31 October 2006

Show me the money!

Quite some time ago, I sold two stories to e-zines. The 'zines stated in their submission guidelines that they paid authors for their work, but I never got a penny. My polite queries about payment went unanswered.

I'm not posting this just to whine (I DO feel better now, thank you), but rather to make a point. As Betsy said in her earlier post, it's sometimes hard to judge the quality of digital magazines. Authors get important services from websites like Duotrope and The Black Hole, but you can never be certain about a magazine's reputation.

Eventually, magazine reputations spread by word of mouth (or word of blog). When fellow writers ask me for suggestions about where to submit their work, I tell them about the 'zines that paid me promptly—and those that didn't.

Monster of the Milky Way

One of my science fiction email groups passed along a plug for NOVA on PBS. Tonight 10/31/06 (check your local listings) they're showing Monster of the Milky Way: Does a supermassive black hole lurk at the center of our galaxy? I hear it may even include quotes from Gregory Benford and David Brin. Enjoy!

30 October 2006

Being a digitally produced magazine, of course we're interested in all things e-pub. I just read this release from Publisher's Lunch about technical standardization of distribution for e-books. There's no little amount of suspicion of electronic methods of distribution among readers and writers, and some of that suspicion revolves around quality. When I sold my first story to an e-zine my non-industry friends and family were curious if it was a real sale, since it was online. Shrug. It was a paid credit, just like a story that appears in Electric Spec. I was happy with the zine, happy with the editing and quality, so I was thrilled with the sale. However, I recently read of a writer who declined a book deal with an e-book publisher. From what I could tell their main crime was being new, though they had verged on the vanity press arena since several of their books had been written by one author, who also happens to be an editor. The ensuing discussion centered mainly on marketing and distribution and retaining rights for print venues, and I think some good points were made. Standardization could alleviate some of these worries, be it books or magazines or music, and it's as much to protect the consumer as the writers and publishers. After all, we don't want our books sent to ten thousand pcs for free, do we?
"Today's announcement heralds the beginning of increased title availability and
lower costs for publishers entering the eBook and digital reading market,"
stated Neil de Young, Hachette Book Group USA...Over forty publishers,
technology companies and organizations were involved in the OCF Working Group,
the committee responsible for the creation of the standard, including Adobe
Systems Inc., Benetech, DAISY Consortium, eBook Technologies Inc., Hachette Book Group, Harlequin, iRex Technologies, Mobipocket (An amazon.com company),
netLibrary, OverDrive Inc., Random House, Simon & Schuster, WGBH and many
How does all this apply to us? Well, I believe in some standardization, even for e-zines, and focusing on distribution is a good start. I think the internet fosters a valuable free-for-all attitude, but when you download a file from Electric Spec, even for free, you've got to know that you're getting what we advertise: a well-written, bug-free, tightly edited story. I think we're achieving that so far, but some of the e-books and e-zines aren't always so stringent. I'd hate for them to put a black mark on the e-publishing industry as a whole, and standards will help the maintain the quality people have come to expect from print zines and books. I'm a firm believer in the power of blogs and e-zines and e-books, as well as more traditional forms of print, because I believe in words and communication. More writing and more reading and more availability can only improve the human condition, and, used wisely, the Internet is a path in the right direction.

28 October 2006

Insights from MileHiCon 38

This weekend is the MileHiCon , the science fiction/fantasy convention for the Rocky Mountain region. Today, I managed to slip away and attend, and I walked away believing it was time and money well spent.

For those of you who haven't been to a "Con" before, it's probably not exactly how you picture it—and certainly not how it is spoofed on The Simpsons. Sure, the hotel lobby features a cast of colorful characters who look like they just walked off the sets of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings, but you don't have to slap on pointy ears to attend. I fit in just fine in my jeans and long-sleeved t-shirt.

Three features of the Con impressed me right from the start. First, at any given time there were four or five workshops and author readings going on. They were designed to fit a variety of tastes and interests, but several times I wished I could be two places at once. Second, the quality of the speakers was quite impressive--more on that below. Third, the setting of the workshops was intimate, with most of them having 10 to 20 attendees. This made it easy to hear the presentations and ask questions.

