Review: Two Novellas by D.J. Cockburn

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Arctic Adagio
by D.J. Cockburn
Published in 2019 by Annorlunda Books

I knew the author from his earlier novella Caresaway, which I really liked, and I wasn’t disappointed with his new work. Arctic Adagio (great title, by the way) is fast paced, well written, and a quick read (under an hour). This near-future murder mystery is well plotted, with engaging characters, clean and fluid prose, and a satisfying resolution.

The worldbuilding is done discreetly, through well-chosen details, and is quite effective. We leave being well aware of the crushing inequality and corruption that governs the world of Arctic Adagio. For example, a luxury cruise ship in this post-global-warming world where the world’s trillionaires hang out is named Ayn Rand. There are also interesting observations that enhance the story. For example, a trophy wife who came from poverty “…had yet to get the hang of authority. People born to it, like her husband, didn’t bother reminding me of it.”

Overall, a satisfying and swift Kindle read. Recommended.


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Caresaway
by D.J. Cockburn
Published in 2017 by Annorlunda Books

If you could cure depression at the cost of becoming a psychopath, would you do it? It turns out that, for many people, the answer is yes. But that’s not the most important aspect of this richly textured and well-written story. Caresaway is the name of a fictitious drug that, well, takes your cares away. We meet the drug’s developer, Edward Crofte, who was once a sufferer from deep depression and is now a successful and arrogant executive devoid of empathy. I don’t want to spoil the story, but let me say that the plot clearly shows what Edward has lost versus gained with the drug, how others respond to the drug and to him, and what people are ready to do (or not) to avoid feeling emotional pain.

 

News 09/07/19

It’s late summer 2019, so two years since I started writing and submitting short fiction — happy scribbling birthday to me! Let’s see what transpired since the last update:

New Publications and Acceptances

  • Dragon Texts in All Caps, Spelk, forthcoming. (prose poem/CNF flash)
  • Roots, Flash Fiction Magazine, forthcoming. (suspense/supernatural flash)
  • Protected Species, Jellyfish ReviewThe Sunday Octopus, July 21, 2019. (sci-fi flash)
  • Roman Holiday, 50-Word Stories, September 4, 2019. (literary micro)
  • Spittin’, The Drabble, July 8, 2019. (literary micro)
  • Lupus in Fabula, 50-Word Stories, June 19, 2019. (humor micro)

It was a relatively dry summer, but I wrote several new flash pieces that stretched me a bit, most of which are still out on submission, and had some micros published. The forthcoming “Roots” got snapped up within only two days of having been sent out. It’s my first venture into mystery/suspense, but I enjoyed it so much that it likely won’t be my last. “Dragon Texts in All Caps” is a piece I am really fond of, but have no idea how to classify. It’s nonfiction wrapped in a thin layer of metaphor, but it doesn’t have a narrative arc; it’s structured almost like an essay and reads like a poem. Can something be a nonfiction prose poem?

Honors

  • Jellyfish Review ran an ultrashort-turnaround-time mini competition under the theme Penguins Ignore the Police, with the prize being publication on their new blog The Sunday Octopus. I wrote and submitted “Protected Species” in the span of only 2-3 hours and it won! I never win anything, so this was a big squee moment for me and a confidence boost. I encourage you to check out the story; I think it’s pretty solid even if not perfectly polished; a bit of roughness around the edges helps it maintain its charm.
  • I am on the long list of the humorous short-story competition To Hull and Back with my story “Rough and Weepy,” which originally appeared in Riggwelter (issue 9, p. 42).  This is my second year on this long list and I am again one of only two Americans (this year we’re joined by a Canadian). The North American continent clearly needs to become funnier! Still, placing in the top 40 out of 582 entries ain’t too shabby.

Submission Stats

According to The Grinder:

2019

  • Submissions: 108
  • Acceptances: 12
  • Rejections: 60 (Personal: 16)

(I don’t consistently track micros or contests in the Grinder, so this is really for longer flashes and short stories, plus a micro here and there.)

