Archive for the ‘Craft’ Category


One trick for starting a short story is the trick of front-loading, so that the overarching fantastic element, source of melodrama, or underlying theme or emotion, is presented to the reader immediately or shortly after the story commences. This technique is often useful because within the first few lines or paragraphs of your story, the author still has the readers’ complete trust. The reader has not had a chance for doubt to creep in and impinge upon their suspension of disbelief. In short:  At this point, they’re still open to buying what you’re selling.

Now before we go any further I should probably point out that this is just one technique which can be used effectively when commencing a short story. It is not the be-all-end-all of how to start a story. There is no single one right way. To quote Nick Mamatas once more from his fantastic collection of essays, Starve Better:

Write what you want, when you want, and how you want to write it. If you keep finding yourself staring up at the lights while the ref counts to three, try another strategy. There are plenty to choose from … whatever gets the story published and enjoyed is what works.

Getting back to the idea of front-loading: Using the term “curse” as a byword for melodrama in plot, Ansen Dibell says in her book :Elements of Fiction Writing – Plot:

There are straightforward ways of setting your curse in the middle of solidly credible things and declaring it right from the beginning. There are other methods of misdirecting attention so that the curse has already happened and been accepted before the reader has a chance to holler, “Hey, now, wait a minute!”

I’ll start with the front-loading ways first—putting the unusual right up front and making it part of the story’s fundamental reality.” (Simon: Emphasis mine)

Ansen then goes on to list a number of ways to do this, and gives examples of:  the protagonist in Kafka’s Metamorphosis awaking and realising he is an insect, the opening scene of Star Wars: A New Hope being laser fire between spaceships, and the vampire talking into the tape recorder at the start interview with a vampire.  (Note:  Ansen’s book is a great book, buy this book.)

Kristi DeMeester, author of Split Tongues, whose short fiction you can find at places like Black Static Magazine, Shimmer zine, and Shock Totem Magazine, says:

“That great short story idea you had? Put it up front. Make it your lead. If your story is about a woman birthing plastic dolls who is then deemed the new Madonna/Mother Mary, start there with the shiny, plastic birth.”

And what a start to a story that would be! In fact, I want to read that story. (Kristi, fill your boots!)

Joe Hill, author of novels such as The Fireman, Heart Shaped Box, NOS4A2, and fantastic short story collections such as 20th Century Ghosts, says on his blog Joe Hill’s Thrills:

“Readers are inclined to just go with you at the very beginning of a story, which is why it’s the best place to drop a whopper on them. I began my short story “Pop Art” like this:

My best friend when I was twelve was inflatable.

The reader’s response? Oh, okay, Joey! Inflatable friend. Got it.

Also: think about if you saw a U.F.O. or a ghost. If you were telling a friend about it, you’d probably drop that shit on them right away: Dude, I was driving back from work last night and I saw a fuckin’ U.F.O. And it landed! And a ghost got out of it!!

You wouldn’t tell him about the business account you lost during the day, the conversation you had with your Mom that made you angry, and the nap you took under your desk. You wouldn’t even *think* of telling him about that stuff, not at first. YOU SAW A U.F.O., DUDE. Start with that part. Don’t be afraid to be amazing right from the beginning.”

Often this kind of declaration of intent that a writer makes, is actually a method of introducing that The Event as well (Refer to Part 1 of this series for more on that)

The following except is from the beginning of Angela Slatter’s British Fantasy Award winning story, The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter and I think it makes a fantastic case study of several cool techniques, including front-loading:

The door is a rich red wood, heavily carved with improving scenes from the trials of Job. An angel’s head, cast in brass, serves as the knocker and when I let it go to rest back in its groove, the eyes fly open, indignant, and watch me with suspicion. Behind me is the tangle of garden—cataracts of flowering vines, lovers’ nooks, secluded reading benches—that gives this house its affluent privacy.

The dead man’s daughter opens the door.

She is pink and peach and creamy. I want to lick at her skin and see if she tastes the way she looks.

“Hepsibah Ballantyne! Slattern! Concentrate, this is business.” My father slaps at me, much as he did in life. Nowadays his fists pass through me, causing nothing more than a sense of cold ebbing in my veins. I do not miss the bruises.

In this scene, Angela does a number of cool things:

  1. The arrival at the house of the dead man is The Event. The house, more specifically who lives there and the business the protagonist Hepsibah has there, is central to the entire story. So her rocking up on site really is the beginning of the story here.
  2. By describing the door and the knocker she impresses upon the reader the importance of what is behind the door and instils a sense of trepidation. What horrors lurk behind this portal?? Perhaps also mixed with wonder or intrigue, as the description of the plush garden and reading nooks, and the general affluence of the house is raises questions. Who lives here??
  3. Then the dead man’s daughter opens the door, leaving us thinking “Who died? And what importance does their death (and perhaps death generally!) have to this story?” Additionally, the contrast of the pale, peachy, lickable maiden who answers the door versus the suspenseful description of the door from the preceding paragraph and the horrors it implied,  is masterful.
  4. And finally, and most crucially as far as this post goes, she front-loads that fantastic—she reveals Hepsibah’s dead ghostly father is beside her berating and beating her “as much as he did in life”.

Within 4 short paragraphs, I’m anticipatory; I’m intrigued and tantalised; I’m not even blinking my eye when she’s telling me there is horrid ghostly fathers that follow around their children cursing them. Hell, I’m buying what Angela is selling, folks!

Alternatively, rather than front-loading the element of the fantastic, an author can front-load the theme of a story or the underlying emotion of a piece for incredible effect.

I’ll use the opening paragraphs (which includes one of the very best opening lines I’ve ever read) from Jack Ketchum’s novel The Girl Next Door:

You think you know about pain?

Talk to my second wife. She does. Or thinks she does.

She says that once when she was nineteen or twenty she got between a couple of cats fighting—her own cat and a neighbor’s—and one of them went at her, climbed her like a tree, tore gashes out of her thighs and breasts and belly that you can still see today, scared her so badly she fell back against her mother’s turn-of-the-century Hoosier, breaking her best ceramic pie plate and scraping sick inches of skin off her ribs while the cat made its way back down her again, all tooth and claw and spitting fury. Thirty-six stiches I think she said she got. And a fever that lasted for days.

My second wife says that’s pain.

She doesn’t know shit, that woman.

Yes, that poignant question is the opening line of a novel rather than a short story, but it illustrates the point I’m trying to make here. Straight away we know what this tale is about. We have some idea of what the subject matter is, the primary theme the novel is going to explore. When you read that opening line you immediately  question yourself, you question that knowledge you think you have about pain.  I know about pain, asshole. I think. Don’t I??

When you read the following description of the lady who got mauled be the cats, and the narrator’s assertion “My second wife says that’s pain.”, you know know this novel is going to be a treatise on or an exploration of pain. And, indeed, that’s what it is (along with an extreme social commentary on rape culture, mob mentality and many other things).

Important notes/sub-essay in the margin:

When I’m talking about front-loading, I mean front-loading the element of the fantastic or melodramatic; front-loading the theme, front-loading the central emotion of your piece etc. What I’m NOT talking about is front-loading exposition (scene, descriptions of the fucking weather or descriptions of characters) or back story.

When you start up front with backstory, you’re missing the Inciting Incident Describing back story, Donald Maass, literary agent and owner of the Maass literary agency, says in his book The Fire In Fiction:

Backstory is the bane of virtually all manuscripts. Authors imagine that readers need, even want, a certain amount of filling in. I can see why they believe that. It starts with critique groups in which writers hear comments such as, “I love this character! You need to tell me more about her!” Yes, the author does. But not right away. As they say in the theater, make ’em wait. Later in the novel backstory can become a revelation; in the first chapter it always bogs things down.

I’m telling you now folks, this is as true of the first scene of a short story as it is of a novel.

Here I’ll turn to Thomas B. Sawyer, head writer of the classic TV show Murder, She Wrote and author of Fiction writing Demystified:

Don’t front-load your exposition.

Sure, you’ve fully imagined your characters, given them complexity and dimension. You’ve created concise and solid biographies for them. You know a lot about them (though you’ll learn more as your story progresses), and you’re anxious to use it, to tell your readers about it.

Resist, with all of your strength, the temptation to squeeze all that great stuff into the first scene, into those first moments that this or that character is onstage.

Why? Because, as far as the Theory of Locomotion is concerned, exposition is dead writing. It’s not moving things forward at all. Rather, if we do what was suggested in Part 1 of this series and start with or near The Event, and then frontload our story with something appropriate, the start of your story can be a powerful and adroit delivery. On time and on point, so to speak.

Having said that you can still have a slow burn story—one that starts slow and builds up. It doesn’t have to begin with vampire fangs, ghosts, or the apocalypse. There is no requirement set in stone that one must, or necessarily should, front-load the fantastic/theme/etc. There are different horses for different courses, and there are no rules. At the end of the day, what works is what works, what gives the best effect, and what results in a fiction sale is what was appropriate.

For example, one might start near the Event, yet not really front-load anything.

In my own “Little Spark of Madness” (forthcoming 2016, Morbid Metamorphosis, Lycan Valley Press) , we can see that I open it like this:

“She wore a fluffy, pink dressing gown and a vacant stare. The lady stood outside the large red brick house at the end of the cul-de-sac, set well away from the other houses; a building cast under a shadow, as though a cloud had parked itself directly above.”

In this instance, The Event is the character Brodie is meeting the other main character, Sally,  in the story for the first time. It’s equivalent of the “Stranger comes to town” archetypal beginning. In this story, and particularly in this beginning, there are no UFOs, no ghosts or full moons, no overt element of the fantastic. There are no laser beams. What relationship or effect this lady is going to have on the protagonist is not immediately apparent. And that’s OK. What I hope the reader might be thinking at this point is:  “Who is the woman? Why is she staring vacantly? Is she sick/sad/etc?”. Perhaps they might too consider the contrast between the pink and fluffy dressing gown and the lady’s catatonic appearance.

Nick Mamatas says the following in Starve better, and I think he makes a good point here:

“Start with a hook” is bad advice, ultimately, because of the word ‘hook’. A hook is an important part of a story to be sure, and could do anywhere. It is the motor of the story—it can be the twist at the end, the broad concept, the compelling change the character undergoes, the language or clever structure of a piece…whatever makes a story worth reading is its hook. A hook may go in the beginning, but it need not. Beginnings are for something else. The start of a story, its first paragraph, should assure the reader that they are in capable hands. The beginning of the story should tantalize, not hook, the reader.

