25 January 2010

How To Get in Hold-for-Voting

Sorry the blog has been a bit quiet, but the editors have been hard at work on the upcoming February 2010 issue of Electric Spec. As usual, the stories that made it into our Hold-for-Voting file are very good and it is difficult to choose among them. I thought I'd give a bit of advice for authors who didn't make it into that file...

How To Get in Hold-for-Voting:
  • Do have a unique protagonist. Create a protagonist who has special power(s), has an unusual ethnic or biological heritage, or lives in an unusual time or place. Another way to accomplish this is to have a unique voice with a lot of personality.
  • Do include a fresh twist. The easiest way to do this is to combine elements of speculative fiction: fantasy plus science fiction plus horror or some combination thereof. Adding humor can make a trope fresh. Another way to do this is to combine two or more Earth mythologies or cultures to create something new. Of course, the best thing would be to write something we've never seen before (good luck!). A word of warning: men killing their wives or girlfriends is rarely fresh.
  • Do write specific. Writing specific is crucial for world-building. When you use a nouns, use a specific nouns. For example, "a beat-up blue Beetle" is much more interesting than "a car". (Who drives this? :) )
  • Do write beautiful prose. I assume you know your grammar and spelling rules. Often I find metaphors and similes differentiate good writing from great writing. Write beautiful similes and metaphors that are unique and specific to your world and characters. Be extra careful with character descriptions; a laundry list of hair color, eye color, height, etc. is rarely effective. Instead, show the reader the most significant aspects of your characters.
  • Do have a plot and character arc. Electric Spec is a genre market and we do want a plot arc and if possible, a character arc. Regarding plot, this means your protagonist must act, not react. It's fine if your protag is not successful. Regarding character, this means the reader must understand the protagonist's motivation and the protag should learn something in the course of his/her/its adventures.

Feel free to add further suggestions in the comments.
Good luck!

14 January 2010

Issue Deadline Tomorrow!

Hi gang,
Just a reminder that the submissions deadline for the February 2010 issue of Electric Spec is tomorrow, January 15, 2010, midnight MST.
Good luck!

13 January 2010

An Incomplete List of Reasons I Rejected Stories

I just read 46 stories in a row while clearing out my inbox. Life events (the start of snowboarding season, releasing a book) have kept me from my duties here. For those of you who are interested, the process took me about four hours of reading and emailing.

I don't mean this post to criticize the stories we get; you all continually make my job harder because I find myself reading deeper and deeper into a story until I realize it's not quite right for us. (Hence the four hours: I'm a fast reader.) But I do realize "not quite right" isn't all that helpful. So please consider this a learning opportunity.

The numbers won't add up because I found multiple issues with some stories, and others were fine, writing-wise, but either cliched or of no special interest to our publication. Sometimes that's just the reason, darn it. This is not to say those stories won't be special to some other editor out there!

Here goes:

Weak writing: multiple usages of past progressive in first graph, constant improper punctuation, weak verb choices, mixed tenses, misspellings like there for their, lacking clarity. I didn't count these, but I'd put general Weak Writing at about (10).

Starts with cliché: phone call (2), first line a variation on "it seemed like any other day" (3)

No cover letter. Instant rejection, we don't open files unaccompanied by a letter (3)

Telling over showing and/or summary over narrative (4)

Lacking plot or story problem (4)

Cool narrative and set-up, but lacks satisfying end and/or clarity (7)

Mostly dialogue with no action (2)

2nd person. I admit a strong bias against 2nd person for contrived melodrama (3)

Too leisurely of a start (5)

Too high a word count. 7000 is our FIRM limit and yes, we do check (3)

Couldn't identify with protagonists (2)

couldn't identify protagonist (1)

Extra notes:
quotes at start of story (6) - No problem with that; I just found it an interesting trend.

Words to the wise:
Consider using standard formatting. I had lots of improper formatting to actual typesetting with colors. Not always a deal-breaker, but typesetting is an editor's job. The last thing you want is for us to think first about all the things we have to undo in your story to ready it for publication. (9)

General failures in professionalism:
Three writers wrote me back to tell me their had been picked up by another magazine, even on rejections. Problem is, they hadn't notified us of that. (A fourth wrote me back to let me know that, too, but that was our error.) We take simultaneous submissions because we understand lead-times hinder writers' sales. But you hardly want me to remember that you wasted my time with a sold story when I read your next submission.

