Sold “The Days When Papa Takes Me To War” to Beneath Ceaseless Skies

This is my first sale to them.  I don’t write many secondary world fantasy stories, so I’ve only had thirteen prior rejections by BCS. It’s also the first “real” story that I submitted to my MFA workshop last fall (we had an initial assignment to turn in on the 2nd week, but those weren’t workshopped in depth). It was also workshopped once through the Codex Online Writer’s Workshop. But, honestly, I didn’t make many changes after the CWW; the real rewrite was after it came out of the MFA meatgrinder. It’s the first MFA workshop story that I revised and submitted. Hopefully this mean that good things will happen for the other five that I have in reserve! This is also my first professional novelette sale. And I’ve had 111 rejections since my last sale! That’s my longest rejection-interval since 2010! That happens, though.

Thanks to everyone who read and critiqued it! I remember that during the MFA workshop I couldn’t stop smiling, because it seemed so absurd to me that Alice McDermott–a National Book Award-winning novelist–was really giving me comments on a story in which Hemingway fights Nazis with his half-insect lovechild.

Two story sales (and some notes on the MFA application writing sample)

I’ve now sold two of my MFA application stories. A few days ago, I sold “A House, Drifting Sideways” to GigaNotoSaurus (which is an online magazine that publishes one longer SF story every month). And, last spring, I sold “The Snake King Sells Out” to the Intergalactic Medicine Show. (I also have a third, currently unsold, MFA application story—“The Other Indians”—which is a realist story.) What’s interesting is that in both cases, the stories only sold after the editor requested a revision. Actually, in both cases, the requested revision was the same: the ending felt way too abrupt. And, in both cases, the solution was to add another scene at the end of the story.

So…yay! I am glad to have sold this story. It’s one of my favorites. After Ann, the editor at GigaNotoSaurus, pointed out the issues with the ending, they seemed so obvious that I couldn’t believe I’d missed them. But I definitely did miss them! Before I sent out this story to an ungodly number of schools (paying something like $100 for each application), I workshopped it, revised it, and then scrutinized it very closely for any and all possible flaws. But I didn’t see a pretty major one.

Since I now have decent evidence that two of my applications stories were flawed, it’s natural to wonder whether I would’ve done better during the MFA application cycle if I’d submitted the revised versions. After all, last year I got into a fair number of programs, but I also received a ton of rejections.

But that’s a silly speculation on a number of levels. First of all, I’ve written roughly 750,000 words since I applied to MFA programs in October of 2011. I’m a much better writer now. And I’m better, in part, because of the things I’ve learned at Hopkins. Part of being better is that I know how to fix the flaws in my older stories. So, yes, I’d probably do better if I applied today…but that’s just the difference that a year makes.

I think the main takeaway from this should be that while it’s difficult to get into MFA programs…it’s not as difficult as publishing a story. Both of these pieces were good enough to get me into graduate school, but they were not good enough, in that form, to be published. In a way, that’s kind of comforting. Everyone, no matter their program, still has to face plenty more hurdles before they start to “make it” as a writer.

Anyway, I also wanted to note that only Iowa saw all three of my application stories (because their max page count for writing samples is really high). Every other school only saw 2. I actually had five different writing samples that I sent out, depending on the school’s page limit. This is because I felt like “A House…” was my strongest story, but it was a fairly long one and I couldn’t fit it into the limits of about half of my schools (especially since I knew I wanted to include a realist story in my sample as well).

Pages 20 25 29 35 44
# of stories 2 1 3 2 3
First Story “The Other Indians” “A House, Drifting Sideways” “The Other Indians” “The Other Indians” “The Other Indians”
Second Story “The Snake King Sells Out”   “The Snake King Sells Out” “A House, Drifting Sideways” “A House, Drifting Sideways”
Third Story     “The Gallery of Idols”   “The Snake King Sells Out”
Accepted by: Columbia Temple   North Carolina State, Johns Hopkins  
Waitlisted by: Houston, Lousiana State        

 

I only sent the 25 page sample to Temple and, maybe, Florida? I think those schools requested that you send only one story, so I sent the one that I thought was my best. The fourth application story, “A Gallery of Idols” only went to a few places.

