Friday, August 30, 2019

WIthholding: the Cruel Betrayer

There are two kinds of withholding.

The first is the intentional refusal on the author's part to reveal certain information.  This kind of withholding can be useful in storytelling.  Obviously, we don't want the murderer revealed until the end of the mystery.  But this kind of withholding can be also dangerous.

Authors who intentionally withhold information must be aware of when withholding is useful and appropriate and when it is not.

The second kind of withholding is a matter of poor writing, a misunderstanding of how to open a scene or introduce a character.

I see some stories whose authors misuse intentional withholding.  But I see far too many stories in which authors simply don't understand how to reveal information in a way that draws the reader into a scene.  This type of withholding is often confusing and off-putting.  It betrays the reader's trust in the author's ability to engage them in a story by misleading the brain as it struggles to create a mental image of your scene, your characters, and your story.  The more you make your reader's mind grapple with a clear picture of your story, the longer you delay that clear picture, the more betrayed the reader feels.  You're much better off getting in, being clear, and getting it done quickly than in trying to drag out what the opening of a story or scene should accomplish.

I'll "use" a recent example from the slush pile (pretty much everything changed to protect the innocent).

Carley swore at the cantaloupe for the fourth time.  This time the knife had taken it upon itself to cut the melon into slices without her hand having to do anything.

"Magic?  No," she murmured to herself.  She glared at the offending utensil.

"Your father is spinning in his grave," a voice called out from across the room.

Carley spun around and frowned at the man standing in the doorway.

"Daddy would love it, and you know it," she replied before turning again to the melon on the counter.

Carley's uncle grinned and shook his head.

"A catering business is one thing, but opening a food truck?  That's a ridiculous waste of money," Don said to the back of Carley's head.

The most glaring and troublesome withholding in this scene is that of the second character.  First, he appears out of nowhere, when it becomes clear as the story progresses that he was always there and Carley knew it.  Second, he is introduced first as 'the man,' then as 'Carley's uncle,' then as 'Don.'

Why is this a bad idea?  Read carefully, each of those character introductions could be seen as a different person, particularly as the story was originally written by the author.  As is, I had to work too hard to figure out who was who, and that they were, indeed, all one person.  Don't make your reader work at understanding a story.  People read stories for many reasons, but work is rarely one of them.  In addition, that slow reveal of information, meted out little bit by little bit, does nothing to solidify a character in the reader's imagination.

I've written about imaginative engagement before.  The human imagination is an interesting thing.  It draws from a lifetime of experiences and information to create an image in the mind of what is being described by the words we read or hear.

For example, if I choose the word 'desert' each person who reads it is going to have an instant image in their mind of what that means.  For some it will be smooth sand dunes.  For others it will be barren, windswept plains.  For still others it might be red-rock monuments and soaring mesas.  It's not enough to merely use the word 'desert' to describe a scene.  But with just a few additional words, I can give the reader a much more solid image of what I want them to understand about the desert in my story.

Now let's open a scene in a desert:

The man walked across the desert.

Not much there.  I know nothing about the man, nothing about the desert, nothing about why he's there.  My imagination could go anywhere.  However, it's unlikely to go anywhere yet.  There isn't enough information for me to quickly settle on one of the many potential images my brain might conjure for this scene.  As an author, that isn't what I want.  I want to immediately engage my reader's imagination, immediately investing my reader in my world and in my story.  This scene opening completely fails to do so.

But if I change a few things and add a few words:

Mahmed climbed another dune only to see an ocean of dunes beyond.

This sentence telegraphs enough to the reader to put an immediate image in the mind and to draw the reader into the story.  One sentence conveys a character, a setting, and a situation in 12 words, and it does so right away--no delaying, no withholding.

What does this sentence accomplish that the first does not?

1.  Both sentences involve a man, but the second sentence has a man with a name.  Authors often underestimate the power of well-chosen character name.  In the second example, Mahmed communicates not only a man, but it communicates a man of a certain culture in a certain part of the world.  We now know much more about Mahmed than we know about the man in the first example.  We've even begun to formulate his appearance, right down to what he might be wearing.

2.    Both sentences involve movement, but the second sentence gives a type of movement that reveals much to the reader.  In the first, the man walks.  Does that tell us anything about the terrain?  Does it tell us anything about the man or the purpose or difficulty of his journey?  Only that he's walking.  But Mahmed is climbing.  That tells us that his journey is difficult, challenging.  It also tells us that this desert is not a flat, windswept plain.

3.  Both sentences involve a desert, but the second sentence uses the word 'dune' to place the reader in the environment, not 'desert.'  That word choice still places us firmly in a desert, but it also reveals very clearly what kind of desert the story takes place in.  We can imagine it very easily.  The wind-carved waves of orange sand, the long swells of dunes with their sharply-ridged backbones, the wind, the heat, the struggle to walk in the shifting and sliding sand.

4.  The first sentence is entirely bereft of any kind of connection between the man and the setting.  There is no dilemma.  So he's walking across the desert.  So what?  Why is he?  Is he just taking a morning stroll?  Is he walking along a strip of pavement because his car has broken down?  Is he an explorer?  The second sentence, in just a few spare words, makes it clear that Mahmed is probably alone, probably lost, probably a long way from where he needs or wants to be.  We know that he's probably in trouble.  We can go so far as to imagine he's thirsty, maybe a little desperate, discouraged by the view of that ocean of dunes.

The next sentences in our desert story should immediately take on the task of telling us what's going on, why he's there, how he feels.  The first sentence has already lost the opportunity to draw the reader in and make him care what happens in the next sentences.  The first withholds far too much important information, the purpose of which is to engage the reader's imagination.  The more quickly you can do that the better, and the best way to do that is NOT to hide information.  You don't engage a reader by tossing him occasional breadcrumbs.  Breadcrumb games are for dogs and toddlers.  The rest of us see the pointlessness of them very quickly and grow annoyed.  Never annoy your reader.

Now, back to our story opening.  Let me show you how it might have been done better:

Carley swore for the fourth time.  Once again, the knife had taken it upon itself to cut the melon into slices.

"No," she told it.  "No magic."  She grasped the knife by the handle and set it again on the counter with a thunk and a glare.

"Your father must be spinning in his grave," her uncle, Don, said from behind her.  

Carley turned and frowned at him.  He was leaning on the doorframe, his arms folded.  So much like Dad.  

