Category Archives: Submissions

The Quirks of the Slush Pile, P1

Ah, Wednesday. We meet again.

As you probably know, I’ve been a first-reader for Waylines Magazine for several months now. Long enough to see some negative patterns in the submissions. Today I’d like to cover one of those negative aspects, and though this might be a discussion that’s a little rough on the ego, I feel it’s an important one to have.

Disclaimer: These are my views alone based on my experience, and they do not reflect the opinions or official stance of Waylines or any other publishing venue.

So, what is the biggest problem I see in the slush? What do approximately 80-90% of the stories I vet have in common?

They’re boring.

Ok, well that’s subjective, you say. One story can’t be all things to all people, and I’ve read plenty of published stories that I thought were boring.

True enough. And I’ll be the first to admit that for the most part, the entire selection process is subjective. But thus is the way of any entertainment industry.

But, I bet (and hey, I could be wrong) that you don’t find 90% of the available stories boring. And I do have concrete reasons behind my boredom. I’ll list not only the causes, but also ways I feel a skilled author can counteract them.

Number one. The story’s premise is unoriginal. This is top reason I find the majority of manuscripts in the slush can’t hold my attention. When I open up a ghost story and it feels like the twelve other ghost stories I’ve recently vetted, there’s no help for it. I’m unengaged almost immediately. I see this especially in the genres of paranormal horror, epic fantasy and hard-er sci-fi. Why is it so hard to sell a zombie story or a vampire story? Because everybody writes them.

But wait! Why then are there so many published zombie stories and vamp stories? The TV show Heroes was essentially X-Men, but that didn’t seem to matter. And how is The Walking Dead different from any other zombie apocalypse?

I’ll tell you how: the people. The best way to counteract a run-of-the-mill premise is with deep, original, heart-felt characters. Why do viewers and readers keep consuming zombie stories if the premise by itself has been beaten to death? Because these stories offer characters in conflict in instantly digestible circumstances. A writer or filmmaker doesn’t have to spend a lot of time explaining the milieu–which signals their intent is not to interest you in this exciting new idea, but interest you in these intense, fascinating people.

This is not to say that original ideas don’t need to be paired with great characters–they do. But a great character can carry an audience through almost anything. Most often I see these unoriginal premises supplemented by equally unoriginal characters. Which brings me to my next point.

Number two. The story’s characters are cardboard (and/or bad characters doing bad things apparently just because they’re terrible individuals).

I’ve only ever read one author who could pull off the cardboard character, and that was Michael Crichton. Why? Because he thought of things like, what would happen if I mixed real dinosaurs and theme parks? And then produced an engrossing plot from the premise.

What makes a character cardboard (ie. two dimensional)? Typically such characters are some form of stereotype fitted with a few quirks that scream LOOK, REAL PEOPLE ARE QUIRKY. Atypically, they’re simply non-people that could be replaced with any other person in the universe and the events of the story would still take place in exactly the same fashion (in other words, they have no effect on the plot, they’re just vehicles for it). Cardboard characters don’t seem to have any thoughts that are particularly special to them, their emotionality is flat, and their motivations are equally as stereotypical or non-existent as their personalities.

I pair this with bad characters who have horrific behavior for no apparent reason–ie., their motive is that they’re eeeevil, mwahah. I see this more in the horror genre than any other, but these characters are just as uninspired as the good guy who is just good because he’s sooooo good, or Orphan X that is the same as all the other orphan characters, or Female X who is more a prop than anything else, or Snarky Cowboy X who…you get the picture.

Even in stories where the protagonists are well rounded, a stereotypical I’m evil just to be evil bad guy can really kill my interest.

The fix? Well, you’ve got to have one hell of a plot to have dull characters–and one hell of a setting, and fantastic prose. After all, it’s difficult to become emotionally invested in a story when the story’s characters don’t have genuine emotional stake in it themselves.

