Is it easier to sell short stories if you're a published novelist?

In short, God, no.

I haven't ever really submitted that many short stories since I started getting serious about writing way back at the start of the Nineties. But of those I did submit, I sold a few - a very few - to professional markets. Between 1990 and up to the present, I've sold a grand total of six stories - and three of them were placed only in the last nine months.

Five were sold to paying markets, and one is going to appear later this year in an unpaid anthology put out by my old writing group in Glasgow. One was reprinted in an Eastern European magazine back in the mid-90s, and then later appeared again, in another writing group anthology, given away free at the 1995 Worldcon in Glasgow.

I never saw myself as a short story writer, more of a novelist, but something changed last year and I started banging out short fiction for the first time in a long while. I've written four stories, of which two have sold, and the other two are still doing the rounds. Well...I say "short", but some of them are going past eight thousand words. I'm slowly figuring out how to get them down to more manageable levels.

Someone, who just recently made their first professional short story sale, told me they took some hope from the fact that despite having ten novels published, I still got a lot of rejections. Well, everyone does. And it's one of the good things about writing short stories. It doesn't just make you a better writer, it also gets you used to rejection.

Scienceville, which was in Interzone last year, had previously gone to Tor.com and Clarkesworld. Senseless, appearing in the latest issue of Shoreline of Infinity, went to several markets before that. I still have two other stories doing the rounds, one of which has racked up maybe half a dozen rejections.

So what you can you take away from this? Well, if you're a new writer, that rejection isn't about you. I always knew you shouldn't take a story rejection personally, but it's one thing to say it and another for it to be true. If you're thinking, but what if my stuff isn't good enough? Then, well, maybe it isn't, but maybe also it just hasn't landed in front of the right pair of eyes yet.

So take heart that even after working in the field since the early 2000s on a pro level, it doesn't automatically make selling a short story any easier. Nor, I suspect, should it be.


Noteworthy books read so far in 2016

It's been a while since I wrote a post about books I've read recently, and that I'd like to recommend (or, in one case, not recommend), so this is going to be a slightly longer post.

I've long been a fan of William Gibson's writing, but I started to lose interest from about the point he wrote Idoru. I've read several of his books that followed, including, most recently, Spook Country, but they felt terribly ephemeral and lacking in any real substance, certainly compared to his earlier, defining work. I'm aware those later books have numerous fans, but I had more or less reached a point where I thought it unlikely I would read him again.

I therefore only read his latest book, The Peripheral, on the recommendation of a friend who felt much the same way about Gibson's output over the last couple of decades. It's a return to science fiction, and somehow a return to the kind of truly gripping writing and world building with which I most associate William Gibson. If it's not yet quite my book of the year, it's certainly a close contender.

I've tried, and failed, on multiple occasions to read Thomas Pynchon, most recently Inherent Vice, which I picked up and abandoned partway through a couple of years ago. Curiously, it was catching the movie on Netflix that brought me back to the book and gave me a way "in". Once I heard actors portraying the characters, the voices in the book made sense in a way they hadn't before. I can't absolutely say, even now, whether or not I can recommend the book, though, because I came away from it with no clear sense of what Pynchon was trying to say, if anything. An addled, stoned detective in early 70s LA muddles his way through a muddled investigation littered with the broken and the eccentric...and then it ends. Pynchon is highly rated, particularly by writers I admire such as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, so I came away from the experience still feeling as if I were missing something.

Something I didn't expect to get around to reading was Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. Like, probably, a fair few of my own readers, Heinlein was part of my introduction to science fiction. I read Podkayne of Mars, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel and a pile of short fiction pretty much from the moment I first got my hands on a library card.

Heinlein, unfortunately, doesn't read so well from an adult perspective. Farnham's Freehold proved, on rereading, to be astonishingly racist, and Glory Road is, simply, crude, childish and ultimately unreadable.

The only major Heinlein book I hadn't read back in my youth was Starship Troopers, and I bought it only because the ebook was on sale for a quid, and because as a purported classic of the field I felt I should read it at least once.

