29 May 2009

Next Issue Update

I just finished reading our Hold File for the next issue. Whew! Some good stories in there.

Why did they make the cut?

1. Creativity. We're willing to overlook some mechanics issues and fixable stuff in lieu of unadulterated creativity.

2. Touch. They spoke to us, touched something inside one of us, at least. That's a hit or miss thing, sorry.

3. Urban Fantasy. Lots and lots of urban fantasy. I don't know if you were that geek in HS who wished magic lurked around corners. I certainly was. UF sells for this reason: angels and demons, disappearing storefronts, a sort of deus ex machina why that answers scary questions, laughing at our own foibles and fantasies. All of it and more. The world is a big scary place. We like it scarier.

4. Writing. Just some brilliant, stimulating prose in there. A turn of phrase can't carry a bad story, but it sure can make an above-average one shine.

5. Darkness. This was a dark lot, not so much horror, but some bad stuff goes down. Watching how interesting characters deal with it intrigues us.

6. Details. They make us walk next to the protag in their world.

Our production meeting is on Sunday. It's one of my favorite parts of this job. Then the craziness starts as we contact authors, handle the necessary contractual obligations, polish those stories until you can see your reflection in them, and gather other odds and ends. I'll be interviewing Stuart Neville, who debuted in this magazine a couple of years ago and designed our website, about writing and his new novel THE TWELVE.

26 May 2009

Writing is Like Acting

In high school and college, I took lots of acting classes and performed on stage. You wouldn't think that would have much to do with writing fiction, but writers can learn from actors. How, you may ask?

1. Actors (at least those who use the "method" technique) learn to "become" the character they play on stage. Good writers "become" their protagonist when they are writing. They put themselves in the head of their characters so that everything they write feels authentic and natural.

2. Actors must learn to stretch their personal boundaries. They cannot let their inhibitions or the judgment of others stand in the way of their art. Writers need to do the same thing. They need to write what comes to them regardless of what others may think. Every time they put pen to paper, they need to think about how they can take what they are doing even father and go even deeper.

3. Actors must pour their soul into their work. Every night, no matter how many times they've performed the same part, actors must play it with the same freshness and energy they had on opening night. Fiction writers need to do the same when they pick up their pen. If writing becomes just another task or chore, it loses something important.

25 May 2009

Writing on Reading: The Last Hot Time

Lately, I've been on a quest for urban fantasy that does not involve vampires, werewolves, or zombies. One book that fit the bill is The Last Hot Time by John M. Ford. The novel has a lot going for it: an original world, tight writing, and good imagery. Like all fantasies, it forces the reader to walk the line between mysteries of the world that are never explained and those that are explained to the reader as the book goes on. The Last Hot Time has too much of the former and not nearly enough of the latter. The writing and the promise of some answers kept me reading until the end (it is a very short book), but the promise wasn't kept. I was left with a only a vague understanding of how the world was supposed to work and exactly what happened in the story. I was further frustrated with the protagonist's refusal to share his thoughts with the reader. For example, the protagonist fears something bad inside himself but consistently refuses to reveal what it is. The book is an interesting exercise, but ultimately not satisfying.

22 May 2009

why to write short stories #5

After a while of writing short stories and submitting them, you realize rejection doesn't sting so much. Your skin is thickening up. By now you've got an idea of where to send it next, especially if you're sending out more than one story, or better, keeping a "stable of stories" in circulation. Then you have to figure out where you've got stuff already. You might even get into my current situation, in which my stable has been seriously depleted because of sales and needs to be filled. This is a good problem, by the way. It means your career is in lift-off mode and you need more product!

Crap, time to get organized. Now you're in spreadsheet territory, folks, and nothing salves rejection like MS Excel.

What else does that spreadsheet mean? It means you've started to look at selling your writing as a business. When you're writing the story, it's your pweshus awt. When you try to sell the story, it becomes a commodity in a flooded market. You might as well get used to it, especially if you want to sell novels.

Plus, if you're in the habit of marketing a lot of short stories, then what is it to add a novel or two into the mix? They become almost like any other story rejection. I say almost because novels are huge investments, obviously. But the more rejection you get, the easier it is to take. Log it and send it back out. It's easier to deal with your misses if you have hope the next one will be a hit.

