advice


by Dr. Suzanne Conboy-Hill

Suzanne Conboy-Hill

Some while ago Walter Giersbach (Hook Your Readers) wrote this:

Advertising copywriters insist that a good poster capture the attention of a commuter dashing to catch the 8:05 train. That’s a tough chore—almost as tough as grabbing a reader in the first 30 words of your short story. The grabber is the narrative hook, an intriguing opener that makes the story impossible to put down.It better be good, because an e-zine RSS feed may give the subscriber just that 30-word teaser to invite a click-through.

And I wrote this:

Openers tread a fine line between unselfconscious intrigue and the dangling lure crafty old pikes are going to give a wide berth. It’s probably horses for courses, but I prefer an intro that doesn’t make me feel I’m being hooked.

Silly me, should have kept my mouth shut. I’ve been challenged to expand.

Luckily, after some thought I find I still agree with myself but I have had to take apart the rationale for that and also consider what it means for people who aren’t me because it turns out there’s quite a lot of those.

If we stay with the metaphor of lures and hooks, we know that there are different kinds for different fish—what catches a trout won’t (so I imagine) snag a pike. I think that extends to opening lines or excerpts too because this is not a one-way process. It’s interactive, and we need to find the right line for the right reader.

Many stories are published in a genre context, and so we already know what kind of content is coming. When I go to Clarkesworld, for instance, my head is geared to science fiction and fantasy, and so it’s ready to deploy my stock of SF/F references. But where there is mixed content or multiple feeds, this context is missing, which makes those openers or excerpts critical to engaging the attention of a receptive reader.

I wondered then about a catch-all formula and I recall a writer (whose name escapes me but may have been Steven King) saying that the opening paragraph should a) introduce the main character, b) contain an action, and c) deliver a piece of dialogue. A handy template, which I think has merit because it at least stops you from stuffing yards of exposition and scene-setting into it, and you can ‘season to taste,’ as it were.

My concern with templates though is first that they can so easily become rules, and second that attending to them risks drawing attention away from the purpose of the exercise. In this case, the purpose is initially to alert the right reader to the right material and once there to have them ‘read ready’ very quickly by establishing the contextual references—dystopia, humour, SF, literary, are they supposed to ‘get it’ or is ‘getting it’ not part of the contract? That sort of thing.

I think if we ignore targeting and fail to give potential readers what they need in order to be ‘read ready’ for our material, we run the risk of missing the right readers and disappointing the ones we pull in. For instance, anything beginning: ‘The thing in the swamp licked the blood of its last victim from its fangs and surveyed the lone house in the distance where the last man on earth sat shivering,” is pretty much not going to be a romance, unless the author’s next paragraph goes, “Sharon put down her horrible horror book, turned on all the lights, and hugged John’s pillow – oh why did he have to be away on her birthday?” and how would we know? So while it may be a well-baited hook, it won’t be a very satisfactory one for the gore-fest aficionados who bite on it. Of course, if we knew and trusted the author[1], we might have followed the teaser anyway and been rewarded, but if we did not, we and everyone else looking for a romance piece would miss it.

Flash asks a great deal of the reader; it is succinct in the same way as poetry, it tends to focus on the essence rather than the detail of a story, and it is part of the deal that the reader brings something of their own into the reading of it. It may not be fully closed, more ‘openly closed’ as Elaine Chiew has it[2]. It is also permitted to ‘start in the middle[3]’ which I think makes the title a critical part of the lure, and I wonder how much consideration we give to this before we saddle our protégés with a clever word salad and send them off.

So the beginning is not necessarily the beginning and the ending is not necessarily the end, which means those first few words have a very big job to do. I think that job is not to draw in anyone and everyone but to engage the interest of the right reader for the piece and to prepare them, to help them find the right set of mental references, for what is to come. That done, it’s up to us whether we throw a fine gauge net, blow a circle of bubbles, cast a line with fancy dancing feathers on the end, or drop a chunk of raw meat into the water.

