[process] The larval stages of the common American speculative fiction writer

I have long observed that the common American speculative fiction writer (Scriptor americanus s.f.) goes through a number of stages during larval development, prior to emerging from their paper chrysalis as a full-fledged author. Drawing largely from my own experiences, as well as keen observation of the flocks and herds of writers who routinely migrate through Nuevo Rancho Lake, I hereby propose an initial atlas of these stages, with modest comments.

Additions, corrections, observations and footnotes are, as always, welcomed.

I could do better than this. A monkey could do better than this.

After re-reading volumes I through XVII of A Game of Throne-Captains of the Mystical Vagina of Time, the writer will exclaim, “I could do better than this! A monkey could do better than this!” Many amazing careers have been launched from this moment. It should be honored, much like any moment of conception, possibly by bunking out for a wet wipe and a smoke afterward.

This is harder than it looks. Kind of like last night’s sausage.

The writer often first imitates the text that first brought their pen to page, or fingers to keyboard, or crayon to butcher paper. Sometimes development at this point diverges into Fanfic americanus s.f, sometimes it results in efforts at novel creation, as well as the creation of novels. With luck, the writer soon learns that verb agreement matters, as does POV. Otherwise they become a romance author.

Hey, I get it! I get it!

The writer creates fiction that a close friend or family member actually likes. The first surge of confidence emerges. Possibly they seek out a workshop, or attend a convention for the first time as a would-be pro rather than a fan. They are proud and happy. The writer should cherish this moment, for they are in for a world of hurt to come.

You don’t get it. Everyone’s a Philistine.

The writer’s first workshop is tepid about their work. Small flaws are pointed out with the loving kindness of mentorship for which over-the-table critique in the back room of the local branch library is justly famous. Errors of judgment in using Zapf Chancery for the manuscript are gently corrected. The issue of employing other people’s copyrighted characters is raised without aspersions being cast on the writer’s motives or competence. The value of closure, or indeed, an identifiable ending of any sort, on a story not destined for an early 1980’s issue of The New Yorker is strongly suggested with firm intent. The writer retreats to lick their wounds and denounce the fools who do not understand them.

The undiscovered genius. You poor, deluded fools will never know my worth.

The writer has achieved not just competence, but even a measure of inspiration. (Or perhaps the reverse.) They now realize their work is the equal of anything on last year’s Hugo ballot. They wait confidently for the publishing world to recognize this fact. The publishing world fails to recognize this fact. Slowly, bitterness dawns in the face of such callous rejection of obvious, overwhelming talent.

The Conspiracy Theory of Publishing. Why are all you guys in the bar together?

The writer notices all the pros hanging out in the bar at cons with each other, with editors, agents, critics, publishers, booksellers, odd job men, and shifty foreign types. They seem to be laughing and having a good time. Clearly, the entire publishing industry is set up simply so people can publish their friends! This is why the writer has not yet succeeded! Bitterness at continued undiscovery blossoms into righteous anger at the manifest injustice of this conspiracy to keep new talent down!

Suicidal mania. You’ll regret it when I’m gone.

Eventually the relentless stream of rejection wears the writer’s emotional and social resources down to a raw nubbin of steaming pain. They mournfully hang up their writing implement of choice, resume heavy drinking, and tell everybody they could have been a contender. Or they become a horror writer.

My friends are selling. Oh my god, I want to kill the bastards.

The writer’s workshop buddies begin selling stories, even a novel contract or two. The fact that publishing is a meritocracy, but not a just meritocracy, is engraved on the inside of the writer’s skull with gigawatt lasers. They pretend applaud the success of their peers, all the while wondering if they should just go back to re-reading The Mystical Vagina of Time. If they could just sell one damned thing, they’d die happy. At this point, some aspiring writers give up and become aspiring screen writers, where the odds of succeeding are so much worse they make publishing look like a Samish Potlatch on the shores of Puget Sound. That way they won’t have to put up with their new friends crowing and buying Mercedes-Benzes.

Oops. I sold something.

Congratulations! The aspiring writer is now an author. With an entirely new set of neuroses and fixations!

Author’s notes:

1. The above is entirely fictional. I never said, did or thought any of those things. Please be assured I have always been utterly mature in my approach to my desired career during the eleven years between the time I started writing seriously and when I made my first sale. Please.

2. During my own larval phases as a writer, we did not have the Internet we have today. When I was enraged at a rejection or convinced of the banal evil of publishing, I didn’t have the conveniences of email or a blog with which to project my ass hattery for the review and amusement of the entire publishing field. All I could do was bitch to my workshop buddies over beer and burgers. Today’s aspiring writers have so much more opportunity to achieve high name recognition prior to ever (or never) selling their work, thanks to these new technologies. And with Google, that ass hattery is permanently recorded for future generations to remember you by! Isn’t the future awesome?

