Well, I’ve been reading submissions (AKA the Slushpile) for Dark Recesses Press magazine for three months now. I’ve read somewhere around thirty to forty (or maybe more, I’m not good at keeping count) in this time. It’s been a learning experience.
I’ve read a lot of blogs by editors and writers, a lot of which like to post little rules–either stuff tested and true by time, or things they’ve learned.
So I figured I might as well too. I haven’t posted anything centered around writing in a while… so here we go.
Let’s discuss creativity. Everybody wants to write something different, something never seen before. That’s tough work. People have been writing stuff for thousands of years, not to mention that since the invention of the printing press, people have been reading all of this literature for thousands of years as well. So it’s a very difficult task for any writer looking to make a career out of publishing their fiction (or non-fiction) to write something completely new and original.
In reading submissions so far, I’ve noticed some deep ravines some writers fall into.
If you see something in a movie or television (or another book) that you like, a basic story or plotline or character, make sure you make it your own before you submit it for publication.
I’ve read stories that read just like movies I’ve seen. The names may be changed to protect copyright, but they’re essentially the same. I’ve read subs that are based on television shows. Or totally ripped from them. You can never be sure what your editor/reader has seen or read, so it’s not wise to pull pieces from various movies/television shows/books you like and fit them together as a puzzle and make the same picture. You can take from the stuff you enjoy, work it over and over again until it doesn’t resemble the original source anymore. It’s a great way for beginning writers to build their chops, or for other writers to make a bit of something they love.
Making something your own isn’t as hard as coming up with something brand new. It’s a lot of fun to add your personal flair to what you enjoy and write it the way you would have. But make sure it is your own, and not a smudged facsimile of the original work, before you submit it to any publication.
Now, how about a quick bit about the basic principles of writing. Something I had to overcome in my writing is perspective, a.k.a. point of view. I would shift rather drastically from one character’s thoughts to another. And back again. This isn’t a major problem, unless you the writer don’t notice it before submitting it. I can’t say the same for other editors/readers, but I tend to get picky about point of view. More than likely because it’s one of the problems I’ve overcome, so I aim to help other authors overcome it as well. But once you see it and recognize it as a problem, you’ll start seeing it as you write and before you know it, you’re not making the same mistake.
Also, and I’m going to put this here in the “principles” section though it probably isn’t a principle, a major problem I’ve seen in a lot of stories is wordiness. For a lot of people, it’s a choice, much like whether you prefer vanilla or chocolate shakes. I lean towards streamlined stories. I don’t like being told what every character looks like, whether the drapes were heavy or airy, and other such details.
There’s a fine line between literary and wordy. If you discuss the same thing for more than one or two sentences, you’re probably in the latter category.
I believe unless it’s necessary to the story, toward developing presence or setting or character, it doesn’t need to be there. I used to read a lot of “housewife soft-core” back in the day when I was on a limited budget and borrowing books from my sister. Those kinds of books are filled with those trivial details, more than likely to beef the word count (and raise a few female pulses) and I’d skip pages at a time when reading them. Who cares if the tablecloth was saffron and not orange? Does it make a difference if the main character is blue eyed or brown? It could make a difference if your story focuses on that, but if it doesn’t, it’s unnecessary. Many great writers have spoken a lot about letting the reader develop the story in their head–on their own. Yes, by all means, get across that the spiderwebs lacing the doorway covered the main character and totally freaked her out, but don’t take a full paragraph to do it.
Yep, finally. I’m at the end of my jeez-does-she-know-how-annoying-it-is-to-read-such-a-long-blog post. The only thing really left for me to discuss is guidelines and format. And it’s bold for a reason.
Thankfully for the writers out there, I’m not in charge of deciding how strict we are on guidelines. If I had my way, every story that came in with a brief (and sometimes non-existent) cover letter wouldn’t be read. And, for that matter, stories that completely disregard the detailed and specific format requirements. It isn’t a request, it’s a requirement. Dark Recesses Press even includes an example document for would be submitters to look at and copy. (Format, not story. Although I’ll admit, I’m curious about the end of the format-example story as well.)
For the most part, just about every publication I’ve looked at tells you exactly what they want your manuscript to look like. Most even provide a link to this website, www.shunn.net, where if you click “Format” you’ll be taken to a list of links showing the correct format most publishers prefer. Some will be different, as DRP is (we prefer our stories to be justified to the left and single spaced), but most prefer this classic format.
Guidelines, guidelines, guidelines. They’re there for a reason, not for show.
Every writer and editor will tell you over and over again: Read the guidelines. Follow them to the word, right down to the silly stuff. If there is any silly stuff. If I had a magazine, I’d make part of the guidelines to include a sticking-out-the-tongue smiley face at the bottom. That part of the guidelines would be somewhere in the middle of the mess about format, and if it wasn’t there, I’d know they weren’t really paying attention. It’s a lot like that urban story about a professor assigning his class a test with a full page of instructions that all but one didn’t read–and in the end, all you had to do was write your name on the test.
It’s a waste of the editors time and yours if you’re not following guidelines. Not every editor is going to be tough on it, but you should always assume they are.
And one more bit about cover letters. I personally think it’s rude when a writer makes a sub-and-run. I don’t always read letters first, I usually just grab and go. But I have to admit, it disappoints me when I read a good story and go to the cover letter and it’s either blank (as some are) or it’s just “Hi. Enjoy the story. — John Doe.” I understand why some writers would prefer to do that, but honestly it leaves the editor/reader thinking that you’re undervaluing your work. That you assume the work will get rejected and then why waste the time writing a full cover letter? I equate it to leaving a sparkling, beautiful resume at a possible employer, then showing up for the interview in sweat pants and sneakers. You might be trying to let the work speak for itself, but you’re a part of it too.
So make sure you look your best when you submit, whether it’s a for-the-love or paying market. You never know who is going to publish your work, so make sure everything from the manuscript to the cover letter is spit-shined to a gleaming polish.
And that’s all I’ve got to say on the matter… for now. (Imagine a small woman waggling her eyebrows trying to look like an evil genius and that’s what I look like right now.)
And now for a totally unrelated picture to end the day…
“not to mention that since the invention of the printing press, people have been reading all of this literature for thousands of years as well.”
I’m sorry, I gotta nitpick, the printing press was invented in 1440, so it’s more like hundreds of years.