Another week of writerly doings. Here’s how I did.
This week’s quote comes, once more, from Elmore Leonard.
“My characters have to talk, or they’re out. They audition in early scenes. If they can’t talk, they’re given less to do, or thrown out.”
I love this one, mostly because I write the same way. I tell my stories primarily with dialogue, and characters who don’t talk–or, you know, ones I can’t figure out how to make talk–fade into the background or even disappear in revision. All of my main characters, especially in long-form fiction, are absolute motor-mouths, and since they need someone to talk to or at, my secondary characters follow suit. I always hear dialogue first when I start writing, and my characters reveal their motivations and personalities by talking, first in my head, and then on the page.
As I mentioned in last week’s update, Hell to Play is on hold until I get moved at the end of the month. I’ve tinkered a little, but I’m not going to get into the meat of the next revision until I’m set up in my new office. I gotta admit, I’m kind of enjoying the break, and I think I’ll be recharged and rearing to go once I dive back in.
Zilch. Nada. Bupkis.
Yeah, I know, pretty pathetic. I didn’t send a single submission last week, mostly because I was busy packing. I’m gonna try to get at least one or two out this week, but, again, packing and moving take priority. I also did not receive a single rejection last week, which is odd because I have whooping 14 submissions pending. I expect this week will be busier, and I’d guess at least one rejection will show up in my inbox before the week is done. I did have a publication last week, and I’ll talk about that below.
My story, “Childish Things” was published last Friday at The Arcanist. It took third place in their HalloweenFlash contest. Interesting note, I have placed in every one of The Arcanist’s flash and short story contests (five so far). Of course, by writing that, I have all but guaranteed I won’t place in the next one. 🙂 Anyway, you can check out “Childish Things” by clicking the graphic below.
Again, no stated goals this week. I need to get packed, get moved, and if I can, squeeze a little writing in between.
And that was my week. How was yours?
I have a problem, a writerly weakness if you will. I can’t stop writing vampire stories. Of the thirteen stories I’ve sold in 2020, five of them feature the befanged bloodsuckers. Why do I bring this up? Well, because vampires are tough to sell. They are frequently mentioned on publisher do-not-send lists, along with the other usual suspects like zombies, werewolves, and hitmen/gangsters (another weakness of mine). Despite that, I keep writing vampire stories, and, surprisingly, selling them. So if you’re like me, and you can’t stop writing about an overused monster or trope, there are some things you show know if you want to have any success with your trope of choice.
Before we get started, note that in this post I’m going to say “vampire” rather than list a long string of popular (overused) monsters and character types. So just swap out vampire for zombie, werewolf, hitman, whatever, and the advice is the same.
Okay, if you’re gonna write and attempt to sell vampire stories, here are three things to keep in mind.
If you write a vampire story, you are reducing the number of potential markets where you can submit the piece. This is simply a fact, and you’ll run into the following A LOT in submission guidelines.
We do not accept stories with the following: vampires, zombies, werewolves, serial killers, hitmen . . .
Yep, there are many publishers that straight-up won’t consider a vampire story. By the way, I think this publisher listed the various monsters/tropes in order of which they like least. 🙂
But even if a publisher will consider the story, they might include a cautionary statement like this.
Originality demands that you’re better off avoiding vampires, zombies, and other recognizable horror tropes unless you have put a very unique spin on them.
Do NOT send your vampire story to the first publication. That’s really bad form, and just shows you can’t read submission guidelines. As for the second publication, well, I did sell a vampire story to them, but they rejected two more. So if you send one to a market like that, it better be original. (More on that in my second point).
Now, why might a publisher take either of these two stances on vampires? Well, because they’ve likely seen a thousand Twilight or Interview with a Vampire knockoffs and are just tired of it. They want something original and so do their readers. I should note that I don’t fault a publisher for taking this stance one bit. I get it. I really do. If I had to wade through mountains of slush on a daily basis, I too might roll my eyes at yet another vampire story. But, hey, I’m still gonna write ’em, so how do I get them published?
It should go without saying that if you’re gonna have any chance of publishing a vampire story, you’d better have an original take on them. That doesn’t mean your story has to be totally outlandish (though it couldn’t hurt). A slight twist on the traditional lore or even just putting the vampire in a new environment can be all it takes to make your story stand out. Let me give you some examples from the vampire stories I’ve published. (I’ve linked to the ones that are free to read or listen to).
