Writing

Social Media and Book Marketing – Advice from Robert Hoge

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May 19, 2015

Robert Hoge is a good friend of mine, a top bloke and a great writer. We were having a conversation with other friends a little while ago and the subject of social media engagement and book promotion came up. Rob is very savvy about that stuff and he promised to put his thoughts on the subject together. When he did, I found I agreed with him pretty much 100%. So, as I know a lot of writers read my blog, I asked if I could steal his thoughts and spread them out for everyone to consume, like a mass picnic of Rob’s brainmeats. He said yes. I told you he was a top bloke. So here you go:

Robert Hoge’s Social Media and Book Marketing Advice

There are a few simple tips for authors trying to get the best from their social media presence.

There are some good guides out there. I like “Your First 1000 Copies” by Tim Grahl but there’s a lot of stuff available on the web for free. Much of this is geared towards non-fiction writing but with some creativity it can be applied to fiction just as easily. You just need to have something to say.

Tip 1

Have something to say. The most important thing you can do – whatever the channel – is create content that is engaging and adds value. The biggest commitment you’re asking from potential readers is not a commitment of dollars; it’s a commitment of time and attention. Reward their attention with smart, funny, engaging content that adds value to their lives and does more than just ask them to buy your book because it’s cheaper now.

Offer value by talking about stuff that relates to your work but isn’t your work. Establish a relationship with people on social media by consistently being interesting and adding value to their experience. Be real. When the time is right ask them to buy (read) your work. You’re creative people. Be creative.

Tip 2

1908138_871371366267410_6973824597014610978_nBe on Facebook. A lot of readers are on Facebook, as are publishers, reviewers and bookstores. If you want to market yourself to readers through social media, you should have some presence there. When you follow the advice in tip one, the network effects are tremendous.

Understand the Facebook algorithm, then stop worrying about it. The Facebook algorithm helps determine who sees what. For fan (non-personal) pages it initially only serves new content to about one-fifth or less of the people who’ve liked the page. Everyone blames the Facebook algorithm for a post only having eight likes but it’s not to blame. Boring posts are to blame. If you post interesting and engaging content that generates likes, comments and shares, Facebook will reward the post by serving it to more readers. Ask questions, post video, post images. Every time someone comments on your post, like it and reply because Facebook recognises that as engagement.

Tip 3

Be on Twitter. Twitter is a great place to converse and its network effects can sometimes be much greater than Facebook’s. All the points in tip one still apply, plus you get to hone your writing skills by making Tweets sing in 140 characters.

Generally though, Twitter is worse at serving content to all your followers than Facebook. Why is that? Well, Twitter is an ephemeral medium and whether you have 20, 200 or 20,000 followers they’re unlikely to all be online at the same time you post your tweet. Often less than 10% of your followers will see an individual tweet.

Check out www.analytics.twitter.com to start looking at some details of your tweets and what engagement they get. A post on your Facebook fan page remains there for potential new readers to see for quite a while. A tweet will be gone pretty quickly.

Tip 4

If you enjoy other channels, go wild. If you’re great at photos, hang out on Instagram. If you love reviewing, engage an audience on Goodreads. Just be engaging and add value in a way that’s interesting.

I’d discourage you from posting the same content on multiple channels all the time. To me it shows you’re not interested in engaging in a way that suits a particular channel. And if a reader who likes you on Facebook or Twitter decides to checks you out on Instagram hoping to see new content and just sees the same old stuff, do you think they’ll be more or less inclined to follow you on that new channel? By all means, do it sometimes (maybe one post in 10) but doing it all the time is a turn-off. Instead work out how you can leverage different opportunities across channels to serve each other.

10984247_856840337720513_8019956441227921329_n

Random point 1

Mobile, mobile, mobile. More and more web content is being served to mobile devices. Facebook knows this and Google knows this and they’re already starting to reward websites that are optimized for mobile. Make sure your website and content is optimized for mobile delivery. Google it. [I’m in the process of updating this website to a mobile friendly format right now. It’s really important these days! – Alan]

Random point 2

Don’t market solely on price drops. This is a really common social media error. If a reader can afford to spend $2.99 on a book, they can probably afford to spend $4.99. When you market solely on price you forget the other thing you’re asking the reader to give you – their time. The value of your work is not in its price. Mention a price drop, by all means, but find something else to talk about too. Why should a potential reader think your 93,000 word novel can hold their attention, when your 18 word tweet barely can?

Random point 3

A lot of writers spend a lot of time on social media talking to other writers about writing (ahem). It’s fine networking and chatting with mates. But don’t confuse that with marketing your books. Readers don’t care. It doesn’t count as reader engagement.

Random point 4

My personal experience is that engaging with potential readers one-on-one, in-person or over email is a really powerful tool. It’s not time effective but for me it has been really rewarding and it has helped convert fans to influencers. Just be careful how you invest your time.

