Writers’ icebergs

I started trying to write science fiction for publication in January 1993 and I like to think of my entire body of work as an iceberg. There is a small part that sticks above the surface. This fraction of my work that has seen the light of day is the stuff that has been published. Below the surface, however, is a massive amount of stuff that I wrote in order to get good at telling a story. Now, there are prodigies of fiction writing. I know some of them. But I am not one of them. Whatever native writing ability I have has been heavily augmented with lots and lots and lots of brute force practice. That practice–the stuff you’ve never seen the big part of the iceberg, the part that is under water.

Science fiction is a pay-it-forward community and science fiction writers often get asked by aspiring authors if there is a trick to getting a story published. I wondered this when I was starting out. And indeed I found out that there was a trick to getting a story published: practice, practice, practice. This is nothing new. This is the advice that science fiction writers have been passing forward for decades. For some reason, newer writers don’t seem to want to believe this, but it is true, at least for me. The ingredients to producing a story good enough for publication is lots of practice. Actually getting it published almost certainly requires some luck.

The icebergs that writers have, the parts the linger beneath the surface, represents all of that practice. I have well over a hundred story submissions under my belt. These submissions are spread over three dozen stories written over the years. These are the stories that I felt were good enough to submit somewhere. It is an interesting exercise to go back and look at those early stories. The first story I ever submitted was called “Reductio Ad Absurdum” and it was about what today would be called “locked-in” syndrome. Not a bad idea for a story in 1993, but when I look at the actual story, it is horrifyingly bad. It’s not so much the writing, but the manner in which the story is told. I can tell by glancing at the manuscript that I didn’t really know what I was doing. There are long, boring passages that I wouldn’t dream of including in a story today. There is almost no feel for the setting of the story. There is almost no sensory detail (what does the room look like? Are the characters just standing in a generic white space?).  At the time I thought I’d written something that couldn’t possibly be rejected and now, looking back on it, I don’t understand how I could have possibly submitted it. But I did, and that is key.

By writing the story and sending it out, I did two of the hardest parts of becoming a science fiction writer: I finished a story and I sent it somewhere. You can’t sell a story if you never send one out. Sure, I was a little nervous, but when the form letter rejection came, I discovered that it was relatively painless. And I was so excited by the prospect of actually finishing a story that I wrote another one, a story called “What They Say” submitted to a crime fiction magazine. I have absolutely no memory of the story. But writing that story was more practice.

Of course, while doing this writing, I was also reading in the genre. I wasn’t a very analytically-inclined reader in those days, but every once in a while, I’d notice a technique that an author was using and find it interesting. But as the rejections kept coming in, and as I began to get feedback, I began learning things. For a fiction class in college, I wrote what I thought was a clever Twilight Zone-esque story called “Missing Miles.” My creative writing professor didn’t particularly like the story, but he was able to point out a very important mechanical flaw: for most of the 9,000 word story there was a single character and almost no dialog. You can’t really hold a reader’s interest that way. I learned that lesson quickly, and when I wrote new stories, I tried to avoid getting stuck in one character’s head for the entire story without any other kind of interaction. My stories got slightly better. And I continued to practice.

The first story that I wrote that, looking back on it today, I note marked improvement was one called “Chasing Borges” about a New York editor who is accosted by Jorge Luis Borges–who of course has been dead for years–and who has a new manuscript that he wants published. On this story, I got my first personal rejection slips, first from Kristine Kathryn Rusch, when she was editing F&SF, and then from Algis Budrys when he was editing Tomorrow. Both liked the story but both had problems with the ending. Another important lesson, and thereafter, I worked to improve my endings.

Around this time I’d graduated from college and started working full time and over the course of the next several years, I wrote on-and-off, as time permitted, writing perhaps 10 stories of varying length. My iceberg was growing and I was learning little things along the way, steadily improving. Looking back on those stories, they seem a cut above the stuff I’d written before “Chasing Borges” but I can still easily see why they were not publishable. There were important elements of storytelling that I not yet learned, things still missing from the stories that unified them and made them whole. I still read science fiction novels and I tried to read more short science fiction to get a better feel for what I was missing.

A year or so later I wrote two stories that I thought were pretty good. One was a time travel story called “The Golden Watch” and the other was my attempt at a fun, Heinleinesque science fiction story called “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer.” Looking back on these two stories, I noted yet another change in my storytelling. This time, it had to do with voice. I found unique voices in both these stories and I thought (and still think) those voices came through strongly and helped give life to the stories. I never sold “The Golden Watch” but I did sell “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer” to Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show and that became my first story sale. My iceberg had finally peaked above the surface.

That was in 2007. In the time since, the portion of my iceberg hidden underwater has grown immensely. I’ve written more in the last four years than I ever did in the first ten years. Most of it is practice, but it shows that there is something to this idea of practice: I’ve sold several other stories: “Hindsight, In Neon” to Apex Magazine; “Take One for the Road” to Analog; and a few others that will be forthcoming. But there is still a lot below the surface that no one but a few editors and fellow writers have ever seen.

Now, some people might think all of that stuff below the surface is a waste. I disagree. I look at it the way an actor looks at rehearsals. We never see the rehearsals, we see the final product. But those rehearsals are essential for me. It’s how I learn how to get things right. Today–as I write this–I have a much better notion of how to tell a story that I can sell than I ever did before. But I still don’t sell every story I write.

I think that every writer looks forward to the day when everything they do contributes to the part of the iceberg above the water–after all, that is typically the part that pays the bills. But I see myself as a writer who will (hopefully) add to the part above the surface more frequently, without ever really giving up the part underwater. That practice is important to me. It is from that practice that I have learned how to tell a story, learned how to make a voice unique, learned how to immerse a reader in a scene and hold their attention. It seems to me that the more I practice, the better I will get at those things and the more I’ll add to both ends of the iceberg.

Building that iceberg takes time, but like any investment, it is time well-spent. Is there luck involved in selling a story? Absolutely. You can’t control the mood of the editor when the story appears on her desk. You can’t control the fact that perhaps the editor published a similar story in the last issue. You can’t control the fact that your story came in at the same time as one by Connie Willis or Allen Steele. What you can control is how you build that iceberg. And the more you build it, the bigger you make it, the better you’ll get at telling stories.

4 thoughts on “Writers’ icebergs

  1. I like this. I take a somewhat different approach, however, in that my practice has been done on a much smaller number of stories in the form of re-envisioning them, and rewriting them. This approach wouldn’t work for some people, and there have been many times when I’ve wished I could have more “underwater,” but we all have to find our own way through this process. 🙂

  2. Juliette, I consider rewrites and revisions all part of that iceberg. On one recent story I have probably 15-20 thousand words worth of deleted scenes, and maybe (so far) 1,500 hundred words that I’ve kept as part of the actual story.

  3. I think this is normal human behavior, Michael, and applies to much more than just writing. As a kid, I used to watch the pro baseball players on TV and wonder that they could know, almost without thinking where to throw the ball. I could never do that, I thought. But one day, after years and years of playing ball, getting the stuff drilled into you with practices and games, I realized that I was doing that very thing: making plays–the correct plays–without even thinking about it. Now, was some of that practice boring? Did it seem useless at the time? Absolutely. But it still got me where I wanted to go. It is often only after we accomplish something significant that we recognize the hard work we put in to make that accomplishment.

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