Sunday, June 26, 2011

Short Stories: Working with Fiction Magazines

I have Karl Johanson, editor with Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine, to talk about the challenges he sees when writers submit their fiction.

1.       What is the biggest mistake new writers make when they edit a short story?

For me, sending out a sexist or racist story is the biggest mistake. I don't mean a story which includes racist or sexists characters, but one where the *point* of the story is the racism or sexism. We get stories submitted from all over the world, but a fair percentage of the stories we get from one country in particular, make the erroneous point that all women are evil and that when a man does something evil, it’s because a woman influenced him to be that way. Rather shocking for the 21st century.

2.       What are the most common editing issues you see?

If a story has italic text in part, it is common to submit the story with the italicized text marked with an underscore at the beginning and end of the text. (I'm told this had something to do with the way manual typesetting worked.) I have to manually convert all the relevant text to italics, so I'd just a soon people submit any stories to Neo-opsis with the italicized text already italicized (especially if there's a lot of it).

3.       There is a misconception amongst some new writers about the role of an editor. What can someone expect when their story or novel is accepted for publication?

That the story won’t be in print the next day: ) Some publishers will do some promotion for your story or book, but remember that the writer can promote as well.

4.       If an author has a dispute with their editor, what is the best way to deal with it? (i.e. editor wants to change something significant, author doesn’t want to...let’s say make a gay character straight, change the ending of a story, etc.)

Don't make it about egos. Be respectful and treat it like any other negotiation. Explain why you don't want the changes, and listen and understand the editor's reasons for requesting the changes. See if a compromise is possible. Know what you're willing to change and what you aren't. Don't be angry if you and the editor can't come to an agreement. Shake hands, then send the story to another publisher.

I've only asked writers to ok changes (other than fixing typos or changing to Canadian spelling, etc.) a few times. In each case it was a science or technical flaw. To avoid conflict, I spelled out what I thought the problem was, and told them I was interested in publishing the story, pending the change. For example, if the writer has people using a chemical fueled Saturn V rocket to explore Neptune's moons, I'll want that adjusted before I'd want to publish it (assuming I like the story otherwise). By spelling out the changes I want, *before* making an agreement to publish, I avoid a conflict. If the writer agrees, good and we publish it. If the author doesn't agree, good and we don't publish it.


Saturday, June 25, 2011

Breaking into Short Fiction Magazines: A Discussion with Stephanie Ann Johanson

I'm really happy to have the Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine duo Stephanie and Karl to discuss the short story market. Today, Stephanie covers breaking into the fiction magazine market. Tomorrow, Karl will discuss the submission and editing side of things.

Stephanie, can you tell me a little about Neo-opsis and how it's evolved?

If you have ever taken a business course, you know that it is important to have a good elevator speech. An elevator speech is something short that lets you describe your company or product to someone you meet riding an elevator, or waiting in line. I don't think I have ever got that elevator speech down pat, because in my experience everyone wants different information, but let me give it a try.

Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine is entertainment first. Karl Johanson and I started Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine in 2003, with the idea that we wanted to do something creative. Karl and I have been lifelong fans of science fiction, and we thought it would be good to give something back, and create a magazine that would be an outlet for science fiction and fantasy short story writers, and hopefully science fiction and fantasy artists as well. We don't have as much illustration as I would like, but as the magazine grows we hope to include more and more. Karl and I choose stories that entertain first, and we love the ones that sneak up on you and make you think second. 

Karl writes the editorial and science articles for the magazine. He has that unusual way of coming at things, that binds everything in humor, so much so that you often done realize that you are learning as you read. Neo-opsis also runs a few reviews in every issue, and science and science fiction news. Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine has won the Aurora Award in 2007 and 2009 in the category Best Work in English: Other. We have also been a finalist for the Aurora every year since 2004.

What are the basics that every author needs to remember when submitting their fiction?

Be sure to read the guidelines for each publisher before you submit any work. In your cover letter, don't tell the publisher you have never before been published, or this is the first time you are submitting your work, or you have submitted this work to so many publishers and none of them were interested. Publishers get a lot submissions, and if you give them a reason to assume you work isn't worth their time, then your work may end up at the bottom of a long reading list, or worse it might just get a quick reject after only being skimmed through. 

