Staying Inside The Lines: Writing For Anthologies And Other Stuff With Rules

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“Monsters and Waving Hero Junk” sounds like an anthology I would read. Someone get on this.

Short stories and I are taking a break from each other right now—it’s not you, stories, it’s me—but most of the ones I’ve written have been written just for anthologies or collections. Which means that I’m writing to a specific set of guidelines. This is a valuable skill for all fiction writers to have because 1) it’s a cool way to try something new, and 2) it gives you more markets for your work.

But how do you fit your style into a set of guidelines? Unless your style is entirely illegible, it’s not that hard. Here it is: the Bare Knuckle Guide to Writing For Anthologies.

1. Read the guidelines. Then read them again. Make sure you know what it is you’re supposed to write. I’ve seen guidelines that ranged from the crazy broad to the hella specific and everything in between. If you’re going to write for something, then make damn sure it fits the guidelines. They’re there for a reason.

2. Check your pipeline. Got something half finished that could work? Or something that you completed that fits the guidelines? How about an idea that you had a while ago and hadn’t gotten around to writing yet? You might surprise yourself with what you have already available. A few tweaks might be necessary, but, hell, you’re a writer, aren’t you?

3. Research. Is the anthology/magazine/collection/whatever based on a time period? Do some reading about history. Particular sub-genre? Google it and check out what comes up. Spend some time trawling Tumblrs and Pinterest* boards with the keywords. Get images, styles, philosophies, geographies. Anything you think might help.
A note for those who worry this might taint their final project with unoriginality: bucko, you can’t work in a bubble. Well, you probably can, but it’s not advisable. Have faith in your own awesomeness and do the goddamn research. It’ll stop you from making silly mistakes.**

4. Let it percolate. With the theme in mind, let your hind brain work on things. Brainstorm a few things, and then settle in to think. This is less about driving toward an idea than it is about filling your brain up with crap and then seeing what it comes up with while you’re doing the dishes.

5. Listy McListPants. Make a list of ideas. You might have to roll a few around before you find something that sings. Don’t throw the others away, though. They might fit something else down the road. Writers: we’re like idea hoarders.

5. Write. Now you actually have to write the story. With your hands. Like an animal.

6. Check the guidelines again. Does your story still sound like what they’re looking for? Stuff changes in the writing sometimes; it’s like trying to pin down a Hydra. Double check what you’ve done with what they want and see if they still cross over. If not, you have two choices: change the story to fit, or keep it as is and write a new one. Use your own judgement. And remember that if you feel changing it would alter the story in ways you don’t like, that’s cool. Just don’t submit it to that anthology. You’ll waste everyone’s time and come off like an entitled douchebag who can’t be bothered to read the guidelines. Don’t worry, a home for that story will come along sooner or later.

7. Submit: Again after reading the guidelines. Write the cover letter (if one’s needed) and send that bugger packing. Move on to the next one while you anxiously wait for a reply. Rinse. Repeat.

*Fuck me, but Pinterest is obsessed with steampunk.

**While giving you all the freedom to make bigger, better mistakes, of course.

Monday Challenge: This Goes On Your Permanent Record

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“Have you found the words yet, Microscope Girl?” “Not yet, Hanging Over My Shoulder People. Will you back the fuck off?”

In a bit of shameless thievery, I’m taking today’s challenge directly from the pages of Terrible Minds, Chuck Wendig’s blog. If you’re not reading it, you really should. There’s a lot of solid advice in there, between the swearing.
Last week, he posted the Penmonkey Evaluation, a series of questions writers can answer to get a feel for where they are and maybe where they’re going. I’ve answered below as well as in the comments on the original post. After you’ve done your own evaluation, post it in the comments here/on the original. And read through the comment stream on the original. It’s always interesting to see where other people are in this business.
So, Monday Challenge: Go here (or check the questions below) and answer the quiz. Be honest; there’s no benefit to lying.

Penmonkey Evaluation:

a) What’s your greatest strength / skill in terms of writing/storytelling?*

Breaking your heart. Making you feel for those characters and the godawful situations they get themselves in.

b) What’s your greatest weakness in writing/storytelling? What gives you the most trouble?

Conflict resolutions. I can get people into bad situations, but getting them out? Ehhhhh.

c) How many books or other projects have you actually finished? What did you do with them?

