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Patt O’Neil: The Submission Process For a Short Story or What I Wish Someone Had Taught Me (Part Four)

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Part Four:

Okay, am I ready to send this story to the publisher?

Almost. Trust me, it will be worth it. Go back over the submission guidelines to see if the publisher has mentioned how they want the actual story to be presented. If it does not give any direction, then your story should be submitted using the Shuun format. The Shuun format is a directive about margins, fonts, font sizes, spacing, headers, and title page layout. If you have written your story using this method, you have no problems. If you haven’t, check online for some direction (either Google or YouTube) and re-format you story. If they do give directions, follow them as closely as possible. Sometimes publishers request that your document not have paragraph indents, or be presented in single spacing. Some may even ask that all reference to the author be removed from the story. This is usually done when the story goes before a panel for blind judging. The anonymity allows for the work to stand for itself, which is why it is important to put so much other information in the submission letter–it may be your only way to influence the editor/publisher.

This really seems like work; the story didn’t take this long to write.

You’re right, it is a lot of work, but you must remember the publisher has the advantage over the writer. Unless they are looking for the work of a specific contributor, they really do not care who you are when your story comes in. It sounds heartless, but this is a business and time is money, so you had better give them something worth their time.

You have a story (universally formatted), a head shot, an author’s bio, and a submission letter, so let’s do this. WAIT, it is worth one more look, almost like a checklist. Go back to the submission guidelines, and yes, yes, yes… you’re ready. But this publisher wants you to submit on their website, now what do you do? You fill out their information boxes, cut and paste your letter into the appropriate space and either do the same for your story, or attach the file. Remember, when you cut and paste any document, go back over it to make sure your paragraph breaks are there. If not, re-install them to make the best presentation, showing emphasis to detail.

Okay, that’s it, there’s nothing more you can add, so you take a deep breath and hit the Send button. Be proud, you are one step closer than before to becoming a published author.

 

Now what?

You wait, but not for long. If the publisher is of note, you will probably get an automated email stating receipt of your story and giving direction to contact them if you do not hear their decision about your story. If this email doesn’t come within 48 hours, send them an email and ask if they received your story or if you should send it again.

You should have four objects in your possession when this process is over: your story, your picture, your biography, and your original copy of your submission letter. Good, you want to keep all of them available for the next time you submit a story for consideration. If it’s the same story, use can use the same letter MAKING SURE to change the date, name of publication, etc., to save yourself unnecessary embarrassment. If you are submitting a different story, you already have the components, just retool the letter for the new story. If you get poor results after several submissions, try retooling your letter. If you still have nothing, try retooling your story.

If you get a rejection letter, don’t feel bad. There are only a certain number of spots in any roster, just try another team. I like to think of these as not being rejected, but this publisher has declined to use my story now, which is a roundabout way of saying “thanks, but no thanks.” In fact, I have never received a letter with the word reject in it. If you do, that is not a publisher of worth. Sometimes, they will take the time to make positive comments or suggestions about how to improve your story. When you receive this type of letter, my advice is to send a polite response acknowledging their decision. Remember this is a business and you are a professional–leave them with a good opinion of you as someone positive to work with. It may help the next time you send them a story.

If you get a letter of acceptance, congratulations! Look forward to them sending you a contract and working with their editor to make your story fit their mold… but that is another topic for another day. Have fun, and welcome to this wonderful world as a professional writer. I hope this hasn’t been too confusing, nor disheartening. It really does get easier as you go.

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(November 2017 All rights reserved)

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Patt O’Neil: The Submission Process For a Short Story or What I Wish Someone Had Taught Me (Part Three)

 

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Part Three:

How do you get your story to the publisher and impress them to read it?

Yes, the question said, impress them. Shouldn’t your story alone be the deciding factor? Well, yes, that is the deciding factor for whether it should be included in their publication, but, they are receiving so many submissions, you must impress them to take their time to read yours over someone else’s. That can be done several ways with the submission letter, an author bio (biography), or just by properly jumping through all the submission hoops established by the publisher. This last could possibly include a restriction of who may submit: first-time, female authors from Canada with red hair. Yeah, that last part is an exaggeration, but you get the idea.

Submission letters are probably the most important part of the process; remember, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Publishing, on any level, is first and foremost a business, and the personnel involved in content selection should be respected as professional business men/women. Your letter (email) should be business like, date at the top, name, business, address, and who it is being sent to above the Dear XXX. Yes, I know we are doing this electronically, so this information will already be on the email heading, BUT making the extra effort will catch the eye of the reader and give you a better chance of moving on in the process. If you don’t know who will be reading this in order to put their name or exactly where this internet site originates, no problem. Using our example you want:

Date

 

Editor

A1 Publication

Dear Madam/Sir:

 

Notice it says “Madam/Sir”; this is politically correct as well as professional and when in doubt, alphabetize.

The first sentence of your first paragraph should NOT be a question; no What if or Did you ever… Your first sentence must be a strong statement about your story that will entice the reader to continue reading to see if you validate your point. Example:

The relationships we have when we are children are meaningful and help to shape the adults we will become. None of these is more meaningful than the relationship we have with our beloved pets.

The reader cannot argue with this statement and in fact, if he/she wants to find out why you feel this way, he/she needs to keep reading your letter. This is a good place to practice your elevator pitch. The elevator pitch is a synopsis of your story that you have prepared to present just in case you ever find yourself on an elevator with the person who can make the decision about your story. You can either ride up in silence or you can make conversation with a captive audience. Your pitch must be short and to the point, while remaining interesting, because you only have the time between the doors closing and opening to speak.

Continue your letter by telling how your original story, (insert name), goes on to explain/explore/entertain (whatever) your first statement. Be sure to include the word count, rounded up to the next fiftieth; this is usually a requirement of the publisher that it be mentioned in the body of the letter, and/or maybe in the subject line of the email itself. If your work has been published before, be sure to mention it here and cite the publication. Notice in the example below that I have also included a comment about a pen name. This is not necessary if you submit it under your regular name, but should be mentioned if you don’t.

Attached is Conversations with Bingo, an original short story written under my pen name, Somebody Else. It is about 2,100 words long. The story tells of the ten-year relationship between a boy and his beloved dog. Throughout good times and bad, his faithful companion was always there as his sounding wall to hear comments about his hopes and dreams, fears and delights, and disappointments and joys.