But I wanna be a novelist. Okay. Let's say you've got some short story sales under your belt. Meanwhile, you've been polishing that novel, too. (Don't say can't. I know a ton of writers who write more with way less time than you or me.) You still have to write the pitch (a skill also honed through writing concise short stories.) But now at the end of your query letter, you don't go with the lam-o "um, this is my first novel." You say: My short fiction has appeared in print and online venues like Electric Spec, Thuglit, and Town Drunk. You don't even have to list all of them. And it doesn't really matter if they've heard of all of them or not. Chances are they've heard of one, at least. And you've just jumped ahead of the pack because you're no longer a "new writer". You're a writer with credits, a writer who goes the distance to market yourself and your work, one with a proven record of sales, one who's honed your craft into a marketable state, and one who can probably take editorial instruction.

These are the queries that get passed around agent offices and lunches. (Hey Jim, my list is full, but she looks like an emerging writer with some decent credits and her book sounds pretty cool.) These author names get dropped at conventions. I know--I've heard them dropped in the SFWA suite at last WorldCon. And, when you meet the big, bad agent at the conference bar, they might have even seen your work, or at least know the place you published it.

Look. You won't be somebody overnight. But you'll be more of a somebody quicker if you write short stories.

21 May 2009

why to write short stories #4

How many of us have submitted a novel we've worked a year on? Two years? My, that's a lot of hands. Ten years? Wow, kudos for perseverance.

Those rejections suck, don't they? They suck the wind out of your sails and the steam out of your engine. How many of you climbed right back on the horse the day after getting a rejection on a partial or full request? My money's on no one.

You'll spend, say, one-three weeks drafting a short story. Then roll it through your critique group, take another week to fix it up, and start submitting. (If in three weeks you can't come up with a climax and resolution, throw the damn thing out and start over.)

Got a rejection? Well, of course you did, it's friggin' Science Fiction and Fantasy, for crying in a bucket. They've got back-stock to last two years. (I'm kidding here. I know they keep stock on hand, but I don't know how much. Electric Spec has yet to keep back-stock--we tend to not operate that way.) And then, cuz you're not very good yet, you rack up ten more rejections on the piece. Maybe twenty. Maybe fifty. (BTW, fifty rejections on one story means you're going to SUCCEED as a writer and don't let anybody tell you different.)

You keep writing, say, a story a week. Which, incidentally, is a very good goal. And somewhere on the way to the bank, things happen.

First, you get a personal rejection or two. I liked this but such and such didn't work for me. PAY ATTENTION TO THOSE. Editors see dozens, maybe hundreds of short stories a year. For instance, in the past week I read40 stories. I have a tiny slush compared to some magazines and I haven't been putting much time in, either. Some nights I burn through twenty stories in one reading session. I rarely do personal rejections. But if you're lucky enough to get one, here are some common catchphrases and what they might mean.

Didn't hold my interest. The simplest solution to this is to cut words. But you might back up and see if something else isn't compelling, especially early on—character, plot, premise?

Such-and-such tripped me up. The editor could not suspend belief for the duration of your story and they're telling you the exact point where they couldn't. This is valuable.

Couldn't buy the premise. I'm currently trying to sell a story with a premise that a lot of people don't believe. I know it's going to be a tough sell. I've racked up a few personal rejections on it. They love the story; they don't believe the premise. I researched it, though; I know what I'm talking about. That's my point—to present an alternative view of a mistaken social premise. But unless that is your point, and you know you're right beyond a shadow of a doubt, then take a close look at your premise.

Didn't hook me. Your story lags at the start. Is your story problem, the propelling incident, on the first page? Cuz that's a real good place for it. Incidentally, it's also a really good thing to climax your story somewhere close to the last page, too. As I said last week, there's little room for epilogues in short stories.

So, take a look at these rejections as they come in, but don't let them stop your road show. Fix it up and send it back out! I mean, this is your writing career at stake! You do want to be a selling writer, don't you? Thought so! Which is why we're broaching career building tomorrow.

