All posts by Guest Poster

Short Story Collections: Gathering Places for Infinite Worlds

Author Lisa L. Hannett joins the Shimmer blog this week and helps us navigate the perilous waters of short story collections. How does one make such a collection, anyhow? Read on.


Imagine yourself at a party.

Not just any old party. There are no paper hats with snug elastics digging into your throat here; no streamers twisted and taped to the ceiling; no gaudy candles melting into your Dairy Queen cake.

Instead, picture a castle with many rooms, each decked out with sparkling chandeliers, priceless artworks, furniture that once belonged to kings. The bar is stocked with imported wines and a champagne fountain graces the main hall. Long trestle tables line the walls in each chamber, laden with delicious hors d’oeuvres that won’t spill down your front when you bite into them, and don’t leave any green bits lodged in your teeth. There are as many guests as you’d like—you’re the host, after all—but to really get the shindig going, let’s say you’ve got at least a dozen. Each person is eloquent or funny or mysterious or brooding in a Byronic fashion (if you’re into that kind of thing). Men, women, immortals, fées—they’ve come from worlds both near and distant. Depending on their customs, they give perfect gifts wrapped in silk, or sheets of beaten gold, or dew-beaded cobweb ribbons. Your guests have got their own quirks, costumes, histories, but you’ve an eye for matchmaking. Everyone gets along. And, really, how could they not? They’re all excellent conversationalists. So much so, in fact, you wish you could clone yourself just so you could talk to them all simultaneously. All night, you move from group to group, chatting, dancing, drinking without getting drunk.

For hours, you’re enchanted.

You wish the party would never end.

This is what it should feel like to read an excellent collection of short stories. Whether the book is a compilation of works previously published or a collection of mostly new pieces, it should leave us with the impression that we’ve been invited to a magical word-party. A place where characters, story sequences, themes coalesce to make a strong impact on our imaginations. A gathering of infinite worlds which, ideally, is one we’ll continue to think about long after we’ve read the last page.

Obviously, authors can’t control the reactions their readers will have, any more than hosts can force their guests to have a good time. But there are a few things we can focus on when collecting our stories that will ease readers’ journeys through our written worlds.

Make each new story your favorite.

This almost goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. Write the best story you can, every time. Make each new piece your current favorite, so that it can be lavished with all the love and attention you poured into earlier works. Because when it comes to collections, a good story might be left loitering outside with the valets. An excellent story will be in the grand ballroom, hanging with the cool kids on the Table of Contents.

If the glass slipper doesn’t fit, Stepsister, don’t force your foot.

‘But all of my stories are excellent!’ I hear you say.

That may be true. As I’ve already mentioned, many collections are ‘compilations’ of short works published elsewhere. And ‘elsewhere’ may indeed be the top fantasy magazine, the award-winning science fiction anthology, the most popular ’zine on the internet. There are so many examples of ‘collected works’ of this variety (by brilliant writers like Theodora Goss, Robert Shearman, Neil Gaiman, Kaaron Warren… oh, the list could go on and on) but ‘collected’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘all-inclusive’. Some stories, no matter how great, will not suit the tone, style, length of the collection. ‘Best of’ collections usually can’t showcase the author’s entire oeuvre, unless the term ‘best’ is actually a euphemism for ‘all’ (but few publishers are willing to sacrifice their readers’ wrists by forcing them to hoist a 5000 page tome). A writer’s favorite fantasy stories won’t suit a collection of their most popular space opera tales. There should be a clear dialogue between stories on a given collection’s ToC—which means that not all stories will be able to join in the conversation.

This is especially true for collections of mostly original stories. Books like Amal El-Mohtar’s The Honey Month, Angela Slatter’s Sourdough and Other Stories, and even my own collection, Bluegrass Symphony, are constructed around central themes or conceits—each piece was either custom-written or carefully selected to enhance these ideas, and to create a coherent body of work. Throwing in extra tales just to pad the book out wouldn’t have done us any favours. When writing Bluegrass Symphony, a collection of stories all set in a pseudo-Midwest American setting (but with shapeshifters, clairvoyant cowboys, tentacle-boys and talking squirrels), I had several ideas that almost fit but weren’t quite what the collection needed. So although I’d thought of including fifteen stories, it turns out the work was stronger with only twelve. It’s much better to have a small and perfect suite of stories (as in The Honey Month, for instance) than a clunky, incoherent rabble.

Seating plans were invented for a reason…

After you’ve whittled the collection down to its essential stories (a dozen or thirty? see the previous point) you need to decide in which order they should appear. What kind of mood are you trying to set? Which narratives will hook readers most deeply? Do you have two stories that feature magic lamps? If so, should they go next to each other, or will they be most effective separated by a handful of other adventures? Do some stories jar when read in succession? Is that the desired effect? Do you want to leave your readers crying, laughing, wishing the collection will never end?

As the author of these works, you know them best; their rhythms, themes and tones. Most editors will place the strongest stories at the beginnings and endings of collections, so that readers are immediately drawn into the books and reluctant to put them down. This is something you may want to consider when assembling your own published works. Of course, there are no hard and fast rules. A collection of original stories may work best chronologically, building towards a climax in an overarching narrative—in which case, you may not want to present the conclusion as the first piece in the book. (Then again, you might want to do just that.)

