Before my story can move from acceptance to published, it needs to be edited, by actual editors. Douglas Lance and the team at Fiction Magazines were great to work with. Every step of the way I was included in the editorial process. The editing team collaborated using Google Docs and I saw all there recommendations and simple corrections. I had the final say on any changes and we had conversations about what would be best for the story. I even saw the final proof before it went out. I wasn't sure what it would be like working with editors and sort of readied myself to have my feeling hurt by harsh criticism. But in reality, it wasn't much different than work shopping a story with fellow writers. I eased in by making the quick grammatical/typographical fixes such as missed placed commas and et cetra. I saved the more subjective changes for last and gave some time to mull over their recommendations. Some changes I made, some I stuck to the way it was. The realization that helped me through this was that everyone involved was there to make the best story. Nothing was personal and there were no conflicts over "artistic control." We all are the slaves to the story. That's it. By the end, I felt proud of what will be released. When I got the proof in the email, I grew all the more eager to see it in print. And then the waiting begins...
On the 19th of July, my short story “A Voice Exhumed,” inspired by Miley Cyrus, written with the help of John Jameson in a Minneapolis hotel room, edited with the help of Juan Valdez and a steaming cup of brief, revised with the help of my good friends over and Litreactor.com, was accepted for publication by Fiction Magazine for their August issue of “Under the Bed.” I am stoked! Checking my phone, when I see an email come back from an editor, I automatically assume rejection and beginning thinking about who I can submit it to next. Not that I’ve never had an acceptance email come through before, but they are much rarer than those rejections. This email I had to read twice. Yep. This wanted my story. I’ll admit it. I did a silent little dance and maybe pumped a few victorious fist into the air. Hey, these moments are what get us through all those moments of self-doubt that fill the massive voids between acceptance letters. The first time I was accepted for publication, me and the wife even went out to dinner to celebrate. You have to celebrate. That sense of vindication and validation is what gets us through the darkness. What’s really cool, is that this blog series now gets to carry on. I’ll be working with some editors over at Fiction Magazine as they collaboratively edit the story using Google Docs. This story will then they be published in both digital and print form. Once published, I get to do some more bragging and promoting. And I’ll blog each step of the way. So stay tuned! I’m really excited to be published and to work with editors and see my story in print, but also excited to share and document the experience here on my site. Watch for updates and the eventual links to get your copy of “A Voice Exhumed”!
Rejections happen. Rejections are necessary. Rejections force us to tried harder, to be persistent, to earn our keep. Rejections make us better than we were before. They are the grindstone which sharpens our literary sword.
But forget all that. Rejections suck! They are heart breaking, even when you've read all the blogs like this one that tell you how regular and inevitable they are. When you start collecting them they chip away at your pride. Even when you tell yourself that they happen to everyone. Even when you read JK Rowling's rejection letters. Even when other writers make it a goal to reach one hundred rejection letters every year and you'll only up to twenty and they're already crushing your soul. Maybe just subliminally. Unconsciously. Inevitably, they will wear you down...
If you let them. All I can say is don't fear the rejection. Expect it. Welcome it. They're just emails, usually in form version. Occasionally with specific comments, which is really a good sign. Brandish them like scars of war. An army drill sergeant once told his recruits that they should thank the Viet Cong, or "Charlie." He bellowed to them, "Charlie makes us stronger. Charlie makes us train. Charlie makes us sweat. Charlie makes us lethal. Without Charlie, we are nothing!""
Me? I keep my subscription to Duotrope going and as soon as that email comes it I hope and start hunter for another publisher. The only other option is to quit and be nothing.
Have you been rejected? If not, you're not trying. Share your frustration, or better stated, show off your war wounds in the comments below.
Submitting can be easy. Very easy. I imagine a writer could put a dozen publishers on a wheel, spin it, and submit to whatever publisher the needle landed on. Or, you could spam all the publishers with complete disregard to what each publisher is looking for, submission guidelines, specified formats, names of editors, word counts, genres...
Apparently, this is a common tactic. If so, good luck with that. Doesn't sound like a successful tactic, but to each their own. I, for one, don't see the point in sabatoging my own name and all the work I just put into crafting my perfect short story by telling every editor in my market that I'm an idiot. Maybe I'm crazy.
