advice


by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah AkhtarLong ago, in a universe far, far away, I was just a hapless high school girl hoping to survive ’til graduation. If we had to read it in English class, I hated it.

Lucky for me, my best friend’s mother was a librarian, and I liked her, so reading recommendations from that household were nontoxic to me. I did learn to love some of the Brontës before I got out of school.

But I couldn’t stand Dickens. Even then, I had a strong allergic reaction to the sentence containing 350 words when it only needed twenty. Later, it all became clear. If you’re paid by the word, economy ain’t your mantra.

Many, many years later, someone gave me a partial set of those Great Books for the masses that ate up a lot of trees in the first half of the twentieth century. And desperate for something to read one grim afternoon, I finally picked up Dickens’ A Child’s History of England. It seemed to be the least awful choice.

I loved it.

With the simplicity of a father explaining universal concepts to his children while tucking them into bed, Dickens made us understand the extraordinary gift of the English to the world—the concept of Common Law, to which even the monarch was subject. The courage of people who had little but that hunger for justice and fairness, struggling against the powerful who had every imaginable weapon to use against them—this was one of the most thrilling stories I’d ever read.

I still hate Great Expectations. But Dickens—a little less so. And I wonder how he’d have written those novels if financial considerations hadn’t so influenced his prose.

You can find plenty of naked potentates shivering their way through the art and literature universe. And plenty of mockery for the person who says “I don’t know nuthin’ about art, I just know what I like.”

Well, I don’t know nuthin’ about music, and I’m as close to being innumerate as anyone can be who still manages to balance her checkbook. But I don’t need an understanding of complex mathematical structure to be able to love Bach. His genius was to compose music, so sophisticated in form that it seems like an instruction manual for the creation of the universe, yet expresses universal human emotion. Something, as they say, for everyone.

Do scholarly explanations of his achievement enhance my enjoyment of Bach? Not really. I can’t understand them. I already feel how much that music contains.

And I know why I don’t like Chopin. Pathetique indeed!

I’m neither a barbarian nor a cognoscenta. I just trust my own taste.

Do I enjoy learning more about an interesting text? Yes, and I’ll read both the afterward and the foreward, afterwards.

It’s helpful to have a guide to a written work that may contain possibly-obscure wordplay and cultural references; whose plot and character motivations require an understanding of cultures or historical events or timeframes we may be unfamiliar with; we might miss the hilarity if we don’t understand an in-joke, or not comprehend the insult if we don’t realize the import of passing a piece of bread with one hand, or the other.

But sometimes an academic’s analysis seems intended to kick all the joy right out of the reader’s hand.

My copy of Pride and Prejudice is so fragile now that I really shouldn’t touch any page I don’t actually need to read. But one evening, drunk with recklessness, I pushed past “The End.”

Talk about a wrong turn!

You’d never have believed, after plowing through that learned afterward, that Jane Austen had a lively sense of humor, a fine eye for the ridiculous, and that the book was, in fact, a hilarious skewering of class pretensions, the devaluing of women as individuals and the idiocies of British inheritance law.

Thank God that these days the common man has the internet. In those dark lonely hours when you doubt your own judgment, you can find comfort and validation as you discover that even some sophisticates didn’t like Hemingway or thought Gertrude Stein was full of sawdust. That there are, in fact, varied, sometimes contradictory opinions about every work of literature, and you needn’t feel ashamed of your own.

Tastes are planted, nurtured and shaped; they’re informed by our life experiences; what makes us cry at fifteen might make us laugh at fifty. That boring paperback you tossed away at twenty might really seem to contain the secret of the universe when you read it as a grandparent.

But all of us have strong instincts that can smell out the fraudulent beneath the fashionable, or truthfulness wrapped in an unspectacular package.

Don’t be afraid to decide for yourself what’s “good.”

____________

Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable—the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared onEvery Day Fiction, Perihelion SF Magazine, 365tomorrows and Flash Fiction Online.)

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar Sarah Akhtar

Can sophisticated palates coexist with a hankering after Cheez Whiz™ on white? Mais oui, dude.

Popular fiction can be great—even superb, like a freshly-made soup from a good deli department—and be worth more of your money and your time than anything the cognoscenti might be touting.

I’ll take John Le Carré, Elmore Leonard or Eric Ambler over most literary prize-winning authors any day. I like something I can get my teeth into and savor, without vaporously yearning characters spouting five hundred pages of angst. I admire authors who can make every word of spare lean prose do the heavy lifting where someone else might inflict a fifty-sentence paragraph on me.

And I’m not ashamed of enjoying a well-worn Agatha Christie paperback either.

There’s some stuff, though, that I can’t choke down even if I’m climbing the walls for something—anything! to read. There’s Cheez Whiz™, and then there’s Cheetos™, and even with a rumbling stomach I find that there is a junk food too far.

