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Writing: To Shine or Not to Shine

It’s been a while since I posted anything on my own writing. Partly because I’m in a slow stage and partly because well, I guess because I’ve been plugging at one story for a bit and revisiting an old novel. Earlier this year I polished up the long running story (long running in that it took me 15 years to write) and sent it off to the Shine anthology being edited by Jetse de Vries in the Netherlands.

It’s an intriguing anthology because the point is that the future is bright, not the dystopian worlds so often shown in SF and fantasy, and especially in short stories. The subgenre (or maybe getting back to the grassroots genre) of “mundane SF” looks at the world within the next 50 years, on our planet (mostly) and with a possible, believable extrapolation of future science and technologies. No bug-eyed aliens, no extra worlds or space-faring races.

For Jetse’s anthology, he also wanted a future world that was better than this one. My world starts out worse but with a hopefully uplifting future, so it didn’t fit. But there have been discussions of late, on the SF Canada writers’ list, as well as at Worldcon about all the dystopian SF that’s being written. How, some editors were asked, do you get people to write something uplifting that takes place in the near future?

A good question and I think one reason we are writing so much dystopian fiction is because of the inundation our culture receives of news stories about the terror and horror and pollution and the fall of civilization. In some ways, today is no worse than it was fifty years ago. In other ways, it is worse. There are more pollutants, more severe forms of crime (even if there is less crime), more illnesses and allergies. Or is there? Some yes, but we have 24-hour news channels, and as they say, no news is good news.

With the constant fear-mongering, the visuals of graphic crimes, the devastating natural disasters, the “wars on terror” we find our mindset dwelling on THE END, or the present and how to survive it. We have no faith of a good future. We have no pretense that there will be endless resources. We’ll run out of water, oil, food and space. So how indeed do we write utopian fiction?

This discussion and Jetse’s comment to me has got me thinking. My own fiction is often dark but not always. Yet I’ve never sold the two humorous pieces I’ve written, but then they’re fantasy more than SF. Still, part of bringing our future, our tangible world to a brighter place is to not succumb to the gloom and despair but to hope and work towards a dream, not a nightmare. I’ll consider this as I write some of my future fiction.

So with that in mind, Jetse de Vries is planning some contests for the pre-release of his anthology, Shine. Here is what he said:

 

Shine is slated for an early 2010 release, and until that time I will keep several features (‘Optimistic SG around the World’, ‘Music that Makes You Feel Optimistic’, etc.) running on the Shine blog, while adding new ones. 

First, I will be running a number of stories that came very close, but didn’t make the final cut for a variety of reasons (I’ve tried to walk the tightrope of getting maximum quality while also obtaining great variety in tone, content, characters and setting). This to promote Shine and optimistic SF in general. I’ll probably be setting up a new site for that.

Second, I will be holding a competition where people need to guess the correct ending of a certain paragraph—choosing from four alternatives: three bogus, one real—and this for 16 paragraphs, each from one of the 16 accepted Shine stories. Extra points for guessing who the author is. I’m working on interesting prizes. Depending on the actual launch date of Shine, I intend to hold this competition in November or December 2009.

Jetse de Vries
Editor, SHINE anthology & OUTSHINE Twitterzine

 OUTSHINE guidelines: http://shineanthology.wordpress.com/outshine-submission-guidelines/  Shine: http://shineanthology.wordpress.com/ Personal blog: http://eclipticplane.blogspot.com/

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Writing Update March

I’m way behind this year on submissions. Normally I do a blitz in January. But this year I was working on a large editing project for a client. I just seemed to busy to hunker down. Right now I’m trying to get a story rewritten for one anthology and write a new story for another anthology, as well as work on my novel. And I’ve been trying to get my taxes done. So I don’t think I’ve submitted anything new yet this year.

I’ve received some rejections for stories sent out from last fall, but yesterday saw some reward. I arrived home to find a letter from Barton College saying my poem “Finding Dionysus” was awarded second prize and will be published in Crucible. As well, there was an email from Shroud magazine saying they had accepted my story “A Kind Hand” for publication in issue #6.