"Daddy would agree with me and you know it," she replied before turning again to the melon on the counter.

Carley's uncle shook his head.  "A catering business is one thing, but buying a food truck?" he said.  "That's a ridiculous waste of money, and how are you going to succeed without the old Abra-cadabra?" 

Can you see how much better that is?  How the clear introduction of elements and characters takes us much more smoothly into an imaginative connection to the scene?

How would you have written it?  Practice writing a single sentence or short paragraph that clearly introduces character, setting, and conflict.  Need more inspiration?  Here are some examples of some great story openings, snatched from the page of Flash Fiction Online:

Irma Splinkbottom loosened the back string of her apron as she shuffled over to the sliding glass door in her kitchen. The temperature on the gauge outside made her hesitate. She knew Fall brought cooler temperatures to the small town of Sapulpa, Oklahoma, but 68 degrees at 2:13 PM. It rankled her to think she’d need to wear a light sweater to go out and pinch the spent blooms on her petunias.

("Irma Splinkbottom's Recipe for Cold Fusion" by Janene Murphy)

The night before Eli’s birthday, his mother made him watch as she jabbed a mop in a bucket and nodded toward the kitchen floor. She told him not to move. “Poison,” she said. “Poison, poison, boy-son.” The only light was the window’s moonlight and a bare bulb swinging in the pantry.

("Circle, Circle, Circle, Slash" by Jason A. Zwicker)

By the time they crossed the state line, Deb Burkett’s daughter, Linnea, had just about perfected her list of Things That Could Go Wrong in Wyoming. This was not to be confused with her list of Things That Could Go Wrong in North Dakota (car keys fallen down drop toilet, car died after crunching across gravel road) or Things That Could Go Wrong in Montana (rogue bison attack, car flown off switchback, tent chomped in half by bear hunting for the Jolly Rancher in Nathan’s coat pocket). When they spent the afternoon in Yellowstone, Linnea’s list suddenly got a lot longer. As eight-year-old Nathan clomped across the boardwalks, ten-year-old Linnea hung back, staring at the electric green rimming the bubbling pools of the hot springs.

("Things That Could Go Wrong in Idaho" by Kaely Horton)

Thursday, January 18, 2018


I've been editor-in-chief for 5 or 6 years now.

The worst part of my job?  The submission guidelines.


1.  Too many authors choose simply to ignore them.
2.  Too many authors don't understand them.
3.  No matter how I tweak the guidelines there will always be someone to complain about them.

Before I wax poetic about submission guidelines, let me address these three reasons for my dread.

We receive over 8000 submission a year.  That's a lot of submissions.

I personally sort through every one of those submissions.  No, I don't read them all. I check the submissions for glaring errors and 'Noob' mistakes.

Guess what happens to the stories with errors and mistakes?

They are unceremoniously marked for rejection and dumped into the trash.

No, I will not give your story another chance.  No, I will not tell you why I rejected your story.

Remember that 8000 stories?  I don't have time to pay the price for your mistake.

The lesson here?  Don't make a mistake.  Carefully read the guidelines and make sure you understand them.  Double and triple check your submission before you hit "Submit."  Make sure you know submission etiquette.  Don't EVER feel your name and credentials will earn you a golden ticket to the editor's "Magic Inbox."

If you're new to submitting, don't ask me about submission etiquette.  Google it.  Join writing groups and forums and learn from others who've been doing it before you.  But learn about it on your own.  8000 stories.  I don't have time to teach you things you should be learning on your own from one of, literally, hundreds of sources.

BUT, here I am, writing a post on the very thing you should have learned before you ever submitted a story.  I'm going to share with you some nuggets of slushpile wisdom, and guide you through a typical set of submission guidelines to make sure you understand not only what they mean, but why they're there.


Submission guidelines can vary widely.

Some markets seem to have no guidelines.  Others have guidelines that consist of, quite honestly, more flaming hoops than it's worth an author's time to jump through.

I've often erred on the side of more extensive guidelines, and it's PURELY an effort to save myself time and aggravation.  I'm inherently lazy.  I think most humans are.  Hence the invention of the dishwasher, the telephone, the safety razor.  I like to make things easier for myself.

If I see a problem occurring regularly in the slushpile I address it with greater force in the guidelines.

But I'm discovering my efforts are useless.  I've tweaked and toned and added, I've underlined and capitalized and bolded.  Still 20% of authors choose to disregard those guidelines.  I even have a button in our submission form that requires authors to indicate whether they've read the guidelines.  The only available answer is 'yes.'  Which means every time an author indicates that they have, indeed, read the guidelines but show, very clearly, that they have NOT actually read the guidelines, I gleefully tag that story with a neat little "Reject."

So I'm trying something new.

I'm streamlining the guidelines. I'm not including explanations or definitions.  I'm not giving you all that extra information that other editors don't give you, because they assume (as I should) that authors have done their homework and already know these things.  They don't give you the benefit of the doubt.  They don't give you a second chance.  They don't forgive little errors. They don't care if your story is rejected because your ignorance keeps you from properly submitting.

So I'm going to demystify the submission guidelines for you.  What is stated and what is meant, what you should know, what glaring errors make sirens go off--and those sirens scream, "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOB!"

1.  "We Accept Original, Unpublished Fiction"

ORIGINAL:  Original fiction means YOU actually wrote it.  It means your story is NOT a riff on someone else's copyrighted fiction.  It is not fanfiction.  It means you haven't stolen it from someone else and slapped your name on it.  It also means your story is NOT a translation of someone else's work, living or dead, public domain or not.  The story is yours and only yours.

Can it have themes, even characters, borrowed from the public domain?  Absolutely.  But I want it to be more than just an updated retelling.  I want it to have an original twist that makes it a new and unique story.  Your story.

UNPUBLISHED:  That seems pretty self-explanatory.  At least it should.  But in today's world of easy access to instant audiences, publication means something a bit different.

Once upon a time we could say, 'please don't send me your story if it has been published elsewhere,' and it meant that you had not sold your story to another magazine.

Let me take a moment to explain why we don't want your previously published story:

I'm going to let you in on a little secret.  The purpose of a magazine is NOT to throw money around.  It's not our purpose to stick stories on the internet with no reason other than a charitable goal to boost author egos.  FIRST, we do this because we LOVE great fiction (or poetry, or non-fiction, or artwork, or essays, or articles).  But WHY we do it doesn't pay the bills.

