magazines

New weird fiction: Brought to bed with a good book

I have a new flash fiction out at Janus Literary this week, which I’m excited about. Partly because Janus is fast becoming known for interesting and varied flash of quality, and partly because this story’s been four years in the pipeline. Janus didn’t even exist when I submitted this story for the twelfth and what I thought might be the last time. It occurred to me that it might be interesting to the casual reader and encouraging to the new writer of short fiction to hear the story behind the story, and I know that Janice Leagra of Janus appreciates openness so here goes.

It sometimes feels like writers have to pretend the magazine/journal/website their story ended up in was their first choice. In some cases this might be true – accepted on the first submission, or maybe venue A and venue B are equally thrilling and appropriate but A is closed to submissions so you try B, get rejected, try A eventually and get in. On the other hand, a casual glance through writing-Twitter reveals constant tales of rejection, and if you pay attention you’ll also spot the tales of acceptances on the twenty-fifth try. It strikes me that it must be rare for a story submitted on spec (as opposed to invited or commissioned) to end up in the place you originally hoped it would. Or indeed wrote it for.

I wrote Brought to bed with a good book for a body-themed issue of a magazine that no longer exists, in June 2017. I have an idea that I’d heard someone talking about how pregnancy made their body unrecognisable, so one of the first lines I wrote down was, “Veins darkening, ropes thickening like the vines decorating an illuminated manuscript” (which eventually became, “veins darkening until I looked tattooed, calves twined with vines from the borders of an illuminated manuscript”). Combine that with the idea of going to bed with a good book, and there you have it. The title plays on that, with the old-fashioned phrase of being brought to bed with a child i.e. giving birth.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

Looking at the revision control on the document, I started typing in it on June 8th after mulling the idea over for a while, and on June 9th I submitted the final, polished piece. I think I’ve tweaked a couple of words since then but essentially the final published version that’s at Janus was written in a day, four years ago. Clearly it didn’t get selected for that magazine back then, though I genuinely don’t know why since all the feedback was enthusiastic. I’m sure I tweeted at the time about getting a rejection that included the phrase ‘best flash I’ve read this year’ and wondering if that was actually worse than just a bald ‘no’. When you get constructive criticism in a rejection it gives you something to work on, a way of potentially improving the piece so it might get somewhere on the next try. ‘This is great but we’re not using it’ makes it all feel bafflingly random. Which of course it often is.

It’s easy to think, when you get a form rejection (by which I mean, a standard paragraph with nothing specific to your story) that the story’s not good enough, or it was a barmy idea, or the ending needs more work. It might be fine and it all came down to personal taste, or fit with the other pieces in the issue, but you don’t know that so you put the piece aside and let it stew for a while and tinker with it and don’t send it back out for months. Or at least I do. This time, however, I had outside confirmation that it worked and kind of did what I meant it to, so I sent it to five more places in 2017, and got a form rejection every time. I had a sneaking suspicion that it was too weird for the mainstream and too mainstream for the SFF mags, nevertheless I sent it out four times in 2018. And got four form rejections. I tried a competition in 2019, and didn’t longlist, and I gave it one last try at the start of 2020. I’d resigned myself to yet another story I was pleased with and proud of, being consigned to the electronic bottom drawer and never being read by anyone other than OneMonkey and a handful of editors. And then Janus Literary appeared, and I soon realised they might be just the people to try. I was right, they liked it, and in June 2021 Brought to bed with a good book was finally released into the wild. Never give up – if you’re sure the story is working.

If you’d like to read Brought to bed with a good book, you can find it at https://www.janusliterary.com/2021/06/30/jacqueline-saville-brought-to-bed-with-a-good-book/ and I recommend you explore the rest of the issue as it’s full of good stuff for varied tastes. Max Hipp’s Dream Baby has a similarly odd and unsettling vibe, if that’s your bag.