Yesterday I said that perseverance is a large part of writing and becoming published. I’ve also talked about revisionist poems. Although “Finding Dionysus” is from Persephone’s point of view it’s not as revisionist as some of my others but is part of a series I’ve done on Greek gods. The poem was written about six years ago but as is often the case with submissions, an editor’s preference can be for a particular type or style of writing. As well, magazines may have themes or just published a piece with a similar theme. I was once told by one magazine that they had just published a torso story and they couldn’t take another or they would be seen as a fetish magazine.

“A Kind Hand” is a tale of perseverance in the writing. I started the story probably ten years ago, wrote a bit and let it sit. I liked the idea but for a while wasn’t sure where to go with it. I was basing it off of a Germanic folktale about Berchta (a hearth goddess) so I had the plot but I wanted to give it a more human aspect. Some stories flow out easily and all at once. Others come out in fits and spurts and seem to be a jumble. “A Kind Hand” was somewhere in between and when I wrote on it, it came out fairly smoothly. However, taking so many years to write the story meant that I had to keep rereading it to figure out where I was going. Also, one’s style can change from story to story and year to year. I had to try and continue in the style in which I had started, which I really liked.

Once it was done I sent it out but also sent it to a friend to read. He made some good comments so I brought out the threat aspect a bit more and once it was rejected, sent the story out again. I think I had only submitted this one a few times before Shroud.

Looking at start to finish on the poem was probably seven years. The story was ten or more years in the process. I have ideas like this, that I start because I had an image in my mind, but perhaps no plot, or no ending. They sit and sometimes I do finish them. There are those stories that I complete but am not satisfied with so I maybe send them out once and then they wait for a rewrite so that I can figure out how to make them better. Rarely does a story or poem flow out quickly, all in one piece, with minimal rewriting. And rarely does it go from creation to publication quickly. My quickest was probably “The Fishwife,” which flowed out in no more than three days, needed a minimal rewrite and sold to the first or second place I sent it. Still, with the time taken for submitting and the selection process of the magazine, it was about a year.

This doesn’t even include the time from acceptance to publication. The tardiest rejection I ever received was seven years. Some pieces that have been accepted may be  a year (or more) from acceptance to actually being published.

And last, as fantasy editor of Aberrant Dreams, I have released all stories but one back to the authors. The magazine is going through some structural changes and it was becoming far too long in holding stories. I hate giving up good stories but it wasn’t fair to hang on indefinitely. I have two letters to send out, releasing one more and letting one author choose if he wants his accepted story to sit in the to be published pile or if he’d like to withdraw it. Then we wait for the restructure.

Time is not linear in the world of writing and submitting, nor on the publishing end of a magazine. Patience and perseverance really help.

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Writing: Rejection Letters

On one of my writers’ lists we started discussing rejection letters. These have ranged from the ones that say, “I love your novel but have no idea how I would market it,” to form rejections.

In the range of rejections I’ve received is the acceptance letter from a new magazine that said they had “excepted” my story. I thought they had rejected but they hadn’t. Though the magazine didn’t make it to the first issue, I did get paid.

I have had many form rejections along the vein of “Thanks for your submission but it’s not right for us.” Fairly banal and doesn’t tell you anything of why they didn’t accept your poem or story. I have had the form rejections that are annoying and less than helpful. They’re usually the ones that say something like: “Thanks for your submission but we have decided not to accept it. The reason we reject pieces could be grammar, spelling, we’ve seen the plot before, flat characterization, not enough conflict, the editor was drunk, the editor hates stories about X, bad phase of the moon, we’re not paid enough to care, we don’t like you or your little dog too, etc.” Okay, maybe they don’t say all of these things but they may as well because, really, it’s a shot in the dark for any one of the reasons.

Asimov’s used to have a super irritating one for slushpile authors. It inspired me to write a poem about it that Starline published. I gave Gardner Dozois a copy when I met him at a convention, and I did eventually get out of that slushpile and that annoying letter. There have been a few that were downright insulting and snobby. Why editors think they need to do this to authors, I’m not sure but it usually bespeaks of nonprofessionalism in the magazine too.

