Wednesday, November 18, 2015

An Education in Submission Etiquette

This post is timely today because I have just sent rejections to a group of high school students who were apparently given the assignment to write a story and submit it somewhere for publication.

It's good that they're writing.  It's good that they're learning.  It's good that they're learning what it is to try and fail.  These are all good things.

But there is a difference between a story written by someone who cares about writing and someone who has written something because it has been assigned.

Don't get me wrong.  I love to encourage young writers as they develop their skills.  I love to see the excitement in the eyes of a young writer as she tells you the synopsis of her story.  I love to see raw talent on the page, to see the potential that lies therein.


You knew there would be a but.

Flash Fiction Online is fast approaching a submission rate of 7000 stories per year, with an average daily submission rate of 18 stories.  That's a whole lot of stories.  And I am in charge of processing every single one.  My staff is in charge of reading every single one.  My managing staff is in charge of deciding which ones come back to me for inclusion in the final selection round.

18 stories a day doesn't really seem like a whole lot.

And it wouldn't be if editing were my day job.  

It's not.  

While higher in priority than playing Zelda: Twilight Princess for the 5th time (I love that game!), it is not as high on my priority list as my family, or my service work, or the work I do to bring in a bit of bacon--all of which take quite a lot of time.

For me, the quality of the slush pile is important to me.  Every submission I receive that is less than ready for publication ticks minutes away from my life--minutes that add up to hours that add up to days.  And the older I get the more I miss those wasted minutes.

I have many experiences being the parent of young children who need help with difficult assignments, and because I am the parent and invested in my child's future and happiness, I willingly give up my time to help.  Of course that was elementary school.  By the time my children reached high school age they were expected to be able to do the vast majority of the work on their own, with plenty of support and minimal help from me.  Again, willingly.

I also remember high school.  Sure it was a long time ago.  But I remember it.  I remember doing assignments that I didn't really want to do.  Words on a page that meant nothing to me except that they fulfilled some arbitrary busywork assignment.  They meant a grade.  

How much of my greatest skill do you suppose I put into those assignments?  How much of my heart do you suppose I invested in them?  How much study do you suppose I put into them?  Minimal.

Most writers who submit to our magazine are genuinely presenting something meaningful, something that represents their best selves, that represents months or years of study.  They have an intimate relationship with grammar and style.  They consider every word choice and plot turn.  When they submit a story they do so at some risk to their heart and soul.  Even hardened veterans experience some anxiety with every submission and pangs of disappointment with every rejection.

And this after years of investment in what they love.

No matter the quality of the result, I can almost always be certain that the person behind the words in every story I process considers herself a writer.  And most of them have earned that title.  Most of them have sacrificed the blood, sweat, and tears.  Most of them have worn their fingers to the bone on their computer keyboards.  Most of them have enough rejections to wallpaper the Sistine Chapel.  

So when a 16-year-old takes a single semester creative writing class for an English credit, have they paid the price?

It's entirely possible some of them have.  It's entirely possible some of them have been writing since they could.  That they've read books and taken classes and participated in workshops and paid attention in grammar classes.  It's also entirely true that some have the knack for it.  But even those with the knack require time, experience, and a serious study of the craft to be able to hone it to an acceptable level worthy of publication.

How many of those high schoolers who submitted this week had that knack?  Not a single one. 

It's like the life-sucking machine in The Princess Bride.  Please, teachers, don't make me weep as Wesley did.  Don't make me an unwilling participant in your students' assignments.  By all means, if you see a story with some real potential, encourage that individual student to submit.  But not the whole class.  It's not fair to those students who will needlessly be rejected, it's not fair to me and my time.  

Tick, tick, tick.  Minutes gone.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Ask the Editor: Writing Conflict

Stella asked: My biggest writing weakness is conflict: I don't have enough of it. Could you give some examples of well-crafted conflict in novels or short stories? I'm not so worried about the obvious, good-versus-evil conflicts (Gandalf v Sauron, Nurse Ratched v Randle McMurphy); it's the ordinary conflict between friends that I'm looking for, and the action that stems from it.
A friend came up with a great example with Scully and Mulder, the two X-Files protagonists who disagreed ALL THE TIME.

Examples of well-crafted conflict?  If it's on the bookstore shelves it's likely packed with well-crafted examples of conflict--and multiple examples per novel.  

Conflict is everywhere in fiction and in real life.  

First, it's worth it to define conflict.