Like many online mags, Janus Literary is all done for the love of it so no money changes hands. If you enjoyed Brought to bed with a good book you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Some thoughts on reading fees

The topic of reading fees came up on Twitter again this week. Since I don’t seem to have talked about this for a while (about 3 years, in fact) here’s a few of the things I’ve been thinking.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

First off, what do I mean by reading fees? I mean any kind of payment or purchase required before your own writing will be given consideration. Some places have tip-jar options, or you can pay if you want feedback rather than a bald yes/no, but those are not a barrier to entry as they’re not compulsory. I can think of 3 types:

  1. A stand-alone competition e.g. the Bridport prize
  2. A competition run by a magazine or media company e.g. Stand magazine or The Sunday Times
  3. Run of the mill submissions e.g. to a magazine for publication

Secondly, why is it a problem? After all, in the age of instant electronic submissions isn’t it reasonable to want to put the brakes on the half-baked, ill-considered, nothing-to-lose, late night entries? Some poor soul has to read these things. And the prize money has to come from somewhere, and you can’t expect people to judge competitions out of the goodness of their hearts, and there are printing and website and publicity costs… Well, yes. But still…

It was Sarah Davy of Northern Writers Studio who got me thinking about all this again this week. If you’re not a writer you’re probably wondering what the fuss is about. Nobody’s forcing anyone to enter competitions and sure, we’d all love some free money but there’s no need to whine if you can’t afford to enter. Except, in short fiction at least, it’s those competition wins (or shortlisting, or longlisting) that get you noticed, show people you’re at a particular level, get you work. So they matter, and consistently deterring particular groups from entering means you’re consistently holding them back from – shall we call it career progression?

I’ll take the 3 types of fees in reverse order. Number 3 is easy – it shouldn’t exist. If you think of a magazine, publisher or production company, who are their customers? Readers or broadcasters, I would say. Logically, the customers should be who they’re charging. If they’re charging money to submit a story or a script and what they’re offering in return is what the average person outside the industry would imagine is their day to day business (we will print this story in our magazine and sell it to readers, we will pitch this sitcom to the BBC and hope they pay us to make it) then it looks a lot like exploitation. Kind of like charging the actors to appear on stage as well as making the audience pay for tickets. If you can’t get by without charging writers, you haven’t got a viable business model and you might want to have a rethink.

Number 2 should allow for funding of prize money by the magazine etc profits. Ironically the biggest prize money, the most publicity and arguably the most kudos comes from two competitions with no fees – the Sunday Times short story prize and the BBC Short Story Award, both presumably funded via their other business, and/or sponsorship. They weed out the time-wasters by requiring a certain number of publication credits. Now, I have other problems with those two (if the judges can call in stories that haven’t even been entered, it’s not a level playing field) but they’re not putting up barriers to writers with little spare cash. In other cases, you would hope that their normal business (selling books or magazines, for instance) would give enough money to at least subsidise the competition. If it doesn’t, and they’re in fact hoping the competition will subsidise the magazine, then we’re back to the scenario in number 3.

The ones I find it hardest to know where I stand on are the first batch, the competitions that just are. The Bath flash fiction or novella-in-flash awards, the Bristol short story prize (which came out of a magazine originally but it no longer exists), the Bridport. As far as I know, they charge fees to enter, a certain number of writers will be selected for their annual anthology which they then sell, and any profits from that will be ploughed back into the competition. They often have early-bird discounts, and the Bath has a regular (free) writing competition where the prize is free entry to the quarterly award. Once they’re up and running you could think of them as being a bit like scenario 2, only with a single product that isn’t the main focus of their business, but mainly they’re getting their funds from entry fees. Tricky. I have entered the (quarterly) Bath award 5 times (2017×2, 2019×2, 2020), the Bristol twice (2013, 2020) and the Bridport twice (2013, 2017). Why?

The cash prize would undoubtedly be nice, particularly if you’re a cash-strapped writer. It could pay for a course, a new laptop or snazzy software, books or a research trip. Perhaps a treat, as a reward for all the rejections you put up with for the remainder of the year. Or the gas bill, so that’s one less thing to worry about when you’re trying to concentrate on a plot knot. But is that the main reason we want to enter? (I say ‘we’ but I’m on a well-paid contract till next summer, only working 3 days a week but my annual salary still starts with a 2 so I can afford these things at the moment). If it’s easy money you’re after, lottery scratchcards are a better bet – you won’t have spent hours writing and rewriting, and when you don’t win it won’t feel like a judgement on your talent and possibly your worth as a human being. So it must be something else that’s drawing us in. External validation. The thrill of having that famous judge rate your work. Kudos. Bragging rights or a notch on the CV (that career progression I mentioned earlier).