Number three. The story has low tension or no tension. This is created through a variety of ways. It can happen through a lack of conflict, where the character is doing something like the laundry/getting dressed/walking the dog as usual–which means both the character and the audience are waiting for something to happen. Don’t make your audience suffer through a waiting-room like experience.

It can also happen through uninspired or false conflict. False conflict often manifests as a woes-me character walking down the street (or riding in a train car, or lying in bed) doing absolutely nothing (or a load of inconsequential stuff) while describing the world and how dark and dreary it is. This is not conflict, this is whining. Uninspired conflict is something like, my friend was mean to me today–which turns out to be the long and short of it. Conflict, like people, needs depth.

Conversely, dropping the reader into the middle of a war zone when they’ve got no concept of who is fighting or why also creates low tension–which I’m sure seems counter intuitive. One fight scene is largely like any other fight scene and is utterly boring without a reason to care about the fighting (especially when approached with movie-like detail. In film, lots of things happening mechanically at once can be absorbed in an instant. Trying to describe the same action in prose draws it out and sucks it of any tension created by the one thing fight scenes have going for them: immediacy).

These problems can usually be solved through a healthy amount of chopping (and in some cases, adding). Get to the good stuff–and no, none of the above is the good stuff.

Number four, and my last point. The story is filled with loving, repetitive descriptions of everything. Going over every object, every expression, every flit of the wind in minute detail gets really old, really quick. Now I’m probably more inclined to have a hair trigger on this than other people. While my husband is glad to have someone’s wardrobe described every time they come on the literary stage, I am not. Especially when we’ve already had someone’s general sense of style explained, and the adjectives being applied to their wardrobe are the same every time, and the only thing different about the dress or shirt or shoes the character is wearing today vs. yesterday is that they are green (but the author can’t just stop at green, oh no).

This slows down the plot and character development for a bit of self-indulgent authorlyness, in my opinion. Some call it world building. But to me, once the world is built, you don’t then need to show me a scale model, and five more sketches, and some of the prototypes, and a few of the extra nuts and bolts you threw in. Give me a sense of the world, then move it along, please.

These repetitive descriptions are especially irritating, in my opinion, when paired with the dull premises I mentioned before.

This is a kill your darlings moment, I think. The way to solve this is to tabulate how many times you’ve described Queen Odessa’s hairdo, and, unless her hair is somehow important to the plot or her character development, scale back.

Everything on this list basically goes back to the idea that all aspects of your writing needs to sing. But I think everyone needs suggestions on how to counteract weak points because, let’s face it, we’ve all got ‘em. Boring just happens to be the issue I see most often. Hopefully this short list is helpful to you.

If you’ve got any other points on why a story might be perceived as boring, let me know!

~Marina

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Happy May 29th

Hope everyone that celebrated had a nice holiday weekend. I spent Memorial day doing yard work and getting covered in ticks–yes, ticks. Not cool!

I know quite a few people with birthdays today, so happy b-day to all the May 29th babies out there.

I do have some short story news–I actually got an acceptance a few weeks ago. Can’t announce the venue and such as things haven’t been finalized, but I will let you know when everything has been ironed out.

~Marina

Campbellian Pre-Reading Anthology and Penumbra

Now that I’ve got a completed contract in hand, I feel free to announce that my story, “Ol’ Soapy’s Revenge” will be appearing in the Lost themed issue of Penumbra coming out in April.  It’s a humor piece that I’m quite tickled to have accepted.  Funny is hard, in my opinion, and when I write humor I’m never quite sure if it works or not.

In other publication news, Stupefying Stories Presents the 2013 Campbellian Pre-Reading Anthology  is out for a limited time.  It features 43 authors who are eligible to win the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (Campbell Award for short, which is voted on at the same time as the Hugos).  My story, “Rats Will Run,” which first appeared in Mirror Shards Vol. 2 is reprinted within.

978-1-938834-05-9

Writertopia keeps a list (updated by the individual authors) of those eligable for the Campbell.  My profile is here, if you’d like to see it.

