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When Words Collide Writing Convention

 

writing, conventions, When Words Collide, Chizine, publishers

Chizine’s table at the room party.

When Words Collide is a writing convention in Calgary, Alberta, organized by Randy McCharles and a host of helpers. This was its second year in the making and it’s growing too big for the Best Western it was held at. There were a host of panels and a moderate sized dealers room for various publishers to sell their wares. While there was a heavy accent on the speculative in the panels there were also mystery and romance panels. The romance writers had their own party and IFWA (Imaginative Fiction Writers Association) of Calgary was present.

There are cons that are professional track and some that have fan tracks. WWC is a professional track, with some readings, panels about writing and publishing and parties held by publishers. I combined a trip to Alberta to visit family and friends, and to meet some of the writers I knew through email but had not met in person. I could spend time with friends, participate in writing related fun, and yes, the Aurora Awards were held at this event.

I’m actually a bad convention goer. I go to conventions and talk and drink with

Brett Savory, writer, publsher, CZP, Chizine, When Words Collide, writing conventions

Brett Savory, writer, and publisher of CZP at one of the happy room parties.

people, visit the parties and maybe get to a panel or two. This time I was on a good size of panels so felt less inclined to go to other ones. I had intentions of going to a reading or sitting in on a panel discussion but I only made to part of one reading. I did do a combined reading with Bob Stallworthy who read some really excellent poetry, and Susan Forest, who read part of a story that is up at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She was also up for a short story Aurora. I read two poems and part of a story, and not too good a reading since I was a little foggy from the parties the night before.

I also did a  live-action slush reading which involved people handing in the first page of a story. Guest of honor Jack Whyte would read the page in his lovely deep, accented baritone. When we as editors would have stopped reading a submission we put up our hands and said why. In truth I have a habit of trying to read through a full submission because sometimes a writer will hit their stride after a while and just needs some editing. The writing might be sucky but they idea might be great and it might be worth salvaging. The panel also had Susan Mac Gregor and Hayden Trenholm.

wriiter, When Words Collide, editor, Susan MacGregor

Writer and editor, Susan MacGregor

The panel I sat on about poetry and how not to make it boring turned out way better than I thought it would. Poetry has a bad rep of being inaccessible. Sandra Kasturi is a great moderator and there were enough people in the audience so it went well with input from the audience and the panel. The panelists meshed well and the audience seemed interested.

The last panel was on sex in fiction; should you put it in, how much when. We had a publisher of erotic fiction, a writer who writes young adult fiction, another who writes male to male erotica and I write short mostly hetero erotica. Many points were covered but I don’t think the panel flowed as well as the poetry panel. It felt a bit like we were trying to get across individual crusades as opposed to looking at how erotic and explicit scenes can be fit in all types of fiction if warranted. Still, the panel was intelligent and well-versed so the audience got their money’s worth. This panel was set against the publisher parties, but didn’t harm it too much.

The parties and the liquids were plentiful, and Bundoran, Tyche, Edge and ChiZine were some

Aurora Awards, nominee, Derryl Murphy, writer, writing convention

Derryl Murphy was one of the nominees in the Aurora novel category.

of the publishers throwing parties. Jack Whyte had to leave early Saturday morning due to an emergency but he was the hub of a scotch party, which involved four bottles of scotch and a lot of pretty interesting talk about sex and writing and all sorts of things. There wasn’t a drop left by the end of the night but there were a few green faces in the morning.

In all the convention was very enjoyable and I met many authors who I had only chatted with

Aurora Awards, writing convention, When Words Collide

The Aurora Awards were presented at the convention and the list can be found on their website.

in the past. This is a great convention for the new or established writer, and for fans who want to take in a few readings and the parties. Next year’s convention will be August 9-11, in Calgary.

The Aurora Awards ceremony was held Saturday night after the banquet. The list of winners can be found on the site. While I was nominated in poetry I didn’t win, but Helen Marshall won for Skeleton Leaves. Her poetry is excellent and anyone should pick up this gem published by Kelp Queen Press. It was worthy of winning.  Oh, and Randy McCharles won for his organization of the When Words Collide in 2011.

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Publishing: Trials of a Slush Reader

There will probably be more than one post like this as I dig through the various manuscripts that I’m reading for CZP. Slush reading novels is far different from stories or poems, in some ways. You’d think it would be straightforward but it’s not.

The best way to irritate the hell out of a slush reader is to do some silly things like go for an artsy font; bold it, italicize it in spots, change the size. The publisher will decide in the long run on the look and while some italics or bolding are required in a story, too much of it on nearly every line is like eating a whole cake at one sitting.

