Stephen Case’s story, “Barstone,” appeared in Shimmer #13. It’s about a monster, of sorts. It’s about a romance, of sorts. It’s just plain good storytelling. Stephen joins us here to talk about his new short fiction collection, Trees and Other Wonders, and how he came to publish it.
When I first started writing, I considered self-publishing online. This though was back in the day when the only option would have been my own blog, and then who would have read it and how would I have known whether it was actually any good? The process of writing, submitting, writing, rewriting, learning what to do with loads of rejections, writing some more, and finally working with an editor to get a story into print is, I think, invaluable for an aspiring writer. It was for me a very large (and continuing) part of my education.
But what happens after you get your first stories published? They are read (hurrah!), and they earn you a bit of cash perhaps (huzzah!), and then they are laid gently to rest in an online archive or pile of back issues somewhere. Maybe down the road an anthology will pick one up, if you’re lucky.
I figured this was normal: a long line of hibernating stories that might come out of retirement to appear in collected form when I had written enough to get some publisher’s attention or something. Maybe Gene Wolfe would notice me and take me out to lunch and explain how this all worked and what I needed to do to become the next Ray Bradbury (besides, you know, actually write like Ray Bradbury).
An epiphany moment for me came when reading Hugh Howey’s opinions on electronic publishing on his blog. Howey (whose work I admit I have not read) is a huge proponent of online publishing. What struck me about his argument was the idea that my stories didn’t have to go into some sort of limbo or forced retirement. I could continue to leverage them to expand my readership. Sure, I had a website with links to all the places where my works had appeared, but who was going to follow all those rabbit trails, regardless of the truly delightful places they led? Putting my work together into a collection, a collection that I would maintain control of, seemed the next logical step. Unlike publishing conventionally, my collection wouldn’t have a specified run and then disappear out of print to haunt used bookstores. I could control the pricing, and I could control the content.
So I took the plunge, and here are a few things that I learned along the way. Please note well: I am certainly not claiming to be an expert at this process. My book has been available for less than a month. The process has been a self-education, and as one of my professors used to caution, “All education is an experiment. And most experiments fail.”
Make sure you have all the rights to your content
Usually magazines purchase first-time publishing rights, but sometimes there’s also an exclusivity clause in the contract, a period during which the story cannot appear anywhere else in any form. At the end of that though, it’s still your story, and you can do what you want with it, including putting it in your own collection. If you’re not sure what a contract implies regarding republishing or anthology rights, ask. I found that most editors are happy to explain. Plus, sometimes they might even be willing to bend the letter of the law. One of my stories, for instance, was sold to a market with a twelve-month exclusivity clause. I wanted to include it in my collection before that year had elapsed, so I wrote to the publisher, explained the situation, and asked if I could. They said yes, so my collection did not have to go forward lacking a piece of Lovecraftian horror.
Acknowledge where the story first appeared
There are lots of ways to do this, but you should definitely acknowledge where your story first saw the light of print. You’re thanking those publications that first gave your work a chance, and hopefully you’re directing some of your readers to those markets so the cycle can continue. Before the table of contents I inserted a copyright acknowledgement page with an entry for each story in the collection, noting the year it was originally published and where. Then in the afterword, where I took some time to provide a bit of background on each story, I thanked a few editors in particular who had been especially helpful in my writing journey. Again, the principle here is simple: speculative fiction is a community endeavor.
Format your book for Kindle
This was by far the easiest part of the process. I chose to publish on Kindle because it was free, it was simple, and it made my book instantly available to anyone with a computer. I consulted Building your Book for Kindle, a free download on the Kindle store (also available as PDF) and a guide that shows exactly how to use Word to format your document for conversion to the Kindle platform. My only hiccough was that the version of Word for Mac I was using didn’t have exactly the same menus and features as the version for which these instructions were written. I had to switch to the version of Word on my old PC laptop to get some of the formatting right.
This aspect of things—how incredibly easy it is to publish online—was what originally made this avenue intimidating for me. It’s so simple that anyone can do it, which is why there’s such a glut of content available out there of such widely varying quality. How do you keep your own from getting lost in the morass?