Starting with a “strong hook”, front-loading the fantastic, grabbing the reader by the balls, laser beams—is just ONE way to start a story. It is ONE technique.

Try it. Experiment with it. See when and how it works for your fiction.


Nailing with hammer

I’ve read a few short stories in my time. How many hundred, it’d be hard to say. Having written my own short stories and having read so many written by other people, it is pretty clear to me that the hardest aspect of short story writing is nailing the beginning. If I had to make a wild-ass guess, I’d say maybe 3% of writers know how to start a short story.

This is going to be a lengthy post because, frankly, it’s something I’m super passionate about. What I cover here is probably the number one issue that makes me, as an editor, want to stop reading a submission.

Invariably, authors fall into three categories:

  1. Those who start writing BEFORE their story has actually begun.
  2. Those who start writing AFTER their story has actually begun (much rarer, in my opinion); and
  3. Those who begin writing at the start of their story.

I’ll get back to these categories a bit later on.

So what, or when, is the start of the story?

I’ve often heard people say “Start the story as close to the end as possible”. This was certainly one of the 8 pieces of advice the great Kurt Vonnegut has given. I guess this makes a kind of sense, but, personally, it never seemed particularly actionable advice to me as I always found it to be interminably vague. How does someone really know where the end of the story is when they’re just starting to write the dang thing? Hell, if you believe that guff about “Pansters and Plotters”, then probably 50% of people don’t even know what the end of their story will be when they start writing.

One might, of course, argue that this is a form of editing advice, more than it is writing advice. I.e the author should write the story and then return to the beginning and pare things back until they reach the true start of the story. This makes a bit more sense, I suppose—but for the newer writer who still has no idea how to determine the true start of the story, of what value is it to them?

Over time, mostly because I’ve always found it comparatively easier to determine, I’ve started to consider the true beginning of the story to be the “Inciting Incident”.

An explanation of the Inciting Incident excerpted from

The Inciting Incident (or “exciting incident” as someone once referred to it) is the event or decision that begins a story’s problem. Everything up and until that moment is Backstory (emphasis mine); everything after is “the story.” Before this moment there is an equilibrium, a relative peace that the characters in a story have grown accustomed to. This incisive moment, or plot point occurs and upsets the balance of things. Suddenly there is a problem to be solved.

Mark Morris, editor of the Spectral Book of Horror Stories vol 1 & vol 2, whose collection Wrapped in Skin was recently published by ChiZine Publications, says:

I guess if I think about it I always start a short story from the very first incident of that story. So for instance, in my story The Name Game, which is set entirely at a dinner party in which my protagonists, a husband and wife, are meeting their new neighbours for the first time, I started the story with the couple knocking on the door of their hosts’ house – and then any background stuff which is relevant (e.g. they’ve just moved in to their new house) will become apparent through dialogue or short, explanatory sentences attached to either an action or a piece of dialogue which pushes the story forward.

I recently had a great chat with Anthony Rivera, publisher and editor at Grey Matter Press, and after prefacing his comments with the statement that there is no one right way to start a story, he said:

It’s possible to write an effective short story in a number of ways and how it “starts” depends on the piece itself — slow burn or whatever. But, if one is looking to grab the reader’s attention quickly, I would agree with your Inciting Incident approach. I might even go one step beyond and say, if possible (which of course it’s not always, nor does the strategy lend itself to every short story), start in the middle of said “incident”.

Ansen Dibell, aka Nancy Ann Dibble, science fiction writer and a former editor of Reader’s Digest, mentions in her book Elements of Fiction Writing – Plot:

The Greeks, as translated by the Romans, called it in medias res: In the middle of things. Starting there, in the middle of things, is even more necessary if your story is going to have negative motivation—that is, if it is one in which your chief character, the protagonist, is reacting against something that has happened. Stories arising from reactions have a past that will try to encumber the story’s beginning if you let it.

That kind of built-in past is called ‘exposition’—the necessary explanations that are needed to understand what’s going on now. Because exposition is, of its nature, telling rather than showing, it’s intrinsically less dramatic than a scene.

Richard Thomas (editor, author of several novels and collections, including the collection Tribulations from Crystal Lake Publishing, says in his article on dramatic structure:

This is where the story begins. It is your narrative hook, the tip of the iceberg, early hints at theme, character, setting—and if done right, the conflict. This is where your Inciting Incident happens, that moment in time where the story really begins, that tipping point beyond which things will never be the same. Whether your story is a straight line, a circle coming round, or some other structure, you have to start someplace. As mentioned in previous columns, starting in media res, Latin for “in the middle of things,” is a great way to grab your audience’s attention. You are setting the stage here, so paint a picture, give us the backdrop, and start the thread (or threads) that will run through your narrative. I can’t tell you how often I’ve stopped reading a story because the opening paragraph was random, boring, or confusing.

Personally, I often think of the Inciting Incident not necessarily as a problem or necessarily a direct challenge that protagonist is faced with, but more of an “event”. The Event (as I like to think of it)  may be immediately problematic or challenging to the protagonist, or the challenge/problem/change that it sparks may be less obvious and not immediately apparent. This is where I believe the quote from is  actually so brilliant. If you view “exciting” with the meaning “to arouse, to stir up” rather than “to make happy and eager” then this quote makes perfect sense. The Inciting Incident is like someone (or some thing!) plunging into a body of water, stirring the sediment off the pond floor. Until that Event occurred, the water was calm, still and clear. Thus the purpose of the The Event is to create movement, or as I call it elsewhere, Locomotion.

For me, thinking of the Inciting Incident as The Event is extremely useful. When I think of an “incident” (or incitement, for that matter!) I immediately think of something that has gone wrong, something terrible, an emergency, overt conflict. The start of your story is not necessarily terrible; is not necessarily something going wrong; is not necessarily over conflict. There start of your story, however, is an event of one kind or another though. Thinking of it in this way widens the scope so that the starts of the story is no longer only about the explosion or gun going off, but rather the start may be any event of true plot importance. This then opens wide the possibilities for slow-burn stories as well as tales that grip you by the short and curlies form the first line.

What is the result of completely missing The Event—or worse, having no Event at all?

When the beginning of a story strays too far from the Inciting Incident, stories tend to fall into either Category 1 or 2 mentioned earlier.

For Category 1 beginnings, the authors have begun writing before their story has actually begun. In this case, everything before that incident is backstory, a form of prologue, which in the short story world can be a kiss of death for the reader (especially the editor you’re submitting your story to). I somewhat snarkily refer to this as “The Pre-Incident Waffle”.  Quite often those authors guilty of Pre-incident Waffle are also offenders of the crime of The Post-Incident Waffle, as well.

Generally speaking, starting close to, or at, The Event will also ensure the story is a memorable one for casual readers and fans. It will be an interesting story that is immediately going places and will encourage readers to continue reading and keep turning those pages.

In another piece, I talk about “Locomotion” and use a freight train as analogy for a story. Backstory is just that, back story. Back story is missing the train. It may be interesting information but doesn’t advance the plot of the actual story you’re trying to tell at all. Think about it—you jump in a train expecting to go forward to your destination, not backwards for a few stops before it starts moving forward once more!

For Category 2 beginnings, as mentioned previously, the author has begun writing AFTER their story has begun. This is actually the more disastrous of the two categories, in my opinion.

When a story has no Inciting Incident, when that initial event that is meant to upset the humours of your protagonist, or present them with a challenge, or push them into action, or cause to step out into the wide world, doesn’t exist—it risks becoming a sequence of events that happen for no reason; or a series of events that just unfold (see: slice of life or vignette). We live in a world of cause and effect. When something happens to us, we respond to it. Our circumstances change. Our story begins to evolve and write itself. Whether we consciously know this or not, we know it at a subconscious level. When you come across a story where that conflict was merely alluded to, or worse still, absent… there is no cause and effect. There is no conflict or incident, no response by the protagonist, no push that propels your story train forward along the tracks.

Category 3 beginnings have the author starting close to, at, or during the Inciting Incident. This means that from virtually the moment the reader begins with the tale, that plot is moving forward. From here on in, your story might be a slow burn to the heavens (or hells), or it might be a rollercoaster ride, but either way, your reader is locked in from the get-go.

To conclude, by way of cautionary advice, I’d like to share some advice from Nick Mamatas. For those who don’t know him, Nick is a former editor of the speculative fiction magazine Clarkesworld; is the editor of the science fiction and fantasy imprint Haikasoru; and is an author of various short stories and collections, and novels such as the forthcoming I Am Providence (pre-order it here). The following advice from is his collection of essays Starve Better. I’ll interject here and there in bold where I think he’s touching on something I’ve talked about:

The cult of advice has misled many a short story writer. Here’s an insidious piece of advice you’ve surely heard before: Your short story has to start strong, with a hook.

On one level, it isn’t even bad advice. Often, writers do just sit down and start writing. They have no idea how to begin a story, so they often begin at the beginning—with their protagonist waking up. Or perhaps with a lengthy bit of scene-setting, or the weather (Simon: literally the two most common bad starts to a story, in my opinion) or a snippet from a historical artifact or newspaper article. Pages and pages of background information, or the results of research, or tooling around with breakfast foods, keep the reader from getting to the story for pages and pages(Simon:  I think this what I call the “Pre-Incident Waffle”). The most common variations are especially deadly—I once had a streak of five stories in a row that featured a protagonist awaking confused in a strange room. Even if the fifth story was actually very good and absolutely required such an opening, I was already poisoned by its competitors. (Don’t fret, though; I walked my dog and came back to the fifth story after a short break. It was terrible.)

The flaw of the “Gotta have a hook!” advice is that it leads to a secondary error on the part of many writers. Having heard that new writers tend to have a few pages of nonsense up front and that stories have to be engaging from the get-go, they often create an energetic first paragraph full of gun fights, monsters, characters cursing (“Fuuuuck!” or “Oh SHIT!” are very common story openings these days), and various other “hooks.” Then, almost invariably, the author reveals that the gunfights are on TV, the monsters from a dream, the cursing character has woken up with a back spasm or is simply stuck in traffic (indeed, “stuck in traffic” might be the new “just woken up”) and then we have the several pages of nonsense before the story actually begins (Simon: I think this is what I refer to elsewhere as the “Post-Incident Waffle”). Rather than correcting the error of a boring beginning by eliminating the boring beginning or by changing the story’s structure so that it is interesting from beginning to end, they simply added some “action” up top.