If the publisher has requested any special requirements for submission, like the ones mentioned above, now would be a good time to list them.

I am currently an unpublished author, but I believe my story would fit well with your publication. I have resided in Toronto for six years, and am a member of the Women of Fire Hair Club (yeah, cheesy, but you get the idea).

If you have received writing awards of note, or have had work published elsewhere, make note of that, being sure to cite where your work can be found so they can look you up for comparison if need be. If in their submission guidelines they ask for a head shot, it should be mentioned here that it has been attached to the email. If they ask for an author’s bio, you can mention that it is either attached as well or may be found below the signature line on this email.

Author head shots are used by the publisher for identification and promotion purposes. You do not have to run to a professional photographer for just one photograph—yet. This picture should be clear, sharp, and a good representation of your personality. It should be submitted in JPEG format for ease of duplication. Eventually you may want to get that studio shot for the back cover of your novel, but that is way down the road. If the publisher does not require a head shot in their submission guide, you can always just mention that one is available upon request in the body of the letter.

Your author’s bio should be written in third-person narrative. It can be difficult to speak of yourself as someone else, but think of what you would want a trusted friend to write. It should be no more than 100 words as a courtesy to the publisher. It can speak about your background, your family, your interest in writing, and maybe address something about your personality. If you are an established author, here is where you mention that and any awards you might have received. This blurb, like the head shots, will be used by the publisher as well, and should constantly be refined as your career advances and you evolve as a writer. Your first version may seem awkward when compared to your tenth, but eventually you will find the words to best represent your professional persona.

Finally, your letter should thank them for this opportunity and close with a comment about how you look forward to hearing from them and a positive comment about how they will enjoy your story. Sign it “Sincerely” (or something similar), with the name you want to be on your contract, along with all your contact information (address, phone, email, website, etc.). Let me state that again–the name you want to be on your contract! If you have a pen-name, then that should be mentioned in the body of the letter, the author’s bio, the title of the head shot JPEG file, and under your real name as:

Sincerely,

 

My Real Name

(writing as Somebody Else)

If you want the contract to be issued to you under your pen-name, then that is how you should sign the letter and skip mentioning it in the body.

I am a writer

divider-clipart-divider_line_medTomorrow:

Part Four:  Okay, am I ready to send this story to the publisher?

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(November 2017 All rights reserved)

Patt O’Neil: The Submission Process For a Short Story or What I Wish Someone Had Taught Me (Part Two)

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Part Two: 

What are you looking for when you look at the publisher’s page?

Let’s stick with the children’s story theme, the publisher has a menu heading that says About which will tell you what type of magazine/journal they are and what type of story they are looking for. Unless you are already familiar with this publisher, you should read this over, as story submission takes time, so you want it to be a worthwhile investment of yours. The one you are looking at says their audience genre is YA or Young Adult, which usually means a high-school-aged audience. Don’t be discouraged, I’m sure your story, Conversations with Bingo, would be considered cute if the teen were babysitting a younger child, but I wouldn’t expect them to go out and purchase a copy for themselves.

Keep searching until you collect a list of publishers of stories for the appropriate audience. For example, you are given a list of twenty publishers, but only three meet your market type or criteria (let’s call them A1, B2, and C3). Let’s investigate those three: age appropriate, check; accepting submissions, check; genre appropriate, check; length, check. Okay, you have three possibilities, now what? This is where you dig deeper into their submission requirements/guidelines. Do they pay for stories they accept? What, you hadn’t thought about being paid for writing your story!? Don’t feel bad if that hadn’t crossed your mind OR if your intention is to make writing your sole career. Let’s work on the premise that you want to get paid for your work. Publisher A1 has a pay scale of $.06 per word (six cents) and B2’s pay scale is royalties only. Publisher C3 is a non-paying market type. Publisher A1 will pay you six cents a word for your 2,100-word story. Nice, that is a one-time upfront payment for the right to publish your story in their magazine/journal. Publisher B2 will pay you after their product has sold a few copies. This is usually an annual payment of an unspecified amount, paid equally to all the authors featured, typical of anthologies. Publishing with C3 will give you exposure but no monetary reward. This is not a bad thing–everybody has to start somewhere, and the chance to advertise that your work can be read in C3’s magazine/journal is a good thing, just not an immediately profitable one. For this example, you decide you want to be paid for your work, so good-bye C3.

Side note: Another thing to consider is the rights or ownership of the story. Some publishers will state their intention for the rights, others might wait until you are presented with a contract. I must admit I was uncomfortable at first, but this is a personal and important decision each writer must make. My advice is keep the rights, or make sure they return to you in the end.

Now what else does the publisher want? Electronic submissions, both A1 and B2 specify this mode only, but what does that mean? It means they do not want to receive a hard copy of your story. You send them anything through the postal service and they will just pitch it without even giving it a glance. There are several ways to submit a story electronically: cutting/pasting it into a box on their publisher’s website, attaching it to an electronic entry form through a submission service, or sending it as an attachment to a specified email address used just for that purpose. Some things to note about these methods: the first is the submission service. It is a good thing to register with this service, but use a passcode you can easily remember because it banks your information and saves time down the road with future submissions. Second, the cut/paste method. Be prepared to lose any formatting you might have had; spend the time to fix the paragraph spacing. Lastly, when it says an attachment to the email, be sure you present it as they specify: no PDF, .doc, .docx, or PDF. These can be deal breakers.

Already you are probably thinking this is just nit-picky stuff and you are right it is, but remember there are thousands, if not millions of writers out there competing for a spot in a publication that is only going to be accepting applications for a small amount of time, for a small amount of print space. So yes, they can afford to be picky–it weeds out many prospects, and the point of this exercise is to make you one of the select few who has a chance for consideration.