Easy to read fonts are the way to go because we’re not reading one of these things, we’re reading dozens. Our eyes get tired, we have pages and pages to read and if something other than the story gets in the way, then we don’t get to reading the story without already being annoyed. Times New Roman if you’re not sure.

Double spacing is standard manuscript submission format (there are some exceptions). There is a good reason for this. It used to be, when everything was hard copy, that the editor would have to make notes and edit on the page, and there was no space if it was single spaced. Besides that mechanical consideration, it is easier to read when double spaced and when you have to read many manuscripts and sometimes skim through paragraphs to see if the plot is progressing it’s the best default.

Why can’t people read the instructions, or submission guidelines as we call them? It’s one thing to fudge your font or your border margins slightly. If we ask for three chapters only, don’t send the full manuscript. If we say we want a synopsis too, then send one because we won’t know the full arc of your story with only those sample chapters and we won’t read the full book on spec. If we say send it in .doc or .rtf, we mean it.

The final thing, if we reject you, is not to write back insulting our nationality (or what you think it is) insulting our education level (or what you think it is) and basically telling us that we haven’t realized your edgy genius. I try to say something nice when rejecting a manuscript as well as some reasons why it didn’t work. Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint or narrow down nicely without a more thorough reading. There may be several reasons that it’s not right for a publisher from style to readability. But the next person that insults me for rejecting their manuscript will get blacklisted as well as get a very pointed smackdown as to why exactly their manuscript sucked so badly that it would never be bought.

Sure, you might be rejected a hundred times and then go on to have a best seller. Go for it, but if you piss off the publisher and their slush readers, you’ll have to go elsewhere. When I submit pieces to publishers I understand the busy-ness of editors and I appreciate any comments. If I get a rejection that says, “It wasn’t right for us” I know it might be a form letter, they may not have time to say more, or they didn’t like it for whatever reason but didn’t want to go into it. I accept it. If I get even a sentence saying what was good or bad I appreciate it because any insight helps and it’s rare.

Most of the people I’ve had to reject have been thankful for the comments. The whiny and bitchy ones are becoming memorable and they will not get much of my time the second time around. Should CZP still accept submissions from them they better hope they go to a different slush reader. Of course, we all talk amongst ourselves so we’re aware of the buttheads out there. Be forewarned and do it right the first time.

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Writing: Kiss of Death Acceptances

Perhaps the only thing worse than not getting a story or poem accepted is to have it accepted but to watch the magazine fold, the anthology be canceled, or the supposed publication fade into the ether, never to be heard from again. This probably happens to everyone at some point, but I have had it happen at least seven times. I then begin to wonder, do I have some sort of  superhero (or villain) power where I cause the publications to die? The moment they accept my piece, the end is near–the kiss of death.

Of course that’s sort of a reverse ego thing and if I really did have that power there are a few publications I would like to use it on. Not for rejecting me, mind you. That’s part of the business, but in the past when editing and writing, I was cheated out of money by one magazine, and got so much BS from another, along with a lengthy battle to be paid, that they deserved to fold (and I believe have by now).

But the truth is, especially with the proliferation of the internet, that it’s easier and cheaper to run a magazine (such as online), but it still takes skill, knowledge and consistency. Perhaps the best nonpublication I had was  a magazine called Offworld Magazine. If you’ve never heard of it it’s because they didn’t even get number 1 out the door. They did pay for the story (called a kill-fee in some mags should they choose to not publish, though this one did not have that caveat). However, when I received the letter that said my story had been “excepted” I thought it had been rejected, not “accepted.” To except is to exclude. Hmmm.

Then there were the Tampa marketing anthologies, a list of themed anthologies by this company I had not heard of before. These days, there are many many publishers and small start-ups and new ventures so sometimes it pans out to try something new, after carefully reading the guidelines. It was low paying but still seemed worthy. As can be seen here there was little response from the company and the first anthologies were supposed to be out in June of 2009. After no response and several query emails you tend to chalk these things up to yet more unfulfilled pipe dreams. Then last November I received an email from someone who was asked by the head honcho to get the project done and he was accepting my piece. I asked which piece as I had submitted several, and when was this going to be published. I didn’t wish to pull my piece from other possible submissions unless I had some guarantee. He said he’d ask the big guy…and I never heard from them again.

I’ve sold several poems that were subsequently unaccepted because the magazine forgot they had them or lost them or changed their minds in the next two years. I had a story accepted to a noir erotic anthology and then it was held because they were splitting the anthology into books 2 and 3 and I would be in book 3. And then the publisher canceled book 3. I did get a kill fee on that one too. I’ve had a magazine say, “We loved this poem and would have taken it but we’re closing our doors.”

Sometimes there are odd little anthologies that pop up like “Quantum Planet of the Arts,” a collection of surreal (or something) fiction that was supposed to be published last year. After several emails to the editor who said they were delayed but still planning to publish, (and that she would send my email to the publisher) I heard nothing. My last email this year was a note to her saying, I will presume this venture dead. I heard no response so I think I presumed correctly.

