Archive for the ‘Editing’ Category

Hi Everyone,

The Suspended in Dusk 2 anthology was picked up by a new publisher, Grey Matter Press.   As with part 1 of the series, Suspended in Dusk 2 is anthology of horror and dark fiction that continues examines themes of change and the moments between the light and the dark.

I’m very thrilled to announce that January 2018 will see the publication of Suspended in Dusk 2.

Just check out this sexy terrifying cover, created by the incredibly talented Dean Samed:

055-5_5x8-Standing-Paperback-Book-Mockup-SID_lowrez

The book features and fantastic introduction from British Fantasy Award and World Fantasy award winning author Angela Slatter, in addition to 17 stories from some of the best horror and dark fiction writers today.

Table of Contents:

Introduction – Angela Slatter
Love is a Cavity I Can’t Stop Touching – Stephen Graham Jones
The Sundowners – Damien Angelica Walters
Crying Demon – Alan Baxter
Still Life with Natalie – Sarah Read
That Damned Cat – Nerine Dorman
The Immortal Dead – JC Michael
Mother of Shadows – Benjamin Knox
There’s No Light Between Floors – Paul Tremblay
Another World – Ramsey Campbell
The Mournful Cry of Owls – Christopher Golden
Riptide – Dan Rabarts
Dealing in Shadows – Annie Neugebauer
Angeline – Karen Runge
The Hopeless People in the Uninhabitable Places – Letitia Trent
Wants and Needs – Paul Michael Anderson
An Elegy to Childhood Monsters – Gwendolyn Kiste
Lying in the Sun on a Fairytale Day – Bracken MacLeod

I know Grey Matter Press and myself are really looking forward to getting this fantastic book into the hands of readers in a few months time! Stay tuned!

 

 

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I just sent this to Books of the Dead Press via email and will be sending it to their last-known mailing address via registered mail.  I have also decided to post this here to ensure that the message is recieved.

—–

Dear Roy,

I’m writing to you to express my sheer frustration and bewilderment at the lack of communication over the last few months.  I’ve tried contacting you several times and have not received any response to my attempts at contact since October 1.

 I signed Suspended in Dusk 2 with you on September 12, 2015.  On July 4, I gave you a fully-edited, triple proofread manuscript of an anthology featuring stories from some of the best names in the business.  You told me that the book would be released “in a couple of months”.  On October 1 2016, you told me the book would not be released until Q1 2017. The author contracts have now expired  and publication of Suspended in Dusk 2 with Books of the Dead is no longer feasible.  The headlining authors such as Stephen Graham Jones and Damien Angelica Walters have resold their work elsewhere and they would not re-sign with Books of the Dead Press given a year has gone by and the anthology was never published. This hasn’t just tarnished your reputation, it has tarnished my reputation and credibility as a professional editor to some of the best names in the horror fiction business.  I have already emailed you about this, and it is coming up to 3 months since your last email to me.
To make matters worse, your website has disappeared too and I’ve been fielding emails from the writers published by BOTD who are trying to work out if BOTD even exists anymore and what is happening with their books which they’re not getting royalties for  but which are still being sold on Amazon etc.  

In addition to the failure of Suspended in Dusk 2, each royalty payment I’ve received from Books of the Dead for Suspended in Dusk has been progressively closer to the “no later than 160 days from the end of the period” stipulated in my contract.  It has now been 168 days since the end of Q2 and I still have not received payment, as per the aforementioned paragraph of the contract.

I have lost faith in Books of the Dead Press to adhere to and fulfil the contract for Suspended in Dusk 1 and the contract for Suspended in Dusk 2 has been made completely redundant by the lack of communication and action from yourself which has resulted in the lapse of all the author contracts and the sale of their fiction to other markets. The virtual disappearance of your presence in social media, the disappearance of your website and the disappearance of royalty payments within the contractually agreed time period leaves me no choice as to my actions. I regret to say that I am—without delay and on the basis of there being no “notice of default and right to cure” clause in the contract requiring me to grant you time to correct this—reclaiming my rights to both Suspended in Dusk 1 and 2.  I will be requesting that Amazon remove Suspended in Dusk from their site and I will send you this as a letter via registered mail to the one address that ANY of the books of the dead authors have for you:

 

Books of the Dead

c/o James Roy Daley

742 Pascoe Crt.,

Oshawa, On,

Canada, L1K 1S9

 

I will also put the contents of this letter of this letter on my blog, in the hope that you have received this message. 

I don’t know why you’ve disappeared. Maybe you’ve had some life or health problem that you needed to take care of. It happens to all of us and I genuinely hope you’re well—but I can’t do business with you and I need to take my work to someone who is visible, communicative, is paying as per my contract and who actually has their hand on the tiller.

