creative writing

I blinked, and half December went

I’ve put some tinsel up, I’ve eaten five mince pies, I’ve tutted frequently at overdone lighting displays in the neighbourhood: it must be nearly Christmas. We even have a tiny sprinkling of snow.

I’ve been quiet for a couple of weeks, mainly because I couldn’t write (or think) about anything much except library funding cuts for a while. A project I’ve been passionate about for some time, which we (three of Ilkley Writers) were about to announce, suddenly has no funding. In a mild panic, I rang the Arts Council for advice about obtaining funding for the project ourselves. Their guidance documents are not the easiest things to plough through and understand, but we haven’t even got that far yet. To register for their online system you need to  give them the details of the current account they’d need to pay any grant into. It can be an organisational account, or an individual’s account, but what it can’t be is a couple’s joint account. Guess what we all have? Not that surprising given that a) we’re middle-aged and in long-term relationships, and b) none of us have steady full-time jobs. “Just open a new account,” says the young man on the phone, as if he’s never had the trial of proving identity and income to a bank that doesn’t want his custom.

It’s not all been doom and gloom, however. I’ve got a new story up at Visual Verse, One Thing At A Time, written from a photo prompt. I had a 25-word novel included in the latest issue of Mslexia, and in further Twitter fiction news this morning I won a competition for a Christmas story:

There’s an anthology coming out this week from Paper Swans Press that has one of my flash fiction pieces in, too (you can pre-order Flash, I Love You! here) so things are on the up, there are more mince pies in the cupboard, and it’s not even Christmas yet. I wonder if Santa does arts funding?

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The pitfalls of story submissions

You’d think after more than ten years of submitting short stories to magazines and anthologies I’d have got it down to a fine art. Satisfied with the finished piece even after you’ve left it alone for a couple of weeks? Great, now slap the right formatting on and send it in, awaiting the inevitable acceptance with your feet up. Five minute job, right? Wrong, particularly if you’re prone to procrastination (most authors) and worried that a submission that fails to follow the guidelines to the letter will send you straight onto a blacklist. How is it so difficult, I hear you ask (pretend you asked). Fellow writers, prepare to nod along in recognition. Readers, let me tell you a story…

I’m not even going to talk about picking the right place to send a story to, that’s a whole different hours-long process. Particularly with online magazines, I can’t always remember where I’ve read something, so even if I think this piece would be perfect for the one that had that story about dancing hippos last month, I’ve still got to find which one that was. Let’s assume I’ve decided, by whatever process, that War Story needs to go to the Bumper Book of War Stories, it fits their requirements on length and subject matter, they’re still open to submissions and they don’t need me to send it through the post (temperamental printer, amazing disappearing envelope stash, and remembering to go to the post office? No thanks). Even if I’ve submitted to them before, I need to check their guidelines because a) they might have changed and b) I might misremember.

Now comes the tricky bit. A few bewildering places don’t specify much other than that it’s legible, so inevitably I spend five minutes looking for the checklist of guidelines I must have overlooked somewhere. Most want 12-point font, the odd few want 14-point, and most want double-spaced. Times New Roman or Courier are the standard fonts, some want another specific font, or don’t mind as long as it’s not Courier. Some want anonymised manuscripts, some want name and address at the top of the first page, with name and page number in the header. Some want a word count at the top of the first page, some want it in the header, some at the end of the story. Some want you to write END at the end. Some want indented paragraphs, some want no indents, just a blank line between. Some want italics as italics, some want them indicated another way.

Some places want a 3rd-person author bio at the start or end of the manuscript, some want it in the cover letter, some don’t mention it at all (and then accept the story, don’t ask for one, and leave you as a detached name with no background information or links. Some even ask for one and then don’t use it). Some want a proper cover letter, some say it’s optional. Then we’re onto how they want it to reach them. The two main choices are Submittable or email. With email there’s then the question of do they want an attachment (and what kind), or the story pasted into the message body, and do I have to lay the subject line out a certain way, e.g. SUBMISSION: JY Saville, War Story. Some places ask for submissions via a form on their website, with all the usual pitfalls there (looking like it hasn’t submitted anything, going through endless rounds of I Am Not A Robot photo-clicking).

Submittable is a bit like Paypal for stories. The writer has a Submittable account, which stores name, address, email address so you don’t have to re-enter them each time. A magazine that uses Submittable for submissions will have a button (like the Paypal button on a shopping site) that lets you upload a file and fill in the title, sometimes a cover letter too. So, I would log in to my Submittable account, state that it’s War Story I’m submitting, upload WarStory.odt (unless they’ve specified a different filename structure, like Fiction_WarStory_Saville.odt) and ignore the optional cover letter box, because I never know what they’re looking for. That sounds reasonably simple, but .odt (open office format) is rarely accepted and I mostly have to convert to .doc or .docx which means headers and footers aren’t always as I expect them to look, and one particular story often acquires a page break. There’s also a problem with Libre Office or Open Office .doc files in Submittable losing the last line, so I have to remember to add blank lines at the end without adding an extra page.