I believe this advice from Nick is cogent and gels pretty well with my own beliefs on the matter, in that it advises the writer to eliminate the boring beginning and move to the start of the story and once that start is found, to eliminate the following pages of garble that are so common afterwards. Nick also makes a great point that the opening of the story need not be a string of explosions or curse words; rather, as I’ve stated previously, it should be The Event.


About a week ago there was a massive blowup on Facebook regarding diversity within a anthology Table of Contents (ToC). Someone posted the signing sheet for the Borderlands 6 anthology and a lady asked Thomas F. Monteleone, the anthology editor, why there was so few women in the ToC.  Tom responded in a very defensive and extremely rude way, which lead to calls from some for readers to boycott the anthology, and multiple discussions on various peoples’ walls about inclusion and diversity within genre fiction, with a special focus on how editors decide on the Table of Contents for their anthology.

Catherine M. Grant wrote a great piece on the incident on her Tumblr here: 

Personally, I’m not sure I agree with any call to boycott the anthology… There are a lot of lovely and talented writers who would be affected, including women, and including several who are not established writers and are trying to get their fiction out there to readers.  That being said, I’m sure an argument would, or could, be made that a few privileged people taking a hit for the point of bringing down elitist/racist/sexist editors and making a stand for diversity and inclusion is a small price to pay.  Maybe that’s a good argument, I don’t know. I can certainly understand someone feeling that way; I can emapthise.

Interestingly enough another anthology ToC released recently, Nightscript Vol. 2, escaped comment regarding inclusion and diversity. By my reckoning of the Nightscript ToC, there are 21 stories 2 of which are by People of Colour and 4 of which are by women (only one more lady than Borderlands 6). I suspect the reason this has escaped comment is two-fold, 1. no one has actually raised issue with it (is it a problematic TOC, particularly in light of BL6? Genuine question.)  and 2. CM Muller hasn’t come out and made a number of crass and rude comments and been quite offensive in the process.  Now, for CM Muller’s sake, please don’t start a giant internet pile-on. I don’t know the details behind nightscript… maybe it was blind read and open submission only. Maybe only 20% of the submissions were women and 10% by people of colour. Maybe it was advertised in 50 different places online and the call went loud and wide. Don’t know, and ultimately that’s not really the point or my intention here at all. I’m merely pointing out that, in the grand scheme of things, Borderlands 6 isn’t necessarily uniquely homogeneous.. for whatever reason, it’s in line with a lot of other TOCs out there.

Regardless of all this, this made me think about my own current anthology project and what I’ve done, or haven’t done as far as diversity and inclusion goes. Have I done enough? Could I do more? Does it even matter?

I’ll start with that last question.  I’m somewhat mixed ancestory (a few non-Anglo/Celtic ancestors in the family tree above) although the vast lion’s share of my genetic make up is Anglo-Saxon/Celtic stock, including parents and grandparents on both sides. My surname is Scottish, placing me as a member of Clan Dewar. If I look in the mirror, my skin is white. English was my first language and I was raised with all the privileges a white person enjoys in Australia. My wife, ethnically Lebanese Arab, is a Muslim; our children, three beautiful girls, are People of Colour. I am also Muslim. I speak Lebanese Arabic  [understand a lot more than I can speak] and can read fusha Arabic. I’ve had people tell me to “go back to where I came from” and call me a terrorist for no reason. We’ve had pigs heads thrown in our local mosque and had our place of worship trashed… so if I’m not a Person of Colour (I don’t consider myself to be one, although I don’t really identify as being ‘white’ either) , I’m probably a little more tuned in to their struggles (I hope).   So, you can see why—for me at least—diversity and inclusion are important. My entire existence revolves around diversity and inclusion. I’m not just making lip service when I say that a writer’s race, colour, creed or orientation is not a determining factor in whether or not I dislike or reject their work.

Does race, colour, creed, orientation etc. play a part in me liking or accepting an authors work?  In my opinion (and I think in the opinion of some fantastic editors, such as Ellen Datlow, Jeff Vandermeer and Silvia Moreno-Garcia), the onus is on me as an editor to cast a wide net and draw in different people when I put forward invitations for a project. As Silvia Moreno-Garcia recently said (paraphrased, because I’m too lazy to look up her actual Facebook comment) “If it’s not the job of an Editor to choose the authors, what the fuck is their job??”.  And she’s right. Sitting back and claiming  “Oh but these are just the people that submitted to me” when you haven’t widely publicised the call, you haven’t given any indication or impression that you want to read anything but white male authors, and most of your anthology has been collected via invitation anyway…. that’s lazy and pathetic. And it’s not gonna get you the mystical ‘best story’ because the best fiction isn’t just, per defaltam, by white males.  I’m still learning but, moving forward, I’m determined not to be that editor.

With the original Suspended in Dusk anthology, 43% of the authors were women. I had authors from 4 different continents. I had authors who were married or single. I had authors who were mums or dads, and authors who  were not. I had multiple language speakers, English as a Second Language speakers. I had people who were primary carers for aged or infirm loved ones. I was pretty happy with that book. Upon reflection though, everyone in that book was white.  Even the writers from Africa were white, for God’s sake.

With Suspended in Dusk 2, I decided that I could once again make an anthology which had a very strong showing of fantastic fiction from women. I was confident I could do it—Women are among the best, if not the best, dark fiction and horror writers. Truth be told, I didn’t actually consider much beyond that,  including race, ability, religion, sexual orientation, when seeking out authors to contribute to the anthology. Slowly however, I found some diversity creeping in spite of my laxity. One of my favourite authors who I invited, has Native American heritage. The artist who came on board to do the internal illustrations is gay, a second African author that was not in the previous anthology (although she too is white! But it’s not up to me to judge someone’s African-ness) threw in her story.  This combined with the strong inclusion of women authors, I felt, was at least step in the right direction. I’m learning and I feel I’m asking the right questions at least, and so I hope that I can get an even better mix happening in future projects.

One thing I’ve done with Suspended in Dusk 2 is invite a few of the authors (both men and women) who had stories in book one to submit a story to the second anthology.  My reasoning here was because I like their voice, they were good to work with and they’re not established authors. I felt (feel? I still feel that way, but the die is cast now, rightly or wrongly) that I would be able to help them develop their skills through my editing process.   I sought to balance this out, particularly because I’m also cognisant that I don’t know all the writers out there,  by having a couple of open submission spots that would allow me to be exposed to authors I didn’t know or hadn’t thought of, and to provide members of wider community with an opportunity to be a part of the anthology.

In hindsight, I’d probably do a number of things differently:

  1. Read more widely to get a handle on who is who and who is writing what, and thus expose myself to work by authors of different backgrounds.
  2. Explicitly state in the submission guidelines that I’m open to stories from people of diverse backgrounds. (Anecdotally this gives some people courage to submit their story.)
  3. With Suspended in Dusk 2, I advertised on twitter, Facebook, The (Submission) Grinder, Absolute Write Forums and forums.  Next time around I will consider what other methods of advertising my submission call might reach more diverse groups.
  4. To capitalise on points 1 and 2, include more open submission spots.
  5. Think more open mindedly about authors from different backgrounds who could write the kind of fiction that I think would address my anthology theme and aesthetic, when deciding who I send my invites out to.

I don’t know who is the gold standard in this regard, although some of the editors I mentioned earlier do a very admirable job. They’re certainly amongst those who I look up to and hope to imitate. I don’t know when an editor is doing “enough”. I do see encouraging signs though.

One of the projects that sprung up recently is Richard ThomasGamut Magazine.  The Gamut Magazine kickstarter raked in over $55000USD and is a fully funded project launching soon. One of the best things about Gamut  (aside from the fact that they’ll be paying their staff and paying contributing authors 10c a word!) is that they look like they’re going to be a really inclusive market. They’ve got a great mix of men and women on the staff, 60% of the contributors they have lined up to launch the magazine are women. They’re open to fiction of most genres and they’re specifically open to fiction from people of all backgrounds. One might argue, they’re after fiction from the whole gamut of folks out there (badoomtish!).  I put some of my own dollars down on this project and gave up 5 copies of Suspended in Dusk for Richard to use  as incentives for backers and I can’t wait for this project to take flight.

Oh, also check out the POC Destroy Horror anthology. Silvia Moreno-Garcia will be editing it and it’s opening up for submissions soon. I think the book will be fantastic and I’ll be making sure I grab a copy.





I think every writer, at least every short story writer, should read slush for a while. My god, but it really puts fiction in perspective for you.

For the uninitiated among us, wikipedia informs us:

In publishing, the slush pile is the set of unsolicited query letters or manuscripts sent either directly to the publisher or literary agent by authors, or to the publisher by an agent not known to the publisher.[1]

Sifting through the slush pile is a job given to assistants-to-the-editors, or to outside contractors (called “publisher’s readers” or “first readers”).

Reading slush really gives you such a huge appreciation for the talent and skill of true professional writers. Take a run of the mill slush story and a story published by a professional writer in a magazine or anthology…most often there is simply no comparison to be made. It’s not even a case of apples vs oranges. It’s a case of biting into an apple versus chugging a pint of bleach.

And that’s not to denigrate those of us who aren’t the elite cadre of writer’s out there. God knows I’m not in that grouping (yet!! *shakes fist*). But you really have to admire those professional writers at the top of their game.   They’ve come up with a cool story idea; they’ve crafted characters who are real people; they’ve started the story at the right spot (biggest issue with most poor short fiction); they’ve placed those characters in some sort of situation or presented them with some problem that requires resolution; they’ve developed an underlying theme or motif that either overtly challenges the reader or bubbles away in the background; and they’ve written the story using finely polished prose that takes the reader through that process in an evocative and engaging manner. They made you think things. They make you feel things.  That’s no small feat!

