Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I'm Baaaa-aaaack!

Don't know if that's a good thing, but here I am.

I must confess, I've had my computer back for a few weeks, but have also been making a concerted effort at as lazy a summer as possible.

It hasn't worked so far.

And summer is waning.

Which is why I'm doing a lot of playing this month.

Maybe sometime in September I'll get back into this whole writing/editing thing.

A lot of editors take the summer off, you know. ;-)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Holding Pattern...

Dear readers,

You know how crap comes in threes?

1) Dishwasher--the kids are learning a new appreciation for the term "dishpan hands."

2) Swamp Cooler--90 degrees in the shade? How about 90 degrees in the HOUSE?

3) Computer--I'm currently posting from my daughter's netbook which she guards jealously. My computer will have its harddrive formatted this week, which will hopefully solve the problem. Until then, The Slushpile Avalanche is in a holding pattern...

But don't worry. One way or another I'll be back.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Free Fiction!

I love good fiction. Especially when I can read it for free--I'm just cheap that way. Or frugal. Frugal sounds better.

This week's story on Fifty-two Stories is from an indisputable master of speculative fiction, Neil Gaiman.

Friday, June 25, 2010

A Prolific Short Story Writer is a Happy Short Story Writer

This article from Charlie Jane Anders, managing editor at io9, gives not only REASONS why being a prolific short story writer is a good idea, but 12 tips on how to BECOME a prolific short story writer:

12 Secrets to Being a Super-Prolific Short Story Writer

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Believability: Dialogue

Writing believable dialogue is not the same thing as realistic dialogue.

Nothing is 'realistic' in fiction. It shouldn't be. But it SHOULD be believable.

This is particularly true of dialogue.

Take a few minutes and just listen to a conversation. Especially if you're listening to teenagers, or a certain talkative 11-year-old I know, the speech is scattered with 'ums' and 'likes' and 'you knows.' You can find examples of 'realistic' dialogue in radio transcripts, in which voice recognition software records every utterance that comes out of the speakers mouths. Here's an example from a popular radio show:

SPEAKER: "I mean, I think I agree with you morally that she doesn't deserve it and I mean, I don't know if there's a great person in this story but, like, the guy, he's a dirtbag. So I would root against him in every case. But legally, I mean, when you have -- she had the ticket in her possession, it becomes communal property of the marriage. So whether -- I mean, you can't -- that's like she's lying when they get divorced by claiming she doesn't have $28 million. I mean, she really could be charged with that, couldn't she?"

That's REAL, but it's not very pleasant to read. We hear it all the time and process it without thinking, but when we see it on the page, when we process it through our eyes instead of our ears, it seems somewhat odd, unnatural.

Fortunately for us, the convention in writing fiction is not to convey REAL dialogue, but to convey BELIEVABLE dialogue. So, as writers, we clean it up. We remove the stammering, the injected meaningless words, the interrupted sentences. Had this paragraph of dialogue come from a fiction writer, it might look something like this:

"Morally, I agree," he said. "She doesn't deserve it. But who is there to like here? He's a dirtbag, and I'd root against him in any other argument. But what she did--it wasn't legal, was it?"

It's not real. But it conveys the message in a believable way without burdening the reader's thought process with nuances that cannot be heard. Those nuances, when understood perfectly well in heard speech, can make written dialogue confusing, as I think you can see from the transcript example.

Some other tips for writing believable dialogue:

USE CONTRACTIONS: Dialogue that does away with contractions feels stilted and overly formal. There are instances in which you would NOT use contractions, for instance when a speaker is giving a short sentence particular emphasis. But for the most part contract where you can.

BE CAUTIOUS WITH DIALECT: I've already written about using dialect in dialogue, HERE.

DIALOGUE TAGS: It is a great temptation for new writers to use overly descriptive dialogue tags that replace the simple 'said. These are known as 'said bookisms.' You've seen them before. "I love you," he whispered, or yelled, or called, or some such. Some of the worst are those that are impossible to do while speaking, such as "I love you," he laughed, or sneered, or hissed. Those words don't actually describe a type of speech. Hissing, for example, is when you put your teeth together and make an S sound through them. You don't actually speak like that. No one does. Don't believe me? Try it.

You may also be tempted to use Tom Swifties, which are adverbial dialogue description tags such as "I love you," sneered Tom jauntily. These kinds of tags earned their name from a series of juvenile fiction books in which the author badly abused these types of tags, to the point of being laughable.

Avoid these types of tags by giving the characters actions or putting them into situations in which the WAY the dialogue is said is obvious. For instance, if our hero leans in close and his lips brush my ear, all I need to write is, "I love you," he said. We KNOW, by inference, that he's whispering it. With a little more narrative describing the setting (for instance, a bedroom, or maybe he's stroking our heroine's hair), the reader can also infer that he said it seductively, all without ever telling the reader that this is how she should interpret the way he said it.

There will occasionally be instances in which a Tom Swifty or a Said Bookism is warranted, but these instances should be rare.

DIALOGUE AND THE INFO DUMP: Be cautious about using dialogue to give important information to your reader. It's a huge temptation for new writers to have a speaker give the reader a bunch of information that everyone in the fictional universe already knows. Characters can give information, but it should be information that is new to their fictional audience. If your character is capable of saying, "As you know..." before conveying some information, then he shouldn't be conveying that information through dialogue.

INTERRUPTED CONVERSATION: Be cautious about using an excess of descriptive narration within dialogue. Think about conversations in real life, conversations that you enjoy listening to. The banter goes back and forth, sometimes someone makes a gesture, or sits down, or takes a sip of coffee. No narrator steps out of the wings to explain the background behind what is said, interrupting the dialogue to do so. You've seen the gimmick before on some comedic TV show. The action in the scene freezes so someone can step in front of the camera to explain something, then he drops out and the scene continues. It's an unnecessary interruption of the scene and it's annoying--which is why it's parodied. The only thing that should interrupt your dialogue is action--movements the characters might make as they converse. We do this to minutely break up the dialogue (because several pages of nothing but dialogue can be tedious to read), and to give a sense that the speakers are real, that they aren't just standing there like cardboard cutouts with moving lips.

PUNCTUATION: As an editor, I'm acutely aware of errors in punctuation. And errors in dialogue punctuation can be particularly confusing. Know the rules of puncuation and paragraphing dialogue, and utilize those rules correctly. For some basic dialogue punctuation rules, go HERE.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Believability: Characters

As a writer of fiction, you have a job. It's to create worlds, situations, and characters that your readers will buy.

When a reader picks up a story or book, they have a chip on their shoulder. They're daring you make them believe. Orson Scott Card, in his book Character and Viewpoint , calls it the 'Oh, yeah?' factor. Imagine a big former high school football player (you know the type--the ones with more attitude than athletic talent, which is why they didn't go on to play college or pro football) with his beer belly and his unshaven cheeks. He has a remote in one hand and a light beer in the other, because THAT'S going to help get rid of that gut. He's kind of growling and grunting, he's frowning down at you, because even though he's pretty much a failure at life he's still VERY BIG! He says, "Come on, big shot. Take your best shot!"

And if you don't succeed, he's going to punch you in the nose with that meaty fist of his (translate: toss your story/novel in the trash).

With characters it should be fairly simple to gauge whether his/her actions are believable. You simply ask yourself, 'In this situation would I do the same thing?' If not, it might be a good idea to re-evaluate your characters, simply because it's a difficult job to write about things you know nothing of. If your character is faced with a wild-eyed gunman would he run like a chicken down the street? Cower in a corner? Beg for his life? If those are things YOU would do, then that's a character YOU understand well enough to write about. That's a simplistic example. What you would do in such a situation would depend on many things. Different circumstances would prompt different reactions.

Think back. I'm sure you've had situations in which you THOUGHT about doing something that you wouldn't otherwise do. That counts as 'experience.'

But let's go back to our example. If the LAST thing you would ever do in this situation is to put your finger in the barrel of the gun, how can you believably write about that?

Again, this example is simplistic. It's really less about the action and more about the emotion, less about what your character would DO and more about what your character would FEEL.

Character reactions should be logical. They should fit the character. If your suave, daring, handsome hero screams like a girl at the sight of a mouse, that's illogical.

Character reactions should be consistent. If, in once scene, your character cries like a baby from fear at the prospect of taking the elevator, but in a subsequent scene walks onto an elevator without a hitch, that's inconsistent characterization.

The key to creating believable characters is to make them REAL to YOU. You should know your character so well you'll know exactly what the character will do and what he will feel in any given circumstance.

In this article, Character Creation by Jeff Heisler, the author gives some tips on creating believable characters. He suggests actually interviewing your characters. Good idea. I think I'll go do that right now.

And you should, too.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Getting Out of the Slush Pile

How does one do it? Wouldn't we all like to know!

Beyond the obvious--competent writing, correct grammar, usage, and mechanics, a compelling story or subject--there are as many tips available from a simple internet search as there are stars in the sky. Some samples:

Harold Underdown gives us a list specific to children's literature.

A hard-hitting, frank assessment from Rachel Funari at PoeWar Writing Career Center.