Design an awesome cover
If you’re publishing a collection of your own previously-published short stories, you want it to stand out. You want it to be clear that its contents set it apart from 95% of the stuff out there because these pieces have already been edited and published before, maybe in professional markets. But how to make this apparent? Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, if you’re a designer), your book is going to be judged by its cover, so spend some time to either design one yourself or find someone to design one for you that looks professional. This was the step that took me longest. I’m cheap and a control freak, so I wanted to do it myself. I did, however, get some very helpful pointers from my friend Ryan Myers, of Helveticards fame, and with his guidance came up with something simple and (I hope) effective.
Promote without being obnoxious
Once your book is online, it can be a steady and growing source of new readers and revenue. You just have to let people know it’s there. Depending on how far you want to take self-promotion, there are hundreds of things you could do. First of all though, you should create an Amazon author’s page. This is where people can learn something about you and where your other books will eventually live. (Here’s mine.) In addition, if any of the magazines you’ve published in have Kindle versions and have listed you as a contributor, you can link them here. This helps you promote the magazines that originally published you, and it may also help those magazines take an interest in promoting you as an author. Plus, links to a $0.99 Kindle edition of a magazine in which one of your stories appears, for instance, can provide a good sample your work for potential purchasers of your collection.
Tell your friends, of course. Use social media (though here’s where the “without being obnoxious” aspect comes in). Link your website, your Amazon author page, your Twitter account, Facebook, etc. so anyone who finds one can easily find the others. When your book is complete, you have the option of downloading a preview file to read on your own Kindle. As far as I know, there’s no problem with sending this file to editors who might be interested in reviewing your book or mentioning it on their respective blogs. And perhaps most exciting: keep writing, and keep selling more of your stories. Now that you’re published and have control of your own book, every time you have a new story appear in print you’ve got a chance to direct readers to your collection through your bio.
Finally, don’t quit your day job (as long as you love your day job)
And as along as your day job gives you plenty of time to write. Because maybe you’ll get rich. But probably you won’t. What you will get though is an opportunity for more readers, and more readers somehow always seems to spur more writing, and that’s definitely what it’s all about.
Stephen Case is a historian of astronomy and author. He is using this guest blog to shamelessly promote his first collection of short stories, Trees and Other Wonders, which is available on the Kindle Store. His website is www.stephenrcase.com.
Every morning, I wake and wonder: what was Beth thinking when she started Shimmer? Did she realize exactly how fantastic it would be?
Wonder no more! Beth talks with Jim Harrington over at Six Questions For…, and ponders this herself. What was she thinking? Seriously!
“Really I was very naive: there’s so much more that goes into running a magazine than the editorial side. I’ve had to learn a lot about marketing and accounting and coordinating volunteers and taxes and printers and a hundred other non-sexy things.“
We received this astonishing submission yesterday (April 1). You probably shouldn’t read it. I’m serious.
Empress in Glass
by Lindie Kant
The train tracks slashed across the wetlands like a stitched wound, and to Meneja, the sun’s red light pooling on the marsh looked like congealing blood.
“We’ll be there soon,” said her attendant. Meneja couldn’t remember this one’s name–she thought of the woman as Hatchet, because of her sharp edges. Like one of the white herons that strode through the marsh, she had a sharp nose and a strangely curved neck. It looked as if it was meant to be strangled.
Meneja didn’t reply. It would always be soon–her life was structured that way, because waiting encouraged doubts. As the progenitor of a new confluence between fashion, music, and art, she couldn’t afford to second-guess any of her metaphorical skydives.
If she closed her eyes, she could hear the same rhythm in her veins that would soon be broadcast on her website. It thrummed with the train, a secret song only she could hear, until they drifted into the Martinez Cemetery.
The steel contraption slowed so gently that Meneja didn’t realize they’d stopped until she glanced out the window again.
Hatchet helped Meneja into her jacket, which smelled of hotel detergent. She wondered what it would smell like if she had an apartment, if she settled down for even a week and had to choose her own soaps. Could she turn the washing machine dials with glass hands, or would she need to flex her missing joints, like with a zipper on a jacket?
“This used to be a city, and the only graves were on the hill,” Hatchet said.