Here's my strategy when it comes to submitting: A. Don't disqualify myself before the editor ever gets a chance to read the actual story. B. Find a publisher who is looking for something like what I wrote. Or, write something that an editor is specifically looking for. Let's take a look at each of these in turn.
A. Don't disqualify yourself. This should be simple, but doing the simple things right distinguishes those you have a chance to be published between those with no chance. What are the simple thing? Read the submission guideline. Format your story the way they wants it formatted. Address the editor by name. Don't prove yourself an idiot with a rediculous cover letter. You know, the simple stuff. Sounds easy, but I've read plenty of editor's rants about writers who refuse to nail the basics.
B. Find a market for your story. For me, this is the harder part. Got a realistic horror story? Well, filter out all those spec fic/horror publishers. Got a story that's 4,000 words? Well, that's not flash fiction. Have a PG13 horror story? Time to weed out all those horror publishers looking for extreme gore and eroticism. Most publishers aren't too keen on multiple submissions, so you're really weilding a sniper's bullet. Sure after each rejection you can (and should) reload and take another shot, but when you're submitting to one publisher at a time it pays to make every submission count. Editors appreciate this too. After all, they don't enjoy having to reject a thousand stories that don't fit their brand just so they can find ten publishable stories. I'm sure they'd rather read ten stories that nail it, publish those ten, and not bother with the 990 others. A lot of submission guidelines contain a phrase similar to, "Read our magazine to see what kind of submissions we're interested in." I think some readers see this and think, "Well, they just say that so their magazine gets more subscribers." While I'm sure every mag out there would enjoy a bump in subscribers, I think any good magazine is really just looking to find good writers that fit their niche brand. Chuck Palanuck could submit to Scholastics, but why would he, and if he did, why would they care? Both are very successful in the publishing biz, but they're not a match. Editors need that match. Writers need it too.
So about this short story I wrote, this Miley Cyrus inspired realistic horror piece. I happen to come across an open call for an anthology with themes and a readership that fits what I got. I read their submission guidelines. I read some other things they published. I formatted my story to the font and pica they asked for. I addressed the editor by name. I resisted the urge to bloviate in my cover letter. I think I did the simple things right. I think I have a story that matches what they're looking for and one that their readers will enjoy. Time will tell.
And if I get a rejection? Hey, reject letters are like water on a duck. They don't mean a thing other than telling me I can submit to the next publisher. We have to be that way. Let the rejections roll right off your back like rain drops on a duck already swimming through a lake. I've got a few acceptance letters. I got a few contests I've done well in. Hang on to your successes. Ignore the rest. Don't believe me? Take it from the King: "Talent is a wonderful thing, but it won't carry a quitter."
It's tough out there fellow writers! I won't say it's easy. But write as best as you can, do the simple things right and don't quit. I'm keeping my chin up and with a little luck, hopefully my next entry in this series is a link to a mag with my story in. Good luck!
Remember that Jameson and water I mentioned in my Actually Writing post? This is where I pay for it. I am TERRIBLE with typos. Especially when I use a touch screen tablet instead of a keyboard. Especially when I'm drinking Jameson instead of Caribou Coffee.
But editing isn't all copy-edit grammar and typo fixes. When I start to edit and re-write I first like to take a step back from the work, for at least a few days. Then when I'm ready to really dig into it I tell myself, "Okay. Now make it awesome." That's all the editing and re-writing really is: taking something you've done and ramping it up to the next level.
That's where my beta-readers and writing group come in. Without them, I'm flying blind. Until my writing sees the light of day, I truly don't know if I have a dud or dynamite. Fortunately, I got some good feedback. "Good" meanwhile, "Hey, this is pretty good," but also, "Here's where you could make it better." That second kind of feedback is the really good stuff. If all I was looking for was a "Good job!" I'd just have family and close friends read it. You know, the kind of people who will tell you that everything you write is just wonderful, amazing, Hugo-worthy masterpieces. I'd never get published, but I'd never get my feelings hurt either. Now, I won't say that kind of feedback is worthless. I think we all need an ego-boost every once and a while. However, if you're looking to get published and maybe one day get paid for what you write, it's not really helpful. What every serious author needs is other good authors who are willing to tell the truth. "This could work if..." "This doesn't work at all." "This part fell flat." "I didn't see much of an arc." "Where's the hook?" Sometimes, it hurts. Sometimes it is demoralizing and crushing and maybe even enough to convince you to give up, almost. But listen, if you want to write you have to have thick skin and the professionalism to see critiques for what they are: other people doing their best to make you a better writer. This real, honest, sometimes harsh feedback is invaluable in the writing process.
