I am Salieri

Yesterday I achieved the necessary emotional focus to recharge my Nook, wherein I discovered that the March Asimov’s had arrived.  I was hoping to see at last, in print, the poem they bought from me last year.  It isn’t there, so I’ll have to wait.  I guess the lead time on such things is longer than I had anticipated.

What I did find was another great novella by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.  I didn’t really like the ending–it felt more like a novel fragment than a complete story to me–but I really liked the way she detailed every character’s motivation.  They felt real to me, and I think I’ve learned something about writing from it. I also learned something about myself.Mozart

I am Antonio Salieri.

Not the real, talented 18th-century composer, who wrote many fine operas, held the respect of the Hapsburg crown, and taught music to such greats as Schubert, Beethoven, and Liszt.  I refer instead to the character from Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus, who, though talented in his own right, was crushed by the greater brilliance of the young Amadeus Mozart[1].  The film may not be historically accurate, but it’s a poignant piece of tragedy.

If I’m honest with myself, comparing myself even to the fictional Salieri is hubris at its finest.  As a writer, I’m not good enough to appear in a literary competition with the Mozarts of my day.  Still, I do have some talent, and when I stay focused, I can produce work that gets published at the semi-pro level.

It’s not a living–it doesn’t even cover my costs–but it somewhat salves my damaged pride.

Fifteen-plus years ago, I remember reading a late-90’s copy of Asimov’s, learning about the SFWA, and thinking, “I can do this.”  Maybe the writing in Asimov’s has improved, or maybe I’ve learned what it really takes to write a decent SF story since then, but I don’t think it’s so easy any more.  I have tried, and failed, and I have a decade of rejection slips from professional-grade publications to prove it.

I have dreamed that someday I could sell a short story to Asimov’s, or Analog, or IGMS, or F&SF.  Perhaps I might someday hold in my hands a novel from Tor with my name on the byline.  I still hold that dream, because Rusch has given us the secret to success as a writer:

Work hard, write a lot, and don’t quit.

But when my energy isn’t so high, when a story I love leaves prospective editors confused, when I wonder if I’ll ever get published again, I see the price I pay to write, and I wonder if it’s worth it.

Because there is a cost.

When I pick up a book these days, my writerly brain hovers in the background, critiquing it.  I can’t just enjoy a good book any more.  I can’t even enjoy a movie with my family without questioning its plot, its characters, its theme.

If I find a flaw, it spoils my enjoyment, and robs me of the joy I might have had celebrating a work for what it is.  And if I don’t, I’m left like Salieri, watching Mozart do casually what I can only do with great effort.  I want those writers to succeed, because their stories really are better than mine.  But at the same time, it’s no fun to fall short.

It’s what make Amadeus a tragedy, and Salieri its lead character.

[1] It is a sobering thought to realize that when Mozart was my age he had been dead for thirteen years.

Opening Lines

Like God Himself[1], a strong opening line foretells the end of the story, though we may not see it at the time.  This is in addition to the standard requirements that the opening paragraph needs to introduce a character in conflict, and my personal requirement that an SF opening should give some indication of the speculative context of the story.  For novel-length fiction, I think Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is the gold standard[2]:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

In twenty-three words, Austen establishes the primary concern of her novel:  marriage and the assumptions that people make concerning it.  I have often heard women talk about the limited choices a woman was given in the period in which Austen wrote, and as a male reader I am immediately drawn to the way she demonstrates an equivalent way her society was manipulating men.  Since this is a novel-length work, Austen is able to focus on theme rather than conflict in her opening sentence.  For short fiction, one must necessarily move more rapidly, as in Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber:

“It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.”

Here I find an off-screen event has left the main characters in conflict between what they know has happened (Macomber is a coward) and what they are willing to admit.  This mirrors the ending, where we are left with a different conflict regarding Macomber’s death and the accident the remaining characters are willing to admit.

For my personal story, I think I must instead reach back to a story I like less, but which has no less of a great opening line, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,…”

The Worst of Times

Thanks to some unexpected health issues, I find myself limited in stamina, and have had to exert myself to meet my minimum weekly obligations here and on Critters.  I have in fact written very little in the past month, and have finished nothing.  And while I hold high hopes for my friends in NaNoWriMo this year, I am not even going to attempt it myself.