Don't tell the publisher how old you are, unless for some reason they request that information in their guidelines. They don't need to know how old you are, because if you tell them you are young, then some won't think you are experienced enough. If you tell them you are old, then they might not think you are up-to-date with the times. Let your story do the talking. Let the story sell itself.

So, is it really necessary for writers to read short stories to learn how to write them?

That is an interesting question. Since I am not a writer, I have to come at it from the mind of an artist and a reader, I'm not sure as a writer that it is absolutely necessary to read short stories. There are a great many things you can learn from short stories, as there are with poems, fewer words, yet often with more meaning. A novel may have the luxury of taking its time, filling in back story, describing the setting, smelling the roses, before it gets down into its plot. A short story has to be more direct, everything has to click from the start, or the reader may just move on to the next short story in the magazine. If you can learn style from reading it, if you can recognize how an author has pulled you in and made you forget that you are looking at words on a page, then you will learn a lot from reading short works of fiction. If you get lost in the story and don't know how you got there, then you may need more study before you will learn from just reading.

What are the common reasons submissions are rejection at your magazine?

I could say that the most common reason for saying 'no' is that the stories don't fit our needs, but that wouldn't be a helpful answer. Since 2003, the start of Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine, I have read 5927 submissions. We have accepted for publishing about 160, so there are a lot of rejections. 

Without generalizations I'm not sure could accurately say what the most common reason is for a rejection. Some of the rejections are because the work is so full of English or grammar errors that it impossible to understand the story. Some of the rejections are because the story is not science fiction or fantasy, and while I do sometimes pass on submissions that are other genre, those stories have to be exceptionally good. Sometimes it seems that we get a lot of stories that don't seem complete, and sometimes those stories are really just a chapter or two from the writers novel in progress. Most chapters, don't stand well as complete short stories. There are times when I am sending a rejection, because the story is just like one we have already published. 

Another reason for a rejection is if the story is just too long, but perhaps the most common reason for a rejection is that the story didn't pull me in. If I am read a story and my mind starts thinking about paperclips, or if there is milk in the fridge, and that is not what the story is about, well then the story has probably lost me and will likely get a rejection.

Do you ever give personal replies or do you just do form rejections?

I try to provide feedback when I am rejecting a story, because just getting a "no thank you" gives the writer nothing to go on. But that said, I don't always have useful feedback to give. Sometimes all I have is that the story is not the best fit for Neo-opsis. The reason its not a good fit may be a style or a feeling. If a story pulls me in, but doesn't fit for some reason or other, then I usually have feedback to give, but when getting feedback the writer should always remember that the feedback is opinion. The next publisher may have completely different ideas about the story. 

How can an author submit to Neo-opsis?

If you want to submit to Neo-opsis, you should first check the Neo-opsis guidelines. The guidelines can be found online at Currently Neo-opsis is closed to new submissions. The next submission period is set for September 1, 2011 to November 30, 2011. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Keeping Your Work: Be Writing Group Savvy

Today, I have Alyx discussing posting your fiction online for critiques. I have loved my online author communities and believe the critiques I've received have helped me to become published. However, like Alyx, I'm really concerned by the large amount of openly posted fiction that I've seeing online asking for critiques.

I personally recommend only ever sharing your work in password-protected, small communities. I currently work within a small online writing group that is invite-only. Even when I belonged to a large community, I only posted my work within the invite-only private areas with just a few people at a time.

Keeping Your Work, by Alyx J Shaw

I’m going to address an issue that is becoming more prevalent in recent years, and one that is an easily-avoidable and innocent-looking trap that can cost a new author a story. I’m talking about on-line author’s communities.

The idea behind these groups is a good one and is something I actually approve of. Someone sets up a moderated community, usually in a place like Live Journal or Dreamwidth, new unpublished authors join, and together they support one another, discuss their work, show stories in progress for feed-back, exchange ideas, and form a place in which to nurture each other in the hopes of being the next J K Rowling or Stephen King. It’s a great idea, but there is one very sad and obvious flaw in this – namely some people cannot be trusted with a burned-out match, let alone your work.