Oh, also, in my title, I mentioned two story sales: yesterday I sold my story “Droplet” to We See A Different Future, which is an anthology of post-colonial SF stories. I like this story a lot, which is obvious, because it was the oldest story that I had under active submission. I wrote it in March of 2010. It’s also had the most number of near-misses out of any of  my stories. It was held for a long time at Clarkesworld, it got  a rewrite request from Strange Horizons, it was passed up be fiction editor at Cosmos.

So, the real takeaway point here is: yay! I just sold two stories!

An assortment of milestones:

  • Longest story I’ve ever sold: After revision “A House…” is now a solid 9,300 word novelette.
  • Most rejections before finally selling a story: “Droplet” has been rejected 14 times! And when it finally sold, it sold at pro rates, too!
  • Longest time between writing a story and selling it: almost three years, for “Droplet”
  • “Droplet” is also my 30th short story sale!

I love milestones. I am pretty sure that even when I sell my 131st story, I’ll be looking for the ways in which this acceptance is different from all the ones before it.

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Since posting an article with no images results in a really ugly empty box next to my post when it gets propagated to Facebook, I’ve included this picture of a monkey eating a piece of mango.

“Inside The Mind Of The Bear” is the IGMS cover story; “Next Door” will be reprinted in Wilde Stories 2013; and my Friday links!

This is the illustration commissioned for my story–“Inside The Mind of the Bear.” It’s the cover of IGMS #31!

Me-Related News

Other Links That Might Be Of Interest!

Sold a story–“Inside the Mind of the Bear”–to the Intergalactic Medicine Show

Yep, this is Orson Scott Card’s magazine. Recently, I’ve spoken to a number of people who say that they won’t submit to the magazine because of Card’s views on homosexuality and his political activism against gay marriage.

I can certainly understand why people don’t want to be associated with one of his enterprises. When you start submit to a magazine (and, most especially, when you start selling to it) then it, in some ways, starts to capture you. Not only do you lend it whatever legitimacy you possess, you also start to feel differently about it. For me, working with the people at IGMS has been really pleasant. I like them a lot. And while nothing could ever make me defend Card’s statements, I feel like I’m not really able to write a blog post where I call him a terrible person. He believes that homosexual acts are immoral. So do one hundred million other Americans. The guy who bags my groceries probably thinks I’m going to hell. And that’s okay. I find it difficult to get worked up over that sort of thing.

But, yes, anyway, I am sort of pinkwashing Orson Scott Card. However, I like to think that these transactions go both ways. Because Card is in possession of the kind of readers that I’d really like to have, someday. In fact, I am one of those readers. I went through his bibliography and counted up that I’ve read 22 Orson Scott Card novels (and one short story collection). And I regret none of it! Well, except for maybe Shadow of the Hegemon. For me to disavow Card’s readership would be to disavow people who, I imagine, are pretty much like myself. He has exactly the kind of passionate but rough-hewn reader–a version of myself who didn’t decide to become a writer–who I think of as my target audience. People who didn’t enjoy high-school English and who definitely didn’t major in it in college. People who don’t read book-blogs or book reviews. People who primarily discover books by browsing in the library or through their friends’ word of mouth.

I like to think that when Card publishes me, he gives me a little bit of his credibility, too. He tells those people, “You know what? This guy is alright. You should give his stuff a chance.”

And, for me, that’s a fair trade.

My very first horror sale! Sold a story–“No Victims”–to Lamplight

Sold a story to  new horror magazine, Lamplight. This is very first horror sale! Actually, I’ve never quite understood the horror genre. I don’t read much of it, so I don’t really have that intuitive sense of what is and what isn’t horror. Most of my fiction is kind of downbeat, but I’ve had very little success in marketing it to horror magazines. I think there’s just something non-horrifying about my downbeatness. I mean, at the end of my story “What Everyone Remembers,” cockroaches take over the Earth, but it’s okay, because they’re adorable. However, this current story is probably the most horror-ish story I’ve ever written. It was inspired when I noticed–whilst browsing Wikipedia–that many of the world’s most prolific serial killers were doctors or nurses.