Finished four novels. One was a learning project which will never see the light of day; two have been edited and are being submitted; the last is currently being rewritten from the ground up.
Short stories? I dunno, maybe a dozen. All have been submitted, five sold.

d) Best writing advice you’ve ever been given? (i.e. really helped you)

“[S]topping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.**” -Stephen King

e) Worst writing advice you’ve ever been given? (i.e. didn’t help at all, may have hurt)

Most of the advice I’ve been given hasn’t been overtly bad, just not for me. The only two that really stick out as bad bad are less advice and more opinion: 1) “You must write in complete silence” from some article I read a million years ago. I love music and can’t imagine writing without it. It gets me through the aforementioned hard parts. And 2) “You should try writing something serious” from someone who didn’t approve of my love for genre fiction. I think my response was to laugh, but it was a long time ago and I can’t be sure. Again in the words of King, when it comes to memory we all stack the deck.

f) One piece of advice you’d give other writers?

Be brave. The world is full of shit that will stop you: naysayers, doubters, your own fear and apathy.  It’s up to you to put on your stomping boots, dig in your heels, and fight back.
Oh, and write. Don’t forget to do that part.

*Man, it was hard to do this one without feeling like an arrogant douchecanoe.
**Though I usually do my shovelling from a standing position on account on my giant drafting table/standing desk.

Strap In And Grab Your Important Bits: Planning Your Year In Writing

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Get in, loser.

All right, we’ve talked about ideas and talked about getting excited. Now it’s time to get down to brass tacks. Except we’re dealing with the imagination, so I suppose we should be getting down to…brass dendrites? Brass gut flora? Something brass, anyway. * We need a plan.**

Here is your plan:

1) Define your goal.

2) Figure out the steps along the way.

3) Fucking do it.

I recognize that some clarification may be in order.

Part of your plan is going to depend on your goal. Want to write a novel in 2014? Figure out how long you think it’ll be. If you’ve got no fucking clue, guess. I usually say 100,000 words. Why? It’s a nice round number. And it translates to roughly 400 pages of a paperback book. A good length for fantasy or horror, which is what I tend to write. I’ve written shorter and longer, but this is my benchmark.

Got a length? Good. Now figure out how long you have. Got a year? Then that means you have to write…273.972 words a day. Better round that up to 274, just so you don’t stop mid-noun. Not much, is it? Even assuming that you’ll only write five days a week, that’s only 385 words a day. You can do that. So you do. There we are: plan set. All you have to do is colour it in a little.

But what if your goal isn’t to write something, but to publish? Well, assuming you have a finished manuscript—you do have a finished manuscript, don’t you? If not, finishing that is the first step, so back the fuck up—then start researching places it could find a home. Agents or publishers for a novel, magazines or anthologies for short fiction. Make a list. Write a letter. Start sending. When it gets rejected from one place, move to the next on the list.*** Repeat.

And what if, like yours truly, your goal for the year involves not writing something entirely new, but editing an existing project? It’s not such a clear cut goal then, but it’s still definable. I will come back to this in a later post–actually, I’ll come back to most of these in later posts–but for now, here’s the bare bones: go through the manuscript with a red pen; make a big list of what needs to change****; make a plan for those changes and figure out how long they will take. Good rule of thumb for editing? Unless you are very experienced at it, it will take three times longer than you think. At least. You think you can have the changes written in a month? Budget three. If you get done early, then, hey, happy handshakes and big bottles of booze all around. But budget more time than you think. Trust me.

Making a plan—especially one that you figured out the timetable for, and not one you got out of a book that claims anyone can write a novel in two weeks or can be published in three—keeps you on track. It breaks down the bigger goal—Write A Novel, Get Published, Edit The Unmerciful Fuck Out Of That Story Until It No Longer Resembles A Half-Digested Dictionary—into smaller ones—write 500 words today, send out a query letter today, figure out the end of the first chapter today. It grounds you in reality. Which, for people who work inside their own heads, is not at all a bad thing.