Other things the publishers will mention are Reprints, Multiple Submissions, and Simultaneous Submissions. Your eyes might be glossing over now, but don’t worry, here’s an explanation. Reprints means your work has been published elsewhere. A publisher can choose whether to accept a piece that has been featured elsewhere. You look at your work and think, “nope never been published.” But wait a minute, did you share it on a public Facebook writing page, or on a blog, or on a site like Wattpad? In the industry, these are considered previously published and therefore rejected. If you shared your story on your Facebook page under a private setting or in a closed group for review, it’s considered fresh and yet unpublished work. Multiple Submissions means you might/might not submit more than one story to this publisher during this submission period. Example would be if they are taking stories for the month of November but not again until January, then you may submit one in November but not another until January. Some say multiple submissions are accepted, but usually they will put a limit on how many. Simultaneous Submissions means you might not be able to submit your work elsewhere for consideration until it has been formally refused by this publisher. Most publishers will list how long to expect them to consider your story, and in fact, advise that you contact them if you think it has taken too long. The cons with not accepting simultaneous submissions is your story can be held captive by one publisher so long that you are missing other opportunities with others, and some have been known to take up to six months. That is your choice if you want to go that route. If a publisher does accept simultaneous submissions, it is not only polite, but standard practice to let a publisher know if it gets accepted elsewhere while under their consideration.

Side note: I set up a poll in a Facebook writing group asking if the members always adhered to this guideline; never adhered to this guideline; or did, but felt bad about it. They had only one choice to make. It was about 2:1 for adhering to the guideline and being true to one publisher at a time. Of those who responded, one-eighth admitted to having done it at least once.

So how does all this affect your decision to submit to A1 and B2 publishers? Well, this is your first, and only, work and other than your editor and friends, no one has read it. That takes care of reprints and multiple submissions, but what about simultaneous? Let’s go with A1 says yes, but B2 says no. What do you do? That will be up to you, but for this exercise, we will go with A1 from here on.

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Tomorrow:

Part Three:  How do you get story to the publisher and impress them to read it?

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(November 2017 All rights reserved)

Patt O’Neil: The Submission Process For a Short Story or What I Wish Someone Had Taught Me (Part One)

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Part One:

Since the written word has been offered to others for profit, there have been those seeking their work included in these publications. We, my brothers and sisters, come under the heading of the Seekers—writers of novels, songs, poems, essays, plays, and short stories. All are similar in how to go about getting published, like the way dogs, cats, babies, and drunken girlfriends all like to curl up on laps, but that is where the similarity ends. Each has their own criteria, demands, and audience. I’m going to discuss the what I have learned with regards to having a short story published. Business buzzwords will be bolded.

I started my career as a writer by penning a novel—silly me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good story, just not anywhere near ready for publication. I needed to know more about not only what makes for a good story, but the process involved with the publication of that story. After switching over to short stories, I was encouraged by friends to seek publication of what I had written. Little did I know what that entailed, and I wished someone would have explained the process to me in depth. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they would have if I had asked the right questions. The purpose of this essay is to help explain the process.

Some generalizations about how written work gets published.

Anybody can set themselves up to become a publisher, all they need is a business plan, adequate capital, time, and connections. Anyone can also be a writer, you take an idea, put it to paper, and offer it to the publisher for their review and recompense. If the work is good–you will both win. If it’s great—they make money and you go on talk shows. To get your work before the publisher, many fields require an agent to act as a go-between the two parties. Agents are a valuable resource for a writer because they know which publisher is looking for work like yours, and for the publisher, because they act as a filter for all the manuscripts out there for consideration. There are some large market publishers that will accept non-agented submissions, but that is only during an advertised period (Harlequin usually open in the fall, like a goodwill gesture before the holidays).

Today’s electronic world has made self-publication an easy option. Skip the outside publisher and keep any profits earned for yourself. Unfortunately, this also means the writer also takes on all expenses the publisher, i.e. editing, formatting, printing, advertising, distribution … well, you get what I mean. Self-publishing is not at all a new concept, and the writer should not be discouraged by my description of the process. It is just not part of the process of having a short story published unless all the stories in the book belong to one writer, then it becomes a collection as opposed to an anthology. Notice I keep using the word writer instead of author. That is because the general concept is we are all writers, but we are not considered authors until we have had something published.

Practical steps prior to submission of a short story.

You’ve written a story and you think it special enough to want to share it with the world by having it published. You believe it is something of quality, something people are willing to spend their time, or even money, to read. Whether it is something that will make them laugh or cry, it needs to be well written.

First, you must know what the market genre or subject is. You don’t want to offer Erma Entices Eatonville to a publisher of children’s books, and vice versa. Know your audience. Have select members of that audience test read your work to see if the plot/message is being presented as you imagined. If this is done during while writing the story, they are known as Alpha readers. If they are reading it after you have finished writing the story, AND, reviewed it for errors (punctuation, spelling, etc.), they are called Beta readers. Take whatever comments these readers have to heart. You may not always agree with their remarks, but remember, the way they have processed your story will be how the publisher will as well. Make whatever changes, then submit it to an editor for another review.

You should never have to pay for an Alpha or a Beta reader. There are enough people around willing to read your work, just make sure they will comment without reservation. Your editor, on the other hand, is someone you should spend money on. Always send your editor the best version of your story, this person is a professional hired to bring your work up to industry and professional standards. There are line editors and content editors. Line editors will read your work, line by line, and correct any punctuation, grammatical, or continuity errors in your work. Think back to your English Composition class in high school and how your papers were returned with red ink notations by the teacher. This is what a line editor does. A content editor will do the same but also, with your permission, rewrite portions to give it more of an impact. They charge accordingly, the content charging more because they are being asked to do more work. You can find an editor just by asking, most authors have an editor they can recommend. It is appropriate to ask a potential editor what their rates are and their timeline for returning your work, do they give discounts if you have them take a second look, etc. Editors are your employees, your contract with them the same as you would a roofer or house painter, you wouldn’t take the first person who came along just because of convenience. Editor prices will vary, many of them charge less than a penny a word for work being asked. If they charge more, they had better provide more than just spilling red ink on your work.

Where can you submit a story for publication?

This varies from story to story, I know that sounds simplistic, but basically, that’s about it. If you write children’s stories, research who publishes children’s stories, magazines, journals, anthologies. Find out if they are accepting submissions. If it is a magazine, get an issue and look for the submission guidelines, if it not specific, send them an e-mail (I would say write but in this electronic age …) and ask, are you accepting and what are your guidelines. Better yet, go to their website and look for their submission guidelines there. Take note, those guidelines will be very specific and if not followed exactly can be the reason for rejection regardless of how good a story you have written.