The beauty of short stories is that they are precise. Elegant. Concise. They enchant without wasting any words. A collection of such finely-crafted works should aim to do no less.


In just over two years, Lisa L. Hannett has sold more than 20 stories to venues including Clarkesworld Magazine, Fantasy, Weird Tales, ChiZine, Electric Velocipede, Shimmer and Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded. Her work has appeared on Locus‘s ‘Recommended Reading List 2009’ and Tangent Online’s ‘Recommended Reading List 2010’. ‘The February Dragon’, co-written with Angela Slatter, won the Aurealis Award for ‘Best Fantasy Short Story 2010’. She is a graduate of the Clarion South Writers Workshop. Bluegrass Symphony, her first collection, is published by Ticonderoga Publications. A second collection, Midnight and Moonshine (co-authored with Angela Slatter) will be published in November 2012. You can visit her online at

Want to Be a Better Writer? Don’t Save Anything.

Shimmer author Eric Del Carlo imparts words of wisdom unto thee! His story, “Bad Moon Risen,” is slated for Shimmer #14.


If you have ever talked with an aspiring writer, you’ve had this conversation:  she or he wants to tell you about a great story idea.

There is nothing wrong with being an aspiring writer.  Every writer has been one, no matter how early success arrived.  Neither is there anything indisputably awry with sounding off about one’s story ideas. (Although I, personally, prefer not to talk about works in progress; not ever.)

But if you encounter this same would-be author months or years later, and find she or he still talking about the same story concept, you can roughly bet on one of two things:

1.  The story idea was never any great shakes to start with.

2.  This grand concept has held back the writer.

Science fiction and fantasy differ from other fields.  Ideas are given a great deal of weight.  An author must, after all, concoct something well outside the trappings of familiar reality.  With fantasy this might start with a world-building notion (a king must balance his power against a magic cult sweeping the land), just as with s-f it might begin with a technological innovation (the rich are transplanted into immortal robot bodies, while the poor still suffer and die).  Part of the allure of these two genres is that they sort of look easy, especially to someone who has spent a lifetime reading s-f and fantasy.  One learns the tropes.  You see stories play out in recognizable ways.  Maybe more than that, you see the dressings of these stories and novels, the lingo and the invented cultures.

If you are of a bent to become an author yourself, you inevitably start with imitation.  Nothing wrong with that either.  Somewhere some professional writer feels flattered.  But if you persist, you will eventually come upon your first original story idea.

Now, of course, it’s probably not going to be terribly original.  It may be derivative as all get-out, in fact.  But it will feel new to you because you did put it together in your own head.  It will also feel like a precious jewel as you lovingly caress it, stunned by its beauty.  You might be tempted to think:  This is it!  The idea that will launch my career!  Hugos and World Fantasy Awards glimmer mirage-like on the horizon.

That is not a bad feeling.  Enjoy it.  In a very real sense, you’ve earned it.

But then, after a respectful interval, go ahead and PUT THAT IDEA INTO A STORY.  Do it now.  Many hopeful writers start out with book-length aspirations or, really, triology and series amibitions.  Probably not wise.  Probably–I’m just saying–you won’t finish any of those projects.  Try a short story, even if that isn’t going to ultimately be the form in which you plan to work.  Short fiction is a great way to exercise the creative muscles you will need.  It is also the most expedient means to put forth your ideas.  Get them onto paper or onto a screen where you can take a good long hard judgmental look at them.

Very likely you will find that your concept isn’t quite what you thought.  That’s okay.  You’ve still accomplished something.  You have set your personal creative apparatus in motion.  Another idea will come, even if you find yourself using some minor or unconsidered aspect from your earlier concept.  And while you’re doing that, still another story tangent might well spring up.

It comes down to this:  the more you write, the more story ideas you are liable to generate.  The very act of writing leads to this.  You start out cranking an unwieldy intimating generator; and after a period of struggle and strain you find the handle turning more easily, and at some point after that the sparks are flying willy-nilly and the whole thing is humming like a dynamo.

BUT:  if you hoard that original idea, and never get around to committing it to anything, you will never get past that early primitive stage of writing.  You’re just that guy who talks endlessly about his or her “greatest–idea–ever.”

Don’t be that guy.

Getting Started: Five Steps to Create a Story

Author and musician Louise Marley joins us on the Shimmer blog, callooh callay!
" wire..."

Every writer knows that moment when she sits down in front of a blank computer screen and stares dumbly, at a loss for how to begin.  Sometimes we fly to our keyboard because an idea has taken hold of us, and those are the best times.  But often, especially for a working writer, it’s discipline that puts us in that chair, and a need for output that keeps us there.  What to do if you don’t have that killer idea already?

Prolific writers know that you can’t wait for inspiration.  You have to–occasionally–nudge your muse to get her to work with you!  On those days, it helps to think of the essential elements of a story.  If the elements are strong enough, the story will grow.  I’m a listmaker, so I love a nice, tidy, numbered list of things to think about:

1.  Create a protagonist

What sort of character excites you?  A strong woman, a sensitive man, a smart-ass kid?

Think about your protagonist’s history, her upbringing, her situation, her personality.  It always helps if there’s something unique about her, something that sets her apart.  It’s good, too, to avoid cliches–lately the kick-ass spunky heroine has been dominating the field, to the point where it’s expected–so perhaps you can come up with another way to make your readers connect with your main character.

