Thursday, February 6, 2014

Writing Short Stories -- Accumulated Nonsense from 23 Years of "Teaching": Part Eight

Markets and Preparing Manuscripts for Submission

Since I last set out to write something vaguely accurate about sending out stories for publication, everything – I mean, everything – has changed. Maybe I'm just asking to get laughed at, but when I started teaching the Writing Short Stories course, I could use the word "typewriter" without being laughed at or stared at as if I'd just been unearthed from a mothball-filled sarcophagus.
Sure, there are a number of print publications still in operation, and they are putting out fine work. But much of the action has switched over to the electronic markets – webzines and e-publications.You can still troll through the Writer’s Market – in print or online. You can also go to sites like Duotrope and Ralan’s Webstravaganza to get information on print and electronic markets (Note: Nowadays, Ralan's less so for markets, but it remains a great clearing house of information for writers; Duotrope is still tops for market information but now requests a fee for their more expanded services). Each of these places offer tips on where to find more information about places you can your stories to.
The information is out there.
And, if you’re interested in print publications, nothing beats taking a trip to a big, old-fashioned newsstand that carries a wide selection of magazines. Still have one nearby? Okay, within a day's drive, maybe?
Nothing beats the newsstand – except the library.
Or if your local bookstore also carries a number of print publications, haunt the place.
Whether you’re looking to be published in print or on electrons, it’s good to be familiar with the publications you want to be published in.
Sample the product.
For both print and electronic publications, find their website. Most publications have an item on their menu called “Submission Guidelines,” or something along those lines.
Follow the directions as closely as you can. Submishmash is a popular software format for small journals; others want a .pdf or a manuscript in Rich Text Format (rtf); still others will take MS Word attachments. Read the instructions and follow them implicitly (or even explicitly -- just . . . follow them). Blah-blah-blah -- you know all this stuff already, don't you?
Make sure your final draft is as close to perfect as you can make it. Don’t give the editors and first readers easy reasons to reject your story. Your story is interviewing for a job: make sure its fly is zipped.
If you’re submitting “hard copy” (i.e. paper) manuscripts:
Use separate sheets of 8 ½ x 11 inch paper – white, 16 to 24 pound stock. Use an easy-to-read font (at least try; what constitutes an easy-to-read font get sometimes get you into debates of theological proportions. Families have been ripped asunder over Times Roman vs. Courier New disputes -- you have been warned).
All of this sounds ridiculously basic, but you won’t believe how many horror stories I’ve heard from editors who get dozens of manuscripts where these basics have not been followed.
Don’t staple your stories. Keep them loose or use a simple paper clip.
Use one inch margins on all sides – just like in school – with maybe a half inch more for the bottom margin.
First page – name and address in the upper left corner, phone number below that (optional, as is your e-mail address). If you have an agent (I’m being very general here), his or her name and phone number would go under yours. The word count goes in the upper right corner (for those of you who don’t have word-counting computer software (all three of you), five characters plus one space is considered the “average” word in English. Count the characters in your story – type characters, not people in your story – and divide by six. That’s your word count). An approximation is acceptable. Most magazines that pay by the word do their own word counts, but they roughly need to know how long your story is.
There used to be an old, old practice of noting the rights you were willing to sell underneath your word count, but today no professional writers do that. Most publications buy only First North American Serial Rights anyway, and if they don’t, the matter is usually negotiated after the editor has already shown an interest in your manuscript. You can also indicate a copyright for your story in this spot, but since under U. S. law your manuscript is protected regardless, most writers don’t bother.
All the above information is the only part of your manuscript that should be single-spaced.
Halfway down the page goes the title of your story, in caps and centered. Below that goes your byline, also centered, in upper and lower case, with your “writer” name if it’s different from your real name.
Skip a line and begin your story, double-spaced. Indent new paragraphs – do not skip a line between paragraphs: it throws off word counts and is more a practice used in business writing than in prose fiction.
On each subsequent page, your last name, the name of your story (abbreviated) and the page number should appear in the upper right corner. It should appear above your “margined” area and is not considered part of it.
You don’t need to write “End” or “The End” on the last page of your story, unless the story comes so far down the page there’s a chance someone might think a page is missing. However, if that confusion can be made, it may indicate that your “ending” isn’t really all that conclusive.
Do not use unusual script faces or italics. Italics in most manuscripts are indicated by underscoring (like this). With the advent of more electronic submissions, standard practices on this matter have been shifting slowly -- and not steadily. Check your submission guidelines in regard to their preference.
Also, if your computer and printer allow you to “justify” type (flush on both left and right sides) – don’t! This also screws up an editor’s ability to make his or her own word count.