If a publisher is accepting submissions, another consideration is whether your piece fits the size criteria, market type or length definition. Still working with the children’s magazine as an example, what if they are only accepting Flash Fiction pieces? Flash Fiction is any work 750-1,000 words or less. Count the total words of your story, minus the title and byline, for your word count. Is it less than that amount of words? If it is more, then it is a Short Story. Short stories measure up to 10,000 words, more than that it becomes a Novelette or Novella. A Novel is considered over 40,000 words. For the sake of example, yours measures 2,100 words which means you need to find somewhere else to submit it too.

If you don’t know where to look for open markets, try asking for recommendations or do some research to find out who has made a call for submissions. By reading this I know you belong to a Facebook writing group. Many of your fellow members will share information about who is accepting submissions. Another source is by subscribing to online resources like Duotrope of The (Submission) Grinder for referrals. These sites collect all the information I will mention here and periodically report what they know about these publishers. Another source is internet websites such as Writing Career, where like the two listed above, also list open markets and writing contests, both paid and unpaid. When you get one of these recommendations, go to that publisher’s website first to verify it is open, and second, to make sure your work fits within the parameters of their publication.

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Tomorrow:

Part Two: What are you looking for when looking at the publisher’s page?

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 (November 2017 All rights reserved)

Susan Staneslow Olesen: The Idea Factory

“I want to write, but where do you get your ideas?”

It’s hard for me to answer such a question because I’ve never had to think about it; ideas were just there. Writing is in my blood—my grandfather published a few books, my grandmother wrote poetry, my great-great-grandfather collected folktales, and my dad has articles published in magazines. I’ve been writing seriously since I was ten years old. I didn’t pursue writing as a career because it was something I already did well; there were other things I wanted to learn. Give me a class with a term paper and I knew I’d get a good grade.

Now, that’s not to say I never get writer’s block, or sometimes have no idea what to write. I belonged to a writer’s group for ten years, with monthly topics. Often I whipped off a piece that night or the next day, and goofed off the rest of the month. Sometimes I wrote three. Sometimes I started out with the topic in mind, but it took such a tangent you never saw it coming. Presented with the topic of “Hands,” I wrote about a magician’s assistant. For a theme of “Water,” I wrote a Greek-style myth inspired by a line of Pete Townshend’s song Hiding Out—“a waterfall of women weeping”—what an image! And yes, most certainly, I get overwhelmed when starting a new novel—even now, when I’ve written ten of them.

So, where does a writer get ideas?

The answer is: look around you. There isn’t a thing under the sun that isn’t an inspiration. Ants in the grass. A cat hugging himself in his sleep. A moth beating against a window. The fading sunlight creeping across a carpet. Every one of those has a story behind it. When? Where? Why? I needed a name for a lawyer, so I looked around me. Larry Lamp didn’t cut it. Marcus Driskin was named for a bottle of—you got it—dry skin lotion.

My first novel series, Best Intentions, arose from a short story I read in the back of a women’s magazine when I was about nine years old. It involved parents who abandon their five children at the side of the road, and how the oldest child—eight or nine herself—tries to make a home for her siblings in the woods. Using that theme of children abandoned, I invented a story of a large family whose mother dies unexpectedly, and when the father is sent to prison, they are legally abandoned into the custody of the eldest child (an overwhelmed 22-year-old in my story). That one small concept—children alone—turned into a five-volume sociological study of abandonment, depression, abuse, and the power of love and forgiveness. I joke it’s my Ph.D. in psychology. The two stories have as much in common as apples and oranges, but they came from the same concept.

In my second novel series, there is a simple line in Conflicts of Interest that says, “My second wife died of a medical condition.” It was only on editing that I wondered, what if the condition was suicide? Why? My head then exploded with possibilities, and a 40-page outline evolved almost overnight.

The best thing for a writer, the very best thing you can do to advance your writing career, is get outside and OBSERVE. Take notes if you have to, but your goal is to leave your abode and go feel the entire world with every one of your senses. Walk through your town, whether it’s New York City or a small village in the Punjab. See it with a child’s eyes, a child’s sense of wonder. What does it smell like, not just here, but there, too? Breathe in: smell the dirt, the pavement, the trees, the garbage rotting by the roadside, the skunk in the distance, fresh paint. How does the sun feel on your skin? Is the air humid, damp, sticky, dry, cold, hot, is the wind blowing? Is the sun hot but the air cold? Hot like a lamp, or hot like cayenne at a Mexican fiesta? How does the air change after it rains? What does the pavement smell like after rain, awash in the metallic smell of writhing earthworms? Listen as you walk. What music do you hear leaking from cars or windows? What is it saying? Is there a busker on the steps of city hall, blowing a trumpet or sawing a violin?

Everything tells a story.

James Baldwin called it Experience. A writer needs to experience everything they can, and then write what they know. That’s true, but you can’t always experience something—not everyone will be an astronaut; no one knows what it feels like to travel to Mars; a woman (random, average) cannot know what it’s like to be a man, and a man won’t ever experience childbirth. We don’t know if an elephant feels sadness; we can’t all climb Everest; we don’t all have a twin; we may never undergo divorce or have a child kidnapped or find an evil clown in the sewer drain—but we can observe, ask people, read biographies and science books, and we can use those observations to project a sense of experience, remembering a time when we felt profound fear, and write what we know. Read. Read everything you can get your eyes on, even shampoo bottles. What comes into your head?

A short video on Japanese cooking I saw inspired a short story of a child getting expelled from school for using a similar method to cheat students out of money. Completely unrelated, but inspired by nonetheless. Knowing old glass has a tendency to slide downward over the millennia led to the scene in Best of Everything where newcomer Sarah gets off on the wrong foot, informing Grandmama that her expensive and rare artwork is being mistreated and starting to slide off the canvas. When the cat died of liver cancer, I turned the feeling of loss into a poem about two children playing in a real forest. You can read it here. A horrific nightmare I had in college became a character’s nightmare in a story.