In fiction, conflict is the thing that causes characters to act.  And that's not always evil and it's not always overt. Conflict can be subtle.  Conflict does not necessarily have to be a struggle or a fist fight.  It can be as simple as the need to make a decision, the desire to make a decision, the failure to make a decision.  In fact, a story's primary conflict isn't usually evil, even in a good vs. evil story.  Evil happens all the time, but doesn't always cause people to act.  For example, human trafficking is a real thing that happens every day in probably every nation of the world.  But have you done something about it today?  Ever?  Has the presence of this evil caused you to act?  Probably not.  So the conflict in a good vs. evil story is the character's decision and why he makes it.  Why does he choose to fight?  Why does Steve Rogers choose to undergo those secret tests that turn him into Captain America?  There's the real catalyst.

But what if someone you loved were caught up in human trafficking?  Example: The film Taken, starring Liam Neeson.  How much time had he spent battling human trafficking until his own daughter was kidnapped for just such a nefarious purpose?

Action happens when the evil personally impacts a character, inspiring or sometimes forcing a reluctant character to act.

But, as Stella pointed out, conflict isn't always about good vs. evil, and it isn't always so in-your-face.

To begin with, conflict can be divided into two neat little boxes: Internal Conflict and External Conflict.  

Internal Conflict occurs within the character's mind or body.  Self doubt or guilt, desire for change or inspiration.  As you can see, not all internal conflicts will be negative, or good vs. evil.  Sometimes it's as simple as wanting something more out of life.  Maybe a decision that needs to be made.  Maybe as simple as which color carpet to choose.  Even the internal conflict that arises from an inability to make a decision.  Internal conflicts can be considerably more subtle than external ones.  Internal conflicts are also those that dig into the heart, that reach out to our sense of empathy.

External Conflict occurs outside the physical being of the character.  Some event happens that causes the character to want to act or change, or forces the character into action.  For example, a fire in your house would force you to act in order to save your life.  Liam Neeson's character was forced into action by his love for his daughter.  Millions of Americans were inspired to action by the events of World War II, growing victory gardens, women entering the workforce in huge numbers, out of a desire to help our boys overseas.  Thousands of Europeans were inspired to act in the service of those around them--families hiding Jews or supporting resistance efforts.

One World War II example of both kinds of conflict (because while internal conflict can exist alone, external rarely can) can be found in Cori Ten Boom's autobiographical book, The Hiding Place.  Ms. Ten Boom describes the internal struggle their family underwent as they were faced with the external reality of the suffering of their Jewish neighbors.   They were inspired to act, to help, but only after their own internal struggle over the safety of their own family.  In addition, much of the remainder of the book is Cori's internal struggle, her decision to not give in to despair despite the horrific external forces that were seeking to force her to do just that.  As is clear in her narrative, sometimes the resolution to these conflicts occurs only in the heart and in the mind.  In every way she appeared to be giving up, giving in, as she externally obeyed the commands of her captors.  But internally she was conquering them and herself through the way she chose to think. 

But I don't think Stella is asking for a lesson in the definition of conflict in fiction.  

I suspect the real question is, "How do I identify conflict in a story?"

Because that is 3/4 of the battle. If you can clearly identify the catalyst that spurs your character to act, and secondarily, how that character resolves that problem (or fails to resolve the problem), your story is already written.  Because that's what stories do.

Stella asked for examples.  Here are several from Flash Fiction Online.  

By way of exercise, read each story.  Identify the catalyst that causes each character to act or change in some way--the conflict.  Be careful.  There may be more than one.  Can you identify the main conflict, as opposed to secondary ones?  Identify the result of that action, or the resolution.  After the given links I'll give my take on A) the conflict or conflicts and B) their resolutions.

Irma Splinkbottom's Recipe for Cold Fusion (Flash Fiction Online, November 2009)  I use this story a lot when giving examples of, well, pretty much anything.  Mostly because I loved it then and I love it still.  
Kolkata Sea (Flash Fiction Online, July 2010)  Super subtle conflict here.

Irma Splinkbottom:  The main conflict in this story is Irma's own self confidence.  At the root of it, that's what causes her to act, that's what she is up against.  She thinks she can do better than those know-it-all scientists, so she acts.  With measuring cups and microwave.  The story resolves itself in Irma succeeding externally, but learning an internal lesson in doing so.  Of course, she did have to pay with her life.  

Kolkata Sea: As I stated, the conflict is subtle in this story.  What is it?  What is the thing that causes the character to act?  I would argue that it is love and longing.  This story is less a character piece than it is a setting piece. It explores how the world might change in a globally warmer future.  But it has characters who act within that tableau.  Something has spurred them to do so.  The mother wants to show her son her past.  The son wants to honor his mother's longing for that long ago world by scattering her ashes over the submerged city--the resolution.

