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Arthur H. Manners Posts

Books Read 2023

Continuing in the line of a similar post from last year (inspired by a similar analysis from Kate McKean’s excellent newsletter), here’s the breakdown for the books I read in 2023. The list includes things I finished, but also DNFs if I finished an appreciable portion of the book before putting it down.

I read 52 books in 2023. Reading was a mixed bag for me last year. I went through spells of reading voraciously and not reading at all. I also had a surprising number of DNFs or things I didn’t particularly enjoy—at least, it felt that way.

Genres

The 50/50 split between fiction and non-fiction was incidental. Not much change in other areas, except sci-fi for less sci-fi and more fantasy.

A closer look at non-fiction

A mixed bag for non-fiction. Memoir came out on top, probably egged on by how much I enjoyed Tara Westover’s Educated. Craft/Creativity dropped off a bit, but it’s still joint-second with science.

Book formats

Audiobook and hardback traded places since 2022. I revived Audible and hardbacks were a bit too expensive on the year’s budget. I also listened to a lot of podcasts—even more than usual.

Minority voices

I did a bit better this year (60/40 -> 52/48). I’m pleased about that, given the effort I put into diversifying my book purchases. With any luck, that won’t be a statistical fluke but a new normal.

Completed vs partial reads

I count books as ‘read’ on my log even if I don’t read them cover to cover. As a rule of thumb, if I get more than halfway, I’ll count it. Surprisingly, I finished more books in 2023 than in 2022 (90/10 vs 84/16). It definitely didn’t feel that way. But that’s 47 finished, 5 DNFed).


For reference, here’s the list (see the Book Log for previous years):

  1. Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
  2. Money: The True Story of a Made Up Thing by Jacob Goldstein
  3. The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
  4. Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris
  5. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
  6. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
  7. The White Album by Joan Didion
  8. How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
  9. The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa
  10. Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
  11. My Body by Emily Ratajkowski
  12. The Outsider by Albert Camus
  13. Temeraire by Naomi Novik
  14. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematorium by Caitlin Doughty
  15. Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom
  16. Fear by L. Ron Hubbard
  17. Toast by Nigel Slater
  18. Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
  19. Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
  20. Gather Together in My Name by Maya Angelou
  21. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
  22. Shakespeare by Bill Bryson
  23. Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson
  24. Introducing Quantum Theory by J.P. McEvoy
  25. Educated by Tara Westover
  26. Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
  27. Words of Radiance, Part 2 by Brandon Sanderson
  28. The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu
  29. The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy by Arik Kershenbaum
  30. The Alchemy of Architecture by Ken Tate
  31. The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
  32. Chaos by James Gleick
  33. The Pelican Brief by John Grisham
  34. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  35. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
  36. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
  37. Men Explain Things to Me and Other Essays by Rebecca Solnit
  38. World War Z by Max Brooks
  39. Heligoland by Carlo Rovelli
  40. Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
  41. Gotta Read It! by Libbie Hawker
  42. On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross
  43. The Narrow Road Between Desires by Patrick Rothfuss
  44. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
  45. The Keep by F. Paul Wilson
  46. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson (re-read)
  47. At Home by Bill Bryson (re-read)
  48. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  49. One Summer by Bill Bryson (re-read)
  50. Redshirts by John Scalzi
  51. A Poet for Every Day of the Year by Allie Esiri
  52. The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

New story: Nelly’s World, published in Divergent Realms

I’m pleased to announce that my sci-fi short story “Nelly’s World” will appear in the upcoming 2024 anthology “Divergent Realms: Speculative Stories About Neurodiversity”.

The story marks my fourth short story sale, but “Nelly’s World” stands out as special to me. It was the first story I wrote that I considered a “proper short story”, the first time I felt like I’d succeeded. It’s taken several years to sell after many near misses, but I couldn’t be happier with the home it’s found.

The editor of the anthology, Riley Odell, is himself a horror writer. He took part in an interview about the anthology over at Stark Reflections, in which he talks about his work, the anthology, his neurodivergent identity, and the need for representation of neurodiversity in fiction.

The anthology is scheduled for release in Spring 2024. More updates to come.

Story Submissions in 2023

(This post was inspired by similar posts over at Aeryn Rudel’s excellent site, Rejectomancy. I recommended his articles about his writing journey—and his cool stories, of course.)

2023 was the first year I put serious effort into submitting short stories to markets for publication. I had sent out the odd sub every other year since 2011/2012ish, but I always gave up after a few tries (oh, sweet summer child, who thought a single rejection meant they’d never be good enough to be published). Short stories aren’t my natural writing form. I find novels much easier, and a lot of my early short stories (and some now, if I’m not paying attention) are essentially compressed novels.