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You’ve lived on this planet for decades. What have you experienced? What facts do you know? Think of a fact, any fact, and use it to formulate a story. Monarch butterflies migrate. Chewbacca walks through the Death Star naked, and no one thinks twice. It takes, on average, twelve minutes for pasta to cook. Murders can happen in less time. (Okay, so now I have a picture in my head of a naked Wookie boiling water for pasta, but s/he is murdered, and a butterfly flies past the window. See how ideas multiply?)

Experience. Observe. Examine everything, as if you just landed from another planet and were trying to figure everything out. Everything you can see, smell, touch, taste, hear—grab it with both hands, let it sift through your fingers. How would you describe it?  Observe everything. Observance = experience. If you’re writing about Greece and you’ve never been there, take a trip if you can. If not, find a Greek festival. Watch the people. Listen to the language. Note the colors of the costumes and the dances and the rhythm of the music. Taste the food, or at least just look at it, noting the way a grape leaf looks rolled and stuffed and cooked, or the shine on a triangle of baklava, the way the walnuts spill between the layers of dough. Taste the sweetness of Ravani. At worst, find a travel DVD at your local library and take in what you can. Observe, observe, observe. It doesn’t have to cost anything. Take notes if you have to. Many foreign cities have webcams; view the landscape in realtime. See the buildings, note the colors. What does it make you think of?

As a writer, your job is to convey your story, to transmit the movie from your head to that of the reader. A successful story pulls the reader inside, connects with them not just visually with a painted scene, but emotionally, retrieving the smell of Grandma’s peach pie, the gold flaky crust with the tips of the edges just starting to burn, the way she twisted the peaches in the pan just so to make it look like a swirl when set on the table, with a dollop of whipped cream perched in the center, rivaling the onion domes of Moscow. To build up that illusion, to pull those memories from people’s heads that make your writing alive for them, you have to pull their emotions, and you reach those emotions by pulling out those details that trigger their memories, and those details come with observational experience. A good story takes place more in the reader’s head than on the printed page. Hair the color of rusted chains, bouncing in a confident rhythm as she trekked up the walkway, paints a dynamic picture that sticks in readers’ heads, lights their imagination, and connects in a personal way. Roan may not be a word everyone understands, but most people have seen rusted swings in a schoolyard, brownish-red. Shared experience. In The Shining, Stephen King mentions the way someone blows their nose, peaks into the hanky, then puts it away. You’ve seen people do this. A little detail, incidental to the story, but it makes the character pop from the page. You know people just like that. You’ve seen passing motorists pick their nose while driving. Perhaps you have a friend with an eye that has a tic; it twitches when they speak. Slide that fact into a character; instant association. Use that fact as the basis of a story. Perhaps the tic is a fatal flaw, giving away a secret.

Observe. Observe. Observe. The distant clang of church bells, tolling the hour. The rush of wind through pine trees. The headline of a newspaper; a magazine article on solar-powered cars. Listen to the conversation behind you in the restaurant. Teri’s husband blew another paycheck gambling, and Hope’s offered to front her $40 for groceries. Every one of these situations is a story. Writing dragons? Visit a pet store and watch lizards.

Go. Write. Write with passion. Use all that knowledge you spent a day, a week, a lifetime accumulating, and put it into your writing. Write with authority, knowing that your words are truth. Everything you see or hear is a potential character, a potential story, a potential detail to help bring your story alive. If one idea isn’t enough, list several: a blue car, falling acorns, the wedding ring, Billy the Exterminator, the sound of geese honking. The more ideas you list, the more your story writes itself. First day of school, shadows on the wall, grandpa’s missing teeth, misty rain, fireman. All that knowledge is in your head—or at least in your notes. The more you practice, the easier it gets.

Don’t overthink it, just let your story go where it wants. You’ll be surprised where you wind up.

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Susan S Oleson   

Susan Staneslow Olesen is an exhausted novelist and blogger for the Cheshire Public Library, where she also runs a writer’s group. A graduate of Wells College and The Chase Collegiate School, she has been a fruit picker, dial press operator, special education teacher, crisis intervention specialist, Disc Media Wizard, fostered 50 kittens, and is a 30-year foster parent to six children plus three of her own. She runs in circles and tears her hair out with her husband in Connecticut.

 

Sallie Moppert: To Outline, or Not To Outline, That is the Question

Just like each individual is unique, so is that individual’s writing style. Some people plot and outline every detail of their work while others prefer to wing it. It can sometimes feel like a tug-of-war between the two: am I plotting/outlining enough or too much? Which one of these methods is correct?

The answer is both. Whatever works for you is the correct one.

I have tried my hand at both styles and found a happy medium between the two extremes that works for me. I originally started making it up as I went along; I remember an occasion or two when I started a story and even I didn’t know who the killer was going to be in the story (a murder mystery with heavy emphasis on the mystery!). I also tried to completely outline my story from start to finish, dot-jotting all of the major events or details that were supposed to happen in a particular chapter for each and every chapter. Here’s what I’ve learned from my venture into the world of outlining and the world of flying by the seat of my pants and also the method that works best for me.

TO OUTLINE: Outlining can be very helpful for obvious reasons; with a blank page in front of you, figuring out what is supposed to happen when or what character is supposed to do something at a certain point in the story may seem like a daunting task. That’s where the outline comes in. Okay, chapter 1, I want to introduce this character and have him/her do this. I also want to introduce the conflict with this other character by some event happening. All right, now chapter 2…and so on and so forth. For some, having a definitive path to follow to get from page 1 to the final page is a must. With a clear cut start, middle and ending, the outline can help to reduce writer’s block. You already know what’s going to happen next. Granted, even though the next chapter’s details are already laid out for you, writer’s block still may occur when trying to get from point A to point B; don’t get discouraged! Then again, the writer’s block may be a good thing because it might be an indicator that there is a plot hole that needs to be fixed. Instead of trudging your way through hundreds of pages only to find a bottomless pit of a plot hole that could put the entire story in jeopardy, having an outline can highlight issues that might occur later in the story that will need to be remedied. Wait, this character can’t do that; it’s not in his nature! I have to go back and fix this. Or perhaps something like: why didn’t the antagonist just do this? It would have made this happen instead of that happening. I need an explanation for that reasoning/action.