This post would be way too long if I shared everything I learned or found interesting, and so . . . now for the highlights. Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell Memorial Award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer did a reading from his forthcoming novel Rollback. (It is currently being serialized in Analog and will be released in hardcover by Tor in '07). It was actually more like an "acting" than a reading. Standing in front of the audience with a PDA cupped in one hand, he used voice and gesture to help make the book come alive. Afterwards, he took questions and talked about several interesting topics, some of which I'll probably revisit in later posts.

I also enjoyed the author reading by Daniel Abraham. He he's an up-and-coming author who read from a project he's working on that's coordinated by one of my favorite authors, George R.R. Martin. Mr. Martin has created a shared world anthology called the Wildcard series, and Mr. Abraham's work will be featured in a new triad of Wildcard mosaic novels that will be released from Tor beginning next year. After the reading, I'm already hooked. Melinda Snodgrass , another Wildcard collaborator, also revealed in her excellent screenwriting workshop that she and Mr. Martin will be pitching a Wildcard movie. Let's hope Hollywood is interested!

After my positive experience, I'm certainly hoping to attend next year. Maybe it can also be an opportunity to promote Electric Spec. I'm sure a lot of the attendees would enjoy our 'zine.

27 October 2006

Both Sides of the Fence

I finally made time to check out the whole blog thing. I searched for Electric Spec on Blogger and found 15 entries (17 if you count the 2 electrical engineering posts). It's so interesting to see what the writers say about our submission process, the editing of their stories, their feelings about rejections and acceptances, etc. Perhaps every editor should try submitting a few stories to publications; it would provide a clear view into the angst and wonderment of being a writer. I also was going to add, "and every writer should seriously edit a few issues of a publication to learn about the effort involved in such an enterprise," but gee, I scared myself into silence on that one. With all the syntax, punctuation, grammar, and general narrative misadventures submitted by hopeful, well-intentioned writers, who, unfortunately, need more training in mechanics and story development, who knows what the finished pub product would look like? Anyway, as a writer and an editor, I feel fortunate to experience the view from both sides of the fence.

Fun for a Friday

C/O Rashenbo's blog:

The Vampire Novel
Hmm, very interesting! You scored 139!
People are addicted to you, as you make such entertaining and sexy reading material. You get people’s imaginations flowing and make for the type of book people want to read more than once. Cults have been inspired by the likes of you.

26 October 2006

You lookin' at me?

I’m watching lots of History Channel currently, doing world-building research for my new book. It’s all well and good, but when people ask me where I get my ideas, I tell them, "From real life." If you haven’t freaked out some stranger lately (or alternatively flattered them) with your attention, then you aren’t people-watching nearly enough. My gym is a great source for characters. People grunt and moan and sweat, all reminiscent of swordplay and farming, if you’re into archaic fantasy. They wear weird attire--lots of dry-fit and special padding and odd shoes and new-fangled jackets. It’s all fodder for thinking of a sci-fi wardrobe with a purpose. I even watch pets, about the closest things to slaves in my world. When a dog is in trouble, does he cower instantly, like a slave scrambling to kneel to his master? Or, does he ignore the screams to “SIT”, like a politician nodding to a constituent? For many writers, once you’ve got a character taking up space in your head, a story is bound to follow. The stories are out there, following us around. You’ve just got to keep looking.

24 October 2006

Uncle Orson's Writing Class

Renata forwarded me an awesome webpage: Uncle Orson's Writing Class, which consists of writing tips and more from the fabulous writer Orson Scott Card. On this webpage he covers tons of stuff from 'Do I need an agent?' to 'Formatting Outlines and Manuscripts'.
There is also a Hatrack River Writers Workshop Forum containing several discussion areas and more. I'd love to hear back about experiences with this.

I personally believe Mr.Card is among the best writers of all time. Right now I'm reading his "Maps in a Mirror", which is excellent! Not only does it contain most (all?) of his short fiction, but it contains the intriguing backstories on the stories, and amazing essays on topics such as what fantasy is and why it speaks to the human condition. Awesome!
And I promise I get no kickbacks of any kind from this endorsement. Really. :)

23 October 2006

The Nerd Factor

I know you love speculative fiction or you probably wouldn't be reading this blog. Have you ever finished a great scifi or fantasy novel or short story and thought, "I bet (insert name here) would love this if I could just get him/her to read it"? But people don't cross the tracks to speculative fiction very easily--even if they read other fiction. Turns out someone did a little experiment along these lines. And the result? Even if people like a particular speculative fiction piece, they're not going to become spec fiction readers. One reason might be . . .