Someone calling himself 'I, Brian' at SFF Chronicles, and who berates authors for using pseudonyms when HIS full name is unavailable on this site, gives some frank and cruelly humorous insight into the slush pile at a large publication. He's absolutely correct on many of his points, but one thing he neglects to mention is that authors absolutely MUST read and adhere to submission guidelines for each individual market. "Industry Standards," such as Courier typeface and paper-clipped manuscripts, are only industry standards as far as the market demands them.

For novelists, this article's author, C. Patrick Schulze, explains the importance of a good query letter in rising out of the slush pile.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Where to Sell Your Story

You've just spent the last year or so reading everything you can on writing. You've attended a workshop or two. You've burned the midnight oil stealing spare hours of time to knock out a half dozen stories.

Now you think you're ready to start submitting.

You don't THINK you are. You KNOW you are. Even if you only THINK you are, it's something you just need to DO.

But how, exactly, does one go about it?

Most writers at some point become familiar with The Writer's Market. It is the whole-industry standard that offers several options for access. One option is to go to the bookstore and buy a copy. It's huge--3 or 4 inches thick--and packed with not only listings of writing markets but listings of editors and agents, as well as articles on the business and craft of writing. A 2010 copy should be useful for a couple of years. Beyond that, because markets come and go so fast and editorial boards change so much, the information will be outdated.

A second option with The Writer's Market is to check out a copy at the library. Most libraries stock the current copy of The Writer's Market. It may be a non-circulating reference volume, but you can stand to spend an hour or so looking through it and taking notes.

Your third option with The Writer's Market is to subscribe online, for which they offer several options. You can purchase yearly subscriptions, monthly subscriptions, or 'niche' subscriptions that allow you access to market information specific to Children's Poetry or Short Story & Novel markets. I know of many writers who buy a one-month, full access subscription, spend that month searching markets, then cancel their subscription once they have the information they want. Later (six months to a year) they may do the same thing to update their database.

I really think The Writer's Market is the only market search tool I can safely recommend for purchase. With this one exception, keep in mind that money should flow TOWARD the author. You should avoid paying to be published, or to procur an agent or editor. The only reason TO pay to be published is if you're interested in printing a few dozen copies of your book to give as gifts to your friends and family--a 'for the love' publication. Too many of the what are termed 'vanity' publishers are in it to take your money without helping you make a name for yourself as a viable author.

Outside of that, there are many free online market searches available, usually specific to genre.

The best general market search site is Duotrope's Digest. Duotrope's uses numerous fields in which to narrow your search and allows you to order your results by a number of different parameters, like pay scale, title, or acceptance rate. Duotrope's also updates market information frequently and takes user-submitted statistics on market behavior--like acceptance rate and speed of response. I use Duotrope's frequently.

Fiction Factor sports a tidy little listing of markets in several genres and categories, including contests.

BellaOnline give a listing of markets and market search sites mainly for non-fiction. Some of those are probably paid market search sites, so proceed with caution.

The Market List has tons of markets listed, but it's not searchable by any other parameters but genre, and leaves it up to you to check whether the market is even still viable.

The has a listing that's not huge, but it has a lot of variety, and lists markets specific to certain kinds of writing--like greeting card freelance writing, young writers, business writing, as well as general fiction and nonfiction. I might have to check out that greeting card listing. Might be worth a try to bring in a few extra bucks!

A couple of market searches specific to sci-fi and fantasy are Ralan's Webstravaganza and Storypilot. I frequent both. Ralan's is especially good at keeping their listings updated as to market status, and lists can be sorted by payscale. Storypilot, though less active (as of today they haven't been updated since January 8th, 2010), has a number of search parameters to narrow down your listings for you.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Blog: 5 Ways to Turn off a Slush Reader

..or in this case a Hollywood script reader. In essence, the principles are identical, whether submitting a story, article, or script.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Selling Your Story = Selling Yourself: The Benefits of Professionalism

Professionalism is a variable defined by the profession.

If I'm a professional wrestler, for instance, professionalism includes never going out in public without the "PERSONA."

If I'm a professional juggler it means I generally don't show up for a performance in a business suit.

If I'm a professional golfer I don't do a happy dance after making a birdie.

Professionalism is a certain set of expectations as defined by the field of study or business.

If you want to be taken seriously in that profession you follow that profession's rules of professionalism. And these rules apply to much more than just professionals. It applies also to all those who wish to be encompassed by that field. For example, bank tellers don't wear ripped jeans and KISS t-shirts to work. Construction workers don't wear Speedos on the job site--as much as, perhaps, we might want them to.

In the writing business there are the pros and the wannabes. And both should present themselves professionally when seeking publication.

As I'm sure you know, writers tend to be somewhat eccentric. That's fine. There is no strict dress standard for writers. If you show up to a contract negotiation table in a tie-dyed sundress in January, nobody's likely to bat an eye. You ARE an artist, after all. They're used to artists. That said, I'd consider carefully your purposes if you decide to push that envelope TOO far. You still want to present yourself as relatively sane, reliable, productive. It IS still a business, after all. And those involved have business interests to protect, such as, Is This Writer Sane Enough to Actually Finish a Manuscript?

In reality, most writers aren't actually seen by the production end of industry professionals anyway. You can be an 800 lb professional couch potato and still write novels. BUT, a successful writer WILL be seen and judged by his/her public. So there's also a level of professional conduct and personal presentation that goes along with that. What does your audience expect of you? That may be determined by what you write.

Personally, I've enjoyed seeing the authors who let a bit of their eccentricity come out: the high-fantasy writer who sports a chest-length beard and a gold hoop earring while wearing a business suit, for example; the sci-fi writer who wears Star Trek t-shirts; the gardening book writer who comes in a huge floppy sunhat, huarachi sandalls, and dirt under her fingernails. But what if that last author wrote high-tech crime drama? I'm not sure I'd believe her capable of doing so. The persona she presents to me doesn't say "nerdy technical novels." Author number one might. Author two possibly.

So there's something to be said for presenting yourself in accordance with potential expectations. But is that professionalism? I think so. If you want to make an impact in the business you'll tweak some things about yourself to make yourself saleable, while still being true to who and what you are.

But what I really wanted to write about is selling your story.

Stories sell themselves.

Sure. You can wish.

Authors first sell themselves, and THEN the story sells itself.

The first part--the author selling himself--is easy-peasy-rice-and-cheesy.

It's all about professionalism and presenting a manuscript professionally.

This is done in two ways:

1. The Query/Cover Letter

When submitting a story, your cover letter is a first impression. Make a good one.

Keep it short, sweet, and to the point. The cover letter should NEVER be longer than one page, complete, WITH addressing and signature. It should contain the title of your story and any publication credits you have. That's all. It's purpose is ONLY to be informative. Most editors don't carefully read cover letters anyway. They usually scan them looking for clues that you know what you're doing, that you know how to present yourself professionally. Begin your cover letter with respect. "Dear Mr. Editor, I respectfully submit my story (or novel, or article), "Title," for your consideration."

A Query letter is something quite different. The purpose of it it is to sell INTEREST in your story. In this case, the letter should ALSO be short, sweet, and to the point, similar to the Cover letter, but you may include ONE extra paragraph (generally no longer than 25 words long--YES, you read that right) summarizing your plot. You will want to BEGIN your letter with this paragraph to immediately draw the editor in.

For both:

*Use the editor's name in the letter's address if possible: "Dear Mr. Johnson" or "Dear Ms. Baker."
*Include professional background relating to your hopeful publication. Include publishing credits (especially those relevant to your market, ie. literary publications when submitting to literary markets--and on that note, most literary markets will be completely unimpressed if you include sci-fi/fantasy/romance publication credits); degrees relating directly to writing or the submission's content (ie. a Master's Degree in history if you're writing a nonfiction historical); workshops you have attended that the market may be impressed by; other experiences--either professional or volunteer (Do you run a writer's workshop for elementary school children? Do you work as an writer and/or editor for a magazine or newspaper?)
*Use proper letter format, with your full name, address, phone number, email address, story/book title and word count in the top left-hand corner of the page. Most word processing programs come equipped with business letter templates. This IS a business letter. You are hoping the publisher will want to do business with you.
*For that extra special touch, close your letter by thanking the editor for his/her time.
*DO NOT print ANYTHING on ANYTHING but bright white paper.
*DO NOT print ANYTHING in ANYTHING other than standard manuscript fonts--like Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New.
*DO NOT include pictures or symbols or designs. Just a plain white piece of paper with plain black lettering on it. This is especially pertinent to electronic submissions. A dolled-up electronic submission can take 100 times the memory space that a plain submission can. Even in this day and age of 500 gig computer hard drives, memory can get used up fast if everyone submits that way.

Below are some links to some articles and/or sample query letters:

Sample Cover/Query Letter 1
Sample Cover/Query Letter 2--Gives an example of a bad letter and a good one.
Sample Cover/Query Letter 3--from Sullivan Maxx Literary Agency.

2. Manuscript Preparation

Three words: Standard Manuscript Format.

Two links:

Standard Manuscript Format--I disagree with the rigidity on font from this particular source. Courier is going the way of the dinosaur and not all word processors support it anymore. Hence, Courier New. Times New Roman is also an industry standard font--the one that as a writer and editor I prefer, actually. At any rate, this site addresses both short story and novel format.

