Monday, February 17, 2014

Ask an Editor: Published or Not?

While this question didn't come from a blog reader, it is a question I receive frequently from submitters:

"If I posted my story on my blog, do you consider that previously published?"

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer:  Yes, we do.  As do almost all other markets.

Why?

A magazine, you see, is in the business of procuring and keeping readers.  It's how we function, it's what we're for, it's how some of us make money.

So when I'm buying your story to put onto my pages, I'm not just paying you for a story for the hell of it.  I'm making an investment in you, in the idea that your story is going to bring potential new readers to my magazine.

But if everyone you know--your family, friends, acquaintances, critique group members--have already read your story on your blog they're much less likely to read your story on my site, which means they're much less likely to potentially purchase a copy or a subscription, much less likely to click on ads on my site and buy products from our sponsors, which then doesn't put money in our account with which we could otherwise afford to buy more stories from writers like you.

Story Titles

Imagine yourself at Barnes & Noble.  How do you browse for books?

Cover art?  Most books aren't shelved with the cover facing you.

Blurb?  No books are shelved so you can easily browse the back-cover or inside-cover blurb.

What faces you first is the title.

And that's what I see first, too.

Am I going to be excited about reading a story titled 'Boring'?  

To tell you the truth, I might be just a little intrigued by that title.  It might lead me to wonder--nay, hope--that the story will be anything but boring.

So let's take a look at some of my favorite titles from the pages of Flash Fiction Online and how they might have been less appealing:


vs.

"Driving My Post Partum Depressed Wife to the Mountains"

The first title, hopefully you recognize, is the real one.  But it's not what the story is about.  The second title tells me what the story is about, but it doesn't make me want to read the story.  

How about:


vs. 

"Granny and Her Microwave"

Or:


vs. 

"I Was a Robot Bride"

So why don't we take a look at what makes these titles successful, eye-catching, editor-appealing.

Sparks:  What kind of sparks am I talking about?  The kind of sparks that get my imagination working.  That first title, "James Brown Is Alive and Doing Laundry in South Lake Tahoe," even though it has very little to do with what the story is actually about, puts an immediate mental image into my head.  I'm imagining an aging James Brown, his thick hair still piled high in that ridiculous pompadour, his shirt unbottoned to his enormous old-man belly, his chains getting tangled in his exposed, graying chest hair, crossing the street with his wheeled laundry basket in tow.  Maybe he has a cigarette dangling from his lip.  Maybe his boots are unlaced as he shuffles aimlessly over the blacktop.  A cross between the classic rocker we all recognize from "I Feel Good" and the proto-bag-lady who seems to grace every laundromat in the universe.

But the author does something else important.  As she opens the story she places me immediately in a place from which I might just catch a glimpse of someone who looks like it just might be James Brown heading for the laundromat--a car driven by an over-tired new father.  She also ties that title neatly into the story.  You'll have to read the story to see how.  But that's important.  I shouldn't get to the end of your story and wonder what in the heck the title had to do with anything.

Not Your Run of the Mill:  Irma Splinkbottom.  Holy cow, what a name.  When I first read this title I prayed fervently that the story would be as good as the title.  It was.  We bought it and published it in 2009.  What this tells you is a lot of things.  

First, a great title will catch any editor's attention.  A boring title won't.  Choose carefully.  Put as much thought into that title as you do to your opening paragraph.

Second, a great title alone won't sell your story.  That fervent prayer wasn't for nothing.  I've read hundreds of stories with imagination-catching titles in which the story just didn't cut the mustard.  So many, in fact, that the prayer was needed.  And this time it worked.

Third, title can say a lot about what might be expected from your story.  This title gave me to expect humor, which is what Irma delivered.  Be careful that you don't become so concerned with writing an imaginative title that you lose sight of the fact that it's saying something about your story.  Make sure that what it's saying matches what the story says.  I don't want a title that takes me to the Bahamas only to find the story takes me to Antarctica.