Very few literary magazines make money, by the way.  But that's the ultimate goal for most.  The goal is to grow and to, hopefully, attract income sources.  Those sources include advertising, magazine sales, fundraising, and sale of promotional items.

In order for those sources to have any impact on our income growth, people need to see them.  How do we attract viewers and potential contributors?  By having them come to our website or buy one of our magazines.  How do we attract them?  We dangle great stories in front of their noses.

Let's say you sell me a story.  If I'm lucky you have a couple of hundred friends who are going to be so excited for your publication success that they're going to visit our site or buy one of our magazines so they can read your story.  After that, maybe a few will be so impressed with us they'll buy a subscription.  Or maybe they'll take advantage of our advertisers' great deals by clicking the ads on the site.

If most of your friends have already read your story on your personal blog, they're MUCH less likely to read it on our website or in our magazine.  That's not good for us.

We need money so we can pay authors.  I won't even talk about paying our staff.  No. I will.  VERY few fiction magazines run with paid staff.  VERY few fiction magazines bring in enough money to even pay their authors.  They're money pits.  The only magazines who pay authors AND staff are magazines with BIG MONEY backing--magazines who are part of a larger publishing conglomerate, or who have public funding.

The rest of us do this for the love.

So in today's world, 'publication' means that your story has appeared ANYWHERE publicly available on the internet, including your personal blog, a public writer's forum (membership and sign-in not required to view the site), Amazon, or anywhere on the internet or in print.  If your story was published in your neighborhood paper or family newsletter, we consider it previously published.

FICTION (or non-fiction, or poetry, or ...)

Most submission guidelines will state what, exactly, the market accepts for consideration.  Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, art.  Unless the guidelines state your particular literary or artistic form, don't send it to them.  If they don't specifically say "we accept artwork," don't send your photograph--even if it's relevant to your story.  If they don't specifically say "we accept poetry," don't send your poems.

And if they say "we accept fiction," don't send your non-fiction articles or essays.  Fiction is not non-fiction.

2.  "Story Length"

This should be self-explanatory.  Each market will indicate the length of story they will accept in 'words.'  I'm old enough to have taken an actual typing class on a manual typewriter.  Not even an electric typewriter.  (Only the really eager kids got to use one of the half-dozen electric typewriters that graced the front row of our classroom.)  A typewriter with the little arm that you had to swing from right to left when a mechanical bell dinged.   Like this:

We were taught to count words by actually counting the words on the page.  Every word.  The idea was that all the words together would average to around 5 characters per word, which is, essentially, how words are still counted today.

But with amazing word processing software, it's much easier to count words.

If you don't know how to count words in your word processor, Google it.  (In fact, if you don't have a proficient grasp of using the features in your word processor, take a class.  There are even free classes online, like this one for Microsoft Office: GCFLearning: Microsoft Office Lessons  This site even lets you choose the version of Office you're using, and lets you take classes for any of Office's software options.)

Be aware that not all word processors are the same.  Some will be different by 30 or 40 words in count.  Usually that doesn't make any difference.  A publication that publishes stories up to 7500 words isn't going to care much if your story is 7528 words.  In fact, most short story markets expect you to round your word count to the nearest 50 or 100.

However, a publication that publishes very short stories may have much more stringent requirements for word count.

They may even ask you to use a specific software to count words--Usually Microsoft Word, which is the industry standard word processor.  Fortunately, you don't need to have Word in order to get an accurate and exact word count.  There are a number of free sites that will count words for you.

Here are a couple of accurate ones that I've personally tested against Word:

Why does it matter with shorter stories?  A few reasons.  First, some publishers of short stories publish ONLY stories of exact word count.  69 words, or 100 words, 50 words, 6 words, and so on.

For my magazine, we have specific requirements in order to maintain our qualification for membership in certain writers' guilds.  We are required to pay at a certain rate, and only a certain window of word count allows us to meet that criteria.

Stories submitted with us MUST be submitted with exact and accurate word counts in order for us to honestly determine whether your story and, by consequence, our magazine passes.

If the guidelines do not specifically say otherwise, you may expect to be able to round word count.

3.  "Simultaneous Submissions"

Definition: simultaneous submission:  An author submits a story with more than one market, magazine, contest, anthology, etc., at the same time.

What's the alternative?  Exclusive submission in which you submit your story exclusively to a single market and wait to receive their decision before submitting to another market.

Many markets will allow simultaneous submissions.  Others will not.  If the guidelines do not specifically say otherwise, assume they allow it.

What's the big deal?

The big deal is that once your story lands on my desk I am going to begin expending my time and resources on it.

Let's say I've looked at the 700 or so stories I've received in January and I've narrowed that 700 down to 15 or so.  I've spent hours reaching this point.  I've read, and sometimes reread stories.  I've made notes.  I've sent rejections to the unlucky 685.

I sit down at my desk, open my email, and see a letter from you stating that your story (one of those final 15) has been accepted elsewhere.

Some editors are okay with that.  Many editors would rather not spend their time and resources on a good story that might be snatched from under their noses.  They prefer to have exclusive consideration.

What's your responsibility?

To those markets who allow simultaneous submissions, you have a solemn responsibility to inform them immediately of acceptance of the story elsewhere.

You also have a solemn responsibility to avoid sending simultaneous submissions to markets that do not allow it.  As I've said, if they do NOT allow it, they will say so.  Otherwise, you may assume they do.

4.  "Multiple Submissions"

Definition: multiple submission: An author submits more than one story at a time to one market, magazine, contest, anthology, etc.

Many markets accept multiple submissions.  Most of those will put a limit on the number of stories you may submit at one time.

But be aware: unspoken submission etiquette says you should never submit more than three stories at any one time, and it is infinitely more polite to submit only one at a time.

Still, if the market states that they allow multiple submissions, you may assume they will be fine with you submitting up to three.

If they do not say whether they accept multiple submissions, you should assume that they do NOT.

From my perspective as an editor, I'm not particularly keen on multiple submissions, though we do allow them.  Often, authors who submit 2 or 3 stories at one time either make submission mistakes on all their submissions, forcing me to reject them all, or all the stories are equally bad (or good).  If they're equally bad, the author receives multiple rejections, often at the same time.  I don't care who you are.  That hurts.

