Post a day

So far, I’ve managed a blog post every day this year. I’ve already posted more this month than I managed to post for all of last year.

One of my goals this year is to have a blog post every day. Some days may have more (i.e. longer) content than others, but I aim to have something for every day this year. This is my version of the 365day photo projects others do. I should probably do one of those as well, as I’m certainly interested in photography, but I’m not going to start that in January. Maybe I’ll start a 365 day photo project in the summer, or maybe I’ll start a weekly photo posting soon.

So, what will I be blogging about? The most obvious concerns will be related to reading and writing, primarily science fiction. I will be commenting on interesting topics and concerns in my classes, and things of interest that come up in the news.

You can likely expect some posts in the next few months about Homer’s Odyssey. Once I get things a little more organized, I may try to schedule certain topics for certain days. For example, I may review books on Thursdays, or something. Right now, the concern is to get words written, and published in a timely fashion.

One of the reasons for getting a regular blogging schedule in place will be to transition from blog writing to fiction writing. I have several story ideas floating around, with some outlines written down. I’d really like to get back to writing them. It’s been said that writing is a muscle that needs to be exercised, and I have found that once I’ve started writing anything, it’s much easier to keep going on other projects.

Feel free to stick around. There should be an RSS feed around here somewhere, for those who are inclined. Better yet, sound off in the comments. Discussion can be fun. Hopefully I’ll be at least mildly entertaining or informative at least part of the time.

Creative Writing Retrospective

My thoughts on English 335, Creative Writing I at the University of Waterloo.

Last term, I was enrolled in English 335 at the University of Waterloo. This course was a workshop based course on creative writing. This course had a great deal of potential, but only partially lived up to my expectations.

The course is composed of three main areas of creative writing: poetry, short fiction, and drama (called “collaborative performance” in the syllabus). While I was most interested in the short fiction component, I also greatly enjoyed the poetry unit. For each of the first two units, two new poems or short stories were written and workshopped. One of each was then chosen to be thoroughly revised, and justification provided for the revisions. The collaborative performance was written and edited in groups, and was presented in class on the last day.

Possibly the best part about the course was the license to write. I not only wanted to write, but I was compelled to do so. The poetry unit helped me to think more deeply about the fundamentals of language, while the fiction unit allowed me to concentrate on narrative.

In contrast, the drama unit provided me with little value. The collaborative work was interesting, but there was little focus placed on revision after the presentation. This unit also took considerable time which I would have rather spent writing more poetry or fiction. The performance aspect of the work was also uncomfortable. My group read our script, rather than memorizing it. I did not have the time to spend memorizing a script. This is a creative writing course, not a drama course. Maybe this part of the course was more meaningful to others in the class, but I felt it detracted from my experience.

There was very little academic content in the course, which is expected for a creative writing course. It is listed as a workshop course, not a lecture. There are other courses which focus on the short story, and others which focus on poetry from the academically critical perspective. This course focused on creating and revising effective writing.

The workshop portion of the course was valuable, but also frustrating at times. The class size was excessive. There were over twenty people enrolled in this section of the course. When workshopping as an entire class, critiques of everyone’s work meant taking two nights to cover everyone. For the second piece in the poetry and fiction units, we broke into smaller, more focused groups, reading five pieces instead of twenty. In general however, there was not enough time to effectively critique the writing. If the class was smaller, more time could be spent on each individual piece, or each student could write another piece.

In general, I found the critique process to be poorly defined. The majority of the time was spent discussing what people liked, and what people didn’t. A particular phrase was often pointed out as being cool. It was more rare to hear a critique which focused on elements such as pacing or plot construction. The instructor frequently brought up the need to focus on characterization. This is a fault I was guilty of, in at least one of my stories, which I later gutted and rewrote from scratch.

Another frustration was having my work reviewed last in both the poetry and fiction sections. I realize that someone always has to be last, but it’s no more fun in creative writing than it is in high school gym class.

The pacing of the course seemed excessively slow. Over twelve weeks, we wrote two poems, of which one was revised, and wrote two pieces of flash fiction, of which one was revised. Added to this was the writing, editing and performance of a collaborative drama. Five pieces of original writing, and two revisions. I was expecting more writing in the course, and ultimately found the level of workshop discussion unsatisfying, primarily due to the lack of time for individual reviews.

I think this course would benefit from a bit more structure in the critique process. What sort of things should be looked at during a critique, for example. A simple list of some of the basic elements of fiction, such as plot, characterization and effective dialogue would have improved some of the reviews. By the middle of the term, I was getting rather tired of hearing the phrase “I really enjoyed this story” prefacing a simplistic review.

