Thursday, 3 August 2017

Support this Project

Government funding of all kinds is notoriously unstable and fickle. A change of government often means the end of funding for some worthy organizations and the beginning of funding for others. I get that it’s often offered as seed money – after which point, citizens now aware of and grateful for a particular service are expected to take up the slack, which is great in theory but (in my experience) seldom works in practice.

The only expectations funding should be contingent upon is whether or not the money is used as promised and does the greatest good for the greatest number of people who genuinely need that support.

Which is why I am puzzled by the loss of funding from the Ontario Arts Council for the ChiSeries/Chiaroscuro reading series.

In case you don’t know much, or anything, about it – ChiSeries is a public reading series run and hosted by Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory - Ontarians both - and publishers of the celebrated ChiZine Publications which has won all sorts of awards and published gorgeous books by some of the best literary, speculative fiction authors in the world, including Craig Davidson, Helen Marshall, Tony Burgess, Caitlin Sweet, Michael Rowe, and Gemma Files.

An important venue for newcomers and veteran writers alike – ChiSeries has built community, by hosting genre fiction readings and other literary events – for thousands if not ten of thousands of attendees in Toronto, Ottawa, Guelph, Peterborough, and Windsor – as well as major cities in other provinces. The hundreds of authors and performers (readers do not need to be ChiZine authors; ie: While I have never been published by ChiZine, I am grateful for the opportunity to have done a couple of Chiseries readings.) not only get to present their work to receptive, enthusiastic audiences – they get paid for doing it! If there ever was an arts project that deserved government funding, this is it. Hopefully, the Ontario Government will eventually come back to its senses and renew their support. But in the meantime, Brett and Sandra have had to look for other ways to keep this great reading series going. One of the best ways to support them is by attending – because then you get get to enjoy the wonderful music, stories and camaraderie firsthand. But there are other ways.

So if you like reading, writing – or even just watching great sci-fi, fantasy and horror – you’d be doing a good deed for creators across Canada by dropping into the their website and making a five or ten dollar donation. Visit to find out about readings in your area and maybe make a Paypal donation. And spread the word about their Kickstarter in September 2017. 

Thursday, 27 April 2017

My little bookshelf of publications has always been my most prized possession - the first thing in the house I'd save in a fire after all the living creatures were safe - the only tangible evidence of my years of hard work.

My first published story was in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. It was available on my local newstand plus several others in town. I think I bought six copies. Holding it in my hand gave me something much like a new car feeling. Sort of a "new me feeling."

That natural high lasted for a week.

When I sold a story to Pulphouse The Hardcover Magazine issue 1 and appeared alongside Harlan Ellison, Ed Bryant, Kate Wilhelm, Charles de Lint and Michael Bishop, I bought at least four extra copies, gave some away and sold the other two.

Despite more than half a dozen fiction sales over the past three years, my bookshelf has stopped growing.The bookcase contains very little printed since 2010. Now everything is virtual. And I do hope people discover and read these publications - even though my only evidence they ever appeared is my bibliography coupled with my increasingly leaky memory along with an e-pub or pdf in some subfile of a subfile. Somehow, it doesn't sound like much of a legacy anymore. I guess it's more important now than ever to point readers to those publications, so...

The Colored Lens: Spring 2017 by [Sengupta, Tamoha, Roth, J. J., Cleden, David, Ryan, Peter, Bilsborough, Mark, L. Sproule, Dale, Johe, Serena, Wijeyeratne, Subodhana, Olsen, Madeline, Miller, A.P.]I'm proud to say, that The Colored Lens #23 (Spring 2017) contains my story, "Ladder of Ashes" - a ghost story set in an old British settlement in Myanmar.
(Read my story, "Along Dominion Road" from issue #17 free here)

As of February, my story (with Sally McBride), "The Birthing Blades," is in the anthology Unbound 2 - Changed Worlds. (This one has a POD version available, but doesn't send authors hard-copies as part of payment)

In Winter 2017, my story "Two Yurts" will appear in Hidden Animals: A Collection of Cryptids from Dragon's Roost Press.

None of those are in my bookcase (although as soon as my Pal Pal account gets reloaded, I will buy a copy of Unbound 2). Nor are they at risk in case of fire. They exist only as virtual entities. I have to confess that the internet has taken away something very precious to me.

I've read quite a few books on readers and tablets. Most I happily release back into the electrical field. But when I like them, I almost always want to reread them in hardcopy.

