I was talking with another friend last night about the single worst stage of trying to break into print. It's the "there's nothing wrong with this story but I'm not going to buy it" stage. (Actual words (or a paraphrase thereof) from an actual rejection letter written by ellen_datlow to me, circa 2004.) It's the stage where you're competent, but you haven't yet found your voice. The snap isn't quite there, the pop, the narrative drive. It's the garage-band stage.
I read something somewhere that opined that the difference between garage bands and bands that break out is not musical competence, but having found their own sound. I've listened to this happen to a couple of friends' bands, and it's true, I think.
It also applies to writers. You get stuck at that stage because you are trying to find the things that will lift you our of competence and into the next stage. And I can tell you what those things are.
One is confidence (hard, in a business where one faces constant rejection.) Confidence in the story you're telling. Confidence in your ability to tell it. That confidence is what gives a narrative drive, allows you to stop hemming and hawing and say what you mean rather than talking around it.
Another is voice. Sounding like yourself, the rhythm and swing of your rhetoric, the unique chord progressions that make this identifiably your song and not something anybody could have written.
And the interesting thing there is that that personalization--which is what's going to make people love your work--is the same thing that's going to make some people hate it. Strong opinions are what you're after. And some of those strong opinions are going to be negative.
And there's experience and technique and craft, of course, but those are all part of the competence. And mere competence isn't enough. You have to have that something extra.
This ties into a discussion I had with jaylake today, about how it took me twenty years to sell a story to Asimov's. "Tideline" is the first story I ever sold there, and I started submitting in roughly 1987 (juvenilia typed on a sticky old Royal typewriter). Sheila Williams bought "Tideline" in late 2006, if I remember correctly.
This came up because Jay was congratulating me on the story's Sturgeon nomination and I allowed as how most of my short work went entirely under the radar before this. The magic of a digest publication: say what you will about the death of the SFF magazine market, but the Big Three get read by the people who nominate. "Tideline" is also my first Hugo nomination, it's a Locus Award finalist, it's being reprinted in the Gardner Dozois Year's Best Science Fiction and at Escape Pod, and it was the winner of the Asimov's Reader's Choice Award for 2007.
(Which reminds me, I need to update my bibliography. Except I think I will wait until award season is over. Just in case, to avoid irritating the Web Ghoul uneccesarily. I also need to add the Sidewise nomination for "Lumiere.")
Thing is, I'm not sure "Tideline" is my best short story, though I do think it's a very good one.** But it is the one that got digest publication, and as such, it's the one that got noticed.
**Currently, my favorites are "Shoggoths in Bloom" and "Sonny Liston Takes The Fall," with "Love Among the Talus" and "Sounding" also ranking high, though you all seem to like "Orm the Beautiful" an awful lot. Incidentally, you can read these, except the first two, here. Shoggoths is in the March Asimov's this year (The teaser text is online here), and Sonny Liston is currently available in The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy.
There's an interesting discussion of who the Hot New Thing in SFF might be going on around the blogosphere. It started at SF Signal's Mind Meld and progressed to Vector's Torque Control. You can vote over at instant_fanzine.