The Campbellian Pre-Reading Anthology is free and available in a variety of electronic formats, so even if you aren’t eligible to vote for the Campbell Award I suggest downloading it.  Tons of great stories for free, how can you beat that?

Happy reading!

~Marina

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Updates on Submitomancy and The Submissions Grinder

These are the two Duotrope alternatives I introduced a few weeks ago.  That post is here if you’d like to familiarize yourself with it.

Sadly, we’ve lost Submitomancy before its launch.  Its Indiegogo campaign was unsuccessful, meaning they did not receive the funding they needed to get off the ground.

Though Submitomancy frequently posted aesthetically pleasing screenshots of the possible site on both their Indiegogo page and their facebook page, I’m afraid not having a working model to sample hurt them.  When Duotrope closed to those who could not or were unwilling to pay their subscription fees, those who fled were ripe for the picking.  I believe the Submissions Grinder ran away with the bunch, since it launched in about a week after Duotrope’s pay model went into full effect.  Because there was already a free, functional alternative, and there was no working model of Submitomancy to test, I believe most people did not see a clear reason to donate to the cause.  Why pay for something that looks pretty but may not work at all?

Perhaps if its creators ever decided to take another shot, they might put up a basic, functional version to heighten their appeal to donators.

The Grinder, on the other hand, is in full swing.  It’s highly functional as a sub tracker and market database, and they’re adding new features all the time.  I have to say, I’ve never seen a nonprofit venue work so hard to accommodate every user.  If you’d like to see a function, just suggest it.  If it makes practical sense, it will go on a to-do list.  I really hope they can keep their customer service up, as it’s run by just two individuals (that I’m aware of) in their spare time.  Their mission statement declares that their users will never have to pay a mandatory fee for an account–but man are they earning their donations.

Two things really excite me about this site.  First, the one thing I’ve longed for in a sub tracker are graphs.  Bar graphs, line graphs, stem and leaf charts–anything to make the data more accessible to the visually-oriented.  I always meant to suggest it to Duotrope, but I could never find a suggestion box on their site (if they had one, it wasn’t very obvious).  Right now the Grinder has histograms that display response times on each individual market page.

The second thing I’m excited about is a feature not yet available.  In addition to submissions tracking, they also want to add sales tracking–which is brilliant.  Only tracking submissions means that tracking ends with either an acceptance or a rejection.  But that’s not helpful to those who actually sell their stories.  There’s a world of things to keep track of afterwards: edits, publication dates, payment, rights reversion, etc.  To the professional, having a system to track these things accurately and consistently is priceless.

So, if you do use the Grinder, I hope you’ll seriously consider donating.  They are working hard to make writers happy, and they know that not everyone can afford a subscription.  Here’s their link again, if you haven’t tried the site yet: The Submissions Grinder.

~Marina

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Being SMART With Your Goals

Ok, I might be a little late here.  A goal-oriented post usually belongs at the beginning of January, not at the end.  But…

I want to discuss setting real goals vs. setting non-goals.  You’d be amazed (or, perhaps not) at how many writers I’ve seen this month declare non-goals for 2013.  Non-goals don’t help anyone, least of all the person who sets them.

Non-goals are more easily defined as dreams–something you wish would happen, but don’t actually have any control over.

A real goal is entirely self contained and under your control.

Example of a non-goal: Qualify for SFWA.

Example of a real goal: Write ten short stories and submit them to SFWA qualifying venues.

See the difference?  Some people don’t.  At least, not right away.

There’s a well known model for goal setting that has circulated widely in the business world.  Which, naturally, means that writers are the last to hear about it  (I don’t know how many times I have to say it, but if you want to SELL something you’re in a BUSINESS, so we artsy types can all stop acting like ‘business’ is the eight-letter ‘b’ word).

This model is called SMART.  It’s an acronym that stands for Specific, Measureable, Actionable, Relevant and Time-bound (actual words may vary depending on who you’re talking to, but the system remains the same).