 

*****

72640_471409952930222_934403925_nRobert Hoge has managed social media for the Queensland Government and Virgin Australia. Mostly though he uses it to talk to people about writing, disability and whatever else takes his fancy. He’s written a memoir, Ugly, about growing up disabled and different. You can find him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Plotting and Structure for Cheats – guest post from Ian McHugh

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April 21, 2015

Plotting and structure for cheats (or, how to gaff-tape your cardboard thingy)

angel-dustI’ve banged on elsewhere about the themes that tie together some of the stories in my new collection, Angel Dust, such as my possibly neurotic obsession with the consequences of men failing to be “good men” and (possibly contrarily) my enduring fetish for shiny ladies with wings. There’s also a couple of fantasy worlds that I return to more than once through the book: an alternate Australia where the dreams of the land prey on people and your shadow won’t reliably stay under your feet; and an early steam age faux-Europe, where tax collectors and little girls turn out to be the ultimate bad asses.

Another thing that connects quite a number of the stories in the book is how they were written. In wrestling with the challenges of transitioning from being a “professional” short fiction writer to trying out as a novice novelist, I’ve discovered something about my writing.

What I’ve realised is that my writing has a number of strengths – I can do character, setting, action, dialogue, mood and tension fairly reliably. But, by comparison, I suck at story structure and plot. It’s like I have the full six-pack, but the cardboard thingy that holds it together has gotten soggy and if I don’t put my hand under it, all the receptacles of fermented goodness will fall out the bottom and smash on the path. In short stories, I think you can get by with being weaker on structure and plot if you’re strong enough on the rest, but even in short form it’s something I’ve needed to address.

Some stories just kind of fall out easily by themselves, like “The Wishwriter’s Wife”, which is reprinted in Angel Dust and made the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror. (It’s also archived online at Daily SF, where it first appeared, so you can try before you buy.) Mostly, though, I’ve realised I need a bit of help.

In high school, my mates had a saying, “Win if you can, lose if you must, but always remember to cheat.” So I’ve developed a number of tricks and tools (cheats) to prop up my plotting and structure – to gaff tape the cardboard thingy of my stories.

My first cheat is planning onto a formal act structure. I’ve adapted my own version, which largely follows the Hollywood 3-act / 4-part structure, but also borrows useful odds and ends from 2- and 5-act structures. Thus:

 

Click for higher resolution.

Click for higher resolution.

The main caveat here is that short stories almost never use the whole act structure. As a general rule of thumb, they should start no earlier than the ‘inciting incident’, that sets the hero on their journey, and get out as soon as possible after the story problems are resolved – or even as soon as the resolution is apparent.

I don’t always follow that formula by any means. In one of the stories in Angel Dust, I tell the first act and the fourth act and, in between, my protagonist sits on his roof and sulks for a few paragraphs while acts two and three rage below. Another story in the book takes place entirely within acts two and three of the structure, and in other stories I combine, skip or reverse some of the steps.

So, just because I start from a template, doesn’t mean I’m following it slavishly – and writing formulaically. But starting from the template really helps me think through a part of my writing that I’m weaker on.

Something I always do when I’m planning a story is a quick map of my characters’ emotional buttons – what they want, what they need, what they have to lose and what will hurt them the most. (Killing them, BTW, isn’t what will hurt your characters the most. It’s the Princes Bride Rule: “To The Pain!” What will hurt your characters most is not the thing that kills them, but the thing that leaves them alive and in freakish suffering.) Pushing my protagonist’s buttons – and often those of the antagonist and any other major characters – has to be at the heart of the story I tell.

My second cheat for plotting and structure is for generating an actual plot from those emotional buttons (along with whatever idea or conceit I’ve decided to write a story about). This one’s pretty simple: I start throwing random elements at them and see what sticks.

If my idea didn’t already come from a book, then one of those random elements is almost always a book (or magazine or Wikipedia page or somesuch). For the story “Cold, Cold War”, which is in Angel Dust and also archived at Beneath Ceaseless Skies (try before you buy!), it was a photographic history of the Russian Civil War that I found in a bookshop bargain bin. For “Beetle Road”, the opening story of Angel Dust, it was both an issue of National Geographic with a cover story on jewelled scarabs and a book on transcontinental railways that were in the pile on the table at the writers’ centre.

Another randomiser I often use is Georg Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations. You can find them online here, complete with Random Dramatic Situation Generator and a bonus dramatic situation. I get the top-level situation randomly, then choose the sub-situation that I like the best. (Of all the various models of story archetypes, this is the most OCD – over 300 story ideas, right here!)

My other go-to randomisers are rolling Crown & Anchor dice (any dice will do but I like the pictures) and dealing playing cards to which I apply a tarot interpretation. Then I start associating cards and dice with characters and story events, sticking the characters onto a character triangle and filling in the events on my act structure.

Sometimes I’ll even generate whole stories from random elements, and use the playing cards to generate characters as well as events. “Beetle Road” is one of those, written for a 24-hour story challenge that I ran with my writers’ group, the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. “Uncle Bob’s Crocodile”, which is too new to be in Angel Dust, but which you can read at Urban Fantasy magazine, is another story that was generated entirely from (a simpler set of) random elements: a friend’s anecdote about his crazy uncle; a page from Luigi Seraphini’s Codex Seraphinianus; and a random object which I forgot about.