Sorry it had to be this way,

 

Simon Dewar

 

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 NarrativeFirst.com:

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 NarrativeFirst.com 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.

Hi Everyone,

I’m selling some short stories edits as perks to fund raise for Marni.  She’s a single mum and mother to a special needs child. We’re trying to give her a weekend off to recharge and help restart her writing career by sending her to StokerCon in Vegas.  I’m offering 4 short story edits. Stories up to 7500 words.  I’ll do two full editing passes on the manuscript,  both developmental and copy edits. I’ll provide an overall manuscript assessment and advice on what might be suitable markets for the story.  I will edit this as though it as a story going into an anthology that has my name on the front.  I’ll edit any genre, although I do specialise in Horror.

marnz

Please be generous and consider donating and picking up some sweet perks.   Kerri-Leigh Grady, a former editor at the romance press Entangled, is also offering *fantastic value* novel length edits for stupidly low amounts.

We’re not in this to fleece anyone or make a squillion dollars, we just wanna get this lovely hard working Super Mum a weekend in Vegas for herself.

https://www.generosity.com/education-fundraising/stokercon-or-bust

diversity

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:
http://catmgrant.tumblr.com/post/140484977019/the-sausage-fest 

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 Litreactor.com 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.

 

 

 

SlushCup_Red

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.

badstorygoodstory
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.

I was alerted to another review of Suspended in Dusk that I thought I’d share.  It’s very exciting and humbling to know the books is out there, still being enjoyed by readers.  Also check out the Parlor of Horror Blog. It has a lot of fiction and movie reviews that are worth a look.

Suspended in Dusk adheres to a general theme. Dusk can be foreboding, the onset of night. It can mean the end of an era or a life. As expressed in the introduction by Jack Ketchum, it can also be a time of transition. Here we find a collection of high quality horror tales to thrill and chill the discerning horror reader. In Shadows of the Lonely Dead by Alan Baxter we find a benefit for an old age home nurse who has witnessed too much death. Next is the small town horror that emerges from the forest, looking for human sacrifices in, At Dusk They Come by Armand Rosamillia.

A Woman of Disrepute by Icy Sedgwick is written in old style gothic, which is a style I enjoy reading. The Ministry of Outrage is an intelligent socio-political commentary that oozes unfathomable truths about the human race and our penchant for violence. Extra kudos to Chris Limb for this offering.

Reasons to Kill by J. C. Michael is one of my fave stories in the book. It pulls you in and keeps twisting, wringing the tension tighter and tighter. It is a fantastic story of zombie infection and vampire lore that feels organically original. Ramsey Campbell contributes to the anthology with a frightening variation on a buried alive story called, Digging Deep. Reading it imparts the feeling of claustrophobia and the desperation in the man’s pleas for help are unnerving.

There are many other great stories to read here, each with their own unique style and tone. Hats off to editor, Simon Dewar, for choosing tales that are top notch horror entertainment and delivering one of the best horror fiction anthologies I’ve read in some time.

https://parlorofhorror.wordpress.com/2015/11/11/suspended-in-dusk-book-review/

4. Locomotion

Locomotive

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.]

Motive
[moh-tiv]
Spell Syllables
Synonyms Examples Word Origin
noun
1.
something that causes a person to act in a certain way, do a certain thing, etc.; incentive.
2.
the goal or object of a person’s actions:
Her motive was revenge.
3.
(in art, literature, and music) a motif.
adjective
4.
causing, or tending to cause, motion.
5.
pertaining to motion.
6.
prompting to action.
7.
constituting a motive or motives.
verb (used with object), motived, motiving.
8.
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

rightinthefeels

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.
http://study.com/academy/lesson/what-is-theme-in-literature-definition-examples-quiz.html

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

SODB

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.
etc.

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.

Conclusion:

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.

 

Introduction

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

MOAR 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.

—————–

Conclusion: 

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.

 

image.skreened-tank.athletic-tri-black.w460h520b3z1

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:

http://writeitsideways.com/are-these-filter-words-weakenin…/

These pages also have some good basic examples of filtering which enable you to contrast sentences with filtering vs sentences without:

http://www.publishingcrawl.com/2012/05/21/filter-words/

http://blog.janicehardy.com/…/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:
http://robbgrindstaff.com/2011/…/do-you-filter-your-fiction/

http://www.scribophile.com/aca…/an-introduction-to-filtering

http://theeditorsblog.net/…/keep-readers-close-to-action-an…

http://doggedlywriting.blogspot.com/…/filtering-character-p…