This also marks another, more esoteric milestone. It’s the first time I’ve managed to sell one of my tone-based stories. These are stories I sometimes write where some interesting voice came to me, and I just spun out some kind of short (usually around 1500-2500) narrative until I can bring the story to a close. For me, the story is carried along primarily by the texture of the words. In genre taxonomy, these stories tend to be weird fantasy stories. Often, they only take a few hours to write and (in my opinion) don’t need very much revision at all.*

It’s sometimes interesting for me to reflect that the vast majority of what I write (maybe 4 out of 5 stories, even nowadays) never gets published. And that there are strains within the unpublished work that are not at all present within the published work. For instance, sometimes I write some pretty strange fantasy stories, but they never get out there. And, on the other hand, I often write stories that are very close to being realist stories, but these also tend not to be as successful. Whenever I write a fairly straightforward science fiction story (which I do on a fairly regular basis), I’m usually pretty happy, because I think, “Oh, awesome. This will probably sell.”

Anyways, I’m happy that one of my weirder stories will finally get to escape out into the world.

Sold stories to Futuredaze and Nameless

Now that the Table of Contents has been released, I suppose it’s alright to mention that I sold my short story, “Another Prison,” to Futuredaze, which is an anthology of YA science fiction stories (yes, another one). The anthology also feature stories by Jack McDevitt, Sandra McDonald, Lavie Tidhar, and Greg Frost (as well as Alex J. Kane, who comments here occasionally).  You know, I never thought of myself as a YA writer, and I don’t read much YA fiction, but I have sold two YA stories and I’m shopping a YA novel, so hmmm…although, actually, before sending the story to this market I revised down the protagonists’ age from eighteen to sixteen. Yes, you are totally allowed to pander to the market like that. No one will ever know…(unless you broadcast it on the internet).

Additionally, a few months back I sold a story, “Man-Eater,” to a new SF magazine: Nameless. I kind of felt like the market might collapse or something, but I guess I’ve signed the contract so I might as well announce it.

Both of these are stories that I really liked, but which didn’t get much love (i.e. higher-tier rejections) from the various markets that I submitted them to. I’m pleased that they’ve found homes.

Sold a story–“Next Door”–to the Diverse Energies anthology of YA SF

I guess it’s no secret now, since my constant self-googling has revealed that the Table of Contents is all over the place (actually…I’m not really sure I was ever supposed to keep it a secret…), but my story “Next Door” will appear in Diverse Energies, an anthology of dystopian YA* (with a focus on diverse protagonists) edited by Joe Monti and Tobias Buckell. So, yes, if you want to read an SF story about a gay Indian teen, I am pretty sure that’s the only place you’re gonna find one.

So, I’ve wondered for years about what a person’s gotta do to get invited to be in an invite-only anthology and…I still have no idea. I think that someone more famous than you has to drop out and then you have to be willing to write a story in, like, ten days. Tobias Buckell (who I met once, six years ago, at Clarion) emailed me in mid-February and asked if I was willing to contribute an action-oriented SF story with a teen protagonist who had some kind of diversity. Oh, and he also needed it by the end of the month (i.e. in about eleven days).

My answer was “most definitely”. Then I did something that I have never before done in my life! I’d recently read, in Scientific American**, a truly horrifying story about how bed bugs are slowly becoming pesticide-resistant. And I’d read a really fun story in Wired** about this super-snobby underground collective of art restorationists (based in Paris) called UX. I slammed those two articles together and a story popped out. I wrote the story in six days and submitted it.

It’s kind of stressful to get an invite to an anthology. You know that there’s not much competition. I mean, no editor is gonna overbook their anthology too much (because that’s just rude). So you know that they’re really, really gonna want to accept your story (as opposed to most editors, who get so many submissions that there’s no downside to rejecting yours). And you know that if your story gets rejected, then you really bobbled it. You had a really sympathetic editor, but then you let him get away.’

My next communique re: this story was an email from Joe Monti with a bunch of edits. My email back to him said, “Umm…I agree with all these…but…umm…are you buying my story?” Apparently they’d decided to buy my story, but the acceptance email had gotten lost in the shuttle.

So, umm…cool. That’s a story that’s coming out. I think it is going to be in bookstores? If so, that’d be really nice. It’d be the first time I’ve been shelved on a bookstore.

