The List

Up until this point, I’ve been submitting stories in a somewhat haphazard manner. Sure, I take notes about market guidelines and keep a whole bunch of spreadsheet to track my stories, but I don’t have a system for choosing where to send stories. I needed a system, so I made The List.

After looking at my data on various markets, I compiled an ordered list of magazines. It’s not fancy–just a long list of names–but now I won’t have to waste energy figuring out where a story goes next. Of course, I’ll still follow submission guidelines (so no novellas to places that only want flash fiction), but if the story fits the guidelines, I’m going to send it.

Before The List, I tried to match the story with the magazine, but it turns out I’m terrible at guessing what’s a good fit. And I think it’s too easy for writers to “self-reject”–to think that a market would never be interested, when in fact they might. I’m going to stop guessing what editors want and just send them my best writing.

I ordered my list based on a few factors. First, I prioritized markets on the SFWA qualifying list. That’s often a marker of good things, like stability and higher pay rates. (Also, it would be neat to qualify for SFWA someday.) After that, I considered a number of factors–response rate, reputation, payment, personal rejections, and how much I enjoyed the published stories. (I’d like to add in circulation statistics, when I have time to dig those up.) I also did some research on each magazine, trying to find out how published authors fared. (In other words, did anyone have a problem with contracts/payment or any other such difficulties?)

The list is tailored to the stories I write, and I expect it will shift around as I find new markets or as my writing changes. Hopefully this will streamline my submissions process a bit more.

Codex Writers

I’m super excited about joining Codex Writers–a group for neo-pro writers of speculative fiction. Everyone seems quite friendly, and I’ve already spent a couple of hours reading the forums.

There are a few ways to qualify for Codex membership, which leads me to my other exciting news. I’ve had a short story accepted by a pro market on the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) list. This is only my second acceptance, so I was totally surprised and delighted. Once I sign the contract, I’ll post more details, but for now, I’m just going to squee a bit.

Narrative Movement

In her writing book Steering the Craft, Ursula Le Guin discusses how a story must have narrative movement. The reader should feel that something is happening, that the story is moving along.

It’s easy to confuse narrative movement with action. In college, I was assigned an excerpt from Le Morte D-Arthur, which I believe suffers from this problem. (To be fair, it was written in the 1400s.) There’s a description of a battle that goes something like this: Sir Beefy Dude knocked Sir Muscle Guy off his horse, and woe fell upon Sir Muscle Guy, for he ran about the field, but the horse could not be recovered. Sir Turnip unhorsed Sir Radish, Sir Muffin unhorsed Sir Cupcake, Sir Balloon unhorsed Sir Moon…

At least, that’s how I remember it. It’s pages of detailed description about which knights got unseated. A literal blow-by-blow of the battle. Getting through it was a slog.

So why is this description so boring? There’s a lot going on–it’s a huge battle scene. But the problem is, there’s not much that’s actually happening. It’s just a list of events. The whole thing could be described in a few sentences, without loss of understanding.

Narrative movement isn’t about a flurry of activity–it’s about feeling like the plot has progressed. Are questions being answered? Are new questions arising? Am I invested in knowing what happens next?

Maybe if I know the backstory of Sir Radish, or if Sir Radish is somehow important to the fate of another character, then I’ll care that he got unhorsed. Otherwise, he’s just a name in a list of names.

But how do we get the plot moving along? Perhaps it’s more about how we build meaning into our stories.

Let’s take another event as an example. Not a huge battle, or an explosion, or anything so grand and terrifying. How about if we have a watch that breaks? This is not immediately exciting. I’m probably not going to run out and buy a book because someone tells me there’s this really cool scene where a watch stops working. But this is the sort of event that can move the story along, depending on the context.

First, we have to care about the watch. Who owns the watch? Does it belong to the main character? Her grandmother? Has it been handed down through generations? Is it a new watch given to her as a graduation present? And how does it break? Perhaps an accident? Or does her jealous sister stomp on it? Does the watch have special powers, perhaps allowing the user to travel through time?

When the watch breaks, it’s going to change something–the relationship between the sisters, for example. Or maybe someone will be stranded in time. The important bit is that the watch changes something significant in the story. Perhaps it forces the characters into action, or creates a new problem.

When I’m drawn into a story, it’s usually not because of explosions or battles, shouting or sex or gore. It’s because I care about the characters and the situation. And when something happens to change the situation, that’s what moves the plot forward.

The Huge Slush Pile

As a writer, I’m always hoping my story will battle it out to the top of the slush pile. But here’s what usually happens. I send out my story, wait anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of months, and eventually get a rejection. (Looking at the submissions grinder, I’m not alone.) I let out a sigh, update my submissions spreadsheets, possibly do a quick revision, and send the story out to the next appropriate market.

That’s the writer side of things. What does it look like from an editor’s perspective?

Over at Slushpile Avalanche, Suzanne Vincent of Flash Fiction Online posts that their slush numbers are approaching 7,000 stories per year, averaging 18 stories per day. Holy moly, that’s a lot of slush. I’ve never been an editor, but I can’t even imagine going through that many stories a day (even with the help of slush readers.) Or rather, I can imagine it, and it seems like an huge amount of work. Especially since many editors do this as a labor of love.

From what I’ve read, many other magazines are getting comparable amounts of submissions. Clarkesworld keeps detailed submission statistics, which you can find in their backlogged blog entries. Submissions Grinder–a fantastic and free website for submission statistics–also records submission numbers. (Good for a general overview, although the data isn’t complete, because it only records numbers from writers who use the site.)

Knowing that the slush pile is enormous can be both daunting and comforting. Sometimes I wonder how my story will ever stand out amidst all of those other wonderful works? But it’s happened before, so I keep faith that it will happen again. And when I get rejected, I remind myself that rejection doesn’t mean my story is bad. It could just mean my story isn’t good enough. Or that another story was better.

And I can do something about a story that isn’t quite there yet. I can keep writing. I can get better. I can be thankful that I’m not an editor.

Square Brackets

What’s the best writing advice I’ve ever received?

Use square brackets.

Seriously, this has helped me so much. My first drafts (and second and third) have square brackets scattered throughout.

I use square brackets to indicate sections that need work, so that I can write without breaking flow.

Instead of stopping to look up the internal components of a lawn mower, I can write:

I jammed the [weird thingy inside the lawn mower] with a wrench.

Instead of trying to figure out believable dialogue on my first try, I can write:

[“As you know, Bob, the aliens are invading right now,” she said. “And they don’t look happy.”]

Here’s an actual example from a work in progress:

He began the class by reviewing [physics thing], his [some identifying characteristic.]

Who knows if any of that sentence will make it to the final draft? Or any of that scene?

And that’s another good thing about square brackets. I don’t have to waste time getting each scene right in an early draft, since at that point, I’m still playing around with the structure of the story. I can block out the scene, writing down a rough idea of how I think it will go. If I switch stuff up, or even delete the scene entirely, I won’t have wasted time doing unnecessary research or agonizing over a sentence that I didn’t even keep.

Square brackets are searchable, so if I want to do some quick revisions, I can find the places that need work. I also use brackets to block off new sections of writing to review later.

And the brackets are a visual reminder that a draft doesn’t have to be perfect. When I stick something in square brackets, I feel relieved, knowing that I’ll go back over it again and make it better.