I received one from a humor publisher done in the form of a breakup letter. I’m sure they thought they were being cute and funny but I would have rejected it for not being humorous at all and I found it more annoying in its coyness than anything else.

Some rejection letters use a checklist where there are boxes with such things as: plot has been done too often, grammatical issues, not enough conflict, characters flat, dialogue unbelievable, etc. The editor then checks the boxes  that pertain to your submission. Many of these letters also have the box that says, just not right for us, which is a valid reason. These rejections are marginally better because they may give you an idea of what doesn’t work in the story. I haven’t seen any of these for a while now. Either I’m getting personal rejections or the places I send work to just don’t use them.

The best rejection is one that says something about why the editor is rejecting a piece. Although this can often be subjective and once in awhile, downright stupid, (editors are people too) more often it will give you an idea of what is stalling the piece. An example of receiving some information and trying to correct the story is displayed by this one piece that I have never managed to sell. It takes place on an alien world with insectoid and larval creatures. I’d send it to one magazine and would be told the story was too alien and the reader couldn’t relate to the creatures. I’d rewrite and send it out to another magazine and receive back a rejection saying my aliens were too human. I did this for a bit, always having it rejected. Then I didn’t bother to rewrite the story in between the submissions and sure enough, one editor would say “too alien” and another “too human.” I’ll probably never sell that story until I’m a famous chestnut. So rejections must be taken with a grain of salt.

In the writers’ group, most of the writers said they’d prefer an informative rejection. Sometimes that rejection, after editors have held the story for a second reading, seems to be less preferable, but then it means I’m getting close. A no-no is to write back to editors and lambaste them for rejecting your piece. Professionals take it as part of the process and we chalk the annoying ones up to part of the experience. I always try, as an editor, to give a reason for rejecting as it hones my own skills and I know how much writers appreciate it. And so far, I have had letters of thank you but no one calling me names for rejecting their piece of genius.

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Writing: Rights & Contracts

I decided to withdraw my poem from being published in the online magazine Sotto Voce. Often one is paid little to have a poem published. I’ve received everything from $5-$100 for poetry. Of course, I would like to get more rather than less but I’ll sell a poem for $10 if the magazine looks respectable. What I won’t do though, is give my poem away for free.

Likewise, I do read contracts and do take them seriously. Sotto Voce stated they had exclusive rights to put the poem on their website for 120 days. Okay, not a big problem and fairly standard. They also said that at the end of that period all rights revert to the author, but then went on to say they took the nonexclusive right to keep the poem in their archives, as well as using it in a print, audio or other format, should they so choose.

Keeping something in a magazine’s archive is becoming more standard and some magazines will take it down should you resell the piece. Others may not. I could live with that but the nonexclusive rights on print, audio and other were bothersome. Most publishers may ask for the nonexclusive right, which often means first refusal on a print anthology (or whatever they specify) but they will at that time negotiate to pay for that right. Some magazines may say, we take print and anthology rights.

Their use of having an open-ended nonexclusive right in which they informed me that they would not pay additionally bothered me. It also meant that should I try to sell the poem to a print magazine I could jeopardize that sale because it might have been printed already. Given the vagueness of their all-encompassing, nonexclusive rights, I wasn’t sure that I would be notified if they used it elsewise.

Normally, each right is a separate thing: world rights, first North American rights, electronic rights, audio rights, print rights, etc. It’s a hodgepodge and can be very confusing and many publishers will try to lump it all together to get as much as they can for the price of one. I usually ask if I’m not clear, and contracts are often weird legalese. Since I neither needed the modest pay nor the publishing credit (though it’s always nice to have more) and because I was uncomfortable with this contract and didn’t like the exclusive nonexclusive rights they seemed to be taking, I said no after consulting with other writers (just in case I was getting overly picky).

Often contracts can be adjusted. When I receive a written contract I will sometimes write in or cross off something. So far no one has said no to those changes. There is leeway in most cases. Sotto Voce didn’t seem to want to do this and their contract was online with places just to fill out. Not much room for adjusting it. If they had paid more I might have gone with selling the poem to them. But not for peanuts.