Along with a good dictionary (which you should obviously have) get a good grammar reference book and a style guide (like the Chicago Manual of Style) to answer all the inevitable questions that come up as you prepare your final draft. If that’s too much paper to deal with, there are a number of good on-line dictionaries and grammar reference websites to which you can avail yourself.
Don’t rely on your software’s grammar checks. Most of them are still not sophisticated enough to deal with anything more than the simplest of English sentence formations, and sometimes even those baffle them.


Send manuscripts in 10x13 or 9x12 inch envelopes. Include a stamped return envelope with the manuscript, unless you’re submitting a disposable photocopy. If so, include a stamped letter-sized envelope so they can still inform you if they’ve received – or accepted, or rejected, your story.

Always try to find the most current information on the places where you want to send your work. It’s frustrating to mail off a manuscript to a place that’s out of business or direct your manuscript to an editor who died two months before (as I did once).

Dealing with editors/publications

Cover letters – Some writers like to attract brief introductory notes to their stories when they send them out, introducing the story and the writer to the editor. For the most part, don’t bother, unless the editor you’re sending to specifically requests one. In spite of all the how-to articles written about writing winning cover letters, it’s your story that will ultimately sell the editor, not the letter.
Cover letters are more appropriate when you are returning a story to an editor who has already read the story and suggested revisions. In that case, your cover letter should explain the revisions you’ve made on the story, and any other changes you may have made since the editor saw the previous version.

Galleys – After a story has been accepted, you may receive a set of galleys: a rough version of what your story will look like in print or online. Read the galleys carefully, and make sure no egregious errors have been made in the typesetting of your story. Use proofreading marks to indicate your corrections. Your reading may be the only careful one it gets before going to press, considering the cutbacks many publishers have made on the copyediting side. The story you save will be your own!

Contracts – Read them carefully. There isn’t a lot a beginning writer can do to negotiate a contract with a big magazine (maybe more with small ones), and most magazines aren’t really out to cheat you (because the publishing grapevine can hurt them if they do). But there are a few things that are so out of line you need to watch for them. Publishers cannot buy your story out right – they can only pay you for the use of the story once or twice – and you must be credited as the author of your story as designated on your manuscript. One other place where you might find problems these days is in the distribution of “electronic rights,” (i.e. Internet and non-paper formats like computer disks). Since that market is evolving even as you read these words, it might be a good idea to keep informed of any practices or court decisions that may affect your rights in these areas.
If anyone wants to reprint your story for an anthology or collection, they have to ask for your permission, not necessarily the people who published your story first (although the first publication should be credited in the publication that reprints your story).
Check to see if a “kill fee” is specified in your contract. What that means is that if for some reason, after buying your story, they cannot use it – or if they change their minds – you have to be compensated for their signing a contract and holding on to your story for so long when you might have gotten it published elsewhere.

Rejection slips – Comments from editors

Generic rejections are printed replies usually included with your returned manuscript. They rarely say more than “Thank you for trying us.” Some have little check-off boxes with reasons most often why stories are rejected – which is a little feedback, at least. Once you start sending off stories, you’ll probably see a lot of these. Don’t let them discourage you. Most publications use these impersonal replies because they see hundreds of manuscripts every week.