Which leads me to my first suggestion:

reduce the prize and therefore the need for fees

Judging, printing and publicity costs will remain but if the prize fund needs to be £1000 instead of £5000 surely you can knock a couple of quid off the fee (the small fees still add up but it’s a start) or afford to waive fees for more people. Sarah Davy mentioned the problem of there only being a handful of free entries, and these having to be applied for. This means people of limited means are competing with each other for those coveted places, and there are plenty of people I know who have the attitude that there’s always someone worse off than them so they would never apply. Also, it’s mortifying to have to plead poverty, particularly since writing’s a small world and it could be someone you know who’s processing the applications.

About 10 years ago I worked in a university estates department and there was a presentation on the implications of the Equality Act 2010. I recall there being some emphasis on treating people the same where possible – so instead of saying if you need level access you can go round the side of the building, you make the main entrance accessible. Or in my case, you make the general campus map hold all the accessibility information instead of requiring people to ask for a separate map as we had done previously. So instead of making people prove their need and compete for access,

have a free-entry day

Or happy hour, or whatever suits you. You can announce it in advance, spring it on people on Twitter at short notice, mention it in passing in an email newsletter 2 months beforehand and it’s their own fault if they don’t write it on the calendar. But in some way, you’re saying whoever enters during this slot doesn’t have to pay, and you’re trusting that the entire cohort won’t wait to enter on that day. I believe SmokeLong Quarterly already do something along these lines.

In some ways, I think we’re in another argument for universal basic income, but until that day comes there are things that can be done to mitigate the discriminatory effects of reading fees, which you would hope would be a popular move, what with all the talk of diversity in publishing recently. Like it or not, if your magazine or competition is seen as prestigious in your field (poetry or flash or crime-writing or whatever) you have some responsibility for ensuring you aren’t only selecting winners from those who can afford to pay.

Bridport prize (novel) £20; Bridport prize (short story) £12; Bridport prize (flash) £9; Bath Flash Fiction (or novella-in-flash) Award £9; Bristol short story prize £9; Mslexia novel competition £25; Mslexia short story competition £12; Mslexia flash fiction competition £6…

If you fancy taking the sting out of all those fees, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Wyldblood Magazine issue 1

Wyldblood Magazine is the new bi-monthly speculative fiction magazine from Wyldblood Press. For the writers, it’s a paying market based in the UK. For readers, it’s 11 stories ranging between 4 and 10 pages each, plus an author interview (Tiffani Angus) and some book reviews. The editor Mark Bilsborough was kind enough to send me a review copy, so here’s a quick scoot through what you can expect.

Coal Dust and Shadows by Holley Cornetto is a good old-fashioned eerie story set in a mining town in the USA. An odd girl is rescued from a mine, and seventeen-year-old Preston’s in love. But is this silent girl as innocent as she seems? One of my favourites from this issue.

Thawing by JL George is firmly in the realm of fantasy, set in a world where cold-bringing dragons are feared. A young girl is enthralled by the legend of the ice princess but how close is it to the truth?

The Butcher’s Dog by Peri Dwyer Worrell is a light-hearted tale of animal experiments, narrated by the dog of the title. Who is really in charge in this human-canine relationship?

A Gleam of Gold by Dorothy A Winsor is a fantasy tale in a land where magic is seen as barbaric. We meet Jarka as he begins to learn the mastery of his magical skills. This reads like a selfcontained excerpt from a longer story, there’s definitely a sense of a fully-formed world out there with a past and a future.

Bargaining with Frogs by Stephanie Kraner is a fun take on the frog prince fairytale.

Et In Vanadia Ego by Rosemary Sgroi is science-fiction. In a society geared for cyclists, where energy is currency, a young man has fallen in love with a woman from Vanadia, the last outpost of capitalism.

Little Escher by Robert Borski. Is there more to a little boy’s drawing ability than his father thinks?

A Murder of Crows by Jacey Bedford is a gripping story with a noir edge. Anka works for the Port Authority, basically she’s a cop, and having just lost an apprentice she’s determined to go it alone when her greatest foe shows up in the city. My personal favourite, I think, and anyone else with a fondness for William Gibson’s style will probably also love this one.

The Paint-Over Artist by Mark Rigney is sci-fi initially feeling like fantasy. A secluded authoritarian state, and the woman whose job it is to paint over graffiti and subversive slogans. Another favourite of mine.