The Pony Spell:  The conflict in this story is much more transparent--actually several conflicts.  There is the 'good vs. evil' struggle between the wife and the witch that results in the witch acting (Which is good, which is evil?) by casting that spell, which immediately brings up conflicts within the family of what to do with the wife-pony and is the catalyst for the main conflict--that of what to do when the witch offers to change the wife back.   There is the additional conflict of the witch's guilt at her actions, which is resolved when she offers to change her back.  The final resolution is humorous: Husband decides to leave the wife as a pony and everyone is happy, except maybe the wife.  

Peace-and-quiet Pancake: A couple of different points of conflict in this story.  A story really rarely ever has just one.  First is the conflict between the woman and her father--a tense relationship flipped upside down with the daughter becoming the caregiver.  The second is the conflict within the woman at her observation of the father and child in the waiting room.  What should she do?  All her struggles and resolutions are internal.  Nothing happens externally, she does very little externally, to change things within her environment.  The changes, the decisions, are within herself.  The resolution is in her coming to terms with her relationship with her father.  

Honeybee: In Honeybee, the conflict is an external one that spurs the main character to action.  The disappearance of the honeybee is the primary research objective for our character who, in the end, bends the rules to save them--resolution.  Her decision to act is spurred on additionally by the internal conflicts caused by love and longing.  Again, that love and longing.  They're powerful conflict devices and used often.  Really, we see them in the Pancake story and The Pony Spell in addition to this and Kolkata Sea.  

Friday, August 7, 2015

Look Like a Pro

The single best way to attract an editor's attention and be taken seriously is to look like a pro.

What do I mean by that?

I mean that every tiny detail of your submission looks like you know what you're doing, like you've done your research, like this whole writing thing matters.

The tiniest detail.

But too many writers fail to learn these things.

Granted, in the world of online submissions, it doesn't matter quite as much as it used to.  It's easier than ever to make manuscript alterations when it comes time to actually publish a submitted story.

But appearances really do matter.

So here's my list of those tiny details that show me you're serious about this writing thing.  I want to publish authors who are serious.  Most items are followed by a link to an article I found particularly helpful.  I expect you to click through and read them:

1.  Your cover letter 

Your cover letter should be short, sweet, and to the point.  Recognize that cover letters for short story submissions and cover letters for novel submissions are NOT the same.  You should NEVER include a story synopsis in a short story submission.  The story is short enough.  It can speak for itself.  Plus I should be able to figure out the basic gist of the plot by reading the first few paragraphs, because that's how short stories should be structured.

The following article is pretty good, but outdated for online submissions, which make up the VAST bulk of short story submissions these days.  I do NOT need to know if your manuscript is disposable.  It's electronic, not paper.  What I do with it at the end of the day doesn't have an impact on the rain forests or on my nonexistent mailroom clerk.  And, obviously, you don't need to worry about a SASE.

2.  Your title

How important is a title?  I can't overstate how VERY important a title is.

There are TWO aspects to your title.  The first is format.

This is Jr. High School grammar, folks.  Don't make me open your manuscript to find this:

this is the title of my story

On your keyboard there's a key, a pretty big one, that says 'Shift.'  Use it.  Use it correctly.

Here's a great little summary on capitalizing story titles.  Short, sweet, and to the point:

If that's too much for you, here's a neat little capitalization tool:

Correcting that title: This Is the Title of My Story

The other aspect of title is its character.  Is it interesting?   Have you given more than 20 seconds thought into what it should be?  Does it catch my attention without being more creative than the actual story?  Does it accurately reflect the nature of the story?

One story we had submitted had a title that made me certain the story was going to be humorous.  The story was none of the sort.  We published the story, but the author had to change the title.  The only reason the story passed muster at all was that it was good enough to overcome that title snafu.  Your story would have to be REALLY good to do that.

The following may be the ONLY article on the internet about writing a story title.  Fortunately it's pretty good:

3.  Guidelines

Every short story market has submission guidelines.  Every short story market has UNIQUE submission guidelines.  Every short story market EDITS their submission guidelines from time to time.

If you're submitting with a short story market for the first time, thoroughly read the submission guidelines.  Read them, study them, heed them TO THE LETTER.  Double check that you didn't miss anything before hitting that Submit button.

If you're submitting to a short story market for the first time in 6 months, REread the submission guidelines  Things change, new reasons for new rules arise.  New editors take over.  New owners mix things up.  Just for me, take another look.

4.  Your Manuscript

Most of a market's requirements for your manuscript will appear in the guidelines.  If you read those guidelines your manuscript is likely to be just fine.