Manuscript Format--a guide for hard-copy and electronic submissions. Yes, there are differences.

One more word of advice on Manuscript Format: It all depends on your market. If they specify formatting, follow their specifications to the letter. If they don't specify formatting, I guarantee they won't be disappointed to see you making yourself LOOK like a pro by using Standard Manuscript Format.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Better World Books

Over the course of the past year or so, I've purchased a number of books online--mostly used. I'm cheap that way. In so doing, I discovered Better World Books.

Better World has their own website, but also sells on all the major books sources--Amazon, Abebooks, Alibris...

I go out of my way to look for books distributed by Better World. Why? Two reasons:

1) GREAT service. I like a company that puts a personal touch on the process, one that keeps me informed, one that works fast to get my product to me. I've always gotten exactly what I expect in both quality and content.

2) I'm doing some good in the world while filling my shelves with the books I want. From their website:

"Better World Books is a for-profit social enterprise that collects used books and sells them online to raise money for literacy initiatives worldwide. We offer great bargains on used books - over 6 million used and new titles, with free shipping anywhere in the U.S. and just $3.97 worldwide. What’s more, you love cheap used books and so does the environment – when you buy used, you save books from landfill and conserve resources."

What more could you ask for?


Monday, April 26, 2010

Eyeball Copy Editing

No one does it anymore, but they should.

Newspapers these days are full of copy errors. I find them in my local paper on a daily basis, usually multiple errors, often in a single story.

100 years ago, a copy error meant correction, sometimes ripping the paper out of the typewriter and starting over again. More recently (like when I was a kid) it meant using correction fluid and correction tape (Do they even MAKE those anymore?). The height of technology was a typewriter that actually had a spool of correction tape built into the machinery. Of course it meant backspacing and retyping over your mistake with the correction tape, then backspacing and retyping the passage correctly.

After that the first word processors (and I'm not talking about software) came into being. They were clunky things. Giant electric typewriters with a one-line display that would let you see what you typed as you typed it, allowing you to make corrections as you went before it actually typed the words on the page. Still, it was basically a typewriter with a delayed response. This machine actually first came out in 1964, but as was par with technological advancements back then it was 10 or 15 years (yes, years, not months) before it became affordable for in-home or personal use. We had an IBM Selectric typewriter when I was in elementary school (the 70s). The Selectric first came out in 1961.

In a way, desktop computer technology came about as a result of the need for more advanced word processing technology. Early word processing machines were basically typewriters with floppy magnetic cards for storing data. The first of these cards could only hold about one page of information. Hardly seems worth it, eh?

The first actual desktop computers--green-eyed monsters that could hold only a miniscule fraction of the information your tiny little iPod can hold--allowed you to type and manipulate a document (all in green lettering on a black screen) before actually printing it, but it still required that you discover and make those corrections for yourself. It wasn't yet smart enough to tell you when you made an error.

According to Wikipedia (which I DO NOT recommend as a primary source of information, but I'll use it here for convenience sake) the first spell check software became available in the late 1970s for mainframe computers. That means those gigantic car-sized computers like you would see in the film Wargames. But it didn't take long for spell-check to appear on personal computers. In the early 80s you could purchase a spellchecker program that ran independent of your word processor program--if your personal computer had enough available memory for it. Many did not. By the mid-80s, WordPerfect and one or two other software companies had incorporated a spell-check into their word processing programs.

Now every word processor, and some online web uses have spell-check capability to check spelling in blog posts, etc. Word processors have gone beyond spell-check with grammar-check.

But they're still not perfect.

FROM and FORM are both correct words. If I type 'I have a package form Gary,' spell-check ignores it. If I type, 'We bought a new more for our horse heard,' spell-check ignores it.


Some writers suck at copy-editing. That's OK. Find someone who DOESN'T suck at copy editing to go over your manuscript for you. Ask them to look specifically for copy errors.

But if you're going to try it for yourself, make sure you're up on your grammar. I mean, it's been YEARS for most of us since we had to sit through an English class. Remember diagramming? Do you have any idea what a misplaced modifier is? Do you know the difference between possessive pronouns and pronoun contractions? You should! If you don't know, pick up a style book or a grammar book and study up. The advantage to grammar books for those who really need some brushing up is that they often come with exercises. Do some.

Grammar and spelling mistakes stand out to an editor. If the story has engaged me successfully, I'll overlook one or two copy errors. But copy errors on an opening page are a story KILLER! Manuscripts that are riddled with spelling and copy errors are considered, at least by me, to be WAY not ready for publication.


A) It's common courtesy, B) it makes you look professional.

I'm a busy woman. I don't have time to scour through your manuscript for copy errors before publication. That's YOUR job. If you want to make me happy, if you want your story to have a chance with me--any chance with me--then show me you care enough about my time to do your job.

I had a submission in which the writer said, basically, 'I just wrote this story and thought I'd send it in. Make any corrections you want to.' Um, no. He may as well have said, 'I don't really give a damn about writing. I'm stupid enough to think I'll get rich randomly typing words.' A pro is a pro. He talks the talk and walks the walk. He works hard and does what pros are supposed to do to prove to the world that he is, indeed, a pro. The more YOU make yourself LOOK like a pro, the more respect you'll get, even if your story isn't as good as it could be.

It's all about respect. Respect for me, respect for the business, respect for yourself. Give it and you'll get it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Want to Make a Name for Yourself?

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal claims the Slushpile is dead.

Before you gasp with shock and dismay, be very aware that this claim applies to the book market, NOT the short-story market. The slushpile is still the bread and butter of most short story markets.

The following article [link] is a response to that WSJ article.

The Slushpile Is Gone: What Ambitious Writers Must Do

Be aware that it's pointing a finger at writers wanting to sell a book, but it has some good advice for short-story writers too.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Un-Holy Grail: What Does a Form Rejection Mean?

Next to the Holy Grail of the actual acceptance letter, the Lesser Holy Grail of submitting fiction is the Personal Rejection in all its forms.

Unfortunately in the industry, the personal rejection is pretty rare. The form is the norm. The Un-Holy Grail.

I, myself, have amassed my own collection of form rejections--two addressed to Ms. Wright (from the same editor), whoever that is.

But what, in the greater cosmic view, do form rejections mean?

First, it helps to understand some truths about what a slush editor does.

He reads. A lot! Thousands of stories per year. Of those thousands only a spare 10% or so will be passed on to senior editors for consideration. Of THOSE only an infinitesimal 10% (or less) will actually be published. And for the 90% of those first thousands, the slush editor has the responsibility of passing on the bad news.

It's also important to understand that, with the exception of a VERY few professional markets, who are funded and/or backed by a larger publishing/media/educational entity, most slush editors are doing it for the love. That's right. Most of us don't even get paid to do it. We do it because we love writing, we love reading, we love great stories, we love the hunt for the next great one.

In other words, we have day jobs and families and other interests. Slushing is secondary, tertiary, quaternary, or lower on our priority lists. And as you most certainly realize, time these days is short. We just don't have enough of it to respond personally to thousands of hopeful authors.

Oh, we wish we did. That's a pure truth. We wish we did because, for the most part, we're writers too. We know how wonderful it is to receive the Lesser Holy Grail--a personal rejection--maybe with some comments as to why the story didn't make it, a bit of encouragement.

Unfortunately some writers simply put too much meaning into the form rejection. "Oh, no! It means the slush editor hates me!!" Ridiculous, you say? Good for you. There are some writers who mistakenly take it THAT personally.

It's just a rejection, people. It COULD mean lots of things.

It could mean your fabulously-written story fell on the wrong editor's desk on the wrong day. For example, if an editor just accepted for publication a story about the pet dog of Marie Antoinette, and YOUR story is about the pet dog of Marie Antoinette, that editor isn't likely to want another story about the dog of Marie Antoinette.

It could mean your fabulously-written story contains thematic elements that are just plain seen too often. For example, at Flash Fiction Online we've seen far to many stories about death and depression lately. We're tired of death and depression. In another 6 months or so we may be YEARNING for stories about death and depression. But right now a story about death and/or depression (certainly a story about both) will get you a near-automatic slot in the rejection pile.

It could mean your awesome story isn't right for the market. Some markets make it obvious what kinds of stories they're looking for; others not so. If you're being smart about sending your story to possible markets (ie. you're not sending historical romance to Analog science fiction), you're doing fine. I admonish you to be particularly careful about excess violence/gore and erotica. I really don't want to see your slasher/porno stories in my slush pile, when it states pretty explicitly in our submission guidelines that we do not accept them. But for most stories and writers there is some uncertainty about what markets want. What do you do? Just send it. The worst they can do is send you a form rejection. That's NOT the end of the world.

It could mean your awesome story is hampered by spelling/grammar errors that spell/grammar check missed. It happens. But those errors do influence an editor's reading of the story. Those errors CAN determine whether a story will be considered for publication. Eyeball your stories before you send them out.