That's not a point of view that gets expressed often, because we all want to be seen as forward thinking, environment friendly and responsible.

But, I have always been a very tactile person, which explains why I was drawn to sculpting. Online art is hard to appreciate - since my mind can't put a value on it and my material self can't pine for it - I can have it whenever I want it.

So, as much as I am proud of my recent and upcoming story sales, I am wishing that modern publishers still gave writers and artists something to hold in their hands. It is lovely to get paid, and Pay Pal is handy when I feel the urge to go music shopping. But I would take a single samisdat assemblage of staplebound pages - with my story inside as payment - rather than cash. And if I thought your publication was cool enough, I'd buy copies for friends, family and self-promotion.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Is That the Best You Can Do?

As we were setting up our first ever sculpture show, my partner, Laura, and I, were photographing the pieces. Noticing the absence of one of my oldest sculptures during the photoshoot, Laura asked, "What have you done with The Ponderer?"

"Oh," I said, "He's on the shelf in the guest bedroom downstairs."

"You should bring him up for the photos."

By the end of the day, he still had not appeared.

"I'm sensing that you don't like that sculpture very much?" she said.

I agreed.

But she didn't let it go. "What don't you like about it?"

"It's just I dunno, it's just blocky and dull."

Laura nodded agreement. "Sorta grey?"

Ponderer - 2015

"More swampy. I thought it was going to be so spectacular when I was working on it and then, when I polished it up, it was just sort of mud coloured."

That conversation while setting up for the show stuck in my head, and got me thinking about ways to make it less blocky. I brought it upstairs and started looking at it critically.

I needed to add more detail to make the sculpture effective from all angles. So, I took it out to our workshop and went at it with the rasps, adding a curve here, a scallop there, and paid lots of attention to things like harmonious planes and angles and exposing different layers of colour.

Reflector - back

Laura had pointed out that I never even bothered to finish the back of it properly. The part of
the surface that had been left raw was as exciting as concrete. I felt that I should make the shape even more dynamic to make up for the dullness of the colour. But as I got down to the sanding stage, I remembered how high my hopes had been for this sculpture - because the colour and marbling were incredibly vibrant and translucent and transforming – a vivid bolt of golden lightening running through it.

I decided that if I could see all the rich colours and organic detail while sanding, it had to be possible to make it visible in the finished sculpture.

I just needed to do a better job of buffing and waxing. We had much finer sandpaper available now than we had when I had first worked on The Ponderer in 2010 or thereabouts. The three grades of paper I'd used had finished the piece to a high gloss, but left the viewer with the feeling of glimpsing the colours through six feet of pondwater. If it was possible to bring out the colours, I swore to do it.

I worked on faith for more than a week, doing the sanding an hour or two at a time. Usually one or two grades a day, through 80, 100, 120, 150, 220, 320, 400, 600, 1200 and 2000. I cleaned up the nooks and crannies as I went along. I didn't know for sure that the extra effort would pay off until I reached 600 grit – and it began to glow. The 1200 and 2000 grades of sandpaper made the golds and yellows more vibrant and the contrasts even more dramatic.

It has become one of my most impressive pieces. The Ponderer struck me as a rather ponderous name for a sculpture with so many dramatic curves and planes and angles. Now, the stone doesn't just speak – it sings in ancient tongues. I thought maybe, Reflector would be more appropriate. Two years ago, I had completely given up on this sculpture and declared the attempt an artistic misstep. Now, it's clear I was on the right path all along, but didn't trust my own instincts and abilities. I had told myself "This doesn't work," rather than asking myself, "Why isn't this working?" or "How do I fix it?"

The same technique should work on stories.

Why isn't this working? Because it's too expository, doesn't draw the reader in, has shallow characters, ends where it should be starting...yada, yada, yada. If I find an answer, I'll ask myself  "How do I fix it?" And then do it. So simple, right?  Why don't I do that all the time?

Because it works best with a special set of circumstances. It has to be something that inspired me to work at the highest level possible for me at the time. And which I have since gained the skill to execute much more professionally. Revisiting that sculpture made it so clear what I needed to done and I am so grateful to Laura for urging me to do it.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Stories from the Near-Future goes LIVE

There's nothing better than having your stories republished in a great venue that you're proud to appear in. I'm pleased to say that's happening to me now!

My near-future, grimy-black comedy story "Bad Copies" appears in Stories from the Near-Future.