There have been a couple of erotic magazines with the same result, communication dropping off to nonexistence. Circlet Press, always a slow mover fell into that realm in my books. They never replied and I presumed them dead. But instead they win the prize of the slowest rejection letter every–seven years! By that time I had sent the piece out many times (maybe published as I don’t remember what it was). After a certain length, really, a why bother should probably be the best plan. But it is frustrating when publications don’t bother to tell you they’ve rejected your stories, or they’re way behind or they’re folding. It’s part of the biz. I do have two stories languishing in magazines that seem to have dropped off the face of the earth, though I’ve had some private communication. I send those pieces out in the meantime but leave them with the magazine in case they ever get through their slush. It’s been nearly two years with some of them so I’m not exactly holding my breath here.

I recommend www.ralan.com as the best place for speculative markets with updates and the grave of dead magazines. I can say at least that my superhero power of writing and getting pieces published is better than my kiss-of-death power. I’ve had more accepted pieces published than not and that is a relief.

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The Kiss of Death

One might think this is a euphemism for a vampire’s love bite, or perhaps the last sarcastically sensual act of a femme fatale. However I’m talking about the kiss of death as a writer. Now it can be interpreted several different ways but I have managed to be the kiss of death quite a few times.

What I mean is this: you get an acceptance from a publisher/editor for a piece in their magazine and then you either find out that the magazine is folding with the issue before the one that would have your story/poem in it, or they say, “We loved this story and would have published it, but we are closing down the magazine.” And then the story never ever sells to anyone ever.

If I had a credit list of all the publications that have said they would take the story but so long, I would have sold another six pieces of fiction. Perhaps the worst/best example of this was a new SF magazine to which I sent a story for their inaugural issue. I received a letter back saying my story had been “excepted.” As opposed to “accepted” which means to include, except means to exclude. I thought the story had been rejected but as I read through the letter, the opposite was true. I guess that was the first sign of a doomed publication.

I signed a contract, and they sent me a cheque, and…the first issue never came out. But I still had a contract that said it was theirs until printed. After a year I contacted SFWA and asked the contract committee to help. So they told me to send a letter to the publisher indicating that since the magazine seemed to have ceased to exist that I was withdrawing the story. It was worded differently but didn’t leave my story in limb forever.

When there was a spate of magazines that said they would have published this or that but they were closing down I began to wonder if I was the kiss of death and by accepting my piece they had doomed themselves. Of course, that is nothing but ego and the belief in a power I don’t have. The truth is that many writers would have found themselves in the same boat and that many magazines come and go like the flow of the tide.

Funding disappears, editors get sick, quit or get different jobs (since often editing a magazine is a part time job or a labor of love), or are disorganized, and reader interest may flag for any number of reasons. These all affect the longevity of a magazine, whether it’s online or in print.

A successful magazine takes constant advertising, through ads in other magazines, books, websites as well as promotions: buy a subscription and get a discount, buy this magazine at this convention or launch and get two for the price of one, etc. Magazines have to become known and that means more than just by word of mouth though reviews and other editors, writers, readers or publishers may help, a magazine can’t become complacent because there is always more competition.

Of course a magazine has to deliver what readers want as well but the ongoing, marketing, advertising, printing and distribution is a constant issue to  deal with. These aspects are truly what can be the kiss of death to a magazine, not the author with eldritch power.

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Book Review: The Sweetest Kiss II

Continuing from yesterday’s review of The Sweetest Kiss, published by Cleis Press.

Ciara Finn’s “Advantage”  is set in a club where people go to be morsels for vampires and is not book_imagethat different a story from aspects of Buffy and Angel. It also has a few awkward descriptions, such as being bound with handcuffs but the character strains against ropes. The play of masochism on the human’s part and the cold, alieness of vampires comes across very well although this is not as erotic as the other stories.

Maxim Jakubowski writes a raw and sensual tale that manages not to be explicit. “The Communion of Blood and Semen”  is well crafted, and delves into the feelings and the fall into a desire too strong to resist. Of all the stories, this is one of the rougher ones in a physical sense (yet there is more violence in some of the other stories). It brings out a subtle balance of a relationship and is a true tale, as opposed to just a scene, of human/vampire lust. I found it staying in my mind a long time.

“Nightlife” is more a scene than a true tale. Madeleine Oh writes well but her story of a vampire fellating a dwarf man with a giant cock (who is Toulouse Lautrec) does little to arouse and is too short to be intriguing in the outcome. It’s a bit cliché and I was wishing that perhaps Toulouse’s paintings were influenced or his penchant to attend brothels increased after this encounter.

