Tag Archives: writing

It’s Christmaaasss!

16 Dec

Yes, it’s the festive season and writers’ thoughts are turning to snow, decorations and Dickensian ghostliness. The problem is, if you’re writing a story or poem now, it’s too late to submit to an editor. Indeed, even if you submitted work in the last two or three months, it was probably too late.

Draw inspiration now, but you need to know when it’s best to submit your work (indeed, the same goes for other festivals, seasons and anniversaries – often you will need to submit three months to a year early). Most editors will want to receive submissions by September at the latest, some will want it by June. A few will want festive submissions as early as January or February. Keep an eye on their deadlines, but if a magazine doesn’t have a specific festive issue, look for ones planned for release in November or December and consider submitting something festive that fits with their theme.

As far as Atlantean Publishing goes, our primary festive publications are Christmas Chillers and Xmas Bards and I want submissions by October at the latest. Festive issues of Garbaj and Bard sometimes appear – based upon whether I’ve had sufficient submissions to warrant it – and the second Monomyth of the year is usually late enough that festive submissions will be considered. Likewise, there is an annual horror poetry booklet release for Hallowe’en and there are often issues of Bard (and sometimes Garbaj) that reference the seasons, Valentine’s Day, Hallowe’en, etc; I need to receive submissions at least a couple of months in advance.

So, put pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard) and produce something seasonal and send it to Atlantean or another publisher when the time is right!

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.

Not Much of a Prize

19 Sep

Occasionally, you will see a writing competition sponsored by a big publisher. Frequently free to enter, these seem like a godsend to writers desperate for a chance at the big time. What could be better than to win a competition backed by a publishing ‘name’ or have your story or poem appear in a professional anthology? And, that’s before we consider the prize money, which is usually a decent amount. I’m certain they receive plenty of submissions from hopeful entrants.

But, read the small print and the prize is seldom as good as it sounds. Almost invariably, the competition rules state that the winner passes their copyright to the winning entry to the publisher. For some writers, this may seem small price to pay for a shot at fame and fortune (or the literary equivalent thereof), but, for a submission good enough to win such a competition, a rather small one-off payment and the kudos of winning and publication aren’t really good recompense for losing control to your work.

Even in these days of web publication, ebooks and print-on-demand books that can keep an anthology available indefinitely without necessarily providing additional payments to contributors, most publishers do not insist on perpetual exclusivity or the signing-over of rights, so there is, at least, the potential to resell your work, and small publishers generally aren’t making too much money from their anthologies and have a chance of going out of business and taking their anthologies with them. Big publishers are likely to be making enough to offer better terms and, if they go out of business, will almost certainly have their assets bought by another publisher.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely most people bother to read the small print and, if they do, probably don’t really understand just what they’re being asked to sign away or else don’t care, which is why these big publishers keep on promoting these competitions. As proper businesses, not amateurs, they really should treat writers better. Don’t be fooled.

All Just A Dream

20 May

The other day, I read a comment on Facebook about the annoyance of discovering that a significant chunk of a novel was nothing but a dream. Now, I quite like dream sequences, but I also agree with this assessment because, when we learn that “It was all just a dream,” it very often is nothing but a cop-out, a means of avoiding the fall-out from events.

Of course, handled well, such a discovery in a comedic story can be amusing, but done clumsily or used in more serious works, it is frequently a letdown, effectively either invalidating a storyline you’ve enjoyed or forcing you to wade through rubbish for nothing.

But, I don’t think that “It was all just a dream,” which is usually a sign of lazy writing, should be confused with dream sequences generally or narratives that call into doubt what is real.

A dream sequence, even if it misleads by not initially appearing to be a dream, isn’t a copout: it should further the plot, rather than merely seeing the ‘reset button’ being hit at the end. Of course, events may be ‘reset’ at the end of the dream if it seemingly altered things, but, unlike saying “It was all just a dream” (although the character, in the story, may echo just that sentiment), the dream should have an impact, such as containing a prophecy (or what they believe is a prophecy) or the dreamer gaining new insight or being forced to confront something as a result. A well-written dream sequence should have an effect on the story or, at least, tell us something new.

