Because I’ve been writing so many stories lately (and because I just sold a recently-written one to Lightspeed!!!) I became somewhat interested in my own ouevre. After all, I’ve written 225 stories (out of which 51 have been or will be published). For most of my writing career I put these stories into two categories: a) genius (i.e. anything I’d published or which I was working on right now); or b) trash (i.e. anything over a year old that hadn’t sold.
However now that I’m thirty-one, I’ve started lately to wonder what it is that I stand for as a writer. Do I have anything to say? Do I have a style? A subject matter? I mean I’m a nobody short story writer, but I meet all of this up-and-coming writers who’re like, “Wow you’ve sold to all these places.” Once I even fielded an offer from a small press publisher to put out a short fiction collection (I declined, because I didn’t think I had enough good stuff to fill one).
And now I’m like…does any of this mean anything? Does it amount to anything?
So first I went through some of my trunked stories (i.e. the unsold stories I’ve given up on submitting). There are approximately 160 of these, so I obviously couldn’t read them all. But the very first one I read, from 2011, was surprisingly good! This is a story I’d never submitted, evidently because I thought it had too little plot and structure. But I found it to be lyrical and inventive. I was like omg what if this archive is full of GOLD!!!
That did not prove to be the case. Most of the other stories I read were not very good. I mean they weren’t terrible, but even I had no desire to read past the first page (and I wrote them!) Often they had the hallmarks of journeyman fiction: a certain lack of immediacy, specificity, and stakes. It’s hard to explain, there’s just a certain line-level lack of density that makes a reader immediately go: “Nope!”
It’s not anything you can revise for. You just need to write a better story!
Keep in mind, though, that most of the trunked stories I read were from 2011, 2012, and 2013, which were years when I was ALSO (albeit infrequently) selling stories to pro magazines. So I was like, wait, were the stories I sold really so much better?
So with that I delved into my own short fiction bibliography (link), and I started randomly looking into stories that I thought might be not terrible. The first few I read weren’t amazing. “Tomorrow’s Dictator” had, from the very first paragraph, this feeling that this was just the sort of story I wouldn’t normally bother to read (published in Apex, this is about a cult leader, and master of brainwashing, who’s recruited by the human resources department of a large corporation). I mean it felt both broad and shallow. A story that was punching below its weight class, basically.
“A House, Drifting Sideways” was a lot better (published in GigaNotaSaurus, this was one of my MFA application stories; it’s about a near-future Paris Hilton type who believes that without her partying the fabric of society will fall apart). It at least had voice and hints of something interesting, but again it felt like it was lacking a certain element of…I don’t know…fun? The story seemed too slow. I was like…why do I even care?
So I was definitely feeling a little bit down on my own output, but then I read the third story: “The Days When Papa Takes Me To War” (originally published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, this answers the age-old question: “What if Hemingway had fathered a daughter, during the waning days of World War II, with a gigantic ant?”). And I found myself genuinely intrigued! I didn’t really remember how the story turned out, and though this is one of my longest, I kept reading, anxious to find out. So go me!
Satisfied that I have, in my life, written at least one good story, I ended my quest.
However this did remind me that for reasons I don’t really understand Strange Horizons did a one thousand word review of this story! I never read it, because I don’t read my own reviews, but I figure now enough time has passed so I’m gonna go check it out!
Oh no the review is negative!!!!!!! Except that reading it made me like the story more. I was like, “Yes, I am subtle and brilliant! And yes, I do leave these questions open-ended because I am amazing.” Also, I had way less sympathy for Ernest Hemingway than, apparently, this reviewer did. Which is just par for the course with me, sigh. I am so misunderstood: everybody likes my villains and hates my heroes.