Evan Mora’s “Takeout or Delivery” is about James a vampire who adapts to the new world, leaving vampires in capes behind. It is two tales; the first part is about his beginnings with Lilith, two creatures of lust finding each other. The second half is how he uses Lavalife to get women, drink them, wipe their memories and do it again, especially with submissives. He is still a creature of lust and loves the modern world. Although witty, I didn’t find the tale particularly new.

“Devouring Heart” is the only lesbian tale in the book and Andrea Dale presents a heartbreaking tale of love and how far a lover will go to keep a partner. There is a good use of metaphor between the title and the relationship and this is one of the few tales that ends sadly, yet I have a tender place for this as one of my favorites for evoking that aching sense of love and love lost.

Michelle Belanger moves us farther away from the real world or a world of a century ago with “Wicked Kisses.” Here there is a vampire temple and the Scarlet One, through contest or lottery is chosen for a special ritual. There is a certain timelessness in it and I would have almost have said it was in the past except for the description on the Scarlet One’s gown. It is sensual and luxurious in detail and very like a dream or a drug-induced state. The sex isn’t with the vampires. Or is it?

“Fourth World” is not the only story in this anthology that takes place in a different locale but it is the only one in Thailand. Lisabet Sarai builds good tension with a sinuous, beautiful woman in full control of two men. She doesn’t bite them nor reveals fangs but slowly slices them with her nails while riding them, lapping their blood. She seems a truly animalistic, sensual predator. The outcome isn’t known but we can guess where it goes.

“Turn” also takes us into more of a ritualized act with the line between demon and vampire being very thin. The character summons him so that she can change. Nikki Magennis’s story is the roughest of all the tales with the sex more like being forced than sensual and as the vampire comes he drinks his summoner’s blood, completing a circle of taking and giving life. Very interesting and a raw, less romantic take on vampires.

Kristina Wright’s “Cutter” is about Evie, a distressed woman who lets her pain by slicing her arms and thighs. She meets a vampire who can scent her blood and pain. A very interesting twist on the tale where this vampire might just be her salvation and healer.

Like “Cutter” the last tale, “Once an Addict…” twists the meaning of vampire. And like some of the other tales in this book  A.D.R. Forte draws a parallel between human and vampire needs or a symbiosis that can take place. This story goes back the farthest in history, but is modern with the vampire helping the addict ancestor of an ancient bloodline to get off of drugs/alcohol. Symbiotic, they hunger for each other. It’s about blood and lust, yet this is the least sensual of the stories though it has a strong plot.

The tales in The Sweetest Kiss span time and countries, just as vampires would through their long lives. There are twists on the relationship of the dominating vampire. There is masochism, sadism, domination and submission. There is addiction, fear, hunger, as well as love and salvation. What one person finds erotic is not the same for another. I would say this anthology deftly gives a taste of something for everyone. The writing in most cases is of a very good caliber and tales range from those little pieces to get off on to those tales that have meat to sink your teeth into. The Sweetest Kiss successfully delivers eroticism and bite.

http://www.cleispress.com/index.php

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Writing: The Process of Rejection

Anyone who wants to be a writer should not even bother if they can’t handle rejection. Rejection is a big part of the picture and it’s your work, the very words you may have sweat blood and tears to create that gets rejected. Some people, especially first-time novelists treat their creation and more endearing that Dr. Frankenstein regarded his monster. It is their baby and any time you want to remove a piece or say it is flawed (in a critique) or reject it outright, then you are rejecting their child. Sometimes you’re pulling limbs off of their child and how could that be; it’s perfect and formed from the cerebral loins of your love?

But them’s the breaks. You win some and you lose some. If I had to give a recipe for writing and getting published it would be 30% writing, 50% perseverance and 20% resilience, to withstand the rejections. So it is, that you must withstand the rejection and is probably why many people don’t become successful writers. That and learning to write well of course.

Often when starting out a writer will get a form rejection letter or email from a slush reader. This means the story didn’t make it to the second tier, the main editor or the second round. Some publications run on committee and a piece has to get all yeas or nays to decide which way it goes. The slush reader can therefore reject a story that the editor might actually have liked. But it is not for the writer to circumvent the process and try to get to the editor past the readers.

Depending on how the system is set up, either the editor divvies up the submissions to the slush readers or the readers get them first. There are actually two ways to get past the slush pile…eventually. One is to write exceedingly well, get your stuff noticed and bought. The other is to meet the editor at a convention or other event, chat with them (without being pushy) and see if they will let you/invite you to submit to them. In those cases, you should mention in your cover letter where you met them and something about the conversation.