And, believe it or not, I don't like sending rejections.  I empathize with receiving rejections because I've been there.  It's much easier to send one rejection per author than 2 or 3.  Sure, I understand the desire to run your story through as many slush piles as possible.  You're in a hurry to get published.

But publication isn't a race.  It's a refining fire.  And you should let the heat do its work.  Submit, wait, receive, review.  Submit, wait, receive, review.  Especially if you're an unpublished author, you have a great deal to learn about the mechanics of writing and the ins and outs of the marketplace.  That's better done slowly at first.  Pace yourself.

5.  "Standard Manuscript Formatting"

If you haven't been to college, you may not know what Standard Manuscript Formatting is.

Here's a good checklist: 

And a good visual example:

IF a market wants stories submitted in a modified manuscript format they will clearly indicate the changes they require.

For example, many short story markets require 'blind' submissions these days, which gives them the opportunity to judge a story based solely on the merits of the story.  This method puts new writers on equal ground with seasoned and even professional writers.

A blind submission is a submission in which all author-identifying information is removed from the manuscript.  Be sure you've removed it from the three places it appears on the Standard Manuscript Example: The Byline (your name beneath the title), the Header and/or Footer (appears at the top or bottom of every page), and the Address (appears in the top left hand corner of the first page only and usually includes name, address, phone number, etc.).

From my perspective, I actually hate Courier.  I'd much rather you submit in Times New Roman, and I state so in my submission guidelines.  If you want to know why I hate Courier:  Courier Must Die

I also REALLY want submitters to know how important it is to use some kind of mark to indicate scene breaks.  So I include that, too, even though I should be able to take it for granted.

6.  Bits and Pieces

"We Accept Reprints"

Sometimes magazines will republish a previously published story, or Reprint.  If they do so, they will likely pay considerably less for that story.

Why do they do this?  Remember, a magazine likes readers, and if I can attract more readers with more content that I don't have to pay as much for (and free is even BETTER, which is why we used to publish a PUBLIC DOMAIN story each month) then I'm going to take advantage of that boon.

The other benefit is that I am able to forge a relationship with a seasoned and published author and, hopefully, entice that author to submit original works as well.  Any method I can use to pad my slushpile with great stories, I'll take advantage of that, too.

"I've Received a Rejection.  Now what?"

If you receive a rejection from a publisher you can assume that they do not want to see that same story again.  Sorry.  You are certainly welcome to submit other stories.

So please do not ask the editor if you can revise and resubmit.  If she wanted you to do so she would have asked.

Please do not revise and resubmit without permission.  It just wastes my time and isn't likely to get you any further.

After you've received the rejection you should review the work, maybe revise, and submit (as our rejection letter says) elsewhere.

The Look of Your Story

Big bad NOOB errors include making adjustments to the manuscript to make it 'stand out' in the slush pile.

NEVER do anything to make your story stand out.

WalMartians.  You know what I'm talking about. The drug addict in drag.  The 90-year-old dressed like a hooker.  The black thong under white see-through leggings.

I guarantee you that any alterations you make to your story to make it stand out will be bringing you the WRONG kind of attention.

DO NOT use anything but black typeface.  DO NOT use any font but a generally accepted font type.  In the industry, you're pretty much relegated to Courier (but remember, I hate it), or Times New Roman.  DO NOT include graphics of any kind.  DO NOT 'color' your background or print on colored paper.  DO NOT try to come up with any other clever way to draw attention to your submission.

IT'S A BIG RED NOOB FLAG!!  And I'll forever think of you as a WalMartian

Along with this, please don't submit your own art with your story.  Even if you think it's important.

Cover Letters

Short story cover letters are NOT the same as novel cover letters.

Let me explain the difference.

The purpose of a novel cover letter is to entice the first reader (a publisher's slush reader) to want to read the first three chapters of your novel, and then--hopefully--the rest of your book.  It always includes a one-paragraph story synopsis and a one-paragraph self-introduction.  They are longer than short story cover letters, but only slightly.

The purpose of a short story cover letter is to show you're not a NOOB.  That's all.   Here's what the pros do, every time:

Pros actually INCLUDE a cover letter.  Not to do so is just lazy.  Don't give me the impression that you're lazy.  I'm not impressed by that.  Don't give me any reason not to be impressed.

Pros NEVER tell their life story in a cover letter.  I'm sorry, but I just don't care about your trek along the Silk Road, or the fact that you were raised in Hoboken.  Not even if it's relevant to your story.  The only thing I want to know about you is if you have previous publications, maybe if you've attended a well-respected writing workshop, maybe if you have a degree in creative writing.  If you don't have any of the above, don't say anything.  If your story is about a boy jumping on a trampoline I don't need to know you have a degree in rocket science--unless that boy rockets into space.  THEN that degree in rocket science might prove relevant!

Pros NEVER include a story synopsis in their short story cover letter.  Short stories are SHORT!  It doesn't take much effort on my part to determine if a story is worth my time to consider.  All I have to do is read the first few paragraphs.  If I like those, I'll read more.  At most I've spent an hour of my time reading a great story, which is always time well spent.  Let the story speak for itself.  Never summarize it in your cover letter.

What does the perfect New-writer cover letter look like?

Dear Editor (If you know the editor's last name, say "Dear Ms. Vincent."  Do not use the editor's first name.  He is not your friend.  Unless, of course, he IS your close and personal friend, OR if you've been published by that magazine before.  The keyword is R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  I'm totally channeling Aretha!!)

I respectfully submit my story, "Title of My Story," for your consideration.

(If you have relevant credentials, insert them in a separate, short paragraph here.  If you don't, leave this space blank.)


Your Name

That's it.  Easy.  Simple.  Respectful.  PROFESSIONAL!

Good Advice

Often a magazine will include some good advice on the guidelines page.  Stories we see too often, links to useful articles (like THIS one!), or our amazing YouTube channel, etc.

Take a look at those.  They're often highly useful and can improve your chances of getting published.  Often the information is specifically relevant to that magazine. And the more you get to know a magazine the more likely you are to understand what they want and whether your story might be a good fit.

Here's some good advice:  If a magazine wants you to jump through flaming hoops and sell your first child to submit, AND they don't pay for publication, run the other way.  SO not worth it.

But, if they DO pay, and pay WELL, jump through those flaming hoops, Sister!