Specific.  This one’s easy.  It’s the What, Where, Why and Who portion.  What are the requirements and restrictions? Where do I have to go/send/be in order to accomplish this?  Why is it important that this goal be accomplished?  Who is involved in making this goal happen (hint: if the goal requires someone in addition to yourself they have to be working towards the exact same goal.  Most editors are not working towards the same goal as you are, neither are agents or publishers.  They do not count as goal partners)?

Measureable.  This means you must have a concrete way of assessing your progress towards the goal and the goal’s completion.   You are looking for quantitative, not qualitative criteria.  How questions prominently figure in here.  For example:  I must write X number of stories and submit them.  Not: I must write a bunch of good stories and submit them.

Actionable.  This means the goal can be implemented and attained through your direct action only.  Which means it must be within your power to attain.  It is not a goal so lofty that you cannot reach it.  Nor is it only attainable if outside forces or circumstances happen to aid you.

Relevant.  Is there a point to this goal?  Will your career suffer should you fail?  Will it be aided should you accomplish it?  If the answer is no, it’s not really a relevant or worthwhile goal.  Is the goal of stamping and addressing twenty envelopes in a row relevant to your career as a writer?  The action might be necessary at some point, but it should not be a focal point.

Time-bound.  This one is especially important, I think, to writers.  It’s all about When.  How many people do you know who say, “I’m going to write a novel one day”?  I’m guessing a lot.  Most likely those people will never write that novel (they might never even start it, let alone complete it), because they have not deemed it important enough to put a time frame on.  A worthwhile goal must be constrained by time.  I will write ten stories someday will most likely leave you feeling unaccomplished come 2014 when you’ve failed to meet that non-goal.  Whereas if you say, I will write ten stories by June first, you have given yourself a time limit, an area of temporal space in which to work, and most importantly, complete your task.

So, it might be time to reevaluate your most recent goals.  You’ve lived with them near a month by now, how far along are you?  How close are you to completion?  When will you finish?  What is there still to complete?  If you have no way of concretely answering such questions, you might want to scrap your non-goals and set some real ones.

Non-goals only leave you with heartache when they are left incomplete.  We all want to have real goals that pull our dreams down to Earth and help make them our reality.  Otherwise, what’s the point of setting them?

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Was this post helpful?  Did you reexamine your goals?  Were your goals solid the first time around, or did you need to change a few things?  I’d love to know!  Leave me a comment.

~Marina

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Duotrope and Alternatives

By now, if you’re at all involved in the short story community, you’ve heard that Duotrope is going paid.

That’s fantastic.  Nothing wrong with someone who provides a service getting paid for said service.  Everyone’s got mouths to feed and bills to pay, and no one should be expected to provide a service at a loss simply because others would prefer it to be free.

That said, anyone who charges for a service really needs to price it practically.  You’ve got to understand what your business is worth to consumers.   No one’s going to pay $35 for a glass of lemonade or $65 for a loaf of bread.

And on that note, I won’t be paying Duotrope’s exorbitant yearly subscription price of $50.  Why?  Because it’s not worth that to me.  And I’d be hard pressed to believe it’s worth that to anyone else, save in entertainment value.  (I also need to point out that you can subscribe on a monthly basis for $5–but who would really use it only a couple of months a year?)

Duotrope is a wonderful convenience to me.  It takes all the things I have at various places (market lists, submission tracker, response times) and puts them all together in one convenient, user-friendly space.

But that’s just it: it doesn’t give me anything I can’t get elsewhere.  Its entire worth to me is based on two-to-ten minutes worth of time saving per submission.  Course, it probably costs me more than that in the time I spend procrastinating using the site to check response times (which does nothing for my own submissions–I’ll hear when I hear).

The convenience of using Duotrope is not worth $50 of my hard earned money.  I would have to sell one flash piece a year just to cover it as an expense, and since it does not make me money (it does no marketing, it does not put me in touch with editors, it does not get a single story of mine in front of anyone who can buy it.  I have to do all that leg work myself), I can’t really justify spending my entire income from one story on the privilege of using it.