Fourth, putting something peculiar in the title, like Irma Splinkbottom or the irony of an old lady name along with 'cold fusion', can be definitely imaginatively engaging.  Be careful how you use unusual, though.  Unusual can mean just about anything.  Make sure your title aims for the right kind of unusual.  For instance, I recently had a story titled "Past Perfect/Future Tense" in my slush pile.  While to grammarians it's merely grammatical terms, an editor/writer like me will look at that and say, 'Hmm.  This story is probably about more than grammar."  Which then gets me thinking about that title.  Past Perfect.  Future Tense.  The past is perfect.  The future is tense.  I now feel as if I'm looking through a window into the soul of this story and hoping for great things done with strong, empathetic characters.

Language Is Beautiful:  It really is.  We often hear people say how difficult the English language is to learn--all the exceptions to the rules, all the exceptions to the exceptions.  It's a mongrel of a language, that's for sure.  But that mongrel has given the world a language with an enormous diversity of words--more diverse than any other Earth language--which, according to one source, is approaching a vocabulary of one million words and which is constantly adopting words from every potential source.  

No other language offers the writer a larger pool of words from which to draw in order to express himself with such great accuracy or fluency or grace.  There is no excuse for any writer to thunk down a string of graceless words and call it a title, when so much meaning and poetry can be had with even a single well-chosen word.

Take a look at "Gathering Rosebuds of Rust."  All those lovely Rs--alliteration.  The exact same thing could be told using entirely different words, but it certainly wouldn't have the same flavor.  For example: "Picking Rusty Metal Flowers" or "Putting Rusted Roses in My Basket."

As an exercise, write a title for a story you're working on or have recently completed.  Have your critique group or members of your writer's forum read the title and answer the following questions:

Do you like the title?  Why?
What do you think this story is about?
What kind or genre of story do you expect it to be?  
What emotional vibe do you expect the story to have?

If the answers you receive don't jive at all with the story you've written you probably want to rethink that title.  






Thursday, August 8, 2013

Ask an Editor: Cover Letter Bio?

Margie asked: "Do I need to include a brief bio in my cover letter when submitting a story?"'

The simple answer is no, you do not.

Is it helpful?  Potentially, but not always.

I've seen all kinds of bios in cover letters.  From a single sentence to a full page to nothing at all.

Speaking as a working editor, I'd say I tend toward nothing at all over a full page for a bio.  Margie, being an astute writer, asked if she should include a 'brief' bio.  Brevity is the key word.  If you do decide to include one, keep it brief.  No more than three or four sentences.

But are you one of those writers who should include one at all?

Here are some questions to help you decide:

1.  Do I have any writing-related credits to include in my cover letter?  Writing credits would be recent and/or professionally paid publications.  You might also include recent publication in lesser markets if they're well-respected.  Also, if you have participated in professional writing workshops, have a degree in English or creative writing, other writing-related education or activities, you could include those.

Well, OK, just one question.  That's really all there is to it.

Don't include your life story, your sleeping habits, your favorite recreational activities, every place you've ever lived or exotic foreign clime you've visited.  Don't include the title of all 32 stories you've published in obscure publications over the course of 68 years.  I exaggerate, but you're smart enough to realize that.

But what if you don't have any writing-related credits?  Just a simple:

Dear Editor,

I respectfully submit my story "Title Here" for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Your Name

Because I'm going to let you in on a little secret:

Editors don't always even read cover letters.  It's just one more thing to do in a long string of things that need to be done to get a story from the slushpile to the printed page.

At Flash Fiction Online, your story gets read first, because what's in your cover letter doesn't really matter.  What matters is the story.  After we've read, if we're interested, we'll read the cover letter to learn more about you.



Sunday, March 10, 2013

What Kind of Writer?

I'm currently working my way through Dave Farland's new edition of Million Dollar Outlines.

He suggests, and rightly so, that there are two main types of writers: the discovery writer and the outliner.