If you don't have a writing group that can do this for you, get one. If you don't know where to start, I recommend Litreactor.com. It's an online workshop full of talented writers who will provide that brutally honest but constructive criticism necessary to forge your writing into something better. If you have a writing group that does that for you, great. If not, get one. Now on to the next step, actually listening to them.
Not everyone who comments on your work will be brimming with good ideas. There's plenty of bad advise and some feedback will be off the mark. But watch for trends. Keep an keen eye out for different readers giving you similar advise, either on your style or about a specific piece of writing. Because, let's face it. This isn't about writing one story. It's about getting better with every story you write. Sure, good feedback will help you tweak your current work, but great feedback will make all your future writing better.
Re-writing is writing. Editing is writing. Cutting out what doesn't matter is writing. Like a sculpture with a chisel, chip and hammer and polish until whatever story you started with is the best it can possibly be. Editing might not be as fun as dumping that initial flurry of imagination onto paper, but it is required work. Let me phrase the first sentence of this paragraph a little differently: If you're not really re-writing, you're not really writing.
So I re-read my story. I read it backwards. (Seriously, it's a good technique.) I hunted out those typos with a little (maybe A LOT of help) from my friends. I carefully considered each critique and took the advise nine times out of ten. I re-wrote. A little spit and polish and I'm feeling pretty damn good about this little tale I created.
Now on to the real soul-crushing work: Submitting.
What are your tricks and tips for taking that rough draft and turning it into a final draft? Comment below!
I have my inspiration. I have my idea. I have my outline and some characters in my mind. Nothing is concrete yet and I have no clue whether or not it will turn into something worth while. But, I have all the things I think I need to make a story. Including: The Vibe.
The Vibe is my own term for how the story feels. It's something between theme, style, voice... all those loose, slippery, intangible elements that go into writing. Without Vibe, a story has no life to it. It's all just telling.
But I got Vibe. Really, this story started with a Vibe: that bizarre, empty drone of that song. The lyrics repeating in my head, "Baby, can you hear me?" sounding so forlorn and desperate. I heard a story completely separate from the story the song writer was trying to tell. Now it was my job to relate that story to you, the reader.
But first, a confession: I have used and will continue to use performance enhancing drugs. Strictly large quantities of caffeine and moderate amounts of alcohol.
So I settled down into an easy chair with my tablet and a whiskey and water. Jameson on this particular night. I had my outline already open in a word doc. I hammered the Enter key four times to move the outline down the page, and I got to work. I already the hard stuff figured out. Now it was just a matter of making it cool.
I came out the gate quick, hard charging and wrote for a solid couple of hours, all the time I had to write on that day. I saved my work and went to bed satisfied.
The next chance I had to write, things went a little slower. Less 90's-movie-hacker-key-hammering and more contemplation and Delete button. Still, I got some things down. Some good things. Some things that felt okay...?
By my third session I was struggling. I suspected I was working on a dud. A stillborn confused mess. A lot of times I can write a whole short story in one session. I'll sit down and three or four hours later I'll have a completed rough draft. This was not one of those times.
As a matter of fact, if it wasn't for this blog series, I may have put it aside. But I'd already made the first entry, already tweeted about it, already bragged about my ability to pull a compelling story idea out of a random pop song. There was no going back. I had to finish this beast whether I wanted to or not.
I spent sometime back at the mental drawing board. Usually, when writer's block creeps up on me, it's because I've lost faith in the idea. And sometimes for good reasons. I think that sometimes I can sense a dud coming, and once I'm convinced of that harsh truth, why waste any more time writing something that's not good? But I was committed to this, and so I reminded myself, I don't always know what will work and what won't.
After some time at the mental drawing board, I came up with a fix, an extra punch for my ending. And that was all it took. One more writing session and a little more coffee and I completed a 5,100 word first draft!
But is it any good? Is it salvageable? Spectacular? That is yet to be seen. Stayed tuned for the next post where I discuss bringing this creature I created out of the darkness and into the light. Comment below!