Souls of Smoke and Ash by Sydney Paige Guerrero is set in the Philippines and nudges into vampire territory without the gore. It’s a compelling character-driven tale of betrayal, teenage identity and loneliness.

The Klizzys by Bonnie West is a sad and unsettling tale of a grieving child and imaginary friends.

The stories range in tone from light-hearted to dark and tense, and cover sub-genres across the speculative spectrum. Not every story will be to everyone’s taste, and it’s skewed towards fantasy but only because the submissions were, I think – if you want to redress the balance submit some good sci-fi, or nudge your favourite sci-fi short story writer to do so. Wyldblood magazine has the potential to become one of those broad-taste SF mags like Interzone, where you know you’ll find stories of a certain calibre and there’s sure to be something to entice you, even if you won’t like every story in every issue.

The interview with Tiffani Angus was interesting and really made me want to read her novel – my To Read list just keeps on growing. Threading the Labyrinth is essentially about the garden of a large English house, over several centuries. She gave some insight into the amount (and types) of research involved in writing real history with fantasy and time travel elements. The editor then rounds out the issue with a few book reviews – most of them seem to be books that didn’t quite satisfy him! However, he gives the sort of detailed reasons that should help you work out whether the book still sounds like it’s your cup of tea.

It would be nice to see some commissioned artwork in the magazine but I know that racks up the costs so maybe it’s unrealistic at this early stage. It can enhance a good SF story though. I guess you’d expect that viewpoint from the founder of International Illustrator Appreciation Day

Issue 2 is due out mid-March as print, pdf, epub and mobi editions. You can buy individual print or electronic copies or take out a subscription at the Wyldblood website, individual copies are also available via Amazon.

Some thoughts on censorship and debate

I am what you might call a fan of free speech. I err on the side of people being able to say pretty much whatever they want, as long as they can’t say the bad stuff with impunity. I appreciate subtlety. I infuriate people frequently with my ‘it depends’ – maybe I’m a little too fond of nuance but everything happens or is said in a particular context, and I think there’s a worrying tendency lately to forget or disregard that, and to want to see everything in stark, simple terms.

Take the ‘statue wars’ in the UK. Tearing down statues does not erase history. Both the erection and the destruction or removal of the statue tell us something about the prevailing mood of the time. They’re symbolic, that’s the whole point, and therefore symbolically removing them can make sense. Do I think all statues of ‘questionable people’ should be torn down? No. Partly because I’m not sure who gets to decide what ‘questionable’ means and partly because we’d end up with no statues at all, except the one of Paddington Bear in the station he was named after, and there are better things to do with the time, money and energy we have available. It reminds me of something Billy Bragg said at a gig many years ago, it’s all very well smashing in a McDonalds as a representative of global capitalism but there’s another branch round the corner, and before you’re halfway across town you’ve encountered six more and run out of steam and maybe you’d have been better off doing something more productive about it all in the first place.

Leaving statues up and defending them at all costs can lead to erasure of history. Churchill is a case in point: inspiring wartime leader he may have been but he was also responsible for famine in Bengal and some heavy-handed tactics against strikers at home. Yet any attempt to point out his flaws and failings is seen as denial of his achievements, as though one cancels out the other. They are both true. Either looking up to someone as a hero or decrying them as pure villain misses the truth of their humanity. As former US President Obama said this week (himself a role model for many despite leaving Guantanamo Bay untouched) the world is messy, there is such a thing as moral complexity. People are rarely all good or all bad and once you start trying to find ‘pure’ people to have statues of, you start tying yourself in philosophical knots about why these ones are ok despite the inevitable flaws and these aren’t. Here’s a thought: why don’t we openly talk about all the aspects of someone’s character, and when as a society we decide that the good no longer outweighs the bad, take the statue down and say why we’re doing it. Debate and discussion don’t seem to get much of a look-in in modern life, unfortunately.