“Beetle Road” was the whole kit and kitchen sink – random books, random characters, Polti, dice, playing cards. So, without giving too much away (because only so much of my planning ever survives the actual process of writing, as you’ll see if you read the story) my plan for “Beetle Road” looked like this:

Click for higher resolution.

Click for higher resolution.

Of course, if you’re strong on plot, doing all of this for most stories would drive you nuts. But even if plot is one of your strengths, sometimes you’ll get stuck, and it’s good to have some cheats in your back pocket to help you get unstuck. And if you are like me and not so strong on plot, then over time doing all the stuff that comes from these tricks and tools becomes more and more second-nature, and sooner or later you’ll find you’ve got a pretty solid cardboard thingy to hold your six-pack together.

the beard in memoriumIan McHugh’s debut short story collection, Angel Dust, was a finalist for this year’s Aurealis Awards (and is available here from Ticonderoga Publications). You can find more of his stories, which have appeared in professional and semi-pro magazines, webzines and anthologies in Australia and internationally, at his website. His stories have won grand prize in the Writers of the Future contest and been shortlisted five times at the Aurealis Awards, winning in 2010. He’s a graduate of Clarion West.

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Fifty Shades of Lit. – guest post from Andrew J McKiernan

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March 17, 2015

ajmckiernan_photo_smallIt has been almost six months since Alan asked me to write him a guest blog post. He knows I’m fairly passionate and opinionated about the “Literary vs. Genre” debate, and that’s what he suggested I write about. That’ll be easy enough, I thought. So I agreed.

Turns out, it wasn’t so easy after all. So, instead of trying to create some kind of logical argument — as I was originally intending to do — I’m just going to wing it. Trust my instincts, follow my heart, and just lay it all on the table.

First, let me paste two comments I recently found accompanying articles re: the Literature vs Genre debate. They demonstrate why I get a bit angry when the topic comes up:

EXHIBIT A: User comment on article on whether Crime Fiction is real Literature [see Note 6 below]

“crime fiction has more in common with the crossword puzzle than with literature”

EXHIBIT B: User comment seen on Facebook:

“To me, literary fiction is just another genre, and today it means ‘realistic fiction written by professors, for professors.'”

[I can’t remember who said this, but I think the position is common enough amongst Genre readers and writers that the specifics aren’t important.]

Now, I’m not a professor and I ain’t had no fancy learnin’, but that sounds like crazy talk to me. Both comments based on a misguided and narrow view of what Literature and Genre might actually mean. And, though there’s been a lot of great work in breaking this ridiculously false barrier down, both sides still maintain a strong core of stubbornness and, to me, it seems a horrible prejudice.

I was always brought up to believe ‘Literary‘ meant ‘well written‘. Both my parents and my school teachers taught me that. It’s a bit like I was taught that good poetry is nothing more than ‘the best words in the best order‘. I saw no reason not to apply the same theory to all fiction.

I grew up reading a lot of Genre Literature (i.e. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror; a lot of 60s, 70s & 80s paperbacks) and I could tell immediately that there was a gradient of ‘literary’ quality. Some books told great stories, rollicking adventures with characters you could love spending time with, but they weren’t ‘the best words in the best order ‘. The books seemed under-written; the words doing their barest to convey a story, what is often called Pedestrian Prose.

On the other side of the fence, so-called Literary fiction has its own share of problems. Follow the ‘conventions’ of Literary Fiction too closely, and the work becomes over-written; filled with an excess of poetic language (Purple Prose) and rambling internal monologues, non-existent plots in favour of intense character studies and disconnected vignettes. In effect, they told no stories at all. These, also, were not the ‘best words in the best order‘.

But there were some books, regardless of their Genre, which seemed to do more than just tell a story. Certain combinations of words joined to form sentences that amazed me, stirred emotions inside me — sometimes happiness, or sadness or fear or terror, sorrow and love – and those author-invoked emotions created a story that was somehow deeper and more satisfying. To me, those novels were more ‘literary‘ than the novels that just told me a story.

They approached, by varying degrees, ‘the best words in the best order‘.

I have discovered these ‘literary‘ novels in every genre in which I have read, and I read widely. Crime Fiction. Science Fiction. Fantasy. Horror. Romance. Historical. YA. And yes, I have even found them in that genre which marketing departments and academics have decided to (falsely) call ‘Literary Fiction‘.

Well Written books are everywhere!

And then I think back to those two comments I posted at the start.

I hate that both sides seem to want to perpetuate this imaginary divide between ‘Genre Fiction’ and ‘Literary Fiction’.

If a writer wants to write in a particular genre, of course they should do a little research (i.e. reading) before they set out. Get a feel for what’s been done before and what’s happening now. Embarking on an unfamiliar journey without first — at least — checking a map would be foolish. So too with writing any type of fiction. But a writer shouldn’t be discouraged from exploring outside that defined Genre territory, and I think they often are.