So what’s this got do with reading slush? The vast majority of fiction in the slush pile fails at one or more of the above mentioned things. The more things it fails at, the more the story’s ‘apple’ dissolves into ammonia.   At first, some of these failures (usually outright omissions.. e.g no plot, no real people, no situation/incident, etc) are hard to spot, and that’s the beauty of it.  Reading slush hones your ability to critically analyse stories and prose. It might be hard at first, but I guarantee you by the time you’ve read 100 slush stories… you will  be spotting issues with many stories with ease. You’ll look at a story and think “Geez, three pages went by before I found out what the issue/problem/incident to be resolved is!” and bang, there you go.. you know the story started 3 pages too early. Your own writing will improve dramatically.  When you’ve picked out unnecessary filtering of action and emotion in 100 manuscripts, you’ll really start to notice it popping out in your own. Conversely you’ll start noticing where a more distanced point of view might be of benefit to the story.  With 200 stories under your belt your repertoire of issues that you’ll catch during your analysis will increase and you’ll develop strategies and a process or workflow that you use when analysing a story.  With 300 stories under your belt, you’ll develop a true confidence in your analysis. (Obviously we’re all different I’m just throwing out some ballpark numbers here, but you get the drift.)

It is extremely hard to notice flaws in your own fiction, even some of the real pros struggle with it, which is why they continue to get critiques and beta-reads done by other writers. You need some serious writer/editor-fu to be able to do it, and this only comes with time and experience.   I believe this is where slush reading is of a huge benefit because via repetition and exposure to an endless variety of writing styles, it provides that experience.  Slush reading, for me, is the equivalent of basic routines and katas in martial arts.  In martial arts, you perform the move a hundred times, two hundred, three hundred – block-punch-kick. block-punch-kick. block-punch-kick.  It seeps into you and becomes part of your subconscious and your muscle memory, to the point where if someone throws a punch at you, your immediate response is block-punch-kick!  When you’ve seen and noted 300 different authors filter the actions and emotions of their point of view character, then you have the literary muscle memory response of block-kick-punch, and you blow away that filtering and you write in a more active and close point of view into your own manuscript.

Beyond critical analysis skills, slush reading provides a writer variety and exposure to a variety of ideas, narrative styles, prose styles, grammatical techniques, story telling techniques. This in invaluable. As humans, from the time we’re born we’re copying others. First our parents, then our teachers and friends, and later in life even other adults. This is how we learn and grow.  Sure, we often put our own spin on something we’ve learned or we innovate in a particular area, and we can still create extremely unique art, but our ability to do this is extremely limited if our exposure to new ideas and methods is limited.  I am currently doing an interview series where I’m chatting with Women who work in the horror genre. Almost every single response to the question “what’s the best advice for new writers” is “Read a lot and widely.”  Reading slush is a perfect way to do just that.

4. Locomotion


Whether it’s a breakneck thrilling train ride or a slow scenic tour through countryside, opening our eyes to expansive vistas of beauty or whathaveyou, a story—like a train—needs a locomotive. Y’know, that big carriage at the front of the train whose engine propells the rest of the train forward along the tracks.

Locomotive: [Latin locō, from a place, ablative of locus, place + Medieval Latin mōtīvus, causing motion; see motive.]

Spell Syllables
Synonyms Examples Word Origin
something that causes a person to act in a certain way, do a certain thing, etc.; incentive.
the goal or object of a person’s actions:
Her motive was revenge.
(in art, literature, and music) a motif.
causing, or tending to cause, motion.
pertaining to motion.
prompting to action.
constituting a motive or motives.
verb (used with object), motived, motiving.
to motivate.

The real locomotive of a story is the characters. It is the characters tha truly make the story move forward via their response to events. It’s the characters who move (motivus!) the story forward from one event or one place (locus!) to another. An event (such as the inciting incident) may occur, but if the characters passively accept it and sit there with their thumbs in their asses, you don’t actually have a story. Nothing moved. Nothing changed. There was no locomotion.

I have to care about your characters. Very early on you need to make me care about your characters or I’m not going to want to bother reading further. They have to be someone. They need hopes and fears. They need to act in accordance with their hopes and fears, specifically in how they deal with the Inciting Incident and events through the story. They need genuine motive.

Character + Events / Motive = Locomotion (aka a story that is going places!)

5. The Feels – Emotions and Themes


Let’s start with what a good story must not be. A good story isn’t boring. At the end of the day we read for pleasure, enjoyment and entertainment. No one likes a snoozefest, so don’t give them one. A boring story is a waste of the reader’s time. If it’s not the kind of story that really lights your fire, why would you expect anyone else to like it? So at a minumum a story must never be boring. Author Jack Ketchum was once famously advised to “Write lively”, but I’ve heard it expressed by others more commonly as “Don’t be boring.” Just. Don’t. Do it. Getting a second opinion on this, it’s important! Get someone else to read it and see if it rustles their jimmies. If a story is boring, I’m going to reject it.

Hurt Me. Scream at the sky. Break my heart. But don’t waste my time. – Jack Ketchum

So you’re bound and determined to not write a boring story. You’ve slapped your characters with an event and they’re off responding according to their realistic and fully fleshed out personas and dispositions. Is that enough? Is it enough to just let the story play out or is there any need to try and impart something deeper? A theme or a message? is it necessary to attempt to evoke a particular emotion in your reader?

The theme in a story is its underlying message, or ‘big idea.’ In other words, what critical belief about life is the author trying to convey in the writing of a novel, play, short story or poem? This belief, or idea, transcends cultural barriers. It is usually universal in nature. When a theme is universal, it touches on the human experience, regardless of race or language. It is what the story means. Often, a piece of writing will have more than one theme.

Does a story need a theme to be successful or enjoyable? There are plenty of stories, in both fiction and film, without prominent themes that are great fun and thoroughly enjoyable; however, in the end, I think almost every story has some sort of theme going on. Whether it is just one of the importance of friendship or comradeship that is a subtle undertone of your military scifi blast ’em up, or the inescapably prominent themes of cosmic horror and human insignificance that pervade the works of HP Lovecraft, almost every story has some kind of theme going on. A really good story has a theme that illicts emotions. This is this two punch combination that will floor the editor and make them buy your work. Genre or medium aside, this is the hallmark of great art.

no feels.jpg

In my opinion, the very best art evokes emotion. At a basic level, beyond making any kind of statement or addressing any kind of theme, this is probably the primary purpose of art. The best fiction is evocative fiction.

Since we developed spoken language, long before writing, we were telling each other stories. It’s how we make sense of the world around us, each other and our inner selves. We’re humans, with all that entails emotionally, who enjoy hearing (or reading) about other humans with emotions. Its through the sharing of emotions and empathy that we identify and relate to one another, and to the characters in stories. When a person picks up a book, they’re effectively living or experiencing vicariously through the characters in the book. The reader wants to feel what these people are feeling: whether it is the sheer terror as the character steps into the darkened cellar or the triumph as the warrior stands above his vanquished. They want to feel the rush of emotions as the man or woman falls in love, and the crushing despair when love is lost, or it all falls apart.

The best writers make you feel by painting characters who are real people. The situations that the characters encounter don’t need to be real, but they have to have realistic motives. Like the rest of us, they must have talents and deficiencies. The must have their own hopes and fears. They should have their own idiosyncrasies and neuroses. The best writers create characters that the reader could very well see themselves being; Or characters within which they can see their own real life family, friends or acquaintances. And then? And then they fuck with those characters.

If a story has no emotion or discernible theme— i.e no real “feels” —, even if well written, I’ll most likely be overlooking it in favour of something more evocative. Something that challenges me or speaks to me on some deeper level.  Move yourself closer to the short list by writing evocative lively fiction.

6. Failure to maintain suspension of disbelief


There is an unwritten contract between any reader and an author, wherein an author gives the reader a story and the reader promises to believe it is plausible or true. We’ve all gotten part way through hearing a story, whether reading it in a book or hearing it from a friend and thought “Nup… I call bullshit. I’m out!”. This is the moment when our ability to consider the story as true or plausible is shattered. Our ability to suspend our disbelief has failed. From that moment on, it is near impossible for a writer to recapture the editor or reader’s interest in the story (particularly within the confines of a short story!).

The key to preventing this from occuring is to make the story consistent. By this i mean, the characters and world they live in have to consistently conform to the standards that the author has set, just as in the natural world we have general laws and conventions by which things abide. The story itself doesn’t need to be realistic, it can be wildly fantastical, but within that fantasy world it must be consistent. If an author breaks too many of his own laws it will come across as contrived and they’ll lose the reader.

Many stories that come through the slush pile fail to maintain my suspension of disbelief. When events occur too haphazardly; when a character randomly busts out new unknown magic powers or implausible skills; when a character acts too wildly out of character and the story travels down too unlikely a path — I’m gonna reject the story. My main logic here is that often it would take substantial re-writing and editing to correct this. For this reason, your tale will be rejected in favour of other stories that are better formed and require less work.

7. Lack of Peer Review

It’s often said that critique groups or beta readers are essential tools for writers to vet their work, help them hone their skills, help them reduce mistakes in the manuscript before they’re sent off to the editor or publisher. This is completely true.

Often there are discussions about what is a better, a critique group or beta readers. Personally I find beta readers who are conversant in your chosen genre to be the most effective as they tend to drill further down into your story, rather than the high level look that seems to be more common in critique groups. I’ve also found that many critique groups are geared towards one or another genre. It can be counter-productive to have people are not familiar with horror writing, for example, to be critiquing your horror stories. If they’re not conversant with traditions and tropes or common horror conventions, they often just “don’t get” your story. Personally I prefer to find other writers who I trust and whose fiction I admire, who write within the genre I write to beta-read my work. I find that I have better outcomes and get better advice this way. Other people have different experiences, and that’s fine. Whatever works for you is great, but choose on or other (or both) of these options and use them. They WILL improve your writing generally, and they will improve specific stories that they look at.

Why do I mention this? Sure, some professional writers can churn out high quality work that would fool me or other editors into thinking it had been peer reviewed, but I think you can genuinely tell most of the fiction that comes through the slush pile that has only ever seen the author’s eyes. The techniques and issues described in Parts I and II of this series (also see my post on filtering) are not rocket science. They do take time to learn and time to become confident and consistent in implementing. It takes a long, long time to train your critical eye to be able to see the forest for the trees when it comes to the mistakes and deficiencies in your own writing. Even then, we often can’t see our own mistakes. Beta Readers (get more than one) or critique groups will likely catch some or all of the mistakes or force you to address issues which, in turn, make some of those other mistakes more visible to you. All this should be done before the story ever reaches the editor or publisher. If you’re going up against tens or hundreds of other writers of differing abilities, perhaps some of them genuine professional writers, you need your story in the best state it can be before it arrives in the editor’s inbox.