20 May 2009

why to write short stories #3

A note to our E-Spec readers. Some might wonder why I digress into talking about other markets here. Firstly, it's syndicated from my personal blog. But more importantly, the better all short story markets do, the better Electric Spec does. A strong market works to all our benefits--writers and publishers alike. Thanks for reading. --Betsy

Like I said yesterday, there is no shortage of markets for short stories. New internet for-the-luv markets open almost daily. Paying markets are hanging in there and reinstating pretty often. I won't lie and say you'll get rich selling short stories. (Though some erotica authors do all right.) Mostly, short stories build your resume and get your name out there. It's called paying your dues. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Submitting to an online market takes nearly no time at all. There's no lengthy query letter to draft, no sales pitch. It's basically here's my story, "such and such", it weighs in at (rounded to the nearest hundredth) words. Thanks for you time and Bob's yer uncle. List credits if you got 'em, skip that whole bit if you don't. Seriously, editors don't care. Let me repeat that. Short story editors don't care how many credits you have. It's all about the story and nowhere in our industry is that more true than in the short story markets, especially with us indy types. (addendum: some markets focus more on writers with a name because those names listed on the cover sells issues. But nearly EVERY market buys first sales.)

So, no pressure on the letter. That one thing makes it super easy to send your story right back out there, too.

Most turn-around times on submissions are decent--weeks rather than months, and I'm convinced you'll get a fair read. And there's several places online to find markets. (As I said before, I like Ralans.com.)

But really the best thing about submitting to short story markets is that with less time invested in the original product and the marketing of it, rejections don't sting as much as a novel rejection does. It thickens your skin. There's also other benefits, like it being more likely that you'll get the coveted personal rejection. That's what we'll get into tomorrow. :)

19 May 2009

why to write short stories #2

For pure writing training, nothing, I mean nothing, hones skills like writing short stories. Write one. Write fifty. They're damn hard to write. But you can take characters and plot through a complete arc in a matter of hours, rather than the weeks, months, or years it takes to complete a novel. The end of a short story is nearly always in sight. You'll see ideas through and get practice nailing your themes and concepts to the page. You'll learn about the shape of storytelling in a manageable form.

I've tried to think of a generous, kind way to say this, but the biggest issue young novelists face is knowing when to shut the hell up. Writing short stories teaches economy of words. In this climate of e-presses, of Twitter and flash- and micro-fiction, of stylistic showing over telling, of parsing out POV in sound bites, this is a valuable skill to have. We all aren't gonna be George RR Martin--even the masters among us. Most novelists can't hold their readers' interests for that long.

More importantly, does what you have to say deserve 120K words worth of importance? Take a step back and look at it. What you have to say as a writer is more difficult to develop than learning how to say it. I think sometimes writers start backwards. They focus too much on theme rather than craft, and end up leaving theme dead from poor writing. Think of craft as a way to illuminate theme. Writing short stories forces focus and narrowing of your thought processes. It gets you to practice theme in a safe environment, allowing you to build up to those difficult issues, those Hugo-winning premises that sell books and lock down careers. It's also a great place to test drive ideas without putting out a lot of hours in, because, frankly, you can get your ideas to market a hell of a lot faster in the short form than going over the transom with a novel.

But where to send the damn thing when it's done? Tomorrow, grasshopper, we're going to talk about submissions.

17 May 2009

why to write short stories #1

A note on this series: I'm syndicating this from my personal blog. Over here, I realize I'm preaching the the choir, but there may be benefits from writing short stories that you've not considered before. Hopefully I can be of help and inspiration. This is a 5-part series that will run all week long concurrently on both blogs. --Betsy

This will be a five part post because I started writing out all the reasons why I think writing short stories is good for writers, and it got huge.

The short form teaches you to write. I'll get into this more in another post, but for now: creative writing and masters programs all around the world focus exclusively on the short story. They can't all be wrong. Many weeks-long workshops hone short story writing skills, too... what is it you all think they do at Clarion anyway?

