A. Lee Martinez read the first chapter of his upcoming novel entitled Divine Misfortune. If chapter one is any indication, this will be another fun read from Martinez. In this twisted reality, people sign on with deities like you would a cell phone company…only “with less wrath”. A young couple signs a contract to worship the god of Luck who shows up to their house one day with plans to move in with them. The zaniness ensues. Martinez followed this up with a reading of the first chapter of Gil’s All Fright Diner—his first book and the one that introduced me to his remarkably fun and twisted brand of storytelling.
Shanna Swendson (author of the Enchanted, Inc. series) read us an excerpt from her work starring, from what I gathered, a minor character in her main series. Sam the Gargoyle, a magical stone decoration with delusions of Bogart, takes on one of the nastier creatures of the night…a would-be femme fatale who poses as a cute garden gnome by day and a bloodthirsty redcap by night. I really enjoyed the excerpt and may need to check out her other work.
Escape from the Slush Pile
Networking is important. An oft-quoted adage is that getting published is 1/3 talent, 1/3 luck, and 1/3 contacts. Being seen and engaging in conversations at cons and forums can help with this.
Creativity isn’t everything to being a writer anymore, if it ever was. You have to have practicality, you have to do the research, and you have to know the business.
One of the problems in the industry, as far as getting published is concerned, is that there are not as many magazines left. Competition is heavy for writers. There are also not as many “open read” (non-invitational) anthologies being published these days. As a result, “name” authors will get in because they are a known quantity and will sell copies. Small presses and e-zines are still producing and are looking for distinct voices, voices not found in the big “New York” presses.
The most important point to remember is that editors are looking for a way to eliminate you from their pile. With a short story, you have to hook them with at least the first paragraph, if not the first sentence; with a novel, within the first three pages.
Don’t shoot yourself in the foot before an editor even gets a chance to read your story:
- Do not submit if they state they are closed for submissions
- Read and follow the guidelines…you will not be the exception to the rule! If you can’t follow basic instructions the editor sees this is as an indication of how well (or not) she will be able to work with you in future.
- Do your homework: know the publication and what they are looking for
- They have to know how to market what it is that you are selling
- They are looking for a niche to fill…sometimes rejection isn’t that the work is bad but it isn’t something they know how to sell or something they already have enough of. If an editor tells you they can’t use what you sent but to keep submitting, DO IT!
- Spell the editor’s name correctly and know if they are a Mr. or Ms.
- Write a good cover letter—keep it short and sweet
- Don’t make stuff up (padding the resume, etc.)
- Do not bribe the editor
- Do not use confetti, colored paper, fancy inks, etc.
- Manuscript format: double-spaced, 1” margins, single-sided, in a 10-12 pt. clear font
- Do not threaten the editor
- Never answer a rejection
- Overall rule: Don’t be an asshole!
Query letters are also important to get right.
- No more than one page…shorter if possible
- Do not include a synopsis…think “blurb”
- Do not say “It will make you feel…”—let the story do that.
- Include the genre, word count, the title, and your top three (paid) writing credits.
- Only include your “day job” if it is pertinent to the work
Your submission package:
- Cover letter
- Synopsis (see their guidelines)—2 pages tops
- 1st three chapters (novel)
There was debate on the efficacy of critique groups. Some panelists advocated them as sources of support and good networking opportunities. Others warned against their frequent dissolution due to internal conflicts of ego. Selina Rosen mentioned the “chicken analogy”: when a chicken in the yard gets cut, the others smell blood and attack the injured peer. This can happen in groups where individual egos get wounded and people strive to be on top. Lou Antonelli also referred to the “crab-bucket analogy”: When crabs are in a bucket, and one managed to climb to the rim and start to pull himself out, the others will pull him back down into the bucket. This can happen in a group where an individual starts to see success and the bruised egos within the group take issue. Essentially, a good writing group can be a great benefit…the trick is finding a good group.
In regard to critique, I particularly liked Lou Antonelli’s advice. He said that what he wants is not “constructive criticism”. Criticism is inherently an attack. What he looks for is advice—how to make the story better. Writing groups often forget that this is the focus and descend into personal attacks and internal politics. When taking such advice, Selina Rosen offered the following points:
- Your voice isn’t what you write but is what you use to tell a story to your mate, your friends etc.
- You have to be confident in your work to know good advice from bad
- You must persevere
- The group dynamic must have a balance of give and take
- You have to ask yourself “is this working for me?”
Finally, some basic writing advice:
- Show don’t tell
- Remember GMC: Goal—Motivation—Conflict …it drives a story
The Internet and You
Should you put up your stories on your website? Keep in mind that any story posted on the Internet has just lost its first publication rights, which means that publishers are probably not going to be interested in it. This includes posting excerpts, drafts, etc. If you intend to sell it, do not post it.
If you don’t expect to be paid for it, do you still want to put it up? If you do, be sure and do it on your own site and not for a “free”, non-paying e-zine. The question boils down to whether you want to provide any content that you aren’t’ being paid for.
Networking is very important in publishing and Facebook is a great way to do it online. Every writer should also have their own website. Use your real picture online (and a somewhat recent one at that) so that you can be recognized by folks at cons and such. If possible, have your username/handle/URL be your real name so that you can be found.
Your website should have:
- A list of your works
- Any “DVD extras” (deleted scenes, maps, character profiles, etc.)