***

1. That said, all that Rowlings is not Potter, as we now know.
2. Elaine Chiew, Endings. In Short Circuit, Gebbie (Ed) Salt Publishing, 2009. P188
3. David Gaffney, Get Shorty: The micro fiction of Etgar Keret. In Gebbie, op cit. P173

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Suzanne Conboy-Hill is a past psychologist, present writer with publications in Every Day Fiction, Zouch Magazine, Ether Books, and Full of Crow amongst others. Website: http://conboyhillfiction.wordpress.com/

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah AkhtarI’ve nothing against the gangrenous undead or a serious bloodsucker (as opposed to those vampires who appear to have gotten lost on their way to a Calvin Klein photo shoot). But when I want something to really scare me off to dreamland–the kind of story that’ll force me out of my warm cozy bed to check the doors and windows one more time–I’ll take the shredded wallpaper and that nice etching. Or a sandbar on the Danube.

The really terrifying stuff is what you don’t see. The greatest horror writers don’t hit you over the head with a bloody bucket of chum. They unlock doors to primal human emotions and let you have the fun of trying to wrestle them shut again.

Stories I think essential to every horror lover’s collection include Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, M. R. James’s The Mezzotint and Casting the Runes, and Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows. They’re oldies, all right–but they haven’t lost any of their vigor.

All four tales are masterworks of psychological terror; only in  Casting the Runes is actual blood spilled. But not in front of us.

Over the years, The Yellow Wallpaper has been a darling of feminist scholars. Gilman, who had her own unpleasant run-ins with analytical types, doesn’t require interpretation and is best enjoyed straight-up. Her heroine speaks for herself just fine.

Too much contemporary horror writing seems like sadistic versions of the shaggy dog story. A little mayhem is fine. But when authors keeps tossing bodies in various stages of dismemberment at me, my blood stops curdling.

One of my favorite stories on Every Day Fiction does involve a horde of the undead closing in on two hapless victims. Check out Willow Road by Lindsey R. Loucks. You’ll see why I couldn’t get it out of my head.

____________

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 FictionFlash Fiction Online, 365tomorrows and Perihelion SF Magazine.

 

by Thomas Kearnes

ThomasCow

I haven’t written a story under 1,000 words in well over a year. Even then, I wrote only one new flash during all of last year and just two new ones in 2012. I’ve published older pieces here and there, either sprucing up something previously left for dead or remarketing a piece after its original online home went dark. That said, I’ve definitely kept busy. I crank out roughly three short stories a month, maybe four or five if they’re on the shorter side (say, 2,500 words). If school and work eat up my leisure time, I feel secure in the knowledge I have enough shorts available for publication that I needn’t worry about running low and missing an opportunity.

None of this, however, explains why I’ve drifted away from flash in the last couple of years. The discipline was certainly good to me. I’ve found homes for far more short-shorts than I have traditional shorts. Part of that, though, is due to the fact I’ve written far more flashes than longer pieces. To decompress after tearing through a new first draft, I scanned the last couple of years of FFC. I paid special attention to revered flash writers (like Randall Brown and Meg Pokrass) explaining the appeal of the discipline and what they believed made flash a discipline unto itself as opposed to just a really short story.

I’ve come to the conclusion that despite whatever flash publications backed my work, I was never really a flash writer. At least, not in the vein of those I’ve been learning about through their own explanations and their work itself. My most dramatic difference with what I assume is the prevailing wisdom on flash is that I refuse to embark on a first draft unless I have a three-act narrative securely in mind. (Yes, sometimes I outline my longer shorts.) Depending on images and sounds and unicorns to convey my message to readers freezes my heart with terror. Narrative is the backbone of my fiction, the base from which all other elements originate. I admire flashes that eschew conventional storytelling, but I’ll never pretend to understand how they work.

I kept plugging away at the discipline, however, and I’m not proud of my reasoning. Simply put, I considered a 1,000-word story far less of a gamble of time and energy than a 20-page marathon. If a flash fails, you’ve only lost an hour or two. If a story five times that length fails, you’ve lost one or two weeks. The arithmetic seduced me. Also, there are scores more venues seeking flash than short stories, at least online. If a particular flash was reasonably well-executed, marketing was sometimes a breeze. Contrast that with having to pound the pavement for a year or longer with a short story, even a terrific one.

Also, it’s only recently that I acquired enough confidence to hop from one longer piece to the next. I’ve received enough positive feedback from peers and editors to believe I can pull off a work of fiction that’s 4,000 words or longer. My problem now, and what will continue to be my problem, is selecting the most compelling premise of the dozens I have swirling inside my head. (There are plenty of bad ideas in the mix, of course.) Still, it’s a huge relief to know I can construct a narrative of enough complexity to run past 15 pages.