Impress the Editor: How an Editor Evaluates Your Short Fiction Submission

I'm human.  I'll do just about anything to make life easier for myself.

So, once again, I'm going to share my long years of knowledge and experience with you for entirely selfish reason.

The slush pile seems like a pit of vipers to authors.

Editors see it as a haystack, in which are hidden a very few golden needles that must be found.  

It is not, in any way, a trash can.  The trash can comes AFTER the slush pile.

All authors hope to avoid the trash can, and while I can never guarantee that following my advice will end in publication, I CAN guarantee that doing so will help keep editors sane and content.  Sane and content editors buy more stories.  Win-win.

Today I'm going to lead you through the process of choosing stories from my side--from the moment I first see your submission to the moment I send off rejections and acceptances.

First Impressions

We like to hope that we won't be judged by first impressions.  We like to hope we don't judge others by first impressions.

I mean, Wal-Martians.  Am I right?

But the value of first impressions depends entirely on context.  

Context:  Let's say you're a door-to-door salesperson.  You ring the doorbell, you wait, the door opens, and standing in front of you is a man with a knife in his hand.  First impressions?  "RUN!"  Fair?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Maybe he's just about to slice a carrot for his salad.  

Context:  You're in charge of hiring at a law firm.  You have several interviews set up.  Your first interview of the day is a woman with an impeccable resume, but she walks in looking more like a construction worker--a stained, baggy t-shirt and torn jeans, her hair thrown haphazardly into a messy bun.  First impressions?  "Seriously?  This is a law firm.  We have an impression to make, and this is not it."  Fair?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Maybe she came straight from a Habitat for Humanity job site.  Maybe she had an emergency and didn't have time to change.

In both of these situations, a spot judgment is made.  In one of these situations there is a stronger likelihood that 'you' would potentially take some time to learn the story behind the first impression.  I mean, I don't know about you, but in that first situation, I'd be running.  I wouldn't stick around to ask about that salad.  Am I right?

In the second, I'd be a little curious to find out about that unusual interview attire.  

The truth is, an editor is more like the door-to-door salesperson.  We're highly likely to run (interpretation: REJECT) at the first sign of danger, and we look for that danger from the moment we see the first page of your submission.  

From this point, I'll walk you through the process as I receive and evaluate submissions, taking note of my impressions through each step.

1.  Your Name; Story Title

We use a submission service to help sort and organize our slush pile.  When I open that service I see the title of your story exactly how you typed it into the submission form, and your name.  That's all.  

It's not much, but it can have a powerful impact on my impression of your story.

Is the title spelled correctly?  
Is it capitalized correctly?  
Is it interesting?
Is your name capitalized correctly?

Some of those things may seem trivial, but they're not.  If you can't be bothered to hit the shift key to capitalize your name, should I be bothered with a story that may not have capitalized sentences?  Because that's what your uncapitalized name or story title tells me--that you may find capitalization an unnecessary bother.

Your title is a crucial part of your story.  It speaks volumes about your story, and about you.

If you're too damned lazy to capitalize your title, I'm not going to be impressed.  If you're not careful enough to make sure the words of your title are spelled correctly, also not a positive impression.  Honestly, it's not that difficult to hit the freaking shift key, or to check for spelling.  If you think it doesn't make a difference, you're 'rejectionably' wrong.

Uncapitalized: Strike one

(Also, All-caps titling is ANNOYING.)

Is your title interesting, and why does that matter?  

Authors should put as much effort into titling stories as they do in writing them.  If your story is about a kid going to school and you title it "A Kid Going to School," I'm not going to be impressed.  

A title has a big responsibility to fill in only a few words.  It should:
--reflect the mood of the story (dark horror, humor, romance),
--reflect the genre of the story (science fiction, western, literary),
--hint at the storyline (but only hint),
--act as a hook to draw in your reader (carefully chosen words/phrases that are interesting rather than dull),
--reflect the literary style of the story (highly poetic or accessible, spooky or appropriate for kindergarteners).

Here are a couple of examples taken from today's slush pile: (I can do this with titles without permission from the author, as titles are not subject to copyright law.)

"Jello Elvis"

Two words.  Just two.  But it tells me volumes about what to expect from the story once I get to it.

First, the story is likely to be humorous, though it could be something a little wistful.  It's likely to be set in the late 20th to early 21st century--in other words, a contemporary setting.  That title grabs me.  It's interesting.  It juxtaposes two things that I don't expect to be mashed together.  It has a pleasing rhythm between the two rhythmically compatible words.  Say it aloud.  Jello Elvis.  That just feels nice on the brain and sounds nice to the ear.  When I open this story I will do so with hope that the story will live up to the title.  The genre could be one of many, but I'm open to finding that out in the first paragraph of the story.  I also expect the literary style to be fairly accessible, not flowery, not technical.  

I won't share details of the story, but nothing in the story contradicted my evaluation of it based solely on the title.

I have, for your information, requested title changes prior to publication.  One example stands out to me.  The title indicated humor, but the story was in no way humorous.  The author graciously agreed to change it to something more relevant.

How about a poor title example?

Here's one: "A Visit."

Ho hum.  What does it tell me about the story?  Nothing.  Nothing maybe except for a bunch of people sitting around talking.  Because isn't that what happens when someone visits someone else?  The visitor is invited inside, everyone sits down in comfy chairs and sofas, and they talk.  Chat, chat, chat.  Talk, talk, talk.

In a story I want action, action, action!

Uninspired title: Strike two.

2.  Your Cover Letter

Now I've clicked on the title of your story to open your submission.  The submission viewing window opens and I see your story, but I decide to click over to your cover letter.

Is it short?
Is it succinct?
Is it polite and respectful?
Does it avoid the tendency to a) summarize your story and b) give you a platform to talk about yourself?

Your cover letter is an important part of your writerly resume.  A good resume is all of these things.  As short as possible, succinct, polite, focuses on RELEVANT details of your publication history, employment history, education, and training.

If you're applying for a position as a t-shirt printer, your PhD in Zoology isn't going to be relevant.

I don't want to read about your recent trip to Barbados (your story is set in Mongolia).

Do you have an English degree?  Creative writing degree?  Publication credits?

That's relevant.

And don't--EVER--summarize your story in a short story submission cover letter.  Those summaries are ONLY for novel submissions, meant to tantalize a slush reader into wanting to read more.