2.  Decide what your protagonist wants

It’s axiomatic that every character–just like every person–wants something.  Love?  Power?  Escape?  It needs to be something definite, something that will motivate your protagonist to take action.

3.  Begin in media res, in the middle of things

My often-repeated maxim is that “The story starts where the trouble starts.”  Think about the fairy tales you’ve known since childhood.  Cindrella’s story begins not when the invitation to the ball arrives, but when her stepmother says she can’t go.  Snow White’s story begins when the wicked queen (my favorite character) orders the huntsman to take her out into the forest and kill her.  Try a short exposition, to put your readers into the setting, and then put your protagonist in danger.

4.  Give your protagonist challenges

We writers love our characters (see above, my affection for the wicked queen).  We hate hurting them, stressing them, imperiling them, but that’s where the story is.  Story is drama, and drama comes from conflict.  The more challenges your protagonist faces, the more compelling your story will be.

5.  Let your protagonist solve her own problems

When Cinderella’s stepmother locks her in a back room so she can’t have her turn at trying on the glass slipper, she should escape on her own!  Characters should act, not be acted upon–in other words, they should be proactive, not passive.  They will be stronger, more memorable, and your story will be more convincing.

"Once more, with feeling..."

If you haven’t yet, I recommend studying Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, or even better, watch the wonderful program of interviews Bill Moyers did with him.  Notice how the mythical hero, in Campbell’s analysis, tries and fails, tries and fails, and eventually–with help, but with the knowledge and strength he’s gained through his journey–succeeds.  Of course your character can fail, and if you’re writing a tragedy, that’s the right result.  It’s best, however, if even the failure of your protagonist has the effect of changing things, something left behind that matters to the other characters in the story.

Here are some story examples taken from familiar tales which help to illustrate these steps:

Harry Potter: What does Harry want?  (To know what happened to his parents; to get away from his awful aunt and uncle and cousin; to use his magic)   Where does the story start?  (With Harry living in a closet under the stairs, and with a magic owl trying to get him a message) What are his challenges?  (His aunt and uncle, his attempts to survive at Hogwarts, his enemy Voldemort) Does Harry solve his own problems?  (Sometimes.  Hermione does an awful lot of it.)

Superman: Wants to protect “truth, justice, and the American way”.  His story begins with the destruction of his home planet and a very scary spaceship journey.  His challenges are Kryptonite, and protecting the ones he loves, like his parents and Lois Lane.  He solves his own problems all the time.

Lord of the Rings: Frodo wants to get the Ring to Mount Doom.  This is a classic hero’s journey in the style of Joseph Campbell.  The story begins with Bilbo passing the Ring on to Frodo.  Frodo is nearly killed more than once.  After many challenges, and help from his friend, and after the temptation not to part with the Ring almost ruins him, he manages to let it go into the volcano (with poor Smeagol, of course).

I hope this gives you some ideas!  You’re welcome to visit my website for more writing tips: Click on “Music and Writing” and then on “Teaching Tools”.  Feel free to download any of the information you find useful.

Writing at Gunpoint

Hi, folks. I’m Daryl Gregory, and I’m writing this during one of the busiest weeks I’ve had this year. I’ve got several comics scripts due, I’m writing material to support the launch of a new book, and the first chapters of a new novel are due in a few weeks.

But that’s okay. That’s the point. Because the most important thing I’ve learned about writing as a career is this: Put yourself under the gun. Back yourself into a corner. Promise things you’re not sure you can deliver.

In short, say yes.

You see, I have self-discipline issues. If I don’t have a deadline, I goof off. I fritter. I start checking Twitter every ten seconds. And it was much worse when I was first starting out.

When you’re unpublished, no one is waiting for your next story, or your first novel. There is no ticking clock, except perhaps in the tapping feet of your spouse or partner as they wonder when the hell you’re going to finish something. It’s quite possible to wallow about like this for years. After all, life is busy. There’s your day job, and the kids, and that new series on HBO. And there’s the undeniable fact that if you don’t finish, you can’t truly fail.

I used to tell people, “Oh, if only I was locked up in a cell with a typewriter, I could finally get some writing done.” But because I was afraid of committing a felony (and afraid they’d never give me a typewriter), I had to give up on the prison fantasy. Instead, I started putting myself into situations in which I had to deliver, or suffer pain and humiliation.

Here are a few of the things that worked for me, and maybe they will for you, too:

  • I took a fiction writing class at the local college. I finished three stories in that semester, and two of those became some of my first sales.
  • I joined a writer’s group, and suddenly there were several people waiting for my next story. Social pressure works, friends. We are all chimps.
  • I went to a writing workshop. There are many fine workshops, but I went to Clarion East. This is chimp pressure in hot house conditions, and the only surprise after six weeks was that we weren’t throwing feces at each other. (Okay, maybe a little feces.) The experience changed my life, and made me realize that I had to get serious about writing.

But the most important thing I ever did was 24 years ago, when I told my fiancée that I wanted to be a writer. Amazingly, she believed me. And once she believed me, I realized I had to sit down and write, or I’d be a liar. While I’ve since lied about many things—“Feces? The other guys started it, honey!”—I’ve at least made good on the writing promise. For some reason she’s still married to me.

These days, I say yes to assignments that I don’t have ideas for, and agree to deadlines that are awfully tight.  And when I’m working on a story, I write at gunpoint, too. I deliberately put myself into jams on the page that I have to write my way out of. My outlines have gaping holes that must be filled with plot. Characters have to be invented when they walk into a room. Events and dialogue must be invented on the spot.