This is the paragraph where a person customarily talks about how amazing it is to be in the same anthology as Ursula K. Le Guin and Ken Liu and Paolo Bacigalupi and such. And…you know…I do like all those authors quite a lot, but I’m not sure excitement is really the right word for this feeling. I mean, those people didn’t select my story. Nor is any of their goodness going to rub off on me. So I can’t say that this part of it makes such a big impression on me.

What I am more excited about is…wow…my name is, like, out there…in the world. When at least one person thought, “Colored SFF writer,” my name popped up. That was in February 2012. I don’t think my name would’ve even been on the radar in February 2011.  In fact, my second professional publication (in Clarkesworld) was only in July of 2010. In 24 months, I’ve come a pretty long way.

Even if it is only in some incredibly weird and minor and specific way, I exist, in the public consciousness, as an SFF writer. And that feels pretty good.

*Actually, no one ever told me (when I was writing a story for it) that it was going to be marketed as an anthology of dystopian stories. I wonder if that’s because they just assumed my story would be dystopian (which it was, of course) or if everyone else also turned in dystopian stories and they just decided to roll with it, marketing-wise

**Yes, I read Scientific American and Wired in order to get story ideas. That’s just the kind of person I am now.

I’ve just accepted an offer of admission to the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University (in other words, I’m getting an MFA!)

I am totally shocked that this is actually going to happen. I am actually going to get paid to spend two years of my life in Baltimore, taking workshop classes with acclaimed writers and earning my keep by teaching one creative writing class a semester (Introduction to Fiction and Poetry!) to undergraduates. So many things about this scenario are so utterly insane that it’s hard to know where to begin.

I actually got into the program almost a month ago, and I have known for two months that I was definitely going to be spent the next two years doing the above somewhere. Given that, my enthusiasm and surprise might come off as being a little false. But it’s still only very slowly sinking in that this is actually going to happen.

There is a reason, my loyal blog readers, that this is the first you’re hearing about any sort of MFA applications. Two years ago, I applied to eleven programs, told everyone about my applications, and was rejected everywhere. It was really embarrassing. Even though I knew how insanely difficult it was to get into programs–I hadn’t applied to any place with an acceptance rate that was higher than 3%–I was still absolutely sure that I was going to get in somewhere.

This year, my state of mind was the opposite. Since I knew that I only wanted to go to a program that would giving me teaching assistantship that included a stipend and a tuition waiver, I continued to apply to many of the most selective schools (which also tend to be the best funded schools). This time, I was well aware of the odds, and they drove me to despair. I vowed that I would tell very few people about my applications, and that I would definitely not post about them online.

I began my application process way back in June, when I started Nick Mamatas’ class. On day one, he asked me why I was there, and I told him that I wanted to write a bunch of MFA application stories (actually, until he asked, I hadn’t known that I was going to reapply this year…I’d thought that I was going to wait until next year). During his class, I wrote a new story every week, trying to find exactly the right story. I knew that I needed to apply with stories that reflected the work I was going to do once I got to the workshop. It would be complete madness to apply with realist stories and then start submitting science fiction stories to my professors. I wanted a program that was going to be okay with the genre-influenced work that I want to do. But I still needed to find precisely the right kind of sci-fi story–a story of high literary quality that would be readily comprehensible to an audience that was not very familiar with written sci-fi.

During this time, I wrote many stories that were good, but which did not quite measure up. For instance, I never even considered submitting my recent Clarkesworld story to MFA programs: it seemed too violent, too dependent on a science-fictional conceit, and too cute (it’s a talking animal story, after all). Finally, during the last week of the class, I wrote a story (which is still unpublished) that I thought was perfect.

During the class, I also wrote a realist story that I like quite alot; a story about the various strata within the Indian-American community (I call it my sad-immigrant story) and the conflicts that arise between them. I partially wrote it in order to address many of my issues with Diasporic fiction (particularly the way that it seems to privilege upper-middle-class alienation and ignore working-class Indian immigrants). But I also wrote the story because I wanted to prove to admissions committees that I was both: a) interested in realist narratives; and b) pretty good at writing them. It’s kind of like how everyone feels way better about appreciating Picasso’s childish-looking paintings once they realize that he was actually capable of drawing a pretty damn good representational painting if he felt like it.

So anyway, I sent these two stories to about half my schools (the ones that had a length limit of longer than 35 pages). And I sent the sad-immigrant story and my recent IGMS sale “The Snake King Sells Out” (which is an allegorical tale that pretty much any kind of reader is capable of appreciating) to the schools with lower maximum pagecounts.