Short story submissions don't need that.  We have your story--a SHORT story.  Let the story speak for itself.

Also, be sure to WRITE a cover letter.  Don't leave that portion of the submission form blank.  Again, it shows laziness on your part.  I'm not keen on working with lazy writers.  Prove to me that you're committed, dedicated, serious.

Overdone or missing cover letter: Strike three

3.  Your Story

You've worked hard to create that perfect title, your cover letter is everything it's supposed to be, now you're going to bare your soul to me in the form of your blood, sweat, and tears on virtual (sometimes real) paper. 

I'm not going to go into grammar and syntax in this article.  But it is a problem in a shockingly large percentage of submissions.  There are two causes for these problems.  The first, for those raised in an English-speaking country, is simple disregard for the conventions of the English language that you learned throughout your school years.  The second, for those raised in non-English-speaking countries, is simple lack of knowledge of the conventions of English grammar and syntax.  Neither is an excuse for poor grammar and syntax in a story submission.  You, as the author, have the responsibility to use the language correctly.  You have the responsibility to learn or to seek the help of native English-speakers who can help you smooth those out.  But that is not a magazine editor's job.

I'm also not going to go into narrative style, voice, artistry in prose.  Only to say that they, too, are crucial to a successful writing career.  These are more difficult to learn, and many authors come by them naturally, absorbing them as they read the published work of others throughout their lives.  But they can be learned, through conscious study of them.

Instead, I'm going to concentrate on the framework of a story: 

A story has three parts: Opening, Body, Resolution.  The three have different jobs, and each needs proper attention.

The Opening of a story has a big job to do in a short space.  It must introduce all the elements of a story (setting, character, situation) as quickly as possible.

Why?  Imaginative engagement.  Your reader is being brought into this story, and with every word you put on the page he is creating an imagined world inside his head.  Your job is to make sure your reader gets a clear picture up front, and then to maintain that picture throughout the story.  The opening is the 'clear picture up front.'

By way of example, here's the opening of a story published at Flash Fiction Online in March of 2008, "Just Before Recess" by James Van Pelt:

Parker kept a sun in his desk. He fed it gravel and twigs, and once his gum when it lost its flavor. The warm varnished desktop felt good against his forearms, and the desk’s toasty metal bottom kept the chill off his legs.

Today Mr. Earl was grading papers at the front of the class, every once in a while glancing up at the 3rd graders to make sure none of them were talking or passing notes or looking out the window. Parker would quickly shift his gaze down to his textbook so Mr. Earl wouldn’t give him the glare, a sure sign that Parker’s name would soon go up on the board with the other kids who had lost their lunch privileges for the day. He could feel Mr. Earl’s attention pass over him like a search light.
Setting: 3rd grade classroom
Character: Parker and Mr. Earl
Situation: Parker keeps a sun in his desk, and there's the problem of stern Mr. Earl.

All that in two paragraphs, six sentences.

Note that the main character, the setting, and one of the situational elements are all present in the first sentence!  Seven words.  Parker--character.  Sun in his desk--situation.  Desk--setting.

The following sentences enlighten us further (and quickly) to firmly establish Parker's age, that the desk is (as could easily be surmised) in a classroom, that it's a third-grade classroom, placing Parker's age at 8 or 9, and that Parker isn't fond of his teacher, Mr. Earl.  We know that Mr. Earl is a stern teacher, and probably not well-liked by his students.  We also see that Parker seems to enjoy having that sun in his desk.

Van Pelt is also successfully building a sense of empathy for Parker and his situation.  The vast majority of us have sat in some kind of classroom situation in which a stern disciplinarian holds court.  It might not be a teacher.  Maybe a boss in a meeting.  Maybe a parent forcing you to do Saturday chores.  If not, we've seen it on television or in films.  We can very much relate to Parker.

Can we relate with having a sun in our desk?  Maybe not specifically, but we can certainly relate to having something that no one else does--something unique, something special, something that makes us happy or, in Parker's case, warm.  Parker actually treats the sun like a pet, feeding it gravel and twigs and gum.  We can relate to the 'secret pet' idea.  It's a story element we can find everywhere.  Little Orphan Annie and her dog Sandy.  Gremlins.  A book I loved as a child about Parker's age, The Secret Pony.  The "Look, Ma!  It followed me home!" idea.

Openings of this sort are crucial in short fiction.

Your reader is investing a fairly short chapter of their lives in your story.  A long flash fiction story (1000 words) only takes about five minutes to read.  A long short story (around 10,000 words) less than an hour.  They want that time to be well-spent, and they want to know it's going to be well-spent right up front.

If you take a novel in your hands (I'm currently reading Brandon Sanderson's Oathbringer, which tops out at over 1200 pages of 9 or 10 point font), you understand the investment of time is going to be considerable.  You're willing to move more slowly into the environment--like the difference between attending a dinner party with maybe 8 attendees and going to the Grand Canyon.  You walk into that party and take in the actors and the situation almost immediately.  The action takes place within the small space of the banquet hall.  At the Grand Canyon you take in the vista after a revelatory hike to get to the rim, in which you've passed signs and buildings and parking lots, and then the vista you reach is only a small part of the entire wonder.  You have to drive and walk more to see the rest of it.  

Get your reader into that party immediately.  Social comfort in a dinner party is equal to swift familiarity with the people, your place at the table, and situation.  Otherwise, you feel a little lost and out of place.  If you don't know the people at the table, your friend will almost certainly introduce you, and he'll do so the moment you enter the party.

"Everyone, this is my dear friend, Suzanne.  Suzanne, this is Jack and Jill, Mary and Joseph, Simon and Garfunkel..."

Even in most novels, it's crucial that readers understand enough about the characters, situation, and setting that their expectations are not crumbled later on by conflicting information.

So what might happen with "Just Before Recess" to interrupt those expectations?

We might find in ensuing paragraphs that Parker is actually 14 and has been held back because he's not very smart.  We might find out that it's not a school classroom at all, but a prison for gremlins.  The story opening has set up for none of those possibilities.

Fortunately, Van Pelt's story is true to his opening to the very last period.  

The Body:  The body's job is to open that world up, to expound, to expand, to explain, to enlighten, to follow the action introduced in the opening.