LYWWWY_amazoncover_smallQuick personal example. Second short story I ever wrote with a thought to publication — and geez, I was a noob – I submitted to a known and well-established speculative fiction magazine. A week or so later, a rejection came back. This is it, word for word: “We really loved this story’s mythic feel, and the writing was gorgeous, but it was a little too literary for us. Sorry, but we’ll have to pass. All the best of luck…”

WTF!? As I mentioned, I’d always thought ‘literary’ meant ‘well written’. How the hell could a magazine reject a story because it was too well written?

That was my first rejection, and a real blow to my ego. I had no idea what to do. I thought I wrote speculative fiction, but it seemed this was too literary to be that? Confused and disheartened, I put that story away and forgot about it. Eventually (about 4 years later) I gave it away for free to an online spec-fic mag that asked if I had anything I could donate. It was later picked up as a reprint for Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror anthology. For a while before that, I was actually conscious about what I wrote; about not being too experimental, or avoiding certain voices, styles and points-of-view that might be considered too ‘literary’. I confined myself to standard genre conventions, and what I wrote wasn’t me.

I have no doubt the same thing happens frequently when submitting genre themed works to literary magazines, no matter how well written the work may be.

This sort of thinking can corral new writers into taking a side. It can trap them into a mindset of tropes and conventions that they feel they must follow or be declared ‘hacks’ or ‘snobs’. This isn’t a good way to nurture new and exciting writing. It isn’t a good way to encourage writers to be the very best they can be.

The way I see it, literary is a gradient of many different shades. It’s hard to quantify, personal in its definition, and often all too narrow, but that’s where things need to change. We have to see value in the entire spectrum of Literature, regardless of genre. If we restrict ourselves, as writers, to only a small part of that spectrum, then what sort of stories are our words painting in the minds of our readers? Of what limited palette are the images we create?

It wasn’t until I dropped that genre barrier and considered how I might utilise the styles, settings and conventions from all ‘genres’, that I began to find myself again as a writer. I began reading more widely than I ever had before, and I feel that my writing is improving with every story, sentence, and word because of this.

We are all taught to ‘read widely‘, but so often we take that to mean ‘read widely within your genre‘. And that’s not enough.

We have to do better if we’re to become better.

We can begin by ignoring the entire Genre vs Literary debate, both as readers and as writers, because it is a nothing more than a barrier to our growth. We should feel free to leave our comfort zones every now and then. To explore, and consume, and assimilate everything good literature has to offer.

We must learn to read without prejudice and write without fear.

Only then, I feel, will we start to become the best writers we can possibly be.

FURTHER READING AND NOTES

  1. Once Again On Genre, by Rjurik Davidson – http://rjurik.com/once-again-on-genre/
  2. Are They Going to Say This Is Fantasy? by Ursula Le Guin’s post – http://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2015/03/02/are-they-going-to-say-this-is-fantasy/
  3. The Embarrassments of Science Fiction by Thomas M. Disch – http://www.press.umich.edu/pdf/9780472068968-1.pdf
  4. The Further Embarrassments of Science Fiction by Thomas M. Disch – http://www.press.umich.edu/pdf/9780472068968-4.pdf
  5. Literature and literalism by Edward Said – http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/1999/414/cu1.htm
  6. Face it, book snobs, crime fiction is real literature – and Ian Rankin proves it http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/11448255/Face-it-book-snobs-crime-fiction-is-real-literature-and-Ian-Rankin-proves-it.html

Andrew J McKiernan is an author and illustrator living and working on the Central Coast of New South Wales. First published in 2007, his stories have since been short-listed for multiple Aurealis, Ditmar and Australian Shadows awards and reprinted in a number of Year’s Best anthologies. He was Art Director for Aurealis magazine for 8 years and his illustrations have graced the covers and internals of a number of books and magazines. Last Year, When We Were Young a collection of his short stories was released in 2014 by Satalyte Publishing. http://www.andrewmckiernan.com

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Fiction submission advice

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January 28, 2015

Every now and then I take on a guest editing spot. It’s not something I could ever do too much, because I’m a writer and that’s where my focus lies, but I enjoy trawling through a slush pile occasionally to find some gems that deserve publication. I’m currently reading slush as a guest editor for issue 2 of Another Dimension magazine. This is a new magazine that’s subject to a successful Kickstarter to get up and running, but it comes with a strong pedigree. It’s the brainchild of Angel Leigh McCoy, of Wily Writers fame. She knows what she’s doing, let me tell you. You can find the submission guidelines and all you need to know here.

However, while looking for those gems in the slush you do have to dig through a lot of… not gems. My reading recently drove me to Twitter for a little bit of a rant. I thought I might repeat my key points here. These things apply to every kind of submission, so bear them in mind regardless of market.

  • When submitting a story to a magazine, ensure your opening sentence isn’t missing an entire word.
  • When submitting a story to a magazine, don’t use both 1st and 3rd person in your opening paragraph. Pick one.
  • When submitting a story to a magazine, ensure your story contains, you know, a story. Not just a sequence of events.
  • When submitting a story to a magazine, first try reading your dialogue aloud. That’s right, *no-one* speaks like that.
  • When submitting a story to a magazine, READ THE FUCKING GUIDELINES!