You can pick up the paperback at Amazon:  - and Stories From the Near Future earns my respect and devotion by sending every contributor a hard-copy book (no longer a perk writers can count on)!

If you don't care about hard-copies  - then you can get the e-book for $2.99 from Kindle or Amazon. 

Kindle link: 

Congratulations to editor Andrew McRae and all the writers published within the pages of this handsome book. Now...go order your very own copy.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

When Excitement Turns to Ennui

Finding out that one of your stories is shortlisted or held for a second or third reading is exciting. It fills you with delicious anticipation (tinged with a bit of dread that you'll find a rejection slip every time you check your e-mail). But as the weeks and months drag on, any excitement inevitably turns to ennui.

After four or five months, the anticipation goes away entirely because all you have come to expect is another day, another week, another month of waiting. It does dull the pain when the rejection finally comes. Hurt and frustration are replaced by relief. You may understandably feel a bit of anger if you've waited six or eight months and all you get in the end is a form rejection. After that length of time, a conscientious publication should send you at least a personal rejection.

This entire process is repeated ten or twelve times a year when you have a lot of stories on the go. That's when publications like Clarkesworld and F&SF become a panacea. Sure you will almost certainly get a form rejection – but it generally just takes a day or two – sometimes a week. Getting rejected so fast it makes your head spin can feel invigorating after months and months of waiting. And these editors sometimes send out personal rejections. A personal rejection in five days is SO much better than a form rejection after eight months. Doesn't matter how mercenary their process is! Doesn't matter if they don't read past the first line...first paragraph...first page. Fine! Those publications earn your loyalty and subscriptions.

Then there are the other occasions, when the market you've submitted your story to responds with an acceptance rather than a rejection. Oh happy day! Does it make up for all the waiting? Hmm. If there are enough sales, they might. Enough to give you a feeling of having momentum – three or four sales in a season. Heck, that many sales in a year feels like pretty good momentum to many writers. But one sale? Especially if it pays less than professional rates. Sure, it's nice, but…meh. No offence to the wonderful editors who have published my work - but that's one story out of twelve - or twenty. And by the time it gets accepted, my enthusiasm about the story itself tends to have waned a bit.

Then, there's usually an additional wait for publication. Four months, eight months, a year. If you've been writing for a long time, you've undoubtedly experienced what it's like having a story accepted only to have the publication go under before they get around to publishing your story. Or paying you for it.

Robert Runte recently mentioned on the SF Canada listserver that the worst thing that can happen to a writer is landing in the "maybe" pile. Robert once bought one of my stories for Tesseracts 5. I was in his "maybe" pile for months and would have been rejected if he hadn't fought hard with the publisher to add pages – which allowed him to buy my story along with a couple others. Generally, visits to the maybe pile don't have such happy endings. And once you reach a certain level of competence, without achieving a commensurate level of acclaim or recognition, that's where you tend to spend a great deal of time.

I've been thinking about changing my name. Mr. Maybe is sorta catchy. I might actually do it. Just let me think about it for six or eight more months. Then again, I might be too bored by then to actually make a decision. 

Monday, 11 April 2016

The Epic Trilodrabble

My dear friend, Sally McBride, recently introduced me to the concept of 100 word stories, called drabbles. Some drabble publishers insist that drabbles must be precisely 100 words not including title. Others include the title. And some say that approximately 100 words is good enough. I've gone with the first definition.

I have found writing these to be a wonderful way to creatively kickstart my brain and have written quite a number of the over the past few weeks. I expanded the definition a bit, writing a Double-Drabble. And here, making much ado about next-to-nothing, I am unveiling my epic Trilodrabble...

The Hoard of the Bling
A Trilodrabble
 By D.L.L.Sproule

Fellowship is the Thing 

   When I was eleven, Uncle Bill gave me a ring. It left no black mark around my finger and had no gap at the back to accommodate my growing physique. It was real gold.

   When I put that ring on, I became the opposite of invisible. My friends thought it was swank, and grown up jewelry turns girls on. I could do anything. So I never took it off – even when my finger started turning purple. Then black.

   When the finger fell off, I threw it into a volcano in a desperate attempt to stop "the change" in its tracks.

The Two Flowers

   The lava-spewing monstrosity was in a neighbor's yard, right beside a mountain of manure that had two flowers growing at the summit – incredible red flowers with stamen as yellow as the sun.

   The girl I liked, Carrie, never looked at me anymore. So when I got down from the volcano, I decided I just had time before the school bus came, to pick her those flowers.