Back to "Just Before Recess." What does that opening promise?  Obviously there's going to be some sort of trouble with Mr. Earl over the sun in the desk.  Which is exactly what happens in the story.  We get a few paragraphs of details about, first, how the sun came to be there, and second, what Parker does with the sun in his desk, adding interesting layers to the development of the situation.

For example, as Parker feeds the sun it grows larger and begins to have a gravitational pull so that, for instance, a marble rolled across the top of the desk will roll in circles over the sun until it comes to rest exactly over the sun inside.   One day Parker opens his desk to find that all his materials and textbooks have been sucked into the gravitational pull of the sun and are gone.  He can't retrieve his reading book for group reading.  It's gone.

How does Parker explain this?  And, predictably, Mr. Earl gets angry.

Predictably?  Yes, predictably. Predictable in a story isn't a bad thing.  It lends itself to a readers ability to believe and to empathize.  There are no secrets here.  There's no withholding.  The story unfolds and reveals everything as it happens.

I could go on and on about the evils of certain types of withholding.

But understand that suspense is not created from the reader knowing nothing.  Suspense is created when the reader knows everything the characters know, and then must imaginatively hold a character's hand as the consequences of what they know take place.

In "Recess" we know exactly what the problem is.  There's a sun in Parker's desk that is drawing stuff into its gravitational pull.  And it's growing.  And Mr. Earl is mean.

Do you have a good idea of what's going to happen?  Of course you do.  Mr. Earl and that sun are going to cross paths.

Resolution: The delight in this story comes with the Resolution.  It's the resolution's job to release the build-up of suspense with an entirely expected outcome!

Expected, you say?  Absolutely.

If you were to read a mystery novel and the author revealed the murderer and you sat there staring at the page and thinking, "What?  No way.  I don't believe that at all," then the author F-A-I-L-E-D to do his job.  He withheld crucial information that SHOULD HAVE resulted in an entirely expected, yet somehow surprising outcome.  Our reaction at the end of that story should be, "Of course!  I should have seen it from the beginning!" Or in the case of Parker, "Of course!  That's perfect!  I loved the way the author handled that entirely expected outcome."

Which WILL be your reaction when you read the rest of "Just Before Recess." (Hyperlinked again, in case you missed it the first time.)   And, no, I haven't ruined the ending for you.  You'll see what I mean.  You'll be delighted with how the author resolves this story in a surprising, and yet entirely expected, way.

Delightful story!

Have I just taught you everything there is to know to write a successful story?

Not even a drop in the bucket.  This article is a resource, but only one.  As a writer you have an enormous responsibility to know your craft in every way.  Books and books and books (some much better than others), innumerable articles (some much better than others), workshops and classes (some much better than others).

Eat them all up--as many as you can. Learn from the good and the bad.

And ALWAYS do your best to make a good first impression!

Not like this:

Monday, December 11, 2017

Are You Dumb as a Box of Rocks?

Here's my litmus test for dumb...

I'm a hopeful author.  I've just written a short story that I want to try to publish. 

I find a market and submit.

On the submission form is a line that says, "I have read the submission guidelines."  I have to check a little box that says "True," next to it.   I check the box, BUT I DON'T BOTHER TO READ THE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES!

Today I assigned stories for reading.  As part of this process, I vet the slush pile, which means I glance through them to make sure the authors are minding their Ps and Qs as far as submission.  There are certain submission rules that I will not or cannot bend on, certain practices by some authors that are not tolerated by editors (ANY editors with ANY kind of self-respect). 

Those authors who have clearly chosen to ignore those rules have the great honor of being the first in that particular pile of slush to be rejected.

If the error is obvious, I don't even read the story.  Not a single word.  I dump it straight into the trash.

And, here's the kicker, I don't even inform those authors that they've made a submission error.  They go into the same pile as the authors who have (gratefully) followed the rules but whose stories just aren't our cup of tea. 

It's not my job to explain why your story was rejected.  Figuring that out is YOUR job.

But, my dears, to tell me you've read my guidelines, then to fail to actually follow those guidelines, tells me two things.

First, it tells me that all the rejection letters in the world probably aren't going to teach you much, because, Second, it tells me you're probably  dumb as a box of rocks.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Ask the Editor: Researching Markets

Anonymous asked:

"Could you recommend any reputable short flash fiction sites that are more apt to publish an intelligently written story with a fair amount of cursing, particularly the f word? I am new to writing and don't know how to research this."

Interesting question.

Do I know the answer?  

I do not.  

However, I know what I would do.

I would do a great deal of market research using whatever resources were available to me.

Some of those resources are:


Writer's Market

I would also consider joining an online writers' critique workshop to network potential markets, such as:



Critique Circle

And I would ALWAYS make sure I know enough about each potential market that I would know what style of writing they tolerate.

When it comes down to it, with your singular problem, you may need to spend time looking at dozens of individual markets, combing their websites for any guidelines which might indicate their tolerance (or lack thereof) for 'potty-mouthed' stories.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Ask the Editor: Slush Pile Suggestion

Jack Belck wrote:

"Slush piles are huge for one simple reason: vast quantities of writing coming in are, as slush readers know only too well, rubbish whose nature boils down to those submitting being close to illiterate and blithely ignorant of the way the language should be used, not abused.
Possibly the only cure for this excessive volume would be to require would be submitters to first email an item on the subject of x and no longer than Y lines.
"The subject needs to avoid the overworked like love, loss, illness,ageing and birth. Length should be short because only the skillful can write tightly and well.
"Those unable to meet these specs will not be assigned code numbers clearing them for future submissions. The slush pile will therefore shrink greatly."

That's an interesting suggestion, Jack, but impractical for several reasons.

1.  First, I can make a very quick judgment about a submitter's talent, or lack thereof, by simply reading the first paragraph of any submission.  A submission is its own 'audition.'

2.  Logistically, it would be more work for me to have to 'audition' writers before allowing them to submit, because...

3. There are far fewer writers who submit again and again and again than you might think. And VERY few who submit repeatedly--who only ever receive a form rejection--and do nothing to consider why they're repeatedly receiving form rejections, and continue to submit. 

If I were to do as you suggest, I would be auditioning nearly as many authors as I would otherwise be receiving submissions from.  It wouldn't significantly reduce my slush pile, and it would only make more work for me.  I don't like more work.  I'm human, and therefore inherently lazy.  I prefer to lighten my workload.