I stayed sane by not thinking about my applications and by making contingency plans. I knew I was going to get rejected, so I started plotting how I’d spend another year in Oakland. By the time I got a call from Prof. Wilton Barnhardt from North Carolina State, I was already kind of glad that I wasn’t going to get an MFA. Anyways, then I had a month to mentally move myself to Raleigh, NC, before I got a call from Prof. Brad Leithauser at Johns Hopkins, and my world exploded once again.

I ended up being accepted to writing programs at Johns Hopkins, North Carolina State University, Temple, and Columbia. I was also waitlisted at the University of Houston (whose director implied that there was a pretty good chance I’d eventually be admitted) and at Louisiana State University.

JHU and NC State were the only schools that offered me teaching assistantships, so I visited both schools about two or three weeks ago. And I really loved them both! One of the saddest parts about this process is that I had to turn down North Carolina State, where I had really intense and energizing conversations with John Kessel, Wilton Barnhardt, Kij Johnson, and a bunch of their current students. It seems like an amazing program and I highly recommend it. When I ended my visit, I was dead certain that if I attended NC State, I’d have a great time there. In the end, however, I decided that Johns Hopkins was a better fit for me.

It was a pretty emotionally intense journey. I think I’ve alluded to my anxiety and sleeplessness a few times over the past few months, right? Well, this is what I was alluding to. I got rejected by alot of schools. So many that I would embarrassed to give you a number. Suffice it to say that I am fully aware of exactly how difficult it is to get into an MFA program.

I do feel oddly deprived, though. I began preparing my application during mid-June, so I’ve been thinking about this for about nine months. Now that the process is over, I feel like I’ve acquired tons of knowledge that I will never get to use again. As part of the coming-down process, I’m planning a series of posts that will discuss the MFA application process and give advice to other genre-influenced* writers who are planning to apply to programs. I don’t expect these posts to be useful to too many of you, but if they prove worthwhile to even one other writer who’s randomly googling “science fiction mfa” or “genre-friendly mfa”, then I’ll be satisfied.

*Throughout this series of posts, I’ll use the term ‘genre-influenced’ to refer to writers who’ve read extensively within the speculative genres. Some would prefer to use the term ‘non-realist,’ but I think that this ignores the extent to which it is possible for many writers of ‘non-realist’ fictions to write without knowledge of genre traditions. I think that a fantasy writer who has read extensively within the fantasy genre is in a different position from a writer who writes fantasies that are primarily inspired by Calvino, Borges, Kafka, Marquez, etc. I don’t think that the latter is necessarily worse-off (or better-off) than the former, but I do think that the two writers are in a very different place, both psychologically and culturally.

Next: Why You Should (And Shouldn’t) Apply To MFA Programs

In Kolkata, sold a story

Since I last updated, I’ve flown from D.C. to Frankfort to Dubai to Islamabad to Lahore to Karachi back to Islamabad back to Karachi to Dhaka and am currently in Kolkata. Tomorrow I am flying to Manila via Bangkok. That’s my last real stop! I should be home in almost exactly one week.

My blog posting schedule will resume, maybe, someday, when I have time. I keep bubbling up with ideas for posts and then sinking back into my perfume-scented cushions and thinking, “Man, I don’t have time to write 2,000 words about how much I love my Kindle and how it’s better in every way than paper books”.

2009 was the first year since I began writing and submitting that I did not sell a story. That doesn’t really mean anything, per se, since most of the venues I sold to previously were read by, maybe, five people, and the lack of sales was largely due to cutting that sort of publication out of my submissions queue. But still, it can be mildly disheartening to have to measure my writing progres solely in terms of rejection slips (192) and words (189,550)  since my last sale.

So I was fairly happy to recieve word, today, that Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet has accepted my story “The Other Realms Were Built With Trash”. This “zine” (another of those terms I can’t use seriously) is edited by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant and has a fairly good critical reputation. I am not at all unhappy about this. Gavin Grant said it would probably appear late in this year, but given their publication schedule, I can’t really say for sure.

If any of my clarion classmates are reading this post, the story was the one I wrote during my fifth week of Clarion (more than 3.5 years ago!).