Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

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Training Critique Partners


I belonged to writing groups for many years when I started writing for real. Luckily, the groups contained a few skilled writers who were sensitive, insightful readers, who also wanted my work to succeed (they also contained folks who occasionally were helpful, and one or two who I learned weren’t useful in the least).


But I haven’t been in a group for years. I depend on willing friends who don’t have writing or workshop backgrounds. They want to help, but they might not know where to start or what I need to hear. I can get useful reactions to the story if I suggest these responses:


First, did the story work for you? I want to know if the reader liked the story. What did you like? This is a broad, global type of question. If the story doesn’t work for the reader for whatever reason, that will give me pause as a writer. It could mean I chose the wrong reader for the piece. I need more feedback.


Second, did the story provoke anything for you? Did it leave you thoughtful or change your mood? Did you feel moved by it and what did that?


Third, what did you like most? What caught your eye? Were there specific moments, scenes, lines, and/or wordings that tickled you?


Fourth, did you not understand anything or feel confused by it. Where were those specific moments, scenes, lines, and/or wordings that tripped you up?
Next, did the story drag in places?


Was there any place in the story that felt rushed or you really wanted to know more about?


What did you think about the characters?


Any other thoughts? This might be the place where an analytic reader might say what they thought the story was about, or what they thought they were supposed to get out of it. You never know what might come out of this question, but I listen carefully to those random observations.


Oh, and by the way, did you run across obvious typos or miswordings? I don’t expect my first readers to proofread for me, but if they see something, I appreciate hearing about it.


You might notice that I don’t ask my reader for suggestions on how to improve the story. I don’t know who it was that said, “Anything a reader notices is a flaw probably is right. Anyway, a reader suggests how to change it is probably wrong,” but in general that strikes me as true. A reader might see a problem with a paragraph, and then suggest a way to improve it, but you realize the fault actually was in how the paragraph was set up. You have to rewrite something pages earlier to make the “flawed” section work. Also, I’ve had readers go to town at length about something in a story and then go through gyrations to suggest how to fix it. All I did was delete it. Problem solved.


The point of all this is that a reader who just says, “I thought it was cool. Thanks for sharing,” might be affirming, but they’re not helpful. When I share a draft, I’m hoping for meaningful feedback that will give me an outsider perspective on the story. The longer I can get them to talk about the story, and the more different ways they approach the story, the better.


Here’s an example. My wife is not a writer, but she’s a reader and she’s been living with a writer for a long time. She read my latest piece and asked a basic question: Why did I have two policemen in the opening scene who I identified as the “man officer” and the “woman officer.” Later in the scene, I shortened it to “the man” and “the woman.” My wife said she stumbled when she read that. Why didn’t they have names?


I did the tiniest rewrite of the scene, giving them names, and it was way better.

Alternative Deathiness: Publication Announcement

I have a story in this one entitled “The Thing Underneath.” The first editor to read it said, “It’s slam-dunk Stoker material.”

The publisher says, As the cover to Alternative Deathiness suggests, life is but a dance with death. A topic all of us are familiar with and too often want to avoid. This is not a volume to avoid. Alternative Deathiness is a fantastic selection of short stories and poetry that includes veteran writers such as best selling author Alicia Hilton, James Van Pelt, Larry Hodges and more, as well as up and coming voices such as Jim Wright and K.G. Anderson.

Paperback ($13.13 USD)

Buy Yourself a Birthday Present for an Author!

It’s my birthday tomorrow.

If you want to get yourself a present to celebrate it, order your signed, numbered, limited release, hardbound copy of THE BEST OF JAMES VAN PELT. There aren’t many copies left (remember the “limited release” part?).I really think buying author’s books for yourself or others on the author’s birthday should be a thing.

Hallmark should get involved.

Stuff That’s Happened Lately: Late 2020

It’s been a while since I’ve shared news here (I post more often on my Facebook page!).

I attended the virtual MileHiCon the third week in October. This was my first virtual con. I had a tough time getting into it. I love conventions, but the virtual version lost almost everything I like: meetings in the hallways, crowds, room parties, dealers’ room, art show, bar-con, etc. Still, it was better than no con at all, and I did meet up with friends virtually. Fortunately, they recorded many of the panels. Here are the ones I was on:

Creative Parenting

There’s Kissing in My SF

My Favorite Writing Tools

You can cruise through the complete list of recorded panels here.

I attended World Fantasy a week later, where I also did some panels.

For most of the fall I have been working on supporting the release of The Best of James Van Pelt, my huge short story collection. This has included doing interviews and essays. The first rumination on the collection appeared in “My Favorite Bit: James Van Pelt Talks about The Best of James Van Pelt,” which Mary Robinette Kowal hosted. The second one appeared on John Scalzi’s WHATEVER, The Big Idea: James Van Pelt.

