Discover more from The Sentient Rejection Letter
How bleak is the future of time travel fiction?
Also: On writing for yourself and the best story I read this week
Thanks for reading the Sentient Rejection Letter! Each week I’ll share an update about my life writing and publishing fiction, discuss a speculative fiction trend, and talk about my favorite recent story. Let’s go!
Updates from the publishing grind: writing for yourself
“Write for yourself” is one of the most common pieces of blanket writing advice, but it should come with a few asterisks. To start with the most extreme and disingenuous example: for some writers, “writing for yourself” results in graphic wish-fulfillment fantasy involving your gym teacher and Cedric Diggory’s corpse that the poor editors at Asimov’s and Analog have to read/endure.
Obviously, the intended message is that writers should trust their taste and passion. Very few writers go far doing an impression of someone else’s idea of good fiction. It’s advice I had wished I had taken when I earned my MFA.
Most professors thought lowly of speculative fiction and implicitly or explicitly discouraged it. At first, I didn't foresee a problem because I considered my work magic realism, the subgenre of speculative fiction the literary world has decided is okay for sophisticates to like. But as one professor put it: “The word you’re looking for is fantasy. You are not Gabriel García Márquez; you’re writing fantasy.”
Gutless coward I am, I quickly shifted to writing realist fiction and observed an immediate and radical uptick in reception and approval. It creatively burned me out. All of my ideas and passions were still within the world of speculative fiction, so I would resort to my eleventh-best idea when writing a story for a workshop.
This culminated with my thesis novel. My adviser convinced me that the book would be stronger without all of the speculative fiction elements—fully half of the story. Looking back, I think this had to do more with her preference for realist fiction than the health of the story. Still, I took the feedback and ended up plugging away at a novel I no longer had the enthusiasm to write.
So the core of the advice can be helpful—if difficult to follow until you’re ready to do so on your terms. But I’m here to discuss its limitations, particularly when publishing speculative fiction. You need to write to your strengths to succeed, but if your goal is to sell/publish your stories and you don’t have a built-in audience or reputation, you will be at the whims of the market.
I find myself in this dilemma often. I write a story that appeals to my tastes and then I worry if it'll fit anywhere. Yes, guidelines are just suggestions, and a great story is a great story, but there's a reason the standard rejection letter says "this story wasn't a fit" that extends beyond a sparing of fragile writer egos.
I recently wrote a hybrid of fantasy, humor, and experimental literary fiction (it doesn’t suck, I promise). I think it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever written, and this has been supported with feedback from readers I trust. But I know this isn’t a fit for many SFF magazines. If the one or two top outlets that would consider it reject it—and given the competition, they probably will—I’m stuck sitting on it or sending it to a place that is less inclined to like it than something else I could send instead.
To counter this, I’m trying a personal experiment that will hopefully help me grow as a writer. When I have a specific vision for a story in mind, I’ll write it without compromise. My only goal is to make it as good as it can be.
When I don’t have a particular story in mind, I’ll challenge myself to write out of my comfort zone, using a specific publication I admire as a starting point. This could mean writing in a new genre (e.g., horror or hard sci-fi), a different style (luxuriating in world-building more than I usually do), or a specific theme (the beauty of nature). At the very worst, I developed experience writing something new, and at best, I’ve upped my versatility as a writer and submitted to a place I wouldn’t have before.
About half of the stories I’ve written this year stemmed organically from an existing idea in my head. The other half were the results of conscious brainstorming within set parameters. Creatively, it’s been a success so far. I still like the “organic” stories a bit more, but I’m proud of the ones I never would have written otherwise.
Notably, my “experiment stories” are faring better so far in the very early stages of this experiment. A month in, I haven’t yet received a rejection for my lab rat stories (and no news is sometimes good news in the world of publishing fiction.) Meanwhile, a couple of my beloved darlings have gotten their first rejection letter. I’ll update the results as I collect more data. I’m sure future me will have very different opinions on the subject.
You’re not as clever as you think you are: time travel
In this section, I like to highlight publication submissions guidelines that curate common tropes or tired ideas in submissions. Today’s is a doozy: time travel.
I’m a sucker for time travel stories. I love reading and writing unusual takes on them. I just wrote one, in fact. Sadly, several speculative fiction publications do not share this predilection. Then again, I don’t have to read thousands of mediocre time travel stories every year.
Clarkesworld cautions against scientifically dubious time travel stories “where FTL travel or time travel is as easy as is it on television shows or movies.”
But this passage from Metaphorosis Magazine’s submissions guidelines seems to sum up the industry view on them: “Unless you’ve done something really unusual with it, no vampires, werewolves, zombies, military SF, or time travel.”
To be clear, time travel stories are not exactly an endangered species. They still permeate pop-culture—especially the subgenre of the time loop in recent years—and plenty of top publications print them. I find Daily Science Fiction to be an interesting barometer of trends because of the volume of stories they publish in a year and the clear categorizations they use in their story index. Daily Science Fiction averages one to two “pure” time travel stories a month. That’s a lot of paradoxes.
But like every over-saturated genre, time travel stories face an uphill battle. To stand out, you have to do something really interesting with it, but what does that bar look like?