Shaky Start: 2021-2022

In 2021 I wrote two stories after a long break from writing, with no real intention to do anything with them. In 2023, I focused on learning by doing and failing and doing again. They both sold in the end (one in 2022, one in 2023), but I was submitting in a very slapdash and ad-hoc way.

2022 was a bad year in my personal life, so any steam from 2021 fell flat. I wrote three short stories. (I might do a separate post on this, because I almost just gave up altogether.) In short: I put out 24 submissions and got 23 rejections (20 form, 3 personal). One of them ended up winning 2nd-place in the Writers of the Future contest, which was so surprising that I thought I was being cold-called by the competition runner and almost put the phone down on her.

Only in 2023 did I get my head on straight and start writing again in earnest. So, let’s look into how it went.

Shout-out to Angela Liu: I was hesitant to put something like this together, at least partly because I didn’t know if I’d like the stats if I computed them. One thing that finally got me motivated was Angela Liu’s retrospective on her first year of submissions. Angela came screaming out of the gate in 2023, getting 12 stories published, more than half in very prestigious places. If you don’t read on from here, at least follow that link. While you’re at it, do yourself another favour: read her work. It’s really, really good.

Stories Written

This year, I wrote 14 complete stories and an additional 3 partials. 2 of those stories sold, 9 are still out on active submission, I retired 1 (it was just so, so bad), and parked 2 for further work later. The average story length was ~5,000 words with a standard deviation of ~2,000 words (meaning 2/3 of my stories fell in the range 3,000-7,000 words). In total, it mounted up to 66,350 words of finished drafts (x2-4 for redrafting, in some cases almost total rewrites).

I also completed an ~88,000 word sci-fi novel, which is now on submission.

All told, that adds up to ~154,000 words of polished prose. Not bad, probably around average for me, but certainly an enormous swing towards short fiction when compared to previous years .

Submission Stats

The statistics look like this:

  • Submissions: 68
  • Ongoing (at the time of writing, 26th Jan 2024): 11
  • Withdrawn: 2
  • Rejections (form): 41
  • Rejections (personal): 8
  • Never responded: 3
  • Acceptances: 3

Discounting the ongoing subs, that’s a 5.2% acceptance rate, or 1 out of every 19 submissions. I’m happy with that, given my “top-down” approach (i.e., starting with top-rate places like Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, etc. and working down to lower-paying / less prestigious markets). My sales were to pro and semi-pro markets, in the pay range $0.06-0.08 p/w, at or just below the current SFWA-recommended professional rates.

Further encouraging is an 14% chance of getting a personal rejection, a hat-tip from the editor that means “close but not quite” or “not this time, but send me something else”. If we’re counting that as a kind of win, we’re talking a 19.2% rate of success this year.

If we’re being cheeky and discounting the withdrawals (hastily done after I realised some double submission mistakes after switching from Duotrope to Submission Grinder) and those who never responded, the rate tick up a little more to 5.8% and 15.3%, respectively.

Lessons Learned

One lesson I did learn this year was to stay away from writing specifically for anthology calls. With a mind to get as many stories in the air as possible—a sort of hit-the-ground-running mentality—I wrote 6 stories for themed contests/anthologies, almost half my output.

I hoped the prompts would boost my productivity. And they did, but at a cost. While one of those stories sold to a great market and I’m very proud of it, the others ranged from “needs a LOT of work” to “this might be the worst pile of crap I’ve ever written”.

The novel I also wrote for a competition, which ate up my whole summer. Unfortunately it didn’t make the shortlist, and time constraints meant I made changes to my original vision for the story.

Why did these projects come out so badly? I think a combination of two factors:

  1. Hofstadter’s Law: “A project always takes longer than you expect, even if you account for Hofstadter’s Law”. I’ve discovered that, despite being known in my family for my time management skills, I’m rubbish at gauging how long a story will take to finish. I mean, off by a factor of 2-3. Inexperience? Optimism? Both, probably. Anyway, I squeezed my stories into anthology/contest deadlines by minutes on several occasions, and to be honest the stories were just not polished enough to be competitive.
  2. I don’t really enjoy being prompted. By nature, I’m the “silent contrarian” type, that irritating kind of bastard that hates being told what to do, but also doesn’t like conflict—so they disobey in such a way that nobody notices until it’s too late. I’ve completed enough “creative prompt” classes/exercises/textbooks to know that, while they’re essential for honing your craft and learning the ropes, for me they rarely kickstart any ideas with legs.

Regardless, going forward, I plan to stay away from themed anthologies, unless I happen to already have either a good idea or a finished story lying around that fits.

Vision vs What Appears on the Page

TL;DR: Confident in a story I intended to submit to a prestigious market, I sent it out to beta readers for a final glance-over. One reader ever so politely informed me that it was a steaming pile of crap, and they were totally right. Lesson: your vision often disagrees with what you actually wrote, sometimes to disastrous extent. (And thank the timeless void for beta readers.)