Here are some things which indicate lack of peer review:

1. Writing starts too far before the beginning of the actual story – Determining this is a tough skill to learn for new writers, increase your chances of hitting the mark via peer review.
2. Long tracts of exposition. Exposition can be nice, but it’s also dead writing that isn’t moving the plot forward.
3. A lot of passive voice/filtering. (see: )
4. Starting scenes with descriptions of the weather – we know you’re trying to set the scene but this is a weak and lazy way of starting a story/scene. Start a scene with something happening or someone doing soemthing. Weave a sense of weather/ambience/etc into the following text.
5. Logical inconsitencies in characters, plot or world building (See suspension of disbelief above)
6. Story is thinly veiled fan fiction.
7. Story infringes another’s copyright or
8. Story uses common tropes and does nothing new with them/Story is wholly derivative.

As soon as editors start discovering these things in your work, they’ll reject your story. Let these kind of prose level and structural issues get caught by your peer reviewers, don’t let them get through to the editor.


I could probably write more on this topic, but at the end of the day, the road to rejection is perilously short if you don’t know the pitfalls to look out for.  Start at the beginning, give me real characters, hit them with a event or incident, have them react. Have something you want to say and make me feel something, damn you! Write lively and never be boring. Be consistent with your characters and with your world building. Get someone to review your work.  Once you’ve tightened all the nuts and bolts, submit your work and gird your loins. Rinse and repeat. With time and effort and repetition you’ll improve and your stories will get out there.

And most of all? Enjoy.



Yesterday I did a post about a filter words, which I’ve labelled as the Worst Offender in my slush pile. This is true at the prose/sentence level, but what about some of the other issues that I’m seeing that pertain more to story structure, etc?

To make this post a little more fun, I’ve tried to order each entry as how I would notice it as I read the story with my editor’s hat on.  These are probably the first 3 things that will, (at least with me, but also with many other editors), result in your short story being rejected. I’m writing about these issues in the context of short stories, but these are pertinent issues for longer form work such as novels and novellas, too.

1- Pre-Incident waffle:

1 waffle

A Pre-Incident Waffle

In the Pre-Incident Waffle scenario, the the author doesn’t start the story close enough to the start of the actual story/inciting incident/action. This results in two pages of waffle before the story starts going somewhere. Much of it is beautiful description and exposition; much of it is lovely waffle-but waffles are for breakfast, they’re not a tool for writing short stories.

2- No Inciting Incident:

zero incidents

The inciting incident is point where your story takes off. It’s a figurative door that your character steps 0ut from and through which they cannot return. It is an event, early on the in story, that upsets the equilibrium in the character’s life, posits them a question and/or forces them to take action. The protagonist tries to find a resolution, or answer to this question. The antagonist seeks to prevent this.  This is the catalyst for conflict and the crucible within which the action that makes your story really go places.

I cannot begin to express how many stories come through in slush piles that have no real inciting incident.  I suppose, these could be considered some kind of “slice of life” fiction, which frankly bores the hell out of me. I don’t want to be bored.  I want read to a story about someone—Someone real. I want conflict. I want to be taken on some kind of journey. I want tragedy and triumph.

A good piece of fiction has an inciting incident.  Arguably, any piece of fiction has one, but so many stories that end up in the slush pile and end up with form rejections have no real inciting incident. They’re just a bunch of words on a page where a person does things. There is no conflict. There is no resolution. There is no real antagonist.  A reader, and definitely any editor, will lose patience and interest with this story extremely quickly.

Some truly clever writers have mastered the art of disguising the inciting incident. The net result is a story that seemingly just unfolds for us as readers, and yet captures our attention and imagination from the beginning because the conflict is there but it’s just so damn subtle. The antagonist may be hidden or may not be another person/character in the traditional sense. The problem is, the vast majority of stories that come through slush are not this story. They’re just poorly written and would benefit from rewriting with a view to find and accentuate the inciting incident.

As a general rule, the closer to the start of your short story that your inciting incident occurs, the better.  Many of the best short stories have the inciting incident occur or referenced within the opening line or paragraph of the story.  If it hasn’t occurred by the end of the first page, you haven’t started at the start of the story.  It is often said that anything that occurs before the inciting incident is, in fact, back story.

As discussed in the intro, this is as important for the novel as it is for the short story, the difference being that the novelist has more leeway as to how long they can take before the Inciting Incident occurs.

3-  Post-incident waffles:

more waffles


In the Post-Incident Waffle scenario, the the author starts at the inciting incident (II) in the first line or paragraph (Yay!), but after the first paragraph, or short scene in which the II occurs, goes into a waffling parenthetical explanation of scene/characters/history/etc. that drags on for 1-2 pages before they bring the reader back to the action and the story recommences moving forward.  Once again, folks, repeat after me:  WAFFLES ARE FOR BREAKFAST – THEY’RE NOT A TOOL FOR WRITING SHORT STORIES.



At this point, I’ve read circa 6 pages of your story and if you have all of the above 3 issues I’m  going to reject it. Often I’ll know by the time I’ve got through your Pre-Incident Waffle that the story isn’t for me. If it’s good waffle, I’ll probably read a bit further. If the author dishes me waffles straight up and that is the story’s only major structural flaw, it’s probably not hard to edit it down so that the story starts near the inciting incident. If this is the case, I’ll keep reading.

I’m definitely going to be looking for the true start of the story (inciting incident) and when the action to really kick off. If I can’t find those and you put me through MOAR WAFFLES, I’m gonna reject your story.

Here’s the rub:  I’ve got 14-20 other stories I need to select and edit, probably anywhere from 40-100 slush stories I need to read,  author correspondence to make, proofing, etc. etc. I’m not going to make a rod for my own back by taking on a story that requires so much work to correct—I simply don’t have the time. Many editors wouldn’t even be this lenient and would’ve rejected your story after the first two pages. I know of only a couple who would bother to keep reading or would read the entire story.

To quote E.B White, speaking of Professor William Strunk, author of The Elements of Style:

“Will (Strunk) felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, a man floundering in a swamp, and it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get this man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope.”

Your reader is a drowning man. Throw him a rope so he can climb out of the swamp. The longer you delay, the further he slips into the mud. Drowning people don’t care you have an awesome ending in 8 pages. Your reader just wants to live!  If you’ve taken 4-6 pages to throw your reader a rope,  you’re probably too late. You’ve just drowned your reader. DON’T DROWN YOUR READER. Especially not the fiction editor you’re submitting to.

I’ll address some other things in Pt 2, but this has addressed some of the major issues that will cause problems for an editor in the first few pages of your short story.


This is something I see time after time in the slush pile so I figured I’d do a short post about it and bring together some resources from across the net. This issue is all up in the Suspended in Dusk 2 slush pile and it was all up in the Suspended in Dusk slush pile as well.



Filter words/Filtering/Emotional Filtering

It is a common fault that is not easily recognized, though once the principle is understood, cutting filters away can make writing more vivid. Fiction writers work through an observing consciousness (as in a narrator). Filtering happens when you make your readers observe the observer–to look at, rather than through the character. It dilutes the sense of being shown rather than told, because it reminds the reader that he or she is reading a story rather than experiencing it directly.

Burroway et. al., 2011.Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft. pp 29-30.”

One of the worst culprits for weakening your prose, distancing our reader from the protagonist’s point of view and the action, are filter words. This is where you say “John thought x y z ” or “It seemed as though x y z” or you say your character thinks/knows/realises/notices/decides/wonders things… rather than just showing the character doing those things.

A great example (and perhaps the most obvious) is if I write “John saw the big man lift his pistol and fire.” You don’t need to tell us John saw it… John is present in the scene and is our POV character. Unless John is blind,  the default position is that he sees the things that go on in the scene. And if he was blind, you wouldn’t be saying he’d seen something, right? Instead of “John saw the big man lift his pistol and fire.” just write “The big man lifted his pistol and fired.”

Anyway, check this out here for a better explanation:…/

These pages also have some good basic examples of filtering which enable you to contrast sentences with filtering vs sentences without:…/youll-have-to-go-through-me-e…

It is important to note that you can filter actions and also filter emotions. Almost every time you say the word “felt” in your fiction, you’re filtering. When you write “Jane felt furious.” you’re filtering the emotion of anger. Instead show us her being angry. Have her slam a cup on the table and curse at her husband instead. Likewise, if you write “Rachel felt overwhelmingly grateful for what Aunt Barbara had done.” you’re filtering her emotion of gratitude. Have Rachel hug Aunt Barb and say thank you, or turn up to her house with a box of chocolates and a bottle of wine… heck, anything that involves Rachel doing something (verbs/dialogue/etc) is better than you telling us she is grateful.

When you finish your editing, I recommend doing a CTRL+F on every filter word you can think of (some of the links in this post have lists) and cycle through your MS. Whenever you find a filter word, decide whether that filtering is legitimate or not. In some cases it might be. You may want distance from the character because you’re going for a certain aesthetic or style with the prose. Maybe you’re trying for an omniscient narrative voice or an old time fairytale feel. In which case, you want to step back from the immediate point of view of the character. Alternatively, if you generally write a close POV, maybe you search for a filter word and you realise the character is confused/out of it/on drugs/drunk/emotional and so the character is genuinely unsure of things so it’s relevant to say something “Seemed” a certain way or that she “noticed” a particular detail (because perhaps she cant make out any other details!)

I guarantee you, if you’re not legitimately trying to distance your reader from the action or point of view, and your remove most filtering: your prose will be tighter, your word count will go down dramatically, and your reader will be brought much closer to the action and also the point of view of the protagonist. In time you’ll realise that you don’t filter much at all and you’ll find you catch less and less during the editing process, but I’ve provided you with a good strategy you can use as part of your editing workflow to capture and eliminate filter words.

Additional Links:…/do-you-filter-your-fiction/…/an-introduction-to-filtering…/keep-readers-close-to-action-an……/filtering-character-p…


I was interviewed by the fantastic Ian McHugh, over at the csfg wesbite.
We had so much fun I think we may have got a little carried away!
Hope you enjoy.