A withheld number of writers have since written back to basically thank me for their rejections. (At least I got no berating, which is really unprofessional!) Um, how to put this nicely? There's no need to reply to a rejection.

Also, we accept simultaneous subs (stories sent to other markets), but this does not mean we accept multiple subs from the same author. Look at it this way. Writers generally have a stable of stories (I'm currently circulating 7.) If all 46 writers in my inbox had sent us multiple submissions, my slush could easily be quadrupled or more, paralyzing our lead times.

We have three editors, but only one of us divides up the stories for reading, and we talk often. You might pull that trick on us for awhile, but not forever.

Okay, hope this helps. You have a couple of days before the deadline for the next issue, so get 'em in!

10 January 2010

A Snotty, Er, Friendly, Little Reminder from Gremlin

I escaped from the cage where the Electric Spec editors keep me and headed straight for the slush pile. There's nothing I enjoy more than seeing the hopes and dreams of aspiring authors dashed by rejection letters. In an effort to keep those rejections flowing, I thought I'd provide a list of "dos" for authors seeking to ensure their next story gets rejected. Here goes:

1) Provide a lengthy summary of the story in your cover letter. Editors always appreciate extra reading, and explaining the story helps stupid editors understand the story they are about to read.

2) Ignore the submission guidelines. Those pesky guidelines are created by the editors to help make the submission process run smoothly and efficiently. If you don't follow the guidelines, it can throw a wrench in the process that makes your story really stand out!

3) Make the first few paragraphs of your story the worst few. After all, its the editor's job to spot the diamond in the rough, and you don't want to make your diamond shine too brightly. Editors love a challenge.

4) Say, "This is the first story I've ever written" in the cover letter. Editors love to know you think the other stories in their magazine look like they were written by beginning writers.

5) In the cover letter, tell the editors the good things others have said about your story. Editors can't tell good stories from bad ones by themselves, so the opinions of unnamed others provides helpful guidance.

Just remember these simple guidelines, and you will be well on your way to papering your office with rejection slips.

Writing on Reading: Abandoned

Fellow Colorado author Blake Crouch has taken full advantage of the history and surroundings of his real-life home state to create one of the best thrillers I've read in a long time. Here's the hook:

On Christmas Day in 1893, every man, woman and child in a remote mining town will disappear, belongings forsaken, meals left to freeze in vacant cabins, and not a single bone will be found--not even the gold that was rumored to have been the pride of this town will be found either. One hundred and thirteen years later, two backcountry guides are hired by a leading history professor and his journalist daughter to lead them into the abandoned mining town so that they can learn what happened. This has been done once before but the people that went in did not come out. With them is a psychic, and a paranormal photographer--the town is rumored to be haunted. They've come to see a ghost town, but what they are about to discover is that twenty miles from civilization, with a blizzard bearing down, they are not alone, and the past is very much alive....

Intrigued? I thought so. Without being too much of a spoiler, I want to make it clear that this book would could not be classified as speculative fiction. Nonetheless, it very much held my interest from beginning to end, with strong writing and a fast-paced plot. The book is unique in that it takes place during two time periods, which I thought was a great twist on a sometimes tired thriller genre.

I confess I had not head of Mr. Crouch prior to reading this book. My wife happened to hear an interview with him on a local radio show, thought I would like the book, and gave it to me for Christmas. This goes to show that a little publicity goes a long way. Looking at his bio, it appears he's at the beginning of a an exciting writing career. I look forward to his next book, which is scheduled to come out this year.

07 January 2010

Writing on Reading: The Windup Girl

By now everyone's heard about The Windup Girl, by Paulo Bacigalupi. Time magazine picked it as the number nine book of 2009, stating "Bacigalupi is a worthy successor to William Gibson: this is cyberpunk without computers."
Bacigalupi has created "...a post-petroleum world where internal combustion and electricity are vanishingly rare and almost all energy comes from biology... As digital technology faded, biotech mutated out of control..."

There's no question Bacigalupi is an excellent world-builder. As I mentioned in the beginning of December, Bacigalupi has a rich, detailed paradigm which he developed writing short stories. In fact, the protagonist of his critically-acclaimed short story "Yellow Card Man" is one of the protagonists of The Windup Girl. This is particularly clever. Authors take note: You can create worlds and characters in short fiction and recycle them in novels.