It won’t guarantee a sale but it might get you a personal rejection. There are also some editors who read everything that comes to them and therefore they will always do the rejections. Ellen Datlow was one and there are others. And sometimes an editor will ask for a rewrite but then reject the piece if the rewrite doesn’t do what they’re looking for. As a reader for Chizine in poetry, we’ve asked some writers to rework their poems and we never hear from them again. Being accepted by Chizine is a rare thing since there are four issues a year and about four poems per issue. I’m surprised that someone would take it so lackadaisically and pass up the opportunity for publication.

The other end of submitting work is the waiting. Most markets list their guidelines and say it takes 3-4 months to reply or 6-8 weeks or something  with an end date. A writer who starts sending query letters before that date just annoys the readers. After that date, it is fair for a writer to query and ask if the piece is still being considered. Sometimes when I do this, I get an immediate rejection, which makes me wonder if it triggers some guilt button with the readers and they just toss it out of their sight.

This happened last night with a college publication that was more than a month overdue so I send a short, are you still considering this. I received within hours, a rejection that said sorry for holding this so long but we’re going to pass. So did they read it, or did they just toss it out of their way? I don’t know and may never know. Queries do sometime prod the editors to take a look.

If a query gets no answer, then it is up to the writer to decide if they want to wait forever or submit their writing elsewhere. I don’t even bother to withdraw a story because if I can’t even get a polite response, then I’m not wasting any more time. I usually send the piece out again, making a note that I never received a response.

Any publication that has taken more than three months past their projected return date without so much as a notice will have to expect that they’ll lose good stories and poems. An editor should never get mad or upset at a writer who has moved on elsewhere because the market didn’t meet its written requirements and expectations. Just as writers should respect the guidelines of each market (even if they’re ungainly and tedious) so should an editor respect the needs of writers and that they can’t leave their story with a market indefinitely.

I have two stories (soon to be three) with markets that haven’t responded in over a year, after several queries. In these cases I’ve submitted elsewhere. Should I hear from them (as opposed to hearing they’ve gone out of business) then I’ll be surprised. Some of these markets used to be reliable but because of the economy or something in the lives of the editors, they have stopped responding. The worst length of time I had for a rejection was seven years: really at that point the editor should have admitted defeat and started afresh.

The fastest I’ve had a rejection was within six hours. Sometimes those are the worst. You don’t even have a chance to build up hopes of a sale. But then maybe they’re the best because you haven’t built up expectations. Still, I’d love to believe that all of my stories are hard choices, held till the eleventh hour, and then accepted, rejected with reluctance. We can all dream, can’t we?

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Writing: Orycon 31 in Portland

Orycon 31 is Portland’s local science fiction convention. I will be attending as one of many writing and editing guests on the weekend of Nov. 27-29. Many local conventions will often invite writers and editors to attend and in return for sitting on panels they get a free membership. The larger conventions (World Horror, World Fantasy and Worldcon) do not do this because the ratio of professionals is so high. It seems the local Vcon (Vancouver, BC) is still trying to figure out how to invite the locals.

But Orycon has been inviting me for years and I have far more publications now than I did when I attended the first one over ten years ago. I don’t get to many conventions but I’ll go to Orycon as the quality is usually quite good. Because I had no idea what time I would arrive or leave on the Friday and Sunday I told them I could only do panels on Saturday.

And so it is I’ll be on two one panel. One is “Drowning in Slush” with editors Deb Taber and Maggie Jamison  from Apex ; Abyss and Apex (which for some reason I always pronounce Abbess–I should be smacked) magazine’s Camille Alexa, and Lou Anders, the editing guest of honor at Orycon. Later that day I’ll be on “Publishing Ethics”.  I’ve just received the updated itinerary and I’m not on that one any longer.

At midnight on Saturday I’ll be doing an erotic reading with four other authors. That’s just been changed to three others; Theresa “Darklady” Reed, Tammy Lindsley ( I can’t find much on her but she’s on the bid committee for Worldcon Reno in 2011) and Kal Colbalt. It works out to about fifteen minutes apiece so I’ll need to find a pithy, erotic scene from an existing story, and of course one with more SF or fantasy elements (Isn’t all erotica fantasy?). I might read “The Boy Who Bled Rubies” from Don Juan and Men or “Janukurpara” from the Mammoth Book of the Kama Sutra. These two have been published in the last year. However it might be fun to read from “A Taste for Treasure”  to be published in the Harlequin erotic fairy tale anthology Alison’s Wonderland next year. I’ll have to do some timed readings and figure out which excerpt works well at midnight to keep people hot and bothered.

