On Submitting Stories to Editors—a Useful Exercise

I wrote the following for my teenaged nephew, who is also a writer:

I understand that you’re ready to move beyond just writing stories for yourself, and to start submitting them for publication. There are a lot of articles with advice on this topic. You could spend a few hours reading a bunch, but I can save you the time. Their advice boils down to this: “Read the submission guidelines. Follow them.”

In the time I’ve just saved you, I suggest that you do a little exercise. It will take a couple of hours, and it will teach three or four very useful lessons on what it’s like to be an editor—and once you know that, you’ll scarcely need any of those articles.

Set aside two hours during which you can focus, and do this:

  1. Go to ralan.com. It has lists of markets to which you might submit sf or fantasy stories, organized by how much they pay per word. The top two categories are of markets that pay 3¢ a word or more. These are the markets that you’ll soon be submitting to. But for this exercise, we’ll be focusing on the lower tiers: Pay, Token, and Expo.
  2. Click on each of those lists. Look for markets that publish stories in your genre, and that publish them on-line.
  3. Make a list of 10 or 20 such markets. Pick ones that look like they’ll have the sort of stories you’d like to read. In your list, include the URL that will take you to each market’s most recent stories.
  4. Read 50 stories from those markets, and pick the two best.
  5. Write two quick notes about why each of those stories is superior.
  6. If you have time, write another 48 notes for each of the stories that didn’t make the cut, explaining how they fall short.

That last step, of course, is a joke. Obviously you won’t have time. In fact, if you tried to read every story all the way through, you’ll have used up your two hours long before you were done.

Now you know a bunch of things from an editor’s perspective:

  • You’ll know they start each submission they read hoping it’ll be great. They want it to be awesome, because that’ll mean that they get to read an awesome story—and then they’ll be able to print an awesome story in their magazine!
  • You’ll know that they can usually tell in just a few paragraphs that a story isn’t going to make the cut. Oh, they’ll read a bit further—they’ll be hoping that you’ve hidden an awesome story behind a weak opening. But they only get to accept two stories, and if your story isn’t better than the best ones they’ve read today, it’s not going to make the cut.
  • You’ll know why they’re so picky about the format they want submissions in. Editors don’t want submission stories to look awesome. They want them to be awesome, but they want them to look all the same. (How much time did you waste, just getting through each new market’s front page to find the stories?)
  • You’ll know why you aren’t going to get any useful feedback from editors. (How many of those 48 rejected stories did you provide notes for?)

Hopefully, you’ll also know a few new things from a writer’s perspective. You’ll know that there are a lot of crappy stories out there (and those are the best crappy stories—the ones that got published). There’s some consolation in that, but not much. It’s not good enough for your story to be better than the crappy ones—it’s going to have to be better than the great stories, and there are some of those too.

I’m sure you’re going to figure that you can get most of the benefit just by thinking about this exercise, without actually doing it. This is not true. Do the exercise. It only takes a couple of hours, and you won’t believe the things you’ll learn.

Strategies for writing and revising

One cluster of particularly good bits of advice that I got at Clarion came from James Patrick Kelly. (That link goes to my Clarion journal entry for the day I wrote about it.) Among other things, he suggested that we should:

  1. Save all our rewrites until after Clarion (as a way of carrying some of the energy of Clarion forward),
  2. Do the rewrites in order of salability (and perhaps not bother rewriting any that didn’t seem salable), and
  3. Write a new story for every story that we rewrote. (Otherwise we could easily find ourselves at the end of the summer with five or six nicely polished stories, but totally out of the habit of writing.)

More recently, having gotten several stories critiqued by the Incognitos, I decided to put that advice into practice again. I made a plan to start revising and submitting those stories, in between writing new ones. But I decided that I’d write one more new story before getting going on to revisions.

I made that plan rather longer ago than I’d like to admit, because for quite some time now I’ve had real trouble getting a new story finished.

After two or three attempts at new stories stalled, I should have just gone ahead and gotten going on a rewrite. But, no. Without really thinking about it, I just pushed ahead on a plan A, even though it wasn’t working. That wasted a lot of time, I’m afraid. It was also really frustrating.

But, good news: I’ve finally finished a new story! I’ve sent it out to the Incognitos, and it’ll be critiqued at the next meeting.

And now, finally, it’s time to look at the stories they’ve already critiqued, pick the most salable, and get to work revising it.

Clarion at home: Summation

This is part 6—the final post—of a series on what to do if you can’t go to Clarion. I’ve talked about my thoughts on how you can capture part of the magic of Clarion—even if you can’t attend. This post is on my big misconception of Clarion, on some of the things that you can’t get from blog posts, and on applying these lessons.