This persistent state of exhaustion has led me to delay the second part of The Hard Work of Sex Equality in Fiction, which I had planned to post as soon as I finished one of my stories-in-progress with a female protagonist.  I have tried multiple times, but find myself unable to sustain the energy level needed to hear their voices and write their words. Until I can actually do this, I cannot possibly tell you what I learned while doing it, so you’re going to have to wait.  Fear not, however, you are not forgotten.

The Best of Times

Enter the greatest opening line which I, in my humble-yet-accurate opinion, have ever penned:

Fifteen meters is a long way to fall, even in Martian gravity.

I  have lamented in the past the difficulties I have had selling The Clouds of Mount Olympus, from which this quote is taken.  A big piece of my sadness is this opening line, which introduces risk (conflict) and setting without beating you over the head with either.  Most of the time I find myself needing complex or compound sentences to establish conflict and context right away.

Clouds was first rejected in 2011, but I kept plugging away, leveraging Duotrope to find new venues who had not yet considered this story.  Ten days before my heart attack, I applied Andrea’s Rule to this piece and sent it out to Goldfish Grimm’s Spicy Fiction Sushi.  And it sold.

The Clouds of Mount Olympus is scheduled for inclusion in the November issue.  They let you read things from their site for free, but if you like what you see you should really send them some money to keep them in business. They take all major credit cards and Paypal.

… And it Gets Better

This past weekend, I received an email from an assistant editor of Asimov’s, telling me that she would like to purchase “IT Came From Outer Space.”  I shouted to my wife so loudly she thought I was having another heart attack.  Yes, it’s only a short poem, and Asimov’s is known more as a publisher of short fiction than poetry, but it’s also a major market for SF[3].  That’s pretty much guaranteed to get any novitiate writer’s heart rate elevated.

Do these first few lines foreshadow a great story?  I can’t say until we get to the end, and I’m hoping that’s still a long way off.

[1] Isaiah 46:9b-10a:  “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done,…”
[2] Unusual comma use aside, I still love this sentence.  And I am well aware that fiction of the day could open in a more leisurely manner than modern stories, which is why I’m not concerned that the opening scene focuses on Mr. Bennet and his wife rather than the protagonist (Elizabeth), and the absence of Mr. Darcy until much later in the story
[3]Sadly, even major markets aren’t included on the magazine aisle of my local grocery store or pharmacy any more, but I did find it at my local Barnes and Noble. There is also an electronic edition, and subscribers get their copies up front.

The Kindest Cut of All

Without hesitation, my primary love language is words of affirmation. Today, I am feeling affirmed because of a personalized rejection letter I received from the editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. The story in question is Exemplars , my pastor-meets-space-alien short story, and it’s a big deal because I usually get rejected by form letter.

Exemplars is, in my estimation, one of my best stories to date, and at three-plus years in the making, it was also one of my longest to write. Because of this extended duration, it has also provided me with a lot of experience learning how to edit my stories. In no particular order, here are a few things I learned — and implemented — while rewriting Exemplars.

  • Less is more when it comes to characters. In my initial draft, I had no less than five different characters present in my story, with a sixth on the telephone. The story was stronger with only three present, even though it meant I had to cut what I thought were some of my funniest lines.
  • Research matters, even when writing what you know. In this case, my need to rewrite this story required a research trip to a Reformed Baptist church in Massachusetts.  Although my original draft took place in a church more like the one I currently attend, I felt I needed a church with more of a New England feel to it.  I also needed the specific denomination because it tied better to the story I was telling.

pew-door

  • Painful edits can be essential. After its second trip through the queue at Critters, I decided that readers were being confused by the door on the pews of my fictional church. Pew doors are an authentic part of my New England setting — something I grew up with — but apparently they don’t exist anywhere else. I couldn’t afford to confuse my readers, so the pew doors had to go.
  • Secondary themes matter, even in short fiction. The plot of Exemplars is relatively straightforward, but the struggles my protagonist faces while interacting with a creature he initially doesn’t believe in are reflected in the struggles of the church at large in its relationship to minorities. It’s an issue I know well, and I think it makes my story stronger.

As I mentioned in my opening, Asimov’s actually turned down this story, but I’m still feeling pretty good about it. Mostly, that’s because I feel it’s a strong story, and Sheila Williams affirmed that by telling me she looks forward to seeing my next story.  Once I send Exemplars shipped out to another publication for consideration, I’ll get right on it.