I am much more familiar with the editors on the panel than I am with the authors at the reading . But that makes sense as I submit to many of the magazines. Any field of writing, whether fantasy, SF, erotica or mainstream literary (as well as any other genre and subgenre) has numerous writers. There are those at the top, famous, selling a lot, read by many, interviewed often and known by the general public. Then it peters down to lesser known novelists and onto to fiction writers of various sorts. There are many magazines of different calibers and people publishing a lot or a bit. Even if I was up on my reading (which I’m not because I use my time to write…and read some) I probably wouldn’t know everyone out there. And I know far more in the SF/fantasy side than even the erotica side. It’s one reason many of us do these cons, to get some exposure.

If I worked full-time in publishing (some day I shall) I might then know most of the names. Even when I was a book buyer I knew every novelist’s name. A few years out of that business and I don’t know many new authors at all. Then there are the novelists and the short fiction authors. Ellen Datlow and other editors who are velociraptors in their reading have a very good fang at the jugular of speculative fiction (hey, it’s Hallowe’en; I had to use the imagery). I’d love to be able to do that but it’s a constant thing.

So I look forward to meeting the editors and the writers I don’t know, and hear their knowledge or readings. I often find that reading or hearing other stories and poems, makes me go, hmm, interesting. I never thought of that, and what if… Reading other people’s work can be inspirational as well as churning up thoughts in the ole gray matter. I’m looking forward to Orycon and hoping for good weather on the drive down. Now I need to polish up a piece to read, and practice reading it aloud.

http://www.orycon.org/orycon31/

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Writing: Taking it Personally

This could just be called Writing and Ego for any time a writer submits a piece of work to an editor, ego does get involved. We write because of ego, because we think we have something to say, because we think we’re good enough, because we want to be rich or famous. But to write means also to be able to disengage the ego some.

The other night I was talking with someone who has a friend trying to be a writer. Great. Everyone should try to pursue their dreams. But writing, for 99% of us, takes work. A lot of work. It takes honing your craft. It takes knowledge. It takes a certain skill and perception that is ephemeral, that could be called ideas but is also your unique way of stringing them together. It takes perseverance. And yes, it takes luck.

The first part, learning your craft, is where everyone must start and stay to a degree. It is always a judgment call as to when you think your piece is ready. Once it’s been written, reworked, critiqued, rewritten and edited, it is then ready to send out, maybe. But sometimes you must take a leap of faith and submit the story or poem. Every writer can benefit from workshops, classes and writers’ groups. If I could afford to do it more, I’d take more workshops. Until I’m selling my pieces 100% of the time I still have something I can learn. To think otherwise would again be ego. A workshop might just be a new way to work or come up with ideas or just the camaraderie of other writers, because, as any writer knows, writing is a fairly solitary process.

Selling your writing takes the knowledge not just of how to write, but of the submission process. Sometimes people have an idea, their cherished baby, and they write it and then send it out. If you haven’t learned much about writing or even had your story read by knowledgeable people (editors, not friends unless those friends are writers/editors) then you jeopardize your chances at publication. Such basics as grammar can stop an editor from reading an otherwise great story. Editors read so much every day that they have no patience for people who cannot follow basic grammar, spelling and guidelines.

No one can teach a person ideas, but there are workshops that look at how to take those rough ideas and chisel them into the best and most clear idea, compelling, interesting and filled with tension. But the beginning idea must be interesting in and of itself and unique, not done before. There are many stories, even within a genre, that follow certain motifs. Each one that is published must present something new.

Next, and how we get back to the person trying to be a writer, is perseverance. He had sent his work out to a publisher or two and when it was rejected, he took it personally. They (those faceless editors) hate him. Really, the editor or publisher doesn’t know most beginning writers from Adam. The writers too, are faceless. There is rarely anything personal unless you take to insulting the editor in your cover letters.

It may not even be that your story sucks. Here are just a few reasons that an editor/publisher may not have accepted your story/novel, which has nothing particular to do with your work:

  • doesn’t fit their theme
  • they’ve just spent two years publishing books on this topic and the market is glutted
  • budget cuts
  • there are limited slots and even some of the good stories must go
  • you wrote on a topic that the editor personally hates
  • the slushpile has grown so big that there is some wholesale rejecting to get them caught up (not as frequent but it can happen)
  • they’re changing their focus
  • they’re folding (I’ve sold too many pieces to magazines/anthologies, which were then never published because they closed down–I call it the kiss of death)
  • the structure of the magazine/anthology has changed (I sold one story to an anthology which then went to a different publisher and then was halved–although I received a kill-fee the story was never published.)
  • the editor has changed

Those are a few reasons that has nothing whatsoever to do with the writer. Grammar, typos, conflict, tension, characterization, plot, theme, structure and flow have to do with the written piece. Editors also reject on those reasons, if the other reasons haven’t come into play first. Again, this is rarely personal. They don’t know you. They base their thoughts on the manuscript before them.