What about getting critiques?

Before I went to Clarion, I assumed that the most important thing would be the critiques of my stories. I was wrong.

It’s actually a good thing that I was wrong. After all, the goal of Clarion isn’t to send you home with six critiqued stories that you can polish up and get published. The goal is to make you a better writer. You can only get so much better in six weeks, but six weeks is enough time to give you the tools you need to continue improving your own writing through practice.

A critique (better, several critiques) can help you improve a story. A good critique can help you find the good stuff in your story (so you don’t accidentally lose it when revising). A good critique can tell you that a story has problems.

It’s pretty rare for even a great critique to tell you how to fix a story that’s broken. But when several critiques all have complaints, there’s probably a problem somewhere, and the details of the complaints will often provide a clue as to where that is.

More important—and probably the biggest thing you’re missing out on by doing Clarion at home (aside from some of the fun) is that getting critiques can help you develop your skills in critiquing your own work.

Critiquing your own work is much harder than critiquing other people’s. If there’s some trick to doing it well, I haven’t learned it yet. In particular, getting critiques helps you learn about your blind spots. When critiquers point out flaws in your own work that you should have seen—and especially when they point out the same kinds of flaws in the next story, and the one after that—it can begin to sink in. That may be a quicker way to learn not to make the same mistakes, but the important part is to learn to see the mistakes. Then you can fix them, even if you can’t avoid making them.

Other stuff

Of course, there was a lot of other stuff at Clarion:

  1. A little dorm room with a little bed and a little desk.
  2. A weekly BBQ with that week’s departing teacher.
  3. A session with an editor on the difference between a perfectly good story and a story that sells.
  4. Several different perspectives on the career arc of a speculative fiction writer.
  5. Learning to play Mafia—and being there when John Gonzales invented his varient The Thing.
  6. Practice for doing public readings of our work in front of a small, friendly audience. (I’m still grateful to Rick Polney for organizing these.)
  7. Late evenings on the Owen balcony drinking beer and doing impersonations of the teachers. (You should have been there. It was hilarious.)
  8. Some very specific advice on what to do after Clarion. (That page also has a look at the life cycle of a story.)

All those things (and many others) were great fun; some have been really helpful in various ways. But what helped my writing was the stuff I’ve talked about here.

Once you develop enough skill at critiquing that you can evaluate your own work, you’re in a position to improve it through practice. Then it’s just a matter of putting in the time writing—and monitoring, evaluating, and trying to do it better.

Clarion is great fun, but you can improve your writing even if you can’t go.

See the Clarion at home page for links to all the posts in this series.

Clarion at home: Critiquing

This is part 4 of a series on what to do if you can’t go to Clarion, which provides my thoughts on how you can capture part of the magic of Clarion—even if you can’t attend. This post is on critiquing.

Critique what you read

Read stories. Figure out how they’re flawed. Then, look at the bits that are less flawed, and figure out how they work. (Then apply that understanding to your own work—but that’s the topic of the next post.)

It’s tough to do this with great stories, but it is possible. Once you’ve had some practice with mediocre stories, try your improving skills on some really good stories. They’re not really different; it’s just that the bits are put together a bit more smoothly (and they don’t have any missing bits).

Here’s just a few ideas of things to look at:

  1. Think about why the author chose this viewpoint character. Is it the person who changes? The person in a position to watch someone else change?
  2. Think about why the author chose this sequence of scenes. Is it chronological? Is there a flashback? Does the story begin at the beginning, or in the middle of things?
  3. Think about the purpose of each scene. Find the scenes that show you that the hero cares about something. Find the scenes that show that there’s something important at stake. Find the scene where the hero is forced to make a choice. Find the scene where the consequences of that choice are shown.
  4. Look at the dialog. Does each character have a unique voice? Is each bit of dialog motivated—does the character have a reason to speak?
  5. Identify each descriptive phrase. Have you ever seen the same bit of description in another story (dark cave, tall tree, pretty girl)? When you find a bit of description that’s new to you, make note of it. Think about whether it’s more effective than the more generic descriptions.

The book on writing that you picked will have many more ideas. For every suggestion that your fiction-writing book makes, some stories out there will be doing something different. Sometimes, those differences will be what makes the story brilliant. More often, those differences will be flaws that make the story less than it could have been. Find those flaws (and occasional bits of brilliance).

Once you’ve done the thinking, go ahead and write out a critique, just as if you were going to deliver it to the author.