Perhaps another reason I clung to flash fiction so long without truly understanding it was that I was too nervous about striking out in new directions. As any of you familiar with my flash fiction can attest, I had a basic formula: let one scene in kitchen-sink realist style play out in real time. Occasionally, I experimented with second-person narration or quasi-prose-poem affectations, but well over three-fourths of my flash stories fell under the “one-scene wonder” category. It still humbles me to realize that all along, I was submitting to editors who likely viewed scene-driven flash as the mark of the amateur. (I should also mention that back then I rarely read flash publications or flash writers discussing their craft. I was petrified I’d discover everything I was doing was wrong, wrong, wrong.) What can I say? I was an amateur, and my one saving grace was a knack for conjuring lapel-grabbing premises.

Also, flash fiction allowed me to rummage through all the baggage of my romantic and sexual pasts and still convince myself that I was creating actual art instead of psychotherapeutic dribbling. Yes, I know, a couple of years ago, I encouraged all of you to excavate your personal histories for flash. If you decide to do this, however, I’d caution that you embark on that particular first draft because you firmly believe general readers will enjoy it, not because you just need to vent.

All this said, I will forever be thankful I toiled at flashes for as long as I did, because it gave me a crash course in several aspects of fiction writing and publishing. Most importantly, I learned to line-edit, cutting every unnecessary word, every deadwood phrase. This skill has served me well with my longer fiction, often allowing me to excise as many as 750 words from a first draft. Secondly, I learned how to conduct myself with editors far more quickly than if I’d been submitting only longer pieces.

I’ve learned that speculation about my future as a writer or about the future of publishing itself is a waste of time. Maybe flash will continue to rise in prominence. Maybe flash will hit a dead end once faced with a general readership that has no clue how to appreciate it. Maybe scene-driven flash will come in vogue. After all, even unicorns can overstay their welcome.

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Thomas Kearnes holds an MA in Screenwriting from the University of Texas at Austin. His two collections are Pretend I’m Not Here (Musa Publishing) and Promiscuous (JMS Publishing). His fiction has appeared in Litro, The Adroit Journal, The Ampersand Review, PANK, Word Riot, Eclectica, SmokeLong Quarterly, wigleaf, Storyglossia, A cappella Zoo, Spork, The Pedestal, Digital Americana Magazine and elsewhere. His work has also appeared in several LGBT venues, such as Diverse Voices Quarterly, Diverse Arts Project, Educe Journal, and the Best Gay Stories series. He is studying to become a drug dependency counselor. He lives near Houston.

[This article first appeared at http://tgenedavis.com.]

by T. Gene Davis

t gene davis

Congratulations! An editor loves your prose. You’ve sold your story. Feel wonderful. You should.

After the euphoria collapses, you wonder when the fan mail and comments will start pouring in. Experienced authors acknowledge, selling the story is only one of many steps necessary when building a fan base.

Selling your story to readers begins before you get the editor hooked. You must write your story for your market—the web skimmer. Most magazines publish or advertise stories on the web, and most users of the web skim. Close to 80% of all people visiting your story or story’s advert will skim the page, rather than read the page.

Gaining readers is the act of converting skimmers into readers through a three-step combination of hooking them with a great title, convincing them to read on with an engaging first sentence, and pulling them into the story with a compelling first paragraph. I’ve heard this approach summed up with the words, “Catch, grab, and keep.”

Skimmers are embryonic fans. Convert skimmers into readers by catching their attention. Your title must stop the skimmers’ eyes from roaming the page. Story titles are critical to readership. Trite as it may sound, your title can make or break your story. A catchy title is your first hook. If your story’s title stops the skimmers, you now have the chance of converting them into a reader.

Catch the skimmers’ attention with a title that fills them with wonder. They need to wonder if the rest of the story is as good as the title, or they need to wonder what the title is describing. Either way, you have one title to create an unfulfilled need in that skimmers. You must create a desire in the skimmers to read your first sentence.

Follow up the title with an amazing first sentence. Realize, your story’s first sentence must keep those skimmers from going back to their unhelpful skimming ways. Opening with a shocking or humorous statement may catch their attention. The first sentence must interest the readers, and leave them hanging. If your readers doesn’t have at least one unanswered question because of the first sentence, they may go back to skimming. The key, again, is creating unfulfilled needs in the readers. The readers must feel a nagging desire to know what happens next.