It could mean your story just didn't catch the slush editor's interest. Some stories don't. If you wrote an awesome story about cats, but the slush editor is NO cat fan, that will shade that editor's reading of the story. He can't help it any more than you can. It's just preference. Your story may also suffer from an inadequate hook and/or follow-through. Be sure your story catches and holds a reader's interest from beginning to end. If I, as a slush editor, find myself thinking of something else while I'm reading your story, it could mean that I'm just distracted, but it could also mean that your story isn't holding my interest. Me, personally, if I'm finding myself distracted while reading a story, I'll usually put my slush pile away and start again on that story later, when I'm fresh. If it still isn't keeping me interested it's the story, not me. Sometimes that happens at the very beginning of a story, sometimes in the middle somewhere, sometimes at the end. Any one of these isn't good. For a good book on maintaining a reader's interest throughout a story, try Nancy Kress's Beginnings, Middles, and Ends.

It could mean (I hate to say it, but it's often true) that your story needs work. Does that mean you shouldn't be writing? No. Absolutely not. Does it mean you shouldn't be submitting? No. Does it mean you suck? NO! I'm a teacher, and one thing I've learned right down to my core is that every kid learns at a different rate, and ALL kids need to learn the basics before they can adequately progress through more complex topics. If I have a student who is learning the basics quickly, he can go on to more complex subjects and learn and use the things he's interested in, while his best friend in the seat next to him may struggle a little longer with the basics, but he'll get there. But if I try to press more difficult subjects on the kid who's still struggling with the basics, he doesn't learn or retain or use those more complex topics with NEAR as much skill as the quicker learner.

Same is true of writers. We all take our own time learning the mechanics of writing. If you're just writing and not learning ABOUT writing, you're development will eventually cease, even if your raw talent is phenomenal. If you have little raw talent but you study and work like a dog, you'll eventually progress past the non-studying phenom. If you have neither raw talent nor any will to work, you really, honestly have no business trying to compete with people who do. If you have both you could make a name for yourself in no time. As a slush editor, I'd rather see the work of people with only work ethic than people with only raw talent. They're considerably more teachable, considerably easier to work with, considerably more deserving of a slot, in my opinion. And does it show? Oh, yes, my dears. It does.

How do you gain that work ethic? Stephen King states that it's primarily a matter of gluing your buttocks to the chair and doing it. Just write. But even he realizes that's only part of it. He wrote an entire book on the subject, after all. Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Of course it's more than that. It's studying--read every book on writing you can get your hands on. Writer's Digest has a whole series of books on the mechanics of writing. There are books about writing novels and short stories and poetry and flash fiction and novelettes and writing in general and specific writerly topics and...

Whoo! I'm out of breath!

You'll also read novels and short stories with the goal of learning from them in mind. At this point in my career, I'm almost completely unable to read a book without being critical of it. I know I've found a good one when I can read the whole thing without my 'inner editor' nagging me about characterization or description or dialogue or plotting or any of the other dozens of topics specific to writing mechanics.

It's also a good idea to join a writer's critique group--either live or online. A few good online ones I can recommend are Zoetrope's Virtual Studio, Hatrack Writer's Workshop, Critter's Workshop, Notebored. There are dozens of such groups on the web. Be careful. Lurk before joining in. Some places are peopled by trolls, which means they're poorly moderated. You don't want a place that's poorly moderated. We're all high-strung artists. Poorly moderated sites quickly get out of hand and lose any value to writers as supportive, helpful, learning places. Participate and get to know people, and eventually ask some of those online friends if they'd like to put together an email critique group. Otherwise, ask at your local library for any writer's groups that might be registered there. Or just keep looking. If you're active in writing pursuits, you'll find other writers in your area.

In the end, if you work hard and keep learning and submitting, you'll get published eventually. Don't give up. Don't take it personally. It's really, in the scope of your whole wonderful life, just a rejection.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Question: When Is My Story Ready to Submit?

Anonymous said:

I was wondering how a writer knows when their piece is ready for submission? How do you decide when your own pieces are ready to be sent out? Is it best to use a writer's group or objective friend? It's sometimes hard to know when I'm done editing.

Dear Anonymous,

For some writers, that is the question of all questions. When is it done? When is it ready?

Unfortunately, the answer is NEVER!!! Bwahahahahaha!!

Just kidding, but only partially. I'll explain later.

I'm going to begin by directing you to a discussion from clear back in 2005 of this very topic at Hatrack River Writer's workshop:

Hatrack Submission Discussion

To add my own perspective as an editor/writer, I'll emphasize the points that--

1. Grammatical and spelling errors are a definite turnoff. ALWAYS use your own eyes to carefully look over your manuscript for errors. Spell- and Grammarcheck do not pick them all up. If your spelling and grammar are lacking, have someone who's good at grammar and spelling read it through specifically for those kinds of errors.

2. Write the story, run it through a critique (writer's) group, edit it once based on the critiques, send it out. After about 5 rejections (heaven forbid you should get that many, but it's not even remotely uncommon--even for the greatest stories) run it through a different critique group, edit it once, send it out again. There are some excellent online critique

3. You want other writers to be critiquing your stories for editing--not readers (objective friends, as you call them). Readers serve a different purpose. Readers give you a bead on how an audience might receive your story. They're good for getting a general feel for it, but not always very honest (because they're usually your friends or family and don't want to hurt your feelings--and admit it, you're an artist, your feelings get singed just the tiniest bit when someone says your baby is ugly), and seldom well-versed in writing mechanics (making them a poor choice for helping you improve that aspect of a story--an aspect that an editor will be paying very close attention to).

How do I know when one of MY stories is ready to submit?

I don't. I never do. I just DO IT!! And I keep writing and studying the craft of writing and critiquing the works of others while I'm waiting for my wandering child to come back home, either with a pink slip or a gold star.

And back to the NEVER!!! bit.

If you're serious about this writing thing, you're going to give it some serious study. And if you're going to give it some serious study, you're going to make that study a lifelong pursuit. And as it becomes a lifelong pursuit, your writing will continue to improve.

Too many authors feel that they don't need to work at it anymore once they've become 'published,' and the quality of their work falls off precipitously after their first novel. New writers publishing short stories seldom suffer from this malady, because they're still working at proving themselves.

But I digress.

In five years you're going to reread the stories you're working on right now, and you're going to see exactly what you need to do to improve them. In ANOTHER five years you'll reread the very same story and see even MORE room for improvement. So, you see, it never ends.

Some stories need more time than others. Some stories are, right now, beyond your ability to tell. Some of your stories will never see the light of day. Some stories you'll submit and submit and submit and submit, then put away to ripen for awhile, waiting for when you're more ready for them.

BUT--and this is a BIG BUT--you can't hold onto a story forever. You have to let it go. You have to let it spread its wings and wend its way through the greater world outside your harddrive. Stories are like children. They need to be set free when they reach some random numerical age, often before they're ready. They'll make mistakes, they'll find disappointment, but each one will teach YOU a valuable lesson.

Last thoughts, don't fear rejection.

From my perspective as an editor, I don't roll my eyes at the stories I receive. Okay, I admit, I've had a very few stories that were incomprehensibly awful, but only a VERY few. Because you were able to compose a string of sensical questions convinces me that your stories are NOT in that category.

Actually, I see myself in the stories I read. I see myself 5 or 10 years ago. I see my own hopes and fears, my own yearning, my own growth and progress. I see my fragile ego being crushed by my first rejection, for a story that I was SO proud of.

But I also see myself where I am today. And now? I'm darn proud of that first rejection. It means I spread my wings and flew!

For an essay on improving your odds of getting published, see "Editorial Roulette" from my old blog:

Editorial Roulette

Monday, April 5, 2010

Establishing Setting in Short Fiction

The advantage to writing novels is the abundance of space available for establishing setting. Pages and pages of description!

Some genres rely more heavily on setting than others. Fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction being the prime examples. Any story or genre in which you remove your reader from their comfort zone, from the familiar, will require considerably more description than an urban contemporary story. Some genres just do it for the enjoyment. Tom Clancey, for example, is fond of giving detailed description of vehicles and weapons and military technology.

But in writing short stories we lack the luxury of pages and pages devoted to description. Instead we get paragraphs. And only a few paragraphs if we're lucky. If we're nutty enough to tackle flash fiction we're talking two or three sentences.

So how does one economize on setting when writing short fiction?

The answer, my friends, is cliche, but I've already discussed that. If you'd like to read further, go here: Managing Story Length

Otherwise, what's the most effective method of introducing setting in your story?

Short, Sweet, and To the Point. Keep it short, make it real, keep it focused.

Short and Focused

Keep description as short as possible. Use words sparingly. Resist the temptation to color it with purple flowery phrases and metaphors. Describe JUST enough to let your reader's imagination become engaged. That's not an easy thing to measure. Hopefully you're a member of an online workshop site or a critique group. Ask for help with this specific topic. Send your story opening (or scene opening) that includes the setting description to your critique group and ask them to read the passage and write a short description of the setting.

Here's a VERY important note: If THEIR description isn't exactly the same as YOUR description, that's OK. What matters is that they can clearly state what the setting is like within a reasonable variation. I mean, if they're describing a space station and you wrote about a golden meadow, obviously there's a problem. Obviously. What matters most, however, is that your description has engaged the reader's imagination and has placed them where your characters are.

