Tag Archives: Writers

Just Do It!

28 Feb

If there is one piece of advice I give to wannabe writers again and again, it’s “Write it and submit it.” If you don’t do it, you might never know failure, but you’ll certainly never know success.

I’ve known many excellent writers who have come nowhere near the success they deserve and the one thing they all have in common is that they either don’t write much or they do, but refuse to submit it. Of course, some of them have good reasons for not doing so – they may be busy with their family commitments or pursuing a career they love, or have other artistic talents that take precedence – but most fail to reach their potential because they just don’t believe in themselves. Perhaps, they worry about the quality of their writing and, so, just don’t put pen to paper. Or, they continually revise it, seeking elusive perfection rather than actually submitting it. Or, they produce reams of work, but, fearing rejection, put it to one side and write something else that nobody will ever read. Then, there are those who are too caught up in every day minutiae, the need to earn a crust, who put off writing till for a tomorrow that never comes.

This is the reason so much rubbish gets published commercially. Professional publishers need reliable writers who can produce to deadlines more than they need good writers. If only those excellent writers would actually write and submit, they would be successes. Instead, the mediocre writers succeed unopposed.

Hence my exhortation. Write your story, poem or article – and, then, submit it. It may be rejected. In fact, it probably will be rejected – even the best novels were usual rejected several times before being accepted for publication, and even well-established writers will sometimes have work rejected. That is a hazard of being a writer – but, if you can understand it has little to do with the quality of your writing (whilst paying attention to any feedback you receive), you will be well on your way to success. Those who submit lots of work and resubmit rejected work stand a much higher chance of acceptance than those who write little and allow rejection to stifle their work’s chances.

If you have written something, you have achieved more than many potentially-great writers. If you submit it, you’ve made the first step towards publication. Keep at it, don’t be scared, and success is likely to come your way. Give up, and you’re guaranteed to fail…

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Reality is Unrealistic

23 Sep

TV Tropes has an extensive selection of examples of the ways in which reality is unrealistic. That is, things that are true but which tend to strike readers or viewers as false. The same thing also afflicts editors, as I experienced twice recently.

My first experience was a passing reference, in a steampunk story set during the Prussian siege of Paris, to the loss of water pressure and the character’s need to wash at the sink. This struck the editor as liable to break a reader’s suspension of disbelief as “this is how everyone washed then.” Of course, this was in a story featuring electric artillery, massive land-battleships and a pneumatic postal system (not to mention the undead). Yet, while a reader could be expected to swallow such scientific advances, piped water was a step too far. Piped mail, but not piped water.

In real life, the French army introduced showers in barracks in the 1870s and the water supply of Paris was being overhauled, while gas was being piped into homes. So, the presence of a shower in an apartment in this alternate Paris was hardly a significant departure from the reality of the time, and one far less than the other elements in the story. Yet, it was one thing that stood out as something of a deal-breaker!

The second highlighted an apparent difference between the UK and the USA. The colours yellow and purple were relevant to a story I wrote, so I had an apparent Christmas present wrapped in yellow-and-lavender paper. In itself, it wasn’t a major plot point, but it did allow one character to observe those colours are associated with Easter rather Christmas, which served as a lead-in to a thematic element later in the story. All pretty inconsequential and throw-away, you might think.

Not at all! It seems that, unlike in Britain, where the story is set, the colours are indelibly linked with Easter, with stores being decorated in them (here, you’re likely to see greens and yellows). Thus, the American editor felt as if the story had blundered into some bizarro world, wondering why the fact was presented as if it were a piece of obscure Christian-only knowledge. Ironically, in the UK, I don’t know if you could even find Christians who are aware of the colour association (my limited researches have yet to show where the colour scheme actually derives from). Certainly, nobody I’ve canvassed knew the link. (I do have to wonder how many Americans would necessarily make the association at Christmastime.)

But, despite being entirely accurate to the British milieu in which it was set, the story lost credibility over what was essentially a minor element for the simple fact that the associations were different in the US.