Craft Development and Goals

  • I read slush for a professional market with a month-long submission window. You can read about the experience here.
  • One piece of nonfiction and one piece of mystery/suspense with supernatural elements written and accepted for publication (in keeping with my genre-broadening  goals from here). Unfortunately, no new humor or longer short stories in the last three months.
  • I have had several pieces held for multiple rounds at different pro-paying speculative venues and received a lot of positive feedback. Still no sale, but these motivate me to keep knocking on the doors of highly selective markets.

Good luck writing, everyone, and enjoy the nice weather!

Deep Dive into Slush

Not that long ago, I spent some time reading submissions for a pro speculative magazine. This was my first time as a slush reader at this level and it was overall an intense, enjoyable, and greatly informative experience. I’m really glad I did it and I am sure it will help me improve my own craft, going forward.

We read blind (no author identifiers) and were required to submit a score and brief comments on each story. We could see the remarks of other slush readers, but only after we’d submitted ours.

Overall, I read only about 10% of all submitted stories. I read some brilliant pieces and some truly terrible ones, with a majority somewhere in between.

My own score breakdown went something like this:

~10%  were the stories I really liked and thought were clearly publishable by the  market. Of those, a handful resonated so strongly that I was willing to champion them.

~25% were the stories that I considered fine, but just didn’t love. They had no particular flaws in the structure or level of writing, but I could take them or leave them.

~65% or just a smidgen under 2/3 were, in my view, unacceptable. They had clearly identifiable objective flaws (pointed out independently by several slush readers) or else had what were damning but perhaps more subjective flaws (issues that pinged my peeve radar, but not necessarily that of other slush readers; more on that below).

When an author receives a rejection from a magazine, it’s always a question if the story is objectively bad (and, by extension, if the issues are with a particular story or more holistic, such as the author simply not yet writing at a high-enough level) or if the rejection came as a result of more subjective reasons, either personal (e.g., readers or editors simply didn’t love the piece) or logistical (e.g., magazine recently published something on a similar topic; doesn’t fit with the rest of the issue).

Based on what I’ve seen comparing my comments to those of other slush readers, I believe that the answer to the above is something like this: Up to a certain threshold level of an author’s craft, flaws in the writing can be and usually are objectively identified. Above threshold, evaluation becomes much more subjective, as different readers respond more or less strongly to what are not necessarily flaws but matters of taste, involving sub-genre, theme, and style.

I would say that ~ 50% of all stories I read fell under below-threshold writing, where two or more slush readers identified one or two big flaws. Some stories were close but not quite there; others were fairly poor overall.

Common reasons for a story rejection which were routinely picked up by multiple slush readers:

  • Stilted prose, especially dialogue; rough transitions between paragraphs/ poor flow
  • No hook; boring; reader doesn’t end up caring what happens with any of the characters and isn’t compelled to keep reading
  • No conflict/weak plot; setting, worldbuilding, background, or character sketch supposed to serve instead of plot
  • Weak ending: unearned/twist (out of nowhere); illogical; ending too soon or too late after the climax; lukewarm and unsatisfying
  • Lack of internal consistency (illogical character actions within the context of the world)
  • Sadly, there were a few stories with blatant hate speech (especially misogyny) that I wish I could forget having seen

Around 40% of the stories were above threshold, but triggered my peeve radar to some degree, enough for me to consider them unacceptable or just not particularly enticing. This is probably the most frustrating range to be in, because these stories are generally competently written; they might get a hold/second round in the hands of the right slush readers or they might get declined by another group.

Here are some issues that didn’t sit well with me, but might have been fine with some other slush readers, who, in turn, had their own preferences that sometime resulted in them suggesting the rejection of stories that I found delightful.

Emotions. A good story has to resonate emotionally with the reader. We need to have a character to care about, usually because they care about something. However, I have a fairly low tolerance for melodrama and I wish that infirm or deceased family members (especially children) weren’t used quite so often to milk the readers’ tear ducts. This is something I hate in literary and speculative fiction alike — sick or dead babies, kids, and grandmas employed to manipulate the reader’s feelings when the story doesn’t have much else going on, especially in terms of plot.

Grief and loss are relatable, but they hardly exhaust the human emotional spectrum,  and certainly aren’t the sole or even the best motivator of characters. I wish sadness weren’t the central emotion as often as it is.

