Maggie Slater is many things: accomplished writer, an experienced slusher, a parent. Today, she shares with us her take on the writing life and its many facets.
Do tell us your genesis as a writer. How did you become the writer you are now?
Although it probably sounds a bit cliche, I’ve been interested in telling stories since before I could write. In fact, my mother—saint that she was—used to write down stories I dictated to her when I was really little. I also told atrocious jokes that made no sense.
I started getting serious about writing—and by serious, I mean completing short stories and submitting them—my freshman year of college. I sent out my first short story to the Fantastical Visions new-writer contest, and wouldn’t you know it? The story was accepted! First thing I ever submitted! Wow, I thought, this is it! This is the start!
And then, although I did continue to write short stories and even submit some of them, I pretty much sat on my butt and waited for that story to come out in print. Fast forward five years later, after many delays, it finally did, but I’d been so hung up on that one publication, I hadn’t done much during the waiting time. I’d had one other short story published for no pay, but otherwise, I wasn’t much further than where I’d started.
But I’d done a lot of writing, so I had improved a lot. During that time, I’d completed what my mother and I call “The Chekhov Year” in which we both tried to write one short story a week for a year. In the end, I wound up with forty-two rough drafts, most of them crud on a stick, but I’d learned how to cull my ideas down to short story size. Since then, I’ve even sold a couple of those Chekhov Year stories, after some decent editing!
By that time, I was married, had a full-time job, and had started working for Apex (the anniversaries for both my marriage and Apex fall within a two-week period, actually). I wrote extensively during my hour lunch breaks, slushed for Apex in the evenings, and reviewed fiction for Tangent Online on the weekends. I even sold a couple other stories to Jason Sizemore on a pair of independent projects he was doing. Then I retreated into longer-form fiction for a while, and am just now—on the heels of Zombies: More Recent Dead reprinting my short story “A Shepherd of the Valley”—emerging back to short fiction again, and collecting those rejection slips!
Do you have any particular influences, or books that stand out?
Hmm, tough question. I am completely enamored with Edith Wharton’s ghost stories (and all her work, if I’m honest), and Roald Dahl’s adult dark fiction. Haruki Murakami has been a huge influence recently. Asimov’s short fiction was really what got me into the short-form, and Octavia Butler’s longer SF—it’s dedication and approachability—really rocks my socks. Maureen McHugh is a huge favorite in the SF field, also, and I recently discovered Shirley Jackson’s longer fiction, particularly We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
Jack London has always been a favorite, too. I read Martin Eden not that long ago, and honestly, it’s a book I think almost any aspiring writer ought to read. That, Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, and Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham (which has one of the best sequences discussing artistic talent I’ve ever read).
I think it takes a special kind of writer that wades into the slush pile. Is there anything you can share with us about the experience? Did the slush pile teach you anything about writing you wouldn’t have learned otherwise?
It was a wonderful learning experience. It’s one thing to read a market’s guidelines and guess at what they want. It’s another thing entirely to see the inner workings, how editors choose what stories to publish—and why or why not! I saw some really great stories get passed on because they just didn’t quite fit what we needed or wanted at the time; I’ve seen how badly authors can respond when given even a pleasant rejection. It taught me why most markets don’t offer feedback with rejections (in terms of time, author response, and clarity—sometimes a story just “doesn’t work” for you, and it may hit another editor at a different market just right). It also taught me how hard editors and slushers work behind the scenes, often just for the love of fiction. And it taught me how tough the competition for publishing slots really is: as a new author you’ve got to bring your A-game, because the other authors getting to the editor-in-chief’s desk are pros and you’ve got to be that much better to knock them out. It’s mortal combat!
Perhaps most importantly, slushing taught me why reading a market before submitting to them is important. When I was just starting out, I used to balk at a market suggesting that I buy a copy of their magazine to see what they publish. It struck me as a cheap way to make money off desperate writers. But the truth is, most submissions are rejected because they just don’t fit what the market publishes. A familiarity with a market guarantees you’ll be sending them stuff that at least generally fits the mood and tone of what they publish, and that’s bound to get you into the top 20-30% of submissions. Whether that helps you sell your story to them is another challenge entirely, but knowledge of the market will at least give you an edge-up on a vast majority of other submissions.
Slushing is an absolutely amazing way to learn about the industry and about writing short fiction. I’d recommend it to any aspiring author if they can make the time for it.