But this isn’t news, is it? It’s only an extension of what you do as a writer every time you sit down. The sentence doesn’t exist until you type it.  So get typing!

Me, I have to go check Twitter now.


Daryl Gregory lives in State College, PA, where he writes programming code in the morning, fiction in the afternoon, and comics at night. Raising Stony Mayhall was published June 28, 2011 from Del Rey Spectra. His first novel, Pandemonium, won the Crawford award for best first fantasy and was a finalist for the World Fantasy award. His second novel, The Devil’s Alphabet, was named one of the best books of 2009 by Publishers Weekly. His first collection of short fiction, Unpossible and Other Stories, will be published by Fairwood Press in October, 2011. He writes the comics Dracula: The Company of Monsters (with Kurt Busiek), and Planet of the Apes for BOOM! Studios.

Selling Fiction is Not For Wimps

Jay Lake here, happily guest-blogging for Shimmer on the subject of selling fiction for new writers. This post recaps a number things I’ve said before along the way, with a focus on the basics of aspiration and breaking in. I hope it proves helpful to you.

The Internet is rife with advice to aspiring authors on submitting, markets, manuscript formats, handling rejection, editor-friendly blogging: everything in the world to tell you what to do, how to do it. All kinds of strong opinions and good thoughts both.

(Which, I might add, was certainly not so widely available back in the many years when I was struggling to break in. You kids today, you don’t know how good you have it. And, hey, you! Get off my lawn!)

But really, it all boils down to one simple recipe. Write, revise, submit.

This isn’t exactly new information, to say the least. Charles Dickens probably hung out in London coffee houses telling those punk kid pre-Raphaelites the same thing. To focus on our field of speculative fiction, however, here’s what Robert A. Heinlein said in 1947:

Stack the pages to the sky!

1. You must write.

2. You must finish what you write.

3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

4. You must put the work on the market.

5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

I don’t agree with his number three, for a variety of reasons, but the rest of this advice is as solid today as it was over sixty years ago.

My version is, “Write more, finish what you start, send it out.” Lather, rinse, repeat as necessary.

But the key to all of this isn’t simply doing these things for the sake of having done them. It’s doing these things in a consistent, repeatable manner over a long baseline of time and effort. Simply put, if you write one story a year and send it to one market a year, you’re not likely to see a lot of career impact. A couple of famous exceptions spring readily to mind, so if it works for you as well, go for it, but that’s a low-return strategy for almost all the rest of us writers out there in the world.

For that consistent, repeatable manner to succeed, it requires frequency as well. What I’ve often referred to as ‘psychotic persistence.’ As Rita Mae Brown famously said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” That’s also the definition of writing success. (Not to mention parenting success as well, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Much like learning a foreign language, or taking up a martial art or a musical instrument, writing and selling fiction requires practice. No one is born a literary genius, any more than they are born a black belt or a first chair violinist. That same psychotic persistence that has you writing and sending out will also give you the room to stretch your skills and improve your output.

In my own case, I spent the decade from 1990 to 2000 workshopping semimonthly. I brought a new story almost every time, 20-24 stories a year for those ten years, except for the period of time when my daughter arrived in my life. I sent my carefully crafted fiction out diligently, managing to collect an entire trunk full of rejections in the process. (Which I still have in the garage, for posterity’s sake.)  In 2000, I moved from Texas to Oregon and found a new home at a weekly workshop. That fall I began a new rubric of writing a story every week. I kept that practice going for almost five years, until I became consumed in the process of writing novels, at which point I essentially substituted production goals for finished manuscripts as my metric for self-evaluation.

All in all, between 2000 and 2005, I wrote close to 300 short stories.

That is psychotic persistence.

But it’s also smart, guided persistence: Listening to critique feedback from my workshop and first readers. Paying attention to editorial feedback from markets. Reading my first glimmerings of critical response from observers in the field.

Most of all, though, it was me writing in a consistent, repeatable manner.

My point again being, this process is not for wimps. It requires intense focus and dedication far beyond any rational measure of the available external validation or overt rewards.

This practice of constantly writing and sending has a happy side effect of inuring oneself to the impact of rejection. The more rejections you receive, the less each individual one can sting. Our one-story-a-year writer will invest an enormous amount of time and effort in each send out, and feel the impact of the response acutely. Our fifty-story-a-year writer collects rejection after rejection, reducing the sting and increasing the opportunity for those rejections to transition into acceptances.

As for Heinlein’s third rule, “3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order”, I do disagree with that. There is a difference between rewriting/revising and polishing. It’s a very rare first draft indeed that doesn’t require at a minimum some basic line editing and revision. It’s an unusual first draft that can’t benefit from some quiet time in a drawer, followed by a thoughtful revisiting after sufficient time has elapsed for the immediacy of the story has vanished from the writer’s mind. But not rewriting at all? Maybe it worked for RAH, but I don’t recommend that as a practice, either. And believe me, it took me years to think my way around that corner.

Note that I’m not actually advocating that everyone reading this immediately start writing a story a week. That’s what worked for me. It might work for you, it might not work for you.

Make your own words.