So I have my inspiration, (thank you Miley), I have my idea, I've had a long car ride to flesh out the idea inside my head. Now it's time to finally put things down on paper and really take a look at it.
There are two schools of thought on this stage of the process: pantsing and outlining. I outline. Sometimes I pants (as in fly-by-the-seat-of-my- and not remove-the-trousers-of-unsuspecting-high-schoolers). Generally, I have to sit on an idea for awhile and really let it brew for a few days before I have something I can bring to the empty page. Occasionally, I'll have an idea that arrives fully formed and ready for paper. Most ideas require a maturation process. There's yeast involved. Maybe some media. Some mash. Some hops. Music. Sometimes I add ingredients from other ideas. It's a unscientific and messy process, but by the end of it, I have something tangible. Having an outline helps me mold that ungainly mental brew into something that someone somewhere might one day actually want to read.
Much has been said about story structure. There is the 7 Point Plot structure, the Hero's Journey, the Save the Cat minute-by-minute guide... all of which seemed tailored to either novels or movies. Short stories are something different and while it does help to have an understanding of these schools of structuring, I find them to large and detailed for the light agile animal that is the short story. So, I came up with my own 5 Structure Points, and it goes like this:
Hook Hold Seduce Surprise Satisfy
If I can achieve these five points, I'm fairly confident that I have at least a decent short story on my hands. Let me go into more detail on each.
Hook: This is the quick sentence of paragraph intended to get the reader through the first page. Something to grab their attention. Something to keep the story out of the slush pile until I can introduce the main conflict. This is no big secret, but there are plenty of unread short stories out there that don't have a good hook.
Hold: Okay. So I hooked the reader. Something blew up on page one and I successfully convinced the reader to keep going on to page two. Now what? Conflict! I hook the reader with curiosity but I hold them with the conflict. This is the "What is this story about?" This is the time I remind myself that even the best hook has a short shelf life. I've pulled the reader on to page two, but if I haven't answered "What is this story about?" by page three... into the slush pile she goes! To be clear, I will have had to establish the following things: Who is the protagonist? What does he/she want that she doesn't already have? Who/what is in the way of the protagonist achieving their desires? That's conflict in a nutshell. Seduce: Sounds odd if we're not talking about erotica, which I'm not. What I mean by "seduce" is a way of woo'ing the reader, of grabbing their heart, of making them care, or failing that, answering the "So what?" question. By now, I've brought the reader along, introduced them to the characters in the story and thrown in some plot. This point isn't a piece of actual plot and doesn't need to come along specifically after establishing the conflict. Done right, its woven through the entirety of the story. Not that I won't sometime have a scene that is specifically crafted to make the reader care about the protagonist. At the end of the day, I just need to ensure that the reader is invested in the story and wants the protagonist to win. Surprise: This is simple. I need a twist. A hiccup. Something to foul up the protagonist's perfect plan to resolve the conflict. Or, following the try-fail cycle format of the protagonist trying and failing three times before succeeding, this is the point where the protagonist finally succeeds. Whatever it is, I've built a new status quo that has to be destroyed before I wrap up the story. Here is where that is done. Satisfy: Give the people what they want! This is the end of the story that makes the reader glad they decided to hang around. A story can't succeed if it's all hook and set up. This is the pay off pitch. By now I've set up not just the plot, but I've set up the reader to want to see something. And I either give it, or I specifically deny it. I don't believe that every story needs a happy ending. Tragic endings seemed to work great for Shakespeare, right? I'm also not adverse to vague, uncertain endings, just so long as they leave the reader feeling glad they picked up the story to begin with. Time to wrap everything together, pay-off your set ups, and nail home the ending. They say the ending is the hardest part so you should write that part first. I tend to agree. Or to say it slightly differently, don't start writing until you got a home run ending waiting to burst out. If your story isn't there yet, there's nothing wrong with letting your mental mash brew for a few more days.
And that's my checklist/outline format for writing a short story: Hook, Hold, Seduce, Surprise, and Satisfy. What do you think? What do you use when building a short story? How does this model compare to other structure formats? Let me know what you think and comment below!