So, if you need some entertainment, visit the TV Tropes pages and chuckle at the examples, but if you’re a writer, remember that, no matter how accurate you are, you will find someone who thinks you’ve made a mistake. And, if you are a reader, maybe double-check before leaping to criticise a writer for an error – they might actually be right, after all…

The Problem with Inclusive Publishers

8 Jun

These days, more and more publishers are touting their inclusive credentials, stressing that they’re open to a diverse set of contributors. The argument is that, in the past, women, non-white and other minority writers didn’t feel welcome. Primarily, this seems to be an American and large press debate – the British small presses have long been welcoming to a diverse cast of authors and poets – but it is certainly the trend of the moment and, in many ways, a welcome one.

Some publishers, such as Black Girl Magic (issues are available on Amazon) do an excellent job, promoting characters that aren’t often seen in the mainstream and welcoming all sorts of writers. But, others, unintentionally, aren’t so welcoming. The main problem is that, naturally, wanting to welcome a diverse set of writers, they enquire rather intrusively into the lives of would-be contributors. Whereas Black Girl Magic, an excellent example of how to be welcoming, makes answering such questions optional, some make it compulsory. Yes, you could lie or put ‘not applicable’, but it does come across a bit strong. Not everyone wants to share personal details (actually, I’ve been more willing to do so with Black Girl Magic because I didn’t feel badgered). Then, there are those that disbar people who aren’t one of the groups they’re promoting from submitting – not only do I find this off-putting when I qualify to submit, but it’s problematic if you don’t neatly fit in a niche (of course, you can query, but that’s a problem if you’re not keen to discuss yourself with strangers).

Then, there are those that require (that’s require, not request) an author photograph. I suppose you could supply a fake or a non-portrait photo, but it’s not welcoming to people who might have an issue with their image being available online. And, of course, there are those publishers, mainly American, that ask for your ‘legal name’. In Britain, there isn’t actually such a thing, although many people doubtless assume there is and banks and such institutions often act as if there is (it’s actually a complicated topic). Of course, it’s a problem if you have a contract to sign (not that they’re usually worth the data saving them to your hard drive), but it does raise problems for people whose identity isn’t clean cut – the sort of people you might wish to include amongst your writers…

The irony is that, while I’ve found the majority of self-proclaimed inclusive publishers have at least one of these issues, many that make no such claims are actually far more welcoming. But, then, I think the vast majority of editors are only interested in high-quality writing and not who wrote it. I just hope that not too many people are being put off submitting their work by either unintentionally unwelcoming inclusive editors or repeated tales of how other editors aren’t so inclusive. Most are. Try them.

Discriminating Editors

30 Sep

Editors should be discriminating, but rather than discriminating taste in literature, some seem just to discriminate. Now, while I support the right of editors to run their little fiefs as they wish, I believe, as I’ve stated before, that the only legitimate reason to refuse to publish work should be the quality of the writing (with the exception of the behaviour of the writer as it impinges upon their relationship with the editor – abusive or fraudulent writers deserve to be banned). Of course, I have sympathy with editors who worry that association with someone with extreme views may taint them, but I think most people are sensible enough not confuse the publication of fiction with an endorsement of views held by their author (and, where the writing expresses uncomfortable ideas, the editor is, of course, free to reject it on those grounds).

But, even allowing that an editor may choose to ban a writer for their personal sins, there is absolutely no justification for barring writers from publication for any other reason. Indeed, I’ll admit I’m not comfortable with anthologies and competitions that are only open to certain groups – I’ve declined to submit to such where I was eligible for that reason – but, they are, at least, intended to promote less-represented groups rather than hold back others.

(I must stress that there is a difference between these and anthologies and magazines, such as Black Girl Magic, that focus upon minority characters: while people from the represented group are likely to predominate as writers – after all, who else is better placed to write about a group than members of the group? – anybody can submit to them and they seek to encourage inclusivity rather than ghettoise writers.)

Given my feelings, you can imagine my disgust at discovering an editor openly declaring they had banned Israeli writers from submitting until ‘Israel gives the Palestinians a state.’ I found it almost laughable as the editor is an American and the USA is one of those countries that refuse to recognise the Palestinian state, while its meddling in the region is a major reason why moves towards a solution are stalled. Further, USA has failed to give the native Americans or Hawaiians their own states. By his reasoning, the editor ought to ban American writers. (And, why are no other nations’ writers banned, such as Chinese writers over the occupation of Tibet?)