- A means to order your books/work
- A list of appearances
Ebooks are the growing trend in publishing, especially for smaller niche markets. Baen’s Universe is an excellent example. They provide an “online library” of ebooks and often provide the first entry of a series for free as a hook for further purchases and reading. By all accounts, they always pay their authors (not always a given in the business, unfortunately).
Ebooks are also good because, unlike print, authors can often make money on their back list. Out-of-print titles are sometimes harder to find in their original physical format.
Pirated ebooks are a problem, but the panelists pointed out that it is analogous to the problem of used/remaindered copies in the print model. The author makes nothing on these copies either but there is much less “hue and cry” over used book stores than about pirated ebooks. Many people who find these free (or discounted) copies or who check out free copies from libraries will turn around and buy that book or others by that author and recommended them to their friends (both online and in person).
E-zines are becoming more and more dominant for short fiction. They make their money primarily by advertising and so provide readers free content while paying for good stories.
Another popular online promotional tool is the “blog tour”. Authors will write “guest blogs” and give interviews on multiple blogs focused on their market. There are also virtual conventions in which authors hold online panel discussions, readings, and video blogs (vlogs).
As an author, you need to be careful of focusing too much of your time online. It can easily become a time sink. Writing is much more important than maintaining your online presence. Limit your time and use it wisely. Learn to sort what is important from what is not—just like in real life.
If you are not published, becoming active in online forums and chat groups can help establish the networking ties that could lead to publication. In both the virtual and real worlds, it’s important to be involved in the community. Be careful, though—don’t shoot yourself in the foot before you even get it in the door. Don’t argue, don’t flame, don’t be a jerk (I always try to remember “Wheaton’s Law”). Remember that editors will Google you—make sure that you won’t be ashamed of anything they find. Another good tip is not to blog or post about how many rejections you have gotten on your latest submission. Editors will find this and it will make them second-guess themselves if they are leaning in your direction.
Some useful forums:
- Ralan’s Webstravaganza
- GilaQueen’s Guide to Markets
- Predators and Editors
- SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America)
Lou Antonelli once again moderated this panel with Julia Mandala and two other authors for whom I failed to get their name. Name cards were apparently not always available and I think the weather caused a lot of panel cancellations necessitating fill-in panelists. Feel free to send me your information if you were there.
Good editing before submission is critical: editors are looking for an excuse to reduce their slush pile and a story rife with typos and errors will be thrown out fast.
Always read your story out loud. Reading to yourself and reading out loud are two different mental processes. You can often catch missing words that your mind fills in when reading silently. Also, wait a day before reading it so that the story is out of your head and you won’t fill in the blanks. You can even read the punctuation out loud to look closer at your “comma habits” and such. It can also be useful to either record your reading or have someone else read it to you.
Know your limitations—be worried if you find no mistakes. They are there, you just can’t see them.
Keep your text simple: KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). Not only does this make a tighter story but it makes it less complicated to edit.
Don’t be afraid of vernacular…if it is appropriate to the character, story, setting, etc. You are not writing a report or a thesis, you are writing fiction and can use a less formal voice.
Spellcheckers are not terribly effective. They can provide a red flag to look over something again but are often wrong or even offer goofy alternatives. Sometimes entering a problematic word into Google can be useful—if your spelling doesn’t pull up much, it may be wrong.
Respect yourself and your reader, editor, agent, etc.: know basic grammar and punctuation. If you go outside the formal, be consistent about it.
It can also be useful to make a list of chronically misspelled words as a reminder and a challenge.
Using “Find/Replace” in MS Word can be very useful…but never use “Replace All”…you can get some replacements you didn’t expect in the middle of perfectly good words.
It can also be useful to add unusual or “made-up” words to your dictionary to cut down on all those red marks. Another bonus is that you’ll be alerted if you misspell your own created word.
Use Google to make sure your character name can’t accidentally be linked to an actual person.
Grammar check is even less useful than spellchecker. The only thing it can be useful for is rooting out phrases written in passive voice. You can also just search for “by” or “to be” verbs to accomplish the same thing. You shouldn’t have more than 5 “to be” verbs in a single paragraph.
Don’t get paranoid about using the word “said”–it is virtually invisible. “Asked” can also be used. Using these invisible indicators repeatedly is not redundant and can help clarify who is doing the talking. Keep away from descriptors (-ly words). Try to use the action to tie in who is speaking and how they are doing it.
- “You bastard!” Joe exclaimed angrily. (not great)
- Joe slammed his fist on the table. “You bastard!” (better)
If you remove or change a character, scene, etc., make sure that you change any other affected sections.
You can also revise a story to death. You can make mistakes in your revisions or just putz about and never finish it. At some point it will get as good as it is going to get. It will never be 100% error-free.
You can self-edit a rough draft, but never a final draft. Always get feedback from others and actually listen to what they say…especially if more than one person says the same thing or points out the same problem. Don’t be over-protective of your work; develop a professional distance. Learn to be honest, even painfully so, with yourself.
At the same time, always consider the source of critique. Stand up for your work; sometimes people want to rewrite the story in the way that they would write it—this story is written in your voice, not theirs. Respond to critique with questions. Encourage readers to offer advice, not criticism.
ConDFW 2010 was another success. I got scads of great advice, acquired some excellent new books, discovered exciting new authors, and heard some great stories. My personal goal is to have a story sold by the time I go to next year’s con. Thanks to the authors featured in this year’s con, I may actually have a chance.