The first three fall into the vampire-in-an-unusual-environment category. The last two are more of a twist on traditional lore, though, I’ll admit, the last one is the most traditional of the five. I think it maybe stands out from other vamp tales because, like “The Night, Forever, and Us”, vampirism is used to rescue someone rather than curse or destroy them. I think POV is important too. This is purely anecdotal and maybe specific to vampires, but it feels like it’s easier to sell a vampire story where they are portrayed as a monster to overcome rather than a protagonist.
The only feedback I’ve received from editors and first readers that even approached negative or scathing has been on my vampire stories. Yep, even if a publisher has nothing in their guidelines that prohibit or discourage vampires, some folks really, really don’t like them, and will let you know. Only once did I take this feedback personally, as it was particularly pointed (hah!), and just seemed kind of unnecessary. The other times, it was simply clear I should not send vampire stories to that publisher, which is useful information.
I’ve also been told elsewhere (in person, on social media, etc.) that no one wants to buy or read vampire stories, which is, well, not true. You see, here’s the good thing about those overused tropes. They go in and out of fashion, sure, but they never go away, and there’s almost always an audience for them. Yes, you need an original spin, but if you can find one, I think that combination of the familiar with the shiny and new is a winning formula that can and does lead to short story sales.
So keep writing those vampire stories, zombie stories, hitman stories, and, uh, vampire hitmen who hunt zombies stories. You can sell them. It takes a little more effort, sure, but adding to the lore of your favorite monster is pretty damn satisfying. 🙂
Got a favorite trope you maybe write about too much? Tell me about it in the comments.
Recently, I sent my 500th submission since I’ve been tracking them through Duotrope. It took me roughly eight years to amass this many, though the bulk of them have come in the last four years or so. Anyway, it’s a big milestone, so I thought I’d write a blog post about it and show you what 500 subs looks like, what it gets you, and what it does for you (or maybe to you).
Here’s the basic composition of my 500 submissions.
Now let’s take a closer look at the composition of the actual stories I’ve submitted.
And there you have it, 500 submissions. It’s certainly been an eventful journey to get to this point, but all these submission, and all the rejections, acceptances, and feedback that come with them, have definitely made me a better writer. No doubt, by the time I hit 1,000 submissions, I’ll be a bestselling author and a household name. 🙂
Hit any submission milestone of your own lately? Tell me about in the comments.
September is in the books, and here’s how I did.
A solid month, and almost identical to August’s tally. The 8 submissions in September give me 67 for the year, which leaves me 33 to get in October, November, and December to hit my goal of 100. Certainly doable, though I’ll need an average of 11 per month to pull it off. More rejections than last month, but still manageable. The acceptance keeps my streak of at least one acceptance per month in 2020 alive, so that’s good. Finally, I received a further consideration letter from a top-tier professional publisher. I’m not gonna get my hopes up, but it was a nice surprise. No publications in September, but I’ll have at least one in October.
Six rejections this month.
A better crop than August with a couple of personal rejections, one from a pro market. The form rejections where your usual run-of-the-mill boilerplate no thank yous we all know and love. 🙂
Here’s one of the personal rejections.
Thank you for submitting [Story Title] to [Publisher], but I am going to pass on it. The [story detail] is nice, but overall it didn’t quite work for me. Best of luck placing this elsewhere, and thanks so much for sending it my way.
I’m seeing this kind of rejection more lately, and it’s essentially a form letter with an added bit of personalized feedback/encouragement. I can think of a couple of pro publishers that do this with every rejection (that I’ve received), and it’s certainly appreciated. Often this type of personal rejection tells you what is working in the story more than what isn’t, but that’s still incredibly useful information, and, again, appreciated.
The acceptance for September is from Ellipsis Zine for my story “Stall Number Two,” a quirky little Twilight Zone-esque piece I’m happy has found a home. The story will be published later this month.
And that was September. Tell me about your month.
I’ve covered the topic of form letters a fair bit on this blog, generally focusing on form rejections, which are by far the most common. But form letters come in all shapes and sizes and can communicate a lot more than “we’re not publishing your story.” Let’s take a look at a few from my copious supply and see what we can learn. Some of this will cover old ground, but it’s a favorite subject of mine, and, well, my perspective on rejection is ever-evolving just as my collection of rejection letters is ever-expanding. 🙂
Let’s establish a baseline for our form letters with your basic, no-frills rejection.
