Tag Archives: writing

Double Sales!

I’ve sold two short stories recently. One to Penumbra for their ‘Family Traditions’ issue (coming this December), and one to another venue which is TBA due to pending paperwork and edits (but I’ve also appeared there previously). I’m very excited about both of these sales and will give out more details soon!

Hope everyone is having an awesome day.

~Marina

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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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Good News!

Part two of the WotF workshop overview will be up next week.

This week I wanted to crow a little, if you’ll indulge me.

First off, I sold a story to Mike Resnick over at Galaxy’s Edge after a minor (but really needed) rewrite.  I’m super excited about this, as it’s my fourth professional-rate sale.

Secondly, my story “Sojourn for Ephah” won second place in the InterGalactic Medicine Show readers’ poll!  To get positive feedback from editors is great, but this is the first time I’ve been able to see what kind of an impact my work has had on readers.  I’m extremely pleased that the story was so well received.

Well, that’s it, just a batch of good news.  All in all, April’s been a pretty good month.

~Marina

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Writers of the Future Workshop Week and Gala, Part 1

Ok, I’m nearly back on schedule.

The Writers of the Future workshop week was wonderfully educational.  We had two amazing primary teachers, Dave Wolverton and Tim Powers, and a plethora of secondary speakers who all gave their take on different aspects of writing fiction professionally.

When I arrived I was picked up at the airport at the same time as Stephen Sottong (Author of Planetary Scouts), who along with Tina Gower (Author of Twelve Seconds and our Gold Award winner!), was my quarter-mate.  Tina ended up being my roommate for the week, which was fantastic.  After long evenings in the hotel lobby talking to night-owl judges, we’d often go back to the room and stay up a few hours more talking.

The group stayed at the Loews hotel, and walked a few blocks down Hollywood Boulevard every day to the Author Services building.  The writing workshop was taught on the fourth floor, while the illustrator’s was taught on the first in front of the stage for the L. Ron Hubbard Golden Age Theater (where live radio plays of Hubbard’s works are preformed.  We got to see one on the Monday before we left, and it was very well done).

The ASI fourth floor is beautiful, and the area we were taught in is basically one big library (the majority of which is devoted to Hubbard’s works, but there is one wing devoted to the works of WotF winners).  There, Tim, Dave and company instructed us on the ways of the professional.  We received both lessons in craft and in business.

The most amusing thing about the workshop was the constant intrusion of the photographers (who were very nice).  Those pretty pictures you see on the WotF website and newsletter?  They didn’t get that well composed by accident (most of them, anyway).  We were constantly having our table tops rearranged, papers hidden, and drinks removed.  This constituted a bonus lesson in photography.

The most stressful thing about the workshop was by far the twenty-four hour story.  We were given an object, a trip to the library, and a stranger (ok, we had to find the stranger, none were given to us) to inspire a story, then we were expected to produce a completed story(as in, written to the end, not necessarily submission-ready) in twenty-four hours (that’s twenty-four hours writing time.  The inspiration points happened over the previous forty-eight hours or so, so we did have time to think and digest before having to produce words).

On our first workshop day we received our objects.  I was given a box of who-knows-how-old raisins out of Tim’s grab bag.  A few of the other objects included a floppy disk, a magnifying glass, and a hotel room key.

For me, the stressful part came not when we were given the go-ahead to start typing, but when we had to go talk to a stranger.  As a confirmed introvert, striking up a conversation with a random person is not my thing.  But I did it.  Thankfully my stranger was a very nice sunglasses salesman from Turkey (Alisa Alering [Author of Everything You Have Seen] also spoke to a sunglasses salesmen from Turkey–oddly enough, they were not the same person).  A few other people (ahem, Tina) had much more awkward encounters.

The actual writing part went smoothly for me.  I think this is because I’ve had some practice writing stories in a day.  We started writing at 4:00pm and were expected to have our story printed and turned in by 4:00pm the following day.  I was able to write ‘the end’ on a 4,000ish-word draft at around 12:30 or 1:00am, while others were up most of the night.  The next day I edited at my leisure, making sure to strengthen themes and descriptions– other people did not have the same opportunity to rework.

Again, I don’t think writing the story went well for me because of any extra craft skills I possess.  I think it had 100% to do with having written that way multiple times before.   I was able to plan and pace myself accordingly.  If there is one piece of advice I’d give to future workshop attendees, it’s to practice this method ahead of time.

After we turned in our stories, Dave and Tim chose three for us to critique as a group.  For some people, I think this might have been the most stressful part of the twenty-four hour challenge.  A few seemed to dread the thought of their story being pulled from the pile.  Tim and Dave could of course chose whichever stories they wanted by whatever method they wanted, and they joked about throwing the manuscripts down some stairs and picking the ones that flew the farthest.  Apparently mine was quite aerodynamic (a fine quality in a story), as it was picked along with Tina’s and Chrome Oxide’s (Author of Cop for a Day).

I got some very insightful feedback, and have since reworked the story a bit more.  I submitted it for the first time on Tuesday.  If you get a chance to participate in this workshop, do your best to make sure the story you write isn’t a throw away.  Don’t complete the challenge just because you have to–aim to get at least the beginnings of something submitable out of it.  Every story you write is practice and the Big Game all at the same time.  So, it’s ok if you try something and it doesn’t work for you (like writing a story in one sitting), but always do your damndest.

I will return next week with Part 2 of my recap.  There might end up being a Part 3, we’ll just have to see.

If you’ve got any questions about the workshop or twenty-four hour story in particular, feel free to ask!

~Marina

P.S.  I’ve sold another story!  Details soon.

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Penumbra Lost Issue Out Today

The April issue of Penumbra is out.  It contains my humor-flash piece entitled: Ol’ Soapy’s Revenge.  Here’s a sample:

End-of-timers flocked to the streets, sure the anomaly would pass over the Earth and send us all to Hell.  Some said it was an alien creation meant to take us out before we could take them out.  Others said it was an alien, pure and simple.

The inception of the Church of Star Trek: Doomsday Machine was an especially low point, in my opinion.

Check it out!

Penumbra Lost Cover

http://penumbra.musapublishing.com/

~Marina

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WotF Vol. 29 Cover

It’s a little after-the-fact, but the cover for Writers of the Future Vol. 29 has been released, and the book itself is available for pre-order!

WOF-29-Bookcover

Anybody else hear Elton John in their head singing “Rocket Maaaaan” when they look at the cover?  The illustration is by wonderful Stephen Youll.

You can pre-order a mass market paperback from Barns & Noble or Amazon.  The e-book version will be available in several formats for imediate download on April 14th.

~Marina

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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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