Of course it's not quite that cut and dried.

Essentially, there are a hundred kinds of writers, but they all fall on a scale somewhere between discovery and outliner.

So what do I mean by those terms?

A pure discovery writer never thinks ahead about what he's going to write.  He sits down, begins writing, and discovers where his writing will take him.  A VERY pure discovery writer won't even have a preconceived story idea in mind when he begins writing.

A pure outline writer won't write a word unless he has a detailed outline of every detail of the story, from beginning to end, and will NOT deviate from that outline in any way.

But there really are very few pure discovery or pure outline writers.  We mainly fall somewhere in between.

Even a heavy discovery writer will begin writing with a general story in mind, or maybe the end of a story in mind, or maybe a character who needs a story in mind.

A heavy outline writer (at least a smart one) will allow himself to let the story take him in a new direction, taking some time to readjust his outline to reflect that.

Each type of writer has his own challenges.  For example, a discovery writer may end up with a mess of disorganization at the end of months of writing that will need so much editing that it hardly seems worth the effort; while an outline writer may be so wrapped up in the outlining that by the time it comes to writing the story he's bored with it, never getting beyond the outline in the process.

Personally, I can't imagine sitting down to write with no preconceived notions of what I'm going to write, though I'll suggest that doing such a thing is an excellent exercise for getting over writer's block or for getting the creative juices flowing at the beginning of a writing session.

But I do lack a certain amount of skill in the area of outlining.

That's why I'm reading Dave's book.  I'll let you know how it turns out.




Monday, February 18, 2013

Originality in Storytelling

Someone once said that there are no new stories.

He was right.

All stories can be categorized into one of many motiffs, all of which have been done for as long as stories have been told.

So how do you make your story original?

You don't.  But you DO make it interesting.

First, let me slay a myth--people don't read your story to find out what happens at the end.  The underlying story structure that we, as humans, have lived with for thousands of years says that good wins, problems are solved, characters learn lessons, and life goes on.

Even in a murder mystery we know the killer will be caught in the end.  And in a well-written murder mystery we even have a richly satisfying "I KNEW IT!" moment when the killer is revealed.  You see? We already knew.

So what makes us read a story?  The middle.  The stuff that gets us to the end.

We want to see what happens to get your characters there.  We want to see their struggles, their desires, their pain, their courage, their cowardice, their triumphs, strengths, weaknesses, warts and all.  We want characters to be REAL to us.  We want to feel for them.  We want to feel WITH them.

Your characters don't need to have green hair or seven toes to be interesting.  They don't even need to be described in great detail.  They only need to do things that your readers can relate to, can understand, can empathize with.

Another aspect of making a story more original, or interesting, is to avoid cliche.  Avoid the first thing that comes to the collective human conscience.  For example, if a kid is walking across a playground and comes across a hoppy-taw, what's the first thing he might do with it?  Sticks it in his pocket?  Maybe.  Play a game of hopscotch?  Possibly.  Those are pretty common answers.  What's slightly more interesting than that?  Maybe he goes on a quest to discover the owner of the hoppy-taw.  Maybe that gets him into some other kind of adventure.  Maybe he knows whose it is and decides to keep it.  Maybe there's some tension between him and this other child.  What could it be?  How might it be resolved?

Keep thinking.  The third or fourth idea will likely be considerably more original.  And that idea will lead to others, and the process begins again.

So, originality is less in the story structure and more in the story details.  Give yourself a break.  Let yourself use the standard story structure and enrich your stories with the treasures you can stuff inside it.


Need I Reiterate? Apparently I Do.

You want advice on submitting your work?

I'll give you advice.

The trouble is I've given this advice before.  Many times.  I, or one of my team leaders, give this same advice almost daily.  We reject stories because of it.  We waste our time and the time of aspiring authors because of it.

Here it is.

In caps.

Because I feel like yelling it...

READ MARKET GUIDELINES!!!

(Three exclamation marks, even.)