What I am advocating, specifically, is that you write more. That you cultivate persistence. That you recognize the fact that without consistent practice and production, breaking in to the field as a professional writer is simply a lot less likely to happen. Make your own luck by making your own words.

Write more.

Five Train Wrecks (and how not to be one)

Sean Wallace, from Fantasy Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and a plethora of other fabulous projects (including twin girls), joins us this week on the Shimmer blog!


Every once in a while, we get an author who has gone over the line, and done something so horrible that they either get banned or receive a stern talking-to or are simply ignored. It happens very rarely, though, considering the hundreds of submissions received every month, maybe only representing less than one percent of the total slush.

But I’m going to tackle five that boggle us here at Fantasy Magazine / Lightspeed Magazine, stuff that drives us bonkers and occasionally over the edge, and might have unintended consequences. (Editors talk!) So, here we go, with the five don’ts of submission blunders:

This represents the worst of them all:

Don’t brag, after we’ve rejected your story, that you immediately resold it to another market and then gleefully dance on our graves because we failed to acknowledge your God-given brilliance. I mean, WTF? It’s just downright tacky, unnecessary, and rather bugs the hell out of us, because it shows a level of unprofessionalism. We’re less likely to take a more studied look at your next submission. Oh, we’ll remember you, but for all the wrong reasons.


don’t argue with us, unless you want us to go Mamatas on your ass. (A pale-imitation of Mamatas, I grant you, but you still won’t like it!) I don’t care what it is, you shouldn’t be engaging with the editor on any level. And we won’t respond. You’re just wasting your time and energy, and you could be using those resources to write another story to later send in. That’s all we care about.

Which leads to the third don’t:

Don’t bother thanking the editor for the speedy rejection/reading your story/whatever. Just send another story more to our taste. We don’t have time to process emails, really. It’s just filling up the inbox, and usually gets automatically deleted every thirty days. We’ve got lives and families to attend to, and unwanted emails are going to get the (lack of) attention they so rightfully deserve.


don’t ask us to give you feedback. We’re not a writing workshop. We’re not a writing organization. We’re not your teachers. That’s what they’re there for. Use them! Magazines, on the other hand, are businesses, and in these days and times it’s not efficient for anyone to give detailed rejections, not without sacrificing response rates . . . and for us, responding quickly to your submissions is the greatest service we can do for you, which segues into

. . . our last don’t:

for the love of all that’s unholy please don’t attempt to question our submission return rates, or accuse us of running a scam, because we process your submission incredibly quick. The rates are what they are because of the time and energy the slush team puts in, and everyone works very hard so that it doesn’t pile up. (And it’s a pain in the ass when this happens!)  Usually a half-dozen times a year this crops up, where a disgruntled author bemoans that there’s no way that we could have processed their story in only a few days or even less. (I’ve been known to reject stories as they come in, which can be a few seconds after they drop into the system.) Most magazines have a slush reader, or even many. For the magazines I’ve worked with, we even have a dozen or more busy slushing, which makes for an even faster process. Every story gets its time under the sun; some stories get a quick glance, and some get a longer study, but every last story is looked at. There is no conspiracy, no scam. It is what it is.

So, if you can avoid these five major blunders you’ll be making a slush-reader or editor out there incredibly happy, and really, at the end of the day, isn’t that what you want?

Looking Back from 100

Author James Van Pelt recently sold his one-hundredth short story. Here, he takes a look back and shares with us the things he’s learned along the way.


When I was a kid, I dreamed a bunch about being an adult, about being big and accomplished and competent.  While my friends talked about being action/adventure heroes, though, I dreamed about being a writer.  The idea that there could be books in the world with my name on them?  Wow!

What’s been exciting is that in many ways, I have fulfilled my dreams.  At least I hit that important milestone for me of publishing a book.

One way of evaluating a writing career is by noting the milestones: the first completed story, the first professional critique, the first submission, the first rejection (and second and third and . . . you know how it goes), the first acceptance, etc.  Milestones mark the writer’s life.

For me, I just reached a significant one: I sold my 100th story.  To get to it, I had to start twenty-one years ago, in 1990, when, after eight years of collecting rejections, I made my first short story sale.  The editor of a little magazine, After Hours, phoned me to say he liked my story, but none of it took place at night, a requirement for stories in his magazine.  Could I please make some part of the story take place at night?  I changed one sentence, and the sale happened.  I was now a published writer, a huge milestone.

If  you would have told me in 1990, after I made that first sale, that lightning would strike me 99 more times, including sales to Analog, Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales and many others; and that my stories would appear in several “year’s best” anthologies; that I would have been a finalist for a Nebula; that I would have the stories assembled in three collections; and that after 100 sales I would still feel like a newbie, I would have laughed in your face.

Winner of the Colorado Book Award from Colorado Humanities, 2010

One-hundred sales sounded more science fictional to me than any science fiction idea I ever wrote.

So, what has 100 sales taught me?

  • Nothing beats opening up a new file on the computer, putting my name and address on the upper left hand corner, spacing to the middle of the page, and then pausing to consider the title for the new, unwritten story.
  • Almost every story I’ve written has started with the feeling that the idea was inconsequential, and the only reason I was writing it was that I wanted to be working until a really good idea came along.
  • At some point in every story, I’ve told my wife, “I don’t know what the heck this piece is.  It’s weird and I don’t know how to write it.”
  • All my stories sound better in my head when I’m in the shower thinking about where to go next with them.
  • Story writing is about discovery for me: both discovering what is going to happen next and discovering why the idea is important to me.
  • Sometimes I think the only reason I write a story is so I can pile up enough words to justify being really lyrical for a paragraph.
  • At some point in the writing of every story, I’m convinced it’s the best thing I’ve ever put down on paper.
  • At some point in the writing of every story, I’m convinced I’ve never written worse dreck.

