be a cliche. It would also be false. Online education is the way of the present. Digital media is pervading every aspect of our educational system. Don’t believe me? As all the parents of my local school district who had to buy ear buds for their kids in addition to the usual pencils, washable markers, and glue sticks.

You can get a quality education online, and as we move forward, the stigma attached to that education will diminish. Last week, I finished the coursework for a Master’s degree in literary arts. I studied literary criticism and theory online through Fort Hays State University’s graduate school for the last two and a half years, taking two classes at a time. I still have my literature comprehensive exam to take, but having completed the coursework with a 4.0, I felt it would be a good time to pass on some advice.

1. Don’t pursue an online degree because you lack the time for graduate school. Your schedule can be hectic. It can be erratic. It can’t be full. Even though you are not spending time in an actual classroom, you will spend just as much time, if not more, on your classes. On average, I think I spent around 28 hours a week on my degree. That’s four hours a day, seven days a week. Days when I couldn’t get the work in meant making it up on the weekends. Some weekends, I would seclude myself in the basement and work from morning through evening writing criticism, discussion posts, and reading research.

2. Live by your calendar. You aren’t an undergrad any more. Your instructors will expect a certain level of professionalism in your work and your approach. The fact that you aren’t face-to-face with your instructors means that there isn’t going to be anyone to remind you that you have a 25 page paper due in two weeks. You are going to need to be on top of things, or risk running behind. I would guess that my literature classes had a fifty percent drop rate based on the discussions throughout the semester. Most of those people were swallowed by their own procrastination monsters.

3. Do not procrastinate. Notice how all of these tips are about time? There are 24 hours per day. You are going to need to sleep between six and eight of them. Most people who are in an online program work full-time jobs. Which means you are probably out of commission for at least 14 hours of the day. Remember how I said I spent 28 hours a week working on the degree? That’s another four hours. You can not afford to procrastinate, particularly if you have a family or other commitments that are taking up your time. Liberal arts graduate programs are reading and writing intensive. You will be reading a lot. I usually made time for around 100 pages a day. It’s not always easy reading.

4. Trust yourself. You are going to have to build some confidence. When you are face-to-face with a class or an instructor, you get a lot of immediate and non-verbal feedback. You aren’t going to get it in the online format. You may put something out there and not hear a thing about it for days. You need to have faith that you are producing quality work and get on the next assignment right away. 

If you can manage those four things, you will go a long ways towards surviving, and thriving, in an online program. I don’t think it is for everyone. If you need a lot of external motivation, it’s going to be an uphill struggle. Part of what helped me was the knowledge that I was sacrificing time as a parent and as a writer in order to do this. If I was going to put my career on hold and give up my already scarce time with my child, I was going to be the best damn literary critic in the program.

I had a good experience. I think the program has made me a better writer and has opened a world of academic research possibilities for me. It turns out, I am damn good at analyzing literature. I hope to do more of it in the future. Perhaps, I will even go on to a Ph.D. in the future. For now, however, expect more blog post, more writing, and hopefully more publishing.

NaNoWriMo Wrap-Up at The Confabulator Cafe

NaNoWriMo Wrap-Up at The Confabulator Cafe

This is my last NaNoWriMo posting for this year at The Confabulator Cafe. Head on over and see how my writing went this month.


NaNoWriMo Week 4 Update

For those of you keeping track, we are in week four of NaNoWriMo, and I am closing in on the end of my first draft. Head on over to The Confabulator Cafe in order to see how things are going.

I also approved the galleys for “Flute of the Dead” in the next issue of Bete Noire Magazine, so it seems like things are progressing on that front. Hopefully, there will be news on that soon.