It was absolutely worth the $5 they claimed every user needed to pay a year in order to cover their expenses.  I’d hazard it would even be worth $10 or $15 to me.  I know it’s worth $20 to $30 to other people, as that’s what they’ve donated in the past.  I haven’t met anyone who claims to have donated anywhere near $50, so where that price tag comes from, it’s hard saying.  And the anonymous Duotrope staff have been less than transparent about their financial goals.

I think their misguided pricing is based largely on a belief that those who have donated regularly in the past will be more than happy to subscribe now.  Unless they already had a ton of people donating more than $50, they’re going to lose more by charging more. I think they don’t quite understand how differently people perceive a charitable organization vs. a private business.

When it’s on pure charity, people are willing to pay the way of others as well as themselves: “They need $5 per person? Alright, how about I pay for myself and three others who can’t afford it? Spread the love.”

When it becomes a business, the consumer has to go into business mode as well: “How much am I getting out of this service? Is it worth to me what they’re charging?”

Basically, I think they’re over estimating what their product is actually worth. And I think it will be worth even less now, because they’re driving away the source of their worth, which is the large data pool they draw from

I don’t want to see a site like Duotrope disappear. And I’m complaining about the price because I think they’re shooting themselves in the foot. I think they’ll find their business model not only ineffective, but damaging. I can only hope the staff can change directions quickly enough to avoid disaster. I want them to stick around, because I appreciate what they’ve created and the time I’ve spent using their service.

But, at the same time, I can’t justify telling poor writers to spend $5 a month or $50 a year on a service they don’t need.

So, here are a few alternatives to the services provided by Duotrope, should you be unable or unwilling to subscribe come January:

Market lists:

http://ralan.com/

http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~mslee/mag.html

http://www.sfwa.org/join-us/sfwa-membership-requirements/

http://www.speculativeliterature.org/Writing/mktlists.php   (This one is a list of market lists.  I have not explored it yet.)

Submission tracking:

www.writersdb.com

http://writersplanner.com/

ETA: http://www.spacejock.com/Sonar3.html (Suggested by J. Deery Wray)

Submission response times:

http://www.critters.org/blackholes/index.ht

http://ra-log.livejournal.com/

It’s also very easy to create an Excel sheet that tracks your subs and also doubles as a market list.  I also have a separate file that matches editors to their market and the market’s physical or digital address–a service which Duotrope does not provide.

If you are part of a large on line writing community, you could also start tracking your response times as a group.

I’ll be leaving this post up on the front page the whole week–so no Wednesday post.  I feel it’s important.

If you’ve got any other link suggestions, or just want to discuss Duotrope’s decision, feel free to comment!

~Marina

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Spec-Fic Editor News

Oh no, blog post, you snuck up on me this week.

Luckily, the industry has given me two tasty links to pass along today.  We have editors a-changin’.

First is the lovely Ann Vandermeer.  She has recently joined the team at Tor.com. Story here.

Secondly–and this one I have mixed feelings about– Stanley Schmidt is retiring from Analog.  He will be replaced by current managing editor, Trevor Quachri.  I never did get a chance to sell to Mr. Schmidt, which is sad, but I look forward to the opportunity a new editor presents.  Story here.

~Marina

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What Kind of Stories does Writers of the Future buy?

Recently, over on the WotF Forum, there’s been a lot of submit-o-mancy.  What does the new coordinating judge want?

I think the greater question is, what does the contest want?  Yes, David Farland is master of the gate, he opens and closes the door, but then there are four more judges to please before you get to see this through to a win.

Having read the most recent volume of WotF, plus two of Q1’s winners (not to mention many past volumes), I think it’s safe to say the same kinds of stories are going to win under DF as they did under KD.  For David Farland’s specific likes/dislikes, nits and more, see his Daily Kicks (He’s had several recently that focus on the contest specifically).