If you haven't visited a market in awhile--say 6 months or so--review the guidelines.

If you're submitting a story or novel for the very first time, read the guidelines.

If you think you're a big hotshot author who will obviously have his/her story land right on the top of the slush pile because of your impressive list of publications, despite the fact that you choose to ignore the guidelines, think again.

If you think guidelines aren't important, think again.

If you think it's fine for you to waste someone else's time--particularly someone who might pay you for that time--think again.

And do more than just read the guidelines.

Read them CAREFULLY.

Then HEED them!

Read n' heed.  Read n' heed.  It's really not that complicated.



Monday, June 18, 2012

On Young Authors and Adult Authors Who Try to Write Like Children


This week I've had something of a dubious pleasure to read several submissions by young authors.  By young I mean under 18, and by dubious I mean that they were not represented as such.  These authors, for reasons unknown, chose to represent themselves as adults.

How do I know?

I don't for absolutely certain.

But I've been a young writer myself.  In fact, I recently read one of the horrid stories that now, as an adult, I'm ashamed to have ever unleashed upon an unsuspecting world.  (I threw it in the trash, by the way.  It was THAT awful.)

Still, I don't know for certain.

Flash Fiction Online is an international market.  We have readers form all over the world and accept submissions from all over the world.

And there are 3 possible reasons for a story to be as unprofessionally written as these stories.

The first is the least pleasant to consider--that an adult has that poor a grasp of grammar, syntax, logic, maturity, empathy, etc.  It's like watching the tryouts for American Idol.  You know the ones I'm talking about.  The ones that are uncomfortable to watch because that poor simple soul has come out of his/her short life with the delusion that they can sing.

No one should ever stop writing, but as adults we should be able to recognize our failings and, if we have the will and the determination, to work to correct them.  It's much easier for someone with poor grammar to learn to write using correct English than it is for someone who is tone deaf to learn to sing on key.

The second is completely understandable--that the author is not a native English speaker and has a poor grasp of sentence structure, vocabulary, grammar, phrasing, cultural nuances, etc.  In this case, the author should tap into the worldwide community of writers available on the web and cultivate a friendship with native English speaking writers.  Once that friendship is cultivated it is a simple matter to ask for help in smoothing out those rough spots to make a story considerably more comprehensible.

The third is the most likely--that the author is actually a child.

I don't mind children submitting to Flash Fiction Online.  I really don't.  It shows a tremendous amount of pluck and courage.   Sheesh!  It's terrifying for many adult authors to submit stories and face rejection.

What I DO mind is when that child submits under the guise of being an adult.

Don't lie to me.  Just don't.  I don't like an unreliable narrator, and I don't like a lying author.

We've never published a story written by a child, because we have yet to receive a submission from a child that is written with the professional poise and grace and understanding of an adult author.  One came close.  Only one.  And only close.

Still, as I said, I don't mind when children submit.  In fact I've often taken the time to give them feedback and to encourage them to continue writing and studying both grammar and the craft of writing.  Someday, some best-selling author is going to dedicate a novel to me because I encouraged them as a 12-year-old to keep writing and studying.

But this post isn't just about young authors.

I recently received a submission from a person who claimed to be an adult author.  I didn't believe it.  I thought certainly it must be a young author.  Very young, with very poor grammar and very poor writing skills.

But then another thought occurred to me, considering the title and theme of the work.  Perhaps it really was an adult author who was deliberately writing with poor grammar and syntax in order to make it SEEM like the writing of a child.

My reaction to that was worse than if it had actually been written by a child.

There are better ways to convey the point of view of a child than to write like one--misspellings and all.  It was awful to read.  The grammar and spelling and syntax errors were such a distraction I could not even bring myself to finish the story, and gleaned little or no information concerning what the story was actually about.

Don't make me work that hard.  Just don't.  I have a lot of stories to read.  If I have to work at it, if you don't make it as easy as slicing warm butter, you're sunk.  Just sunk.