I haven’t read the JK Rowling stuff that’s caused such a stir, and I don’t intend to. I don’t read her novels, she isn’t a politician, I don’t need to know what she thinks about anything. However, I can’t escape the fact that there has been uproar, and some people at her publisher are saying they won’t work on her new book. I confess my first thought was that it’s a job, you don’t get to choose which bits you want to do. Then I thought I’ve clearly been living in a Tory town too long, and surely that’s the point of a union. I thought about Lancashire mill-workers who underwent hardship themselves rather than deal with slave-picked cotton during the American Civil War, because they felt strongly enough about it. I thought about how various staff at the publishing house would have to meet or speak to an author to ask or answer questions, discuss a marketing plan etc, and how I’ve sat at work in the past hoping I don’t have to join a meeting with a particular person who’s a friend of a friend at home and who I find odious – above all, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to stay professionally detached, that my personal feelings would come through and reflect badly on me. So after brief thought, I could see a few reasons why those publishing staff might revolt, and good luck to them. The point at which I’d worry is if they tried to prevent other staff who didn’t feel as strongly, or were happier about separating the creator from their work, from working on it.

I have mixed feelings about the blurring of the line between art and artist. For instance, everyone now knows that Eric Gill sexually abused his daughters which obviously entirely changes how a viewer sees or interprets any of his depictions of them. But does it – should it – change their views of his other work? And should we tear it all down and hide it away, or keep it on display with a note on context, or simply brush his biography under the carpet as some seem to advocate? The Guardian had an interesting article on this a while back. If he was still alive I doubt there would be quite as much debate about it, I have to say, but with a dead artist the argument can be made that we’re neither rewarding nor punishing him by our actions and so it’s more down to how the art itself makes people feel.

Which brings me to the litmags. If you’re running a small literary magazine with no pay then the main perk is getting to publish exactly what you want, and by extension not publishing whatever you don’t want. Nobody has any kind of a right to be published by your magazine, and if you want to never publish anyone called Tom because someone of that name bullied you at school, that’s your prerogative (depending on the jurisdiction you may have a hard time defending it legally if it’s a stated aim, but that’s another matter). However, I’m seeing again (it arose a couple of years ago and I’m sure I wrote about it at the time) statements on Twitter saying that ‘abusers’ and ‘bigots’ will never be knowingly published by certain magazines and if they have unknowingly published them, please let them know so they can remove their work. The aim, it seems, is to ‘not give them a platform’ – I’ll come back to no-platforming in a moment but take it at face value for now. You may have overlooked a term that’s offensive to particular groups and you weren’t familiar with it and would never have accepted the piece if you’d known the connotations. Fine. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, and certainly when this flared up a couple of years ago the main fuss was about elements in the life of the artist, not the work itself. So if there’s nothing offensive in the work, that means you’re objecting to the writer as a person. Again, your prerogative – they’ve been rude to you, you saw some views you didn’t like on Twitter, by all means don’t publish them. The bit that makes me uncomfortable is asking people to shop them and taking their work down retrospectively, it veers a bit too close to witch hunt territory for my liking. What evidence do you require? Could I contact you and make up a story about a rival and make you take down all their work? Do they have a right of reply?

I don’t like no-platforming as a response. I’ve spent most of the last 24 years studying or working at UK universities and every so often you hear that some student union or other has decided that someone or other shouldn’t be allowed to speak at their event. Most of these turn out to be a storm in a teacup that’s being wilfully misrepresented as ‘no-platforming’ but a few are genuine. I can understand that at a particular event you might be worried about a fight breaking out (context, see) but in general I think shutting down debate is a bad idea. If the person’s ideas are self-evidently ludicrous, let them expose themselves as fools, you could even help them along with some well-chosen questions. If you’re genuinely worried that exposure to these ideas might persuade people to join the dark side (whatever the dark side is in your opinion, in this situation) then it’s better to have them in the open being challenged than for their ideas to filter through quietly with no opposing voice. Shutting people up also lets them be portrayed as martyrs, as people who were so dangerous they had to be silenced, which only adds to their appeal.

There will be many people who disagree with this post but I think we’ve established that I’m ok with you having different views from me. When I was an adolescent I wanted all my rock heroes to live up to my expectations but one after the other they blotted their copybooks. For a while I stopped listening to interviews on the Radio 1 Rock Show. Then eventually I realised that if there wasn’t a single member of my own family that I agreed with on everything, I wasn’t likely to find a stranger that made the grade. So there are bands where I will only ever buy a second-hand album, won’t listen to them on Spotify or buy their merchandise, because I don’t want to give them money, but I’m not going to stop listening to them. I’m not even going to deny liking their music (Motley Crue are first on the list, since you ask). People are complicated. That goes for me, too.