But, I have to wonder if there’s more to it than Palestine. While Israel is home to Arabs and Druze who identify as Israelis, to most people the country is synonymous with Jews and has become an acceptable means for anti-Semites to express their racism. It would certainly explain the apparent hypocrisy in failing to ban any other nationalities if the editor is actually a racist.

I don’t think anyone should be excluded from publication for their nationality, nor due to racism.

Still, regardless of his reasons, I refuse to patronise a publication that discriminates, even if it’s a paying market, and I hope other decent writers would do likewise.

However, I wouldn’t ban the editor from submitting to an Atlantean publication; everyone is welcome to submit and I won’t be asking for their race, religion, gender, sexuality, nationality, politics or any other details that might exclude them. I will consider their work on its merit alone. Which is how it should be.

Contracts

29 Jul

There is one area of writing that I really don’t enjoy: contracts. It’s not the contracts themselves that is the problem, but the fact that so many are badly written and most are irrelevant. Of course, one might expect a contract where a lot of money is involved, but I’ve found absolutely no correlation between the amounts involved and whether a contract exists – I’ve had to sign contracts for stories where the odds of ever earning anything (such as an editor’s choice award) are low, while the highest paying stories I’ve sold didn’t involve a contract at all.

Given the small amounts of money involved, many contracts are effectively unenforceable due to the cost of court proceedings (especially as I’m usually on the wrong side of the Atlantic), making the signing of them a waste of time. (I’ve had one publisher apparently fold without sending the complimentary copy or payment specified in a contract, although the book remains available on Amazon, and been unable to do anything about it.)

Unfortunately, not only do many publishers insist on writers signing this pointless agreements, but a lot of them are badly written. Now, the vast majority of publishers are decent people who don’t intend to scam writers, but I’ve encountered more than one contract that, unintentionally, was worded so that I would lose control over my story, and some that are just plain incomprehensible or contradictory.

The problem is that very few writers are contract lawyers and, for most of us, writing is either a hobby or a very-low-paying occupation, making consulting a lawyer for every contract a financial impossibility given the amounts involved. However, there are three things you can do before signing a contract. The first is to ask a professional writer. Of course, we’re not contract lawyers, but we have the experience to spot the more obvious problems and offer advice. The second thing you can do is post your question in an online legal advice forum (just make sure you choose the right country, as laws may be different elsewhere). The third is to ask the publisher to clarify any points in writing and keep a copy (save a screen grab if it’s an email or online message); although this doesn’t override the contract you’re signing, if they later claim to control rights you didn’t realise you were granting, it may help prove a case of fraud if they misled you when directly questioned about the contract.

I hope any editors reading this will give consideration to whether they need writers to sign a contract and, if they do, whether it needs to be complicated. If all you want are first publication rights and a period of exclusivity, why do you need a dozen clauses? Nor does a contract doesn’t need to be written in legal jargon, so keep it simple!

Set In Stone?

12 Jan

Reading Comedy Rules by Jonathan Lynn, I was struck by his oberservation that filmmakers tend to shun the test audience as interfering with their vision, whereas a new play will be given a test-run before being unveiled in London or on Broadway, allowing any flaws to be corrected before the big premiere.

This reflects a difference between film, television and novels on the one hand and stage plays and short stories on the other (although television once fell on this side of the equation, as any Doctor Who fan can tell you). Of course, any writing will go through some degree of polishing before being revealed to the public as the author redrafts it, test readers feedback and editors edit, but the first set aim at a permanent creation to which little change can be made, while the second set are more ephemeral and allow change to occur over time. (Of course, you do get ‘director’s cuts’ of films and, sometimes, revised novels, but these tend to reflect the effects of ‘executive meddling’ or, for films, changes in technology, rather than changes in the creator’s vision.)

The difference is that a film, television show or novel is intended as a finished product and, after being presented to the public, isn’t expected to change. A play, on the other hand, is effectively a new entity every time it is performed and as is a short story when published anew. The feedback of cast and audience may cause the playwright to rewrite their opus as they search for perfection, just as the edits imposed or suggested by individual editors and reader feedback can lead the short-story writer to modify their piece before it reappears in print. Unless a play is recorded or made into a film, even a version regarded as ‘definitive’ is just one among many, a suggestion rather than an immutable form, just as only a collected edition of an author’s stories offers any permanence of form (and, even then, may be superceded by a later collection).