Some caveats:

1) Goals change. It happens. Sometimes you think you’re working toward one thing, but realize halfway through that you’d be better off working on this other thing. It’s cool. Don’t panic. Just re-evaluate. Sticking with something that’s no longer what you want is a waste of time. Just make sure it’s really a change and not just you giving up. I suggest strategic reevaluations at three, six, and nine months. That way, you have enough time to get in there and have a go, but also ample opportunity to make course corrections if they’re required.

2) Don’t forget the all important Step Three. Fucking do it. Or all this talk is just masturbation—might make you feel good but it sure as hell doesn’t accomplish anything. You can abandon plans, you can change goals, you can fling yourself out of the literary airlock and into the great vacuum of I Don’t Know What I’m Doing….as long as you keep moving. Plans are good, steps are good, but at the end of the day, the only part that matters is strapping into the launch seat and putting the pedal to the floor.

Now go forth and conquer.

*I really do think like this. It’s amazing I get anything done.
**If you’ve ever read A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett, you know the importance of a good PLN. If you haven’t, go read it.
***This approach assumes no simultaneous submissions, but if your market allows them, then go for it. Just keep a list so you don’t forget what went where.
****Don’t be upset if it says ‘everything’. Mine does.

Popcorn and Rubber-Necking: NaNoWriMo Survival Guide For Spectators

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Buckley and Eddie.

Dude, we should totally order a pizza and watch writers flip out. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As promised, part two of my Survival Guide to NaNoWriMo. Part One, for Participants, is over here. This time, pull up a sideline chair and get the popcorn. Here’s how to make it through the month when it seems like everyone around you is obsessed with plot bunnies and word counts.

1) Breathe. Don’t get caught up in the hype/panic. That shit is contagious. Hang around enough stressed out people and you’ll feel stressed even if you’re not doing anything. Avoid this bullshit—since stress is probably half the goddamn reason you’re not doing NaNo to begin with—and remember to take a deep breath. Or get a drink. Both help.

2) Do Other Shit. Not doing NaNo? This looks like a great time to reorganize your office. Or get a head start on your holiday shopping. Or finally make some headway on the ninja-training-for-dogs program. Bonus points: you get to brag about the stuff you’re getting done to your word-count-obsessed friends.

3) But Don’t Neglect Your Writing. You don’t have to write a novel, but that doesn’t mean you get a free pass. My favourite: using November to really nail down the outline for my next big project. Or catching up on my submissions. Continue to work on something, just to keep your hand in. Besides, it builds good habits for when the Great Time Suck, also known as the holiday season, strikes.

4) Enjoy the Show. Make some popcorn and crack open a cold one, because shit is about to go down. The autumn-chilled streets will be filled with wandering packs of word-herders, all looking for inspiration and extra words and ninja plot spackle techniques. Avoid the mobs, but enjoy the spectacle of creative madness. For extra rubber-necking points, go to the NaNo forums and eavesdrop on the freak outs.* You can even help with some, if you’ve done NaNo in the past and have the benefit of wisdom and experience. Or at least what passes for them on the internet.

5) Be Kind. Your friends are not themselves right now. It’s their Time Of The Month, if you take my meaning. They will return to the fun-loving rock-and-rollers you know and love soon, but until then, remember that they’re bat shit crazy and should only be approached with caution. And a stick. Don’t forget your Writer Poking Stick.
If you have forgotten your stick, then remember to be kind. They’re stressed and deep in the horrifying child birthing process that is required to bring a story into this world, screaming and covered in goo. Cut them a little fucking slack.
And pray for December.

*This may strike some people as voyeuristic. Sure it is. But if you don’t want to get gawked at, have your freak out somewhere that’s not a public forum.

All About Timing: Deadlines and Time Crunches

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Beasts of Hoth

This is what delivers mail in my province. (Photo credit: leg0fenris)

(Late post is late because I was out shoveling 8,752 pounds of snow out of the driveway. My arms are tired.)

Sometimes, the universe has no sense of timing.*

I’ve been working away at my list of submissions. To date, I only had one story lying around that I could send in. All the rest I’ve had to write from scratch. So in my quest to get thirteen new rejections in 2013, I’ve had to increase my output. I started scouring listings for short stories, and I found quite a few, but I do not keep a large backlog of stories. I don’t write a lot of short fiction, and what I do write tends to be in response to some deadline or another. Well, I figured finding some more deadlines would mean more stories finished. Right?