Sadly, Covid wiped out this year’s Rain Forest Writers Retreat, which I’ve attended for the last eleven years (sob!). Hopefully the world will right itself by 2022 and conventions and public events will be a part of our regular schedule again.

On the publishing side of things, my novelette, “The Minerva Girls,” was the cover story for the Sept./Oct. Science Fiction Analog. Also, “Ethnoentomology” appeared in Deep Magic, and “After the War” in On Spec. Analog sent the galleys of “I Have Loved the Stars too Fondly” for approval, and Asimov’s bought “The Bahnhof Drive-in.”

In the meantime, I’m truly enjoying being retired, and I’m working on my next stories.

The Best of James Van Pelt

This is the BIG project I’ve been working on for the last few months. Sixty-two stories chosen from almost three decades of publishing, including some previously uncollected work.  Only 200 copies will be released in a signed, numbered, limited edition hardcover with gorgeous wrap-around art. Available at Fairwood Press right now!

Available for preorder now for a November release

Promoting The Experience Arcade and Other Stories

Promoting a book is an interesting activity, and a separate one from writing the book or selling the book to a publisher. Marketing a book is a third challenge, or a third hobby, depending on how you think about it. It requires skills and a mindset that don’t seem related to the first two activities (and those two aren’t related either).

Image may contain: one or more people, possible text that says 'SUMMER OF THE APOCALYPSE JAMES VAN PELT'

I’ve been playing around with FaceBook ads to see how they impact book sales. Last month my son and I built a campaign for SUMMER OF THE APOCALYPSE. We noticed there was a lot of interest in pandemic related stories, so the timing was right. Other than a couple indignant notes from people who thought we were trying to capitalize of death and suffering (I’ve donated all money that came in from the book to relief organizations), I thought the campaign went well. We definitely moved the needle on book sales while we ran ads, although we spent more than we netted.

A nice feature of FB ads is that you can fine tune what audience will see the ad, and then note what works best. There’s a bunch of control for the author.

Image may contain: cloud and text

For the next month we are working on marketing my last collection, THE EXPERIENCE ARCADE AND OTHER STORIES. This is a collection instead of a novel, and there are features in the book that point it to different audiences than SUMMER OF THE APOCALYPSE. Also, the book is not tied to current events, so our approach is impacted by that (also, I’m unlikely to get letters from people accusing me of profiting from a catastrophe).

Doing this experiment with FaceBook makes me want to learn more about advertising on other platforms. Amazon and Goodreads seem like possibilities. I’ve done some with Goodreads, like doing a giveaway when the book was released, mostly in the hopes it would generate reviews (not as many as I would hope), but I think there’s more to learn than I have discovered.

Free Van Pelt Stories at Curious Fictions

I have been posting about a story a week at one of the best online resources for short fiction you can find, Curious Fictions.

Authors can hide their stories behind paywalls for their subscribers, or offer it for free with the hope for tips and subscribers who would like to support the work.

If you follow an author there, you’ll receive a notification when your author posts new work.

You can also “like” the work, comment on it, and/or tip the author.

I’d love to see you there. Explore the work from over 600 other authors, and if you’d like, check out the collection of my stuff, stories that have appeared in numerous of the major magazines, been reprinted in several World’s Best anthologies, and also my Nebula Finalist story, “The Last of the O-Forms” (which are offered for free).

James Van Pelt at Curious Fictions.

An Occasional News Post

I have been spending much of my online time in two venues. The first is Curious Fictions where I try to post a story a week, generally on Wednesdays. The site contains a ton of free fiction. Readers can also subscribe to writers they like or give them tips.

Of course, I like tips. You can also follow writers who you want so when they post new stuff, you are notified. There’s a place to “like” stories or to comment on them. My latest contribution is “The Small Astral Object Genius,” which appeared the first time in Asimov’s.

I also have been posting short fiction reviews at Black Gate. Those also appear every two or three weeks and are free to read. The column is called “Stories that Work.” My mission is to comment on stories that I think are successful and what recommends them. I’m not searching for a “best of” necessarily, nor am I reviewing the stories I don’t think work. Here’s my latest for Black Gate.

Of course, I also hang out at Face Book regularly.

Keep safe! Social distance responsibly.

Curious Fictions and Keeping the Word Alive

I see I haven’t posted here for a while. Most of my online time is spent at my Facebook page, which is facing a reality: many people use FaceBook and few visit author’s pages, but, still, I like a dedicated website.

I started my online presence at LiveJournal. I still have an account there, although it’s fairly dusty by now. I haven’t done much with other online media. I have a Linkedin account, but I don’t know why, and I post the occasional video at Youtube. Mostly, as I said, I visit Facebook. Lately, I’ve added Curious Fictions to my activity.