I realise that those few points above might seem bloody obvious, but you’d be amazed how many submissions fail to comply to one (or many!) of them. If you get those things covered then believe me, you’ll immediately jump ahead of a lot of your competition. Pay extra special attention to the last one. It’s in all caps for a reason.

Now get writing and submitting and good luck!

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Video interview – dark fantasy, martial arts and more

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January 19, 2015

The wonderful Joanna Penn pinned me down for an interview over Skype recently. Of course, I was more than happy to chat about some of my favourite things, like writing dark fantasy and horror, novels and short stories, martial arts, travel and so on. We had a good chat. You can watch the video below. And be sure to check out Jo’s books – she writes kickass supernatural thrillers under the name J F Penn. You can see why we get along, right? Hope you find this one interesting. Feel free to share it far and wide.

EDIT: Jo Penn has posted a full transcript of the interview on her site here.

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The right to disappointment in the face of success

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November 16, 2014

This post might seem a bit outrageous to many and I’d like to state right off the bat that of course I recognise how many people would love to have my problems! But it’s something that’s come up a lot for me recently, and I’ve seen it often enough among my peers, that I thought it was worth writing about. I’m not talking about anything actually controversial here, just the right for someone to be disappointed. Let me explain myself.

Several times over recent months I’ve mentioned something on social media in relation to a less than perfect result in terms of writing and publishing. For example, “Godsdammit! Got rejected today from an anthology I really hoped to get into!” or “Ellen Datlow released her Year’s Best list and I didn’t get a shout out. Must work harder!” And any number of other things. These are the regular laments and complaints of the jobbing writer. We want to be recognised in every endeavour we make. Now I don’t expect to be successful in any of these things but I try my damnedest to make the best work I can in the hope I am successful. I will continue to put in my best effort in an attempt at success. So naturally, I’m always disappointed when something doesn’t land where I want it to. All of that is pretty normal, right?

Here’s the thing, though. Pretty much every time I’ve mentioned anything like this over recent months, someone somewhere has replied with, “Yeah, dude, but you have a three book deal with HarperVoyager!”

And they’re right, I do. And yes, it is awesome. I still pinch myself when I think about it. I still giggle like a fool when I’m in a book shop and I see my name right there on the shelf next to people like Clive Barker or Joe Abercrombie (Baxter has some fine alphabetical company!) I am absolutely blown away by the fact that I’ve attained this level of success in my career.

Also, I get reminded that I sold a short story to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Absolutely, another high point – that publication is the absolute holy grail of short fiction markets for me and I’m stunned my work will be in those pages. (The story is called The Chart of the Vagrant Mariner, by the way, and it’ll be out in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue as far as I know.)

“But, dude! You sold a trilogy to Harper Collins!”

“But, dude! You sold a story to F&SF!”

Yes. Yes, I did. I’m happy dancing like a fucking lunatic over here, don’t think I’m not. Those things are incredible and I’m solidly grateful and very proud of myself. But that doesn’t reduce the sting of rejection. Every rejection hurts like the first time, at least for me. It’s something I don’t think I’ll ever get used to. And you know what? It’s okay for me to be sad when something doesn’t come through. Sure, I can console myself with the knowledge of other tremendous successes, and I do. But I don’t want to ever lose that desire for success, or the disappointment with failure. I’m going to constantly strive for better results and I will always be disappointed when they don’t come through.

The HarperVoyager deal is amazing, but I still desperately want a US/UK deal for The Alex Caine Series.

Selling a story to F&SF is fantastic, but I still want to sell into other markets. And I want to sell to F&SF again. I’ve done it once, so now the challenge is to do it again, and I’m going to be gutted every time I try only to be rejected. Same with my sale to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I’m hella proud of that story and that sale, but I’ve since had a couple of stories rejected by them and it burns. I want to be in there again!

I’ve had award shortlistings, but I want award WINS, godsdammit! And when I get award wins (when, not if, because I’m not giving up!) I’ll be striving for more and bigger award wins.

When I get a US and/or UK deal for The Alex Caine Series, I’m going to be striving for foreign language sales, and I’m going to be trying to sell new novels and new series.

And with all of the above, no matter how much of it I manage to make happen, no matter how much success I see, I’m still going to be disappointed every time I get a knockback. Because I have a hunger for a career. I want to make good money writing, I want to win awards, I want signing queues out the fucking door and down the street.

And I want all that not because I want to bask in fame – I could well do without any actual fame! – but because I have stories to tell and I want them to be read. And I want to make a living from people reading my stories so I get to continue writing more. Is that essentially narcissistic? Of course it is! There’s narcissism in every writer, there has to be. Why the holy shit should we expect people to read our stuff? But that, for me, translates into a desire to share stories and entertain and create dialogue and debate about interesting subjects. I want to encourage readers and writers to do more reading and writing even as I do so.

So if I do complain about a knockback, please don’t respond with, “Yeah but you have this amazing success!” It may be true, but at that moment, I’m hurting. I’ve achieved a lot, but I want more. We all want more. Like I said at the start, I’m sure loads of people would kill for my success as a writer, but I’d kill for Clive Barker’s or Neil Gaiman’s. Every writer I know, no matter how successful they are, wants more. That’s what drives us because it’s a hell of a hard road we’re walking.