What you get is less a science fiction novel than, for the first half at least, a fairly straightforward story about military boot camp, with the addendum that real boot camps neither have powered suits that can have you leaping around like a super powered grasshopper, nor do they, to my knowledge, regularly whip their soldiers, or have to suffer endless monologues by barely-disguised authorial stand-ins about the horrors of democracy. It's a genuinely and unapologetically fascist piece of writing.

Once the action moved into space, I started skipping pages because there's nothing more boring than reading about people and insects shooting at each other. Is it a classic? Hell, no. Is it a good book? Not that either. But it proved at least a salient reminder that Heinlein was exactly as bonkers as I suspected.

By far my favourite book of the year, however, is a Jack Womack novel I first read way back in the early or mid-Nineties. I already reviewed it earlier this year, and in terms of quality of prose, of characterisation, and of nuance, it's the diametric opposite to juvenile trash like Starship Troopers. Read it, enjoy it, and thank me later.

Sharyn McCrumb's novel, rather than being science fiction, is instead a crime novel set around a science fiction novel: a famous novelist, notorious for his utter contempt for his audience, is brutally murdered at a con. There are endless walk-on parts for pretty much the worst kind of people you can meet at a convention. I've met a lot of terrific people at conventions, and they can be a huge amount of fun, but it would be remiss of me to deny that I'd also met some of the worst people in the world at conventions, and it's clear that McCrumb's knowledge of, and experience of, the world of conventions is both deep and extensive. Like Random Acts, I read this one originally some time ago, but more recently picked it up on Kindle when it was going cheap. Definitely recommended. 


We materialised in another hangar

We materialised in another hangar, apparently identical to the one we’d just departed. In fact, the only hint we had gone anywhere at all was that the stage technician on duty was now a woman, and the sunlight coming through the open hangar doors behind her was of an entirely different hue.

I took a breath. Even through the respirator, the air smelled…strange.

The Pathfinders were the first down from the stage, and we followed them out through the hangar doors in a group.

Outside, I saw an unearthly blue and yellow forest spreading towards distant hills beneath a pink sky. Although when I say forest, these organisms bore an at best tangential relationship to any tree I had ever seen; instead of branches, they had long, whip-like fronds that spiralled up and around broad, twisting trunks. There were also preposterous growths like huge sea anemones, swaying in the breeze.

All of this riotous, alien flora came to a precise halt at the edge of the paved area, as if it had been neatly trimmed back that very morning. For all I knew, it had.

I turned to look behind me, and saw that the hangar was at one end of a huge, paved expanse perhaps a kilometre in length and half as wide, and scattered across which were about a dozen gargantuan metal-walled sheds, huge compared even to the hangar.

A dandelion seed drifted past me, except that no dandelion seed I had ever seen moved in sudden, sweeping motions with hummingbird rapidity. I caught a brief glimpse, there and gone, of a pale, grub-like body at the heart of a feathery cloud. In the next instant it had zipped away from me, almost too fast to follow.

Then I spied what at first appeared to be an enormous spider, several inches in diameter, wobbling on spindly legs in the shade of one of the anemone-like trees. A whiplike stalk extended upwards from its body, and it had something very like an eye on top. The creature rushed towards me, then fell back in a shower of sparks the moment it tried to cross onto the pavement.

I watched, stupefied, as it leapt back in amongst the anemone trees, screeching a flurry of bird-like notes as it fled out of sight. There must, I thought, be some kind of field separating the paved area from the surrounding forest.

The Soviets all had stunned expressions. Most likely I did too.

'Are we…are we still on Earth?' Boris asked plaintively. All that morning, his hand had constantly twitched towards his neck, until he finally had the good sense to take his crucifix off and simply carry it in one hand.

‘Sure,’ said Chloe. ‘Just one where evolution took a very different path.’ She spread her arms. ‘Welcome to Site A, Alternate Delta Twenty-Five.’