Harlequin also had a fairly specific contract that asks for all rights (print, online, audio, ads, etc.) for a period of time. However, they are paying a whole lot more and the contract has a clause that should they go to other formats or languages, reprint, digital, etc. that those fees will be negotiated. I asked the editor about some parts of that contract but decided to go with it, although Harlequin doesn’t specify how long they keep those rights before releasing them. That bothers me and in retrospect I maybe should have put a limit. It might not be too late.

Contracts really do take experts and the wording is often vague or misleading. There are lawyers that specialize in such but we little writers don’t tend to go that route for small sales. There are agents who also specialize in understanding contracts and if you’re selling a book, they can help with the nuances of the rights. As well, many small publishers don’t always realize what they’re asking for and sometimes need educating. In the past I’ve had to mention this to a few new publishers. In the end, it’s up to each person as to what they’re comfortable with selling or giving away. And to me, it’s not about the money so much, but about respecting the writer and the writing.

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Warrior Wisewoman Review

Here is a favorable review out for Warrior Wisewoman. I’m looking for others and will post them for good or ill as they appear. http://thefix-online.com/reviews/warrior-wisewoman/

In “Ice Queen” by Colleen Anderson, Janie Blue is an “icebreaker” entering the virtual world of a system she’s been hired to repair. Two others, another icebreaker and a “netwalker,” have already suffered serious injury trying to repair the same system, and Janie Blue suspects that she hasn’t been told everything she needs to know. A recognized expert in her field, she concentrates on her work and keeps people at a distance. But inside this system, she meets something—or someone—beyond anything she’s ever encountered.

The premise of this story is fascinating, and the tension is high. Anderson expertly conveys the lonely, claustrophobic other-world in which Janie Blue operates, to satisfying effect.

This second one is not a review so much as a description of the stories. If you see other reviews, please let me know. I haven’t yet had a chance to read my copy. Hoping to get to a few stories this week.

http://www.asif.dreamhosters.com/doku.php?id=warrior_wisewoman

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Writing News

Right now I’m more in reading than writing mode. I’ve accepted another story for Aberrant Dreams, with a few in the queue. And my friend Sandra Kasturi was in swamped mode, probably moving closer to swamp thing. After all, she runs Kelp Queen Press http://www.kelpqueenpress.com/ but she also is poetry editor for Chizine http://chizine.com/, is working on an animation plus other projects.

I had a few poems in submission for a while at Chi when she mentioned she was way behind because of several projects. I told her to get some slush pile readers because they’re all the rave and everyone has one. Perhaps I should have been quieter because she came back to me and another person and asked if we would be her readers for poetry. So there goes another editorial hat to wear.

That’s not started yet but mostly I’m reading the first three chapters of eight novels in preparation for the novel writing workshop I’ll be doing in Kansas. That’s at the university in Lawrence and is part of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. http://www2.ku.edu/~sfcenter/novel-workshop.htm Two weeks in July, novel bashing and brainstorming. I have to write a critique for each novel and outline. I’m hoping to do one a day. This does mean that although I’ll be posting here, my blogs will probably concentrate on writing and workshopping for the two weeks, but maybe not.

The other writing projects: the Berchta tale, the barge people, the co-written one with Rhea and the monkey girl story  (including the three stories near completion) are on hold though I may take a few of these with me for when I’m sick of looking at my novel.

I applied for two grants through the BC Arts Council and the Canada Council. Yesterday I received word from BC Arts that the grants have been delayed so I won’t find out till after the fact. I’m expecting Canada Council to take longer. So, even though I’m going to the workshop I may have no money. Say hello to Mr. Plastic. 🙂

Writer Beware: In the past couple of days a writing contest was listed on Craigslist, stating that SFWA was holding a contest. For a $10 entry fee you send in your story and winners and honorable mentions will be published by a big name publisher. The anthology is titled Asimovs of the Future. However, this is a fake contest. SFWA has issued a statement saying they have nothing to do with it and that someone is trying to bilk writers of their money.