NOT TO OUTLINE: Part of the fun of writing is the creativity that comes as a result of imagining characters, places and scenarios. A rigid outline could interfere with the natural flow of creativity. Oh, hey, that character would make a great addition to this scene! I’ll pencil him into this chapter and see what happens instead of shoot, this character can’t be in this scene, even though I know he/she’d have some great dialogue to add and/or would really help him/her in some way. Sometimes a character or a plot may need to change over the course of a story in a way that wasn’t even initially conceived of. My story Into the Fire was an instance of a character being brought into the story that wasn’t anything I had thought of doing when I started writing it. The piece itself was a side project I was doing, just having fun with different POVs and writing suspense, sort of like the movie Vantage Point (2008, with Dennis Quaid and Forest Whitaker); the different points of view all came together to tell a single story and the truth behind what happened. I got about five chapters in when an idea hit me: what if I made the cops called in to deal with the threat be Sam and Dahlia? I like the idea of putting Sam in more stories since he was a fun character to write and explore. Once that idea occurred to me, the pieces began to fall into place. The security guard became Sam’s mentor, Edwin. Sadly, though, Edwin’s fate in that story remained unchanged, even before Edwin Hill the security guard became Edwin Hill, retired cop/mentor/foster father of Samuel Marlowe. Because I wasn’t sticking to a rigid outline, I had the freedom to adjust the story accordingly.

THE HAPPY MEDIUM: I found that what works best for me is a flexible outline. I have an idea, whether it be a prompt or a scenario, that I plan to start writing. From there, I dot jot a couple of ideas that I want to happen in the story. Here are the notes I have for one of the stories in the next installment of Good Cop Bad Cop. This story is called (tentatively) ‘Paying a Debt.’

 

Gloria is going to the bank

Sam recognizes something is wrong and goes with her

He is off duty, so he has no weapon on him

Robbers show up

Turns into a hostage situation

Sam contacts [character name removed to avoid spoilers] for help

 

With these few lines, I have an idea of where the story is headed. The next step would be to create the characters, or, at least, get some names. With a flexible outline, I can add or remove characters as I need, so I usually just start off with a bunch of first and last names that I can refer to to create characters. Once I have some characters in place, I start writing. It’s fun to let the story develop on its own, with me, as the writer, merely along for the ride. I learned the value of this when writing a separate story a few years ago and the way the chapter was chugging along, I came to a confrontation between two characters that I didn’t plan on having in the rigid outline I’d created, but I loved the scene because it really fit the characters’ personalities to nearly duke it out until interrupted by a third character both were connected to.

The story is like a child and the writer, a parent. We spend days, months, years, working on a story, developing it and making it the best it can be. That story, though, can take on its own personality and traits or quirks that may not have otherwise developed if the writer hampered its natural procession.

Outline or don’t outline-whatever you feel works best for you but remember to let your muse and the story guide you at times. You never know where a story can go unless you let it take you there!

What do you prefer, outlining or winging it?

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Sallie Moppert Bio

A New York native, Sallie has a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice, with a Specialization in Forensic Science. A lifelong mystery fan, she has combined her love and passion for writing with her interests in criminal justice, law, and forensic science.

Sallie currently resides in New York with her family and two dogs, and works as a freelance writer/editor.

Good Cop Bad Cop is her debut novel, and is available everywhere books are sold in both paperback and ebook editions.

Guest Blog: Write What You Know — David Reiss

Once upon a time–when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and I was still in high school–I had a wonderful English teacher who treated his students as peers and insisted that we all call him by his first name; his enthusiasm for literature and drama was outright contagious. He convinced me to read outside my preferred genres, and he pushed me to write, write and write some more. A tremendously harsh critic, he somehow managed to be supportive even while delivering the most ruthless dissections of my prose. I was a bitter and catastrophically depressed teenager who approached each school day with apprehensive dread, but for his classes, I held a genuine anticipation.

Until one lecture when he insisted that creating compelling fiction required that we ‘write what we know,’ and all my enthusiasm burned away into ash.

At the time, I thought that he meant that our prose should be limited to our experiences and our areas of expertise. I couldn’t imagine any subject less interesting or worthy of consideration. How could the experiences of a morose, sheltered and awkward kid be relevant to the life of an inhuman denizen of a fantasy dungeon? I wanted to write about dragons and laser pistols, camaraderie and adventure!

I occasionally wish for a time machine so that I could leap across the years and smack my younger self on the back of the head. Because the truth is every experience is something you can learn from. I may not have ever soared above a battlefield then folded my wings to drop into combat like the gryphon protagonist from one of my short stories…but I knew the feel of wind against my face and could add that sensation to describe my gryphon’s flight. I knew what it looked like when a hawk stooped towards its prey. I knew what anger felt like, and fear, and hope, and sadness.

To ‘write what you know’ doesn’t mean to write about yourself. It means to use your personal experiences to lend the power of authenticity to your prose.

There is a secondary meaning as well, and it is one that I try to take to heart more as an adult author: Research, knowledge and the acquisition of new sensory memories can make your writing more compelling. It’s tempting to feel content that having swung a baseball bat is sufficient experience to write a scene in which an armored knight wields a mace, and it is true that being able to evoke the memory of how your grip strained or how your shoulder shook at the moment of impact is important. But spending time researching how maces were used historically can help create a more powerful scene. Look up how much real maces weighed. Research the kinds of wounds that a mace caused. If you can, make a mace and create new sensory memories by beating up an old tire. Interview experts and NEVER rely on anything you saw in a Hollywood blockbuster movie because Hollywood is a lying liar who lies.

Try new things! Get your hands dirty in the garden, take a lesson in welding, bungee jump, hang-glide. Eat exotic foods and learn to mix cocktails. Live.

So, my advice to an aspiring author is this: Write what you know because you know much more than you think. And never, ever stop learning because who knows what you’re going to want to write about tomorrow?

About the Author:

While growing up, David Reiss was that weird kid with his nose in a book and his head in the clouds. He was the table-top role-playing game geek, the comic-book nerd, the story-teller, and dreamer.
Fortunately, he hasn’t changed much.

David is a software engineer by trade and a long-time sci-fi and fantasy devotee by passion, and he lives in Silicon Valley with his partner of twenty-six years. Until recently, he also shared his life with a disturbingly spoiled cat named Freya.