Plot. I love a clever plot, a plot that tickles my intellect, inflicted upon the characters with whom I can connect emotionally. That’s the way to my slush-reading heart. Several stories I read had what I felt was too unoriginal of a plot, as if plucked from a popular book/show/movie, but some other slush readers didn’t seem to mind, perhaps because they hadn’t consumed the same pop-culture products as me. If I find the plot delightful, I am willing to forgive a lot of other writerly sins. The same goes for humor; I’m a sucker for a genuinely funny story.

Style. I appear to have a relatively low threshold for purple prose, but my purple might be another reader’s gorgeous and lyrical. It’s not that I don’t like descriptive language, far from it; however, I have seen a number of stories where great language is supposed to mask a weak or nonexistent narrative arc. While this is a clear no from me, I know others will forgive a weakness in plot if the prose is beautiful.

Genre. I have a soft spot for sci-fi stories involving interstellar travel. Also time travel and parallel universes. OK, I love all sci-fi. In contrast, there are large swaths of fantasy that I am probably not the target audience for (generally anything involving magic, spells, potions, capes, or heroic quests). So even a perfect sword-and-sorcery story is unlikely to make me fall in love with it. I generally tried to stay away from scoring or commenting on such stories, because I knew I’d probably be too harsh simply because the topics were not to my personal taste.

Other. Setting/worldbuilding/background/character sketch used in lieu of plot is a big no-no. However, there was  one particular story I remember, where key elements of worldbuilding also happened to introduce a very personal conflict for the protagonist, i.e., worldbuilding was a large and meaningful part of the plot. This goes to show that you can do anything if you know what you’re doing.

Finally, I want to emphasize that I’ve read some phenomenal stories, stories that are way better than what I can write today and probably ever. Most were held past the first round, but still didn’t get picked for publication. I rooted for them and felt as heartbroken at their rejection as I do for my own stories.

The conclusion is both disheartening and hopeful. Even great pieces get declined; not everything will be everyone’s cup of tea, no matter how strong the writing; all we can do is keep reading, keep writing, keep getting better, and keep supporting short-fiction magazines with our submissions, volunteering, and, if possible, subscriptions, so that many more amazing stories from the slush can make it into the world.

News 06/10/19

In late summer 2019, it will be two years since I started writing and submitting short fiction. Time sure flies!

Here is what has happened since the last update in early January.

New Publications

MagdaleneThe Molotov Cocktail: Flash Legend ContestMay 2019. (dark literary)

Ephemera50-Word Stories, April 15, 2019. (literary)(reprint)(micro)

The Gold and Sand of DhahabAphotic Realm, April 5, 2019. (dark sci-fi)

Happily Ever AfterDime Show Review, March 21, 2019. (low fantasy)

Rimor MortisEllipsis Zine, March 11, 2019. (sci-fi) (reprint)

Troo RaccoonAltered Reality, February 15, 2019. (sci-fi) (reprint)

The FlaskTrembling with Fear, January 27, 2019. (dark sci-fi)(micro)

Honors

I am delighted to have placed in the Molotov Cocktail Flash Legend contest! I took 8th place with “Magdalene,” which I think is one of the best stories I’ve written so far.

Submission Stats

According to The Grinder:

2019

Submissions: 69 (Pending: 5)

Acceptances: 8

Rejections: 43 (Personal: 10)

I don’t track most drabbles or contests on the Grinder, so this is really for longer flashes and short stories.

My acceptance rate has gone down with respect to previous years mostly because I’ve become more aggressive about targeting pro and high-tier semipro speculative markets, i.e., I’m sending work to more of them (and thus getting more noes per story) than I did in the first couple of years. I’m still waiting for that first pro sale, but I’ve had several story holds with professional markets this year, even some that I thought would never touch my work. While it’s heartbreaking to get a rejection  after a lengthy hold and having allowed myself to develop delusions of grandeur,  I take it things are moving in the right direction and my stories are getting better.

I have several drabbles out on sub, one of them to a competition, all pretty good (in my completely unbiased opinion :-). I love drabbles; they are not easy to write well and are a great way (for me) to get back into the swing of things after a writing break.

I also have some long flashes out in the world, making their way through the slush piles. Most have had at least one previous hold at a pro market, so I’m really ready for them to find homes.

