Sunday, December 13, 2009


So, as I sit here in somewhat of a dazed funk, I stare at inanimate objects around me and wonder what to do next. For the last two months or so, every spare moment of 'writing' time has been allocated to reading submissions for Dark Pages Volume One. Removal of that due to coming to the end of the slush pile has left me feeling a little numb. It's akin to holding a really heavy bag in each hand by your sides for a really long time. When you finally put them down, your arms want to raise into the air because nothing is weighing them down anymore. The loss of the slush pile has left me with an inbuilt twitch. With nothing planned, I look for my slush pile to read something - only it's no longer there. I wonder if this is similar to amputees and phantom digit/limb pain...

I suppose now is a good time to start writing my posts about the Dark Pages Volume One journey so far, what I've learned, and how I can help you in your submission attempts at future markets. I jotted down some bullet points as I went along that you might find useful. I'll post more detail on the journey itself as each phase completes.

I give you Post 1 - aka Rules to submit by - aka How to not look like an amateur!

Do not send in your submission with a title like ‘brilliantStoryV3’. Nearly every story I saw like this had formatting issues, typos and extraneous words finishing sentences in strange places. In short, many just weren't ready for submission. The stories weren't matured in presentation or execution. Before you click on the paper clip, open the intended file and make sure it is formatted as per the guidelines of the intended market and then save it in the document format requested (.doc, .rtf, .txt) with the story title as the document name ‘Brilliant Story.rtf’. Do not send your revisions – it is unprofessional.

All the time we hear markets ask ‘send us your best’, and often the market is offering nix or copy or a token payment. If you think your best is worth more, then send it to higher paying markets, but if you continue to accumulate rejections, then lower your sights. Gaining publication credits in good low, or non-paying markets is a start. Do not just cycle your previously rejected stories through the next available anthology. As writers, we grow in our ability to use the craft and so your stories should be getting better each time you pen one. Send us your best means send us something you’ve recently written. If you gain a rejection for a piece you wrote specifically for an anthology, then be very judicious in where you send it afterwards. If it failed at a token payment antho, look for an FTL market or self publish it. If it failed at a targeted semi-pro antho, look for a one off payment ezine or lower. Anthology editors know what other anthologies are out there or have recently closed. A sudden influx of carnival based stories or black glass-based stories (insert any recent anthology theme here) gets old very quickly.

I’ve heard many editors say that on opening a submission and finding something not formatted as per the guidelines, or with inconsistent formatting throughout, 99 times out of 100 the story isn’t up to par either. The theory goes that if the writer isn’t experienced and professional enough to take the time to format submissions correctly, then they are probably also incapable of putting together a good enough story. Many editors will cut these submissions from the slush pile without reading word one. Sadly, I will now back these editors to the hilt when this discussion next comes up on a forum. Writers will bemoan the fact that an editor could miss the story of the century because they don't take the time to see past the piddling little issues of formatting. I've read over a million words in about eight weeks - I've looked past many of the piddling little issues--I wish I hadn't. I would have saved a great deal of time. I won't be reading anything that isn't formatted as per the guidelines ever again - be warned. To read a great post on the guidelines issue, see Alan Baxter's post about our experience.

Bookisms – you really don’t need to use anything other than said when letting the reader know who is talking. Even better to use tags describing an action attributed to a character to alert the reader to who is speaking. Purple prose also fits in here. Don't use it. Flowing and emotive narrative description is one thing, corset ripping, syrupy-sweet crap is totally another. Write for the specific market. Let's face it, dark stories are best told when they follow the guidelines of mainstream literature but evoke a disturbing emotion within the reader. Unless you're specifically writing bizzaro or some other rule-breaking genre, going over top, or using bookisms casts the writer in a bad light.

Basic grammar and punctuation is a must. This is an art I’m still learning, just like everyone else, but the very basics must be mastered (or at the very least gotten a really good grip on) if you’re submitting to paying markets. When an editor takes note of a lot of incorrectly structured sentences, out of place sentences, or misused commas, the negative response needle heads north. Everyone falls prey to the odd typo in a manuscript. Do your best to remove these through revision and through feedback from others, but the odd one will not send an editor over the edge – everything else could (and occasionally does).