   When I tried to give them to her, she told me I smelled like shit. And when I took off my shoes, she saw how big and hairy my feet are. Oh, well. 

The Non-returnable King 

   A male charm bracelet, I thought. Why not! It would be the next big thing. Swank. Sexy! It could have soldiers and baseball players, grenades, dice, pistols, celebrity clitorises and a variety of balls. Gold, silver, precious stones. I even dreamed up a little gold Elvis Presley – jointed, with swingable hips.

   I convinced some investors it would make us all rich. We stayed the course, kept hoping it would catch on. We waited and waited, before we finally lost our shirts.

   Too late to change course, or make a new plan. The die were cast. The King's hips were frozen.

 Acknowledgements: The idea of celebrity clitorises from Nick Cave's The Death of Bunny Munro.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

The Evolution of Reading

I understand pretty much all of the arguments for e-books: ecological friendliness (Save a Tree!), lower costs, availability, accessibility, scalable type and so on. Good arguments.

But it's rare to hear anyone talk about the downsides. And oh, yes, there are downsides.

I understand that a lot of people read on their phones, and in fact, I see people doing it. But I simply cannot comprehend how someone could indulge in that activity for any extended length of time.

A cellphone has never struck me as an acceptable medium for reading fiction. Tweets and texts – fine. Most web sites are built to absorb in snippets. But chowing down on a 2000 or 3000 word essay – not so much. Even short stories lose continuity for me, as I zip from one screen to the next.

I am a reader who frequently flicks backward and forward; rereading passages to better appreciate something that comes later; doublechecking the names of characters to make sure they are who I think they are; reestablishing my place in the narrative; and so on. Poems and short stories are readable in that fashion, as long as they're not dependent on layout – but not novels. The centre cannot hold.

When the screen is tiny, there are far too many pages. It's easy to go too far or not far enough, and too hard to find my place again when I'm done my search. Reading Lord of the Rings or Moby Dick on a cellphone would be akin to listening to a song one bar at a time – which would suck the joy right out of it!

I've heard of people writing novels on their cellphones! Seriously? With those itty-bitty keyboards and my enormous thumbs, texting is a challenge. Maintaining a coherent narrative would be like painting the Sistine Chapel on playing cards (thus creating the world's largest and most unhelpful jigsaw puzzle – where every piece fits almost everywhere).

All of my problems are exacerbated if I'm connected to wi-fi or a network. The constant bleeps and whistles are complete concentration destroyers. Even if I'm unconnected, the telephone is a constant distraction. And God forbid the fucking thing should run out of power or spontaneously decide to install an update as I'm turning a page.

I've never measured, but I would guess that when I'm reading a hardcopy book, I read at least 20 full sized pages at a sitting. If I got through that many on a cellphone, it would be a minor miracle. And since it takes 12 cell phone pages to equal one real page, I would be clipping along at a rate of about a page per sitting. Anton Chekov stories would be mini-marathons. Game of Thrones? No, just no.

My reader experience doesn't improve that drastically with tablets. I've used small and large screens, dedicated readers and all-purpose androids. Each of them has different problems:

  • If I don't read fast enough, the screen dims.
  • If I move my hand, or touch the wrong spot on the screen, I turn pages I didn't intend to turn.
  • Or I turn them too fast – a chapter at a time is not unheard of.

At first, I thought that once I got used to this, it would get easier. But I've now read dozens of books in e-pub format and I still don't like it. Yes, it's doable, and it's convenient and desirable in all the ways I mentioned in the first paragraph. But I still don't find e-pubs very reader friendly. The tech, the apps, the connections are all unreliable. And adding bells and whistles somehow makes the devices even less reader friendly.

Maybe if I had grown up reading for pleasure on electronic devices, it would be less annoying, more intuitive. Maybe. But in truth, it would also be more distracting. Video games, movies, socializing, gossiping, videos, animation – they're ALL easier than reading and far, far easier than writing.

The formats in which we digest our entertainment have always been dictated by available media, and I honestly believe this is the beginning of the end for all the literary forms we currently know and love. There will always be people who love different forms and seek them out. But once the tools for modifying "literature" are available, accessible and easier to use, I believe that fiction will become more interactive, multi-channel and multi-sensual.

