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.

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