The instructor also has a bias against genre fiction, although it was allowed in the course. This can be understandable, as it is much more difficult to assess work in a genre in which one has little experience. From my perspective, it’s much easier to write in the genre in which I read. Without knowing the conventions of a particular genre, it can be difficult to determine if a certain phrase or concept is typical of the genre. The instructor primarily reads literary fiction, I believe.

I’m not sure if I will enroll in the advanced creative writing course. I think I need to spend some more time to absorb the experience of the first course, before I come to a decision.

Writer pay rates

There have been two stories going around recently, about writers and publishing. The first was the whole harlequin vanity press. The more recent story has to do with pay rates for different markets.

I’m a beginning writer. I have submitted a single story to the Tesseracts 14 anthology, which pays $50 for stories under 1500 words, rising to $100 for 5000 words. That works out to 3 cents a word for low word-count stories, and 2 cents a word for longer stories. This doesn’t meet SFWA requirements for a pro market — although it would have prior to 2004 — but it’s certainly better than the 1/5 of a cent per word that Black Matrix is offering.

The fact that Tesseracts is a well respected anthology of Canadian imaginative literature (SF/F/H etc) year is great. The editors of the anthology this year are John Robert Colombo, a much respected editor of Canadiana, and Brett Alexander Savory, publisher of ChiZine publications. I believe that having a publication in Tesseracts would enhance my career. Do I think this particular story will make it? I’ll find out soon, as they have a short reading period, but I’ll likely receive my first rejection.

As Jim C. Hines notes, “most of us suck when we’re new”. Rejection can be horrible, but it’s also a reason to get better. It’s one of those Calvin and Hobbes “character building” exercises. I would rather submit a reasonably good story and have it rejected than submit crap that does get published. Don’t get me wrong, I look forward to seeing my name in print someday, but I’m not looking for fast self-validation.

One thing that Scalzi notes, but which has been overlooked in some cases, is that there is a difference between “for the love, no one is making money” publications, and businesses launching multiple magazines, as well as two book lines.

Shaun Duke has thrown his two bits in. Small markets, such as the Survival by Storytelling magazine, are perfectly justified in their pay scale: a portion of royalties only. In fact, from their magazine’s submission guidelines, 2/3 of all profit goes to the issue’s contributors, while the remaining third goes to Young Writers Online. Duke isn’t making anything from this.

In regards to publishers such as Black Matrix, I can’t currently justify submitting a story to a for-profit company that pays so poorly. This is no longer a “for the love” market. Rachael Swirsky guest-blogged on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog about the value of certain publishing credits. I would have to agree with her, and with Cat Rambo, editor for Fantasy Magazine. Too many unknown credits on a cover letter are a possible sign that the author may have been underselling their work, and may be used to lower standards. As a slush reader, I have anecdotal evidence to support this.

Markets like this exist. They will likely continue to exist. The moral question here, is whether the publisher is making money without paying their writers adequately. What else do they offer? Why would an author submit to markets like this? I won’t, but others have and will. So long as they know what they’re getting into, that’s great.

Scalzi may have come across a little harsh. But really, when has he ever shown gentle softness and tact? This is the man who has published a Hugo-winning essay collection criticizing the hate mail he’s received. He may have seen a few more hits on his blog than usual from this incident, but he already has a big audience. Instead, he’s using his platform to call out a group that appears to be underpaying writers for profit. He’s trying to help the community out. It’s unfortunate that this comes across as an attack on all publications.

Jeff VanderMeer writes about goals in Booklife, suggesting that “many writers never progress in their careers — except in a shambling, two-steps-forward-one-step-back way — because they always focus on the moment, and the moment after that” (p 20). What does submitting to a market such as this accomplish for your long-term career goals, that submitting to a better paying market doesn’t? Maybe having to wait a little longer by submitting to multiple, more discriminating markets first might be worthwhile? After all, the story is written, you can start writing the next while shuffling the manuscript between markets. Writing and publishing books is a lengthy task. Use some discretion, and some patience.

New blog posts to this story include another Fantasy Magazine slush reader, and also now assistant editor, Molly Tanzer, which is full of fantastic advice.

Another post is from Nick Mamatas, a very “to the point” kind of response.

There has also been a followup to Rachael Swirsky’s posting on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog.

Self Critic

I had my creative writing class again this evening. We broke into small groups for critiques of flash fiction.

Despite having one fewer member in our group this week, we finished at least half an hour later than some of the other groups. It was a fun little session. The stories showed good promise, and I hope my suggestions were helpful. I don’t think I pull any punches while providing my criticism. I certainly don’t start off every critique with another version of “I really liked this story”. Where there are problems, either in plot progression, character development, description or dialogue, I point it out, usually with a suggestion as to how to do things better.