Even for a long short story (7000 to 10000 words) scene description shouldn't be longer than a paragraph or two. Other details of the 'tapestry' of the general scene can be inserted into the story later on. Think of that tapestry metaphor. If I give a quick generalized description of a stone castle room, that room will probably have tapestries hanging on the walls--at least in your reader's imagination. Later, if the detail is important, we can focus in on one of those tapestries and the details in the pictures upon it. As the story opens, it's important that the reader see the tapestry, but the tapestry's details need not hinder the progress of the opening.

And there will be times in a story when careful description is important. Keep it as short as possible, keep focused on the details that are relevant to the story's resolution.

Let's look at that tapestry again. I've placed my reader in the scene, my story has worked its way forward to a point in which the tapestry and what's on it become crucial to the story. As a writer I zoom in on the tapestry, and as I zoom in I describe what I see as I zoom. I'll start with a very short general description of it--the colors, the sparkle of the gold threads, the size of it. Then I'll describe the general scene depicted on it in a sentence or two. Then I'll zoom right in on the detail that is crucial to the story. Perhaps a word, a face, a flag, a name, a person. I might spend a little more time describing that crucial detail, but not in SO much detail that I stray from the purpose. For instance, if I want to describe a person on the tapestry I won't describe the style of his shoes, UNLESS those shoes are critical to the story's progress toward the resolution. If a word is crucial I won't spend time giving loving detail of how that word is wrought, UNLESS the detail of how it is wrought is crucial to the progress of the story.

The setting in your head is often so vast that to include it all in your story would mean writing a twenty volume tome. Tracy Hickman spends long hours creating worlds for his novels that are vastly larger and more complex than what he actually includes. What does he leave out? He leaves out exactly what will not contribute to the progress of the story.

J.R.R. Tolkein on the other hand... Tom Bombadil. 'Nuf said.

So why isn't it OK for you to write like Tolkein?

You can if you want to. It may even be published. Tolkein created a pool of readers who love that kind of stuff. But in the larger scope of things, those readers constitute a fairly small market share. And there we're talking about novels. For short stories you create for yourself an entirely new set of problems. Specifically, paragraph upon paragraph of detailed description swallows up the story. Short story readers are often a whole different breed from readers who live and breath Tolkein and his ilk. They want a lot to happen in a short amount of time. So wasting the opportunity to entertain a short story reader by bogging the story down with description is a killer.

I've read a few stories in my flash fiction slush pile in which the writer begins the story in the first pargraph, spends the next 900 words on description or background material, then completes the story in the last paragraph. Where's the story? To be frank, who cares. *sigh* A story is a progression from one point to the next to the next to the next. Long description stops forward progress. Stops it dead.


I like good description. No, I LOVE good description. So in this 'Sweet' section I'm just going to share some descriptive passages with you, and what they do in the scope of the story:

An ore wagon thundered by, murdering sleep for newcomers who weren't accustomed to the sound.
Territory by Emma Bull. A small detail that goes a long way toward placing the reader in the scene of historic mining town, Tombstone, AZ.

On the other side of the hill a red sun blazed with terrible fury across a parched wasteland. The river melted away into mud there, and then into dry, cracked earth. The hills around the plain were barren, brown, runneled with crevises and caves. The huge, blind tower rising out of the center of the plain was dwarfed by the dragon coiled around it.
The Tower at Stony Wood by Patricia A. McKillip. An example of taking a look at that tapestry at the right time in the progress of the story. Our hero is on a journey and is about to enter the lair of the dragon. It's important that the reader see the contrast between the previous scenes and this, and our hero's progress from greenery to barrenness in order to create the proper mood.

Vicky was fanning herself with her scarf even though the T-bird was air-conditioned.
"Children of the Corn" by Stephen King. The first sentence of setting description in this short story. We learn in dialogue, two sentences later, that we're in Nebraska. No further detail is needed to firmly set the scene in the reader's imagination. Further details will be brought out as they become important to the story's progress.

Little Peggy was careful with the eggs. She rooted her hand through the straw till her fingers bumped something hard and heavy. She gave no never mind to the chicken drips.
"Hatrack River" by Orson Scott Card. The opening three sentences of this short story written as Card was developing the Alvin Maker series. This opening puts us nicely in a chicken coop with a little girl, places us in the country (by the vernacular), and tells us something about the determined nature of Peggy, AND helps us understand that things are likely to get messier than the chicken drips.

Over the great door of an old, old church, which stood in a quiet town of a faraway land, there was carved in stone the figure of a large griffin. The old-time sculptor had done his work with great care, but the image he had made was not a pleasant one to look at. It had a large head, with enormous open mouth and savage teeth. From its back arose great wings, armed with sharp hooks and prongs. It had stout legs in front, with projecting claws, but there were no legs behind, the body running out into a long and powerful tail, finished off at the end with a barbed point. This tail was coiled up under him, the end sticking up just back of his wings.
The Griffin and the Minor Canon by Frank Stockton. A rather detailed description/opening paragraph that serves the purpose of focusing the reader on the Griffin as the main point of conflict in the story.

The carnival had come to town like an October wind, like a dark bat flying over the cold lake, bones rattling in the night, mourning, sighing, whispering up the tents in the dark rain. It stayed on for a month by the gray, restless lake of October, in the black weather and increasing storms and leaden skies.
"The Black Ferris" by Ray Bradbury. In this opening paragraph, Bradbury not only sets a scene, but uses the scene description to set a bleak mood.

Some online articles on Setting:

Setting in Historical Fiction
Using Real Places as Story Setting

And a book:
Setting: A Writer's Digest Elements of Fiction book.

Know a Great Site for Free Fiction?

What's your favorite, free, online story source?

Post the link in a comment!

What's YOUR Favorite Writer's Website?

Include the link in a comment and I'll include it in my Links for Writers.

Count you in?

Want to see your blog or website on my blogroll? Just leave the link in a comment.

Please, only writers and editors.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Submitting Queries and Cover Letters: Help From Above?

The question:

"How much weight does a recommendation from a well known author help a beginning writer in the query process?"

The answer: (relevant to the slush submission process, too)

About as much weight as anything else that might make the editor sit up and take notice of you, which is some. But then, it could backfire on you. I'll explain later.

But let me elaborate.

First, using gimmicks to make the editor notice your submission is always a bad idea. Things like submitting on colored paper, or submitting in strange font formats. For the most part, editors just want the regular old stories submitted the regular old way--on white paper, Times New Roman or Courier New font, double spaced, 1" margins, blah, blah, blah.

Second, what you DO want to include to make the editor sit up and take notice is what you'll include in the content of your cover (or query) letter.

I want to be informed. I want to know who you are. Quite a lot of authors don't put their full name on their submission letter. Do it. It introduces you to me. It makes you real. It makes you an author, just like me, who's trying to make a name for herself, so don't be hesitant to make your name known. It's that simple. You don't need to give me a biography at this point. Just your name is good for now. If I want to pursue the relationship (ie. I request your story via your query, or decide to publish your story) then I might want to know a little more about you. And in the case of a request via query, I'll tell you what more I want to know. But for the preliminary process, I just want a name. I don't care where you put the name. At the beginning as an header or at the end as a signature or both. It doesn't make much difference.

I want to know that you respect me and the work I do. Begin your letter respectfully. A simple, etiquette-pure 'Dear Editor,' is a beautiful beginning to a query/cover letter. Follow that up with a line that explains what you are writing to me about. My personal cover letter begins this way: Dear Editor, I respecfully submit my story, "Name of Story," for your consideration. That's all. That simple. Most editors, myself included, don't give cover letter much more than a cursory glance/quick read. I scan over cover letters to see if the story title is there, if the writer's name is there, if there are some important details that might put that letter above some of the others, or that I might want to give special attention to. Which leads me to...

I want to know what you've done. Quickly summarize your most recent and/or impressive publications (for example, a publication in Analog is going to draw considerably more attention than a publication in a non-paying ezine, but considerably less attention if that Analog publication occured in 1972), any writing workshops you've attended, pertinent college background--like if you have a degree in English or Creative Writing. If you're a sci-fi writer a degree in Ethnobotany is interesting and fairly pertinent. It shows me you know your science (or should). But telling me you have a degree in Accounting and your story is a historical romance set in Ancient Babylon, the Accounting degree carries no weight whatsoever.

If you have no such experience (publication, workshops, college) just omit it. A simple respectfully submitted letter is better than saying you have no experience. Best for the editor to wonder at it.

It would be at this point, for my questioner, that you would insert the recommendation from the author.

But is that recommendation a gimmick? Or is it a legitimate point of reference and qualification?

I don't know. I've never come across this question or the answer to it in my years of writing and editing.

I think it could be taken either way. But let me share with you my thoughts:

1. How do I, as the editor, know that this recommendation is a legitimate one? If you can get a signed letter from the well-known author to include with your query/cover, that's one thing. As an editor, I'd want to also have the well-known author's contact information so I can check up on it. You see, I can fairly easily check up on your publication and workshop credits. If I'm really ambitious I can check up on your college degree credits without too much trouble. But it's not as easy to check up on your say-so that Well-Known Author likes your writing or your story.