Two anthologies and a magazine

This is a busy weekend, or to be precise, coincidentally three stories of mine are being released into the world within a few days of each other.

Firstly, I have a 100-word story in Tritely Challenged Volume 1, one of Christopher Fielden’s challenge anthologies which is out today. With this one, the challenge was to fit as many cliches in as possible and as it was kicked off while he was hosting workshops at last year’s flash fiction festival in Bath, there are contributions from Jude Higgins, Kit de Waal, Louise Mangos and Helen Rye, among others. Every book sold shoves a quid in the direction of Book Aid International, so it’s all in a good cause and is a fun collection. You can find more info, and links to buy paperback or electronic copies here.

Secondly, if you’re in the Middlesbrough area, I believe the Crossing the Tees short story anthology is now available to buy in libraries. Inside is a 700-word story of mine called Ghost Bridge, which was inspired by an episode of Time Team (for those of you outside the UK that’s a long-running, popular, and now sadly defunct archaeology series) and I guess might come under the magic realism heading. I couldn’t attend the prize-giving on Thursday evening but it sounds like a good time was had by all.

Finally, Confingo issue 9 is out on Monday. You can buy a copy online or at a handful of shops in the UK, and if you do you’ll get to read my story Last Post. It’s roughly 1700 words of a man not coping well with bereavement, but I think (I hope) you can see in its absurdity and sparks of humour the debt my writing owes to Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman.

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.

Success all round: new story and a litfest connection

I have a new story in a magazine, and some hot off the press litfest news. I can feel the excitement from here.

First of all, I have a long-ish short story in the latest issue of Romance Magazine. Yes, I said romance, though as this is me the heroine’s reawakened passions are for literature and her husband, in that order (though she does nearly get carried away by a holiday friendship). It’s set in the Lake District in the early 1980s and here’s a taster via wordcloud:

ReawakenedPassions

If you enjoyed any or all of The Little Book of Northern Women, you’ll probably like this.

The other news is that the writing group I belong to is going to be appearing at the Ilkley Literature Festival fringe in October. I’ve seen some great stuff at the fringe over the last few years, all for free, so that’s going to be an exciting event to be involved in.

Phew! What with all that and the heat as well I need a bit of a lie down now. By which of course I mean I’m off to put the finishing touches to a couple of stories. Honest…

The bright side

I’m cultivating a positive outlook at the moment; maybe it’s the cold affecting my inner curmudgeon, but there you go.

Strange, Weird & Wonderful has published its final issue, just before the one that my story was due in. So while that’s a sale I won’t make (payment on publication, not acceptance), a credit I can’t chalk up on my scoreboard, and a story that’s back to doing the rounds, if I was looking on the bright side I’d say at least I don’t have to produce that audio version after all (though I’d actually started to feel good about the challenge).

NaNoWriMo is going slowly, probably even slower than I’d anticipated, but if you know you’re not going to make it to 50,000 words, any number’s an achievement and you don’t end up feeling stressed and guilty if you do other things for a while during November. Such as a 2-day comic convention.

Thought Bubble is less than a week away which is a bit scary (in an exhilirating way). I also know that I’m not going to get an early night before it, and I’ll probably have had to put up with a late-night long-distance taxi ride. The bright side of that one is positively dazzling though: we’re off to see The Damned on Friday. Excuse me while I touch up my black nail varnish.

The criminal career takes off

Or, I have a detective story available in the brand new e-zine from New Zealand, Comets and Criminals. I urge you to check out the issue, it has some good stories in, an interesting mix of thrilling genres from authors whose other work has already appeared in some quite impressive places. My contribution is The Dovedale Affair, in which a murder in a small Yorkshire town causes panic in the mother of a disturbed young man – what does he know about it, and how?

New genre excitement

It’s reasonably apparent to anyone reading this blog that (Anthony Trollope aside) I go for genre – count the references to sci-fi, fantasy, the occasional bit of horror, and detective stories, and…actually you’d be bored quite quickly so I wouldn’t bother, but you get the gist. OneMonkey likes a similar mix, and my dad got me into both Raymond Chandler and Philip K Dick. So for all of us, and those with similar tastes, Comets and Criminals sounds like a good plan. Starting in October, this New Zealand-based outfit will be offering up sci-fi, crime, adventure and westerns in a quarterly package. Why am I telling you this? Well, the eagle-eyed will have spotted earlier in the week the new ‘forthcoming’ line on my list of successes, though this post is scheduled for my usual weekend sort of time (at the weekend I will probably be writing the detective novel: 24,000 words and counting). Ladies and gentlemen, I have sold a detective story; all that wearing of a trilby at a rakish angle was not in vain.