But the truth is many authors don't actually read the guidelines, and if they do they consider themselves 'above the law,' or they think they're being clever by making alterations to their manuscript that will 'catch the editor's attention.'  Yeah.  They catch my attention, but not in a good way.

You know those WalMartians?  Sure, they catch EVERYONE'S attention.  But let's be realistic.  Are you going to ask THIS on a date?  That's probably what she's dressing for, misguided as she is.

When you try to be clever by using ANY font other than Times New Roman or Courier New, or by adding illustrations, or by including an artsy title, etc., you're making me cringe.  You're making me stare like a rubbernecker on the freeway.  Deer in the headlights.  I just stopped taking you seriously, and that WILL have an impact on my reading of your story.

Here's a great article on standard manuscript format.  Remember, combine proper format with a thorough reading of the guidelines.  Sometimes markets will ask for minor alterations of manuscript format.  Again, there are points in this article that are not relevant to online submission, but your manuscript should still 'look' as described in the article:

5.  Clarity

A few thoughts on clarity:

First, if your story comes to a scene break, DO NOT denote it by adding extra spaces.  Those extra spaces can become lost at the end of a page or can seem like a mistaken extra paragraph space.  I don't know.  Sometimes, honestly, I can't tell.  Make sure I understand where your scene breaks are.  It makes you look smart.  I like to publish smart authors.

Denote scene breaks like this:

This is my story and I'm going to take a scene break.


Now I'm starting a new scene.

See that pound sign?  (Shift-3) That's the quickest, easiest, least intrusive way to denote a scene break.  If you want you can use an asterisk (Shift-8)*.  That's acceptable too.  Please do not use anything else.  Please include an extra hard return between the scenes and the pound sign, as shown.

Second, make it clear where your story ends.

People are not perfect.  I'm not.  You're not.

Simply putting THE END at the end of your story makes both of us certain that the entire manuscript downloaded properly and that you ACTUALLY intended to end the story where you did.

For good measure, add a hard return AFTER typing THE END.  Some word processing software will do crazy things in conversion.  For example, if you are submitting with Submittable and writing using Open Office or Libre Office, then converting those files to .doc files, Submittable's software will chop off the last line of  your manuscript.  If that last line is a blank space then you'll be fine.  If it's THE END, no harm done.  If it's the last crucial line upon which the entire story resolves itself, you have a problem.

6.  Copy Editing

Please understand that word processing software is imperfect in its ability to identify every spelling or grammar error, and that they are completely clueless on the issue of word usage.  So if you type 'form' instead of 'from' the software isn't going to alert you to it.

You MUST eyeball edit--with your own eyes--your story before submitting.

Understand that I'm making the assumption that you are grammatically proficient. You should know when to use its or it's, your or you're, there or their or they're, lose or loose, lightning or lightening.  If you've just read through those and are scratching your head in confusion, you'd better look it up.  Plenty of online grammar guides out there.  (True confession: I'm still so unsure of 'effect' and 'affect' that I generally just avoid using them.)

If you are NOT grammatically proficient, I suggest you pick up a high school grammar guide and get back to basics.  Strunk and White's The Elements of Style is a good place to start, and it's free online, here:  

Know how to punctuate and capitalize correctly.  Know how to handle dialogue.  Learn about run-on sentences.

An opening paragraph with even a single grammar or spelling error will speak volumes to me.  Remember the WalMartian?

Don't get the idea that I demand perfection.  I don't.  (Another true confession: A reader recently pointed out one of those spelling errors that wouldn't have been dinged by any grammar/spell-check software.  'One' instead of 'on.'  To my credit, it was NOT in the opening paragraph.)

I'll tolerate an error or three.  Needles in the haystack.  But if it's fresh grated Parmesan on my Olive Garden salad (you KNOW you let your server keep grating longer than is good for you!), not so great.  If it's white cat hair on my black slacks, even worse.  No matter how great the story, how good the writing style, I won't be able to see that past the copy mistakes.  Because what that says to me is that you didn't give a damn.  If that's so, why should I?

As a writer you should be making every effort to make me happy, to not waste my time.

Think and act like a pro.  Learn what you must to make it happen.  The more you learn the better your writing will become.  The better your writing becomes the greater your odds of publication.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Ask the Editor: How Do You Become a Slushpile Editor?

Reader Bonnie Fernandes asked: "How do you become a slushpile editor?"

Great question.

You know what they tell you when you go to job search seminars?

They tell you to network.

And finding a job as a slushpile editor is no different.  It's really all about WHO you know.  Of course WHAT you know certainly helps too.