This is not to say that one way is superior. While reworking a piece over time may lead to perfection, it is to be hoped that the road to publication or release for a novel or film will be rigorous enough to have much the same effect. (Although, of course, the lack of such a process is a risk that self-published novel authors must be aware of and compensate for.) Nor is it necessary that more feedback is always a good thing – sometimes a minority opinion may echo louder than it deserves or the taste of the majority of the audience may be at odds with what the author wishes to produce, and they will have to make a decision about how far to follow such suggestions.

But, it is worthwhile keeping in mind the differences between the two camps if you produce work in each, or are contemplating doing so, as some people are best suited to working in one way or the other. And, if nothing else, it’s an interesting comparison!

So, you want to be published? Part Two

26 Oct

So, you want to published? Well, if you’ve read part one, you ought to have a suitable manuscript to submit. Time to send it off! But, where to? And, what does publication entail?

The following sections seek to cover the main points, but can only constitute a broad overview. Laws vary between countries, guidelines vary between publishers, and things can and do change over time. If you are uncertain, query or research further before submitting or signing a contract.

Markets

The first thing you need to do, is research where to send your manuscript. There are many publishers out there and it is a waste of both your time and theirs if you send it to the wrong one or submit it in the wrong way, and that’s before you consider which publisher would actually be the best one to approach.

Of course, while the structure of this two-part article has assumed you have a submission ready to shop around, it is equally possible to write one aimed at a specific market, for example, to meet the theme of an anthology. Neither approach is the ‘right way’ and even if you aim your writing at a specific publication, the odds are that it will be rejected and you’ll be shopping it around anyway (and, if you have something that suits the theme and length already written, it makes sense to submit it and direct your energies elsewhere).
But, whether you’re writing for a specific publication or trying to find a home for something you’ve already written, you do need to make sure you properly research the market to ensure your piece fits and that you understand issues such as rights and payment.

You may be surprised to learn how often people do something silly, such as sending a short story to a novel publisher or a horror story to a romance anthology. Of course, sometimes publishers are to blame, if their guidelines are vague or so dense that it’s difficult to locate specific details, but that generally results in errors like sending a 4000 word story when the cut-off length is 3000 words, rather than the sort of egregious errors I’ve mentioned, and a sensible writer will query if they cannot find the specifics they require.

Rights

Rights refers to what you are allowing the publisher to do with your work. Many publishers, unfortunately, insist on First Publication Rights – that is, they only want work that hasn’t previously been published. Sometimes, this may be more restricted – they may want work that hasn’t been published in print, but accept work that has appeared online (or vice versa), or work that hasn’t appeared within a specific geographical area (so First British Publication Rights would mean work that hasn’t previously been published in the UK); this latter is less common now, thanks to various print-on-demand (POD) platforms that allow a publisher to release a book in multiple regions at no extra cost.

Self-published work is considered published and most publishers consider work that has appeared on a blog or website or in publications with a limited circulation to be published, too. They usually state this in their guidelines, but, if in doubt, as always, query.

Because few publishers are interested in reprints (or, at least, unsolicited reprints – that is, reprints they didn’t ask for) and usually pay less, you do need to be sure that the publication is the right place for your work. Or, to put it another way, it makes sense to start with the better paying and more prestigious publications before trying lower or non-paying publications or posting it on your blog; you can always seek to have it republished or decide to put it on your blog later.

Of course, that decision has to be balanced by the marketability of your work. Some genres have spawned large numbers of magazines and anthologies, others are quite niche, and if your work falls into the latter, you may find there are few options open to you (just as there are fewer paying outlets for poetry than fiction).
Publication rights cover both print publication and electronic/digital publication and many publishers will seek to acquire both as they release their publications in both formats. Although many publishers, as mentioned, are seeking works that haven’t been published in any format, if they only acquire the rights to publish it in one format, then you may be able to find a publisher of the other who will regard it as unpublished. Print publication can be subdivided into various formats, such as periodical (magazine), paperback, hardback and large-print. These are seldom referred to when it comes to anthologies as most publishers are acquiring the rights to your work for an anthology that will only appear in a specific format, but will come into play where novels are concerned as it is fairly common for different publishers to handle different formats (meaning you either sell them individually or sell them all to one publisher who then resells or leases the rights to other publishers).