Along the way, I’ve also heard really good advice from other writers, publishers and editors:

  • Long time editor, George Scithers wrote on a rejection letter, “I hope while you were waiting to hear about this story that you were writing your next.”
  • I asked Connie Willis when she signed a book for me if she should would include her top three pieces of writing advice.  Her first one was, “Never kill the dog,” which I’ve interpreted to mean, “Don’t take cheap and easy emotional shortcuts.”
  • James Patrick Kelly told me that the writing of his classic, “Think Like a Dinosaur,” didn’t feel any different to him than the next story he wrote which he was never able to sell.
  • Ray Bradbury said, “If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without life, without fun, you are only half a writer.”
  • I was on a panel with Terry Pratchett at WorldCon and he said, “Make sure your character doesn’t suffer from plucklessness.”  I’ve always liked that word, plucklessness.

But mostly what I’ve learned on the road to those 100 sales is that I was right when I was a little kid:  being a writer is very, very cool.

Writing gives me focus.  Whether I’m reading the news or watch a mini-drama unfold in the grocery store, or overhearing a too loud conversation, I think about story, about human interaction, and about significance.  Wherever I am, I think about description.  It’s practically a mantra with me: what can I see, hear, touch, taste and smell?  And whenever I construct anything with language, I’m aware of how sound effects sense, how connotation and denotation intertwine, and how words are metaphors.

Mostly, though, I’m blessed with the permission that all writers have: to close my eyes and imagine other people and worlds, to hear other conversations, and to live for a moment in someone else’s skin.

What being a writer has done for me is to let me remain a kid, where imagination holds its own with reality, and putting my nose to the grindstone means making it all up and pretending.

One-hundred story sales later, I’ve learned that it’s okay to dream, just like a kid.

Whoso Hunts to List

Amal El-Mohtar stops by the Shimmer blog to share “something inspirational-ish” with us, and you. No ish about it, your writing journey will be better for having read it.


So, I’m sprawled out on my couch, laptop on my lap’s top, staring at the reality of needing to answer not one, not two, but three sets of interviews for tomorrow, and shaking my head in bewilderment at the fact that anyone anywhere wants to know what I think about anything. I am about to log on to Twitter to whine about how Interviews Are Hard and I Feel Like a Fraud, when I remember that I am supposed to be writing a guest blog for Beth.

I pause.

“Something inspirational-ish,” she’d said. “Something about how you went from ‘The Crow’s Caw’ to a story in a Year’s Best anthology.” And just as my brain starts to put Beth’s request into the same box as the interviews, consigning it to fuel for further intarwebby whinging, I think, hang on a minute. Beth Wodzinski is a woman of extremely discerning taste. She and her team made Shimmer into a ‘zine I adored and devoured long before I was ever published there. Beth Wodzinski knows what she’s talking about, and I will not disparage Beth Wodzinski’s opinions just because they happen to apply to me.

It’s so easy to focus on the things we haven’t done. It’s so easy to forget that a few months ago, perhaps a year ago, the list of things we haven’t done was much, much longer, because it is a flaw in the nature of lists that we don’t enshrine the items we’ve struck off, but narrow our eyes against what still needs to be done.

Often this is admirable. Just as often, I think it’s damaging and limiting.

I dwell on the fact that I haven’t written that novel, haven’t broken into that market, haven’t won that award, haven’t even been nominated for that award, haven’t written more short fiction, haven’t sold more short fiction. I dwell on the things I need to work on, the things I need to improve – but here, by Beth, I’ve been asked to dwell on the things I’ve achieved, the things of which I should be justly proud. And it’s hard. But hard things need doing, so here goes.

I used to dwell on how I wasn’t selling any poetry. In March of 2005, I made my first poetry sale to Marge Simon at Star*Line, and have since sold over twenty poems to individual markets, not counting a collection which I’ll get to later.

I used to dwell on how I wasn’t selling any short fiction. I was writing loads of it, as my dear friend Jess and I would encourage each other with weekly prompts, but nothing was going anywhere (with good reason, I now see, wincing as I peruse early efforts). In April of 2006 – over a year after my first poetry sale, and the same month I launched Goblin Fruit with that same friend – I made my first ever fiction sale. Shimmer bought my story about storytellers discussing how the crow got its caw.

I used to dwell on how no one outside my family and friends read or liked my poetry. In 2009, three years after joining the Science Fiction Poetry Association, two poems of mine were nominated for the Rhysling award: one of them won first place in the Short category, and the other took third in the Long category.

I used to dwell on how I couldn’t write every day even though I thought I should, and if I did it wasn’t any good. For every day in February of 2009, I wrote a complete piece of fiction or poetry inspired by the colour, scent, and taste of a different kind of honey. A year later those pieces were published as a collection, called The Honey Month, by Papaveria Press. A few months after that one of my author-heroes said beautiful things about it on the internet and invited me to contribute to one of his anthologies purely on the strength of what I’d produced there. A few weeks ago another one of my author-heroes asked me to sign a copy of The Honey Month for a friend of his, who happens to be the wife of an artist-hero of mine. Both of these heroes are people whose autographs I have asked for in the past.