Then, there are those stories that, at first glance, seem no different to dreams, but which are actually calling into doubt what is and isn’t real. In a sense, they end with “It was all just a dream. Or, was it?” albeit, one hopes, more subtly than that! Although some readers may lump such narratives in with the former unsatisfying sort of story, most will come away questioning just what did and didn’t happen and, perhaps, will even ponder how we define reality. To offer an example, the movie Black Swan includes many scenes that may not have happened, or not as we see them occur on the screen, yet the doubtfulness of what we’ve just watched doesn’t invalidate the events of the movie as they convincingly demonstrate the mental breakdown of Natalie Portman’s character through her reactions to those, possibly nonexistent, events.

Thus, it should be summed up that it’s not the presence or absence of dreams that makes or breaks a story, but whether their presence actually effects the narrative or not, just as the inclusion of any element that doesn’t further the plot or develop its characters, no matter how brilliant, is ultimately a disappointment. What matters is that what is included matters…

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!

No Mythos, Thank You

9 Jan

The Cthulhu Mythos. Even if you aren’t a fan of speculative fiction, you probably know what that is. If not, look it up; you may have a pleasant surprise. It’s a popular shared universe of stories. But, not with everyone.
Recently, I’ve noticed a number of guidelines for anthologies and magazines specifically barring either the Cthulhu Mythos itself or shared universe stories or stories based on out-of-copyright franchises more generally. In one sense, I can understand their reasoning – Mythos fiction has become incredibly popular in recent years and almost seems ubiquitous at times and I can see someone feeling that such stories must be unoriginal or that most of them are poorly written. Which, of course, like any large collection of fiction is likely to be true.

But, when considered logically, it is clear that such a ban is likely to have been born more from a literary snobbishness than rational consideration. Just because a lot of Mythos fiction is likely to be of poor quality or unoriginal is no argument against Mythos fiction in general; most SF, fantasy and thriller fiction will be equally unoriginal and badly written and unlikely to be accepted. Of course, there have been similar bans on things such as zombie stories and vampire stories due to saturation, but, again, that meant excellent stories were being denied an outlet due to the ‘sins’ of the majority. A more honest restriction would be on stereotypical stories than a blanket ban.

When justification is sought in terms of a ban on shared universes and out-of-copyright franchises, perhaps on the grounds that unforeseen legal entanglements might exist, one has to wonder how far back one must go before such become acceptable, or are semi-historical, folkloric and mythological elements also banned? If King Arthur is allowed, how about Robin Hood? If Robin, what about Don Quixote? If he, why not characters from 18th-century literature? If 18th, why not 19th? And, if we allow the 19th, proto-Mythos elements such as the King In Yellow are suddenly legitimate.

But, if we ban such things, is it just the specific names that are out? In that case, entities and books of forbidden lore identical in purpose to Mythos entities and tomes would be allowable, which rather makes a mockery of the ban. “Sorry, you cannot submit your story featuring Cthulhu, but rename him Roggoth and it’s fine.” Indeed, one might even ask what actually constitutes the Mythos and just how many references make something a Mythos story. A story about Cthulhu clearly is part of the Cthulhu Mythos, but does a single obscure reference to Hali qualify? Confusing!

Okay, so we ban anything that sounds or feels as if it belongs in the Mythos. But, wait a minute – on that basis we should ban all vampire or superhero fiction, too, given that there will be inevitable similarities to others of their ilk. Fantasy monarchs reminiscent of King Arthur and wise sages and mages who bring to mind Merlin or the Doctor. Any character, being or item that is at all similar to any other in fiction should be disbarred. And, why stop there? Most time travel stories are more similar than most Mythos tales. Alien invasions have been done to death. Just where do we end?

So, we’ve banned anything that isn’t incredibly original, but have we actually ensured that the tiny number of submissions we’ll receive will actually be any good? They may have novelty, but the quality of their plotting, their characterisation, their general writing, all depend upon the writer not the genre. Duff writers will still submit duff, albeit originally duff, stories. Meanwhile, those brilliant Mythos stories are going unappreciated.

In reality, the Cthulhu Mythos covers an enormous variety of stories and a blanket ban is foolish. Just because a story might mention the Necronomicon or feature a Byakhee doesn’t define the brilliance of its invention or the quality of its writing. Indeed, drawing upon the example of Lovecraft’s own stories, many ostensibly Mythos stories contain only the lightest of dustings for an aura of verisimilitude, the remainder being quite new and inventive.

The Cthulhu Mythos is not a second-rate field of fiction – anything but! – and denying an outlet for Mythos stories is, in my opinion, a foolish thing to do. Give Cthulhu a chance!