This is why perseverance is the mainstay for most writers. It is a very tiny percentage of us who can send out our work and sell it on the first go. My ego had to accept that I wasn’t the greatest writer since sliced bread. Otherwise I would sell everything or mostly everything. I’m still a small pea in a big pod. Even the best writers, the award winners, don’t sell some pieces. You and me and most other writers have to keep writing and submitting. If I’d quit after my first year, I would have only sold a couple of poems. I keep going, getting better the more I write (and read), the more workshops I take, the more I discuss my ongoing projects before submitting.

If you want to be a writer, you’ll need to disengage your ego enough to get through the rejections. At one time I could paper my bathroom in acceptances and my house in rejections. Now I might be able to paper a house in acceptances…and several houses in rejections. So it goes. If you take it personally, if you want to be an overnight sensation, if you get overly depressed or angry at a rejection, then you better not be a writer.

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Writing: The Lovable Bastard

Several editors have said that you have to have a protagonist that the reader can identify with. If the character is a bastard, he has to be a lovable bastard. And in essence this is true. In any story, whether a short story or a novel there has to be some character that the writer can like. Often this will be the main character or one of the viewpoint characters.

The biggest problem, if you make all your characters bastards or despicable murderers, is that no one will identify with them except perhaps the odd psychopath. If no one identifies, then no one cares. The reader is not invested in seeing if the protagonist wins against her personal conflict or not. Does the hero beat the evil overlord or die a valiant death? Who cares if it’s only evil overlords battling each other…unless there is something human about them, a softer side. The evil overlord who has a little puppy that he loves dearly will garner some sympathy from the reader compared to the overlords that eat the puppies.

So why have a  lovable bastard at all? As the realm of speculative fiction writing grew and changed, it began to reflect deeper plots with more well developed characters. It wasn’t just about the giant space ship with a tachyon drive going through space with a man, any man, battling the alien elements. It was now about a specific person, a woman or a man, who was much like you and me, but placed in a different time or world. The “every man” “every woman” aspect means that we can relate to these characters because they are human. They’re flawed. They have good days and bad days, have shining aspects of their personalities and flaws that can be their downfalls.

No one is a hero twenty-four hours a day. Even the most valiant knight must eat, drink, fart, defecate and sleep. He’s human. In spec writing you may have an alien, a god, some other life form and they may be truly alien in their actions or thoughts, but if you don’t have some character that the reader identifies with it will remain too hard to fathom for the average reader. I have a story I wrote a long time ago with alien larval and insectoid creatures. No matter who I sent the story to (even when I stopped rewriting every time), one editor would find the character too alien and the next would find it too human.

Perfume, by Patrick Suskind was  a book about a man born nearly blind but with a sense of smell so acute that he could “see” with it, could tell the past and almost the future. It won the 1987 World Fantasy award and though the world portrayed was vivid and nearly magical, I didn’t like this book. The main reason was that the main character, more an antagonist than a protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was a bastard, and not lovable in the least. He was a murderer bent on procuring the ultimate scent, who had no compassion for his victims. The victims themselves are not with us long enough for the reader to care for them. The movie took a slightly different twist to probably portray a victim long enough (and her father) so that we had someone to relate to and care about.

Stephen Donaldson, many years ago, wrote the Thomas Covenant series (Lord Foul’s Bane, etc.), which encompassed two trilogies. His main character was again a bastard, a reluctant hero. Thomas Covenant, to me, was not lovable either. He was a big whiner. Being a whiner is okay in a story, if it changes, but Covenant whined until he died and then his girlfriend took over whining. The story was of larger scope than Covenant but the whining made him too unlikable.

A main character may be so flawed that they are not likable. Then the writer needs to have the faithful sidekick, the every woman that you and I feel we could be. Lane Robins handled this deftly with Maledicte. Her main character is tempestuous, jealous, vengeful and ridden by a god that darkens the soul.  Maledicte isn’t that likable but then there is Gilly, a human servant, a conflicted man who is just a man. No gods afflict him and he has no special powers. He is the simple unsung hero to Maledicte’s antihero.

Overall Maledicte is more successful as a book than Perfume when it comes to characters and making your reader care. At times I even care for Maledicte and, like any bastard who is the main character, Maledicte should change by the end of the story, and does. Grenouille never changes so that I did not care if he lived or died in the end. With Covenant, I was relieved when he died.

These three books have stuck in my memory, two becaue the characters weren’t likable and one because there was a sidekick who was. You might think this is okay then but Perfume had a unique world and I could never stomach another Donaldson book again. I tried but found the one book I tried had a character too much like Thomas Covenant. I couldn’t put up with any more “poor me” whiners through a complete series.

To have a likable character, whether faithful sidekick or lovable bastard is truly essential to almost all stories. There are exceptions but for a writer starting out, it’s a must. So here is to the lovable bastards out there; may they all have some redeeming qualities.