I’m not even going to say I dwelt on the absence of this next thing, because I didn’t, because I don’t think I ever seriously thought it could happen: I have received letters, hand-written and electronic, from people I do not know, telling me they love my work, and asking me what I will write next.

And in spite of all these things, these beautiful, magical things – in spite of the fact that I’ve got a story forthcoming in a Year’s Best collection, in spite of the fact that people of whom I’ve been a fan I now count among my dearest friends, in spite of the fact that editors I was too shy to query now solicit material from me, in spite of the fact that I’m sharing Tables of Contents with the cherished names I’ve had on my bookshelves for years and years – I can’t bring myself to believe that someone might be interested enough in what I have to say to ask me some questions, because I haven’t written a novel.

More bizarre than that? Those people who have written novels, whose work I’ve loved my whole life? They feel this way too, or close enough for folk music. The goal post is always moving, and those tantalizing grapes are always just out of a reach that always exceeds one’s grasp, else what’s a heaven for, the whole bit. But I’m here to tell you – even as I remind myself – that so long as you work, you’re always getting better, whether you feel it or not. So long as you work, even as you sigh, and frown, and count your rejections, and despair of ever doing any one of a list of a dozen things that would mean you’d Made It – you’re getting better, and you’re Making It.

I’m not telling you to rest on your laurels, or to lack ambition, or to be content with what you’ve achieved. I’m telling you to have a passing acquaintance with what you’ve achieved, because chances are it’s more than you thought you would at some point, before you got good enough to expect more from yourself. Just acknowledge it. Be kinda proud of it. And every now and then, when you’re feeling smothered and stymied by all the things you’ve yet to do? Make a list of the things you have done, no matter how small they may seem in hindsight, and let them stand, un-struck-through, as a testament to all the things you will do. Because they’re the proof that you can.


Amal El-Mohtar is a Canadian-born child of the Mediterranean, currently pursuing a PhD at the Cornwall campus of the University of Exeter. She is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of poetry and prose written to the taste of 28 different honeys, and co-editor of Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry, along with Jessica P. Wick. Her work has appeared in several venues online and in print, including Apex, Strange Horizons, Weird Tales, Shimmer, and Cabinet des Fées, and is forthcoming in Welcome to Bordertown, edited by Ellen Kushner and Holly Black, and The Thackeray T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. A complete bibliography is available at her Writertopia page. She also keeps a blog somewhat tidy at Voices on the Midnight Air.


Author Catherynne M. Valente tackles the tricky issue of diversity and how not to be a misogynist douchebag in one’s writing. Our thanks to her for helping keep the writing waters free of debris…


Over the wreckage, one old sea dog said to the young pup: there are two kinds of sailors, son. Those who have shipwrecked, and those who haven’t shipwrecked yet.

I’m not quite an old internet sea dog yet (I think you have to have been on Usenet to claim that) but I can tell you–it’s only a matter of time, if you sail these uncertain textual seas. You, or someone you love, or both of you at the same time, will behave like a damn fool on the internet and/or in novel form. No one is immune. I’m saying this up front so that you don’t read this essay with the certain satisfaction that I’m talking about those wicked rats over there, and not us, the virtuous mice, over here. No, we’ll all do it sooner or later. We all fuck up. When Shimmer asked me to write this post, about how not to be a douchebag in print, I thought: but most people who read this will already be on my side. No amount of creative profanity or amusing bon mots will win over the people who really are habitual internet/fictional werewolves, prone to howling and screaming and rending flesh when the moon is full–and it’s always full.

But then I thought–and yet. We will all fuck up sooner or later. I am personally convinced I have fucked up every time I finish a novel and about half the time I finish a blog post. Basically right up until I won the Tiptree I was terrified I had not created a feminist novel, but had somewhere along the way fallen into the same old misogynist traps I so love to pick apart in other people’s books. I could have done better. And the next time I sit down at the keyboard, I try to. That’s the cycle. It’s when you’re not really worried about the text you present to the world, when you’re convinced you are always and forever on the side of the good, that trouble rears its lupine head.

So really, there are two types of motley douchery to consider. Those who are knaves in print, and those who are knaves online. Knavery in print usually takes the form of unthinking–worlds where everyone is white and straight and mostly male, where men are active and women are passive, where our own societal dicta are repeated without commentary or consideration. Very few authors deliberately set out to crush women and minorities, tenting their fingers and cackling in joy as they tear apart yet another poor gay soul–and those who are certainly do not read columns by me. It’s more a kind of parroting–our top-level culture says being gay will only end in tears, and we internalize that narrative, and regurgitate it dutifully, sometimes without even noticing what it is that has been perpetuated at our hand. It takes work to conquer those cultural narratives, and don’t let anyone tell you different. Not everyone has, or wants to, do the work. Picking apart one’s own assumptions and personal narratives is uncomfortable, unpleasant, difficult duty–but that’s no excuse. Just like learning where the commas go (and where they don’t), this is simply part of the work of being a writer. It is not optional. It is not an elective.

Now, many would say this is PC nonsense. What, they cry, would you have us do? Keep a spreadsheet of just so many gay characters, characters of color, female characters? Lunacy!

