Welcome to the latest instalment of Breaking In, where I interview authors about their experiences breaking in as writers — how they did it, what it felt like to get there, and how it differed from what they were expecting.
Today I’m very happy to have the opportunity to interview someone I want to call a triple threat, except that everything on his CV is awesome and beneficial – astronomer, educator, and author Michael Reid.
As he notes on his website, Michael write science fiction and fantasy in various permutations, with stories published in a number of prestigious venues. He attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop in 2015. He’s also an Associate Professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, and serves as Coordinator of Public Outreach and Education for the University’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics.
His short story ‘The Rosedale House’ will appear in the forthcoming anthology Nevertheless (Tesseracts Twenty-One), and, yes, that means he’s a fellow contributor, which warrants my usual disclaimer.
[SGM] Welcome to the blog, Michael! To begin, when did you feel like you’d broken in as a writer?
[MR] Thanks for having me!
I think the obvious choice for a new writer’s breakthrough moment is that first acceptance letter from an editor. For me, though, I feel it came earlier: it was my acceptance letter to the Clarion workshop. That was the first positive response I’d ever gotten to my writing from someone who had no reason to be nice to me. I had sent my work out to some magazines before that and received only rejections. Getting into Clarion was the time I felt like maybe people might someday want to read what I was writing.
What was your path to breaking in? Did you have a strategy? Did it work, or did you end up getting there another way?
I wrote seriously for a solid decade as a purely solitary activity. Sometimes I would show snippets to my husband and one trusted friend, but I didn’t send my stories out to editors. I tried joining a few in-person writers’ groups but they were always full. In 2012, I was one of the inaugural members of a new group. We met for three years. The group gave me valuable feedback and helped me grow as a writer. I started to get comfortable having strangers read my work. But, while my craft was developing, I felt totally ignorant of the publishing industry and was really craving the mentorship of a published writer. I was also in my late thirties and was starting to feel like I had floundered for way too long. So I applied to Clarion. That was one of the best decisions of my life. In the summer of 2015, I took six weeks leave from work, left my poor husband and dog behind, and headed to San Diego.
Clarion was amazing. It’s something I would recommend to almost anyone who wants to write speculative fiction. It’s life-changing. You get paired with seven professional writers and seventeen classmates for six weeks. They lock you in a dormitory to write and critique until your brain melts. I still remember landing at the airport in San Diego and meeting Jess Barber and adrienne maree brown in the arrivals area. They are both awe-inspiringly impressive people, crackling with energy and intelligence and creativity. One of Jess’ stories had already been selected by Gardner Dozois for the Year’s Best anthology and adrienne had just co-edited Octavia’s Brood, an anthology of work inspired by Octavia Butler. And these were my classmates. You can’t imagine how excited I was.
Clarion gave me a huge boost. It taught me about craft and markets. It gave me a lot of confidence. It made me seventeen friends most of whom I still chat with every single day about some aspect of my writing. It wasn’t too long after finishing Clarion that I started getting published.
And following up on that, knowing what you do now, what would you do differently?
I wish I’d shared my work with others much earlier. Like a lot of unpublished authors, I sat on my stories for too long, hoping that somehow, if I wrote enough of them, I would pass some critical threshold and publishing magic would happen. If I could do it over again, I would have sent my work out for critiques years earlier.
There’s a tool I’d like to recommend: critters.org. It’s an online critique service–you critique other peoples’ stories to earn credits that you can redeem for critiques of your own work. I used it for a while and found it really helpful. Seeing how strangers react to your work can be very valuable. With Critters, you usually get a decent number of critiques, so you get a fairly balanced view of the responses your work is eliciting. It’s great for shy people, or those who don’t have access to an in-person writing group. You can work at your own pace. It’s also really helpful because it makes you think carefully about other peoples’ stories, which teaches you lessons about craft that you can apply in your own writing. I wish I’d started using it much sooner.
Now that you’ve broken in, is it like or unlike what you expected? How?
When I was a teenager, I thought I would be churning out a novel a year by the time I was in my late twenties. That didn’t happen. But even as I started publishing in my late thirties, I expected there would be this exponential takeoff in my literary output. That also hasn’t happened. It turns out that maintaining a demanding day job and a writing practice is just hard. I also thought that once I started getting published in professional markets (by the SFWA definition of “professional”) that I would probably have an easier time continuing to get published in those markets. That also hasn’t turned out to be true. So I’ve had to change the way I think about my goals. Rather than expecting any particular outcome, I focus on steady application of effort. I get up very early every morning and write before work. That’s how I measure my success: did I put in the effort and did I generate something satisfying? That’s all I can really control, so I try not to worry too much about the rest.
What are you working on now?
I’m on the third draft of a slipstream novel. You could call it a ‘queer cosmological fantasy’. My friend Vanessa Len, who is a savant when it comes to both craft and self-motivation, always encourages me to write the stories I want to read, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m not sure anyone will publish it, but here’s hoping.
Between revisions of the novel, while I’m letting it ‘rest’, I work on short stories, and on keeping all the completed ones out in front of slush readers and editors.
How can people keep up with you online?
Thanks so much to Michael for the interview. Ironically, despite both being science fiction writers who work at the same university and are being published in the same anthology, we have yet to meet in person. We should change that, sometime soon.