I've recently had a couple of near misses, short story-wise. I've hinted at the frustration caused before and, mentally, I'm in the same territory that I was a year ago. Must be an October thing. The only difference between a near miss and a swift rejection is that the former wastes so much more time. Otherwise, it gets you to exactly the same place. An inch really is as good as a mile.
One was from token-paying Wyldblood, for a short that started off life as an exercise to see how many of Clarkesworld's rules - the bit here that's prefaced with "this is not a challenge" - I could break in one story. It has a talking cat and, originally, even a punning title: Catmandon't.
On the back of that rejection, I had a fascinating email exchange with editor Mark Bilsborough, in which his take on the reality of the cat was quite different to mine. I'm not saying he was wrong and I was right - as Ursula K. Le Guin's said, "The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader reading it makes it live: a live thing, a story" - and Mark's take was quite legitimate, although I’m not completely at the extreme end of the ‘if a story is read in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, it makes no sound’ spectrum.
Incidentally, Mark and I are the only two British silver honorables(sic), in fact, the two highest placed Britons, in the latest quarter of the L Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future. Congratulations to us, although I guess that's another near miss if you're being glass half empty about it.
The other rejection I had in mind was from Flash Fiction Online, who published my Product Recall some three and a half years ago. This story, which was with them for over seven weeks rather than the fortnight it usually takes them to put me back in my box, made it to the final 5%, and, as I assume is reserved for the cream that isn’t the creamiest, editor Suzanne Vincent offered me feedback. A nice touch, much appreciated, thank you.
I’m used to the editorial trope that there are more publishable stories than they had space for, so expected something along the lines of good but not good enough, too similar to something else, didn’t quite do it for me...
But, fuck me... “Tension is lacking... started off quite well but didn't get going after that... much of the story is little more than internal monologuing, without much really happening. And when something does happen, I'm not sure about the significance of what happened... interesting but not developed in a convincing way... the resolution isn't satisfying because the character's reaction isn't one of understanding or empathy... I think the story is trying to do too much... I didn't find this believable... I’m not really engaged in the conflict here or the science behind the solution. It just comes off as kind of bland overall... This for me is bland... I'm not really sold. The conclusion isn't great... I started skimming near the end. The writing wasn't bad, but there was nothing to hook me... the end falls flat for me.”
Christ. What do they say for the ones they don’t like?
I can take all of those on the chin and, once you've had several gins and a good cry, it's all grist to the rewrite mill. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, although those people do seem to be disproportionately more populous amongst slush pile readers. But I do think there’s a sense of proportion missing here. I’m writing sci-fi. Hand-waving, rubber science, sci-fi. I’m not writing the Great American Novel. It’s not my credo that I'm setting out from my hermitage high in the hills. It’s meant to be a throwaway 1000-word entertainment.
I'd hate to see what these people make of Star Wars - or, perhaps they think having your spaceship attacked by your estranged father-in-law and throwing a message in a bottle into space to be found by your unknown brother is convincing; that Jawa sandcrawler looks perfectly stable on the Tatooine surface; that the best freighter pilots in the galaxy are bound to be found on a planet with no evident industry or other obvious need for interstellar logistical infrastructure; that there’s nothing odd in an armed freighter; that Mos Eisley spaceport clearly has at least another 93 docking bays; and that it is perfectly, naturally normal to get out of your means of transport within sight of your destination and talk about it, as though to an unseen audience. Oh, hold on...
But what got me were the readers who felt they were reading a story about beauty, and that I’d set my Malay-German heroine, Lilly, up to be a white man’s demonstration of how ugly Asians are.
This rather threw me. Actually, threw me an extremely long way. As far as I was concerned, I’d written a story about the disconnect between internal emotional states and facial expressions as externally perceived. Aesthetics wasn’t even on my radar. I don’t think there’s a single element that steers the reader that way, except in a seeing your parents fighting in an inkblot kinda way. You can be Mila Kunis frowning, or one of life’s unfortunates grinning; the two aren’t related and if I didn’t clearly say they weren’t, it’s for the same reason that I failed to point out they weren’t correlated with the price of fish, either.
Plus, I’m rather fond of Lilly and, even though she’s fictional, I thought she was illustrating a universal truth, that we may be serene on the surface but we're all paddling like crazy underneath, and I feel slighted that there’s even a suggestion that I think she’s a minger.
The thought that I’m left puzzling over is, were my story genuinely about "anti-Asian stereotypes and Western standards of beauty", would any of the slush pile readers have mistaken it for a simple story about the (mis)perception of facial expressions? I’m inclined to think not, because the woke aren’t on the look-out for that, are they, like religious zealots checking their toast for faces? But mention in passing that you prefer Blonde on Blonde to Back to Black and you may as well put on a pointy hat and call yourself Grand Wizard.
So, yes, a story needs a reader and a writer, and the two together make the dance. And if reader and writer muddle through and it transpires one was dancing a mambo and the other was working on the basis that it was a rumba, maybe something interesting might come out of it. But if I’m coming to tango, don’t go complaining to the judges that I’m dancing a goosestep, because that may just start an argument...