A good slushreader is more than just a reader.  A good slush reader knows the mechanics of writing, inside and out.  A good slush reader doesn't have to BE a writer, per se.  But he knows HOW to write.  He knows how to recognize good writing in the work of others. He knows how to recognize errors in writing mechanics.

These qualifications are crucial, but they're only a gateway to finding a position as a slush reader.

So how, exactly, does one network?

Your first step is to join writing communities.  Online writing communities and workshops are a great place to meet people who know people.  And some of those people you get to know are bound to have connections of their own, and eventually one of those friends or acquaintances is bound to know someone who happens to work at such and such a magazine who, at some point, is bound to let their network of friends know that their magazine is looking for slush readers.

For example, at Flash Fiction Online, when we are in need of slush readers we first go to our staff to ask for recommendations.  They look through their lists if friends and writing acquaintances, send out a few emails, and send me names and email addresses of interested parties.  On occasion we've advertised for positions at writing workshops we frequent.

At least that's how it works in the larger publishing community.  In other words, the vast number of magazines--online and in print--that are run on a shoestring budget and seldom have money to pay staff.  (There are definite benefits to reading slush that compensate for the lack of actual pay.)

If you're looking for a professional, paying job as a slush reader, it's slightly more complicated.  Still, it's all about who you know and what you know.

At the larger publishing houses--those few who still have a slushpile--they accept applications and look at resumes.  They want to see relevant college degrees and work experience.  If you can name-drop a friend in the publishing industry, even better.  Networking.  It's crucial.

I once spoke to an editor who said her first editing gig was copy editing phone books. Her English degree helped her get that job, which gave her a toe in the door at her next job--reading slush for a small local publishing company.  As she worked she gained further experience, more lines on her resume, until she broke into the New York publishing industry--as a slush reader again, but, dang!  In New York!!  More working, more experience, now she works as an acquisition editor for a small publishing house, gaining more experience, making better money.  

But with so few major publishing houses accepting slush anymore, where does one look for slush reading jobs?

Agencies.  These days most accepted, published manuscripts are acquired through literary agents, and literary agents need a handful of slush readers to wade through the piles of potential-client manuscripts they receive.  And how do you land a job reading slush for a literary agent?  Network.  Get to know people.

Also, start small.  Do some pro bono slush reading for a small press online magazine, for example, to put a line of relevant experience on your resume.  Use that to move up to the next level, and so on.

Be persistent, be professional, be able to prove you know your way around the world of writers and writing.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Why I'm Not a Fan of Cat Stories

In our guidelines ( we state several hard sells, or stories that we see too much of, don't particularly enjoy, and that you'll have to work extra hard as a writer to overcome the eyerolling reaction of our staff when they appear in our slush pile.

Cat stories are one of these.

I will not gloss over the truth. For me, this is one reason:

Yes, I am a dog person.

I am as prejudiced against cats as cat people are against dogs, and neither of us understand people who would have both, nor people who would have neither.

But to be fair, I'm not a huge fan of dog stories either.  In fact, I'm not really a fan of any story in which the point of view character is not a human or an intelligent alien.  That includes babies.  Babies are hardly intelligent and barely human.

And don't get me started on humans trapped in a dog/cat body.  Just don't.

But this post isn't about dogs or babies or aliens.  It's about cats.

We see far more cat stories than dog stories.  You see a lot more cat hoarders, too.  Yeah, yeah.  We had a crazy cat lady down the street when I was growing up.  Didn't we all?  No one ever said anything about the crazy dog lady.

What does that say about cat people?  That dog people don't love their furry companions as much as cat people?  That cat people are crazier about their beloved pets than dog people?  Or that cat people are just crazy?

But let's put all that prejudice aside and talk facts.

In 2012, only 30% of American households owned cats.  (36.5% owned dogs, despite the fact that dogs were costlier to keep healthy--more than $100 greater annual expenditure in veterinary costs. But that's just me gloating.  Dog person, remember?)  What that tells me is that 70% of the population doesn't really care about cat stories because they either don't care for cats or because, well, they're human.

That's the crux of it.  Cats are not human.  Humans (especially humans who don't care for cats) have a difficult time empathizing with a cat.  Lack of empathy translates directly to lack of interest in the fiction world.

In very practical terms, despite my own dislike of cats and cat stories, it's bad business to publish a story that only 30% of my readership is likely to give a cat's behind about.  And at only 36.5%, that's the reason I'm not likely to be attracted to a dog story either.

Especially stories about little dogs.  But that's another prejudice for another day.