The October issue of Apex Magazine went live yesterday. I’m delighted, and more than a little honored, to have a story in this issue.
Still Life (A Sexagesimal Fairy Tale) is available online at Apex’s website, and along with the rest of this month’s awesome issue in various ebook formats. (Even if you don’t enjoy my contribution, please consider making a donation or taking out a subscription or purchasing a digital edition of an issue or two, so that Apex can continue to publish awesome short fiction and poetry from the likes of Brenda Stokes Barron, Ekaterina Sedia, Rose Lemberg, and Elizabeth McClellan.)
I am just so dang happy to see this story in a good home with such vaunted company. Editor Catherynne Valente discusses how she came to put this issue together on her blog, here. More thoughts and behind-the-scenes trivia below the cut.
I wrote this story a couple of years ago, for Walter Jon Williams‘s Rio Hondo workshop in 2008. It also served as a “palate cleanser” for me, after I finished the manuscript for Bitter Seeds that spring. I was pretty well convinced that the story was unsaleable, in spite of lots of very encouraging and positive feedback from the workshop. (Including, of course, from Cat herself.)
I did another version of the story after Rio Hondo, based on the feedback from that ubersmart group, then started sending it around. I think it wracked up half a dozen rejections in the following two years (not a huge number, compared to some stories that eventually sell, but then it was caught up in many months of Limbo when Realms of Fantasy went under and then got miraculously resurrected). The rejections included some hair’s breadth close calls, but still convinced me the story wasn’t viable.
It was way too goddamn long— almost 8500 words (SMF count) in the revised version. I knew that was the kiss of death, but either didn’t feel capable or motivated to try to fix that. Even though the length might very well have been the thing that tipped some of those close calls from sales to almost-sales. I just chalked up the story as another contribution to my million words of crap, tried to learn something from it, and moved on. Cuz I’m lazy, you see.
But then Cat asked if the story were still available. Which was a huge and thrilling compliment. “Still Life” wasn’t doing anything particularly important other than moldering in my trunk (see above re: me being super lazy) so I sent it along so she could refresh her memory (not that it needed it, being ripped like a cage fighter and all) and decide whether she still liked the story. She did, but—surprise, surprise—it was too long for Apex’s guidelines. Could I trim 1000 words off the story?
Well, you know, even I can see there’s a point where laziness becomes self-destructive.
What harm in trying? I told Cat I’d give it a shot. Best case, I wouldn’t mangle the story so badly that she rejected the revised version. Worst case, it would be a worthwhile writing exercise for me. Because I need to learn how to write shorter short fiction anyway. And, laziness aside, I want to keep improving as a writer. There’s so much room for it, after all…
Cutting 1000 words meant (by the logic of SMF wordcount) that I had to trim an average of 3 lines from every page of the story. In a handful of cases, a slight rewording killed a widow at the bottom of a paragraph. But those opportunities were rare because I’d already pulled that trick when I did the original revisions after Rio Hondo.
So I had to sit down with a pen and carefully consider every single sentence in the story, one by one: Is this line important enough to keep? Can it be rephrased without changing the voice and tone of the story?. It took quite a while, because I did this in short sessions on the bus during my morning commute to work. And it did turn out to be a terrific exercise. I’m not sure I did the best possible job of tightening the story (in fact, I know I didn’t), but I’m glad I didn’t mangle it beyond the point of saleability. There are some little bits and pieces that I actually preferred in the longer version, but then again, if I were a better writer, the shorter version would have preserved those tidbits.
Lessons learned: Murder your darlings! And don’t be (quite so) lazy.
More trivia: the character of Valentine was originally named Cicisbeo in the Rio Hondo version of the story. I changed this because “valentine” trips off the tongue much more easily than “cicisbeo”, which is something to consider when doing readings at conventions.
(As a reminder, for thems what is interested, I’ve posted a long explanation of the new publishing schedule for Milkweed #2, The Coldest War, as well as the paperback edition of Bitter Seeds.)