 

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The Muse: When a Story Sings

As recently appointed, senior fantasy editor for Aberrant Dreams http://www.hd-image.com/fiction.htm I have the privilege to accept a few stories and the job of rejecting many. In truth, I have several slush pile readers who sift through the stories first. As well, I haven’t been senior editor long. This was in part to move the backlog along. The editor-in-chief, Joe Dickerson, also began publishing some novels. Between that and running the website and making final decisions, well, the webzine was grinding to a halt.

It’s still in the jerky throes of getting up to speed and I certainly can’t speak for the horror or SF editors but we’re now answering within the 5-month limit indicated at www.ralan.com  I haven’t yet seen my first picks go up and it could be a while to get through the accepted backlog, but hopefully we’ll see a bit more new work. Before that, I was a reader for about a year. I took on the job for several reasons. I have, in recent years, wanted to edit a magazine or anthology. If you don’t have your own wad of cash, then it’s working for another mag and the positions are few and far between.

I saw the ad for more editors and applied. My other reason was that by reading what other people are writing I might get a better idea of what the trends are, as well as why some of my own stories don’t sell. Becoming senior editor meant that I also would now choose which fantasy stories would be published.

With every story I’ve rejected I’ve tried to tell the writer why. It helps me concretize what is a good story, both for them and me. I also know that as a writer any constructive comment in a rejection is rare and writers really appreciate having an idea of what didn’t work besides the ubiquitous “it’s not right for us,” which can mean so many things. There have been a few stories I’ve had to reject because I have a quota. Those were the hardest and if several were of a similar theme (magical mystery, ghost, heroic, etc.) then I would narrow within that theme.

A story that I’m most likely to accept is one that sings. It’s how I describe it and what it means isn’t exactly exact. But to sing means it stands out above the rest, is somehow noteworthy and memorable so that I might be thinking of the story or characters weeks later. Some of those singing qualities can be a world/scenario so unique that no one has written on it before (either created completely by the author or a very new POV). It can be a voice (the style of the writing) so catching that you’re carried along by language and description. It can also be flow and conflict; a story so touching, terrifying, thought-provoking that you sit up and pay attention.

It’s a delicate mixutre and some people have a natural knack for it. Most of us mortals have to work at it and sometimes the story, the description, the language, the world, all come together to form the perfect piece. And then the story sings. I’ve learned a few things so far in editing for a magazine. Perhaps it will translate into one of my own stories and the muse will visit more often.

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On Editing

I work as senior fantasy editor for Aberrant Dreams http://www.hd-image.com/fiction.htm and have only been senior fantasy editor for a short time. But I did work as slush pile reader for the last year.

I took on this job for several reasons: It would let me see what types of stories are being written these days. I might understand better why some of my own stories don’t sell. And some day I’d like to have my own magazine or anthology to publish. It’s good experience on several levels.

What I found actually amazed me. I was expecting a lot of stories that were rough, missing one of the essential elements of plot, characterization, dialogue, conflict or setting. Most stories were very complete and written well enough. But I could only choose a very few to send on. As senior editor, that number doesn’t change. There are only so many slots in the magazine and unless we want to hold a story for a very long time, in the end I must even reject good ones.

I try when rejecting a story to say what didn’t work. Why am I rejecting this story but not the others? In some cases I can only say, we didn’t have enough room. And if I have too many magical mystery stories, I will choose the best one only. I am down to selecting three out of about twenty sent to me by the readers.

To make it a little easier I ended up making a chart with a section for character, plot, language, setting and uniqueness. This last category can be the idea itself or the way it’s written–the turn of a phrase. As I’ve said before; there are many good stories but a story really has to sing to be accepted. This is the singing category. Then I grade each aspect from 1-5. The top scores then are accepted.

What have I learned so far? It’s tough to choose and tough to reject a perfectly good story. Some of my own stories don’t sing. Some aren’t worth the massive rewriting, some are. And all my new stories must either have that truly unique plot or way of using language. It is both inspirational to see so many good writers, and daunting as a writer to know what I’m up against.

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