If your title and first sentence engaged the skimmer, you’re ready for the power play—your first paragraph. You have almost turned a skimmer into a fan. Don’t blow it with a boring first paragraph.

Your first paragraph must make your readers care, and leave them wanting something. If the first paragraph fulfills the readers’ needs and answers all their questions, it must introduce more questions and needs. Remember, unfulfilled desire keeps your reader reading. When your reader stops wanting something from your story, you lose your reader.

One rule of thumb I’ve heard, is to give your reader no less than three reasons to keep reading. If you’re skilled, the readers might care about one of the reasons enough to continue reading. At this point, you have turned a skimmer into a fan.

Catch the skimmers with an amazing title that makes them want to know what your story is about. Grab them with an engaging first sentence. Keep them reading with a paragraph that gives them answers, but leaves them asking even more questions.

That’s what you need to do to hook the skimmers.

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T. Gene Davis writes speculative fiction, poetry, articles, books, and computer software. In the 1990s, he spent six years editing and publishing the zine, Of Unicorns and Space Stations. These days his zine mania has morphed into three blogs: one for speculative fiction (tgenedavis.com), another for hobby farming (davishobbyfarm.com), and yet another for shogi and computer programming (genedavissoftware.com). Follow his daily exploits on Twitter @TGeneDavis or visit Gene’s speculative blog at http://tgenedavis.com.

 

by Cameron Filas

Cameron_FilasYour writing is accepted for publication, but then you never hear back.

Sadly, this phenomenon does occur occasionally in the world of writing. You craft a brilliant piece of work, polish it through countless revisions, seek out the perfect publisher, submit, and get an acceptance letter. The letter might include something to the effect of “we’ll contact you in a month or so with a firm publication date.” You rub your hands together in gleeful satisfaction and begin writing more works of genius.

Then a month or so passes and you’ve heard nothing. Have they forgotten about you? Was your work misplaced? Could it be possible your work was never intended to be published and they sent you the acceptance letter by accident? Improbable thoughts and scenarios begin flooding your mind. But here’s what you can do when this happens.

Don’t panic! Just keep in mind it’s not personal. A good majority of the time, editors are just too overwhelmed to keep up with their own timelines. Many online publications are volunteer-based so the staff has to juggle personal lives and regular work with the running of their magazine or journal. Even when publications are paid, and the staff is full time, there is a high chance they are drowning in the sheer volume of submissions they receive. This is not to say you should not take notice or action when they don’t get back to you in a timely manner.

Remember writing and publishing is a professional business. If you take a publishers’ failure to keep up with their own timeline personally and opt to rant about them on your blog, or send them a nasty email, chances are you will find you are not welcome to publish with them ever again (and might even have your original work’s acceptance redacted). The proper response to a situation like this is to craft a concise professional email, or correspondence through their website, which objectively inquires about the status of your work. Something like this is a good starting point:

Dear Editor(s),

I am emailing to check on the status of “My Wonderful Story” and see if you have picked a publication date. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Your Name Here

It’s as easy as that! Chances are they will get back to you shortly and let you know either 1) the publication date they’ve selected, or 2) they still need more time but will get back to you shortly. This usually is all it takes to show the editors you are engaged and to give yourself peace of mind. However, in rare instances you may never hear back.*

Sometimes, no matter how many queries you send regarding the status of your work, you’ll never hear from the editors again. This could happen because you just have awful luck and the publisher decides they can’t keep up with their hobby of running an online magazine. It could also be the result of extremely lazy or unprofessional editors (yes, even in the world of writing there are lazy unprofessional people). The good news is this is an opportunity!

If the publisher you submitted to shut its doors or is too unprofessional to get back to you, that means you have an opportunity to submit your work somewhere better. The best part is your piece was already good enough to be selected for publication once. Use that glass half-full mentality as a drive to seek out other venues to submit to knowing your work already caught the eye of someone before.

In short, when publishers don’t get back to you right away it’s probably them not you. If they never get back to you, there’s no need to yell at your houseplants or cry yourself to sleep. Pick yourself up and submit somewhere else!

*Don’t forget electronic communication sometimes has bugs and you may have overlooked something in your spam folder (or vice versa for the editor). However, after two or three follow-up emails it’s probably a lost cause.

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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.

 

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