My story somehow got selected to be last for review yet again. Thankfully, in the smaller sessions, we’re not working under the same time restraints. I find it disappointing though, to receive minimal feedback, most of which dealt with things I did well. While I’m pleased that people enjoyed it, as a workshop draft, it’s not at a state where I’m particularly happy with it. In fact, I think my story has major issues in plot, pacing, characterization, and point of view. Some characters were certainly not used as well as they could have been.

A few parts of this were mentioned, but nothing specific was cited as being a point for improvement. Maybe my expectations for this course were too high? Ah well. I know where I want this story to go. I’ll revise it over the weekend. I also want to revise one of my stories this weekend so I can submit it for the Tesseracts 14 anthology. It’s a dark little Canadian steampunk story. Hopefully it will interest John Robert Colombo and Brett Alexander Savory.

Advice from a slush reader

When submitting manuscripts to online markets, the golden rule is to be professional. Try and make things easy for the slush reader to like your story, and your chances at getting your work accepted increase dramatically.

Please, if you’re submitting manuscripts to a magazine or publisher, do the slush reader and yourself a favour. Be professional. Your chances at actually getting a story passed on to the editor will increase dramatically. Show me that you’re serious about getting your work published.

In the submission form, there will be a section for a cover letter. Write something here. Put in a short summary of your story, as well as any relevant qualifications that you may have. If you can’t bother to write anything here, why should I expect your story to be interesting?

Your goal is to make it easy for me, the slush reader, to enjoy your story. Asking me to google your name in order to find your publications is not going to earn you any points. Frankly, I’m busy. I’m not going to bother doing this, and I’m going to just pretend that you have no relevant qualifications. For all I know, this may be true. You certainly didn’t point anything out as being especially important. I probably won’t follow a link to your website for your qualifications, unless there’s something really interesting in your cover letter. I have enough tabs open in my browser right now. I don’t really want to open another. What is best here is to provide a short list of your relevant publication history. If the market is smaller, and not necessarily related to the current market, it might help to explain what it is. Is it a small university literary journal? Or is it a flash fiction online journal? Paid markets are likely more relevant.

Most importantly, if you have ever been accepted at my market, mention it here. If you have received personal feedback from the editors here, mention it. Do not assume that I’m the slush reader who read your last story. Do not assume that the editors will immediately recognize your name. If I’m not made aware of any past acceptance or feedback from the editors, I’m going to treat your story like all others. If I know about prior feedback, I’ll still read it and provide comments to the editors, but it will be passed on to them for further review.

Now to the manuscript. For the love of all that is pure and good in this world, do not use the Papyrus or Comic Sans fonts. There is something to be said about a good non-proportional font like Courier. The Van Halen brown M&Ms contract clause is a true urban legend. Paying attention to the small details will show that you’re serious. There are numerous manuscript guidelines available online. Here’s a link to Science Fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer’s manuscript checklist. Ignoring this advice won’t make me reject your manuscript, but following it will help.

As for the manuscript’s content, how many times have you read it? Have you read it aloud? Where does it trip you up while reading? Sometimes it can help if you read it in a different voice. How would James Earl Jones narrate your story? How would William Shatner narrate it? Remember that although his reading of Sarah Palin’s rejection speech sounded poetic, doesn’t mean that the original material was very good.

Try to remember that with electronic submissions, the words you see underlined in red in your word processor appear underlined in mine as well. Don’t draw attention to problems in your manuscript. Do you have a part in your story where you have several paragraphs of backstory? This is called exposition, and it will kill my desire to read any further. This is even worse when the exposition is more interesting than the rest of your story. If you really feel this information is important, break it up into smaller chunks to be revealed slowly throughout your story. Keep me interested in your story.

Pay attention to the mechanics of narration. Don’t suddenly shift verb tenses, or point of view. The traditional modern story is told in third person, using the past tense. “He picked up the gun”, not “I pick up the gun” or “He picks up the gun”. Unless you have experience writing in other forms, try and stick with the standards. Remember, your goal is to make it easy for me to pass your story on to the editor.

In general, be professional and courteous. Give me context in your cover letter, and make it as easy as possible for me to like your story. I will appreciate it.

For a similar perspective on submissions, read Molly Tanzer’s post from higher up on the slush pile.

Words

Words flutter around my head, droning like tiny insects. Lazily, I watch them. Careening through the air, they cast shadows on the page below, like those from clouds on a farmers field. Finally, I act. Slowly, I reach out with my pen. Carefully, I select a target. Swiftly, I strike out. Spearing my target, I drag it to the pristine page. Screeching, it spills out ink on the page. The process now started, I select another target quickly. Again and again I lash out, laying the corpses of these words down in a row on the page. I harness the words together, forming thoughts, bending them to my will. Evidence of these words now litters the page. The words pile up on the page. I pause and reflect the carnage. What did I accomplish? Did the words accomplish my goal? In committing the words to the page, did I succeed in expressing my thoughts?

A short writing exercise I used in order to jump start my creativity.