I like the idea of Curious Fictions. It’s a place where authors can reprint their backlist of previously published short stories. Readers can read many of the works in their entirety for free. They they can “like” the stories, comment on the stories, follow authors they enjoy, subscribe to an author (pay them monthly, sort of like Patreon), or leave a tip.

This way, authors can keep their words available and, possibly, generate a little more income from them.

I am posting a story a week there. Since I have over 150 stories to choose from, I have almost three years worth of content. Someone asked me if I was worried that publishing the work online might detract from my short story collection book sales. I’m not. Curious Fictions, if anything, may sell a few books. If someone likes my stuff online, they’re much more likely to look for more of it.

That’s why books exist!

At any rate, if you like short fiction, or you would like to see a sampling of my work, visit Curious Fictions. If you do, leave a comment there, or a “like,” or (cough), money.

Marketing Short Stories

LATE RAINFOREST REPORT. MARKETING SHORT STORIES: Joe Iriarte posted some insider information in the comment thread about his upcoming Daily Science Fiction story about his progress in selling short stories, which reminded me I wanted to do this post. I appreciate when other writers share this kind of information.

Because we had so little connectivity at the Rainforest last month, I wasn’t able to do a detailed report of the days, including my talk on the 52-Story effort. I talked about the process of writing the stories a year ago at Rainforest, the same week I wrote the last story. This year’s talk was a lot about marketing. For the last two years I’ve been hilt deep in marketing short stories, so I’m feeling pretty good about what I know of the state of the marketplace right now. Here’s what I reported to them:

Remember, everyone’s experience in selling stories is unique, so YMMV on these numbers and conclusions.

First, the background. Two years ago I decided to try Ray Bradbury’s challenge to write a story a week for a year. I’ve seen other people do it, although most of them were writing pretty short pieces. I averaged 3,595 words per story, and 186,937 words total. I submitted the first of the stories a couple weeks after I started the challenge. My process generally was to finish the first draft of the story in a week, and then rethink, rewrite and polish the story over the next week while I was writing that week’s story. At my peak, I had over thirty stories circulating at the same time.

I found markets through Ralan, The Submission Grinder, and notifications or invitations for markets on my FB feed.

As of today, two years and a month after starting the project, here are the numbers for the project:

– 33 of the 52 stories have sold
– 6 stories sold to the first market I sent them to
– 125 submissions for stories that sold to the 2nd or subsequent markets
– 149 submissions of the stories that have not sold
– 280 submissions total
– 1 sale for every 8.48 submissions
– 10 rejections is the most any of the sold stories suffered
– 12 rejections is the most for any of the unsold (so far)
– 26 rejections from one unnamed pro market that rejects quickly–this is a market I’ve never cracked
– 3 other markets I’ve never cracked rejected 29 stories between the three of them
– Several stories sold to markets that were new to me
– 12 of the 33 sold to pro-paying markets
– 2 of the submissions resulted in a request for a rewrite
– 1/5 of the rejections were personal.

CONCLUSIONS:
– I was able to find places to submit all the stories pretty much all the time. If there are that many markets, then the short story marketplace is robust. The Submission Grinder lists 25 markets in science fiction that will pay six cents or more per word. There are many more, beautifully done, semi-pro magazines that I’m proud to submit to who pay less.
– This is an old lesson, but if you are going to write short stories and submit them on spec, you have to be thick-skinned. I have been submitting stories seriously since the 80s. I’ve sold 145 stories, been a finalist for the Nebula, and the Theodore Sturgeon Award. I’ve appeared in several Year’s Best collections. I think I’m doing okay, but I’m still rejected at an 8 to 1 ratio. Mike Resnick doesn’t suffer from this ratio, I’ll bet, but there’s only one Mike.
– On a side note, if you want to sell more of what you write and be rejected less often (and as a whole be paid better for it), write non-fiction. Unfortunately, I like what I like. Writing on spec is what I do.
– Submitting is way faster now that almost all markets take electronic submissions, but it still takes time. Knowing the marketplace, Submitting in the correct form, keeping correspondence professional, etc. is a part of the process and it isn’t instantaneous.
– I think if you regularly use Ralan and the Submission Grinder, you should send them donations. I also pay for NPR. If I’m getting value from someone, I owe them that.
– Submitting regularly is how you learn the market. It’s also how you develop relationships with editors. I’d been submitting to George Scithers for several years before he bought something from me. Because I kept submitting, he started sending personal rejects. After a while, we had a healthy pen-pal relationship. I sent 5,000-word long letters in the form of a short story, and he sent back a page with a sentence or two that was personal. Still, I felt a connection. I’m not into writing science fiction just to sell the things. I like that I meet other people, some of them whose contributions to the field are awesome. Communicating with the people who have provided so much reading enjoyment to me and others is fulfilling all by itself.

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