James A. Conan is a Toronto-based writer and sous-chef. He has published several short stories over the past two years, focusing mainly on science fiction, but recently on literary and upmarket fiction. James is also a first reader at Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, an online magazine of speculative fiction of all types. He draws on this experience to write his blog, Notes From the Slush Pile, which offers advice to other writers looking to hone their craft and achieve publication. Other than his website, you can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
1. You manage a personal blog called Notes From the Slush Pile and refer to yourself as a “First Reader”. How has this position helped you grow as an author?
Being a First Reader has helped me become a better writer for the simple reason that it’s exposed me to a larger, unrefined body of work than I would have come across otherwise. Reading the finished, published short stories and novels of other writers is important, but this way I get to see the earlier steps in the process. I encounter the mistakes people make, many of which I’ve made myself. I have the opportunity to learn by observation all the ways that other writers can try and craft a good idea into a plausible, engaging narrative. Sometimes they succeed and I give them the thumbs up. When they don’t, gently explaining to them why what they’ve done didn’t work gives me valuable experience. I’ve been teaching myself what works and what doesn’t.
2. You’ve published quite a few short stories. Stephen King has made it clear he started with short stories as well. How would an aspiring writer know short stories could be their starting place?
The fact is I didn’t start that way. I made the mistake of writing a novel first. I was only 23 and fresh out of school, I didn’t know better. I’m still trying to get it published by the way. You can check out a sample chapter on the blog. My point is, I found out the hard way that most publishers won’t take you seriously unless you can come across as professional (I wasn’t). This means the blog, properly written queries, being at least somewhat active on social media, and most importantly having a published body of work to prove you mean business. Any aspiring writer who thinks otherwise is likely in for the same rude awakening I got. That said, once I began writing short stories to help myself get noticed, I began to appreciate the technical challenges. When I was writing the novel I could take as long as I felt I needed to get to the point, but with short stories I learned that sometimes less is more.
3. Since many of our readers are aspiring authors, what is some of the best advice you’ve received in your writing career that you can share?
I’m really better at giving it than receiving. The blog attests . If I took half the advice I gave to others I’d have way more stories and a few more books done by now. Don’t be afraid of rejection, I guess. You have to develop a thick skin. People are going to tell you why they don’t like your work. You need to be okay with that. If anything, you should share your work around with your peers, and encourage more people to give you constructive criticism. Just remember that it’s your work, not theirs, and you don’t have to make any changes you don’t want to. Other than that, just don’t give up, keep writing. It takes time to get good at anything, and the time and effort will show. To quote Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame; “with a little practice it can become an intimidating and impenetrable foe.”
4. The medium of publishing has seen some change with the digital era we find ourselves in. Latest of which would include chat stories, where readers receive text, audio, and video messages that push a story forward regularly like a TV show. Do you think already published authors, self or traditional, can break into these new markets with existing work?
I think so. Serializing a novel is nothing new, the technology has just given us a new format. It might take a while to really catch on, but if there’s one thing the digital age has given us more of than anything else it’s ways to consume popular culture. If authors don’t engage and chat stories don’t end up lasting, there’ll be some other new platform before too long. I’m holding out for realistic holograms.
5. With short stories, magazine articles, and novels, the use of an illustrator is typically minimal to create a great cover or add a few graphics to help with the story. Have you found trouble hiring an illustrator or graphic designer when so many work exclusively for agencies?
I haven’t really worked with enough illustrators one-on-one to answer this well. The magazines I’ve been published in have all contracted their own artists. I had nothing to do with it. For the blog, I use entirely public domain science fiction and fantasy images, mostly from Pixabay. I did hire a friend to do some concept artwork for my novel back when I was first writing it. I never ended up using it for much. It’s still hanging on my wall though. Sort of a memorial to the time and effort I put in. Ian, if you’re reading this, I promise when I get it published your stuff will be in there.
6. With so many digital readers, the end of print is always a hot-button issue. Do you think traditional print books or magazines will ever fade away, or will there simply be more options to choose from?
This is a question that people have been asking for years now. I think there’s room for both. I have a kindle app on my phone that I use to download public domain classics. Being able to read “Heart of Darkness” for free helped me pass the time on a transatlantic flight recently. Digital publishing certainly has it’s place, but it’s not going to replace print for me anytime soon. A lot of us stare at screens for a good portion of the day, be it at work or at home. Reading print books is a relaxing, sedentary pastime that lets me take my eyes away from the blue-light glow. My tiny apartment is full of bookshelves groaning under the weight of my library, and that’s just the way I like it. I can admit it’s an affectation in this digital age, but it’s one I’ll never stop enjoying and I think a lot of people out there feel the same.
7. As authors, we continually grow and develop our writing craft, whether in word, form, or style. How has your writing transformed from where you started to today?
This is an interesting one for me. I’d just finished university when I started writing seriously, so one of my biggest challenges was my own verbosity, writing stuff like I would if I were doing an academic paper. It was a big problem that I’ve (mostly) overcome. In general, I’ve had to work on being patient. It doesn’t come naturally to me, and getting anything published is almost always a long, slow process. I’d like to think that my work has become more refined as a result. I think about what I’m writing more, and go through a few more phases of editing and rewrites with every
8. If you could pick only one thing from one of your published short stories that might come true…what would it be and how would the world be different from it?
It’s a pretty generic answer, but space travel. Other planets in our solar system, faster than light, whatever. As a science fiction author, any significant progress in this field that might see human beings living on other planets within my lifetime would be a dream come true. As for what that might mean for the world at large, I’m not chasing some vision of utopia. I think humans generally make a lot of catastrophic mistakes. It just might mean that a mistake that kills this planet might not kill all of us. Optimistic pessimism.
9. What can we expect to see from you in the next 1-2 years?
In the next year or two I expect my next novel to be done. I’m moving away from science fiction towards more mainstream fiction. “I Think I Can” is the story of a down and out motivational speaker who finds himself in therapy after his wife leaves him, and the personal and professional obstacles he encounters on his road to recovery. The first two chapters were published in short story form in The Danforth Review. In the meantime, I’ve got plenty of other short stories I’m trying to find homes for. I’m also going back to school this fall. Working as a First Reader woke a deeper interest in publishing for me, so ‘ll be taking a post-graduate course in book and magazine publishing at Centennial College here in Toronto in order to pursue that.