40 thoughts on “[process] The larval stages of the common American speculative fiction writer

  1. Funny aside – and there is quite a lot in this – thank you for NOT giving up during those eleven years. You continue to inspire, even as you make me spray coffee with laughter, which then has to be cleaned up.

  2. The Gourmez says:

    A Game of Throne-Captains of the Mystical Vagina of Time was incredibly good. Perhaps I should use it as my inspiration?

  3. AlanM says:

    That’s it, if I ever write a novel I’m going to use Zapf Chancery. The rest of you haters can suck it.

    It is just me or does “Captains of the Mystical Vaginas of Time” sound sorta like something James Tiptree might have written?

  4. writtenwyrdd says:

    This is hysterically funny, and mostly true…*makes shifty eyes*…but most definitely not MY process. Nope…except for that bit about monkeys…

  5. --E says:

    With luck, the writer soon learns that verb agreement matters, as does POV. Otherwise they become a romance author.

    –>Ooooh, you are gonna get smacked for that one!

    Do you have to go through all these phases? Cuz I work in the industry, so I’ve never had the Grand Conspiracy stage. If it’ll help, I can develop some paranoia.

  6. atsiko says:

    I’d argue that LOTR is closer to WoT in “inspiring” writers to do their own work than ASOIAF. (“Fellowship of the Vagina of Time” anyone?), but otherwise, that was a good point.

    Also, whilst I whole-heartedly approve of snarking at screen-writers, I know that Romance comment was just jealousy. Jealousy! (Don’t lie!)

    Anyway, it was a funny post with a modicum of truth to it. I look forward to more.

  7. A. Grey says:

    Laughing my ass off and feeling a hell of a lot better about that growing stack of rejections… and even better yet about those few requests for fulls… Thanks, that made my Thursday feel more like Friday…

  8. Brilliant. Yes, I also have those writing pieces that result from observation and research. Oh, no, not from direct personal experience, not me.

    After following Scalzi’s link, I enjoyed my tour around your site. Love your backcountry photos.

  9. Sue Mahar says:

    So, I’m not the only one to familiar with the process? Nice job.

  10. Suzanne says:

    I think I’m working my way through those backwards…

  11. Cora says:

    Great post and very true. I want to read A Game of Throne-Captains of the Mystical Vagina now, but only if I don’t have to read the previous sixteen volumes first.

    One little aside, though (and I’m certain I’m not the first who’s raised this point): The vast majority of romance writers actually do know grammar and POV, while the vast majority of horror writers are not suicidal maniacs. Though like all genres, romance and horror are subject to Sturgeon’s law.

    We all want more respect for SF and fantasy, but picking on the genres even lower on the popular fiction food chain still isn’t cool.

    1. SonomaLass says:

      What Cora said, sort of. I’m not sure about the “popular fiction food chain,” since romance outsells SF-F, but I am sure that people who want respect for their genre should probably refrain from bashing others. There are good and bad books, excellent and atrocious books, in every genre.

      Plus, you know, there are those of us who buy and read in more than one popular genre (yes! we exist!). And bashing the authors = bashing those who read them, so yeah, maybe not good for sales. As someone funny and clever once said, “with Google, that ass hattery is permanently recorded for future generations to remember you by!”

      Otherwise I really appreciated this piece.

      1. Estara says:

        thirding the opinions already well expressed by Cora and SonomaLass.

        I read your short story on Tor.com and really liked it. I might eventually buy a book, if this sort of snobbery isn’t your usual modus operandi.

      2. Cora says:

        I was referring to the critical acclaim food chain with literary fiction at the top, followed by crime and historical fiction, SF, fantasy, horror and romance somewhere at the bottom, barely above erotica (which really gets a bum rap). Saleswise, romance outperforms all other genres, of course.

        And regarding cross-genre promotion, Jay actually did receive a shout-out for Green from Smart Bitches recently.

  12. Dirty Wizard Hunter says:

    Awesome post! Thanks Jay

  13. Meran says:

    Romance may outsell SF and others; still, I accept those who must get their hearts stroked by print! I keep one romance in my library for my mom in law’s visits. She has no clue she’s read it before!
    Snark is fun; it’s oftenmost at my expence 🙂
    I felt a parallel to the art world in this essay…

    1. SonomaLass says:

      “those who must get their hearts stroked by print”

      Really? Must we go down the road of tired stereotypes? Because then science fiction/fantasy is for losers who don’t have a life and need to read about other worlds because they can’t handle this one, right? Puh-leeze.

    2. Cora says:

      Romances deal with the subject of love, feelings and navigating relationships. The appeal of those subjects is a lot more universal than musing over the singularity or the functioning of an FTL drive.