There are five or six main characters in the novel (depending on if you want to count the city or not):

  • Anderson Lake, a "calorie man", seeking an elusive seedbank
  • Hock Seng, Lake's jack-of-all-trades, the "Yellow Card Man", who yearns for his former respect and affluence
  • Emiko, the "windup girl", a genetically-engineered japanese sex slave, who wants to escape and live in freedom with other "New People"
  • Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, a Captain of the Environment Ministry "white shirts", aka thugs
  • Kanya Chirathivat, a "white shirt" officer and a double-agent, seeking revenge for her family's demise
  • The City of Divine Beings, aka Bangkok, Thailand, in danger of being swallowed by the ocean, overrun with refuse, refugees and disease

While the exceptional world-building and unique characters may
engage--and even thrill--many genre readers, this novel is not for everyone.
As Phillip K. Dick said at the end of Paycheck And Other Classic Stories: There is one restriction in a novel not found in short stories: the requirement that the protagonist be liked enough or familiar enough to the reader so that, whatever the protagonist does, the readers would also do, under the same circumstances...or, in the case of escapist fiction, would like to do. As stated before, The Yellow Card man was born in a short story so I do not believe Bacigalupi was concerned with his characters' likability. Thus, readers who prefer sympathetic characters may not find the protagonists in The Windup Girl to their taste.

Furthermore, as I've quoted before, Robert Silverberg says: the basis of all the successful and lasting narrative of the past five thousand years [is]: A sympathetic and engaging character (or an unsympathetic one who is engaging nevertheless), faced with some immensely difficult problem that it is necessary for him to solve, makes a series of attempts to overcome that problem, frequently encountering challenging sub-problems and undergoing considerable hardship and anguish, and eventually, at the darkest moment of all, calls on some insight that was not accessible to him at the beginning of the story and either succeeds in his efforts or fails in a dramatically interesting and revelatory way, thereby arriving at new knowledge of some significant kind. I would not say The Windup Girl utilizes this type of plot. Thus, readers who prefer a traditional structure may not find this novel to their liking.

In the interests of full disclosure, while Nancy Kress says on her blog: "Paolo Bacigalupi's debut novel, The Windup Girl, is almost unbearably brutal.", for this reader, the rape scenes of Emiko were too brutal.

All this brings me to my point: The Windup Girl is not a traditional genre novel with conventional characters and plots. This is not the science fiction of Dick, Silverberg or Kress. I believe The Windup Girl goes beyond genre traditions and expectations; it is a new kind of novel.

It is a post-genre science fiction novel.

Kudos, Mr. Bacigalupi.

04 January 2010

Interview with Literary Agent Ethan Ellenberg

A couple of months ago the Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency contacted Electric Spec with an open call for submissions. They believe the newest generation of speculative fiction writers currently live and publish on the Internet. After four years of reading slush, we happen to agree.

We decided that bringing agents and writers together fit with our mission at Electric Spec, especially when it means recognition for the efforts of speculative fiction ezines by established industry specialists. We interviewed Mr. Ellenberg for Electric Spec. What follows is two questions from the interview; the rest will appear in our next issue.

Your agency approached us for networking regarding new writers. This is really exciting because we've long viewed Electric Spec and markets like us as a "feeder team" for the pro league of novelists. We think this is especially true in genres like speculative fiction and romance. But we do hear contrary opinions from others in the industry. What's your opinion regarding writers paying their dues and building a reputation with short story sales? How important are pro sales verses mid-rate sales?

I do believe that publishing in small markets, at whatever length, is a wise thing to do. It’s very hard for writers to find their voice or find their best stories and develop them, so anything that increases their craft and exposure is certainly valuable.

I don’t see a big difference between pro sales and mid-range sales. The important thing is to develop what would be that first novel that is sell-able.

Some newer writers tend to build an online presence not through fiction, but through social networking. Do you have any advice regarding these efforts?

I really don’t believe that social networking is that significant. Ultimately, it’s the quality of the writing and having a special project that will get you going. Writers do some marketing these days based on social networking, and downstream that might have some value though it shouldn’t be exaggerated. Authors have to concentrate on their writing, not their marketing skills.

You can check out the rest of the interview in the February issue of Electric Spec. In the meantime, any comments or questions are welcome.