Last year, I worked on a horror short story on-and-off for about four months. In that time, I put in perhaps a week’s equivalent of writing time. I sent it out to an anthology around November and recently received a rejection.

No problem, I thought. Rare is the story that sells the first time. I put it aside and decided to come back to it when I had a break in my schedule.

Only a few weeks later, a call came for submissions from a prestigious market. A great fit for the story. I eagerly fished the story from my files, dusted it off and gave it a glance over, and decided that it was much better than I remembered. It was actually quite good. Always a nice surprise for a writer looking back over their own work.

I asked two people to read it first, just to be sure I wasn’t missing anything silly. One of them enjoyed it and offered minor structural tweaks and suggestions to strengthen the characterisation.

I incorporated the changes and waited for the second reader’s feedback. My finger hovered over the submit button; I expected minor suggestions, if any. The feedback came: the most polite but complete trashing I’ve yet received. I was blindsided, first by simple surprise, then by the realisation that they were absolutely right.

The story didn’t work at all. It was flawed in multiple aspects that required a complete overhaul.

And I’d been so sure that it was good, that it was ready. Without that person’s input to shock me out of my anchored perspective, I would have flung the story into the slush pile with no hope of a sale.

It was a lesson in humility: I may have written a number of novels, but I am still learning the short story form. It was also a lesson in the resilience of a warped perspective; I knew all of the things my second reader pointed out — why hadn’t I noticed and fixed them long before the beta-reading stage?

Because I had been blinded by the original inspiration for the story. The vision had occluded the words that had actually made it onto the page. This usually happens to some degree with every story, especially with line-edits: you don’t see the missing ‘the’ because you meant to write it and reading over the story yet again only stimulates your memory of what you intended the story to be. My the craziness of my schedule no doubt contributed to my seeing-but-not-seeing.

But this episode stands out. No amount of practice makes a person immune to the skewing effect of their perceptions.

Outcome: I’ve overhauled the story, top to bottom. And it’s much stronger. Blessings be to all beta readers.

Upcoming story: Empty Nest, published by Dreamforge Anvil

I’m delighted to say that I’ve recently signed a contract with Dreamforge for my short story “Empty Nest”. The story will feature in their 2024 double-issue on “uplift“. What’s it about? Androids, genetic engineering and cuttlefish. Sort of.

I enjoyed writing this story more than most, and I’m proud to see it find a home with a great publisher. I’ll provide an update when the story becomes available.

Top Science Papers Ever

I stumbled across this webpage put together by Nature, listing the top 100 science papers of all time. There’s a great interactive tool that lets you cycle through the papers and see graphs of their citations per year.

There are tens of millions of papers on the record. Only around 15,000 papers have ever been cited more than 1,000 times.

Naively (or maybe arrogantly, given I was trained as a physicist), I expected the most cited papers to be related to physics. It’s the most fundamental of the sciences, after all. I expected the other sciences to lean on physics.

Failing that, I imagined the most cited things would be famous papers, like Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis papers in 1905 or Watson and Crick’s 1953 Nature paper on the structure of DNA.

But the most cited papers by far as either biology lab technique or physical chemistry. Which makes sense, in hindsight. That’s where the big business is. That’s what the big labs focus on.

The most cited paper in history, from 1951, is about measuring proteins, and has 305,000 citations at the time of writing.

Writers of the Future Award

I’m pleased to announce that my story “The Withering Sky” is a recipient of the Writers of the Future Award 2022. The space horror novelette will be published in the upcoming Writers of the Future Volume 39 on 16th May 2023.

Writers of the Future Vol 39

Click here to order the anthology from your preferred store.

The Writers of the Future anthologies are an excellent way to discover up-and-coming writers in science fiction and fantasy — not to blow my own trumpet (okay, maybe a little bit). The contest and associated publication have been running for decades (with 39 volumes at the time of writing). Many genre-leading writers such as Nnedi Okorafor, Patrick Rothfuss and Ken Liu got their start in these pages.

You can find all the previous anthologies here.

2022 in Books

This post is inspired by Kate McKean’s recent newsletter article, which I thought was a great way to visualise, rather than just list, books read last year.

I read 50 books in 2022, which makes me very happy. It’s been a hard year at work and in my personal life, but I’ve still found time for reading. That’s an average of almost a book a week — though I definitely squeezed a final few in there over Christmas to give a satisfying round number.

Genres

58% fiction, 42% non-fiction. I’m not surprised that sci-fi tops the list of fiction, nor by the tie between fantasy, horror and literary fiction. I haven’t done this kind of analysis on previous years, but that pretty much aligns with my gut instinct about my reading tastes. More unusually for me, thriller/crime are >0% — I’m trying to branch out a bit into what is usually a dull genre for me. My guess is that I’m drifting year-on-year from a fiction-dominated appetite to something more balanced.

