A few weeks ago I subbed a story to Woodbridge Press with the hope of having it accepted for their forthcoming Explorations anthology (sidenote: the anthology will be out on 2nd September, and is going to be awesome – buy it!). My story, entitled A Cosmic Joke, was as pretentious as pretentious can be – without going into detail, I was attempting to write three stories within stories as fractals, with a “wormhole” at the centre, where the language and words ceased to exist or mean anything in their conventional sense. It was about meaning, and cycles, and the fractal nature of existence, and about hope. And my intention was to sub this to a collection of action and adventure stories.
And here’s the thing: I completely expected it to fail and not be selected. I knew it wouldn’t be selected. It was too weird, too dense, too cracked up. But I write and subbed it anyway out of sheer, writerly bloody-mindedness. If and when it would be rejected, I’d at least have the story to do with as I pleased.
Nathan, the head honcho at WP and a good buddy of mine, said some kind words to me about the story (which he most certainly didn’t need to), and then rejected it. Too weird, too dense, too cracked up. Ho-hum, I thought, and moved on.
A few weeks later the line-up for the anthology was announced by Nathan and WP on the SFF chronicles website, and when my name wasn’t on that list, it was then I really felt the rejection. I wasn’t part of something – and fair enough, sometimes you can’t always write the best thing, but the thing was I didn’t give myself the best chance of being part of something, and that is a let-down on my part.
As writers, sometimes we get an itch to satisfy some intellectual rigour (funnily enough, Adam Roberts blogged about this very thing recently) and use those big brains of ours to show off. God knows that itch needs a-scratchin’ for me often enough, but the rejection made me realise there’s a time and place for it. Nathan wanted an action story – a ripping yarn – and I gave him convoluted metaphysics and split narratives. It was a foolish thing to do.
So, my advice would be to always know your audience – not merely your reading audience, but your publishing audience, too. As a direct result of this, I got back in the saddle immediately and wrote another sub for Woodbridge’s next anthology, of fantasy short stories. And I wrote it with the total intention of it being that ripping yarn aI should have written the first time around. And it got accepted, and now I’m being published in the same book as 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Winner Adrian Tchaikovsky, as well as several Gemmell shortlisters.
So remember that your pretentiousness has its place! And don’t fear failure – you can only learn from it!
(PS As for the story A Cosmic Joke, I’m currently sitting on it and may tweak it into appropriate form for my own short story anthology I’m working on.)