Goals for 2019

It’s interesting to see how I’ve done so far with the goals from my early January post:

  • Keep reading short fiction, and broadly so, in terms of both genre and style
    Doing pretty well, especially considering the workload at my job over the past few months
  • Keep working; keep getting better
    I wish I could write more, but I think the stuff that I do write keeps getting better
  • Write a few more longer pieces (2-4k words)
    I’ve written one short story at 2.7k words (genre: low fantasy) and had it published in Dime Show Review in March: Happily Ever After. Check it out!
  • Write some nonfiction, humor, and/or literary pieces in addition to focus on speculative fiction
    I’ve written several literary pieces, but not much humor or nonficiton. Everything I write these days seems to come out dark and scary!
  • Try for more anthologies. Try not to skip The Molotov Cocktail contests
    I’ve submitted work to several anthologies, had some holds, and I’ve placed in The Molotov Cocktail Flash Legend contest.
  • Keep improving knowledge of the publishing landscape. Consistently target selective markets — don’t self-reject!
    I’ve been doing this (*pats self on back*)

I had a really busy spring at work and ended up missing several submission deadlines that I really thought I’d make. I am bummed out about it, but the time (and energy) simply weren’t there.

I hope to make a few June and July deadlines (e.g., Cheap Pop and Mad Scientist Journal (closing!) in June; To Hull and Back humor contest in July), but I will also be reading slush for a pro speculative market this summer in the hopes of improving my writing, and the workload at my job has only somewhat let up, so we’ll see how things play out.

Good luck writing, everyone, and enjoy the nice weather!

News 01/19/19

2018 came and went, and what a great writing year it was!

Since the last update in early October (!), quite a lot has happened.

New Publications

Honors

I got nominated for the Pushcart Prize by Ellipsis Zine for my story “Mildew,” which made me really happy. It’s one of my favorite stories and I’m glad it was one of Ellipsis Zine‘s, too.

Acceptances

Unfortunately, the anthology Drabbledark II  ended up not being funded, so the stories were released back to the authors. I am happy that my dark sci-fi drabble “The Flask” found a great new home at Trembling with Fear and will appear online in the next couple of months.

Submissions

According to The Grinder:

2018

Submissions: 91

Acceptances: 20

Rejections: 55

2019 so far

Submissions: 17 (Pending: 9)

Acceptances: 1

Rejections: 12

I have written three new pieces over the past three weeks: two long flashes (~1000 words) and a short story of 2.6k words; I admit it was nice to get comfortable and stretch a little. There probably won’t be many more than  these three before May, as I have an unusually high workload plus a work trip every month well into the summer. But I plan on keeping the juices flowing by writing some drabbles and maybe vss365 on Twitter.

Goals for 2019

Ideally, I would like to make a pro sale this year (which is needed to become an associate  member of SFWA and/or HWA and/or join Codex). While this might happen, it also might not, so it’s partially out of my hands.

However, the goals that are within my control are to:

  • Keep reading short fiction, and broadly so, in terms of both genre and style
  • Keep working; keep getting better
  • Write a few more longer pieces (2-4k words)
  • Write some nonfiction, humor, and/or literary pieces in addition to focus on speculative fiction
  • Try for more anthologies. Try not to skip The Molotov Cocktail contests
  • Keep improving knowledge of the publishing landscape. Consistently target selective markets — don’t self-reject!

News 10/04/2018

After quite a start, September remained eventful on the publishing front.

Contests

I’ve shown up on three long lists (also known as close-but-not-cigar or CBNC lists) in the recent month or so, which might mean that my writing has leveled up. I’ve already reported on making the CBNC list for The Molotov Cocktail Flash Beast” contest; that one was my first. Two more followed:

To Hull and Back humorous short story competition: long list with the story “Used-Car Salesman’s Niece to Meet Swedish Royalty” [link], which was  originally published in The Dirty Pool. This competition had nearly 500 entries and the long list was 40, so it feels pretty good to be in top <10%. Unfortunately, only 20 get published in what promises to be a cool-looking anthology. I am one of only two Americans on the long list (none on the short list). I hope the USA makes a stronger showing next year!