(Farewell, little huntress. You were loved. You are missed.)

David’s first book, Fid’s Crusade, has just recently been published; this was his first novel-length project, but it certainly won’t be his last—he’s having far too much fun!

Guest Blog: The 9 Perils of Writerhood – Rosanna Bates

The 9 Perils of Writerhood

By Rosanna Bates

Thinking about taking up writing? As a hobby, or maybe a career? Well, be warned. You are about to pursue a perilous occupation. A vortex of chaos, creativity and solitude that will suck you into its inescapable depths. Writing is not for the faint-hearted.

On your journey you will encounter submission guidelines, internet trolls and *gasp* reading fees. If you are lucky enough to get away from them unscathed, you are still destined to fall victim to the countless dangers of writing. Although for the sake of time-saving let’s say there are nine.

 

The Curse of the Grammar Nazi

With proficiency in the written word comes an impulse to correct people’s grammar and spelling—a practice that is universally frowned upon. In no small part because it’s a little bit condescending even if it does clear up some outrageous uses of the English language.

As the rest of the world demands you keep your mouth shut, you will be forced to stew in your exasperation for eternity. Although, where the internet’s prying eyes cannot see, you will be safe to unleash your new curse. The household shopping lists will be impeccable, one way or another.

 

Demonic Possession

Short of floating out of bed and babbling in tongues, you wouldn’t believe you were being possessed at all. That’s what the Demons want you to think.

We believe the characters we create and grow to love are under our control. But they get under our skin, into our heads, and control our thoughts. Whilst innocently daydreaming some dialogue for your new imaginary friends, their words will come tumbling out of your mouth quite without your permission. At dinner, on the tube, at the library, in the middle of an important interview. At every conceivable inconvenient movement. So don’t be surprised if you come home to an intervention one day with a demonologist and a priest siting in.

 

Imagination Fatigue

The adrenaline rush of an idea grabbing you and running away is like nothing else. Your wedding day or that big promotion all pale in comparison to this thrill. Spending several hours on a whirlwind adventure in your own brain and putting it to paper is an excitement that has lured many a writer into its eternal clutches. However, after any epic high, there is an inevitable crash. When you’re finished with that flash of productivity, your brain will feel like an exploded water balloon. You’ll be lucky if you can think up what to have for dinner.

 

Legal Trouble

Writers research everything. How else are you supposed to craft realistic crime dramas and historical romances? Nobody’s that confident in their estimations of an autopsy to start writing about it without looking it up in a search engine first. Those Google searches are not for the squeamish.

As a result of your curiosity, your internet histories become weird and wonderful collections of web pages you’ve clicked on in the pursuit of piecing your work together realistically. They also become article one in your murder trials if your enemies are vengeful enough.

Whilst at the time your search on the world’s deadliest poisons was perfectly innocent, it may not look that way when there’s a dead body in your living room with all the signs of cyanide poisoning. Moral of the story, don’t be a writer. If you really must be a writer, then be sure to make no enemies who might be motivated enough to frame you for murder. As our next point explains, that may not be a problem anyway.

 

Dying a Social Death

Writing isn’t merely a hobby, it’s a lifestyle. It gets into every nook and cranny of your life, including the social sector. Coffees with friends make way for editor’s deadlines. Brainstorming sessions instead of hosting the parents. Losing your mind perfecting a scene instead of sleeping.

Your friends and family begin to question whether you ever existed or if you were just a figment of their imaginations. Until one day you finally show up to a birthday party and dole out a few heart attacks.

 

Keyboard Burn

When inspiration hits, you won’t be able to get the words down fast enough. So beware when speed typing, for your fingertips may burn on the red-hot keys. That best-seller in the making will gather dust at the back of your hard-drive whilst you enjoy the delight that is hospital food.

 

Irritable Scowl Syndrome

Writing takes peace and quiet. But the quietest times are the best until someone bursts into your study exclaiming that they need their dry cleaning done, there are no jam tarts left, or the house is on fire. Sigh.

Be warned, the first interruption will not be the last because when it’s OK to barge in once, it’s always OK. Such is the logic of serial interrupters. You will begin to develop a fearsome scowl upon hearing the words “Just before you sit down…” or “Are you busy?” that will send any enquirers scurrying in the other direction.

As these interruptions happen more and more (and rest assured, they will) this scowl will become your default expression for anything you even remotely disapprove of. Your reputation will be forever tainted and you will be remembered as a terrifying individual. Or perhaps that’s what you were aiming for.

 

Repetitive Name Injury

There’s names you like, and names you don’t. The names you give your characters you often love. That’s why it’s difficult to give these beloved names to only one character. Where does the injury come in? When you’re bashing your head against the wall trying to think of new ones that sound just as good.

 

Addiction

Drugs are bad, kids, and writing is one of the hardest highs out there. It starts out innocent, just a short story or two in the privacy of your home, but it doesn’t take long for this to escalate. You’ll start holing yourself up in your study penning novels and sketching settings. Soon enough, you’ll be writing on the train to work, and in the car waiting for your kids to get out of school. Write long enough and no rehab on Earth can help you return to the way things used to be.

 

 

About the Author

Rosanna Bates was born in Worcester, England at the height of baggy jeans and boy band popularity. Her childhood was spent reading and writing stories she was too embarrassed to show anyone. To date, she has had short stories and flash fiction published by The Fiction Pool, Ariel Chart, Anti-Heroin Chic, the Manawaker Studios podcast and Otter Libris. While she prepares her debut novel for publication, she also manages a book blog The Secret Library and regularly contributes to the online millennial lifestyle magazine, Unwritten.

 

Reflections (Guest Article by Mark Mackey)

To start this off, in 2009, I had no intention of writing books. I was more interested in trying to forge a career in screenwriting.

I made a short, silent film—a task in itself. I had to search down actors/actresses for it and started off with other students—most of whom said not a chance. This led to using the school’s, I think, casting manager—I don’t really remember her exact title anymore—to get local professional actresses/actor (two women, one male) for it.

By far the easiest aspect of this, the rehearsals, which always took place in the front lobby of the school. Hardest, filming—silent film cameras were used.

The reason behind this, the school had this thing in which they wanted the students to start off creating films the old-fashioned way before moving on to more high-tech digital cameras and sound.