We have read your submission and will have to pass, as it unfortunately does not meet our needs at this time.
If you’ve been submitting your work for any length of time, you’ve likely seen letters like this one a lot. There’s not much to learn here because the letter doesn’t say anything other than we’re not publishing your story. In fact, it’s purposefully designed to say nothing more than that. Move on and submit the story somewhere else.
This is another one I’ve talked about a lot on the blog, but here’s an example so you can see the difference between these first two letters and those to follow.
We have read your submission and unfortunately your story isn’t quite what we’re looking for right now. While we regretfully cannot provide detailed feedback due to the volume of submissions, we thank you for your interest in our magazine and hope you continue to consider us in the future.
It can be difficult to tell a higher-tier form rejection from a basic form rejection unless you’ve received both from the same publisher. So I’ll make this easy. This higher-tier form rejection is from the same publisher as my example basic form rejection. Pretty stark contrast, huh? The higher-tier has the all-important “consider us in the future,” which is generally (but not always) an indicator of a “better” rejection.
The first of the “good” form letters, the further consideration notice is often welcome news, especially when it comes from a pro market, like this one.
Thank you for submitting [story title] to [publisher]. One of our first readers has read your story and believes it deserves a closer look. We would like to hold it for further consideration. Good luck!
Even if a further consideration letter ultimately results in a rejection, as this one did, you’ve gained valuable information. You now have an idea what kind of story the publisher might accept or at least seriously consider. That info helps you fine tune your submission targeting in the future, which, hopefully, leads to more letters like this and maybe an acceptance or two.
Sometimes a form rejection has a lot to say, much of it good and encouraging. I’ve removed a few bits from this rejection to conceal the identity of the publisher, as I usually do, but the important bits are still there.
Thank you for considering [publisher] for your story, [story title].
Unfortunately we have decided not to accept it. As much as we wish we could, we can’t publish every good story that comes our way.
Truthfully, we’re forced to return a great many stories with merits that make them well worthy of publication, including yours. Your story did, however, reach the final stage of our selection process–one among an elite group. Less than 5% of stories make it this far. That is no small feat.
We wish you the best of luck finding a home for your story elsewhere, feel confident of your success in doing so, and hope to receive submissions from you in the future.
As rejections go, this one is pretty good. Sure, it’s disappointing that I didn’t make the final cut, but this is a tough market, and making it this far tells me I have a good story on my hands. In fact, I sold this story on the next submission. The information in a letter like this is incredibly useful and encouraging, and it should help you determine what type of story to send the publisher in the future. Of course, you might ask why the publisher doesn’t include any personal feedback if they liked the story so much. Likely because this publisher receives thousands of submissions a year and a form letter saves them valuable time. Honestly, if the form letter is this good, I don’t mind not getting a personal note. I should also point out that this publisher does offer curated feedback form their readers on stories that get this far.
Yep, acceptances come in form-letter flavor too. In fact, I’m seeing more and more acceptances arrive as boilerplate letters. There’s a good reason for this, actually, which the example below clearly illustrates.
We’re pleased to announce that your story [story title] is the fourth-place winner of our [publisher contest]!
Your publication date will be [date].
We process all of our payments through PayPal and fourth place is awarded [$$$] as well as an e-copy of the contest anthology containing off of the winners and the runners up.
Some legal/rights things: Your acceptance of the payment means that you have given us the right to publish your story on our site and elsewhere under [publisher] name. After we publish it, you are free to send it elsewhere. We do not retain exclusivity rights.
You also ensure that this work is yours to sell and that it is not the product of any type of copyright infringement.
We just need your PayPal email and a 3-4 sentence bio.
Let us know if that works for you and feel free to reach out with any questions. We can’t wait to publish your story!
The reason the editor went with a form letter for this acceptance is they need to impart a lot information quickly and efficiently. They need to tell me my story has been accepted, when it will be published, how I will be paid and how much, what rights they are retaining to the story (none; bless them), what additional info they need to publish the piece, and, finally, what to do if I have questions. If you had to send all that information to a dozen different authors, a boilerplate form letter is absolutely the way to go.