The Nerd Factor

In a recent interview in Locus Magazine, Betsy Wollheim, president of DAW books, said:

We're also striving to make the packaging more sophisticated, although it's hard because we don't want to lose our core readership. But I'm finding that many middle-aged people still want to read fantasy and science fiction -- they just don't want to be seen doing it! So one of the tricks of the trade is to make the books look a little more upscale.

Do you think it's true that people are judged by the cover of the book they're reading? Is that one factors that hurts speculative fiction readership? Maybe spec fiction would sell better if it was displayed behind opaque covers, like Cosmopolitan in my local grocery store.

Welcome to the Dark Side

David wrote about what we’re looking for, and as an editor, I agree with everything he’s said. However, as people, we all have our different slants on what moves us. I love it when an author takes a familiar theme and twists it, like a pizza delivery sign on top of an $80,000 car. I love that feeling of “why didn’t I think of that?” I like when connections are obvious but concealed by my own bias. I love when an author ruthlessly exposes my biases and puts them in a salad spinner with something of his own device.

All stories have to do primarily with protagonists. I’m seeing their world through their filter, so they have to make sense in and of that crazy world. I have a predilection for dark stories and especially for dark characters, which are difficult to make likeable. I’m particularly fond of the anti-hero, who does things in his own, selfish way and saves the world anyway. Think John Constantine. I think the defining factor for a successful anti-hero is cool. I have to admire him even while disagreeing with him.

However, if the protagonist isn’t an anti-hero, then I want him to be strong in his own right. Give me a protag who will fight, who knows his path through the rubble of a broken life, who has his own firm morality. Bottom line: I don’t have to like your protagonist, but I'd better respect him, and I’d better understand why he’s doing what he’s doing up until the last word.

Rules of Writing & Grammar

Verbs HAS to agree with their subjects.
Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
And don't start a sentence with a conjunction.
It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
Avoid cliches like the plague.
Also, always avoid annoying alliteration.
Be more or less specific.
Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.
Also too, never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
No sentence fragments.
Contractions aren't necessary and shouldn't be used.
Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
Do not be redundant; do not use more words than necessary; it's highly superfluous.
One should NEVER generalize.
Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
Don't use no double negatives.
Eschew obfuscation, and ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
One-word sentences? Eliminate.
Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
The passive voice is to be ignored.
Eliminate commas, that are, not necessary. Parenthetical words however should be enclosed in commas.
Never use a big word when a diminutive one would suffice.
Kill all exclamation points!!!
Use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.
Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forth earth shaking ideas.
Use the apostrophe in it's proper place and omit it when its not needed.
Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know."
If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times: Resist hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it correctly.
Puns are for children, not groan readers.
Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
Even IF a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
Who needs rhetorical questions?
Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
And finally...
Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.

(Someone sent this to me without attribution. If anyone knows who wrote it, I'd be happy to give credit where it is do . . . er . . . due).

21 October 2006

First paragraphs

In my last post, I tried to give a general picture of what the editors at Electric Spec were looking for, but I also promised something more specific. Today, I'd like to talk about first paragraphs. I've heard that some agents and editors often reject a piece after reading only the first paragraph. That used to shock me, but no so much anymore. Why? Most of the time, I have a pretty good idea that I'm going to say "no" to a story after the first paragraph or so.

This is not because the first paragraph has to have a "hook" (although a hook can be a big help), but rather it is the author's first chance to exhibit his or her facility with language and story telling. If an author has an awkwardly worded sentence in the first paragraph, then, chances are, I'll find more and more as I go along. Similarly, if I'm lost about the basics of the story after the first paragraph (i.e. who is the protagonist, where is the action taking place, what is the tone of the piece), I'm likely to become even more lost by page 12 (if I make it that far).

If our blog readers would like, I think I and my fellow editors would be willing to look at the first paragraph of a story from a brave volunteer and tell you and the rest of the blogosphere our reactions. Since our blog is pretty new, we might have to wait until we have more readers that know about this opportunity, but, if you're lurking out there and would like to give it a try, let me know.