Once I’ve gone through all that and updated my submission spreadsheet, I’ve usually had quite enough and declare myself through with story submissions (until the next time). This is why, despite dutifully noting which markets accept simultaneous submissions, I rarely end up sending the same story to more than one market at once. Despite that, I’d made more than 100 submissions this year by the end of September and I’m still plugging away at it when I’m feeling particularly patient. Here’s to the patience of magazine and anthology editors too, I know there’s usually a reason for the rules (like email subject lines used to filter messages to the right folder) and they’re not just being arbitrary. Except of course the evil ones.

A new story in a new publication

As National Short Story Week hurtles to a close, you can read a new story of mine in issue 1 of The Cabinet of Heed. I’m in good company, with stories in there from Steve Campbell, the editor of Ellipsis Zine, and the freshly Pushcart-nominated Stephanie Hutton. My contribution is called Tom’s Bottom Drawer, and is a fantasy story that sprang from a long-ago conversation with a couple of writer friends about putting a novel away in a drawer and letting it ferment.

Ellipsis Zine flash fiction anthology

Cover of Ellipsis Zine: One

This is what my contributor copy of One from Ellipsis Zine looks like, on my living room carpet (which is more Dairy Milk purple than it looks in the photo). I was just a tad excited when this slim volume of 57 stories arrived as it has work by some of the most frequently-published flash authors inside. I’m pacing myself, however, so I’ve only read the first dozen so far and there are already some flash gems in there. Mine (which is called Abandoned, and is about kids exploring an abandoned house) is much later in the book.

The theme of ‘one’ has been interpreted so widely that it’s easy to forget there is a theme – I take that as a good sign. If you want more information or to buy your own copy, go to the Ellipsis Zine website. Hurry, before the stock runs out.

Reading, writing, exciting

I’ve been inadvertently quiet for a couple of weeks. So busy editing the SF noir novel and reading books that I forgot to blog. To those of you who missed me: sorry. To those of you enjoying the respite: tough, I’m back.

I’ve got a couple of book reviews out there that you might not have seen, and they’re all great novels. First was Wychwood by George Mann, he of the Newbury and Hobbes series of occult Victorian steampunk mysteries. This novel is the start of a new series of contemporary police procedurals, also with an occult twist. You can read my review at The Bookbag.

Then I read We Are The End, the debut novel by Chilean writer Gonzalo C Garcia. Really it’s about being young, feckless and in love, but it has a flavour of computer games and rock music so maybe if you enjoyed the film Scott Pilgrim vs The World you might particularly appreciate it. Anyway you can read my review at Disclaimer magazine.

Yesterday I finished Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft, a big-publisher reissue (out in January 2018) of a fantasy novel he self-published a few years ago. It’s the first in a series, located in the fabulous setting of the Tower of Babel where a small-town headmaster has become accidentally separated from his wife on their honeymoon, and I’m itching to read book two and find out what happens next. You can read my review of it at The Bookbag.

As if that wasn’t enough, I’ve got flash fiction in an actual print anthology from Ellipsis Zine, which you can buy here if you feel like it (I get royalties…). The book is full of work by the serially-shortlisted of the flash world, the names that crop up again and again, and I can’t wait to get my hands on my free copy. I’m in seriously good company.

This week I’ve also been plotting and planning with Andrea and Roz, my friends from Ilkley Writers who you’ll have heard on the radio programme we did about libraries in April. An audacious idea for a library-based writing festival grew out of that programme, and yesterday we agreed on a final form for said festival, with our lovely contact at a local library. When we know whether the library’s funding bid has been successful (sometime before Christmas, we hope) we’ll know what scale our festival will be on, and I’ll tell you more about it. Until then I’m fizzing with excitement at the thought of getting people writing, getting people into libraries, and adding further evidence to Why Libraries Are A Good Thing.

Mentoring for the less confident

Everyone has something to teach. Yes, that includes you. It might not be unique to you, it might not be earth-shattering, you might have read it somewhere else in the first place, but you can pass it on and someone else will find it useful (not necessarily the person you’re passing it onto right now, but that’s another story).

Last week a newsletter from writer, editor, mentor, writing coach Rachel Thompson exhorted us all to become mentors, particularly if we’re looking for mentoring ourselves. The point she was making was that even if you’re not doing brilliantly, there will be writers who haven’t reached your level yet who might benefit from a helping hand (or a critical but encouraging word). Even if you’re an absolute beginner, passing useful tips around writers at a similar level is a good thing.