So please indulge my disappointments. Say, “Sucks, dude!” or “That’s shit, but keep going, mate!” or anything like that. A bit of solidarity, a bit of a shoulder slap and a push on, that’s all I need. That’s all any of us need when we’re smarting from the spiky paddle of rejection across the arse cheeks. Trust me, rejection doesn’t diminish my successes at all, or make me forget them, so don’t think I need reminding. I just need to feel that sting for a while, then it just drives me to work harder.

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22 Common Problems Associated with Short Story Submissions – from editor, Amanda Pillar

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November 7, 2014

Do you write and submit short stories to anthologies and magazines? If so, you really need to read this, from the award-winning editor, Amanda Pillar. Thanks, Amanda!

I’ve worked on seven anthologies over the past six or so years. I’m onto the eighth, the Bloodlines* anthology to be published by Ticonderoga Publications. I’ve also judged a couple short story and flash fiction competitions. Over the last six years, I’ve noticed reoccurring issues with authors’ submissions. While I will not reject someone outright for forgetting to use standard manuscript format, or for misspelling my name, there are editors who will. So it’s these basic mistakes that may be hindering authors from getting published. There are other issues as well – the quality of writing, willingness of an author to be edited, attitude of an author (if you’re rude, people won’t want to work with you) and so on.

But to help, I’ve compiled a list of 22 common problems associated with short story submissions, shown below in no particular order:

  1. Proof read your work. More than one or two typos (on the first 2 pages) are not your friend. In fact, it looks like the author rushed the submission or that they cannot proof read their work. The latter can leave an editor worried about the entire editing process to come.
  2. Read the submission guidelines properly. If it asks for fantasy, don’t send science fiction and vice versa. If I say I want urban fantasy, do not send stories that are set in the future, or contain aliens, etc.
  3. Send your manuscript in standard format unless otherwise asked for. This is an example http://www.shunn.net/format/story.html. (I tend to ask for Times New Roman font, because I hate Courier New. So check the guidelines to make sure!)
  4. Do NOT send a blank email with an attachment. Your precious story could end up deleted unread. You would be surprised how much spam can come through a dedicated submissions email address, so if you’re sending blank emails with attachments…
  5. Relating to Tip 4, put your cover letter in the body of your email. Do NOT send an essay. A couple of paragraphs will do. I’ve seen cover letters that are longer than the stories (well, almost). The editor will most likely not read your entire list of publishing credentials, so just put the most relevant.
  6. Check the name of the editor you’re submitting to. If it is listed, USE it. Not ‘Dear Editor’, ‘Hello’ or worse yet, nothing. I’ve heard there’s some confusion as to the use of ‘Miss’, ‘Ms’ or ‘Mrs’. Unless you know they’re married, or they say they have a preferred option, go with ‘Ms’. If they have a problem with it, well, you tried. It’s better than nothing!
  7. When writing your story SHOW don’t TELL. I cannot stress how important this one is.
    For example:
    ‘Bob and Jane ate the dinner Jane had made. The steak was overcooked. Bob didn’t like it.’ That is telling.
    This is showing: ‘Bob and Jane smiled at each other over the dinner table. Picking up his fork, Bob tentatively cut into the blackened steak Jane had set before him. She tried so hard, but she just never seemed to get it right. Bob took a hesitant mouthful and tried to hide the grimace that swept across his face.’
  8. Avoid info dumps. They are definitely not your friend. They’re more like an enemy. If you have a paragraph or three that are explaining some fundamental feature of your story, it can usually be done quicker and without the background detail. For example, pretend this paragraph is three paragraphs long talking about how vampires were really spawned from a human and demon liaison. Instead, you could show this in simple dialogue:
    “You mean vampires are real?” Jane asked.
    Bob nodded and adjusted the silver stake strapped to his belt. “Some human banged a demon. The result: blood drinking undead progeny.”
    Saying this, don’t just use dialogue to get around your info dumps. This is simply an example of how you can do it.
  9. Make sure you know your genres. This will help avoid Tip 2 from happening. Google is your friend. There’s lots of data out there on what is fantasy, what is scifi, etc.
  10. Make sure your first page is absolutely POLISHED. Some editors will not read past it if the writing doesn’t hook them. And remember, the editor is under no obligation to read your entire story. Some have limits: they’ll read one page, two pages or six pages before they stop reading if you haven’t hooked them. You never know what it is going to be.
  11. Make sure your story has a plot. Even if it is less than 1,000 words long, it can still have a plot. There’s a character, something happens to them, there’s a resolution. That’s a plot.
  12. Make sure your story doesn’t have plot holes. Things can’t just happen because they suit your story; they have to make sense. Otherwise, you end up with a Prometheus-style cluster-fuck.
  13. Short stories – as a general rule – do not need prologue-style paragraphs.
  14. Choose your characters’ names with care. Nothing too confusing. Gender neutral names are fine. Just nothing too long, or with too many apostrophes or hyphens. I’ll forget it, and potentially, I’ll forget your character or remember them as ‘that one with the stupid name’.
  15. It’s the 1960s NOT the 1960’s! Enough said. Unless the 1960s owned something.
  16. Don’t overuse exclamation marks. Capitals or italics usually do the job without the need for an exclamation mark.
  17. Incorrect uses of apostrophes is a personal pet hate of mine. Don’t do it. Ever. If you’re not sure, check. It’s vs its, you’re vs your, kids vs kid’s. Make sure it’s right.
  18. If you’re lucky enough to get personalised feedback, don’t argue. Say ‘thank you’ and move on, even if you disagree.
  19. If you’re submitting to an anthology of mine, avoid rape scenes or the needless denigration of women. It is usually done for shock value alone, or to show a character is a misogynist. You can shock people and show your character hates women without resorting to these two points.
  20. On the same page of Tip 19, do not send me stories condoning paedophilia.
  21. Make sure your story is standalone. I see lots of stories that are the start of something much longer.
  22. Last but not least: Voice. Make sure your story has a strong, unique voice.