20 October 2006

Free critiques

First paragraphs are important!
The reason I mentioned online critique groups is critique is an essential part of writing a good story, IMHO. As editors, we would love to do back and forth interactions with authors and help them polish their stories. Unfortunately, time constraints just don't allow this. There are actually a lot of critique options out there in cyberland, some even free. For example, Critters Workshop is a well-known and well-respected on-line workshop/critique group for serious writers of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. I'd love to hear about experiences with Critters Workshop if anyone out there has any. :)
Writing World has a bunch of good articles and links related to critiquing. Again, comments welcome.
There's also Crapometer, a famous blog critique site.
I think at least one of the other editors has tried this. Comments anyone? :)

19 October 2006

Clarion rocks!

Nice post, Dave!
Since you mentioned it, I just wanted to add that the Clarion Workshops are awesome
opportunities for speculative fiction writers. (Although I personally have never been
lucky enough to participate.)
Oh my God! I just saw they now have a Virtual Clarion Workshop!
I might have to sign up! It does look a bit pricey however ($25 for a critique of 7500 word or
less story). If anyone out there has tried it, I'd love to hear about it.
Since I brought up the topic of online workshops, I have to say I took the Online Writers Workshop in Science Fiction taught by James Gunn, Director of the Center for the study of Science Fiction through the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame and it was a good (but tough!) experience.

What do we want?

Electric Spec wants well-written short stories in the speculative fiction genre. But what does “well-written” mean? I thought Kate Wilhelm described it well in her book Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop when she said:

A successful short story is a marvel of compression, nuisance, inference and suggestion. If the novel invites one to enter another world, the short story
invites one to peer through a peephole into the world, and yet the world has to
have the same reality as in a novel. It truly is the universe in a grain of
sand. This is done by compression and implication. Every single word has to help
the story, or it hurts it. The short story is the least forgiving form of
narrative fiction, with no room for redundancies, for backing up to explain what
was meant before, for auctorial intrusions that may be perfectly allowable in
the novel.

Does every author we end up publishing accomplish this? No, but they’re much closer than the ones we reject. We also try to get them closer to this standard through the editing process. There have been a number of times where I’ve cut words from stories where extra words “hurt” the story. I realize this guidance is still pretty general. In later posts, I'll try to be more specific, and maybe my co-editors will want to chime in as well.

Why didn't you pick MY story?

All of the editors at e-spec are also writers and we've suffered our share of rejections. It would be really great if the rejection notices we got from editors identified why our stories were rejected, but it rarely happens. However, being on the other side of the table, its easier to see why, as authors, we don't get the personal attention we'd like. Even being a relatively small magazine, we get a lot of submissions. Unlike some other magazines that are out there, we're pretty good about reading your whole story--not just your bio and the first few paragraphs. So, it takes time just to read and reply to submission. If we included a critique with each one, we'd fall hopelessly behind. We strive for a quick turn-around time.

So, while, in most instances, we can't tell you why we rejected your particular story, we can share common reasons for rejection. Here are a few of the major reasons, and maybe some of my co-editors will want to add to the list:

1) We've seen it before. We get quite a few submissions from people who do not seem to be familiar with the genre they are writing in. So, the plots of many of the stories we get don't hold our interest because we've seen the same or similar terminate before. Sometimes, we get stories that are hard to put in the rejection pile because they are really well-written, but they're just not unique enough to make the cut.

2) We saw it coming. Most of us are not opposed to an "O'Henry" twist at the end of a story. That being said, it is very hard to pull one of these off. Many of the stories with twist endings have twists that have been done before (see #1 above) or the whole story seems like a set-up for the twist ending. Even if the ending is really good, the rest of the story better be engaging, too, or it probably will not make the cut.

3) We didn't see it coming, but we should have. We get a number of stories are good up until that last line. These are stories where the ending is just not satisfying. This is not to say that every ending needs to be a twist (see #2), tied up in a neat little bow, or happy. However, we don't want to feel like we've been left hanging, the plot has not been resolved to a reasonable degree, or we don't know why we just read the story.

4) Poor writing. This one is a bit tricky to talk about because it is hard to define. We're not talking about grammar and spelling (which is important, but not usually the problem). Instead, we're talking about the tools writers use to make a story engaging. Even with a great plot idea, you need to be able to set it out in a way that pulls the reader in. Common traits that could go in the "poor writing" category include: Too much detail not important to the story, too little detail about the characters or setting, too much narrative (i.e. telling rather than showing), writing that is vague or confusing, too many adverbs, too many exclamation points, unrealistic dialogue, not enough dialogue, poor character descriptions, too much backstory, and flat or trope characters.

Given all this, we'll probably need to post something about what we do like in a story. That will be upcoming.