Meneja gazed out at the marsh, studded with thousands of weathered stone monuments, which sunk at angles as the saturated ground merged with the bay; then up the hill, where pale mausoleums protruded from the grass like ticks on a stray.
Her fingers clicked against the window as she compared the biggest mausoleum to the tip of her pinky. She had instructed them not to sculpt nails–the glass wasn’t meant to be a replacement for her skin, but instead, a window through which to look at the macabre miracle of how her body worked.
Her blood filled her veins so tightly that she could see them flex with each heartbeat. This was the drumline for her every performance.
A hand pinched her shoulder, too familiar, too imperative. She glanced over her shoulder to find Hatchet’s lip trembling. Meneja wondered what the tendons inside her face were doing to cause it, if they looked like a bow on a violin, if there was a sound to their fast-paced twitching.
“Don’t do this,” Hatchet said. “It will be… obscene. If my daughter–”
“If my mother tried to give me orders, I’d give her personal information to my fans, so just imagine what I’ll do to an hourly if she ever speaks to me like that again.”
Hatchet was silent, her mouth shut like a garage door. Her eyes glimmered with tears. Meneja imagined the sound of the ducts amplified, a tide of salt sorrow washing through enormous speakers to the adulation of millions. She didn’t want equipment on her face, though. She liked her fans to see her while she sang for them, while she bled for them, while she slowly died at the same pace as they did. They looked inside themselves when they looked at her.
Meneja stood up on her skinless legs. Months ago, just weeks after her hands, she’d paid a plastic surgeon to strip away her epidermis. Now the viscera and muscles of her legs pressed wetly against the glass boots, like raw meat roots growing in slim vases. She was a curved blossom growing up into opacity.
Even with little rubber pads on the toes and steep heels, even strolling at a delicate pace, Meneja was always afraid she would step too hard and shatter them.
And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, she thought.
When Meneja was eight years old, the firemen brought her a stuffed animal. The blanket they’d wrapped her in felt like tape, holding her in place, and she accepted the big floppy rabbit because she felt like she couldn’t do anything else. The flames on the roof of her house reflected on its plastic eyes. When she looked up, the flames danced on the eyes of everyone she saw: orange and yellow silk flapping and twisting in a reptilian dance, reminding her of the thing that had landed on their roof.
She was too shocked to ask anyone if it would really come back for her, if the dragon had meant it when it said she wasn’t ripe, but it would find her again.
She was too shocked to ask what the word “betrothed” meant.
Meneja strode down the stairs and out onto the platform, where there may have been paparazzi, a few minutes before the train’s arrival, but Meneja’s security squad had probably taken care of that in a not-entirely-legal way.
Her manager was chattering into a phone until he spotted her, and then he hung up without saying goodbye. Armand never used greetings or farewells.
“We have a hearse so you can stretch out, without the flashbulb assholes figuring out which car you’re in,” Armand said. “It’s a good thing Jacob is with me–you look tired. You can’t be tired tonight.”
“I don’t feel tired,” Meneja said, and in her mind, she said his next words before he spoke.
“No one feels the way they look except beggars and dogs,” Armand said. He held out his arm and steadied her as she clicked her way to the hearse. There was a rubber mat draped over the bumper, so she wouldn’t crack her glass climbing in.
She lay propped on a pillow as Jacob knelt beside her, wiping and powdering, wiping and powdering. He smelled like mint juleps and stale sex, but she loved his fluttering hands and the way he called her “poppet,” so she forgave him the odor.
“You’ll make history tonight. This is a show that will be watched long after we’re all dead,” he said.
No one spoke of the surgery this time–only of the fact she was allowing them to film it. She thought perhaps they didn’t want to bring it up because it meant they might have to discuss her motives, might have to confront her insanity head on. No one wanted to talk about it this time.
Just two weeks after her eighth birthday, Meneja was fostered and then adopted by a relative she’d never before met.
Susan was her cousin, a pudgy woman in her mid-thirties already overcome with ennui. Even as a child Meneja recognized that the pills didn’t do any good. She could have told Susan that sit-coms and reality TV were a poor way to alleviate boredom with life. Susan’s husband Phil was interested in model airplanes and his job at Boeing and nothing else.
One day, when Phil saw her playing with her Barbies, he went and got Susan and then ran to hide in his workroom, because the Barbies were naked.