A lucky few writers have become very, very rich from truly awful books. And with tears in my eyes and a ragged throat I cry “more power to them,” even if I find it more pleasurable to read the text on an orange juice carton than a chapter in any of their works.

What does all of this mean?

Before you can write bad stuff for big profit, you need to learn how to write well.

You need to know the difference between a commercial decision and an inability to produce good prose.

Publishers are always looking for their new blockbuster flagship author. There’s plenty of competition. They don’t have time to deal with amateurs who think it’s got to be easy to do a knock-off of Mary Higgins Clark. They want professionals who can grasp not just that something sells, but why. Who can write to an editor’s request or a division’s need.

Fellow readers often respond to my critiques on comments threads as though I’m Attila the Hun’s cranky sister. Why must I be so picky? Yeah, someone’ll say, the story had a few holes in it but heck, I gave it five stars anyway!

That’s a fine way of encouraging a young, hopeful writer not to get any better.

Maybe this is your first publication, or your third, and your critique circle and your MFA instructor have all been incredibly encouraging, and finally you can call yourself an author. And now all these readers out there are patting you on the head. Except for the mean one who’s managed to find an absurdity or some slightly overheated prose, and call you on them.

People read stories for a lot of reasons, all of them equally valid. Some just want a quick entertainment that hits the mood of the moment. Some hope for something memorable and moving. Others are trying to refine their own craft, and the story and the reactions to it are both valuable.

For real writing success, you need to know what’s good, what’s bad, and why, and then reach for the audience that suits you best.

____________

Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable—the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.)

 

by Cameron Filas

Cameron_Filas

Have you ever submitted something and then later forgot how long ago you did so? Where you actually submitted to? Whether or not you should have heard back after three weeks or three months? How many times you have previously submitted this piece?

The idea that we are smart enough to keep track of all this in our heads is often prevalent at the beginning of our writing escapades. At some point however we forget the minute details of each item sent out or heard back from. It is for this reason that many authors track their submissions and why you should start if you don’t already. It’s mundane work, I know, but essential to staying on top of things.

There are as many ways to track your submissions as there are writers. Common methods include keeping files in manila folders, using notecards, various online tracking systems, and of course the generic yet eloquent spreadsheet.

I prefer spreadsheets for the ability to create my own tracking system that can be easily edited, sorted, color-coded, and added to without fuss. Notecards and other hard copy systems must be tediously hand written and filed and do not allow you to simply click to sort. This is not to say these tracking systems do not have value, only that they are slightly archaic in today’s technology-infused world and lack the ease that comes with electronic tracking.

More important than the type of tracking system used however, are the items being tracked for each manuscript or submission.

Some people are admittedly anal-retentive when it comes to this process. I know authors who create a different spreadsheet for each individual piece’s submission history, each publisher submitted to, or sometimes both. This amount of detail is certainly not necessary for keeping a simple organized log. At a minimum a tracking system should include the information necessary to identify the submission in question. Here are some examples of data that can be recorded:

  • Title
  • Word Count
  • No.# (the number of times you’ve submitted this piece)
  • Publication (submitted to)
  • Sim Sub? (are simultaneous submissions permitted?)
  • Date Submitted
  • Expected Response Date (if given by the publication)
  • Response Date
  • Response/Result (accepted, rejected, rewrite requested, etc.)
  • Wait Until (some venues don’t want you to submit again for a while)
  • Fee (to submit, if any)
  • Pay (if paid publication, amount earned)

Not all of these items may be of importance to you or what you hope to achieve with your writing. Regardless, tracking more information rather than less may prove to be of some benefit in the future. You may even begin to notice trends in your writing or submissions. Perhaps you discover using the data that you mainly write flash-fiction less than 1,000 words and submit to mostly horror venues. And maybe all of your horror submissions are getting rejected while every humor piece you’ve written was accepted within a week! This could be used to assess your own strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

Another great benefit of tracking your submissions is that you can easily monitor your writing goals. You know, those things you swear you’re going to do every New Year’s Eve? Do you want to submit at least three pieces each month? Should you always have five items minimum pending a decision? Do you want to submit a story of every genre at least once? With a system that you actually use (that’s key here) you’ll have no trouble tracking these things.

You’ll also be able to stay on top of your simultaneous submissions. There’s nothing worse than submitting a story, and then later discovering you had already submitted it somewhere else that doesn’t accept simultaneous submissions. Just as bad is forgetting to notify one publisher when someone else picks up your story.

And you know how you’ve always wanted an author website, or for someone to write your biography someday? Yeah, you’re going to be glad you used a tracking system then. Using your spreadsheet you could quickly find when and where all of your publications appeared.