*For those of you wondering, no, this is not aimed at the Bloodlines authors who submitted recently to my collection. I have experienced nearly all of these issues for every anthology I’ve ever done. And it’s happened to a lot of my editor friends as well. This list was compiled in the hope that for the next collection we editors undertake, these issues won’t be reaching our inboxes.

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photoAmanda Pillar is an award-winning editor and speculative fiction author who lives in Victoria, Australia, with her partner and two children, Saxon and Lilith (Burmese cats).

Amanda has had numerous short stories published and has co-edited the fiction anthologies Voices (2008), Grants Pass (2009), The Phantom Queen Awakes (2010), Scenes from the Second Storey (2010), Ishtar (2011) and Damnation and Dames (2012). Her first solo anthology was published by Ticonderoga Publications, titled Bloodstones (2012). Amanda is currently finalising the Bloodstones’ sequel, Bloodlines, due out in 2015.

In her ‘free time’, she works as an archaeologist.

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I’m on the telly!

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October 7, 2014

I’m on a show aired by Channel 31 in Melbourne, local community television. But even though it’s local, the wonderful World Wide Web means everyone can see it. At the Continuum convention earlier this year in Melbourne, the fine people from the show Behind The Words interviewed a bunch of writers and publishers and I was lucky enough to be one of them.

You can watch the 24 minute episode here. My bit comes up at the 7.00 minute mark, but watch the whole thing to hear from Leonie Rogers first, then myself, then Dirk Flinthart, then Edwina Harvey, then Gerry Huntman, who gives some great advice from a publisher’s perspective.

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So you’re going to pitch your book – a guide.

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September 19, 2014

It seems that lately there have been more opportunities than ever before for writers to pitch their as-yet-unpublished manuscript to industry professionals. At writers conventions, festivals and so on, more agents, editors and publishers are making themselves available to hear about your magnum opus. It really is a superb opportunity and these things usually get booked out. But man, I’ve heard some horror stories! It’s a hell of a thing, trying to sell yourself and your work with nerves making your guts into an ice storm. So I thought I’d ask a few key people in the industry for some tips to help you formulate your pitch should you get the chance.

Firstly, I’ll throw a tip or two of my own at you, then we’re going to hear from a small press publisher, a literary agent and a big press editor.

My tips are simple: Know what your book is about so you can formulate a killer elevator pitch. This is so named because it’s based on the premise that you meet a publisher in an elevator and have a few seconds before they reach their floor to sell them on the idea of your book. Here’s the elevator pitch for BOUND, as an example:

Underground cage fighter, Alex Caine, is drawn into a world he didn’t know existed – a world he wishes he’d never found. The harder he tries to get out, the deeper he’s dragged in. It’s magic, monsters, mayhem and martial arts in a fast-paced dark urban fantasy thriller.

After that, my suggestions are to have good ideas for explaining further what your book is about, what it’s like and who might enjoy it. Know your target market. Then have confidence in your work and yourself without acting like a dick. Remember, these folks taking pitches are just regular human people like yourself and they want to find good books. They’re not looking for an excuse to shut you down.

So, let’s hear from some of them directly.

Tehani Wesley is owner/editor at small press outfit Fablecroft Publishing. But don’t let small press fool you, I’m sure this publisher is going places. She’s going to be taking pitches for the first time at Conflux in Canberra in October. Here’s what she had to say:

What do you look for in a pitch?
A confident presentation with a tight synopsis that doesn’t tease me with the story – if I’m going to publish the book, I need to know where it goes, spoilers aren’t an issue! And don’t underestimate the value of a polished manuscript. I also need to see that the author has an understanding that the manuscript is not the end product – and neither is publication. There is a lot more to a successful book than great writing (much as we might wish it otherwise), and I need to work with someone who is willing and able to help drive the book beyond publication.

What advice do you have for pitchers?
I want to see authors passionate about their work – both the manuscript they are discussing, and their passion for writing in general. It’s really hard to work with writers who are negative about their own skill, their work, the life of being a writer, or publishing in general.

*****

Alex Adsett of Alex Adsett Publishing Services is an agent of exemplary power and skill (and I don’t only say that because she’s my agent!) Alex really knows this business, so listen hard.

