Tag Archives: writing

Word Limits

3 Oct

The word count can be confusing for those just beginning on the path of the writer. Thanks for the miracle of wordprocessing, you no longer need to count words per line and lines per page (unless you write longhand and need an estimate before you type it). Word or Libre Office or whichever program you use will tell you just how many words your document contains. Easy!

A word of warning, though. Remember that this count will include every word in the document, including the title and ‘The End’ (neither of which counts towards the total). If you have included your contact details at the beginning of the document, they will be counted towards the total (however, any words in the header or footer won’t be counted), but you can highlight your actual submission or delete unwanted words and then click restore to put them back once you have the word count.

Beware, too, of section breaks (such as *** or #), which will show up as words, but don’t actually count towards the total, and hyphenated words, which will show up as one word but may be counted individually. You may wish to remove hyphens and other such things before getting an accurate count.

So, you now know how many words your story contains. But, how many words are you allowed? The numbed will be listed for the magazine or competition – there may be a minimum and/or a maximum. You should always read the guidelines to see if these are hard limits (that is, you cannot break them by even one word) or soft limits (that is, you are allowed to break them by a reasonable amount – what counts as reasonable may be stated, otherwise a few words over is definitely okay and as much as 10% might be considered acceptable). If not otherwise stated, you can usually assume that you can go a few words over for a magazine or anthology, as the editor is likely to have the leeway to balance longer stories with shorter ones (although you probably wouldn’t be paid for excess words, if being paid by the word) and they may be willing to work with you to edit the story so that it fits. Competition entries should stick to the stated wordcount as deviating by even one word is likely to see your submission disqualified.

Personally, for competitions, I try to keep comfortably within the stated word-limits, just in case the word count I make it doesn’t match that of the judges. Leaving a cushion means you are unlikely to fall foul of a disagreement. (Remember, the judges are unlikely to contact you, so you won’t have the chance to dispute a disagreement.)

But, don’t worry about it too much – a little commonsense should see you through most situations.


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.

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…