A closer look at non-fiction

Looking closer at non-fiction, it’s obvious that ‘Craft/Creativity’ was a hot topic for me. These were mostly books about writing or about artists. I’ve enjoyed reading more essays and memoir this year, and my reading list for 2023 is leaning into that. Self-help reading centred around creativity, productivity and introversion/sensitivity.

Book formats

I’m shocked by how few audiobooks I listened to this year. Over the last 10 years I’ve usually had an audiobook on the go most of the time. But this year I’ve been listening to so many podcasts that I haven’t really had time for audiobooks. 24% ebooks sounds about right, though also might be a reduction from previous years. I do tend to mostly read paperbacks, so there’s no surprises here, but there are definitely more hardbacks than I anticipated (lots of these were gifts — if friends/family are reading this, yes please, more hardbacks for my birthday next year).

Minority voices

This analysis is definitely reductive. I haven’t researched people’s identities in detail. In any case, artists shouldn’t have to divulge details of their personal lives to further their careers. I’ve gone with ‘white and/or cis-gender male’ as the easiest questions to answer. A 60/40 split isn’t bad, but it’s not brilliant either. I think it’s better than previous years, but the trend will be clearer if this analysis gets repeated in future years.

Completed vs partial reads

I count books as ‘read’ on my log even if I don’t read them cover to cover. Sometimes books lose momentum or I lose interest, but I still feel that I’ve absorbed the essence of the book. As a rule of thumb, if I get more than halfway, I’ll count it. But it looks like I read 84% of books cover to cover this year. That’s 42 books completed, 8 partial reads.


For reference, here’s the list (see the Book Log for previous years):

  1. The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield
  2. Mockingbird by Walter Tevis
  3. Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
  4. Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder
  5. It Happened in ‘Loontown by Lavie Tidhar (short story)
  6. The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin
  7. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
  8. The Firmament of Time by Loren Eiseley
  9. Siege & Storm by Leigh Bardugo
  10. This Is Water by David Foster Wallace
  11. Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl
  12. Appropriate by Paisley Rekdal
  13. Why I Write by George Orwell
  14. The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers
  15. The Fisherman by John Langan
  16. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
  17. The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida
  18. Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber
  19. The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr
  20. Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
  21. Odyssey by Jack McDevitt
  22. Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
  23. Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith
  24. The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken
  25. Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
  26. Art Matters by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell
  27. 1Q84: Book Three by Haruki Murakami
  28. A Short Stay in Hell by Steven L. Peck
  29. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson
  30. Permission to Screw Up by Kristen Hadeed 
  31. Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
  32. Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo
  33. What It Is by Lynda Barry
  34. The Stormlight Archive: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
  35. Acceptance by Jeff VenderMeer
  36. Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg
  37. Mistborn: Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson
  38. Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
  39. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones
  40. Refuse to Be Done by Matt Bell
  41. Metazoa by Peter Godfrey-Smith
  42. Creating Short Fiction by Damon Knight
  43. When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut
  44. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
  45. The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu
  46. Daily Rituals: Women at Work by Mason Currey
  47. Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin
  48. Ringworld by Larry Niven
  49. Cauldron by Jack McDevitt
  50. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Maya Angelou on Desert Island Disks

TL;DR: Listen to this, and if you haven’t already, read this.


Two years ago I read Maya Angelou’s memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The economy of words and effortless storytelling made it an instant favourite. A book that has brewed in the back of my head since, and one I look forward to reading a second time.

Last week, while at the gym, I was browsing podcasts and found that BBC’s Desert Island Disks had reposted an old interview from their archives from 1988, featuring Maya Angelou.

I was amazed to discover that the real Angelou was totally at odds with how I had pictured her. Her memoir deals with some serious issues, from rape to the racism she endured growing up in the American south. I had pictured her as flinty-eyed and stoic and maybe — understandably — a bit joyless. It was a real treat to hear her real voice: like warm butter, full of mischief. The indestructible kind of person who laughs easily and speaks with humility.

It really hit me how little I know the writers of my favourite books, even the ones who are still alive. They might have adopted any mask for the sake of their work, and I might never know.

Side quest: In this interview Angelou also talks about her mother Vivian, who sounds like a beast of a human being. Angelou speaks about an occasion when, already a hotel owner, surgical nurse and real estate broker, her mother joined the navy:

They told me they wouldn’t let black women in their union. You know what I said? ‘You wanna bet?’ I’ll put my foot in that door up to my hip!

Apparently Angelou finally did write a biography about her mother in 2013, in the last volume of her memoirs, Me and Mom and Me. One for my reading list.