The Arcanist Ghost Stories competition: honorable mention (a.k.a., placement on the long list) with my story “Rimor Mortis.” The four winners and five honorable mentions were collected into an Amazon Kindle contest anthology, available here. I represent writers without Y chromosomes in this nine-piece collection.

My tiny story “Pizza Night” continues to kick butt. It was chosen as Story of the Month for August in 50-Word Stories, which comes with bragging rights, 10 CAD, and a chance to compete for Story of the Year.

Publications

“Rimor Mortis,” The Arcanist: Ghost Stories, October 2018. (anthology)[Amazon link] (Honorable mention in Ghost Stories Competition link)

“The Voids Underneath,” The Molotov Cocktail, Vol. 9, Issue 8, September 2018. This story received a lot of love on Twitter and is  one of the best I’ve written so far. It was the CBNC in the Molotov “Flash Beast” comp, so I’m extra glad it found a home in one of Molotov regular issues.

Acceptances 

“Mildew,” a dark surrealist long flash, made it into Ellipsis Zine‘s fourth print anthology, called The Whisper Place. There were nearly 200 entries and just over 20 stories were accepted after a blind read, so making it into the collection was no mean feat. The author lineup is great, and Ellipsis Zine anthologies always look gorgeous. I’m really looking forward to this publication.

“Troo Raccoon,” a sci-fi long flash, has been accepted by a new  semipro venue, Unfit Magazine, and will appear in the upcoming Issue 2 among the work of some amazing writers.

Pending Submissions

A story that might be my best piece yet is currently being held for further consideration in a pro-paying anthology. I am excited and scared. The piece is great and I think it’s an excellent fit for the collection. If I get in, that will be my first pro publication. I will have to do something awesome to celebrate.

Also pending: a dark fairy-tale flash and a dark sci-fi micro.

Plans 

As work is really busy, I don’t know how much fiction writing I will get a chance to do before Christmas break, but I planned on the following:

  • An entry to the Molotov “Flash Monster” competition (in about 3 weeks)
  • Compelling Science Fiction has opened for subs. I promised myself long ago I would send them a piece this time around (open till Dec 1).
  • In the near future, I want to focus on longer speculative pieces, 2-3k words, with an eye on more pro-market submissions.

New Stories: A Six-Publication Holiday

Between Saturday, September 1 and Monday, September 3 (the Labor Day weekend here in the US), I had six new pieces published. It’s interesting that they span all the genres I am active in. The first four can be read free online. Enjoy!

ThirstMicrofiction Monday Magazine, September 3, 2018. (literary)

Abomination101 Fiction, Issue 20, September 2, 2018. (fantasy)

The Girl in Jake’s Red Hoodie, Ghost Parachute,  September 1, 2018. (humor)

Deceitfulformercactus, Issue 11, September 1, 2018. (creative nonfiction)

DiastanautChronos, September 1, 2018. (anthology)[Amazon link](sci-fi)

FerrymanChronos, September 1, 2018. (anthology)[Amazon link](sci-fi) 

News 08/19/2018

I’ve written six longer stories and six drabbles over the past 3 weeks — not too bad for the time span. Writing will slow down as work gets crazy again, but overall I feel happy with what I’ve produced and pleasantly tired.

Publications

A tiny piece “Pizza Night” came out in 50-Word Stories. People seem to like it  and it was even chosen as story of the week, which is pretty cool. I feel it packs quite a punch for such a short piece.

Acceptances 

A 1,500-word story (horror/humor)”Family Business” was accepted by Coffin Bell and I am excited see it appear in their January issue.

Two sci-fi drabbles accepted for the Drabbledark II anthology (Shacklebound Books).

Submissions

Two new long sci-fi flashes: Fingers crossed!

A new 500-word fairy tale: This is a new genre for me, so we’ll see. I think the story is pretty cool.

A drabble for the Biffy Microfiction Comp (theme “weather”) that a Twitter friend is judging and she tagged me and a few other folks to enter. Not holding my breath for this one, I seriously doubt it’s winning material, but it’s a solid drabble and, in the likely event that it goes nowhere in this comp, it could find a home someplace nice and quiet.

Still waiting:

A sci-fi micro entered in the 53-word story competition (July theme: UFOs) in a fun three-way submission pact with two Twitter buddies. We should’ve heard the results by now, but what can you do.