“Do you know how babies are made?” Susan asked. The loose skin under her chin quivered, and she licked the lipstick off of her lips over and over, like a lizard smelling the desert for danger. Susan believed that Fate–maybe Jesus–had brought her this child, to give her purpose.
“A mommy and a daddy,” Meneja replied. She didn’t have a daddy Barbie, so she’d used a plastic tyrannosaurus rex. Her Barbie was lying on her belly, with the dinosaur mounting her from behind like she’d seen the neighbor’s cats do in the grass by the fence.
Meneja had already signed all the waivers for the surgery, so they rolled her right in after scanning the ID chip in her wrist for verification purposes. It was a formality; no other woman on the planet had a delta of veins throbbing visibly inside her glass gloves and boots. It was impossible to impersonate Meneja.
Tonight, she was not getting more of her skin peeled away.
No. Tonight, Meneja was getting an implant. She hazily said goodbye to her vagina before she slipped under. Later, she would watch the footage and recognize the thought as it passed through her eyes, as vivid and unmistakable as citrine silk billowing in her memories.
Then her lashes swept down, and the camera moved to the doctors and the implant.
It took only six weeks to heal. Even reputable newspapers who normally avoided celebrity gossip found ways to question the technology that Meneja had used to make herself ready for her husband.
Dragons could read–she knew that as well as she knew they were real–and her message was clear. Her new vagina could withstand heat of up to 1400 degrees and was collapsible, but could accordion out to accommodate draconian lengths. She would not be the tiny plastic Barbie. She was something different, something new.
When the dragon swooped down into the yard outside her villa, one of its wings shaded the entire pool from the sun. The wind uprooted plants, set off the alarms in two of her cars. It shrieked like a thousand hawks become one.
Meneja didn’t hurry. She put on her white dress, the one Jacob had ordered for her from an up-and-coming designer in Bombay.
She stepped out onto her balcony.
Before she could welcome her betrothed–she’d known the word for twenty years now, had looked it up in one of Susan and Phil’s dictionaries–an intruder ran through the garden.
He wore a strange costume, that of a medieval farmer, with a feather in his cap that might have come from a white heron. He ran like a rat, like someone who was meant to squeeze through spaces where he didn’t belong. Meneja’s fury escalated as he stood before her husband and claimed him.
“Mighty dragon, hear me, for I am Dareth of Dre’cal-pinor. I must have your seed, great and fiery one, so that I may do the magic to save my people.”
The dragon looked between Meneja and Dareth. For a moment, its brilliant citrine eyes landed on Meneja, wet with longing. She began to unfasten her dress, but Dareth was faster.
He slung off his shirt, exposing ripling muscles that rippled in the sun, and he was all sweaty and chiseled like in an action movie. His hat blew off and his mullet flapped in the breeze of the dargon’s breath. His pants next. At this time now, he was naked.
Dareth saluted the dragon with his massive boner, and it’s eyes fell away from Meneja and returned instead to Dareth where he stood ready with what was seemed to be a bottle of WD-40. “You can do good with me,” Dareth says in earnest need fo the dragon’s powerful thrumming semens. “Your magic is my desire. Look into my eyes and help me defeat the bastard wizard Nakri’nok of Bol-gar’thria!”
The dragon was like, “Rraaawwrreeeeeeeecchhh!!!”
Dareth nodded and presented himself like a mandrill ina Natural docutmentary, his glutes flexing invitingly to the sky.
Meneja screamend “Nooooooo, I got this vaginer for yyouuuuuu, you can’t leave me! Dont’ you know what betrothed is?!?!” but teh dragon’s eyes were all for Dareth now, and it mounted him as gently as a dragon can and began to pump its lizardly hips in a seductive pace that Dareth enjoyed once he had got used to the dragon’s emmense size entering him from behind.
When the dragon shuddered and shrieked it was done, at that time Dareth leapt away and apologized once to Meneja. “I am sorry fair maden, you should call him tomorrow though because i’m leaving to back to Skal’bor’nias, and it is with sorrows and lamenting that I came between you and your husband but it’s to save my kin.”