Impersonal efficiency

Another story rejection (I could start getting a complex) – but this one got me thinking. Gavin Broom at The Waterhouse Review had taken the time to write some words of encouragement and some constructive criticism, and sent it off to me via Submishmash. Quite a few magazines seem to be moving to online submission via something like that, and I imagine it makes the whole process easier from their point of view, as well as allowing the lazy or time-squeezed writer to input their contact details just the once and check the status of a few pieces at a time. However, it introduces a middle-man, and instead of pressing reply on my email and writing a quick thanks to Gavin (not something I make a big habit of, I admit, but the personal touch from a small or new set-up like The Waterhouse Review will sometimes provoke me into courtesy) I just had to think kind thoughts.

I’m not saying the efficient online systems are a bad thing, and I can only guess at the inbox-clogging flood of email some editors were getting in the past, and how in a way those quick emails of thanks were probably a bit annoying if they were busy. But still I can’t help feeling slightly sad and like we’ve lost something, like when you go to the supermarket and no words are exchanged between you and the checkout person because speed is of the essence and you’re paying by card (or worse, using self-service tills).

Great view from here

My long-awaited contributor copy of  The View From Here arrived this week, to much excitement in the Monkey household.

Illustration credit: Conor Tarter, Gavin Schaefer.

I thought I’d share with you what it looks like (I’m quite pleased with the layout and illustration) but you’ll notice that the words have been tampered with in the gimp (that’s the gnu image manipulation program, for those that don’t follow me on deviantArt) so if you want to read it, you’ll still have to buy a copy.

As further enticements, there is an article about and interview with Booker-shortlisted Damon Galgut; an article about the changing nature of literary coverage by the literary editor of The Guardian (and Observer, and website); book reviews; poetry; and of course, short stories. I enjoyed (and would imagine anyone who likes Gwendoline Riley’s style will enjoy) Thanksgiving by Meredith Miller, a slow gaze across friendship, closeness and dreams; that was the other short story which was only available in the print edition (there is also part 2 of a serial by Kathleen Maher, which I confess I haven’t read yet).

The view from here

The February edition (issue 32) of The View From Here is now available, featuring a story of mine called The Fan-boys on Tour. Selected parts of the magazine are available online but if you want to read Fan-boys you’ll have to obtain a print copy (available by mail order from their website). It’s a reasonably short story (not micro-fiction, but what a lot of people would describe as flash – about 500 words), mainstream (i.e. non-genre) and is about brotherly love in the scuzzy underground of devoted followers of half-forgotten punk bands. For you, it may be about something entirely different, such is the beauty of fiction – read it and discover.

Go hug an illustrator, tell them I sent you

It’s the second annual International Illustrator Appreciation Day – I know this because I made it up a year ago. The aim was to draw some attention (no pun intended, I swear) to the illustrators who interpret and enhance stories (or novels, with cover art) and enrich the reading experience. It’s probably more relevant if you read a lot of sci-fi or fantasy but I’d like to encourage you to take this opportunity to highlight an artist you’ve enjoyed in a recent magazine, or leave a comment on someone’s blog. You might think they won’t care, but even apparently successful artists may well appreciate some confirmation that someone’s noticed what they do.

To that end, I’ll point you at Darren Winter, stand-out artist in the last Interzone I read, and of course Mark Pexton who hasn’t been in Interzone for a while but we’ll forgive him because he’s been working on our stunning graphic novel (I’m allowed to refer to the art as stunning, I didn’t do it).

Long-awaited appearance in Bards and Sages Quarterly

It seems ages since I had my story All the Room in the World accepted for Bards and Sages Quarterly, but the October 2010 issue in which it appears has now been released. Unusually for me (at least so far) it’s not free to view, you actually have to buy a pdf or a paper magazine if you want to read it. To encourage you in that direction, I’ll let you know that it’s a kind of lightly humourous science fiction (science fantasy? If you call Doctor Who sci-fi, then this is probably sci-fi, if not then we’ll stick with fantasy but of a sciency bent), it runs to two pages and is set in a British university (or probably strictly an English university). I enjoyed writing it, several people have enjoyed reading it so far, so I hope at least some of you do too.