As well as straightforward publication rights, the publisher may also be seeking such rights as audio (that is audiobooks) and translation rights (in order to translate it into other languages). Other rights, such as film and stage rights, also exist, but publishers will not normally seek to acquire these. If you retain the audio rights to your work, you can freely record it yourself or sell it to an audio publisher (it is debatable whether this would be regarded as published, but you may find it easiest to have it published first before selling the audio rights, as most audio publishers are happy to accept previously published work). Translation rights exist for each language and do not impinge on the English language rights (so if you have had your story translated into German – or wrote it in German and then translated it into English – you can offer it as unpublished in English unless the publisher specifically mentions translations; but, note that competitions may ban or restrict the entry of translations). Naturally, film rights allow the story to be made into a film and stage rights allow the story to be adapted for the stage and performed, and will usually be sold to those in those fields (you are unlikely to have a say over how the work is adapted).

When granting rights to a publisher, you need to be aware of how long you are granting the rights for and whether or not they are exclusive. One-time publication rights is most common with periodicals and means that a single print run will be produced – although back issues could potentially be available for a long time, once the last copy is sold, no more will be produced without a new agreement being negotiated. Exclusivity refers to the work being restricted to appearing in only that publication (or, for novels, only with that publisher). One year from publication is the most common period for exclusivity, although it may range from three months to three years. Some publications only ever seek non-exclusive publication rights (although they may request the courtesy of exclusivity for a short period). Longer periods of exclusivity should be considered carefully as they will prevent you from reselling or republishing the work elsewhere. Non-exclusive rights refer to how long the publisher may keep the work in print.

In the past, you might sell a work for a single printing or allowing reprinting within a certain period, but with print-on-demand publishing, a publisher can keep an anthology or novel in print indefinitely and this presents something of a problem for the writer as many publishers are now asking for open-ended non-exclusive rights, which may affect the ability to resell work in the future if a publisher is seeking exclusivity. Of course, if you are receiving royalties, this isn’t a bad deal, as you’ll receive royalties for as long as the book sells, but if you sold your story for a one-off payment, the publisher is far more likely to benefit from the deal than you.

Payment

Payment can be a contentious issue! The sensible writer will, of course, avoid vanity presses (those publishers who charge you for the pleasure of seeing your work in print) and will generally avoid those publishers who offer no payment or contributor copy of any sort, as you’ll be paying them if you want a copy (although I do not class with these those webzines and ezines that are freely available to access or download, as you can get a copy for free). But, should a writer submit work to a publisher that only provides a contributor copy or to publishers that offer only royalties (or those webzines and ezines I mentioned)? That is a decision the writer alone can make.

When deciding where to submit work, the writer needs to consider multiple factors such as rights, length, effort, exposure, prestige, personal satisfaction and saleability. Firstly, the more rights you’re offering up, the better the payment you should expect. If a publisher wants audio and translation rights in addition to print publication rights, they should be prepared to pay more. The longer the period of exclusivity they request, the more they ought to offer, and an open-ended period of non-exclusive publication should offer more than one-off publication rights. If the publisher wants to wants to acquire the copyright to a piece outright, the payment ought to be good as you will lose all rights to exploit it yourself in the future.

When a publisher pays by the word or line of poetry, length will, obviously, have a direct effect upon how much you are paid (and allows you to easily compare payment – 2c per word is more than 1c per word). But, you also have to consider length and effort (frequently, but not always, closely related) when deciding what a piece is worth. You may be happy to put a limerick you dashed off in five minutes on your blog, but the epic poem that took you months to get right should be given more respect. Generally, the more time and effort that has gone into your work, the more you want to earn from it.

While the size of the readership will affect pay rates, as small presses with small readerships generally lack the income to pay well, if at all, you might equally be willing to accept lower pay for the opportunity to get your name out there. I’m not talking about those publishers who offer ‘exposure’ under payment (every publisher should be offering that!), but situations such as having a poem on a non-paying webzine that is read by lots of people or in a local newspaper for free. It may be that not being paid or paid less might help you to generate a readership that will increase your income in the long term. Equally the prestige of a publication may affect your decision – is it better to earn $50 from a midline publication or $10 from a prestige publication that will look good on your writing CV? Again, you’re making a call based on long term gain – can a publication credit leverage you better pay rates or more readers in the long term?