Step One of creating any story: get an idea. I think the best ideas come out of the either, unprovoked, prompted or even asked for. I love it when a story idea comes to me fully formed, ready to be written. These are the kind of stories that just write themselves and seemed to do really well. But I could be biased because they also require the least amount of effort on my part.
Most ideas require more work than that. Sometimes, that fickle muse is stubborn and just won't cough up that precious "good idea." Prompts are useful in these times. For me, prompts with a deadline are particularly helpful. If I know I have to write a story in two weeks about a golfer with a time machine on the run from the FBI... I can do that. Might not be any good, but when push comes to shove, if I have a deadline and a need to produce a product, I can do it. Sometimes these result in duds and sometimes they're gems. This is also why I believe in writing a lot of short stories and throwing them at the proverbial wall. It's a great way to learn what sticks.
This particular story I'll be writing in the coming days was the result of a prompt, albeit, a very loose prompt. I was listening to a Writing Excuses podcast (www.writingexcuses.com or on Twitter @writingexcuses ) when they gave a writing assignment to brain storm story ideas from various sources. One source was media: movies, books, music, etc. I love music and have been inspired by new unfamiliar songs fairly regularly, so I pulled up my Apple Music and found an album that I'd never heard before. Didn't matter what album or what kind of music. I'm a metalhead, but I'm open to other genres. Rock. Punk. A little reggae or rap every once in a while. My favorite new-to-me-bands right now are The Dirty Heads and Rival Sons. They're both great. I highly recommend them both. But what would Apple recommend for me? I tapped on the first "recommended" album to come up. What's the worst that could happen?
Miley Cyrus' "Bangerz."
I pinched the bridge of my nose and whispered with deep resolve, "You can do this, Joe. You can do it."
I had a long car trip and a full finished cup of coffee. I turned off the podcast and let Miley rip. The first song on the album was a tune called, "I Adore You." I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised. Sure, it was a run-of-the-mill love song, but it has this haunting vibe to it. Real eerie and empty, like she was in love, but there was definitely something empty and missing about it all.
And low and behold, an idea came. Something that might even be a "good idea." That might be a little premature. We'll see what comes out of it. But I think I got something I can sink my teeth into.
Now the real work begins... fleshing out that idea, adding some characters, creating a setting, building a structure and eventually actually writing. Follow along and let me know what you think of my idea-generating technique. Comment below!
Over the next couple weeks, I plan on writing a short story, and to detail each step here as I go. When it's done, you'll be able to read the final product here on the site.
I know every writer has a different writing process and there is no "right" way to do it. My intent isn't to say "this is the perfect way to do it and everyone should do it exactly this way," but rather "this is A way that I did it this one particular time." Next time I write a story, I know some things will change, and some I'll probably do the same. My intent is to refine my own process by articulating it here, and to hopefully start a discussion amongst us writers along the way. Please chip it if the mood strikes you! I'd love to hear other writer's take on my process.
With that said, keep appendages inside the car at all times. Floatation devices are under your seat and barf-bags have been conveniently placed in front of you in the event or turbulence. Buckle in and enjoy the ride!
I swear babe, this has never happened to me before.
Only it happens to everybody. And it's okay.
I wrote a dud the other week. I thought it was a real cool hard-science concept told in a compelling way. Turns out no one knew what the hell I was talking about or enjoyed how I told it. As one of my kinder critics put it, "I think you may be on to something here, but I have no idea what. It's terribly vague."
There several lessons to be learned from duds. The first is that it's terribly important to have honest and trustworthy beta readers to tell you when you have a dud. Often, duds just need a few tweaks to turn from a chump to a champ. Beta readers and workshops will help you find the flaws and help you fix them. Even my best written work is really a dud until I've had some outside perspective to shine the light on its weak spots. So, yea for beta readers!
The other lesson that can sometimes be harder to learn is when to walk away. Sometimes I'll write a "terribly vague" monstrosity that's beyond help. Some beasts should never be born and it's important to put a bullet in them before they escape the lab. That's okay too. From those bastard born disasters, we learn what doesn't work.
And if there is one more lesson to be gleaned from the dud, it's perseverance. A few weeks ago I realize I wrote a dud. Last week I learned another story won a short story contest and will be published. Failure makes us angry, hungry, driven. One success is fueled by a hundred flops. The real trick is to just keep going. Take the lessons to heart and then try harder the next time. Keep writing!