A fantasy drabble to 101 Fiction (September theme: werewolves and other werethings). I like this one a lot. I hope it makes the cut.

A new dark-fiction/magical realism story to The Molotov Cocktail “Flash Beast” contest. It’s a strong piece, one of the best if not the best I’ve ever written, but the competition is really stiff. I will be disappointed if the story doesn’t crack top 10, but, on the upside, it’s a piece I know will appear somewhere awesome.

Three funny reprint entries in To Hull and Back humorous short story competition. Shortlist will be out in September.

Plans 

To send something to Ellipsis Zine 4 (dark theme, deadline 9/6) and to Ginger Collect (deadline 9/8) in a buddy-system pact with a Twitter friend.

I seem to do a lot of stuff because of Twitter friends. Hmmm. Then again, as far as peer influence goes, writing short fiction doesn’t sounds too bad.

News 08/03/2018

It’s been a busy week. Owing to a shocking confluence of free time and abundant energy, I’ve been writing much more than usual. I’ve even entered some contests, which I don’t often do because I never seem to win anything, but right now I’m feeling optimistic and the creative juices are flowing, so what the hell.

Here’s the week’s tally.

Rejections

None! Well, I didn’t get a grant at work, but in terms of creative writing, no rejections.

Publications

No stories, but my first ever visual submission “Marriage” came out in Riggwelter Issue 12. Check it out!

Acceptances 

My dark sci-fi drabble “Propolis” was accepted by Trembling with Fear.

A quirky story “The Girl in Jake’s Red Hoodie” was accepted for publication in Ghost Parachute. This is one of those rare, magical stories that seem to come out almost perfect in the first draft, title and all. It was accepted swiftly by the first market I’d sent it to.  (Another one of this enchanted ilk is “Her Hips Do Lie”,  which appeared in Jellyfish Review in March and is one of my favorites.)

Submissions

Wrote a new micro and entered the 53-word story competition (July theme: UFOs) in a fun three-way submission pact with two Twitter buddies.

Wrote and submitted a new drabble to 101 Fiction (September theme: werewolves and other werethings).

Wrote and submitted a new story to The Molotov CocktailFlash Beast” contest. It’s a strong piece; I’m quite proud of it and even if it doesn’t place in the comp, I’m pretty sure I will be able to publish it someplace great. I don’t know if other people who write speculative fiction have the same experience, but I feel that the veneer of implausibility characteristic of the genre acts as a protective buffer: it removes me from the raw and the deep and the uncomfortable just enough that I am able to tap into these feelings. I cannot do the same in the context of creative nonfiction or even realistic literary fiction, because I feel far too exposed and the defensive mechanisms kick in.

I submitted a gory  1,500-word horror/humor story. The combination of length (too long for flash; too short for many short-story zines) and genre (horror plus humor) made it it challenging to contemplate a possible home for this piece. I submitted it to a dream market of mine that likes quirky. (Must. Not. Jinx it.)

Entered To Hull and Back humorous short story competition. Aside from hosting the comp, Chris Fielden’s website is a goldmine of short-story resources.

Plans 

I have my eye on Drabbledark II (Aug 6-8), A Punk Rock Future (deadline Aug 15) , Robot Dinosaur (Aug 1-15), and Apparition Lit flash (Aug 1-15, theme: parasite). I know it’s unrealistic that I will enter them all because  I need to create new material for each, but I am pretty sure about Drabbledark II and one of the other three.

Gravy

My first ever author interview! It’s by Exoplanet Magazine, following the publication of “Cryobliss“.

News 07/25/2018

My micro “Looney” came out in 50-Word Stories. It’s guaranteed to brighten your day.

Two of my drabbles, “Ferryman” and “Diastanaut”, have been accepted for publication in the Chronos anthology by Shacklebound Books (editor Eric Fomley). I’m looking forward to its publication—it will feature some gorgeous cover art and the work of several fellow writers who are also Twitter friends!

I finished a gruesome yet funny short story that I’m quite proud of, and it’s been unleashed upon some unsuspecting slush readers. Mwahaha! Whenever I submit a newly minted piece, I marvel at how much better it is than anything I could have produced even just a few months ago.