Of course not, say I. Though honestly, if a spreadsheet is the only way you can see through to including anyone not white, straight, and male in your book, then allow me to introduce you to my friend Excel. But it’s not, and has never been about quotas. It’s very, very simply, about writing a good book. Because if your world is so anemic, so thinly drawn and so sadly empty of the diversity that makes this world such an amazing place, then you did not write a good book. If your women exist only as rewards, you missed a chance to write a better book. If your ideal future excludes even the possibility of alternative sexualities and a myriad of cultures, then you fell down on the job.

This is actually a fairly radical thing to say, and I’m quite aware of it. Many of the great classics of SFF commit those sins, and are beloved. Am I saying they are not good books? Of course not. But there really is no excuse these days to repeat the exclusions and uncomfortable politics of the past. They were performing the assumptions of their time–but we have no such convenient shield.

So how is this avoided? How can it possibly be avoided, when there are only two kinds of sailors? I propose a simple test, applicable to any author, anthologist, editor. Look at your work and say to yourself:

Does everyone here look/act/think/fuck/live just like me and/or my friends?

If the answer is yes, then the work could probably be better. This is true, really, for all of us–even those of us who cannot escape the discussion of minorities in literature because we are minorities, and we want stories for us and our friends. We, too, could include more characters who are different, who are radical, who challenge. We, too, internalize ugly narratives and turn them out onto the page without seeing what we’ve done. There are only two kinds of sailors, son. We all fuck up. But breaking out of the creator’s comfort zone, the place where everyone agrees with them and thinks they’re the bees’ lower appendages, always makes for better literature. It’s not PC, it’s not the hounds of feminism at your heels, it’s just good writing. Good writing is diverse, it is full of all kinds of people and all kinds of experience. Good writing is not hampered and hemmed in by political discourses which say this or that group of people are not as deserving of stories or of publication.

As for how not to be a knave online, well, I suppose you could ask yourself if your opinions are predicated on hatred for groups of humans rather than individuals, groups with whom you have little contact but about whom you seem to have plenty of things to say and assumptions to make. But honestly, if that’s your bag, I doubt you make much of a habit of reading things with my byline on it.

And chances are, each and every one of us is going to plow our little wordboats into some kind of iceberg–we are none of us perfect in mind and deed. The act of writing a novel is one of making the internal external, and you know, sometimes ugly things come out when you turn yourself inside out. I’m not saying that’s admirable, but when you do fuck up, you can learn and go on to other books without the same mistakes. In a lifetime of creating worlds, there is very likely room in them for at least one disabled person, a person of color, a lesbian, a transperson, hell, go wild–throw in a woman. We exist in the real world–why not yours?

Your Turn

How do you plan to make your fiction more diverse today? Tell us in the comments!

On Persistence

Aaron Polson submitted to Shimmer roughly eleventy-billion times before recently making his first sale to us. Here, he speaks to persistence, and why it’s vital.


My four-year-old son, Max, plays with the Soccer Hobbits on Saturday mornings, and no one keeps an “official” score. Soccer Hobbits focuses on playing, learning to love the game, experience, and fun. When Max pursues the ball during scrimmage, however, the look of grim determination on his face speaks all business. Max might not be as big or as fast as some of his peers, but he makes up for his lack of prowess with sheer guts and persistence. One tiny tap of the ball, even if it is stolen a microsecond later, proves enough to keep the fight in his tiny legs.

I can’t help but draw a parallel to what it takes to stay in the game as a writer.

Anyone can write. I have to believe as much to survive my day job as a high school English teacher. Some days are harder than others, for my students as well as me. Writing well and developing one’s craft requires patience. Patience requires a healthy dose of perspective. Since I started my writing journey four years ago, I’ve gained as much perspective as any bit of craft. Rejection is part of the game, and I’ve received my share. Each “no” used to sting like a solid punch in the gut, knocking the writing wind out of me.

But persistence requires a certain level of stubbornness despite little defeats. I listened to editors. I dusted off my knees and worked harder. I read. I’ve read the best in the field, devouring year’s best volumes, retrospective collections, award winners—trying to unlock the magic. Along the way, I identified what I liked, what worked and what didn’t, in the stories I read. I made a mental list. I wrote, too. Every day. Even days when I was too sick or tired or defeated to keep going, I forced at least one hundred words on a page, just as Max forces his little legs to keep pumping on the soccer field.

I first submitted to Shimmer in 2007. By my count, I’ve beleaguered the editorial staff with 27 manuscripts over the past few years. Persistence requires a writer to believe the next time will be it, the golden message, an acceptance letter with contract attached. It’s a sort of insanity, really, trying to find a home for one’s stories in highly competitive markets. For a writer to stay with the game, a writer must believe each story is better than the last, each story is a move forward.

And finally, most of all, a writer must be patient—as patient with her/himself as with a market’s submission wait-time. Craft does improve, only with time and effort; no “magic writing beans” exist, no overnight elixirs of brilliance. Stories need patience, too. Patience to develop. Patience for the characters and setting and plot cogs to snap together in the right way. Sometimes patience requires a story be set aside for months, as I did with “The House was Never a Castle.” I’m not the same writer I was when I first submitted to Shimmer back in 2007. I won’t be the same writer a year from now.

Max can keep playing soccer as long as he loves it; I’ll hammer away, story after story, page after page, word after word, putting my patience and persistence to the test.