Well, I was partially right. I have been writing more short story ideas, and in general having more ideas for them. Part of that is the old you only find what you’re looking for trick: if I don’t have short stories on the brain, I’m not going to come up with ideas for them. Law of…I don’t know. Law of brains or some shit.

But, wonderful though it is to have all these ideas, there is still not enough time to get them all done. Or even half of them done. Which can be irritating.

There was one anthology that particularly intrigued me, but I was having trouble coming up with exactly the right story for it. I had some notes and a few false starts, but nothing worth submitting. And then I got sick, which put me behind. I chose to devote time to the anthology I actually had a story for and let the other one go.

And then I came up with an idea. A good one, too. It came to me while I was lying on the couch, covered in cats, trying to sneak in a pre-gym nap. A little more thought, and I knew I had something good.

But there was a problem: the due date was too close. With other projects in the works and, you know, having a fucking life, I wouldn’t have time to get it done. At least not done well. And I’m not going to submit a poor piece just to meet my own goal. That’s cheating. Again, I cursed the gods of inspiration** for their piss-poor timing.

But very occasionally, the world listens. Because when I was back checking more listings this week, I saw a change: the deadline had been extended. By two weeks. Just enough time to get it done.

So now I will. Thanks, universe. I owe you one.

*For example, three snow storms in the last week of March. What the unholy fiddle-playing fuck, Weather Gods?
**Commonly known as Research, Coffee, and Being Bat-Shit Crazy.

On The Path to World Domination: The First Publication

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An example of a cheque.

Bitches gonna get paid. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So. My first publication.

It was for a short story called ‘Magic Show’ that I wrote about…hang on, let me check the date mark…holy fuck, almost five years ago. Whoa. Didn’t see that coming. Anyway. I wrote the first draft of it on a six-hour bus ride from Halifax to Cape Breton. I always end up getting lots of writing done in places from which I can’t escape.*

It was also the first short story I’d written since about the seventh grade, so I was kind of unsure about it. But I knew there was an upcoming anthology, Undercurrents, that seemed to be a fit theme-wise, so I wrote up my cover letter, double-checked the manuscript and the letter for embarrassing spelling errors, and sent it in. Here’s the stages it went through:

The Letter: Eventually, a letter came, which told me my story had been accepted and that a contract and edits would follow.
I immediately turned it over just in case someone had scrawled LOL JK NOPE on the back, but they had not. I proceeded to squeal and get high-fives from everyone nearby.

The Contract: This was pretty simple, simple enough that even I, with my limited legal knowledge, could figure it out easily. This details things like payment, rights, all that good stuff. Every short story contract I’ve ever seen has been dead fucking simple. But if you’re unsure, there’s no shame in getting a friend fluent in Legal Speak to look it over, or checking it out via some stuff online. You should know what you’re getting into instead of just signing on the dotted line. Read that shit. You’re a writer, you should respect the power of words.

The Edits: The editors of the anthology sent me a marked-up version of my story with changes they’d like to see. I made the changes and sent it back. That’s it.
Admittedly, most of my edits have been simple, single-pass stuff: spelling errors, tense agreement, accidental slips of the keys that turn ‘shot’ into ‘shit’.** I’ve never had anyone ask me for a different ending, or a complete rewrite, so I can’t comment on how that goes.
However, one point I will make is that the editor is not usually asking. These are the changes they want, and if you choose not to make them, you’d best have a damn good reason. And “I just like it better this way” is not a reason. You’ll have to make a compelling case, or face the possibility of your story getting dropped. Ask yourself if the changes are that big a deal first.

The Book Launch (Optional): I was lucky enough that the first anthology I was published in was launched where I live, so I got to go to the launch. I also did a reading, which was fun. If someone asks you to do one, you should. If you don’t, then, again, have a really damn good reason, because they can really help sell the book, which helps you. (Those of you who are terrified, strap on your adult pants and check out this post on overcoming it.)
Also featured at the book launch was a signing. All us authors had little name-tags, so in the space between the readings, people who had a copy of the book would come up to us and ask for a John Hancock***. Also fun. Make sure you bring a good pen with you, one that won’t crap out. And smile and be pleasant. After all, these people just paid money—real money, that they worked for—for a piece of your writing. Wasn’t that nice of them? Hitch a smile on your face and be nice in return.

