Great Expectations & The Clash of Reality

Over the past year, I feel as if I’ve lost my voice for blogging. Every time I sit down to post an update or dump some thoughts, I come to this grinding standstill; the page seems so blank, and then my thoughts go blank, and anything I had considered worth writing down flies out of my head or its relevance fades to smoke so quickly I can’t even remember why it seemed worth saying.

Some of this is pregnancy-brain, certainly–it comes on as a deep impatience that renders just about everything but a few hard-wired habits completely irrelevant and a waste of precious time. Earlier this year, in the first trimester and a few months prior, it was a touch of depression, too. But I think a lot of it is driven by a much deeper sense of my own disconnect from the writing industry, and my fear that I have nothing pertinent to say about writing.

I started working for Apex Magazine as a slusher (this blog was already established at that time, mostly as a true personal blog) in 2008, and for many years, until 2014 in fact, I worked with Apex Publications in one position or another. I gained so much knowledge about the inner workings of small presses and what it took to “make it” as a writer of short fiction by working with them. I learned that rejections really *aren’t* personal, and that close to half of received submissions often don’t follow even basic guidelines, so your precious story isn’t even competing with the vast majority of a magazine’s “monthly submissions”. (I’m not exaggerating when I say that I once fielded a submission from a book agent regarding a YA romantic-comedy–for a *magazine* that at that time explicitly published only Dark Sci-Fi, and even stated in its guidelines that it was not a market for YA. Many normal submissions just weren’t sci-fi enough, or dark enough, and at the time Apex didn’t take any dark fantasy or straight-up horror, though in later years they broadened their scope.)

I learned a lot about what made some stories stand out among others, and what–at least generally speaking–made a story seem “professional” enough to push up to an editor-in-chief. I was lucky, too, because in the very beginning, all the editors would weigh in on pushed-up stories, including Editor-in-Chief Jason Sizemore, so I got to see first-hand their reasoning behind each acceptance or rejection. It was a wonderful, honing education, and my own writing benefitted from it immensely. Repeatedly seeing what worked and what didn’t helped me to look at my own work more objectively. I still recommend spending a little time as a slusher for anyone starting out in this field. You will not regret it. It’s easier to confront the issues in your own work when you see it time and again by proxy in the work of others, and it pushed me to improve, because I could see the difference between the caliber of stories that got accepted compared to even the ones I was submitting at the time.

I learned the importance and skill of culling words, how to polish a rough draft, what pitfalls and cliches to avoid, what stories were forever being retold or reworked and therefore required more skill to pull off successfully. I learned professionalism from the angry submitters who would scream in ALL CAPS at me via email because I’d had to reject their story. I learned how to be patient regarding submissions times, but also when to politely query. I made some amazing contacts within the field whom I probably would never have met otherwise.

I grew up as a writer under Apex’s wing, but now, on the other side, I’m also realizing how much I used my association with it as a crutch for my own career. Working within Apex’s umbrella gave me a great sense of accomplishment and sophistication that I hadn’t yet matched in my own work. My pro-status was only in connection to the market, and when I stepped back in 2014 (and perhaps earlier, as I’d been out of the slush game for a while by then), I suddenly realized how much more work I needed to do to move towards my own career goals. And times change. My insider knowledge gave me something to talk about that I knew could help others just starting out, but over time, even that info has become gradually outdated. Most of it is still good in a general sense (read guidelines, submit a lot, read the markets you’re targeting from time to time, etc.), but it’s info that can be found anywhere. I don’t think I realized how much I leaned on giving relevant advice to newcomers to keep me motivated to blog. Without it, I drift, unsure what’s worth saying.

In truth, I’m not as far along in this career as I’d have liked. I’m in my mid-thirties, I sold my first story at nineteen. In all those years, I know there were a *lot* of life changes–I got married, moved four times (twice from one coast to the other), I worked several jobs, I had my first kiddo, I’m expecting my second sometime between Christmas and just after New Year’s, and my little family has survived the four-year torment of my husband’s passage through medical residency, which I think shocked us all by how painful that process was on everyone. But this is all just the stuff called “Life”. Everybody’s got stuff like this, and looking back, I deeply feel the lost time. All while I espoused how one needs to submit a lot, write a lot, I wasn’t submitting. All while I praised the need to edit and read a ton of short fiction, I was leaving drafts to languish on my desk and barely making time to read at all. Toxic perfectionism kept me eking out words on a semi-regular basis, but piles of rough drafts aren’t worth that much when they stay on your desk. I’d lost the thread of play in my pursuit of perfect productivity. I didn’t finish things–or, more accurately, I considered them finished when I got them to a completed first draft. Perfectionism kept me from submitting, which in turn made every submission I did get out matter *that much more*, and therefore justified taking even more time to tweak and edit over and over.

In the past two years, I’ve recognized a lot of the things that were hanging me up, keeping me from sending things out. I’ve confronted some of those things, and made good progress in places. I’ve earned personalized rejections more frequently. I’ve come up with a system to protect myself from that perfectionism that paralyzed me and kept things wasting away on my desk for years. I’ve submitted more fiction this year than any year since Bug was born. I’ve made it a priority to write 500 words a day, every day but Saturday, and I recently introduced a habit of reading one short story a day. I even found out a couple days ago that I’d sold a story I love to a market I’ve been eager to crack! But I still have a lot of refining to do to move towards what I’d consider a professional level of productivity. I’m trying to take the long-view, supplemented by small habits to move me in the right direction, so that hopefully, in a few years, I’ll be closer to the writer I want to be.

In the meantime, I’ll be thinking about what I need this blog space to be. I really enjoy the Poly-Reader Notes posts, which keep me on track reading-wise. It could be fun to track progress on various projects, too, and to air thoughts on process and craft insights that help me, in case they can help anybody else. And maybe this blog simply needs to become what it was originally, a log of days, of the time and commitment put in, proof of the struggles and triumphs. And, as always, a place for grand goals and schemes and a record of their realistic outcomes. Because, let’s be honest, I’m still essentially Wile E. Coyote with a crate full of Acme-powered dreams.

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