4.  An editor can only ask authors to jump through so many hoops before he starts offending not just the ones she DOESN'T want submitting, but the ones she DOES want submitting.  

5.  I would hate to have been black-balled from submitting when, as a hopeful but hopelessly naive teenager I had decided to submit a hopelessly immature story.  While it's true that there are some people out there who should rethink their dreams of being a successful author, there are far more who are developing as writers, who will learn and grow and progress, and maybe even write something worthwhile.  

6.  Our submission software (Submittable) doesn't allow me to ban authors.  I wish it would.  But I wouldn't ban authors for incompetence.  Only for inexcusable rudeness. THOSE are the kinds of assholes who shouldn't be allowed to submit stories--anywhere.  I'm much more forgiving of incompetence than I am with deliberate assholery.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

ASK THE EDITOR: Why Am I Such an A**?

Author With Self-Respect (AWSR) asked:

"I'd like to know why you think it is OK to verbally abuse prospective authors before they even submit to you? 

"'THANK YOU for thoroughly reading our guidelines! (Do it. You may wish you had, because I am JUST in the mood to dump your story in the trash if you don't follow the rules. Thank you! ~The Editor)' [A quote from Flash Fiction Online's submission guidelines.]

"'' [A link to our submission page.]

"You can honestly stick both the sarcasm - THANK YOU - and the attitude where the sun don't shine, and shame on anyone that allows this to pass unchallenged." 

Not unchallenged anymore, eh, AWSR?

I bet you thought I wouldn't have the guts to answer. 

Let's start with your question, and provide a definition.

abuse  n.  
1.  wrong or improper use; misuse:
the abuse of privileges
2.  harshly or coarsely insulting language:
The officer heaped abuse on his men.
3.  bad or improper treatment; maltreatment:
The child was subjected to cruel abuse.
4.  a corrupt or improper practice or custom:
the abuses of a totalitarian regime
5.  rape or sexual assault.

Have I used this warning improperly?  If it were true that properly submitted stories was the overwhelming norm I suppose it could be argued the warning is improper.  IF it were true.  If only it were true.  If only. *sigh*

Was my language harsh or coarse?  I didn't use any crude or coarse language.  I didn't phrase it in unusually stern language.  Considerably less stern than the language I used with my own growing children when they misbehaved.  But since when is stern a bad thing?  Stern warnings are not uncommon, nor are they inappropriate when circumstances call for them.

Is the statement mistreating prospective authors?  Only those who allow themselves to be mistreated by it.  There is nothing in that statement that mistreats anyone. 

Maybe I'm a corrupt totalitarian editor?  Closer to the truth, maybe.  But I am the ruler of the roost.  I am the one that must manage a huge slush pile.  I am the one who represents the magazine in the most public way--second only to our publisher, who would have been much more "offensive" had she been the one to pen those lines.

It certainly isn't sexual in nature.

How exactly is it abusive to prospective authors?  It very specifically targets only a portion of those authors who submit with us: 

"...I am JUST in the mood to dump your story in the trash if you don't follow the rules."

Only those authors who choose not to heed the submission guidelines should feel in any way offended by this statement.  And if they decide to feel offended and refuse to follow the guidelines they are likely to feel even more abused when they receive a form rejection--because I do NOT use up my valuable time telling every author why I reject a story.  I'm not paid NEAR enough for that.

Which brings us neatly around to a few hard facts about editors:

1.  An editor is NOT your babysitter.

It is not my job to hold your hand and pat your head through the submission process.  I will treat you with all the polite respect you deserve.  I am not your critique partner.  I am not your writing coach.  If you make a mistake during submission that causes your story to be rejected, that is not my fault, nor my responsibility to explain.  

Does my statement seem a little harsh?  Maybe.  But if it catches your attention and causes you to be extra careful in reading and heeding my guidelines, and if it causes you to be extra careful in properly preparing your manuscript, then I'm doing you a favor. 

(I could have said f*ing favor there.  Yes, I could. But I prefer to avoid coarse language.  It's extraordinarily unprofessional, wouldn't you say, AWSR?)

2.  An editor does NOT have time to correct your mistakes.

Truth: Most magazine editors aren't paid for their work. 

I'm not.  I've been working at Flash Fiction Online for 10 years now, without a penny of recompense.  My work for this magazine is done in my spare time--what little of it I have.   And we're not a small-beans pub.  We pay professional rates.  We are SFWA membership-qualifying.  We have 35,000+ monthly readers.  That, my friends, is no small beans.

I have as many responsibilities outside the magazine as you have outside your writing activities.  I process THOUSANDS of stories per year with no monetary reward to hope for.  YOU write DOZENS of stories per year with some hope of monetary reward--which, by the way, you may receive because some unpaid editor somewhere chooses your story over the thousands of others that land on his/her desktop.

Let me tell you something else:  A few months ago, I was rejecting 20-25% of stories because authors were regularly disregarding guidelines.  I took action in order to save myself some extremely valuable time.  

First, I edited our guidelines to include that harsher statement that AWSR has chosen to be so very offended by.  

Second, I added a required button to our submission form, in which authors must indicate that they have, in fact, read the guidelines.

What do you suppose the results have been?

A dramatic decrease in rejections due to guidelines errors?

Dramatic may be an overstatement.  I still reject 10-12% of stories due to guidelines errors.  1 in 10.  Still far too many.  It should be closer to 1 in 100--the honest error, the mistakenly downloaded file, the mis-typed word count.  If it was 1 in 100 I could justify using some of my time to give authors a chance to fix the error and resubmit. 

I am harsh to save myself time and to decrease the chance that YOU, ungrateful and easily offended one, will receive a bland form rejection, along with 99.4% of the other 8000+ authors who submit with us each year. 

Honestly!  Toughen up, put away your self-pity, spend more time learning how to write and less time worrying about potential emotional boo-boos.  Writing and submitting is hard enough.

To address AWSR's non-PC submitter-shaming ("...shame on anyone that allows this to pass unchallenged."), AWSR is the ONLY submitter who has challenged the statement so far.   

NOTE:  AWSR felt the need to publicly complain on Reddit (expanding the whining to include my preferred choice of fonts and for wanting Standard Manuscript Format!  GASP!!  The horror!) , in which discussion he/she found very little sympathy--at least from those who could write a legible paragraph:

So, you see, AWSR, I don't put up with abuse either.