The Money: Ah, the part everyone’s waiting for. Sometimes you get this before the launch, sometimes after. I got this particular cheque after because our pay was based on a portion of sales. That’s another thing: sometimes you get a flat fee, sometimes you get a share or royalties or profits or earnings or whatever. Did you read the contract like I told you? It was in there.
That first cheque was pretty sweet. I remember taking it out of the envelope, looking at it and thinking, My first writing pay cheque. I should frame this.
Then I came to my senses and used it to buy beer. Because, dude: money. From writing. How fucking sweet is that?

*Except by the power of imagination.  
**I never stop making this mistake.
***That sounds like a sex act when I write it that way.

The Bare Knuckle Guide to Acquiring Rejection Letters

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FISHERMEN'S SONS PRACTICE TARGET SHOOTING IN B...

Those rejections are in there somewhere. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two scant weeks into the New Year, and I have it: the first rejection letter.* Count it, people. Twelve to go. Big thanks to Harper Voyager for their time, and for being the first on the list. Thanks for playing.

Submitting stuff is hard work. And, though I hate to put it this way, it’s not quite as….hm…rewarding as writing. Okay, it can be, when you get acceptances, but all that work is up front. With writing, you at least get the satisfaction of making something and then looking at it. Submitting is a whole other beast, and requires a different mind set.

Smile Scavenger asked about my first time getting published in the comments the other day, so I figured it would make an excellent post. Actually, it ended up making two posts, one about the process and one about my personal experience. Here’s part one, the process. Also known as the Guide to Acquiring Rejection Letters.
Your experience may vary, but most of the fiction writers I know started off the same way: with short stories. They’re short**, they’re easier to send out, and there’s usually a much shorter response time. Plus, they give you nifty writing credits that you can add to your cover letters. Always a bonus.

Short stories are how I started; I still do them. I’m doing a couple right now, as a matter of fact. They’re a nice palette cleanser after a long project. Here’s the approximate process I go through.

1. Write something. Or find a market for which you can write. Either one works. Sometimes I have stories that I just write, other times I write to a theme for a particular market. As always, write to the best of your ability and then edit that fucker. Polish it and make sure it’s ready to be seen by the judgemental public eye.

2. Find a market. If you wrote for something in particular, this is already done. If not, check the newest Writer’s Guide book or online listings. For speculative fiction, I’ve been making a use of Ralan, which has listings divided by type and pay. Make sure what you wrote fits the market. Just because you wrote a great werewolf erotica does not mean that it belongs in a hard sci-fi anthology. You’re just going to piss people off.
Sidebar: Before sending things out, I’d advise a visit to Preditors and Editors, a site that posts warnings about agents, markets, contests, and other things that have sketchy or downright bad policies. Check it out. Thank me later.

3. Write your cover letter, if you need one, and properly format your submission. All those things in the Submission Guidelines on those listings? They’re there for a reason. Someone, somewhere likes things that way, and since they’re reading your work, they get to decide. It’s not that hard to do the formatting, and you save your story from being read by someone you’ve already pissed off. You are not special. You cannot ignore the rules.

4. Check everything over. Should the submission be an attachment or pasted into the body of an email? SASE or postcard return? Response time? Still open? Did you get the editor’s name right?*** Double check it, then check it again, and then get someone else to fucking check it.

5. Send it out. Wish it luck. Mark a response time in your calendar or iPhone or whatever, so you know if you should send an e-mail at a certain point, or so you don’t forget where it went. You might also want to make a note of what story you sent and to what market, so you don’t accidentally submit to the same market twice. Awkward.

6. Wait. It’s helpful to do something else during this time. Write another story. Work on new ideas. Drink. Or, you know, just stare at the mailbox/hit refresh on your e-mail. Your call.

7. Get the response. If acceptance, celebrate and wait for further details or a contract. If rejection, shake it off, file it away, and get on with your life.

Rinse. Repeat.

Follow these steps, and soon you will be acquiring rejection letters of your very own.

*Actually, this wasn’t an official rejection letter, but the lack-of-response time has expired, which is a rejection. Still counts.
**No fucking kidding, Captain Obvious.
***Once again, why piss off someone before they read your story?