Tag Archives: Starline

Writing: The Sad State of Poetry in Speculative Fiction

Waaay back, when I first started to get serious about writing, I wrote poetry. Okay I started writing poetry at the angst-ridden edge of twelve, and shelved much of it until my twenties. Eventually though, my poetry grew up and ventured into the world.

My first professional sale was for a whole $1.45 and yes it was a science fiction poem to Star*line. I continued to sell a poem here and there for usually five bucks and a copy of the magazine/book. Then I hit it big and sold a poem to Amazing Stories; $36 USD. Wow! And from that, I was invited (they actually contacted me) to join the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA), THE professional organization for science fiction writers throughout North America. (I  don’t think I’d ever heard of SF Canada way back then.)

Thirty-six dollars and SFWA membership. SFWA works on a third of the pie idea. Three pro sales makes you a real writer. One or two-thirds makes you an Associate. You still pay the same amount but you get fewer privileges and can’t vote for the board or the Nebulas. What does it get you? That may be a different post but there is a wee bit of prestige, a very wee bit if you stay Associate forever.

I’ve sold more poems and stories since then, but everything must be speculative obviously for SFWA’s requirements. The publication that your piece appears in must meet the demands of a high production number, be a long running publication, pay pro rates, be American (and a few, very few Canadian magazines), etc. for membership qualification. Oh and poetry, well SFWA decided to drop it like a hot potato. No longer can you become a member on poetry alone. Not even if you’re the best poet in the world. Bruce Boston is probably the best Speculative poet out there. Certainly the most well-known. Canada’s own Sandra Kasturi is no pale shadow either. And there are numerous more.

But here’ is thesad state of the beleaguered poem. Someone got it in their head that because a poem is a hundred words or a hundred lines then why, it’s gotta be easy and fast to write. I’ve spent days, even months writing a poem (in some cases, years, but not constantly). I doubt it was any poet who said, scrap the poems from SFWA. And if three measly poems were just too few for a full membership, then why not make it six or nine or a dozen? Nope, SFWA allows stories, novellas, novelettes, books, even flash fiction in the right circumstances (though I hear that’s iffy) but poetry. Ick. That stuff is for intellectuals pontificating down their noses. Who reads it?

And really, that is part of the problem, isn’t it? Who reads poetry? There is a small point here that I believe poetry is part of the old bardic tradition and really is meant to be heard and seen. Look at poetry slams (a discussion for another day). Many people read it…sometimes, for it to still be bought in some places. But enough? And poetry, well it’s unfathomable, bizarre, esoteric. And spec poetry has just gotta be worse. Doesn’t it? I mean aliens in a story gives you time to paint an elaborate picture, but a vignette? Well, we don’t have time to look at that.

Sigh, there was an era where everyone was taught to read poetry. And what is “The Cremation of Sam McGee” if not speculative poetry? Poetry doesn’t have to be unfathomable or above people’s heads though I’ve had the most straightforward poems rejected by editors who said their audience wouldn’t understand them. Say the poem is confusing but don’t lower the intelligence of your readers, please.

Oh and did I mention that speculative fiction is the worst paid genre out there (except, would you believe, erotic fiction)? Yes, I can write a poem and receive $100 for it from Descant, or a story for a lit mag and get anywhere from $100-$1000, or I can write an article for anywhere from thirty cents a word to a dollar and more. Sure ,there’s a range but if you’re writing poetry and speculative poetry, well you really are the dregs of society. Not even as good as the tentacle waving scum of speculative story writers. No sirree. You’re filler on those pages that don’t have a story long enough.

That is the sad sate of speculative poetry. Alas. And this attitude is often held by those who have never written it or tried to understand it. SFWA has some pretty old-fashioned ideas that makes me wonder on the value of continuing to be a member when I’m a small time Canadian writer.

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Writing: Rejection Letters

On one of my writers’ lists we started discussing rejection letters. These have ranged from the ones that say, “I love your novel but have no idea how I would market it,” to form rejections.

In the range of rejections I’ve received is the acceptance letter from a new magazine that said they had “excepted” my story. I thought they had rejected but they hadn’t. Though the magazine didn’t make it to the first issue, I did get paid.

I have had many form rejections along the vein of “Thanks for your submission but it’s not right for us.” Fairly banal and doesn’t tell you anything of why they didn’t accept your poem or story. I have had the form rejections that are annoying and less than helpful. They’re usually the ones that say something like: “Thanks for your submission but we have decided not to accept it. The reason we reject pieces could be grammar, spelling, we’ve seen the plot before, flat characterization, not enough conflict, the editor was drunk, the editor hates stories about X, bad phase of the moon, we’re not paid enough to care, we don’t like you or your little dog too, etc.” Okay, maybe they don’t say all of these things but they may as well because, really, it’s a shot in the dark for any one of the reasons.

Asimov’s used to have a super irritating one for slushpile authors. It inspired me to write a poem about it that Starline published. I gave Gardner Dozois a copy when I met him at a convention, and I did eventually get out of that slushpile and that annoying letter. There have been a few that were downright insulting and snobby. Why editors think they need to do this to authors, I’m not sure but it usually bespeaks of nonprofessionalism in the magazine too.

I received one from a humor publisher done in the form of a breakup letter. I’m sure they thought they were being cute and funny but I would have rejected it for not being humorous at all and I found it more annoying in its coyness than anything else.

Some rejection letters use a checklist where there are boxes with such things as: plot has been done too often, grammatical issues, not enough conflict, characters flat, dialogue unbelievable, etc. The editor then checks the boxes  that pertain to your submission. Many of these letters also have the box that says, just not right for us, which is a valid reason. These rejections are marginally better because they may give you an idea of what doesn’t work in the story. I haven’t seen any of these for a while now. Either I’m getting personal rejections or the places I send work to just don’t use them.

The best rejection is one that says something about why the editor is rejecting a piece. Although this can often be subjective and once in awhile, downright stupid, (editors are people too) more often it will give you an idea of what is stalling the piece. An example of receiving some information and trying to correct the story is displayed by this one piece that I have never managed to sell. It takes place on an alien world with insectoid and larval creatures. I’d send it to one magazine and would be told the story was too alien and the reader couldn’t relate to the creatures. I’d rewrite and send it out to another magazine and receive back a rejection saying my aliens were too human. I did this for a bit, always having it rejected. Then I didn’t bother to rewrite the story in between the submissions and sure enough, one editor would say “too alien” and another “too human.” I’ll probably never sell that story until I’m a famous chestnut. So rejections must be taken with a grain of salt.

In the writers’ group, most of the writers said they’d prefer an informative rejection. Sometimes that rejection, after editors have held the story for a second reading, seems to be less preferable, but then it means I’m getting close. A no-no is to write back to editors and lambaste them for rejecting your piece. Professionals take it as part of the process and we chalk the annoying ones up to part of the experience. I always try, as an editor, to give a reason for rejecting as it hones my own skills and I know how much writers appreciate it. And so far, I have had letters of thank you but no one calling me names for rejecting their piece of genius.

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