Critiquing the Critiques

22 May

Writers can expect to see their work critiqued by editors, both when rejected and sometimes with an acceptance. Of course, not all editors do supply such feedback – many are busy people who just don’t have the time to respond to every submission, while others perhaps have no concrete advice to offer – but many do. Unfortunately, while some supply very good advice, others… don’t.

Feedback almost uniformly divides into helpful and unhelpful feedback – there’s not really such a thing as indifferent feedback, unless the writer has submitted something that doesn’t fit their guidelines and is told so, and even that is helpful in its way.

Unhelpful feedback can be divided into three types. The first sort is the factually inaccurate. This is where the editor identifies a flaw that doesn’t actually exist and is the most unhelpful sort as a lot of effort may be wasted attempting to locate a non-existent plot hole or trying to work out what they’re actually on about. Of course, given that it probably results from them skimming the submission, it may indicate they found it boring, but the most you may glean from this supposition is what stories not to send them. A subset of this category I’ve encountered recently is the editor saying the exact opposite of the point they apparently intended to make, which, again, tends to waste time as you attempt to decipher their meaning.

The second sort of unhelpful feedback you might encounter is one with no context. As an example, one reader once offered the comment of ‘Boring’ beneath one of my gaming reviews. The problem with this (besides the lack of any further detail) was that it didn’t define what exactly they found boring? Was it the review? Was it the game I was reviewing? Was it gaming in general? Who knows!

The third kind of unhelpful feedback occurs when the editor effectively wants to tell their own story in place of yours. Instead of actual feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of the story, they supply an outline for one completely different to it and suggest you write it. Which is all very well if you want to take on the commission, but not much good if you just wanted feedback on your work; and, as the editors that tend to do this don’t pay, you probably don’t want to take on the challenge, anyway…

Although not a specific class of unhelpful feedback, a special mention must go to those editors who insist on giving detailed feedback whilst demanding you never resubmit rejected work to them. Thank you, I now know exactly how to craft the story to your specific needs, but you’ll never see it. Unfortunately, other editors probably don’t share your exact same requirements! So, not terribly helpful.

Balancing the equation, there are three types of useful feedback. The first sort is technical and only really applies where a writer has significant failings with their spelling and/or grammar. All writers will make mistakes and possess idiosyncrasies, and there will always be a question of ‘house style’ and spelling convention (primarily British versus American), but these are minimal concern from a feedback point of view, mainly being covered during the proofing stage. But, if a writer makes a lot of errors, putting the editor off their work before they’ve made much progress reading it, they can expect to be informed in order to improve their writing.

The second sort of useful feedback tells the writer more about the editor than it does about their story. Some editors may believe their opinions reflect an objective reality and some may even be giving advice that applies to a significant portion of publications, but on the whole, editorial opinion is subjective. What one editor believes constitutes a good story is not necessarily an opinion shared by other editors. I’ve had stories rejected by one editor with a savage critique only for the next editor I submit it to accept it and rave over how good it is. Neither editor is wrong; they just have different tastes and different aims for their publications. But, while you may not wish to follow an editor’s advice and rewrite a story that, in your opinion, has achieved what you wanted it to, you can learn what they do or do not want. If an editor tells you your story is slow, you won’t send them another slow-moving masterpiece. If an editor complains that your story is full of sex or swearing, you’ll know not to send that type to them again. And, so on. You could even try rewriting the story to match the style they do want and resubmit it to them, while sending the original one elsewhere in the hope of finding an editor who will appreciate it. Many editors can supply this sort of feedback, but it can be drowned out if they are obsessed with providing details that aren’t terribly helpful. Simply stating that a story is slow or tends towards telling than showing is more useful than an attempt to analyse its flaws at length, in my opinion.

The third type of useful feedback is the sort that makes you think. Not many editors can do this, but there are some who possess the ability to dissect a story and explain exactly what they think in a clear manner. Because they do so in such a concise manner, it is easy to discern where they are offering good advice that is worth taking. In addition, I find that when I disagree with their assessment I’m forced to clarify why I disagree, helping me to better understand my story, which is incredibly useful when deciding whether or not to make changes as, sometimes, you may discover that while you disagree, it’s not a good enough reason to resist a change that might make the story work better for a wider readership. Such feedback is the rarest, but most valuable of all.

Hopefully, this will help you to discern the advice worth paying heed to from that best ignored. Perhaps, too, any editors reading this will consider the feedback they give and just how helpful it really is.