The seeds of it are at websites like sub-Q Magazine. Hasn't caught on yet and probably won't for awhile. And what we see there is a long ways from whatever form it will ultimately assume. But what they're aiming for is fiction that is created specifically to consume online – an admirable and inevitable goal that might actually make reading onscreen enjoyable. Until then – well it is cheaper, and more convenient. Maybe I'll...hmmm.

Hurry up interactive fiction. Your time has come. 

Friday, 11 March 2016

The Rise of the Accidental Small Publisher

So the short story marketplace is becoming incredibly crowded and competitive. Other than being a great time to buy short story collections and anthologies – what does that say about the literary landscape?

Is it actually easier – or harder to get a novel published these days than a short story?

Well if we're talking big name publishers, it's almost certainly harder than ever before. Lots of publishers have gone under in the past fifteen years – unable to hold their own in a marketplace where people who can barely string a coherent sentence together suddenly have the power to make their dreams come true by self-publishing a book.

According to a 2002 NY Times article by Joseph Epstein, more than 80% of people in the U.S.A. believe they have a book in them and 80,000 books are published in America every year. Remember – this was 2002 – ten years before the self publishing boom. These days, every one of those 200 million people has the resources to self-publish their book.

You may have considered such a thing, or, like me, have actually gone there. If you have a few dollars to spend and can afford to pay for a good cover and cover design, your book can be indistinguishable from the masterpieces or the gripping thrillers or the intellectual tomes that you're positioning yourself against. But the public is slowly starting to catch on to the signs that separate self-published books from their more well-heeled competitors. Like the imprint. If something comes from Doubleday or Harper Collins or Simon and Schuster – that means it has not only appealed to a distinguished and experienced editor – but also gone through a rigorous editorial process (or as rigorous as it gets these days). These processes do not guarantee quality, but they at least promise that the book will come up to the minimum standard that all books once had to achieve before they saw the light of day.

Over the past few decades, the stigma of a self-published book has been enough to ensure that said authors are not taken seriously by the literati – the critics, other writers, bookstore buyers and so forth. Most self-published books suffer from "cheap design." Even if the author has gone out and consigned a wonderful work of art to grace the cover, and hired a professional copy editors to vet the prose – there are still tell-tale signs that give it away. Many of these books waste the beautiful cover image by embedding it within poor design – a badly chosen or overly familiar typeface – sized and coloured or poorly placed on the page; there may be a complete absence of design on the spine or back cover; badly laid out pages inside, with lack of margins or white space, hard to read or uninspired typeface or similar design problems. None of these problems fatal in and of themselves, but collectively they conspire to reveal the final product as "amateur."

And even if the book gets all those things right, it can give itself away in a multitude of other ways: lack of reputable blurbs on the cover or within the front or back pages; 100% five-star rave reviews online; and most obviously, an imprint that no one has ever heard of. A web search for the imprint reveals that they have published a total of five books – all by the same author.

A self-published book that doesn't display any of those obvious tells suggests an insider perspective. It's a sign that even if the book was self-published, the author knows books, understands marketing and has invested the time and effort to put out a professional looking product. This is also a clue that their book may be considerably better than most of the self-published work on the market (or not). The process can also work the other way – where a brilliant book is hidden behind layers of bad design and poor marketing choices…but I like to think, or at least hope, that the author involved in such a project stands at least some chance of getting discovered and building an audience for themselves.

As for the book-buying public – we're all on the lookout these days!

Which brings me to the trend that I was intending to talk about. The rise of the accidental small publisher.

Once an author has self-published a few books, they will likely make many of the above discoveries for themselves. Coming to realize how important design is in creating a professional looking product, they find and hire a good designer. They may bring some literate, unemployed friends on board as editors and start building a publishing infrastructure. And having done so, they discover that their books still stand out as self-published because there are no other authors on their imprint. If they network and belong to a writer's community, they may know other authors who are producing good work. By publishing their books (maybe with some personal investment from the writers involved), they can build a small stable of writers. They discover they can get the word out about their company and attract visitors to their website by publishing short story collections. This works better if they actually pay authors a nominal amount like a penny a word. Gradually, the website starts looking more and more legitimate and this begins to boost sales of their own titles. At that point, they probably just pay novelists commissions on sales on their books – which gives them a way of not only recouping their own investment, but bringing the writers back with more and better books. And then, some of these accidental publishers may come to the revelation that if they are willing to pay advances – on the novels as well as the short stories in the anthologies – and as little as a couple hundred dollars will distinguish them from 95% of the micro-publishers in the marketplace – they may be able to attract some truly outstanding writers. Because with the current state of publishing, there are hundreds of writers who would have (or actually have) been mid-list writers or better in the old regime. And they are grateful for any publisher who will pay them real money. Suddenly the new imprint is getting some respect and maybe even an award nomination or two.