Meneja forgave him because of his righteous ideas even if she didn’t like that she was second and her dragon’s emmense scaley penis now smelled like Dareth’s butt. But he could bathe in the pool and then she could have him again.
“Farewell, Dareth!” she said. She went down to her dragon and they watched her vagina surgery on TV.
Author Sunny Moraine joins us for a peek into one of the scariest corners of publishing: the writer-editor relationship!
Editors, to the uninitiated, can be worrying and mysterious creatures. I remember the first time I made contact with an editor like it was yesterday. I cautiously approached them about buying a story of mine, and lo and behold: they were interested! Except there was the little matter of some changes to be made. Which of course resulted in panic and potential soul-wounding.
Then I actually looked at the suggested changes and they were no big deal. And they also made the story better.
That was a long time ago and I’ve worked with many editors since. Most of them have been short story editors, but there have been a couple of novellas out of a small e-book publisher specializing mostly in romance, and recently I had the interesting first experience of working with an editor on a novel. I’m not sure what I expected; not, I suppose, for it to be markedly different, and in many ways it wasn’t. But in other ways it was a learning experience – in the sense of reinforcing a lot of what I already knew, more than really bringing anything new to the table.
For anyone who might find what I’ve learned useful, here are my Lessons of the Editors.
Trust your editor
This one is tough. I think it’s the natural inclination of any writer to be very protective of the stuff we’ve written; it’s our baby, it’s precious and special and beautiful, and we have a very Particular Idea of how it should end up looking and what we want for it. But sometimes we don’t see it as clearly as someone else does–anyone, not just an editor, but it’s obviously the editor’s job to see as clearly as possible. And almost every time an editor has come back to me with suggestions for changes, it’s only made the story better. In many cases it’s been the solution to some nagging feeling I had that something somewhere wasn’t quite working.
The novel I mentioned above is Line and Orbit. By the time the first draft was done, it was huge. It was close to 150k words long. It suffered from Novel Bloat like no one’s business. In the second and third drafts, I and my co-author pared it down, but when we finally started working on it with our editor, we discovered it could be pared down even more (it ended up at about 114k words). This included the suggested cuts of some stuff that we really loved. But it was Bloat. It had to go.
Know when to stand your ground
This is arguably tougher, I think, because it involves separating your honest understanding of your own work from your huge, enormous, seriously-important ego. There have been a few editorial suggestions over the years that have put me on the defensive and even irritated me (WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE to suggest that this scene describing the minutiae of space-dinogoat husbandry is unnecessary to the plot) but after a cool-down, I had to concede were correct. But then there have been some others that I honestly knew weren’t good changes.
Quick example: We almost sold Line and Orbit to a well-respected small press that was demanding some pretty major alterations to the fabric of the story. After days of agonizing and flailing and hair-pulling, we decided to walk away. It was hard, because we knew they’d probably do okay by it, but if we’d conceded, we’d have ended up with a very different book than we had. And not, we thought, a better one.
It’s not about you
This is really a continuation/expansion on the two above, but I think it’s a great all-encompassing rule for writing in general. What you produce is you, but it’s not about you. You’re not the most important thing in it. The second that happens, you start to produce less-awesome work, and that’s bad. What matters is how good this thing that comes out of you is, and anything that serves that is ultimately what you should pick up and sprint with, waving it around in the air like a trophy. Because it is one.
Your editor is ideally part of this. You’re partners. You’re Team Whatever The Thing Is What You Wrote. There’s no I in team! There’s also no U in team. Ohhhhh, see what I did there?
So, go team!
Sunny Moraine has published a bunch of short stories in a bunch of places like Shimmer (yay) and Clarkesworld and in the forthcoming anthology We See a Different Frontier. Their first novel Line and Orbit, co-written with Lisa Soem, is available from Samhain Publishing.
Sam Tomaino, who has been there since issue one, has some kind words about Shimmer #16:
I was in there at issue #1 in January of 2006. My review began with “This is a nicely produced new small press publication. The editor states that she wants a ‘particular kind of short story — the combination of a strange and original idea, a well-developed plot and characters, delivered with exquisite writing.’ Does it succeed at this? Let’s see.” After reviewing individual stories, I concluded with “So yes, this is well worth the $5. Buy it!” So what about this issue?
You can read the full review here!