Posting any work in a community such as a writer's group or in Live Journal is simply not a wise idea, as I personally learned the hard way. The community “mods” may have the very best of intentions and would never steal from you, but they do not live in the heads of their members. All it takes is one jackass with a severe case of Entitlement to copy and paste your stuff and it is gone.

“F-Locking”, which is using tools provided in on-line journals to limit who has access to your work, is a good idea, but not 100% either. All it takes is one well-intentioned friend who just wants to share the uber-awesome thing you wrote with their BFF, who then bounces it to someone else, who bounces it to another buddy, who bounces it to that guy they sorta know in English Lit and guess what - all your hard work has someone else's name on it.

People do not have to be bad to help someone steal from you. They don't even have to intend to do it in order to help someone else steal it. But none of us are in control of other people, and it is hard enough to know who to trust in the real world, let alone the internet where that nice lady you chat with daily could easily be a convicted felon working you for your credit card number. So just keep your original fiction private. It’s your work. You put in the time and effort and research. Do not lose it because of an innocent mistake. On-line author’s communities are great places to learn and meet other people in your shoes, but never post anything you have even the slightest intention of publishing. It might end up in somebody else’s portfolio.

Bio: Alyx J Shaw is an irritable rantaholic who enjoys writing, making medieval honey wine, smoking, tarantulas, (not smoking tarantulas) and raising strange and toxic plants. She has been a practicing Wiccan for ten years, and is one of the few people in VancouverBritish Columbia who actually enjoys the rain

Sunday, June 12, 2011

"Why Did You Go Small Press" with Eileen Kernaghan

1. Why did you go with a small press? Thistledown Press, for example, is based in Saskatoon; a long way away from the glitz New York publishers. Why go close to home?

Long story! Actually, I did start out, back in the early eighties, with one of those glitzy New York publishers. My three Grey Isles novels from Ace won awards and got good reviews, and the first two at least had decent sales.  But then came the Great SF/Fantasy Slump of the mid-eighties, when way too many books were published, sales plunged, and a lot of writing careers went into the doldrums, mine included. Although by then I had an agent, she couldn’t interest any of those New York publishers in my fourth adult novel (Winter on the Plain of Ghosts) She sent the manuscript around a few times, and as agents do these days, gave up and let it sit on the shelf.

So what to do? Well, I thought, New York isn't the world. There's England -- but English publishers were going through a major economic crisis.  And then there’s Canada.
At that time, very few Canadian publishers were interested in adult fantasy and science fiction. But a lot of Canadian presses, particularly the smaller literary ones, were publishing young adult fiction -- and that included fantasy. I decided to make a minor career adjustment. I switched from adult historical fantasy to YA historical fantasy, abandoned hopes of becoming the next Anne McCaffrey, and looked for a publisher close to home.   

My first YA was Dance of the Snow Dragon, about the travels of a young Buddhist monk in a magical version of 18th century Bhutan. Thistledown Press had accepted a short story excerpted from the book for a YA anthology, and that in turn led to their accepting the novel.

2. What benefits have you enjoyed since having your books go with a small press?

First off, I’d say the quality of the editing. I’ve worked with amazing editors for my four Thistledown books – all of them are writers themselves, and I think that’s one reason their editing is so astute, and so sympathetic.  They understood the book that I wanted to write, and helped me to make it the best it could possibly be. You don’t as a rule get anything like that kind of close attention from a Big NewYork genre publisher. There’s a real sense, with a smaller publisher like Thistledown, that you’re part of a team, with everyone cheering you on – not, as in New York, a tiny cog in an enormous machine.

Smaller Canadian publishers are more likely to support your career while you gain exposure and build your sales with subsequent books. As once upon a time, all publishers did.   Nowadays those big genre publishers give you one chance – if your first book, or your first series,  fails to live up to expectations, you’re out.

 I’ve had the luxury of deciding the kind of book I want to write, and taking a long time to write it. Thistledown believes in letting a book build in popularity over a period of time, and they won’t publish a book by the same author more than once every two years.