I admire that you’ve taken a leap into another arena involving a lot of hard work: motherhood. Is there anything you’d like to share about learning to balance the creative life alongside parenting responsibilities? Any advice for the many mothers and fathers who wear these different hats?
This is actually something I blog about quite a lot these days, maybe more for myself to keep track of the ebbs and flows of my current creative process. When I was pregnant, I looked around for information about how people dealt with babies and writing, and didn’t find a huge amount. Maybe I looked in the wrong places. But I wanted to be honest on my blog about how challenging this chunk of life can be, balancing kids and writing.
Having the Little Man around has certainly changed a lot in my writing life, mostly in terms of time and being able to sit down when I want to and write. When I worked full-time, I could brainstorm during the day and then come right home and write. Or I could write on the weekends. Now, there’s no guarantee I’ll get any time at all during the day to write, or in any of the days to follow. My husband is finishing med school, and for the last year has been rotating at a hospital a state away, so I’m pretty much on my own with the Little Man. No breaks for this lady! It’s made me much less of a procrastinator, because when I’ve got something I want to work on, when the Little Man’s eyes close, I’m writing! Now if only he’d nap more regularly…
I’ve also got some great friends and family who are willing to watch the Little Man for a half hour to two hours (if he lets them! Lately, we’ve been hitting a separation-anxiety wall, and a half-hour with someone else in a home not his own is about his limit). That’s been immensely helpful. Oddly, I’ve gotten a lot more fiction out in the eight months since he’s been born than I have ever previously. I think that comes from the perpetual distraction: I’m finding it much easier to edit than to compose new work, so I’ve been on an editing binge, getting things fixed and submitted. It’s been a nice change!
The main thing I would advise is something I’m still working on myself: cut yourself some slack and enjoy this time. Don’t guilt yourself. You’ve got enough on your plate. Babies disrupt everything, and if holding yourself to too-strict goals or timelines just makes you miserable, let the goals go for now. If you get time to read, read. If you have an idea you really want to work on that is burning a hole in your brain, see if there’s a family member or friend who can give you a little time to focus on that. But most importantly: just relax. You’re sleep-deprived, you’re worn out, you’re on this huge learning curve as a new parent (or new parent of two or more—gosh, they especially need to cut themselves some slack!): it’s okay to not write everyday if you can’t. Or write one sentence. There was a time even before the Little Man when I couldn’t get ten minutes to myself. I used the “write one sentence” goal to get a tiny bit of something done every day, and that assuaged a lot of guilt. And someday, the kiddo will nap again, or play at other kids’ houses, or go to school, and you’ll have a lot more time to get things done then.
Could you tell us about your short story appearing in the recent anthology edited by Paula Guran, Zombie: More Recent Dead?
Sure! “A Shepherd of the Valley” is a story about a man left completely alone after the zombie apocalypse, who is struggling to find meaning in a seemingly meaningless world. He’s lost and lonely, searching for a faith that left him long before the zombie uprising, something that can justify his existence and forgive his past. When an injured girl who reminds him of his long-lost teenage daughter enters his life, he comes face-to-face with the man he’s become, and reevaluate his new life’s ministry. Is it worth trying to save the souls of the already walking-dead?
I wanted to write a story that examined what happened after the apocalypse, after almost everyone was gone. What kind of life can one have in such isolation, when the only others around would be more than happy to chomp on your brains? What does that do to one’s faith in a higher power, or lack thereof? It’s a ships-in-the-night kind of story about two lost souls coping with a ruined world in very different ways.
Do you have anything you’re working on at the moment that you’re excited about?
Actually, with all that “free time” I have, I’ve recently started an Etsy shop selling “snake-oil” designed bottles for writerly ailments. I usually put Tic-Tacs in mine, and use them to “cure” writer’s block, the blues of rejection, and to spur productivity.
Obviously, as placebos, the Tic-Tacs themselves don’t actually *do* anything, but it makes me laugh and they’re still tasty. They’re quite fun to design, and it’s a wonderful creative outlet for my graphic art interests.
I’m somewhat slow to get them listed, but I’ve got a whole line-up of them coming soon. You can see the current postings listed here: https://www.etsy.com/shop/ThePlaceboEmporium .
We thank Maggie Slater for taking the time to share her insights and experience with us. She has a blog where you can keep up with the latest in Slater’s writing life.