Personal replies are brief notes or emails written by editors or their assistants, sometimes on the same slips of paper the impersonal rejections are printed on. If you get one of these, congratulate yourself. You’re making it up the “slush pile” and someone at the publication thought enough to send you a personal – if brief – response.

Comments: when you do receive personal comments from an editor, take them seriously. The editor’s job is not to ruin your story or to discourage you. Editors who keep their jobs are usually people who know their stuff. However, they’re not above being wrong every now and then. Remember, you are the final arbiter of what’s right for your story. If they make suggestions for changes or revisions, weigh them carefully. The next editor to whom you send your story may love it as it is.

Payment: if an editor accepts your story, payment is usually specified (even if, as is the case with many small literary magazines, it consists of nothing more than a couple of “contributor’s copies”). Bigger commercial magazines usually pay upon acceptance. “Acceptance” is usually defined as the time the editor receives copies of the countersigned contract. Many contracts stipulate that you will be sent a check a specified time after acceptance, usually no more than thirty days. Many smaller publications pay authors “on publication,” which means anywhere between two months before or after the publication is “out,” mailed to subscribers or distributed to stores.
A check in the mailbox is indeed a happy thing, but then we’re not just in this for the money, are we?
Caution and good sense are useful in all endeavors, and publishing is no exception.

Electronic Publishing

The field of electronic publishing is still relatively new (God, I feel so creaky saying that!) and the scene is changing almost every day. Ostensibly (listen to the implied italics as you read that word), copyright protection for stories appearing in electronic formats are protected by the same laws that protect printed media.
However, stay tuned. The problem with the electronic world is that it’s much easier to copy a story and distribute it without your authorization (or your publisher’s). So far, the problem of “web piracy” is still being worked out. The issues inherent in this topic are almost as volatile as theological hair-splitting in the medieval ages. If we start in on it here, we won't exit on it for a long, long time. 
As far as potential scams and schemes to cheat authors out of hard-earned cash, there is a valuable resource on the website of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. It’s called “Writer Beware” and it’s worth the time of any writer to take a look at what some folks will do to squeeze money out of writers who have great hopes and dreams, but very little experience.

Why are we writing short stories when the market for them keeps changing from crazy to crazier?
Well, we may be writing for ourselves, for our own amusement and satisfaction. We may write for what the writing process brings to us.
If not just for fun, perhaps for the discipline the form teaches us. When you move on to other kinds of writing – to novels, plays, etc. – you can do so with the skills you’ve acquired from short story writing – with confidence and with a sense of what’s basic and what’s specific to each of these dramatic forms.
The discipline of short story writing can be applied to your extra-literary lives as well. Writing aids your skills of observation, reflection and thinking. People who write are more likely to see past mere appearances. They can empathize better with others. They can see the world around them with more than one point of view (please don't prove me wrong).
Then again, we may write to see our work published.
Writing is communication, after all, and it seems odd to go through all the work of writing a story just to have it stuffed in a drawer.
Even if you aren’t interested in getting published, you should give it a try. In more ways than one, it “completes” the process of writing a story.
For the more ambitious, it is possible to sell your work, or at least to see it in print, but even the best paying markets for short stories cannot provide a living income. There has been a recent rise of interest in short stories, with a number of new publications dedicated to new short stories, mini e-books of short stories, or e-book collections, stage venues for the reading of short stories and even a few web radio programs and podcasts where short stories are read aloud before an audience. But most of this has done little to change the financial picture for writers of short stories.
In other words, if you want to write short stories and you don’t have a day job, find one. You can make a living as a writer; you can even – if you’re lucky or clever – make a living writing fiction… but not by writing short stories alone.
The good thing about this business of writing fiction for print or the “e-verse” is that for the most part the writers and editors you meet are generous with their time and experience. No one, not even a scam artist, is making a lot of money. You’re doing this because you love it, or you’re not doing it.
Welcome to the club.

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