Many, many authors, I'm talking about the people whose names you know, and other people know, because they're on best seller lists, your Gaimans and your Scalzis and your Vaughns--and who's that guy?-- oh yeah, Stephen King, started out with the lowly short form. Speculative fiction in particular has a tradition of building careers through short story credits. I also have a good friend, a thriller writer, whose agent discovered him via a short story in an online magazine that pays its writers with a t-shirt. So even the little markets (like Electric Spec!) can be worthwhile.

So it's not only speculative fiction and it's not only SFWA-recognized markets that build careers. Any writer who says the markets have shrunk, who claims there is no place for short fiction, is not paying attention. Just go to Ralan.com and you'll find a dozen places to send any given short story. Literary markets are hanging in there. Even erotica and romance are selling tons of short fiction online.

And it pays. It may not pay a lot, but since when did we get into writing fiction to get rich? I don't know about you, but I write because I have something to say. So tomorrow, we'll focus on exploring what you have to say and learning how to say it, via the short form.

14 May 2009


I'm trying to get through my subs as quickly as possible. If there's been a delay, it's probably my fault, as my partners read their stories quicker than I do.

If there's no show-stopper on the front page -- major word misuse or grammar issues and I'm still interested -- I'll read on another page or so. Often this happens without my even realizing it. The voice or the world or the character just carries me along...until I've read a few more pages, and, like as not, I realize I have no idea what this story is about. Got a character. Got a cool setting. Got no idea what the story problem is.

Or, and this is worse, I've already figured out the story problem (sometimes without the character acknowledging there's a problem) and how it's going to climax.

If this is the case, I'll check the last page or so to find out what happens. Mostly it climaxes how I think it will. Sometimes though, and again, this is worser, the last page is a sort of epilogue rather than quick resolution. I have to scroll up to see if there even is a climax. It always makes me grimace. There's not really much room for epilogues in short stories. If I'm reading a story and already thinking of cutting entire scenes, it doesn't bode well.

And here's why. We're an online magazine. A distraction from your story is a click away. Someone emails and your reader flits away, maybe never to return. Unfortunately, the writer who includes a lengthy epilogue in a short story often is the writer who hasn't learned what's important (and what's not!) to the body of the story.

Every scene must compel the reader and reinforce the main problem.

I'm reminded of a recent episode of the Tudors. There's a little boy who is in line for the throne and has the unfortunate bloodline also relating him to an errant bishop whom the king wants to punish. Two birds, you know. The king throws him in the Tower.

Lots of things happen in the episode that have nothing to do with the little boy, but we get periodic reminders (the king's son appears; the boy's father loses his head; a discussion between the king and his friend, both of whom have lost infant sons), so in the back of your mind, though you're hip to see who Lord Such-and-Such is going to sleep with next, you're wondering, pleading, you're mad to know...What about the little boy? Could the king be that cruel?

You don't find out until the last scene.

Suffice it to say, there was no epilogue in that episode.

13 May 2009

Writing on Reading: Thirteen Reasons Why

I recently read the YA novel Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. It's my understanding the author has been trying to get published for twelve (!) years. Kudos to Mr. Asher for sticking with it! This is not a speculative fiction book so you might be wondering why I read it. My critique group recently had had a discussion about dead narrators and I'd heard this was an example. And it is. There are two pov characters: Clay and his dead crush Hannah. The author handles the dead pov character's narrative in a very interesting way.

The official synopsis is: Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a mysterious box with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside he discovers several cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker--his classmate and crush--who committed suicide two weeks earlier. On tape, Hannah explains that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he'll find out how he made the list.

This book was well-written and very powerful. The author does a great job capturing teen angst and insecurities. I was initially concerned the author was blatantly trying to emotionally manipulate his YA readers, and ultimately $$profit$$ from their angst. However, the final message is one of hope and empowerment so I guess manipulation isn't necessarily a bad thing.

In fact, while this is a YA book about suicide and two rapes and a death in a traffic accident, the author does have the bad stuff happen "off screen". Phew! More importantly, the author is encouraging students to talk about their thoughts in book discussion groups with counselors, etc. Kudos again, Mr. Asher.

We should all write so powerfully.