 Literary press books are nearly always issued as trade paperbacks, and for whatever reason, trade paperbacks have more cachet than the humble mass market format. They’re more likely to be reviewed, and considered for awards. They’re generally found on library shelves rather than revolving racks, and they tend to linger longer in bookstores.
Traditionally, trades don’t get their covers ripped off to be sent back to the publisher for refund while their insides are pulped (though I’m told that these days, sadly, that can happen).

And then there’s the question of staying in print. The average bookstore shelf-life for a mass market US paperback is not much more than a month. After that, unless it sells well enough to go into reprints, it vanishes from sight. Thistledown’s trade paperbacks stay in print practically forever. Even my 1995 book still sells a few copies now and again. 

And then there’s the boost to the literary ego that comes with being a Canlit author. I’ll get round to that in a minute.

3. If there was one challenge or thing to consider before going the small press route, what would you say it is?

Small press advances are low, or non-existent.  Do you need immediate writing income to support yourself and your family, or can you wait for your sales to build over the long term?

Small presses have small promotion budgets.  You won’t be getting colour ads in Locus or Quill & Quire, and you won’t be going on author tours unless  you organize and fund them yourself.  (Though in fairness, big New York publishers don’t spend much on their midlist authors either.) Are you ready to arrange your own launches and readings spend endless hours doing online promotion, introduce yourself in person to local booksellers – and be prepared for blank stares from clerks who’ve clearly never heard of you?  Are you prepared to do author signings in deserted malls, and interviews with local reporters who haven’t read your books?  (Though come to think of it, didn’t I do all that – except for the online stuff – for my Ace Books?)

4. You're in a unique situation because you have had books with a small press, as well as a large one (ACE). What was the main difference between them? Or, did you even notice?

Oh, I’ve noticed!  There are the differences I’ve already mentioned, like the quality of editing, and the personal connection with the publisher. But beyond that:

Back in the mid-eighties when my second novel came out as a mass market paperback from Ace Books, the Vancouver Sun did a full page spread profiling three local genre writers.  a mystery writer, who said she turned out a new book  every six weeks; a writer of romance novels, and myself, representing genre fantasy.  The headline read: “Paperback writers: a look at the unsung and unpretentious foot soldiers of fiction.” 

And Books in Canada’s very succinct review of Journey to Aprilioth said “I don’t like books about elves. (What elves? There are no elves in my books!)

Fast forward to 2004, to The Alchemist’s Daughter – a YA published as a trade paperback by a prestigious Canadian literary press with Canada Council support.  It received a long and glowing review in Books in Canada (with no mention of non-existent elves) and was shortlisted for several book awards.

Same writer, same style, same genre (historical fantasy) but a different critical perception. I’d made the jump from paperback foot soldier to Canlit Author.

5. And, the dreaded money question. How does it compare?

The advances -- Big New York Publisher vs Canadian Small Press -- were in no way comparable. However, that's not the whole equation.  If I add up the earnings from my small press novels over the life of the books, it comes pretty close to what  I received from Ace for the three Grey Isles books. With the  BNYP you get the money up front, but that's likely all you'll  get, because few books earn out their advance. With the small press,  provided the book sells, you get it in dribs and drabs over a period of years. Obviously, unless you have other sources of income, that makes it hard to buy groceries.  


The settings of Eileen Kernaghan’s eight historical fantasy novels range from the prehistoric Indus Valley to 18th Century Bhutan and Victorian England. Her most recent YA/teen novel, Wild Talent: a Novel of the Supernatural, set in London and Paris, 1888-89,  was shortlisted for a 2009 Sunburst Award.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Review of "Becoming an Indie Author"

I found Smart Self-Publishing exceptionally helpful. The title is deceptive, because I think it even has some decent advice for people planning to submit to publishers, those already published, and those are just aren't sure.

Winters takes a "stop the whining" attitude and it is thoroughly refreshing. She doesn't try coddling authors and doesn't waste the reader's time giving pep talks. Instead, she outlines the work involved and the choices you the author need to make. She tells her own experiences and choices, and shares her mistakes and lessons.

It's a must read if you aren't sure about self-publishing or if you know you want to and don't know how to start. I'd also recommend it for anyone interested in self-publishing their backlist or who has been for a while but are still struggling with the business end of things.

At $3.95 (Amazon price), it's a sweet deal.