2. I'd let such a recommendation carry more weight if it were applicable to the individual story, rather than you or your writing in general. As an editor, I look at stories more than authors or their qualification. Your story is what sells you. At least to me. And I think that's true of most editors in the magazine industry. It might be a whole 'nother ball of wax for the book industry.

3. Make sure you're submitting appropriately, or your recommendation will get you less than nowhere. For example, your story can be recommended from here to eternity, but if you submit a novelette to a flash fiction market it's not going to look good for you OR the author who recommended you. So use that recommendation with care. Make it count. Protect it and preserve its value by using it wisely.

4. Use it humbly. Be very careful you don't make the editor feel as if you're demanding publication because of your hoity-toity recommendation from Well-Known Author. Remember, magazines reject stories from professional authors all the time. I say again, it's not you, it's your story that sells you.

5. Weigh carefully the value TO YOU of that recommendation. Why? Because some editors may see it as presumptuous. You never can tell. Editors are editors. They're as individual as snowflakes under a microscope. They have prejudices, preferences, and burrs under their saddles, just like everyone else. If the editor who sees your query happens to LOVE the author who wrote your recommendation, then you can't lose. But what if the editor happens NOT to like the author? Not so great. So, do you want the recommendation to sell your story? Or do you want your story to sell your story? The recommendation MAY very well help. That's good. But ultimately it will always be the story that seals the deal.

I hope that answers your question, or at least gives you some food for thought. I'm going to put the word out on my writer/editor network and see what other's have to say. I'll include those comments--if any--in the comments for this post. If you need clarification feel free to ask for it.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Ask an Editor

Go ahead. Ask me. Ask me anything. Of course I'll only answer if I know the answer. I mean, if you ask me the flight speed of an African Swallow whilst carrying a coconut it's fairly likely you'll be ignored. And if you ask me about the nuts and bolts of the book publishing process, I may or may not know the answer. But if you ask me something about running an online magazine or about the slush process involved with that, or about writing, THOSE I can answer.

Just post a comment with your question and I'll answer in a post.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How Unique Is My Story?

That's not a particularly easy question to find an answer for.

In SOME respects, it's easy.

For example, you MUST KNOW that any hugely popular book is going to be followed by a plethora of similar stories sent in to short story markets. Every release of a new Twilight book is followed by an avalanche of vampire stories.

You must also know that some story frameworks are so old and oft-done that finding a unique angle to them is a challenge for even the best writers. The standard romance motifs, for example. You know them. Jane Austen did them all. 1) Boy meets girl; boy hates girl; girl hates boy; they find they've misunderstood each other and reconcile in the end. 2) Boy loves girl; girl loves boy; boy and girl torn apart by circumstances beyond their control; boy finds girl in the end. 3) Boy meets girl; boy and girl love each other but bumble around with telling each other so; finally in a moment of tension boy confesses to girl. 4) Any combination of the above. Also, the speculative fiction standards--werewolves, vampires, dragons, evil aliens, fairy tales. That last one's my nemesis. I love writing 'fairy tale riffs,' as one editor described them. But they're hard to sell.

It is a truth that no story is wholly unique. Every story has been told, every angle explored. But your story still has to be unique in some way.

Maybe it's uniquely well-written.

Or uniquely deep in characterization.

Or unique in it's setting. Sometimes the most mundane settings can be the most unique, which further complicates things, doesn't it? But really, how many stories are set in New York City? A lot. Loads of interesting things happen in New York, but that's to be expected, isn't it. How many stories are set in a housewife's kitchen? Could you create an interesting story set in a housewife's kitchen? Something like Irma Splinkbottom's Recipe for Cold Fusion? (by Janene Murphy, Flash Fiction Online, November 2009)

Maybe your story has a unique twist to an old theme, like a vampire whose mortal buddies let him suck a little blood once in awhile because the poor kid gets so darned pale and listless (Ray the Vampire by Mercedes M. Yardley, Flash Fiction Online October 2008).

Maybe your story uniquely emphasizes a culturally or societally relevant theme in an oft-repeated story framework, such as prejudice and genocide in The Three Billy Goats Gruff (Trip Trap by ME, Anotherealm May 2005).

Understand that some story ideas that don't sell are hard to pin down because you don't see any of them in the fiction markets. So, naturally, you think, 'My story is different from all those published stories, so it's SURE to sell.' Think twice about that one. Many publishers include in their guidelines lists of story ideas they see too often or don't want to see. Read those lists. Keep them on file. If THOSE publishers are seeing those story ideas too often, so are ALL publishers.

Here are two from Strange Horizons:
Stories We've Seen Too Often
Horror Stories We've Seen Too Often

Here's one from Thrilling New Detective Fiction:
Thundering Cliches

In addition to these, I'll add my own observations of what we're unlikely to publish.

Slush Turnoffs:

*Suicide. I'd rather see characters acting to save themselves, even if they fail miserably.
*Abuse of children, especially sexual abuse, ESPECIALLY incest. Yes, it's an important issue, but it needs to be dealt with in a very serious way, not in some fiction magazine on the internet.
*Granny (or Pappy) is dying. I love grandparents as much as the next guy, but it's hard to make it anything but depressing, and it's hard to do it in a way that hasn't already been done a million times before.
*An all-encompassing Depressing S**t (to quote an editor friend) category.
*Stories told from the POV of a cat (or dog, but especially a cat--personal bias), especially if the fact that the POV character is a cat (or dog) is withheld from the reader until the end.
*Bad relationship stories. Too often such stories are about dumb people who suffer abuse or unhappiness because of their own stupid choices. Why would I want to read about that?
*Erotica and excessive pointless violence. There are markets for those. Markets that are NOT for those kinds of stories don't want to read them.

Another way to figure out what might sell is to read--and read a lot.

You'll find dozens of free online fiction magazines in all genres. Some of them, like Every Day Fiction, will send the stories right to your email inbox.

But don't make the mistake of reading a story about a little boy on a trampoline and think your own story about a little boy on a trampoline will sell to the same magazine. We not only want something unique, we want something that hasn't been done before. We don't want to bore our readers with too many similar stories. We want every story to be a new and exciting literary feast.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Characterization: Reader's Want to Care

In junior high school we learned how to write descriptive paragraphs. I still have a few of mine. One is about a storm rolling across the valley where I grew up. Black and purple clouds, lightning forking through the darkness, the wind growing strong and cold, the mountains a dark shadow that's swallowed up by gray sheets of rain.

You know what I mean. You've all written something like it. I hope you kept it, to remind yourself how far you've come.

At any rate, when we learned to write descriptive paragraphs, we learned to over-write. You really don't need quite so much description.

I've already written about imaginative engagement, and how you can make the most of drawing your reader into your story through spare descriptions, particularly in how you can use such a strategy to endear your readers to your characters.

But how, besides sparse description, can you help readers actually want to read about your characters?

Whatever you do, don't take your example from Gregory Maguire's Wicked The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.

How do I mean?

I read Wicked. Cover to agonizing cover. I kept hoping (beyond hope, it turned out) for something to happen that would make me care about any of the characters. I cared about Elfeba at the beginning of the book, but that caring soon wore off as she grew and acted and did things that made me not only dislike her, but hate her. And Maguire surrounded her with characters that were no more likeable than she. By the end of the book I was grateful that Dorothy would someday come along and melt her, and sickened that Dorothy would be influenced by Glinda.

Awful book. I wish I had tossed it in the library return bin long before I actually finished it, but I just couldn't let go of the idea that the book was SO popular, and that worthwhile books have characters readers love to love. I just couldn't believe that Maguire would finish the book without giving me that. But he didn't. I got to the last page, still hoping.

Never happened. Waste of time. If I could give it negative stars in a review, I would. I grieve over the time I lost reading it, time that I could have been doing a thousand things more valuable and enjoyable--like having a colonoscopy.

My point is, reader's don't just want to feel strong emotions about characters. Obviously Maguire's book elicited such strong emotions in me I had to go on about it for three paragraphs! But strong emotion wasn't enough.

I REALLY wanted to care.

So how does a writer create a charcater that his reader's can care about?

"Really scary books succeed because we come to know and care about the characters. I like to say, "It's the PEOPLE, stupid"--NOT the monsters." ~Stephen King

Mr. King's advice applies to much more than just good horror. But he has a point about horror. Horror works best when we know and care enough about the people that we fear for them more deeply than if they were strangers--or worse, despicable--to us.

So how does one create characters readers care enough about to read about? Try these:

1. "Hey! I know this guy!"

Readers care about characters they can relate to. Does that mean you're only going to reach blind Tibetan women if your main character is a blind Tibetan woman? Of course not. But as a blind Tibetan woman she will have experienced things that are universal to all human beings--things like pain, sorrow, joy, hunger, fear.

Readers relate to characters for one (or more) of three reasons--things happen to the characters that were similar to things that have happened to the reader; the character reacts emotionally to a problem the way a reader would; the character acts in a way that makes sense to the reader.

The reader thinks, 'Sure, I would have done the same thing.' Or they think, 'You know, I can relate to her sorrow, because I've felt that kind of sorrow before.' Or they think, 'You know, I've never been that scared in my life, and I'm sure glad I haven't! That poor girl!'