And there you have it, five different form letters, four of which have a lot more to say than no. Have you received a form letter not covered in this post? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
One more week of writerly doings.
This week’s quote once again comes from Stephen King.
“Writers are often the worst judges of what they have written.
I know, I know. I use Stephen King a lot. In my defense, the dude is a writerly quote machine. Anyway, again he clearly and concisely sums up my thoughts on an important aspect of writing. Yep, writers generally suck at judging their own work. This, uh, suckage, cuts both ways, though. Sure, we can get down on ourselves and become convinced what we’ve written is total garbage when it’s actually pretty good. Worse than that, though, is when you believe you’ve written something that’s pure gold and it’s spray-painted lead at best. For me, this is where my darlings in need of killing are often found. All of this is why you need eyes other than your own on your work, especially long-form fiction. As the author, you have blinders on (for a lot of reasons), and folks who can tell you what’s good and what needs work are invaluable.
Another critique partner has finished with Hell to Play, and his notes are different from the first reader. This is a good thing, and I’ve chosen critique partners who will come at the story from different angles and perspectives. One might focus more on character motivation and backstory and another might drill down on the plot and world building. There’s always overlap, of course, and since they’re reading the novel in Google docs, they can respond to each other’s comments. That’s great because when they agree, I’m pretty confident whatever it is needs to be addressed. When they don’t agree and explain why, I can make an informed decision on which bit of feedback fits my vision for the story and revise (or not) accordingly. Anyway, I’ve got a number of things to work on that range from fixing trivial details that just need to be consistent throughout the novel to overhauling chapters that illustrate a character’s central motivation.
In other novel news, I’m continuing to outline the new version of my last novel Late Risers. I’ve slowed some, but I like where it’s going so far.
Better but not great.
Two subs last week, which puts me at 62 for the year. I need 38 more to hit my goal of 100, which might be difficult at this point, but it’s all about the attempt. If I land somewhere in the 90s with an acceptance percentage around twenty percent, I’m not gonna complain. The rejections were all standard form rejections, and the only noteworthy thing about them is they all arrived on the same day. 🙂
This week, I want to highlight Nightmare Magazine, a great market for horror and dark fantasy that is accepting submissions of short stories, flash fiction, and even poetry for the next week. Here’s some of the relevant details from their submissions guidelines.
*This has been my experience with the publisher with the submissions I’ve sent.
Here are my writing goals for this week.
And that was my week. How was yours?
There may be no worse feeling for an author than realizing you’ve made some boneheaded error in the submission process after you’ve sent the submission. Panic sets in, and you begin to catastrophize about the end of your career and how the editor and all their friends will gather around your mistake, point and laugh, and add you to some DO NOT PUBLISH list from whence you will never return. Uh, well, I assume that’s how other writers feel about it anyway.
But here’s the truth. We all make mistakes, and most of the time, it’s not a big deal. In this post, I’ll present three common submission mistakes, what to do when you make them, and how to avoid them in the future. In case you’re wondering, yes, I have committed each of these submission sins (and survived to tell you about it).
Mistakes on cover letters are pretty common and run the gamut from typos to more egregious copy-and-paste errors where you list the wrong story title or publisher name. Have I made this mistake? I sure have. I once misspelled my own name on a cover letter. How’s that for making a first impression on an editor? 🙂
What to do. Look, editors are human beings, and human beings understand that other human beings make mistakes. I think the vast majority of publishers will overlook an error on a cover letter and judge the author on the quality of their story. A number of editors of prominent genre markets I follow on Twitter have said this very thing. So, if you discover you’ve made a mistake on a cover letter, try to relax, it’s likely not going to hurt your chances of getting published. You don’t need to alert the publisher or send a revised cover letter.
How to avoid making this mistake. Use a templated cover letter, one you’ve thoroughly proofed and know is typo free. Then, make a little checklist of the elements you need to change or add and anything from the publisher’s guidelines you need to pay special attention to. Like this:
Just check off each element as you complete it. Once your checklist is complete, check the publisher guidelines again to make sure you haven’t missed anything, then proof the cover letter (and maybe one more time after that), and you should be in good shape.
I have made this mistake twice (I can barely stand the shame of writing about it). I keep very good records, but a minor lapse in concentration (and a story title change) resulted in this ghastly submission sin.