The fascinating thing about time travel stories is how early they became a trope. In 1952, Jack Lewis wrote the charming “Who’s Cribbing.” (Spoilers ahead, so read the linked story first if you care about that.) It’s about the writer Jack Lewis receiving rejections letters from publications claiming that he has plagiarized a talented writer named Todd Thromberry. Given this is in a time travel discussion, you can probably figure out where this is going. The story feels remarkably modern (right down to the comments about the pay rate for speculative fiction). It uses a creative narrative structure, it’s self-referential, and it breathes new life into a tired sci-fi trope. This is 1952 and time travel already needed reinvention.
In 1958, Robert Heinlen wrote the iconic time travel tale, “All You Zombies,” setting a high bar for the use of twists and paradoxes in time travel stories. In 1973, David Gerrold wrote my favorite sci-fi novel of all time, The Man Who Folded Himself. This novel was notable for being one of the first novels to use science fiction themes to explicitly explore sexual orientation and sexual identity. (Hint: the word “folded” can be replaced with a different 6 letter F-word.) David Gerrold, a gay man, later wrote that he knew it would eventually be done, and it seemed important that he do it before someone else handled it in less capable hands.
The Man Who Folded Himself did one other really strange, inventive thing. When the novel was re-released decades later, Gerrold updated scenes of the future to include actual events that had happened in the meantime to avoid an outdated depiction of the present/future. I didn’t know this when I first read it and I was astounded that a novel from the seventies predicted 9/11.
All this is to say: I see where editors are coming from. Writers today are unwittingly replicating incentive uses of time travel that were done over fifty years ago. Most of them are probably unaware their idea was done better before they were born. But I still love time travel stories and I still think there are a lot of unexplored opportunities to use them cleverly. So how do we take them back and make it less lame to write or submit a time travel story? My three suggestions are:
If you’re going to write a time travel story, you have a lot of reading to do. Explore the canon and make sure your clever twist isn’t a stale relic. It probably is.
Don’t use time travel as a twist. That’s a stale idea in itself, and it’ll probably make editors angry when they realize they’ve been tricked into reading one. Or, more likely, they predicted the twist from word five. Introduce time travel as a concept at the beginning so it doesn’t feel cheap later.
Use time travel to explore small, personal ideas. When it comes to creative takes on the logistics and ramifications of time travel, the genre feels well-explored. But there are endless possibilities to use time travel as a literary device or metaphor to tell personal, specific stories.
And editors: if you aren’t tired of time travel stories, let me know!
My favorite story I read this week:
“I pull my feet off the floor and tuck them back under Norma’s smelly quilts. My phone’s beside my pillow, half-charged, and there’s a push notification on the otherwise darkened screen. I begin to swipe it away, but it’s a Grindr message from someone called hungdaddy.
Well. It might be cold, and I might be tired, but who am I to reject the advances of a hung daddy? I tap on his faceless profile.
>hey dick pig
He’s called me by my profile name. How personal. How touching.”
Whenever possible, I try to talk about what writers do well without dunking on lousy writing as a counter-example. But sometimes a piece of writing impresses me so much that I can’t help but think, “Oh, now I get what wasn’t working about the stories I didn’t like. They should have been doing this!” That’s a simplification, but I think there are some great lessons to take from ”Dick Pig.”
I stick with a lot of stories out of trust. I’m intrigued by suggestions of where the story will head, so I keep reading to get to the “good part.” I’m putting faith that the writer knows what they’re doing, even if I’m bored by a line or a paragraph.
But I love the stories that propel me along on the strength of their voice and pacing. With these stories, I feel like a child chasing a butterfly in the woods only to realize I’m two miles into the forest and hopelessly lost. (Who could have guessed that a horror story called “Dick Pig” would bring out the inner child in me?) Muneshwar does a masterful job at using voice to advance the plot. I’m never antsy because I’m enjoying the ride and constantly moving forward.
The key to this is that each component renews your interest and commitment in reading the next part. So many stories feel like running a marathon. Why do you run mile seven? Because you’re running twenty-six miles, and you can’t get there without it. Reading a story with great momentum feels like planning to run one mile and running five. I’m not out of breath yet? Am I actually enjoying nature? I guess I’ll run one more.
Muneshwar accomplishes this as early as the title. You see a story called “Dick Pig,” and you have to know what the hell this story is about. Now you’re committed to reading the first few paragraphs.
“As you may have surmised, I don’t own this house. Strictly speaking, no one does. It belonged to my Aunt Norma, bless her, before she fell and broke her hip, and the handyman found her weeks later, quite dead in her floral-print nightgown, frozen to the upstairs hallway. The hallway right outside this door.”
The opening sections handles exposition with a light touch and provide enough character and intrigue that encourage you to read the following few paragraphs. Next thing I know, I’m halfway through the story (where more surprises and delight awaits).
The deftly written narrator/protagonist is a massive part of why this works. A lot of stories feature characters who are self-loathing and snarky. No surprise there, a lot of writers are those things. But most of the time, writers don’t pull it off. The characters are more annoying than they are charismatic and more groan-inducing than witty. I believe two qualities are key to making a character like this work: vulnerability and humor. Vulnerability explains why they’re snarky and (successful) humor makes it enjoyable. Absent these qualities, you’re left with an unfunny asshole, and the world doesn’t need any more of those in my life or fiction.
Until next time
Thank you so much for reading—I mean it! I’d love to hear from you. Shoot me a comment, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at @SentientLetter to find me.