      Putting down the romance genre, because it deals with human emotions (and – gasp – sex), only reinforces stereotypes about SFF fans as socially inept and perpetual adolescents stuck at the “girls are icky” stage. And we all know those stereotypes are wrong.

      BTW, have you considered that your mother in law might simply be polite and thus doesn’t mention that you keep giving her the same book to read? Why don’t you try giving her an SFF novel which is low on the tech and worldbuilding and high on the relationship between the characters. Lois McMaster Bujold and Linnea Sinclair tend to work well as SF gateway drugs for romance readers. For fantasy, try some good urban fantasy or secondary world fantasy where the worldbuilding does not overwhelm the characters.

  14. Well, damn. At least I got over Suicidal mania when I was like 17.

  15. Laugh, people! If someone is writing a funny piece and takes a big, obvious shot at something (e.g. romance writers), chances are tongue is firmly in cheek!

    Sheesh. Yo momma probably is fat.

    Funny that no one is here whining about the New Yorker comment, however…

    1. Cora says:

      Probably because the New Yorker comment was aimed at a particular magazine (one period in the history of a particular magazines even) rather than at the entire genre of literary fiction. It’s the difference between saying that the stories published in Analog (to use one example) are old-fashioned and much too technical and declaring that the entire SF genre is crap and written by hacks with grammar issues.

      As for why many people reacted stronger to the swipe at the romance genre than to the swipes at horror, screenwriters or the New Yorker is that romance – even though it outsells all other genres – is frequently treated as the genre it’s okay to put down, after all it’s just about love and relationships and feelings and sex, you know irrelevant girly stuff. And of course, romance is a genre perceived to be written by and for women (there are male romance writers and readers, but they are a minority), continuing the practice of denigrating the writing of women.

      I’m not saying that Jay’s swipe at the romance genre was intended to put down women’s writing – most likely it was just a thoughtless comment (and Jay has other things on his mind right now than confirm or deny what he meant by a throwaway line). But considering how frequently women’s writing is marginalized, both in SFF and in literature in general (and of course, female SFF writers are often accused of writing “a Harlequin novel in space/with elves”), it’s no surprise that a lot of people jump on such a comment.

      Besides, it seems as if everybody who objected to the swipe at the romance genre both here and on livejournal is female. Coincidence? I think not.

      1. Cora, lighten fuzz ball. EVERYTHING is a target for humor, and you just piss off people as much as you get pissed off yourself over something like this.

        If you can’t laugh, you have to cry, and who wants to cry all the time?

        We get it. You didn’t think that one line out of the hundred he wrote was funny, and it was so much more unfunny than all the other lines you had to write a hundred yourself to explain.

        Go write a funny post on your own blog about the asinine and insensitive science fiction writers who take one-line cheap shots at romance writers once every thousand posts. If it’s funny, I’ll laugh. I promise!

      2. Jay says:

        Cora, I have to ask a context question. You’ve been reading and commenting thoughtfully on my blog for quite some time. (For which I thank you.). You’re pretty familiar with my views on life, politics, gender, etc., as presented in my own written words. Though you have no way to know this, my Real life persona and my online persona are extremely similar.

        Why would I, in the middle of an entire post full of backhanded snark aimed largely at myself and my own field, with sideswiped at for or five other genres for attempted humorous effect, choose to announce my arrant misogynism via a casual one-liner? Isn’t the more reasonable explanation a bit of misdirected humor?

        The amount of earnest correction, irritation, and in a few cases sheer nastiness directed at me over that one sentence has served to remind me why I don’t usually write humor. It’s my blog, if I can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, et cetera. I can see why someone who’s never read my work, followed a link here, and saw that line might jump on it. To my own mind, the context of the rest of the post ought to have clarified my humorous intent, but that was clearly not the case for many readers. I was wrong, and I made an attempt at both explanation of the joke (there is a serious craft question behind it, which I discussed with at some length in the comment thread on the LJ version of the post) and apology in my link salad post a day or two later. But I’m curious, knowing the the virtual me as relatively well as you must at this point, did you assume my intent was negative?

        1. Cora says:

          In my previous reply, I wrote that your swipes at romance was most likely just a thoughtless comment (and I can understand if you missed that, considering you have other things on your mind at the moment). Just as most swipes against romance from the SFF community are probably thoughtless comments – after all, everybody knows that romance is crap, even if they’ve never read one.

          And yes, I’ve seen that you mentioned reading Nora Roberts and the Bridges of Madison County bloke on your livejournal, which is more than many others can say for themselves. I quite like Nora Roberts, particularly when she’s J.D. Robb, and she is IMO a talented writer, even though she does the annoying mid-scene POV shift, but she’s good enough to pull it off. Most other romance writers don’t do the mid-scene POV shift anymore, it’s very much passé these days and has been for quite some time. Though romance usually is written in the 3rd person (first person is very rare) and usually does have two POV characters. I’ve never read Bridges of Madison County, having zero interest in the book. Most die-hard romance readers I know don’t like it, however, because it violates a couple of genre tropes.