Starting a story with the full name of a character is not a necessity. If the character’s last name has no bearing on the story – I don’t really want to know it. Telling me 'Karl Slobosky scratched his arse as he rolled out of bed' and then only calling him Karl for the rest of the story with no links in the tale relating to either his heritage, country of birth, his parent's country of birth, Eastern Block politics, an impending name change, etc, etc is silly. If he was nicknamed the Slobmeister, and I need to know it's not just because he has stains on his singlet, farts in public and lives with aggressive rats who have staked a claim to his kitchen, then that's different. If you want me to get the picture that he's from the Steppes of Russia, then I should be able to pick that up from his behaviour, his surroundings and other, more artfully woven clues. Telling me his last name as part of the character intro and expecting that to be enough is not being a good writer. Don't do it.

Do not begin with background information. Hit the editor (and reader) hard with the action. Give me a first paragraph that makes me want to know more. Give me something that creates questions, or tension, or a feeling of ‘fuck me, what the hell is going on here?’ When you finish your first draft, go through and mark all the little (or big) info dumps and background story sections you have in there. Take them out, reword them, cut them down to minuscule size and weave them more artfully into the story, long after the opening action/conflict/suspense sequence(s).

Learn how to format a document into *.rtf. Simply naming a document ‘GreatestStoryEver.rtf’ does not create an rtf document if you don’t change the ‘save as type’ to rtf. If left at the default, you will end up submitting ‘GreatestStoryEver.rtf.doc(x)’ – and that just screams unprofessional.

If the submissions guidelines don’t state that critiques or extensive feedback will be supplied, don’t ask for it. Don’t request detailed feedback if you receive a rejection. Don’t offer to pay for detailed feedback. If a publication offers to provide detailed feedback for a price, then it is possibly/probably a type of vanity publishing outfit and you should be seriously considering avoiding it. If you receive a rejection and you’d like feedback as to why, submit it to your critique group – they may be able to help you.

I think that's enough for now. Most of this is fairly simple stuff but it all points to your professionalism as a writer. Get it wrong and you'll drown in rejections, your self-esteem will shrivel, and the world may lose a unique voice in the art of storytelling that may have become one of the masters if given enough time to mature, because you will give up. Passion will be dampened and eventually extinguished if not nurtured. Writing is a fairly solitary business with few beacons of goodness directed at you in the form of acceptances and, even more rarely, paychecks. You don't need to make life harder for yourself. Get the simple things right and give yourself a chance to shine. People want to read your work. Editors want to publish it and pay you for the privilege in either exposure, copies or cash.

The basics are non-negotiable.

You don't think that's fair?

Don't be a writer.


  1. Sounds like you've been through the wringer!

  2. I wonder how long it will be before you're itching to edit something else.

  3. What an amazing post, guru. After all you've been through, to spend the time detailing all this.

    You are right. I am currently writing for an Apoc Horsemen antho and will be a bit stuck if it isn't accepted. There will be a glut. But I've got to try . . . *fingers crossed*

  4. That's plenty of great feedback to writers from the guy 'on the other side of the fence.' Invaluable information.

    Thanks for sharing that, BT.

  5. This is the post I've always been too lazy to write (and a good reason why editing, or at least working as a "slush monkey", is a valuable exercise for every writer). I'm a nasty bastard when it comes to badly structured 1st paragraphs. I'll stop reading right there. Nothing, in my mind, speaks to the professionalism of the writer more than the first paragraph. (and God...follow the format)

  6. Great post. Being a slush wrangler is a good thing for any writer to do. At least once.

  7. Sounds like you should take a mini-break before you get back on the horse. I've done sod all since NaNo finished.

  8. Nat - it's been a good wringer though.

    Cate - I'd do it again next year if asked.

    Bec - good luck with the antho. I looked at that one but ended up with no time. I'm now looking at the Valentine antho from the same group. But if we don't get into the targeted anthos, we really should consider not sending them to other anthos. Other markets are one thing, or self publishing, but not other anthos.

    Alan - anytime, glad you found it insightful.

    Aaron - spot on with the first paragraph. If I do something like this again, I'll want more input on the guidelines so I can stress that type of thing. The opening is just as important, if not more so, than the ending.

    Jamie - yep - all writers should slush for a while - you'll learn heaps.

    D - I outlined a new short story yesterday and I'm still thinking about Inner Voice. And then we'll be moving onto the next phases of the antho. I'm guessing my mini break will be measured in hours rather than days...

  9. Good stuff-- it's sort of a distillation of all the basic tips and tricks you see scattered around here and there when editors get annoyed, in one small, professional, easy-to-access package. I think I'll bookmark this for friends who are just starting to submit/write. Give them a huge leg up if they don't have to learn them all on their own, one by one :D