It wasn’t so long ago that we were tearing apart the first story you put through the CSFG crit group, and then congratulating you on your first fiction sale (of that same story). It takes a fair dose of chutzpah to go so quickly from there to editing your first book, let alone to pulling together a line-up including award winners and other established names. And I believe you were originally going to co-edit with a more established editor (Nerine Dorman, who edits the Bloody Parchment anthologies) but had to complete the project solo. How did you go about pitching yourself, and this project, to the authors you solicited stories from? What do you think was the key to success?

Originally, I began approaching authors about the project while the plan was to still go ahead and publish it with Dark Continents Publishing, for whom my good friend Nerine Dorman is one of the editors. With a few exceptions, like an open invite to CSFG members and Litreactor members, it was invite-only.

I think the fun all started when I was talking to Nerine and she mentioned that she’s a great fan of the Aussie horror author Angela Slatter. As a joke, I said… “you know what? I’ve got Angela Slatter on my Twitter. Why don’t I ask if she’ll contribute a story?” So I contacted Angela and said “Hey, I’m working on this anthology and my co-editor is a huge fan and I’m wondering if you consider making her day and contributing a story—perhaps a reprint or something?” Angela responded and offered a brand new story of hers! I was over the moon (still am!) and after thinking about for a while I realised something: the worst Angela could’ve done would’ve been to say no. As a writer, we get used to people (editors, publishers, agents, family) saying ‘no’ all the time, right? So I wondered if I could repeat the process.

Heh. In my experience the worst anyone can say is “No, no, NO! For the love of God!” Good thing you didn’t know that! But that might just me. Clearly I don’t have your charm. Anyway, sorry, you were saying…

Haha, you might be right there!

From there I approached about 10 other authors (usually just via their website or social media) who were well known/award winning and whose work I’d enjoyed previously. Some replied, some didn’t. Some said yes, some said no. In the end, I walked away with reprints from Ramsey Campbell, John Everson, Shane McKenzie and Rayne Hall. Ramsey is one of, if not the, most well regarded and awarded horror writers. John Everson is super talented,well recognised and also highly awarded. Rayne Hall is a self-publishing powerhouse, and has phenomenal success with her Ten Tales anthologies that she edits and with her own fiction. What a coup!

My pitch to them was something along the lines of the following:

“Hey, My name is Simon Dewar and I’m great fan of your work. I’m working on this anthology to be published by Dark Continents Publishing and was wondering if you’d like to contribute a story or a reprint. I’m hoping to bring together new and established voices in horror from a range of different styles. Unfortunately I can only pay you peanuts, so I totally understand if this isn’t a suitable market for you work. Thanks so much for your time and consideration.”

Short, friendly, snappy— and giving them the obvious understanding that this wasn’t a pro-pay market and that they could happily say no. I think it worked well!

So I had all the authors lined up before things fell through and Nerine/DCP was unable to continue with the project. When this happened it was before any contracts had changed hands so everyone was basically free to walk their separate ways. I really didn’t want all my hard work and emotional investment to go to waste so I pitched to another couple of publishers before it found a home with Books of the Dead Press.

We got to know you in CSFG first as a writer, but you’ve obviously had a parallel interest in editing and you’ve been involved in other projects before Suspended in Dusk. Do you see your primary aspirations being as an editor or as a writer?

Definitely see myself as a writer first. Suspended in Dusk was meant to be a fun side project done in collaboration with Nerine via DCP. It turned into massive solo undertaking instead. I’ve learned so much about writing and the publishing process from working on Suspended in Dusk, which I feel has been totally invaluable. I’ve honed my critical skills and my grammar to levels that I wouldn’t have achieved without having undertaken this project. Let’s face it… when you’re editing a book with some of the best names in the game, you can’t afford to screw up.

So, having seen this book through – and pretty much gone through the wringer with losing your original publisher and co-editor, as well as having the high of landing such prominent contributors – do you think you’d do it again anytime soon?

Definitely. I’ve already having thoughts percolating in my head about possible themes and who I’d like to invite to write a story for the next anthology. I’m going to suppress these urges for a while though so I can finish some of my own writing and, hopefully, get a couple more sales under the belt. I’ve got two stories on sub at the moment, on of which made final reading/short list at APEX, which I hope will find publication soon. I’m also working on horror novella called The House of Waite, which is set in the NSW southern highlands which I’d like to finish and start shopping around. I’ve actually struggled a bit with the transition from shorter to a longer form, but I’ve finished plotting out the second half of the story now and want to get it done and dusted.

A book needs a good elevator pitch and you had to find a publisher for Suspended in Dusk. You found a good home with North American indie horror publisher Books of the Dead Press. What was your pitch?

Apparently its phenomenally hard to re-home an anthology to a new publisher, or so I’m told… which makes sense. It’d be hard to line up a whole book’s worth of stories with the tastes of a publisher’s acquiring editor. After having another publisher show interest but pass up on the project I was pretty distraught and didn’t see much hope of light on at the end of the tunnel.

When I pitched to James Roy Daley at Books of the Dead Press, I gave a short blurb about the anthology theme…. Dusk being a time of change, a time between times, a time on the brink between light and dark. I included the table of contents so he could see the full list of authors and highlighted the achievements of some of the well-known authors such as Angela Slatter, Ramsey Campbell, John Everson etc. I mentioned Alan Baxter’s recent sale to Harper Voyager. I also mentioned the social media profile of some of the authors whom have tens of thousands of twitter followers and my wish, should it be published, to have the anthology widely reviewed. As it turns out Roy had also recently published a novel by J.C Michael and had previously published fiction by John Everson in another anthology; I think it really helped to come to the table with a few known quantities, some great well-known names, but with the obvious impression that I care about sales/getting a book out there that people will read.

Thankfully Roy responded with an offer and the rest is history.

I guess it’s good you didn’t know that about re-homing an anthology, too, huh?

Yeah. I had no idea that apparently its virtually impossible to do. Rayne Hall, who has been an editor for many years and has had work traditionally published and self published, advised me that she’d never actually seen someone successfully re-home an anthology—and had seen several attempts in the past. I like to think this says a lot about quality of the stories and the mix of different writers, new and old, who are in the book. It could just be pure luck though. Either way, I’m not complaining!

Dusk as the liminal state between light to dark is a nice idea to hang a horror anthology on. How tightly themed are the stories in Suspended in Dusk to that idea of standing on the brink between light and dark?

Ironically, Suspended in Dusk originally started out as a non-themed anthology. Nerine and I couldn’t think of title and she really liked the name of this old Type-O Negative song, so that’s how it found its name! After a while, I thought that it was a pretty good theme in itself and I just ran with it and asked authors to submit whatever they like but if they had something that gelled with the title, that’d be great. Once submissions were complete and I began the read-through, I viewed the theme very broadly. Instead of being focused on simply dusk being the time between light and dark, I saw it more broadly as a time of change, a time between two times, being on the edge between one thing and another, being in the dying moments of something, etc. I think that, in the end, I collected 19 stories, many of which are vastly different but all touch on my vision of that theme to lesser or greater degrees. Some stories have a literal link, some metaphorical; some obvious, some slightly more obscure.

Man, if I’d chosen a Type-O Negative song for the title of an anthology, it would’ve been “The Glorious Liberation of the People’s Technocratic Republic of Vinnland by the Combined Forces of the United Territories of Europa”. Booyah! But that might’ve been a fairly different book. Okayokay, lamest writing question ever, but I’ll preface it to hopefully make it walk nicely: there’s a song by Jose Gonzalez with the lyric “keep both feet on the ground, while I change the wings”, which burned instantly into my head as a vision to build a story around. What’s a song title or lyric that has made you go “Holyshit! Story!”?

A while back I wrote a story about a very strange school kid who liked heavy metal but secretly kept the first three Mariah Carey albums in his CD wallet (amongst other blasphemies). I got the idea from this guy I went to school with who literally did just that… had a collection of like 250+ metal albums and three Mariah Carey CDs that he kept just to freak out anyone who looked through his CD collection. Or so he said, heh. Anyway, when I decided to write this story I just knew I had to weave in something of one Mariah’s songs (obviously without directly infringing her copyright). The first album I picked up was her second album Music Box and I saw a song called Hero. It has the lyrics:

There’s a hero
If you look inside your heart
You don’t have to be afraid
Of what you are

As soon as I read these lyrics, I knew THIS was the song and it was perfect. This was the song that would perfectly complement the story and would really make the story. The result was a story cunningly titled, Music Box.

Fast forward a few months—manna from Heaven—it turns out there is a submission call at Grey Matter Press for an anthology called Savage Beasts. They want horror and dark stories that involve music in some way. Y’know the old adage “Music soothes the savage beast!” From an editing perspective, I’m kinda jealous because I think the theme is pure genius. I’ve submitted my story Music Box to GMP and I’m crossing all limbs that they like it.

I’ve been asking writers about the point when they were kicking around the ideas for their books that they started to get excited – that they knew they had a story, rather than just an idea. I haven’t asked the question of an editor, though. What was that moment of excitement for you with Suspended in Dusk, when you knew you had something that would fly?

Because I had a total field of about 60 stories to choose from I quickly developed some criteria by which I’d assess the stories. In no particular order, they were:

1.did it meet word count and other general submission criteria

2. was it on theme?

3. quality of writing/amount potential editing work

4. Unique voice or WOW factor.

If something ticked all those boxes, it at least made the short-list. Once I got the short list of about 25 stories, I started to compare and ween the number down until I reached the final 19.

In retrospect, when I looked at stories and judge the amount of editing required, I generally just looked at it from a grammatical perspective. Next time I’ll probably take Developmental/Structural editing into account.

So was it not until you saw you had that short list that you knew you had a viable book, or were you confident sooner than that?

I was actually pretty concerned for a while about whether or not I’d have a viable book or whether I’d need to set up an open submission and get it advertised through duotrope/grinder/etc. Initially, I got some great stories come through from established writers and some fabulous reprints, but even though the anthology was practically invite only, I still got a lot of unsuitable stories come through. Either they were off theme or poorly written or just ignored all the submission guidelines. Eventually, 11th hour, I had some really fantastic stories come through. I think once I knew I had 25 relatively solid stories I knew I had a book, I just needed to whittle out the few then which least suited the theme and the other stories. That left me with the final nineteen – 15 new stories and 4 reprints.