Once you begin tracking your submissions, don’t become discouraged if you notice a trend of rejections. This is just part of the writing process! Many authors, even famous ones, experienced countless rejections before their masterpieces were finally understood for what they were. And I’m sure those famous authors were submission tracking masters, probably.

There are a plethora of articles on the internet which painstakingly examine what the best submission tracking systems are, the “must-have” items that should be recorded, and the various reasons all writers should track their work. The tips provided here are not meant to be the perfect solution but instead a gentle shove in the right direction. So go forth and track, my fellow writers!

*If you’re uneasy about actually sitting down and creating a spreadsheet from scratch, or too lazy, please feel free to download the example Microsoft Word Excel spreadsheet I created (Submission_Tracking_Workbook) based on the Writers Write method. This spreadsheet includes directions which explain how it has been formatted and what to input.

____________

Cameron Filas is an avid reader and novice author of short fiction and other various work. Though he has enjoyed writing from a very young age, he has only recently begun a serious pursuit of the craft. Cameron lives in Mesa, AZ, with his girlfriend, a dog, and a demon cat who he is pretty sure is plotting to kill him. You can visit his corner of the web at cameronfilas.wordpress.com.

 

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah AkhtarStill haunted by your high school English teacher? Elmore Leonard can help. Print out his Ten Rules for Good Writing and invoke as often as necessary.

I was already–uneasily–employing Nos. 3 (“Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.”) and 4 (“Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’ . . .”) in my own writing, and I was thrilled to have had my instincts validated by a master.

To be a competent writer you must understand the rules of grammar and apply them appropriately. No matter how brilliant you are, you’ll be a bit hampered in life if you can’t write a decent business letter or error-free resume.

But great, compelling writers use language to capture essential truths; to paint vivid pictures; to thrust us into worlds we’ve never known existed and make us believe in them; to get inside the heads of anything that can even remotely be regarded as sentient and make us feel what motivates them.

The writing of young children is often remarkably effective because it’s unconstrained by rules. When you don’t know you “can’t” do something, your creativity soars.

But those rules aren’t intended to beat all the life out of your expression. They’re just an armature from which you build outward.

Part of becoming a fine writer is learning when to ignore good advice and follow your instincts. It’s dreadfully frustrating, because there’s such a very fine line, sometimes, between awkward misuse of language and the stunning power of authentic feeling.

Just keep writing til you get it right.

____________

Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, 365tomorrows and Perihelion SF Magazine.

by Jeremy Szal

Jeremy Szal2

Obviously, not every story is suitable for podcasting. Some of the best tales ever penned may fall flat when translated over to the world of audio. In saying that, there are some things you can improve on, not just for a podcast, but for your writing overall. Here are five tips that should help you inch your way up and out of Dante’s nine circles of Hell, otherwise known as the slush pile.

Tip #1: Brevity

We’re talking short stories, so obviously you can’t afford to be lavish and extravagant, filling your paragraphs with endless descriptions of your character down to the shape of her skull. Don’t confuse this with length. I’ve seen flash fiction less condescended and more convoluted than some novelettes. It’s all about quick strikes to the yarbles, not slow, sluggish punches. Your short story can be touching the lengthy side, but it can still be moving at an incredible pace, not bogged down by weighty language and fluffy and mushy dialogue. Don’t try to squeeze a long story into a tiny one—you’ll just damage the material in the process. Instead, choose your words carefully. Give your work as much depth as you can without spilling overboard.

Tip #2: Don’t Play it Safe

As a writer, you’ll be bound to upset people with your fiction (I’ve received hate mail in the past). It’s inevitable. Writing is not an activity for people who value security. Worrying about what other people may think of the fiction you write (or what genre, for that matter) should not be your primary concern. In fact, it shouldn’t even come into the equation.

Don’t let political correctness censor or dampen your artistic integrity. At the same time, don’t go out of your way to upset or offend anyone, because you can sniff those stories out from the other side of the galaxy. But I do encourage authors to push the envelope and see what they can accomplish without fear of upsetting a blogger. Don’t be afraid to write from an alien perspective with a truly warped view of the human race. Don’t shy away from killing off or maiming your characters. Don’t restrain yourself from creating moral gravity or making your protagonist commit atrocities. I want to see more people take more risks and see what they can cook up. Don’t be afraid to shake up the recipe a bit and experiment. (Note I will not be held accountable if your kitchen goes up in flames.)

One only needs to look at the work of Mark Lawrence and his ground-breaking series The Broken Empire. Jorg, the first-person protagonist, is a complete and utter psychopath, depraved and sadistic. But this allows him to provide this world with a monumental amount of complexity and depth. It gives us stunning, darkly poetic prose that’s fresh, gritty and laugh-out-loud hilarious at times. The books pull no punches and don’t allow themselves to shy away from the raw brutality of life. That’s the fearless writing that I want to see. The journey may be difficult, but the reward is ever so bitter sweet. And better yet, it lingers in the throat for a very long time.