What do you look for in a pitch?
I’m looking for full length genre fiction only for YA and adults, so SF/F, horror, crime & mystery and romance. Within that though, I’m pretty open to all comers. I’m also looking for a polished manuscript – so it is good to hear that an author has gone through multiple drafts and not only just typed “the end”. I also want to hear that the author has more manuscripts on the go and that they see this as an ongoing career for them and do not just have the one manuscript.

What advice do you have for pitchers?
Don’t panic! The person you are pitching to is there to hear your story and, maybe, see if you have a spark of connection. We do not mind if you read your pitch or just chat to us, it really all comes down to your story, and we don’t read that until later anyway.

Saying that, be prepared. Have an idea of what your book is about and how to articulate that within 3 minutes. To be safe, you should try to have three versions of a synopsis – one sentence, one paragraph and one page, so no matter how much or little time you have with your pitch person, you have something ready to go.

Do your research on the person you are pitching to. For example, there’s no point pitching me your memoir when I’m only after genre fiction. One of the best pitches was when the author rocked up with a coffee for me. I was a big fan of that author. At the same time, the most important thing is that I love the manuscript.

What’s the most common mistake pitchers make?
Panicking! So many authors are incredibly nervous about pitching their manuscripts. This isn’t a mistake, but is unnecessary.

Be careful pitching a manuscript that isn’t ready yet. On the one hand, we probably won’t mind and you might like the practice and building your contacts, but some publishers might feel you’re wasting their time to pitch if it isn’t finished and polished.

Was there ever one particular pitch that just blew your mind? (Not personal details, just generalities.)
Pitches that have a really tight premise that ticks my boxes and make me sit up and take notice. One of the best pitches I ever had was from author J.T Clay. She pitched her zom-rom-com – zombie comedy romance, and it was smart, funny and I just loved the premise. The manuscript absolutely matched the quality of her pitch, and I was desperate to sign her up as one of my authors. That novel is now published with Momentum as The Single Girl’s Guide To the Zombie Apocalypse, and it’s like an Australian Shaun of the Dead with lots of zombie in jokes.

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Rochelle Fernandez is the Associate Publisher of Voyager, the science fiction and fantasy imprint of HarperCollins, and Impulse, the digital imprint. She has been an editor for ten years, across fiction and non-fiction and tweets at @roch_town. You can often find her in a bookstore or at a Rabbitohs game. Here’s what she says about pitching:

What do you look for?
In a submission, I look for good writing first and foremost. An original concept is great, and so is an unoriginal concept told in an original way or written in a compelling way. I look for strong, interesting characters – characters people can empathise with, characters that are not caricatures — a too-good hero is just as boring as an all-bad hero.

In a pitcher, I look for someone who knows the benefits of their story. I look for someone who is confident that they have written the best story possible and can articulate what is so great about it. I look for someone who knows who their book is for, who has thought about the type of person who would like to read their story (often writers write for themselves, and that’s fine, but if you want to be published, then someone else must want to read it too!)

I look for whether it fits with what Voyager publishes. I look for whether this sort of story is popular.

What advice do you have for pitchers?
Don’t be nervous! Or if you are nervous, try to hide it. You believe in your story, now make me believe in it too!

Don’t get bogged down by trying to tell the whole plot to me – a few lines about the general gist will suffice.

Think carefully about comparisons – tell me who your work resembles but tell me why it resembles that. Pick accurate comparisons, not just ones you knew sold well or were made into a movie.

Hone your elevator pitch! A snappy line that will stick in my head is a great way to get me hooked into your story.

Don’t expect an immediate answer – it usually takes me about 2 months (sometimes longer!) to get to read a submission.

Tell me if you’ve self-published or submitted to another publisher or been published before.

Tell me what spurred you on to write the book.

Tell me a little bit about yourself too – where you work, what your writing influences are etc.

Describe to me the person who you imagine will buy your story – your target market. Tell me where they shop, what they eat for breakfast, what else they read. The more detail the better!

What’s the most common mistake pitchers make?
Use up all their time telling me the intricacies of the plot instead of condensing it into a few sentences to get me hooked.

Being too nervous and shy and self deprecating. If you don’t believe in your book, why should anyone else?

Was there ever one particular pitch that just blew your mind? (Not personal details, just generalities.)
One was a completely original concept that was such a great storyline I was just blown away. However … I am still waiting for the manuscript! Perhaps that should be a tip – make sure you are ready to supply the manuscript if I like your pitch.

One was really solid – a good concept, well thought out and nicely delivered. There was nothing really stand out about it, but I knew the book was going to be good by the amount of thought the pitcher had put into it.

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So there you have it. That’s some seriously good advice from some stellar industry professionals. I hope you find it useful and it helps you to hone your pitch should you get that sweet opportunity. Good luck!

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My son has a message for all you writers!

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September 9, 2014

IMG_3303

So off you go then.

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Alan Baxter, Author

Author of horror, dark fantasy & sci-fi. Kung Fu instructor. Personal Trainer. Motorcyclist. Dog lover. Gamer. Heavy metal fan. Britstralian. Zetetic.

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