A question about your own writing now: your initial success with short fiction has notably been in responding to themed anthologies and contests (viz, your sales to the Bloody Parchment, Death’s Realm and The Sea anthologies). What do you think is the key to writing to a theme? Is there a key, or is it just a matter of doing your best and hoping it floats the editor’s boat?

In my own experience as a writer, I think that editors are looking for something on the theme but not necessary always a literal interpretation of it. Generally editors are pretty open-minded people and it’s often the slightly off-kilter or more abstract interpretation of a theme by a writer that produces a story that has that special something. Try to be original. With any theme, there are going to be obvious cliches—try and avoid them. If you’re going to use a trope, make the spin on it fresh.

Good advice. You could adapt that “what are 20 ways this story could end?” exercise, for finding the right but less-obvious ending to a story, to “what are 20 ideas I have from this theme?” Somewhere in the teens you’d hope to find the right one. Do you do anything like that to find the right idea for a theme?

No, but I might give it a try now, haha. Thanks! I think, though,I mostly look for an issue, or an event, or something which really speaks to me.

For example, my wife has given birth to 3 kids in under 3 years, bless her. New life, birth, pregnancy, etc has been a really big part of my life for the last 3 years (and I’m not even a woman!). I fetched my wife’s spew bucket for the last 9 months straight and comforted while she suffered. I rushed her to the hospital with hyperemesis more than once, and when her waters broke at 1:30 am on the final day. I sat the there completely helpless while she had her contractions and they shoved a needle that looked about a foot long, into her back to give her a spinal block. And stared in horror during the caesarian at this giant cannister that vacuum-sucked litres of my wife’s blood and .. stuff .. into it. Holy moly. What a roller-coaster ride!

And that’s just part of my experience as one man with his wife, in one birth. But there are all kinds of births, right? Births of new opportunities. Births of new nations: “Birth pangs of new Middle East” as Condoleeza Rice put it a while back. These are just some examples, particularly if you view this theme more widely than just making new human babies. I’ve thought more than once that a theme somehow focused on birth might be a great idea for an anthology. I even think that it’d be totally novel, and probably a good exercise for diversity and inclusion, to have a man edit (or at least co-edit) such an anthology—although, understandably, there’d be a lot of pressure on him to not fuck it up. Whether or not I’m the right candidate for that is another story.

Other than that I’d just follow general advice for submitting to anthologies: follow all submission guidelines strictly, write to the theme and the genre. Submit early, so your great story gets the editor’s attention before they’re jaded from having read 200 pieces of slush.

On the surface, writing and editing seem like they should naturally complement each other, but they’re such completely different skills sets that many people are strictly either one or the other. Since you’ve now proved you’re a double threat, what’s the most significant way that editing helps your writing, and vice versa?

Often times I’ll be editing something and be like “Well I KNOW I didn’t mean it like THAT” or something like that. Maybe i’ll come across some improper present participles which are ruining a sequence of events and making it sound like everything is happening simultaneously. Editing helps me know what I mean and mean what I say.

Is that what an “improper present participle” is? Man, I had an editor tell me I had those in a science fiction story, once. I thought they were talking about my spaceships’ ion drives and completely re-did all my technobabble. Maybe that’s why they knocked back the rewrite? Tip for young writers: learn English.

I know, right? I’ve always been good with English, but its been very instinctual. I’ve never known much by way of the actual grammatical rules underpinning it. One of the great things about this anthology project was that it forced me to lift my game. I picked up copies of The Elements of Style, The Elements of Eloquence, Eats, Shoots and Leaves and a bunch of other books. Now I’ve developed an editing workflow.. like a list of things I scan a manuscript for and work through that list systematically. I find its a really good way of performing a solid edit without missing too much. Easier to scan a manuscript 5 or 6 times, each time looking for 1 or 2 types of grammar faults.. rather than scanning it once and trying to read it with every single grammar rule in mind. Possibly not the fastest method, but when you’re editing other people’s work and you’re their last pair of eyes before the public see it, you want to be thorough. It’s a lot different to editing your own work, because once you hand that to a publisher they’ll have someone edit it again for you.

Two related questions: Who is a writer whose work you admire because what they produce is so completely different to what you do? And, what’s a style or genre of story that you’ve not written yourself but want to have a crack at?

The first half of this question is a tough one. I’d probably go with one of the big epic fantasy writers whose work I have enjoyed throughout the years. Robert Jordan. GRRM. (Early) David Eddings, etc or even a litfic writer like Khaled Hoesseini (The Kite Runner, etc) . Now that i’ve begun writing, i’m endlessly fascinated with how they’ve managed to write such LONG stories… sweeping tales, with so many parts, so masny characters and so much dialogue. I honestly can’t fathom how they manage to find so much to write about. I’d like to be able to do that one day, write a novel.. maybe even a series. Right now I’m working on a novella and I’m finding that challenging enough! Horror stories often have particularly small casts of characters, even novels. I could probably write a horror short story with only one character, if I wanted to. These novelists? They amaze me!

That’s a really interesting distinction: I think fantasy stories do tend to have larger casts of characters and (GRRM honourably excepted) you expect most of them to live, whereas horror might tend to have only enough characters to satisfyingly kill and (maybe) leave the Last Girl or the down-and-out-detective alive. I guess because secondary-world fantasy, like historical fiction and space opera, tends to rely on creating a sense of expansiveness, whereas horror, and any thriller genre, wants to create claustrophobia and imminent threat.

What would you point to as a good example of a one-character horror story?

The Outsider by H.P Lovecraft really only has one character. This befuddled guy emerges from this run down castle.. wondering where everyone is and why he’s all alone.. and when he sees people they run away, and he discovers upon seeing his reflection that he’s this hideous ghoul thing. In fact, there’s probably a few other HPL stories which are similar.

Indie author Michael K. Rose wrote a great story called The Tunnel, about a guy who, alone, is exploring a tunnel in a ancient Finnish castle and experiences a kind of psychic manifestation of the tunnel itself.

*Suspended in Dusk Spoiler Alert* Tom Dullemond wrote a freaking awesome story for Suspended in Dusk about a guy, spinning through space, slowly going mad after killing all his crew mates on his space shuttle. While he slips further into insanity he recollects others, but he’s the only live character in the entire thing.

I think I’d like to write a scifi story sometime in the future. Maybe a scifi cross-over. I’ve got a few interesting ideas percolating in my brain juices that might work well but they’re on the back burner. First I have to finish this damn novella.

Oh! Dude! Right there: “The Glorious Liberation of the People’s Technocratic Republic of Vinnland by the Combined Forces of the United Territories of Europa” Scifi cross-over! Use your charm to go get permission for the title. I want to read that story.

If I ever approach a music artist about using their songs as literal fodder for a story, I’m going to approach Jon Schaffer of the metal band Iced Earth. He’s written this cool mythology into his songs that is kinda based around ancient Earth and race of people call the Setians which are supplanted by man’s arrival. The Setians then plot man’s downfall and their priests and seers start planning for the birth of the one that religious people equate to as the anti-christ. They infiltrate and assimilate into human society, and orchestrate various historical events according to their plans (Births of religions, prophets, Jesus Christ, JFK, etc). It all began with the “Something Wicked Saga” on the album Something Wicked This Way Comes that was released in 1998,although the story is expounded upon in later albums.

It’s freaking bad ass and I honestly think it’d make a totally awesome dark fantasy/horror story, but it’s obviously his IP. Jon’s a cool dude though. Who knows? Maybe he’d let me write it one day. But because Iced Earth are my all time favourite band, I’d have to be good enough to do it justice.

Definitely check out the following songs in this order, on youtube, if you want to learn more about Iced Earth and their crazy cool Setian mythos:


2. Birth of the Wicked

3. The Coming Curse


As I send the Suspended in Dusk anthology off to James Roy Daley at Books of the Dead Press for publication, I think now is probably the right time to look back on the experience and see what lessons I learned. So I guess this post is as much for my benefit as it is for all you guys and gals.   I think, ultimatley, these piece of advice are values based and really translate to anything in life.. or at least to writing and publishing generally. Editing a short story anthology was a truly educational experience for me and here is what I learnt.


1.  Aim High

aim high2

When I started this project, originally with my dear friend Nerine Dorman, I thought I’d see whether I could get a favourite author of  Nerine’s (Angela Slatter) to submit a reprint story.  I contacted Angela and told her about the project, told her how we’re great fans of her work. I then told her that it wasn’t a pro-paying market and that I understand if she’s not interested but I was wondering if she’d contribute a reprint. Well guess what? Angela offered to submit a BRAND NEW STORY.  A brand new story from a British Fantasy Award winning author… in my anthology? No way?? YES WAY! ❤

This then lead me to think … “Well.. if I asked Angela nicely and she said yes.. what happens if I ask one of the other great authors I admire? The worst they can do is say no, right?”  Wrong. The worst they can do is actually not even respond, which I did learn. But that’s cool. Some didn’t respond, some responded and said no for various reasons. And you know what..? Some said YES. Specfically… British Fantasy Award and Bram Stoker award winner Ramsey Campbell. Bram Stoker Award winner John Everson.  Super disturbo writer, Shane McKenzie.   Editor extraordinary and self-publishing powerhouse, Rayne Hall.

What a coup!!  And how did I achieve it all?  Aim high. Hell, go for the freaking throat, man. Just don’t sell yourself short or be all half-assed about it.

 2. Connect. Network. Reach out.


I call this anthology a triumph of networking. Both classic and in the modern social media sense. The majority of the writers that I invited to this anthology were via Twitter. Twitter is an awesome place to meet other people and writers in particular. Don’t ask me why but they love Twitter.

In addition to Twitter, as discussed, I reached out to well known writers via email. For the most part it was via the contact section of their websites. Sometimes I even emailed their webmaster and nicely asked if they’d forward on a message to the writer. They did.  This is how I met some writers who contributed stories and how I reached Jonathan Maberry who read and endorsed the anthology with kind words.

I also sent out a call through my local writing group, Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild, and to the Litreactor community and some of my writing friends I’d made during classes on the site.  I was also able to approach one a writer who teaches at Litreactor through the site’s admin team and was able to ask them about writing an introduction to the anthology.  Month’s later, they had a read of the final product and agreed and wrote a fantastic introduction. (can’t say yet who it is, but I’m super thrilled by this).

What was my secret?  Read on, dear reader. It’s covered in the next point.