12 May 2009

Submission Deadline: May 15

Just a friendly reminder...The submission deadline for our next Electric Spec issue is this Friday May 15, midnight U.S. M.D.T. Get those stories in folks!

11 May 2009


Has anyone tried his or her hand at microfiction? The idea is to create a story in 140 characters or less, which amounts to about two or three sentences. A number of new magazines are supporting this format, including Tweet the Meat (horror) and Thaumatrope (spec fic).  I sent off a few microfiction subs over the weekend, so we'll see how that goes. Kind of a fun experiment.

08 May 2009

HugFest Over

Go read this and then come on back for my thoughts.

1. Fair Consideration.

I guess it's what you consider fair consideration. If you think that means every story gets read to the end, then no. I give it a page or two, and like Jeremiah, I skip to the last page to see if it answers the questions raised on the first. No questions raised? I hit the big red button.

2. Rejecting good work.

That one's easy. I reject cool stories all the time. I've read brilliant literary stuff in my slush with slight speculative elements. But unless the story revolves around speculative ideas, then it's a reject for Electric Spec. Let me say that again cuz it's important: we want stories that revolve around speculative ideas.

And really, when it gets down to it, we have to reject 20+ good stories from our hold file every issue.

3. Fostering new writers.

I think we do this to some extent, for instance, our first page game. I also participate on Critters.org. A lot of the talks I get are aimed at newer writers. And, if I know you via the web, a professional organization, or the bar at a conference, I might give you a personal rejection and suggestions for improvement. This is a personal choice, though, and my fellow editors tend to err on the side of NOT giving help because every editor on the planet has gotten back nasty replies to their helpful suggestions.

4. Editors are people, too...

In public, I try to act like rose petals fall from the sky and unicorns are hopping over rainbows in the distance, but I'm jaded. When I sit down to my slush, I go in knowing I'm going to reject 15-40 stories at a time. And I'm not one of those who forgets there's a person behind every story. It's a bummer, dude. And I know as the years have gone by, I've gotten harsher and less patient with my slush. Yup. It's a bummer, dude.

5. Editors are failed writers.

We're all published here, have novels under our belts, and have gone through submission processes countless times. Sometimes it's paid off, sometimes it hasn't. Kind of like a lot of writers you might know. Why are we editors? I can only speak for myself. I got into this gig to make me a better writer. And it's worked. Now I do it because, like writing, I can't stand not doing it.

As for the "well-known truth":

Free beer just tastes better.

06 May 2009

Continuing our recent hug-fest...

Agent Nathan Bransford (a darn nice guy, btw) commented on the danger of writers committing themselves so fully to their art that "WRITER" becomes the watchword of who they are.

Point taken. But (you knew there was going to be one), as I responded to him in part:

Creatives own a sensibility that doesn't apply to other people. It's just different, and it doesn't matter whether you're in music or computer programming or graphic arts or writing. I'm a mom, wife, friend, writer, etc. But if you want to get at the essence of what I AM, the best word is "artist."

I used to be an interior designer. Even now, I suffer from withdrawal when I could not build rooms. I'm constantly tablescaping and restyling walls of pictures (mostly when I can't think what to write next). It's the same when I'm not able to write stories. Ask my husband. If I go a few days without writing I get crabby with a capital K. My husband knows this to be true, but I don't know that he could articulate why it is true. He doesn't own the same sensibility, the same drive to create, to share who he is via media like words and paint and rooms.

A bookkeeper may excel (no pun intended) at what s/he does, but s/he probably does not get irritable when they don't get to keep books for awhile. They might not like the work piling up, but I doubt they feel much of a physical need to put numbers in boxes. Those numbers in boxes do not tap into the essence of who they are. S/he doesn't pour out the Self into their spreadsheets. *

Artists--or my preferred term: creatives--tend to do just that. Like Dave said, every page, every painting, every room, every computer program (yeah, you heard me) has a part of its creator's soul locked in it. But rather than losing pieces of ourselves, that's how Creatives rebuild ourselves, by building things outside the self. To me, it's almost as if there's a finite amount of space inside me, and the untold stories start to crowd me out. I actually feel a bit dead inside when I go a certain amount of time without creative expression. I highly doubt I'm the only one around here who feels that way.