What to do. As soon as you realize the mistake, send an email to the editor letting them know what happened. Be polite, be professional, and apologize. Like I said earlier, editors are human beings and often quite reasonable ones. The last time this happened, the editor responded with a very kind email, thanking me for alerting him. The first time I didn’t get a response, but the publisher did accept my next story, so I guess they didn’t hold the mistake against me.
How to avoid making this mistake. Keep thorough and accurate submission records of every story you’ve submitted and the result of that submission. The easiest way to do that is to use an online submission database and tracker like Duotrope or The Submission Grinder. They’ll keep your submission records for you, and if you want to download that data into a spreadsheet, it’s just a few button clicks away. Before you submit a story, check your records to make sure you haven’t sent it to that publisher already. You might be asking how could you not remember where you sent a story? Well, after 500 some submissions and stories with double digit rejections, things can get a little fuzzy. So check your records and check them again before you hit send.
Well, first, don’t go proofing manuscripts you’ve already submitted. 😉 Yeah, this happens, and I’m sure just about every manuscript I’ve submitted contains at least one typo or a dropped word or some other minor error.
What to do. Nothing. Editors expect a few typos and whatnot in the manuscripts they receive. This is why they edit and proof stories before they publish them. I recently sold a story where I’d used the wrong name for a character once. How was I punished for my misstep? The editor pointed out and fixed the error when they asked me to approve the changes they’d made.
Do not send an editor a corrected manuscript. That’s a bad look, and it creates more work for the editor, who is likely overworked as it is. If the error is a huge one–like you accidentally uploaded a half-finished version of the story–you might email the editor, let them know what happened, and withdraw the piece. Honesty is the best policy with mistakes, and, in my experience, editors are often very understanding about such things.
How to avoid making this mistake. You should thoroughly proof your manuscripts, and, if possible, get eyes other than your own on your work. But even with all that proofing, a few minor mistakes are going to slip through from time to time. Like I said, editors expect a few typos, but if you’re consistently making larger errors on your manuscripts and catching them AFTER you submit the story, it’s likely time to reevaluate and improve you proofing process.
Have you made any of these errors in your submissions (or others not listed here)? Tell me about it in the comments.
Another week, another writerly update.
This week’s quote comes from Harper Lee.
“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.”
—Harper Lee, WD
To say I agree with Harper Lee is a bit of an understatement. This can be a tough biz, and if you want to write, and especially if you want to publish, you are going to be told “not for us” or “does not meet our needs” or “we have decided not to publish” or a dozen other versions of no. And when you do publish, you are going to get bad reviews, and people who don’t like your work will tell you so. None of this is a reason to quit (or not try), but it is the reality of writing and publishing. Like Harper Lee says, you need a thick hide, but that doesn’t mean rejections and bad reviews don’t sting. Of course they do, but that thick hide–made ever thicker by each setback–keeps them from cutting deep and hitting anything vital.
Hell to Play is still being reviewed by my critique partners, though one of them has finished, and the notes are very positive. There’s not a whole lot I can do until the other readers complete their reviews, so I’ve turned my attention to another big project. I have grudgingly accepted that my last novel, Late Risers, is, well, not working in its present form. Right now, it’s a trunk novel, but I like the concept, so I’ve begun outlining it anew. I’m changing the POV from third person to first person, rewriting the main character’s personality, and making the book more action-oriented. I am keeping a number of concepts and characters from the original, and the basic plot is similar, but the approach will be completely different (less mopey, more humor). Will it work with these changes? I think so, but the only way to find out for sure is to write it. 🙂
A slow, slow week for submissions.
Only one submission last week, which puts me at 60 for the year. Still a lot of days left in September, so I should be able to right the ship. Yesterday, I received three rejections, and those stories will go out again this week. I also have a new story to clean up and send out, so that’ll bump up my submission numbers too.
The publication this week is not a story, but the first of my monthly Rejectomancy columns at Dark Matter Magazine. How did this come to be? Well, Rob Carroll, the editor and founder of Dark Matter, contacted me a few months ago and asked if I’d like to write a column focused on some of the topics I cover on my blog. It sounded like a lot of fun, so I agreed, and you can read the first column, “The Quest for the Perfect Publisher”, by clicking the banner below.
Here are my writing goals for this week.
And that was my week. How was yours?