In these ways, the reader finds himself in your characters. And since we're all egotists at heart, readers will read about themselves from here to eternity.

The trouble with writing despicable characters is, despicable people don't tend to be voracious fiction readers--hence the overwhelming preponderance of sales of books with good guys that win in the end.

2. No one likes a cry baby.

Don't be afraid to give your characters emotion. Let them react, naturally and in an expected way. Be careful they never OVERreact, however.

A hundred some odd years ago, the Victorians were fond of their female main characters fainting at the slightest distress because of the 'delicate female condition.' It was SO dramatic. it was SO endearing. But was it real? Who knows. I didn't live in Victorian times. Maybe chicks were fainting all over the place. Somehow I doubt it. It was dramatic--melodramatic, at least. But it wasn't realistic. It made fun reading, but didn't change the world or tax the readers' imaginations.

What the readers COULD relate to was that the characters were going through some seriously trying circumstances. Maybe the readers WISHED they could just faint dead away so they wouldn't have to deal with their own trials, at least for a short time. I don't know. I don't actually get it. I thought The Count of Monte Cristo could have been staged with a Snidely Whiplash villain and the count as the big-chinned Canadian Mounty hero it was so over the top melodramatic. Poor Count, bursting into tears at the drop of a velvet glove!!

These days we can't take our example from the Victorian popular fiction writers. Our readers are considerably more savvy than their Victorian counterparts. I believe it was Orson Scott Card who said something to the effect that if you make your character cry, you dispel the tension for the reader; but if your character doesn't cry when he has good reason to, then the reader will cry for him.

For a great book that characterizes subtly, but powerfully, I recommend Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell, or The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss.

3. Don't hate me because I'm beautiful...

My teenage daughter knows a boy at school that she hates. Why? Because he's PERFECT!!! Ugh! He's smart, he's a good speaker, he's outgoing, he's good looking, he's just plain perfect--and she hates him.

You know this person. You've experienced this kind of person before. You probably hate him, too. They make us look bad. They're too good to be true.

True for fictional characters, too.

A character that's too GOOD (or, on the converse, too BAD) will be hated by your reader.

Hating isn't always a bad thing, right? Don't we want to hate our villains?

I'm talking about a different kind of hate here. I'm talking about the 'I don't want to read about this character' kind of hate. The kind of hate that comes from characters that are too perfectly good or too perfectly bad.

This is particularly true for our antagonist and our protagonist. For example, if the books were called Hermione Granger and the Socerer's Stone J.K. Rowling would have been laughed right out of the publisher's office. Hermione is too perfect. She's a know-it-all. But poor flawed Harry makes a perfect hero, just like poor bad-tempered Hercules does, and poor trusting King Arthur.

Rule of thumb, you want your hero to have some flaws--like Harry Potter's ignorance and blatant refusal to do what's good for himself--and you want your villain to be a likable guy--aside from the fact that he's trying to off your hero. OK, maybe not LIKABLE, but he should at least have some characteristics we can relate to. I mean, we even feel sorry for Tom Riddle, don't we? We understand, at some level, why he turned to evil, because we can see ourselves at least entertaining that sort of thing had we been raised in similar circumstances, right? Of course right.

4. The real bad guy--the author

Don't be afraid to hurt your main character. Punch him, slap him, cut him, put him in the hospital, kill his best friend, take away his girlfriend, run over his dog, kidnap his children, burn down his house, shoot his horse out from under him. All these things play on our own fears for our own safety, and they make us LOVE the character who not only goes through it, but struggles against it and survives!

When Emmet gets shot in Silverado--GASP!!
When Luke loses his hand in Star Wars--Oh, no!
When the Wicked Witch of the West slaps Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz--Poor Dorothy!

You get it? I thought you would. Have fun with that.

I found a website called Men With Pens. They had a couple of good articles on characterization:

What Makes Readers Care About Your Characters?

Characters Rule the Story

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Don't Burn Your Bridges

Recently I sent the standard form rejection to a submitter. I mistyped FLASH in the signature. It happens. I mean, if a certain not-to-be-named high up muckity muck editor can send me two rejections written to the wrong person, I can certainly miss a keystroke now and then, right?

That's not quite how this writer saw things.

My rejection (name changed to unjustifiably protect the asinine):

Dear [Full-of-Himself Writer],

Your submission has been deleted unread due to submission guidelines

Please read our submission guidelines before submitting again.


Suzanne Vincent
Falsh Fiction Online

His oh-so-irritating response:

Suzanne honey, hate to see you so overworked!

VIOLATIONS? I didn't realize I was submitting to the Treblinka Times. Sorry, I'll try to do better next time, kapo.

By the way, FLASH is spelled FLASH, not FALSH. Or was that a Freudian slip?

I sent to my Editor, asking if we could "blackball this a**hole." He wrote to said a**hole and sent me a copy of the letter, here:


Consider how you look when you send a simultaneous submission that's only 250 words long, when we explicitly state in our guidelines that we don't accept simultaneous submissions and that we only consider stories that are 500-1100 words long. Kinda stupid, right? I mean, as a writer, you should also be able to read. But oversights happen, and I tend not to be a lenient and light-hearted guy, so whatever. No big deal.

But then you're rude to one of my editors because she pointed out that you're not reading our guidelines. And then you insult her because she has a typo in one of the several hundred emails she sends each month. I have news for you -- that makes you look stupid, not her. StupidER, I should say.

Please don't submit to us again.


Ah, justice.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How to Make a Slush Editor Happy:


When a pile of slush hits my desk, the first thing I do is a quick pre-reading check. I'm looking for stories I can reject without bothering to read them. These are the stories that have been submitted in an unacceptable file format, or that fall outside our word count requirements.

We're one of the nicer markets--at least nicer for submitters; not so nice for editors. At Flash Fiction Online we don't have hugely strict guidelines. But some markets do. Some markets have ridiculously specific guidelines.

Still, a writer will ALWAYS put himself in the good graces of a slush editor if he strictly follows all the given guidelines.


I'm not going to say I've seen it all. I haven't. Some tricks I've only heard about in legend. But occasionally a writer will 'dress up' his manuscript to make it more 'visible' to an editor.

Strange or changing fonts, colored fonts, strange page sizes, landscape formatted pages, strange margin choices, adding pictures. The list goes on.

Just be assured that editors are NEVER impressed with those sort of antics. We don't want to be sold by the cutesy font or the clever, witty self-introductions. We want to be sold by your story. If a writer puts half as much effort into learning how to write well instead of trying to prove how clever he is, he'd sell more stories. Guaranteed.


Don't know what that is? Look it up. Google "standard manuscript format" and you'll find dozens of references to it.

Use it. Don't add funny paragraph formatting. Don't use manual tabs at the beginning of your paragraphs. Don't double space between paragraphs. Do set your margins at 1". Do use first line indent for paragraphs. Do use a * or # at scene breaks. Do be consistent. Do use Courier New or Times New Roman font.

Why do we ask so much? It's not really much. It takes 10 minutes to create yourself a short story template that contains all the key features of SMF that you can use every time you start a new story. But I prefer stories formatted like this simply because I can easily manipulate them if I need to. For example, I sometimes print 10 or 15 stories to read while I'm sitting in the dentist's office. To save myself paper, I try to get every story on one or two pages (I can do that when a story is 1000 words or less.). It takes me SECONDS to do it when the story is in SMF.

The only reason NOT to use SMF is if the market specifically asks for something else. It happens. Sometimes online markets with an electronic submission system on their site will request a different submission format. Which is why you MUST do #1.


I'm going to tell you one of the dirty little secrets of the short story slush trade:

Most of us don't get paid! We do this for the love of it. Which necessarily means that we have other jobs and/or responsibilities that take the bulk of our time. Your story is generally not at the top of our list of priorities. Feeding our families is. Paying our mortgages is.

We're doing the best we can, and sometimes we have to wait on others to do their jobs in order for us to do our jobs, and THOSE people also have families to feed and mortgages to pay.

So if you haven't heard back from us in 3 weeks, don't query. Give us at least 6 to 8 weeks.


I send, literally, hundreds of rejections each year. Last year that number approached 2000.

If you receive a rejection from me, don't take it personally. It's just a rejection. Thousands of writers receive millions of rejections every year. Just because you've gotten one doesn't mean it's the end of the world. It doesn't necessarily mean your story sucks. It doesn't mean the editors don't appreciate your talent.

It usually just means your story wasn't right for us. Usually.

There are dozens of reasons a story is rejected, and editors read SO many stories we're looking for ANY reason to reject a story. It could be merely your bad luck to have submitted a story too similar to one we've recently published, or it could be as shameful as the fact that your story is replete with spelling and grammar errors.

To be as certain as possible that it's not YOUR error, be sure to join up a good online workshop or critique group. Take classes. Read up on the craft of writing.

For more on how to up your odds in the slushpile, read this OLD article from my OLD blog:

Editorial Roulette

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Literary Writers Know How to Write! Sort of.

It seems a given in a genre that concentrates on the quality of the language.

The problem is, my job as a slush editor entails weeding out not only the poorly-written stories, but weeding out the really beautifully written stories that aren't stories.