Tip #3: Solid Prose

This is just as important and perhaps is the most significant when it comes to podcasting fiction. You need spectacular yet recognizable language. Don’t try to re-invent the wheel. Traditional storytelling mechanics are always favored above semi-pretentious experimental approaches that your English teacher fawned over. Listeners are not interested in listening to long, lavish paragraphs of nothing, however beautiful they may be. And while we’re at it: a big no to phonetics. Anthony Burgess may have been able to do it in A Clockwork Orange, but it doesn’t mean that you can. You’ll tie the narrator’s tongue in a knot. Stick with the basics of good storytelling and compelling prose as opposed to trying to push the English language to new and unfortunate places. If you feel the need to do that, then I invite you to grow a mustache and march down to the nearest café with a rusty typewriter in hand, charging one coffee per poem.

Oh, and while we’re at it: no 2nd person. I mean this. Seriously. Just don’t.

Tip #4: Strong Character-driven Stories

This is a winner every time. Stories where the characters are the main driving force are compelling and reinvigorating, especially when it comes to science fiction. Fleshed out and captivating characters can make the most absurd of worlds seem real and ground the reader in the most bizarre of alien planets. It allows us to have a connection to this world we otherwise might not have had. It’s one of the reasons why the omnipresent perspective is so rarely seen in science fiction and fantasy. People want to be drawn into these worlds, and a well-written character is the conduit.

At the same time, make sure there’s a plot as well. If your character is a war veteran and a psychopath living in an overcrowded city ruled by self-righteous alien dictators, he can’t very well be plodding around his apartment, drinking herbal tea and staring out the window, contemplating philosophy and his life. No, he’d be out in the rain-drenched streets, looking for trouble. Except trouble finds him. Strong characters and a robust story go hand-in-hand. Take advantage of his. Let the character guide the reader through the world. Whether it’s in 1st person, 3rd, or even switching from multiple perspectives (I rarely recommend this, because in a short story, especially in a podcast, this can be very jarring and confusing. If you fairy dance the point of view like a ballet dancer on hot coals, then you’ll lose the narrator and the listener), seat us behind the character’s eyes and let the plot unfold.

Tip #5: A Good Podcast Narrator

Unfortunately, this one is out of your control for the most part. But a brilliant narrator can make all the difference in a story. It’s all about marrying the right person to the right narrative. Some narrators are better suited to doing gritty, visceral fiction from the perspective of a hardboiled war veteran who frequently doles out harsh curses. Others may find their place combining strong character voice and multi-layered dialogue. Some work best when reading beautiful prose and tight, evocative language. There are several things to take into consideration, and finding the best narrator for your story can be tough nut to crack. There’s no definite answer. I always read the story with a narrator style in mind, then try and match it up with the best suitor.

I cannot stress how important this is. The right podcaster can either bring a story to life in all its glory, or kill it off and leave it half buried in the mud.

Bonus Tip: No Polemical/message Fiction

In journalism, one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story. In fiction, one should never let a message get in the way of a good story. This might be obvious, but if you’re going to pen a story, the point of it should be to tell a story. Not provide a ham-fisted political argument that damns anyone and everyone except [insert random perspective here]. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t or can’t work with themes and topical subjects. 99.99979% of fiction does, but they interweave the fine threads of themes and issues into the story. It’s fine if a story has a message, especially if it doesn’t drag down the story along with it. But straight up, undiluted “messages” told in the form of a story? Nope.

Listeners want to be thrilled by your exquisite command of the English language, your deft ability to juggle character and plot, your meticulous crafting of alternative worlds and your down-to-earth dialogue and the believable characters who voice them. They don’t want to listen to a political/religious sermon as they drive to work or be told how evil a group of people are or have some “fact” hammered into them through explicit, preachy dialogue. If they wanted that, they’d pick up a newspaper or go to Tumblr. Podcasts aren’t the place to push an agenda. Again, this doesn’t mean don’t work with themes or controversial topics. By all means: do so! But no story’s existence should be to stuff an opinion down the throats’ of listeners.

____________

Jeremy Szal is the assistant editor for Hugo award winning science-fiction podcast StarShipSofa. He has worked with many best-selling, award-winning authors, such as Peter Watts, Robin Hobb, Ian Watson, Adrian Tchaikovsky and more, helping to bring their work to life in audio. He is also a writer, having sold more than twenty-five short stories and nonfiction publications to various magazines, anthologies and journals. He has also received an Honourable Mention from Writers of the Future, and his short story Heart of Steel, published at Every Day Fiction was nominated for the 2014 Parsec Award. Find him on Twitter @jeremyszal or at http://jeremyszal.wordpress.com/

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