The etiquette of book reviews

I haven’t had a book review anywhere except on this blog of mine for ages, so I was wondering recently if there were any suitable places to consider. A quick search and I’d found a few likely contenders, but I’d also crossed off a couple due to what I saw as bias.

If a website or magazine only allows its reviewers to go as low as ‘good’ in their ratings (as opposed to ‘excellent’, ‘life-changing’ etc), that can go one of two ways. Either you follow the old ‘if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all’ (leaving the reader to assume that if there’s no mention of a book it must be rubbish, when in fact it could just be that no-one’s reviewed it yet), or if you’re reviewing to get your name out there, you might be tempted to put a positive spin on a poor book (or out and out lie about it). Neither approach seems particularly helpful to the reader, which surely is the point of the review.

I’ve been reading Private Eye on and off for the last 17 years, and I know there are plenty of reviews out there written by friends, relatives, colleagues etc of the author which say overwhelmingly good things about a book (deserved or not) in order to pay back or call in a favour, or to drum up trade. I also know that any book reviewed in Private Eye itself is likely to be there to allow the reviewer to exercise wit and venom in tearing it apart (so if that doesn’t happen, I tend to assume the book’s a superlative effort, though maybe it’s just been written by a friend, relative or colleague of the Eye’s reviewer…), not so much a book review as a catty erudition article.

What a review should be (in my opinion) is as fair an assessment as possible by someone who would generally read a book of that sort. I wouldn’t review a romance novel because I’d be prejudiced against it from the start and know nothing of the conventions or expectations of the genre; I wouldn’t ask a literary snob to review a science fiction novel for similar reasons. If my dad says the latest Robert Rankin’s lacklustre I’ll take notice of him, if my mum (assuming she could force herself to read it all) said the same thing I wouldn’t care because I know it’s not her kind of thing. While I don’t in general want to read or write negative reviews, I’d want to be warned by someone else who’s enjoyed a particular author’s work in the past that their latest offering is below par, and I’d want to be able to say ‘normally I like this kind of thing but the characters in this book are just wooden’. Constructive criticism is part of a writer’s improvement process, and if I was disappointing my previous readers, I’d want to know.

A few story recommendations

For no particular reason I thought I’d mention a few stories I’ve enjoyed lately while checking out places to submit, or reading magazines.

Mannikin by Paul Evanby was a good start to Interzone 229: an alternative 18th century in the West Indies, politics, slavery (both manifest and subtle), and a scientist who believes he’s acting for the best. Some pleasing detail and an interesting premise.

At The View From Here magazine, Cling by Andrew Hook grabbed my attention. Well-written, capturing the complexities of friendship (particularly when it involves writer/editor roles as it does here with an ongoing film project) and leaving an unsettling feeling of otherness.

De facto date of marital termination by Leslie Coleman at 50 to 1 is one of the neatest pieces of microfiction I’ve seen in a while. Often (my own included) they verge on poetry or leave things a little too open. This one seems to set a scene that tells you pretty much all you need to know about what’s just happened and what the current mood is.

Back to my magazine-surfing…

Acceptance rate recovery

Phew! Temporarily at least, official acceptance rate for the last 12 months is back up to 21%. The nice people at The View From Here have decided to use a story of mine called The Fan-boys on Tour – it’s not in the speculative field, firmly mainstream in fact, and depending on your viewpoint it’s about brotherly love or a couple of punk losers. I’ll let you know when it’s available, and then you can make up your own mind.

Acceptance rate critical

My Duotrope Control Panel now informs me that my acceptance rate for the last 12 months has dipped to 19%, a sorry state of affairs. Spurred on by an arbitrary desire to keep it at or above 20%, I’m in the middle of a whole big batch of submissions (5 in the last 24 hours, at least 3 more planned). This may well just lead to a further reduction, and of course it’s preventing me from the list of rewrites I wanted to do and the 2 or 3 stories I’ve almost finished, not to mention the crime novel (please – don’t mention the crime novel, it’s going badly and has barely begun). However, it may also lead to glory (or a very rough approximation thereof) and gives me a cast-iron excuse for not increasing any wordcounts or finishing the new comic script for Mark. More tea, and back to Duotrope…