I can say that here. You probably get it. But most people are never going to understand that artists are not whole without the act of creating. They don't understand the compulsion, the drive. Let that go and always accept it about yourself. Shoot, embrace that about yourself. We certainly do.

* this is not to downplay or degrade bookkeepers in any way.

05 May 2009

Writing on Reading: The Thousandfold Thought

R. Scott Bakker's The Thousandfold Thought is the third and "final" book in the Prince of Nothing series, which begins with The Darkness that Comes Before. As I indicated in my review of The Darkness . . . Bakker created an original and interesting world for this series. However, The Thousandfold Thought makes we wonder if the world is too complex or if, perhaps, I'm not bright enough to grasp it on first reading. One clue about the complexity of the book is that the glossary at the end is almost 100 pages long! Forgive me for not wanting to remember or look up all that information simply to follow the story.

For me, The Thousandfold Thought was disappointing. I became so lost about who was doing what that the motives of the various characters--especially the main character--became unclear. Also, my expectations about what the end of the series would be like were not met. The "payoff" at the end of the 1,500 page series was not big enough. Apparently, I need to read the next series to get the payoff I thought I'd get in this one. The first book in the new series just came out. Maybe I'll get to it someday . . .

04 May 2009

You've got soul!

Is there a gap between who you are deep inside and the self you present to the world in your day- to-day routine? For most people, there is. We can't help it. So many things around us pull us toward the mundane. We're bombarded with messages about how important it is to make more money, have a better car, live in a bigger house, live the "good" life. It is very easy to get caught on that treadmill, focused on things we "have to" do that make the self we present to the world "better" while doing nothing for that deeper self.

These mundane messages can be even worse for writers--if we let them. The message from society is that writing is not a worthy endeavor unless you can prove you are successful in the mundane world: have you been published? lately? how much $ have you made? do people know who you are? do you have fans? have you pleased the critics?

Sometimes I have to remind myself that those are the wrong measurements. Sure, they'd be nice to achieve, but a better measure of success in writing (and in life, for that matter) is what you have done for your soul. Every time we put words to paper (or pixels), we writers are letting our deep inner self shine through. We are stepping off  treadmill of the mundane and refusing to listen to those negative messages that try to keep us running after that surface success.

Everyone who writes puts a little bit of their soul into it. Ironically, those who are most successful at letting their soul shine through in their writing tend to find commercial success as well. I think that's what Betsy was talking about in her earlier post about her "nasty little short story." She wasn't afraid to pour her true self into it, and she ended up getting rewarded on a personal and professional level.   

01 May 2009

Creative Thinking

You all, if you read this blog, if you submit to our ezine, if you are writing at all, you're engaging in your own creative process. Not only that, if you're reading this blog and submitting to the magazine, or just even reading the magazine, you're on the leading edge of the creative process. (Incidentally, readers engage in that too. Reading is a very creative endeavor.)

Within the laser-focus of speculative short fiction, I still view e-zines as the leading edge vehicle to get our short stories into the hands of readers. Most of our readers are as comfortable with computers as they are with fireflies the size of dragons and spaceship galleys that split atoms and come up with coffee. Reading online has almost become a security blanket thing. To me, it means there's something always there, always new, always changing. Inertia unnerves me.

Story is among the world's oldest art forms. Some even say there are no new stories. But there are a lot of ways to think and be creative within in the confines of story. We rewrite history and old tales. We spin ancient themes and apply them to today. Some stories are based on bald-face curiosity, and some on tangled intrigue. But at it's best, speculative fiction has always led the herd down unknown paths.

Go here for all the forms of creative thought.

Point is, there's no wrong way to go about making a story.There is no right way to come up with an idea. Not only that, there are no wrong ideas. Some have been used before, of course, which sometimes makes people think they're wrong. But, referring back to my last post, if you infuse your work with you and your own worldview, it'll be new and creative. Easier said than done. But all you have to do is take a look at our slush to realize it's so worth it.

Keep 'em coming!