3. Be Gracious, and don’t be an ass!


One of the best piece of advice I’ve received.. succinct, to the point, and utterly true… was from Angela Slatter:   Don’t be an ass. Whether it’s in life or in the publishing business, everyone appreciates basic courtesy and basic manners.  If you’re going to approach someone and ask for something (especially an established or professional writer) … it’s you who is asking them. It’s you who wants something. They don’t owe you any favours. Hell, they probably don’t even know you.  Be nice. Ask politely. Be friendly.  Good manners don’t cost you a cent, sprinkle that shit around liberally.   Don’t just ask nicely, thank people for their time. Everyone lives a hard life. Everyone has jobs and kids and obligations. These people are taking time out of their lives to work with you on your project.  Nobody owes you anything. Be gracious. Say thanks.

4. Do your best work


without wanting to sound too preachy or pompous:  Always do your best.  When I started the project I felt like I was a little in over my head. So what did I do?  I started the editing rounds  and focused on what I knew I was good at or what I was most confident in. As I progressed, I polished up on my grammar, the elements of style (I even read The Elements of Style!), and tried to really hone my critical analysis skills and my understanding of story mechanics etc.  In the subsequent rounds, I implemented this new knowledge and allowed myself a little more latitude to request developmental edits or to query writers on matters of style . Boy did it pay off.  I’m a much better editor now. I’m much more confident with grammar. I’m much more confident and excited about editing my own fiction now. And I’m much more confident that I understand what makes a good story and my ability to assess that.

Moral of the story? Do your best. By really working your hardest and pushing the boundaries, you hone your existing skills and you open yourself up to new abilities and new vistas of awesomeness. Just do it.

4. Roll with the punches



When I started the Suspended in Dusk project, I originally intended to co-edit it with Nerine Dorman, who is one of the editors at Dark Continents Publishing.  Nerine and Dark Continents were sadly unable to continue with the project and it all looked like it was done and dusted.  By this point, however, I had already taken submissions from around 60 authors and was in the process of shortlisting and finalising the Table of Contents.  I won’t lie.. this was crushing for me. Projects not going ahead are relatively common in the publishing industry.. but I felt like I’d come so far. Not only was I heavily emotionally invested in the project, I didn’t want to let all the authors down. Nor did I want the embarassment of going back to many of the well known industry veterans and saying “hey, sorry, shows off!”.

So what did I do? I pitched it to another publisher. And when they had a long look at it and decided to pass, what did I do?  I pitched it to another bloody publisher.

The end result? Suspended in Dusk found itself a worthy home at Books of the Dead Press, a respected North American small press.

I can’t even begin to describe how satisfying and rewarding it is to have perseverance like that pay off.  This is how PhD grads and olympic athletes and novelists must feel.

Wow. Just wow.

5. Persevere


There will be times that you look at your writing or the book your editing and think:  “When will this end?” or “I’ll never finish this.”  or “I can’t even focus my eyes anymore.. I’m blind! I”M BLIND!”

Ignore this.  Take a break. Rest your eyes. Focus on your own writing for a while. Watch some TV or kick back with a friend. Get a friend to proof what you’ve done to prove you’re not going mad.

Do all of these things, but don’t give up.   One of the great truths in life is this:  After every hardship, there is ease.   This truth is constant, no matter how morbid you want to get with it.

Eventually, things get better.  You wake up more rested and the blurry words are clear.  You have another read of the story and you capture the filter words you missed the first time.  You get through the first round of edits and the second round is comparatively easy because you’ve torched all the really horrible grammar and its a pretty solid set of stories now.

You push, you keep on at it, you sink your teeth into the jugular for one last dogged shake.  And in the end you know what?  You’re done. It’s finished. Book complete. You win.



Congratulations!  You just finished writing your novel. You just finished editing your novel. You just finished editing your anthology or painting that piece of art you’v been toying with. Hell, maybe you finished cleaning your room and your mum is finally off your back.  ENJOY IT.  Celebrate. Read a book. Smoke a hookah pipe. Go out for a few drinks or paint the town red.  You earned it.  You’ve beaten the boss at the end. Achievement unlocked.

Just don’t forget points 1-5




We’re hear a lot of things about editors… some see them as a necessity, a second set of eyes to catch your mistakes. Some see them as killers-of-darlings, bloodsuckers, anal-retentive grammar nazis hell-bent on removing all the unique and beautiful voice in your work.  Some see them as a useful tool in a writer’s tool kit, great for certain circumstances but not necessarily obligatory at all times.

So what is the truth? Do writer’s need editors?

Frankly, yes.  I’ll make a declarative statement here:  the vast majority of writers need and would greatly benefit from editing in some way, shape or form during many (but not necessarily all)  of their projects.  The reality is no one is perfect at everything. No one knows all the grammar rules. No one sees all their own mistakes.  I’ll try and back this up with the rest of the article.

‘But what about proof readers and beta readers or critique partners?’ I hear you say.  These are great. Use them. Find yourself a critique partner that reads or writes in the genre that you’re working in. Get them to read your stuff. Listen to their advice. If  it makes sense and you agree with it, accept it. If not, don’t implement it.  
But do they replace an actual editor? No, they don’t. Why? Because while they’re probably keen and well intended, its doubtful they are a professional and it is doubtful they will give your work the same level of thorough treatment or scrutiny as a real editor would.  Beta-reading, for the most part is not about the prose level issues and is more geared towards structural/thematic/developmental concerns, rather than grammar.

So what are the issues that lead us to need editing?

There first issue is that most writers, myself included, aren’t truly competent (or even confident!) with proper grammar usage. We write instinctively based upon a mix of what we learnt in high school ,what we remember from reading and what looks “right” on the page. Most of us don’t know what a participle is, or what a gerund is, or what a present participle is. Every writer, if they really and truly wish to be the best they can be and improve their craft, needs to start learning this stuff. It doesn’t have to be a painful process.. there are great books out there, some of them which are absolutely hilariously written, which will teach you when to properly use a semicolon or what the the hell Oxford Comma is. There are also a plethora of really useful grammar websites which all this and more is freely available. If you’re not strong with grammar, not confident or just write by feel rather than thinking about grammar while you write… you will benefit from the services of an editor.

Some people are natural story tellers, some people learn from experiencing, and some people learn from reading/talking/education/instruction/mentoring. We should all expose ourselves to as many different types of learning because there is value in all. This is why storytelling is harder to teach because it is most experiential.  We pick it up from so many different things we do and, crucially, from practice. This is why there is that adage that you have to write a million words of crap before you start churning out the good stuff.  I don’t think an arbitrary number like 1 million is necessarily right, but the underlying element of truth is there. So get out there and EXPERIENCE storytelling. This is essential.  If you’re not strong in this department, or are inexperienced, then you will benefit from services of an editor.

Stephen King once wisely said “If you don’t read books, you have no business writing them”.  No truer words have ever been said. You will never learn what you need to know about writing, from storytelling to grammar, without reading. Read a lot. Read widely. Read outside your comfort zone.  The more you read, the better your writing will be, the better your editing will be, and the better your final product will be. Full stop.  If you don’t read books, your writing will suffer immensely; your editing will suffer immensely; and your finish product will suffer immensely as well.  If you don’t read books, even a good editor may not be able to help your writing.

Editing work ethic and work flow:
I’m currently editing a short story anthology (Suspended In Dusk to be published by Books of the Dead Press *shameless spruik*) which includes people who’ve only published once or twice to people who’ve published dozens of stories and won awards such as the British Fantasy award or the Bram Stoker award, or other prestigious regional awards like the Aurealis award.

The new manuscripts that came through from the old hands and some of the talented authors who’ve been around for a while, clearly, were far better edited by the authors themselves before they’d submitted. Sure I’d still be making some minor edits before it goes to final print, this is natural, but I guess what I’m trying to say is—you shouldn’t ever underestimate how well you, as a writer, can actually edit your own work.

In my personal opinion, one of the major things that lets writers down in the editing department —and is a major reason why most of us need second pairs of eyes to look at our work SO BADLY—is that we don’t have an actual editing workflow. We think “OK, I’m gonna edit this now.. dododododo…there you go, editing done” . What is most beneficial in editing, however,  is to have a series of steps.. or a check list.. of things you want to do/achieve and to methodically (and repeatedly! )run through your piece of text (story/chapter/scene) until you’ve scanned it for each of these things and rectified them.

This is an basic example of my editing workflow.

1. Read through the piece of text and highlight anything that looks like a developmental issue… stuff that doesn’t make sense, logical inconsistencies, stuff that is poorly phrased or worded, instances where the author has told when should’ve shown. If it’s my own work, I fix these issues first, because it may result in a dramatic addition of new text or removal of existing text. If someone else’s work I comment them all in track changes and suggest how they might go about fixing them.
2. Read through the piece of text again and focus solely on correcting punctuation… commas, apostrophes, colons, semicolons, fullstops.
3. Read through the piece of text again and focus on more complex grammar issues: tense, correct use of present participles
4. Go through the entire text again and address instances of passive voice and remove as much of it as possible. Here I usually don’t read the text, but usually just do a “find” for filter words (feel,look,watch,hear,realise,decided,know,can,etc.) and where possible, reword sentences to make them active rather than passive.

Implement something like this (and you needn’t mimic mine, find something that works for you!), and be surprised how tight your prose AND storytelling can become.  If you don’t have this kind of editing work ethic or work flow, or are inexperienced in implementing it in regards to your own writing… you will benefit from the services of an editor.


I think most of us are lacking in one or all of the aforementioned departments. To that end we will all benefit, to lesser and greater degrees, from having our work looked at by an experienced editor.

At the same time, I’m firmly of the belief that you can achieve a very very high standard of editing of your own work, so that it is 100% ready to for submission to magazines/agents/publishers, without needing to hire an actual professional editor. To reach this stage in your writing career takes effort, resolve, preparation, dedication, but its achievable for you if you want to get there.

If your work is picked up by a publisher, they’ll edit it before it goes to print anyway and should, if they know what they’re about, catch any remaining mistakes etc.
If you’re self publishing, you should still have a second pair of eyes look at it before it goes to print, but even then…I truly believe most of the real grunt work can be done by the writer themselves and a bucket of money can probably be saved.

Everyone should have a second set of eyes run over their work before final print—but I’m not truly convinced that a professional editor is needed in ALL instances. As with all things in life, what you should do is largely based on what you’re attempting to achieve.