Several past winners have made lists of what they think a winning story must have, and I largely agree with them.  Of special note is Brad R. Torgerson’s list.  You can find it here.

Below are my points.  Most are basically the same as what others have said, I just phrased them a bit differently. As I’ve said before, I think learning the same information over and over again in different ways helps solidify it in the mind.  Plus, perhaps the way I lay it out might resonate better with some, while Brad’s, etc., might resonate well with others.

Here are the basic requirements I’ve identified.  There are occasional exceptions, but around 95% of the published WotF stories I’ve read have contained these:

1. Original idea or original handling of previously used (but not overdone) idea.  Also, the Bigger the Idea the better.

2. Layered conflict.  Big picture conflict plus either personal conflict or inner conflict (if you can get in all three, that’s even better).

Big Picture conflict equals something like: human understanding of the universe will change because I discovered X, and people are trying to kill me before I reveal it.

Personal conflict equals something like: I must rescue my mother who sold herself into slavery so that I wouldn’t go hungry.

Inner conflict equals something like: I accidentally shot my best friend when I was a child, and now I must learn to forgive myself.

I always try to identify these layers in every story I write.

3. Wow factor meets human factor.  The closer the tech or magic relates directly to a very human desire/behaviour the better.

4. Characters who Believe.  Not necessarily in a deity or anything (though this definitely isn’t a venue where that’s taboo. My Q4 finalist had a very religious main character) but characters who have a very strong point of view and strong values that are confronted within the conflict.

5. Stuff has to happen. I’ve read great stories that were very moving, but essentially nothing happened.  The character wanders around, observes some stuff, then makes up his/her/its mind about something.  A story like that wouldn’t be a good fit for the contest.  When a reader gets done with a WotF story, they feel like they’ve gone somewhere, be it physically, emotionally, or psychologically.  And they’ve all gotten there through some form of action.

6. Discovery.  In almost every WotF story a character makes a discovery about their immediate environment, or the universe, or a community, or an organization, or their personal origins, etc.  The character didn’t know or understand something in the beginning and it is uncovered by the end.

I find that these are just good things to include in any story, but I’ve read venues where Big Idea stories were few and far between, and there are venues where characters don’t have to have strong feelings about any one thing in order to move through the plot, etc.

But, it’s also good to keep in mind that while there are venues that don’t require all of these elements, there’s also proven crossover between WotF tastes and other pro-venue tastes.  Finalist and semi-finalist stories have appeared in Analog, IGMS, and Clarkesworld, just to name a few.

So, I highly suggest that anyone who hasn’t read Vol. 28 pick up a copy. Not only is it a great read, it’ll absolutely help you get a feel for what kind of stories WotF buys.

Or you could wait until Vol. 29 comes out…  Not like I’ve got a vested interest in anyone reading that volume, or anything.  😉

If you find these points helpful, please let me know!

 

ETA: If you’d like to enter either the Writers of the Future contest, or the Illustrators of the future contest, please visit: http://www.writersofthefuture.com/

~Marina

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Best Submissions Week Ever! P2

So, did you figure it out?  Two SFWA qualifying sales in one week!  Yahoo!  Still living off the high.

Getting to some copyedits for my Mirror Shards sale now.  Belive it or not, that’s pretty exciting for me, too.

And I hear finalist calls have already gone out for WotF q2!  Congrats, all!

Had any excitement recently?  Tell me about it.  🙂

~Marina

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Best Submissions Week Ever!

Without any ado: I won second place in Writers of the Future!  I won’t be able to reply for a while, but if you leave a comment, thank you in advance!

And big congrats to Stephen Sottong who won third, and a major rip-roaring congrats to Tina Smith who ran away with first!

Here’s the blog post: http://www.writersofthefuture.com/node/722

ETA: If you’d like to enter either the Writers of the Future contest, or the Illustrators of the future contest, please visit: http://www.writersofthefuture.com/

~Marina

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