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Writing: The Great Wheel of Publishing

 This wheel is large and ungainly, held together with sweat, tears, slush pile manuscripts, spit, unbought or returned books and elbow grease. It lumbers along, turning ever so slowly, sometimes looking more as if it will tumble over then keep rolling. But roll it does, usually, sometimes losing an author, or a novel, some staff or advertising revenue. It does not turn smoothly but continues until the gap of lost material becomes so big that the wheel must be overhauled.

Such is the case with various publishers along the long road of years. Ten years ago I was trying to get copy editing work with US publishers. This Herculean task met many difficulties. Publishers and the editors in charge are over-busy, always reading and procuring manuscripts and then going through the myriad phases of production. Send a letter and if it isn’t imperative to answer (we want your manuscript, pay our invoice) it never gets answered, not even if you include a SASE and you’re looking for employment. The next stage is to phone and hope you get the right editor in the right department. Should you call and only get their voicemail, presume they won’t return your call. And if you live on the west coast and have a three-hour time difference it will take early hours and a crystal ball to figure out the best time and day to try and catch and editor. Give up on Fridays altogether.

Should you get through these first layers of the publishing house inferno, you will most likely get a copy editing test. Once that’s done you send it back. I did two over two-three years with Tor, where they subsequently lost the test both times. Then said oh well you have to go through St. Martins as they’re our boss. Uh, they didn’t know this beforehand when they gave me the test? And Ace gave me the test; I sent it back and heard nothing. When I queried twice they said, oh we can’t hire Canadians. I didn’t know that when I sent you a test. Great, I’ve had a lot of practice with editing tests.

With Harper Collins, I passed the test. Then they sent me disks because they used a specific computer-based editing system. (This was about ten years ago and I’m not sure Word’s track changes feature was that developed then.) So, I received the disks but then had to buy a new computer because I didn’t have the memory capacity. At that time the guy who was going to train me was on holidays for a month. When he got back, he quit. So they were then trying to find someone else. In that time, they also bought out Avon books.

What ensued was two years of frustration and nary a job out of it. The editor I was dealing with was transferred to a different dept., then let go. Others came and went. I was given various names of people and would call every month. Each time I had to explain the situation who I had talked to, where it had changed, what area of copy editing I specialized in (SF/spec fiction) etc. Each time, it was a different person, a new department, a new system. Two years of calling every month after being told I would be hired as a freelancer and I never got one job out of it. But I had a bigger, better computer.

Over the years I have edited for a few US publishers and Canadian publishers but the sheer frustration of getting New York publishers was enough to stop most people. You really do have to live there. The longest stint I had copy editing with one publisher was three years or so with Byron Preiss book packagers (now gone the way of the dodo). And I got my first job because I was at the World Fantasy Convention standing in the lineup for the hotel. The guy in front told me he had just got a promotion to editor and I said, hey do you need any copy editors. He said send a resume when you get back but before I could he called because he had a rush job. Keith DeCandido gave me my first real break in copy editing. He quit before the company imploded and I had stopped doing work form them before that because getting paid was becoming difficult. He now writes novels. I now think of writing my novel, still copy edit and still write.

Other hurdles in the publishing world are managing editors who ask you to copy edit but don’t clarify by how much. Some publishers (or working on some authors) means that you’re required to only correct typos and punctuation. Copy editing is more than this and includes correcting sentence structure and continuity. It can be structural editing, which looks at the overall structure of chapters, pacing and flow, or very close to proofreading. Over the years I have found most companies who wanted proofreading really wanted more than that.

It’s common for individuals looking for an editor to say they want proofreading when in almost all cases they mean copy editing. It can be confusing for the new writer but just as confusing for the freelance editor. I’ve had publishers cancel a project in the middle (they were moving into movies, but did pay for what I’d ) or wanting a book padded (requiring that one line paragraphs be left in and the worst sentences be reworked but not deleted).

Publishing houses usually have a house style and often a style sheet. If they don’t give me one, I usually ask if they have a house style as it can affect the overall product. I’ve started to see some weird things in some books of late. Tor is an American publisher yet I’ve seen a book or two done with British spellings. In one case it may have been to give it the flavor of an earlier era as it was about a world in the 1800s.

But editing and acquisition of books are just a couple spokes of that great wheel. There is design production, advertising, marketing, distribution, return and paying the employees, artists and authors. Some spokes seem to have more weight, or, if you were looking a wooden wheel, some would be sturdier or decorated, but without all of the spokes the wheel fails. And to carry the analogy to the end the hub of the wheel is the writer and the publisher. Without the writer there is no story to sell. Without the publisher there are still stories but it’s harder to get them out to the public.

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