Are you teaching other writers? Rachel Thompson asked. Well, yes I am (and sometimes I chuck out some writing advice in this blog) but I still get the ‘who am I to talk?’ doubts. It’s good to remember that teaching or mentoring doesn’t mean you have to be a superstar in your field, or have all the answers. As long as you’re at least one step ahead of the person (or group) you’re trying to help, they’re going to gain something from you. And you don’t have to be at the same level in every aspect, as this audio diary from Tania Hershman illustrates.

Tania Hershman writes short stories and, more recently, poetry. In the audio diary (a week in the life of a writer who’s not writing much at the moment because her new book’s just come out) she mentions being a mentor for a couple of short story writers, and knowing what she’s looking for, what to suggest, in a way that she wouldn’t have been able to ten years ago. She then says that to do the same for poetry might take her another ten years, because she doesn’t have much experience in it yet. I can immediately see the sense in that, but it was refreshing to hear. Being a novice at novels doesn’t mean I don’t have plenty to offer in flash fiction, for instance.

As if to illustrate this point, up popped an interview at Zero Flash with Chris Drew, a flash fiction writer who’s a well-known name among flash aficionados on Twitter, and hopefully beyond. With the usual drawerful of abandoned novels, he changed writing tack and took off. He’s only been submitting flash fiction for about eighteen months, but he’s already successful and has advice to share with new writers.

So come on, writers (artists, musicians, family historians…) think of something you can do to help the people following you. It might give you some insight into your own work at the same time.

How to write a query letter for a literary agent

Since I had the benefit of Penguin’s WriteNow insight day in Newcastle last week, including dissecting query/cover letters with literary agents, I thought I’d share what I learnt. I’m not claiming this is a definitive summary but I hope it’s useful.

The biggest lesson to take away was: agents are people too. You might think that’s obvious, but it’s easy to elevate them into some godlike figure in your mind, as you sit there redrafting the synopsis for the eightieth time. They’re gatekeepers, yes, but they’re also dedicated, enthusiastic readers who (bear this in mind as you press send and immediately start getting impatient for a response) read manuscripts in their spare time, at evenings and weekends when they might prefer to be with their family. They have their off-days, they’re subjective, and they respond well to politeness. Don’t be rude, don’t waste their time, and remember that a rejection only means they couldn’t see themselves championing your book in the face of indifference, it doesn’t mean it’s hopeless.

Before you even get as far as writing that letter, you need to have finished your manuscript. If they love those first three chapters and ask for the rest they don’t want to be told they can have it just as soon as you’ve finished. It could take you a year (you might even run out of steam and never get there) and the space in their list has been filled in the meantime, or their needs have moved on.

Take the time and trouble to check the agent’s name, don’t address your letter to the long-deceased person the agency was named after in the fifties. Be polite but (British authors take note) not too humble or self-deprecating; under-selling yourself is as big a turn-off as over-selling and arrogance. Don’t try to be funny, quirky or cute – think of it like a job application.

Write a mini-synopsis like a back-cover blurb in your letter, to hook them into wanting to read your sample chapters. Remember you’re pitching one particular book at them, don’t cloud the issue by listing future/half-baked projects.

Tell them a tiny bit about yourself, particularly anything relevant such as a job that feeds into your novel, or that you’ve had stories published in anthologies or magazines. You can give them your social media and website details, but don’t expect them to go look there (it’s not a substitute for telling them the necessary stuff in the letter) and think about whether you want to point them at a Twitter account full of ranting. If you’ve self-published a book say so, but don’t try and twist it to make it sound like someone else published you.

It’s fine to say you’re approaching a particular agent because of who else they represent, particularly if you can say your novel fits well alongside them. However, be sincere – when you say you love the work of Client X, remember the agent loves the work of Client X so much they took them on and touted their book around editors, so will understandably be cheesed off if they find out you were lying.

Do not stalk the agent on social media.

If you haven’t heard anything after 8 weeks or so, a polite email is acceptable. Agents spend their working lives chasing editors so they understand that authors need to chase them sometimes. Do not phone them, or turn up at their office building.

They expect you to have sent your submission out to a handful of agents at once, but make sure you keep them updated (again, a polite email) if another agent requests the full manuscript or offers representation.

The Penguin WriteNow webpages have got some useful information, including the cover letter that a (now) bestselling author used when she landed herself an agent. An author I spoke to on the day recommended Miss Snark’s blog, discontinued in 2007 but still accessible as a searchable archive, it’s kind of an agony aunt format where the anonymous literary agent Miss Snark answers questions about manuscripts and submissions. This week on Twitter, a couple of useful links have been doing the rounds too: Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist, shares her successful cover letter here and her agent Juliet Mushens writes about how to approach an agent here, and why you don’t get an instant response here. There’s another cover letter, from Louise Jensen, here.

Good luck, and thanks to the agents at WriteNow for sharing their time and expertise.