My first professionally published story, “Mermaid Care,” a flash piece with a creepy take on anthropomorphism and the exotic animal trade, can be found in the December 2021 issue of Mermaids Monthly—which is now officially available to the general public, both online and in the usual ebook formats.
It’s only 950 words long, so there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t go read it right now. Since I’m going to talk about the story’s origins and inspirations in this post, everything will make more sense if you’ve read the story first.
“Mermaid Care” was inspired by my increasingly complicated feelings about exotic pet keeping. Not just in terms of anthropomorphism, but in terms of our often cavalier approach to our charges’ care. So I wrote the story in the form of a care sheet—a short guide to animal care common in the reptile hobby. Care sheets are extremely brief—in pre-computer days they almost certainly took up no more than one or two sides of a single sheet of paper, whence, I suspect, the name—and tend to leave off more than they say, which fit the bill for what I wanted to do.
I re-imagined mermaids as mundane ocean-going fish that were horrifically misinterpreted, in much the same way that manatees were once mistaken for mermaids—only far ickier. The story went into a fairly dark place as I wrote it, pretty much on its own.
It started as an exercise, a way to practice writing subtext, for which I had no real ambitions. I showed it to some writer friends. To my surprise, they thought it was publishable.
Now for a time check: this was in January 2014—eight years ago.
How to Get Your First Story Published in Just Eight Years
I redrafted, incorporating their feedback, and began sending it out. It made the rounds, collecting rejections, almost making the final cut at one publication. In 2016 I got it into my head to expand the story to 2,100 words, got one more rejection in that form, and then trunked the story.
At one point during this process I learned, in an io9 piece by Charlie Jane Anders, that mermaid stories were among the things that sf/fantasy editors were tired of seeing. One of the editors they talked to was Julia Rios, then editing at Strange Horizons:
Rios also mentions that she’s seeing a LOT of Mermaid and Selkie stories, to the point where something really has to be special to win her over. Another short story editor, who asked not to be named, reports being inundated with mermaids: “FWIW, a lot of them have been GOOD mermaid stories, but seriously, SO MANY mermaid stories! I’m not even sure I’d say I’m tired of seeing them. It’s just that I’ve been seeing so many of them that even if I wanted to publish all of the ones I liked I couldn’t, since my magazine isn’t called Mermaids Monthly.”
What’s funny is that in the end the story sold to the very same Julia Rios at a magazine that was indeed called Mermaids Monthly, but at the time that was somewhat discouraging, though enlightening, to read.
In late 2020 I blew the dust off the manuscript (figuratively speaking) and listened to Jennifer’s advice that the longer version of the story was a mistake. It was better in its original form: as a short, sharp shock. I revised it down to 950 words, with the vague idea of submitting it to Nature Futures, but procrastinated submitting it. Which is how when I discovered that Julia and Meg Frank and some others had launched Mermaids Monthly and were looking for submissions, I just happened to have a suitable manuscript ready to go.
The piece is sharp and captures the voice of a dry care guide well, with a bit of something grim and sharp underneath. A fine read!Charles Payseur, Quick Sip Reviews, 21 Jan 2021