          However, the fact that romance is thw hipping boy (or girl) of popular fiction and more frequently put down than any other genre except for erotica is pretty obviously linked to the fact that romance is a very female dominated genre (coincidentally, erotica is overwhelmingly written by women as well, regardless of who the intended readers are). And there definitely is a latent undercurrent of misogynism in the SFF genre, as all the recent incidents about anthologies with no female contributors, etc… indicate. Most of this is subconscious, nor is it just limited to SFF (it’s not even limited to men, either). Over in crime fiction, they look down on cozy mysteries, which are overwhelmingly written by female writers. Here in SFF, a lot of people pretend that urban fantasy, another subgenre that is female dominated in its current form, is beneath their notice, even though it outsells pretty much everything else in the genre except the posthumous Robert Jordan.

          I’m doing PhD research on popular crossgenre fiction focussing on works mixing elements of SF, fantasy and horror on the one hand and romance on the other. So I see this whole thoughtless “Romance and everything connected with it is crap” attitude a lot, often among decent and intelligent people. After a while, it gets very tiring. Hence, I speak up whenever I see yet another incident of “romance is crap” or “urban fantasy is crap, because it’s all just paranormal romance anyway”. Because putting down other genres to elevate your own isn’t cool. I’m obviously not the only one, as the strong reaction you got to that single line indicates (and you mainly got reactions from multi-genre readers, not hardcore romance readers). Usually, I try to be polite and if I got carried away here, I apologize.

          For that matter, until a few years ago I didn’t read or look at romance either, due to having read a few really bad ones as a teenager. But then I decided to broaden my genre horizons and deliberately sought out books and authors well regarded by romance readers. I still didn’t enjoy everything I read, but I also found some books and authors I do enjoy.

  16. RumBlack says:

    Hilarious. All of it true. All of it.

  17. Jon Sprunk says:

    Hilarious, Jay. Made me spurt apple juice out my nose (my keyboard thanks you).

    When are going to post Part 2?

  18. Meran says:

    I read SF, therefore I am mindless.
    I don’t read romance, therefore I am heartless.

    Btw, I shove GOOD SF (and great literature – you have NOT seen my library) at anyone who might appreciate it. Hm, come to think of it I even have childrens books available.

    And see? I got snarked! 😀

  19. rejiquar says:

    Jumping in here–(I came over from Scalzi): I second Cora’s observations. I liked _Mainspring_, thought _Green_ was explicitly feminist, and cited Paolina’s culture in your _Escapement_ to a fellow apamate who was trying to do strong female characters in a steampunk setting as an example of a profoundly misogynist society by a feminist writer without getting mired in modern pc-ish type expectations.

    That said, the romance crack surprised me, because I wouldn’t’ve expected it from you. The tl;dr is that yeah, you blew it. Rewrite that to illustrate some particularly awful sample of romance genre, as others have suggested, and then the poking fun part is good to go.

    1. Jay says:

      Thanks for the comment. There is a pretty detailed discussion of the genesis (and failure) of the joke over on my LJ comment thread. What continues to amaze me is how people are judging a single line of snark, amid nearly 1,000 words of snark, as if it has no context at all. I mean, I cracked on myself and sf/f a lot harder than I cracked on romance, as well as taking swipes at three other genres. And even people familiar with my larger work, and my stances on these issues, as you clearly are, continue to focus on a single joke without reference to context, as if I’d simply popped up and made a bald statement about romance. As someone else pointed out, I accused SF writers of a long list of sins both venal and mortal, but no one complained about that.

      All of which proves why I probably shouldn’t write humor, unless I’m prepared to be thick skinned.

  20. Fredia Sprow says:

    When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that service?Thanks

  21. atsiko says:

    There’s always a risk to snark, Jay, especially when the victim is used to abuse. 🙂

  22. Coming to this late…but either I’m a stereotype or you’ve been reading my blog. Must be the latter. That fits better with the whole conspiracy theory. 😉

  23. qwillpen says:

    I loved it! And, Jay, I have been known to be a romance reader, and now writer, simply because it’s fun, and I still laughed at that ill-fated line. Truly, some romances are well worth reading. And there is still a tendency in the world to put down efforts of women at many things. Look at all the flack Hillary got when she ran for president. No one would have dared make racist comments about Obama, but Hillary was fair game for sexist commentary. We women have come a long way, but we still have more work to do, and that is why you got so much flack about that line. It’s a sensitive subject.

  24. Jude Parsons says:


    Methinks i recognised myself in there somewhere…

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