100 Stories

My rejection slips, from back when you got paper rejection slips
My rejection slips, from back when you got paper rejection slips

For some reason, I’ve always been a compulsive list-maker. Since I’m also a writer with a masochistic streak (is there a different kind?), one of the things I’ve always tracked is rejections. My rejection slips date back to 1985, when my clueless teenaged self submitted “Who Cares About Apathy?” to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Turns out Edward L. Ferman didn’t care about apathy—who could blame him?—and it would be eight more years before I made another short story submission.

But after that I never stopped, and here we are, thirty years later. And for the last few of those years, I’ve been dreading a slowly approaching milestone: Rejection #700.

I’m not entirely certain why I’ve been dreading #700, especially when Rejection #500 came and went without fanfare, and surely Rejection #1,000 is a more impressive target to get gloomy about. My guess, though? It’s simply that Rejection #700 has recently felt like the last achievable Big Round Number Rejection Milestone I’m likely to achieve in my life. My once-passionate drive to be a short storyist has been on life support for so long, the idea of slogging through another 100 short story bounces—let alone 300—seems inconceivable. Surely, my subconscious whispered muddily into my mind’s ear, when that rejection clock ticks to 700 I will expire in a puff of smoke, or flounce dramatically from the writing life, or the planet will explode or something.

Well, last week rejection 700 came and went, and of course none of that happened. Indeed, I packaged the story off and shipped it right out again, and started the long, slow crawl to 800. I suspect I did it mostly out of habit. But I’m also heartened by the fact that without quite noticing, I rather quietly and simultaneously reached a more positive milestone: Story #100.

Actually I’ve written well over 100 stories, if you include all the exploratory crap I wrote as a kid—not to mention novels, which I track differently. But if you go back to 1993, and start counting from the first just-before-Clarion, taking-writing-seriously story I submitted to Amazing Stories (cheerfully entitled “Like a Beetle on its Back”), then I have written exactly ninety-nine stories with the intent to get them published.

But of course there’s also “Who Cares About Apathy?,” which I’ve always listed as Story #0, because that seemed thematically appropriate, and of course it’s the first rejection. If you count that—and dangit, I do care about apathy, I spent most of the eighties practicing it like a religion—that means I hit an even 100 when I finished story #99 a couple of months ago.

Let’s face it, 100 is a cooler number than 700. And, more importantly, “stories written” is a cooler benchmark than “stories rejected.” You can’t control what sells; you can only control what you put out there. Why commemorate a milestone beyond your control? External validation is nice when it happens, but for some of us it’s vanishingly rare, so we need other metrics. And frankly, I’m happier when I focus on the shit I can control. This is a lesson I forget constantly, so consider this blog post a proactive, public reminder. (Something else I can control…ha!)

So here it is: this post is dedicated to my first 100 short stories. And not just the ones that sold, but the ones that didn’t, including:

  • My favorite failed Clarion story, “Deathless Horsie.”
  • The notorious “Cyberdude,” my only collaboration ever (hey Dave!), which Howard Waldrop described as “the kind of stuff we used to put up with from Bruce Sterling when he was eighteen.”
  • My first conscious speculative/spy-fi mash-up, “Cold Warpage.”
  • The profoundly awful, recursive, gonzo skiffiness of “Johnny Fahrenheit,” “Hey, Houston, Like What’s Up?,” and “Marooned off Zappafrank.”
  • The story that immortalized my favorite imagined futuristic Satanic prog-metal band, “Spasmodeus.”
  • My twice sold-and-unsold space opera spy novelette, “The Cull.”
  • “The Final Divination,” a novelette in which John le Carré spy paranoia finds its way into…high fantasy?
  • My first fucking novella, “Maceo’s Gig,” and the two fucking novellas that followed it, “Testing Ground” and “The Machine Storms” (there are no novellas, there are only fucking novellas).
  • And many more too unremarkable to mention (there’s a reason these things don’t sell).

These are the abject failures, quirky misfires, wonky experiments, learning experiences, and beloved near-misses I had to write to get to the next thing, and a lot of the next things were a little bit better, and some of them even sold. This is my process, and this is my progress, slow and brutal but, damn it, it adds up. I’ll beat myself up about it, but I’m also proud. Writing is hard.

The hell with Rejection #800. I’m shooting for Story #200.

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