From out of the ashes of the old publishing model – I can see more than a few of these publishers rising. Many will likely continue to grow and evolve, because they are not saddled by the same sort of infrastructure that "real" publishers have to deal with. They can write their own ticket. And in the process, they can provide a worthy home for some wonderful writers who were left wandering the wilderness with their poor tattered manuscripts.

Publishing is dead. Long live publishing.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Short Stories ARE the Big Time These Days

Writing short stories used to be a sort of apprenticeship for aspiring writers - a great way to hone your craft in preparation for the big time. But in today's ultra-competitive marketplace, it make have become just the opposite. An ongoing cage match for expert practitioners of the form.

When I finished writing my story, "They Fell Away," I was certain that it was one of the best things I've ever written. I remain confident in it - but for the sake of keeping it real and properly tempering my expectations - in the hope that it make the process of writing and submitting stories more bearable - I gave some thought to the actual odds of getting an acceptance whenever one sends out a story.

"They Fell Away" bounced last week from a one cent a word market called Hypnos. The respected bi-annual, semi-pro mag gave me a short personal response essentially saying that they had been discussing it and decided not to take it. At least they discussed it - which meant that more than one editor had most likely read it. This was at the top of a long "form" that they send out to everyone - explaining that they can't respond personally because they receiver over 900 submissions per month - which would put it at 5500 submissions per issue - and can accept no more than a few. At best, the usual odds are close to 1000 to one.

I listened to an interview with Jacob Haddon of Lamplight magazine (a 3 cent a word horror market that's had one of my stories for almost 6 months), where he explained that he received approximately 3,500 submissions since his last issue. Since he solicits some of his contents - and like most editors, has regular author/submittors whose work he likes, I guesstimate the odds at Lamplight to be somewhere between 3 and 10 in 3,500 - or somewhere between 350 and 1150 to one. 

I can't even imagine where this puts the odds at big name pubs like Asimovs or F&SF. But suffice it to say that even if my publication history and writing skills give me an advantage over 95% of the competition, my odds at a semi-pro like Hypnos probably don't get much better than 10 to one. At a lesser known prozine like Lamplight I might be between 35 and 100 to one. And at a well known prozine, it would probably be at least 250 to one against on every submission. Don't know where this puts the odds of getting picked for a years best antho or getting an award nom. But suffice it to say that the odds are not in anyone's favour and just getting positive responses and establishing some sort of personal relationship with editors is a huge kudo. 

Maybe my best stories can (and have) overcome these odds in a heartbeat - but I think every story I write is one of my best stories when I first send it out. It's only as the rejections start piling up that I grudgingly admit anything different.

David Nickle, one of the most accomplished writers I know, pointed out that the odds of selling a novelette or novella to a market that doesn't already know and love me are pretty much off the charts - because they can run three shorter stories at the same cost to them - and increase their readership with a more diverse selection of options. Their odds of running a story that resonates with readers triples by taking three shorter stories over one novellete. 

So in the end - anything less than clear and absolute brilliance will require extreme perseverance, lots of strategy, a ton of rejection and a boatload of luck. It gets better once you establish a reputation and fanbase and editors start soliciting stories from you - but that is a process that could frankly take decades. Even solicited stories are only selected for the final TOC part of the time. I've had friends who have had multiple solicited stories rejected before scoring with one.

There was a time when breaking in with short stories was a good strategy. But these days,I've come to realize that our odds of selling a novel are just as good or better than selling a short story. (granted - our odds of getting a reasonable advance are worse than ever). 

So next time you see a story collection out there - with half or more of the stories having been previously published - do yourself a favour and buy the damned thing...because the odds that it will contain something brilliant are very much on your side. And when a writer breaks out, like another of my friends, Kelly Robson, with five published short stories in a year - where three or four of them make the best of the year anthologies - I can do nothing but sit back in awe and admiration. As far as I know, Kelly doesn't even have a story collection on the horizon - but as soon as one becomes available...if there was any justice in this world (which I know there isn't), there would be long line-ups at the bookstore from people waiting to get their hands on it. 

Achieving that level of success with no more than short stories is an accomplishment than no more than about one in 1,000 writers will ever come close to.