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.

Education is about more than getting a job

It being National Short Story Week, you won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve got… an essay about the purpose of education out today (it’s ok, I’ve got a story coming out at Cabinet of Heed on Wednesday). Regular readers will have experienced my passionate views on education before but I’ve summarised a strand or two in Why bother with education? which is my entry to this year’s NUHA Foundation blogging prize.

The topics this year for the prize were:

  1. “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” – Abraham Lincoln. Do you agree?
  2. “Nobody realises that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.” – Camus. Discuss.
  3. Should the role of education be to prepare students for working life, or to broaden their mind?
  4. “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” – C.S. Lewis. Discuss.

Since I suggested topic 3 to them on Twitter earlier in the year I had to pick that one really, though I could have gone to town on topic 2 as well. I haven’t read the higher education bits of The Guardian much since I quit the day job a year ago but by then I was already sick of hundreds of comments (and a few articles) that saw university education in particular as essentially pre-work training. Will it get you a job? Will it increase your salary? Is it applicable in the workplace? Never: Will it give you pleasure? Will it widen your horizons and introduce you to new ideas, lead you to make new connections?

I’m not saying everyone should study every available subject and like it, there were plenty of subjects I couldn’t stand at school and wouldn’t study now. I am saying life can be richer if you’ve studied a variety of things, whether through books, BBC documentaries, or a formal course, and that as an added bonus it probably helps you at work too.

The aim of the blogging prize is to spark debate, so go along and read the essays (particularly mine, obviously: Why bother with education?) then leave your own views.

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.