After its completion, time was spent in a darkened classroom slicing the video apart, editing out the unusable parts, and using a specialized tape to put it all together in order to make it comprehensible (it was filmed the old-fashioned way on film strips). Often times, more than not, I had to ask the other students in there for assistance, which they had no difficulty providing.

One last problem with this—aside from getting it put onto DVD’s to provide copies to the actresses/actor—was Walgreens and the use of their camera department. Frustrating it was, they had this policy in which they refused to do it over copyright issues, and it took a while to get this resolved.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time rambling on about this specific experience, only to say I finished the film to personal satisfaction.

In 2010, after writing a screenplay based on a vampire character I came up with a couple of years earlier for a class, Genres in Screenwriting (Vampires), I came up with the idea of changing it into a novel, which is now Maureen: A Vampire Tale (Special Edition). Back then (in 2010), vampires didn’t seem as tired as they are now, but I could be wrong about this.

During this time, I became aware of the whole concept of self-publishing and decided on exploring this route, since querying screenplay agents/companies didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Neither were the few screenplay contests I entered—even though I won a couple.

This was rough going in the beginning, as the paperbacks of Maureen continuously kept being rejected by Createspace due to incorrect format.

Another difficulty I saw with this, the print kept being way too small to read.

Yet a second problem, which popped up during and still does, covers. Often times, I’d get a message which stated, “the cover is unacceptable and needs to be corrected,” and caused nothing but a frustrated headache for me and probably the independent cover artist who had to waste their time in making the corrections to work.

After a long while of suffering horrible frustration over this, there was a light at the end of the tunnel, as Createspace finally pointed out the solution to this problem. The way they said to handle it, use one of their pre-made templates. Problem solved, and I published Maureen twice now, since both the old, first version, and the newer, final version are both available on Amazon, and I think maybe other places.

Up until a few years ago, I used to think writing really long books was such a smart idea.  Not so anymore. The specific reason I discovered this, reading it word by word isn’t such an easy task. The truth of the matter is, it’s downright frustrating and time-consuming.

Let’s talk about another problem I see with writing, the whole concept of NANO month/camp NANO. When I first tried this out, I came out on top, but then the wins kept piling up. Eventually, this sort of got out of control and I kept asking myself: should I do the next one? Yet I continued to do it—each time since ending up with the same results. I keep telling myself this will be the last one yet I continue on to do other monthly word writing challenges as well. I don’t know, maybe I’ll sit the next NANO out.

As a final thought to this, I suppose one of the reasons I’ve been so hesitant to publish any of the NANO projects has to do with something which has come to my attention over the past couple years. Book piracy. I discovered I’m not immune to this while searching out my name for some information.

 

Balancing Life and Writing (Guest Article by Clara C. Johnson)

Balancing the time to write, attending five classes a week, homework, studying for exams, working a full-time job, and spending time with loved ones seems to be for the talented juggler, but I am here to tell you that anyone can do it if you can learn to manage your time well. Unfortunately, many (including myself) heard the famous writing advice that in order to finish your work in progress (WIP) and to become a better writer, you have to write literally every single day. Fact of the matter is, we all have responsibilities outside our writing such as jobs, family, and school that must take priority. In addition, suffering from health complications can also affect your ability to achieve this goal. Frankly, it can be quite impossible for anyone to write every day!

First, I must offer an adjustment to the advice. I think if you plan to become a writer, you should THINK about your WIP every day. This is a much simpler way to help you stay focused on your goals. A simple drive to the grocery store or sitting in the doctor’s office can be a wonderful time where you can think on what you want to do with your WIP. Whether you consider the plot, characters, or a scene you want to add/change doesn’t matter. The overall goal is to get your brain fired up!

As a college student, much of my thinking throughout the day is on all the school work I want to get done by a certain time or studying for an exam I have to take soon. A great tool I learned in my Creative Writing class was to keep a small notebook with me at all times. This notebook is something you should take with you everywhere. Write down your thoughts or describe something you see that interests you. What you write down doesn’t have to necessarily relate to what you are working on right now. An example could be this: you are driving to work, and you notice an old house that burnt down. It may be something you have seen a hundred times before, but you are filled with questions as to what happened to the house that caused the fire. You start to think; what if it was a faulty appliance? Some kids who thought it would be fun to play with fire? You could write this observation down in your notebook for later consideration. An entire story could be written based on this burnt down house.

While this may have nothing to do with your current WIP, you have given yourself a writing prompt. Writing prompts can be a great way to help get your creative gears rolling. You never know, maybe that burned down house could be a vital resource for a story you will work on in the future or your current one. Now, I know not everyone can carry a hefty notebook with them everywhere they go. For you, this “notebook” could be an app on your phone or tablet. There are many different apps you can use for storing your notes. Notecards can work too! Test which method works best for you. As long as you are comfortable with your format, it will benefit you.

My notebooks vary now. I have everything from full-sized notebooks, a small journal, and now a binder to separate my WIP. I spend most of my “plotting” time for my stories in between classes if I get all my homework done early. Sometimes, all I am able to write down is the description of my character’s appearance or personality. The goal is to be able to jot down your ideas onto something for later consideration. Regardless of the format you use, this is the best way I’ve discovered to keep my writing going.

Even then, I have days to a week where I can’t get the time to do it. It’s frustrating and annoying, but I want to say that it’s okay to take small breaks. Things come up, and you may have a couple rough days. Life happens to all of us, and there is little we can do about it. I believe as long as you eventually find the time, you will do it if you truly are passionate about it. Writing is not for the faint of heart and it can seem impossible to do it as regularly as you want. My best advice is to organize your schedule. Set aside time to write and take advantage of the down time you have in between classes, work, or whatever else you need to get done that day. If all you get done is just jotting down an idea for your WIP, that’s okay! As long as you keep up with it and forgive yourself when you can’t do your writing, I’m positive that you will be able to reach your goals! Focus on what you need to do and what works best for you. Each and everyone one of us are different. No two writers are the same.


Clara C. Johnson is a small-town girl who dreamed of magic, swords, and dragons. For the past decade, she has written poetry, short stories, and a novel. She is currently studying English at Penn State University in between drinking too much coffee and writing her next project.

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