We publish stories at Flash Fiction Online. Complete stories that contain ALL of the following elements:

*Well-rounded, fully-fleshed characters,
*A clear conflict,
*A logical progression of events as the main character engages the conflict,
*A clear-cut resolution that has the main character resolving the conflict in some way or other.

Unfortunately, writers who really know how to manipulate the language often struggle with presenting and resolving a conflict, while writers who write stories about conflict and resolutions often struggle with manipulating the language in a beautiful and absorbing way.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Amazon vs. Macmillan

The Amazon vs. Macmillan game is being blasted all over writer's blogs and facebook.

I thought this a fair and balanced view of the situation:

Zinc Blinked

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Slushpile Antics

It Came From the Slushpile by Carol Pinchesfsky at Intergalactic Medicine Show.

Fortunately, I don't have to deal with this type of stunt.

E-submissions are awesome in that respect.

But I do read a lot of slush that's oddly formatted.

Please don't. Just don't. It doesn't work. It doesn't make we want to read your story. Quite the opposite.

So, don't.

Managing Story Length

Next month I will be teaching a workshop on writing flash fiction. I edit flash fiction, I write flash fiction, I love flash fiction. But it's a fact that flash fiction is one of the hardest fiction forms to write.


One word: Economy.

And discipline.

And a keen understanding of characterization, setting and scene, conflict...

That's more than one word. Actually, that's a lot of words.

But they apply to more than just flash fiction.

The length of any story can be very accurately predicted based upon these elements. Let me explain.

Economy: An economical writer (IMO the most enjoyable type of writer to read) doesn't waste words, doesn't repeat what's already been said, chooses the 'less is more' path to revealing information to the reader.

As a very simplistic example, one of the most familiar sentences in the English language is, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." In its context, this sentence has purpose, and every word is necessary, because the purpose of this sentence is to use every letter in the English alphabet at least once. But in terms of story, this sentence is far too long, with 1/3 its words completely unneccessary. We can get the gist of the sentence perfectly well with "The fox jumps over the dog." If we want to add to characterization we might say "The fox jumps over the lazy dog."

But the point is, a writer who is capable of managing his use of the words within the language can come to an accurate self-measure of story length before he's written the first word.

And he does this by carefully disciplined management of characters/characterization, scene and setting, and conflict.

It's almost a mathematical formula:


That's a purely arbitrary formula. If I ever figure out an exact one I'll let you know, but don't hold your breath. I'm no mathematician.

But let's put it into the context of story construction:

Number and Complexity of Characters: Characters are 'people' (even if they're not human) who by their very existence deserve acknowledgment. Think of them in terms of yourself. You want people to know your name, and you want people to know some information about you--especially information that is relevant to current circumstances. For example, you won't talk about your childhood memories at a job interview. You WILL talk about High School memories at a High School reunion.

So, when you introduce a character, you want your reader to know her name and to know something about her that is relevant to the story. For example, the first sentence of Stefanie Freele's delightful "James Brown Is Alive and Doing Laundry in South Lake Tahoe" (Flash Fiction Online January, 2008) reads:

Stu is driving to South Lake Tahoe to take his post-partum-strained woman to the snow, to take his nine-week-old infant through a storm, to take his neglected dog on a five hour car ride, and to take himself into his woman’s good graces.

In one sentence we know everything we need to know about Stu in order to let the story progress. We know he's married, he has a child, he is experiencing some strong emotions concerning both of them, we know he's contemporary with us. (We also know the source of conflict, and the setting, but we'll discuss that later.) All in one sentence and using a stark economy of carefully and brilliantly chosen words--a few words to express worlds of meaning.

So one point to make in discussing characterization and story length is the complexity of the character.

A simple character is one who needs little description. (I had a clear and vivid image in my mind of what Stu might look like after only one sentence.) A simple characters is one whose conflict can be resolved within the context of a very small arena of his life. (I don't need to know Stu's entire life history to make the story work. All I need to know is that he's dealing with a post-partum wife the best he knows how. That's enough to endear the reader to him.)

A complex character may have his entire life story told within the framework of the story. A complex character has traits--either physical or emotional or concerning his character, or a combination of these--that are integral to the conflict and the resolution thereof. A complex character will make profound discoveries and changes during the course of the story.

A simple character needs very few words to 'flesh out,' to make REAL to your readers; but a complex character will require numerous paragraphs, chapters even, to become a whole person to the reader.

Obviously, a simple character isn't going to fill a novel; a complex character isn't going to fit in a flash fiction story.

The second aspect of character that affects story length is simply number. The number of characters. Every named, acting character takes space in a story. Each one deserves the same amount of attention any other character deserves. If you want your reader to feel deeply for a character (love or hate or somewhere in between) that character needs time (translation: words) in your story.

A novel can support a broad range of named, acting characters, and can support shifts in POV between several characters. At the other end of the spectrum, a flash fiction story can only support 1 to 3 named, acting characters and generally only 1 POV character. In the context of the novel, a single scene can't very successfully support more than a few characters, and generally a POV shift signals the end of a scene. I guess that's a plug for the study of flash fiction. ;-)

Setting and Scene: Setting is where a story takes place; a scene is an interval of time in which a specific action takes place within a particular setting. Both have an impact on story length.

It comes down again to complexity and number, just as with characterization--managing the complexity of the setting and the number of settings and scenes within those settings.

As an example, from "Just Before Recess" by James Van Pelt (Flash Fiction Online March, 2008):

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.

Four sentences this time. The setting is a third grade classroom. You can see it in your head. I know you can. It's an image burned into the collective Western brain, even if you've never stepped inside the doors of a school. We've seen this place in countless films and television shows. It takes very little physical description to put the reader into the middle of this story. We don't need to see the maps on the walls or the pull-down blinds or the industrial berber carpet or the shelves of books and cubbies to know they're there. That's a simple setting, because it's a familiar one.

The less familiar a setting is to the collective human experience, the more description it requires.

You can do the math yourself by now.

The more complex a setting, the more description it will require. So, complex settings are not suitable for flash fiction. But are complex settings required for novels?

No. Because a novel has scenes to work with.

A story is a series of 'this happeneds.' It also just so happens that the 'this happened's occur in 'this places.' James Van Pelt's story is something that happens in one place. One setting. And with one 'this happened.' One scene. Very Short Story.

A novel can occur in any number of settings, with any number of scenes in which 'this happeneds' take place. A novel may have one setting, but numerous scenes, or numerous settings AND scenes. I don't know of the existence of a novel that relies on one scene. Correct me if I'm wrong. Is there such a thing out there? I hope not. Who would want to read it? I swoon at the thought. At any rate, management of the complexity of settings and the NUMBER of settings and scenes will steer the length of the story as well.

Which leads right into...

Conflict: Your setting creates a stage on which the action takes place. Your scenes are frameworks in which that action occurs. Your conflict happens within your setting and is resolved within a series of scenes.

What is conflict? In a nutshell, conflict is the impetus for action. It is the thing that causes your main character to want to do something to change what's wrong with his world (resolution).

As an example, from Patrick Lundrigan's "How High the Moon" (Flash Fiction Online, September, 2009):

“You’re a robot, you know. I made you.”
“I’ve heard that before,” Nomie said. She put the tea tray down and settled into the lawn chair. “But I don’t think I’m a robot.”
“Programming,” Manny said, “I programmed you not to know.” He blew on his tea and sipped. Just the right amount of sugar and cinnamon.
“Dear, I have news for you. You’re the robot. I made you.”

In a few short lines we are exposed to the conflict of the story--a couple's argument about exactly who is the robot in the family. It's a simple and subtle and sweet conflict--at least you'll discover it to be so when you read the story.

Will it take much to resolve the conflict?

It could, I suppose. But the simplicity of the setting and the characters combine with this simple conflict to hint to the reader that the resolution will be a fairly simple one as well.

None of these require a great number of words to accomplish. This is a nicely done story within the framework of 1000 words or less.

So how do we make the conflict more complex in order to flesh it out to novel length? The answer is secondary conflicts. Let's say the conflict over who is actually the robot evolves, in the context of the argument, into a discussion of the factory where she/he was made, or the man who invented them? Perhaps the truth of the matter is paramount to a matter of national security? As conflicts breed other conflicts, the space required to a) explain them and b) resolve them all increases exponentially.

A disciplined writer of short fiction will carefully rein in the tendency of the creative mind to include additional problems that will lengthen the story. In "How High the Moon," Mr. Lundrigan shows remarkable restraint in avoiding any secondary conflicts and focusing the conflict on the relationship between this man and his wife to make a lovely story that is less about robots than it is about love and loyalty.

On the converse, a novelist can let the imagination run wild, restraining himself only with the knowledge that every conflict he introduces MUST be resolved. Even novelists must exercise a certain amount of restraint, otherwise he'll be writing the novel that never ends.

In conclusion, it's a combination of the above that determine story length. The longer the story the less one must exercise discipline.

That's the beauty of practicing the craft of very short fiction, however. All writers could benefit from the exercise of discipline, no matter what length fiction they write.

Flash Fiction. Try it. You may not like it, but you just might learn something from it.