Personal satisfaction is that nebulous element of just how happy you are to see your name in print. Some writers are only really interested in writing as a hobby and will be more than happy to see their poem or story in print (although, no matter how pleased, I would recommend they should avoid paying for a copy). Some writers are full-time professionals and would place a paycheque far ahead of any sense of satisfaction. Most are somewhere in between. Only you can decide how satisfying any given publication credit is. This may even change over time. A beginning writer may feel that building up a portfolio of publication credits is their main aim, but once they are established will look mainly at the income they make. Equally, a beginning writer may be hardnosed in pursuit of money. It’s entirely up to you.

Saleability is the last thing to consider. That is, the question of how much would you expect the work to make you. Generally, a reprint will earn you less than an unpublished piece, but a piece that has proven popular may sell better as a reprint. Often, the more niche a piece is, the less it is likely to earn you due to the smaller audience, although if there is sufficient demand and few writers, the reverse may be true. The actual quality of the writing will affect the saleability – the better you are at writing, the greater your chances of being accepted by the higher-paying markets as you will usually have far more competition. And, of course, the more popular and famous you are, the more people will be willing to pay for your work.

By considering all these aspects, you can decide what a reasonable pay rate for any given piece of work is (and you may decide that different pieces are worth different amounts).

The same issues apply to self-publishing when deciding how much to charge for your book. Obviously, you’re keeping your rights, so they don’t factor in, and exposure will either be guesswork or based on experience, but you will need to balance your sense of satisfaction, the book’s saleability and the amount of time and effort (and any costs, such as paying for a cover image) that went into it.

Contracts

The problem with publishing contracts is that 90% of them cover amounts far too small to make enforcing them worthwhile (especially when publisher and writer are in different countries). Only if the writer goes on to become famous or the book sells really well is it worth pursuing any breach. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop publishers from issuing contracts for piddling amounts, often with pointlessly complex language and more clauses than necessary, meaning that you will almost certainly have to deal with them.

Of course, where larger amounts of money are involved or specific duties covered (for example, the publisher has promised to provide a certain level of publicity or the writer has agreed to write a novel to a set deadline) then a contract is a must, but many are nothing more than an inconvenience.

Unfortunately, whether a contract is offered and how complex it is has little to do with the amounts involved. Most small press publishers that offer only a complimentary copy work solely on an informal basis of acceptance letters or emails, but you could still receive a lengthy contract for exactly the same offer.

Generally, you do not need to have a lawyer look over publishing contracts, as the issues are straight forward – what rights are you granting the publisher and for how long, what format will it be published in, when it is due to be published, what happens if publication is delayed or cancelled, and how much will you be paid and when.

But, you do need to read them carefully to be certain nothing slips by you, especially if the language is convoluted and flowery. The last thing you want is to discover you’ve given away more rights than you intended. Most publishers are decent, honest folk, but this might happen unintentionally if the contract is poorly worded (I had to ask for one contract to be reworded because if implied I would have to pay the publisher if I wanted to reprint the story in my own anthology).

Given that most contracts cover such small amounts, the cost of having it looked at by a lawyer will be prohibitive. But, if you aren’t sure a contract is legit or you just don’t understand it, you do have options that don’t cost a penny. If you know a professional writer or publisher, they may be willing to look at it for you and offer their opinion (but bear in mind they aren’t an expert and can only offer a layman’s advice, and remember they are busy people and may not be able to spare the time). If you are a member of a body such as the Society of Authors, you are likely to have access to professional legal advice provided by the body. There are also sites online where you can post legal questions to get lawyers’ opinions (some are free and rely on whoever, if anyone, looks at your question, others charge but guarantee your question will receive an answer; of course, there is no guarantee that the person who answers your question will be an expert in contract law, but they should at least be able to offer some guidance).
If you are lucky enough to be offered a substantial amount of money, then do seek professional legal advice to make sure everything is legitimate.

Today, it is common for contracts to be signed electronically, using Adobe, or for scanned signed copies or even a typed, emailed declaration to be accepted. These methods are held to be held legally binding.

Go, submit!

You now have a basic understanding of all the key points, so what are you waiting for? Go, submit your work.