Read other critiques

As I mentioned in the part on planning, though, the way to get maximum benefit from this activity is to read the story, prepare your critique, and then examine several other critiques of the same story. (Don’t do it in any other order. You’d get vastly less benefit if you read the critique and then read the story, or if you read the story and then read a review of it without first preparing your own critique.)

What you’re looking for are any insights that anyone else had that you missed—and especially any tools that they used that you weren’t aware of.

At my Clarion, Pat Murphy demonstrated a technique of analyzing a story that I included as point #3 in the brief list above—identifying the story purpose behind each scene. This is a very powerful technique, especially for stories where there’s a lot of good stuff—good prose, good characterization, good science-fictional idea—and yet the story isn’t quite working. If you dismantle the story at the scene level, you can spot all sorts of flaws that are otherwise hard to see. There may be scenes that don’t even serve a story purpose—cut these. There may be scenes that occur at the wrong point—move them to where they belong. There may be scenes missing—write them.

But there are many, many tools of this sort—far more than I can list here. That’s why Clarion lasts for six weeks and why students critique over 100 stories (and listen to over 2000 critiques): so they are exposed to worked examples of using many such techniques. (Importantly, they are not just exposed in the abstract. They see the techniques applied to stories that they themselves have already tackled as best they can with the techniques they already have.)

To make Clarion-at-home a success, you’ll have to do something similar. You don’t need to do it all in your six weeks, but the more stories you critique, and the more other critiques of those stories you explore, the more you’ll improve your own understanding of how stories work—and how they fail.

Part 5 of this series will be on using these efforts to develop expertise.

See the Clarion at home page for links to all the posts in this series.

Clarion at home: Planning

This is part 1 of a series on what to do if you can’t go to Clarion, which provides my thoughts on how you can capture part of the magic of Clarion—even if you can’t attend. This post is on planning for your Clarion at home.

Pick your six weeks

Unlike the folks attending Clarion, you can choose any six weeks you want. You could go with the same six weeks as Clarion; one advantage of that is that you could read their blogs and maybe borrow some of their energy. But you don’t have to wait if you don’t want to (or if the reason you can’t go to Clarion is a schedule conflict).

Along with picking the six weeks, commit to a significant degree of focus on your writing during those six weeks. You won’t be able to focus like someone at Clarion—you’ll probably have to go to work or to class, you’ll no doubt have obligations at home—but negotiate to have these minimized during the period you’ve picked, and decide in advance that you’ll let some of your minor obligations slip for six weeks.

Pick a book on writing

At my Clarion, much of week one was spent in classroom instruction, and there was further classroom instruction in varying amounts through the later weeks. To substitue for that, pick a book on fiction writing that you can use to learn (or review) the basics of writing fiction.

Because of his historical connection with Clarion, Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction: The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction is an obvious choice, but any fiction-writing book that you happen to have or can get from the library would be fine.

Make a study plan

Make a plan for how you’ll work through most of the book you’ve selected over during the first two weeks.

When I went, week one was spent studying plot and character with Steve Barnes (who is quite brilliant about plot in particular—the stuff I learned from him forms a large part of the article I sold to Speculations: Story Structure in Short Stories).

Week two was spent with Kelly Link. She taught us all kinds of stuff, but especially about the importance of telling detail for making description compelling. She also provided a masterclass in point-of-view.

So, to make your Clarion-at-home like my Clarion, read through the chapters of your book on those topics (plot, character, description, POV) during the first two weeks.

Consider joining an on-line critique group

I say “consider,” because your goal would actually not be to get critiques of your work, so it might not be appropriate.

Everyone assumes that getting some thoughtful critiques of your work by people skilled in the field is the most important part of Clarion, but that turns out not to be true. The most important part of Clarion is preparing critiques, and then hearing your classmates’ critiques on the same stories. That’s what teaches you the most—whenever someone else offers a critique that’s different from yours, you learn something.

To get that benefit, you need to find some stories that have been critiqued. An on-line critique group is one possible source. If you can’t find one or don’t want to participate in one, there are other sources. (In fact, there’s a whole field of study devoted to it: literary criticism.)

If you don’t want to join an on-line critique group, you can make do with other kinds of critiques—scholarly papers, book reviews, etc. For speculative fiction in particular, Locus Magazine reviews a lot of published stories, and puts a lot of those reviews on-line. Any source of critiqued stories (with critiques) will serve your purpose.

Once your planning is done, you’re ready to begin. Part 2 of this series will be on writing a story a week.

See the Clarion at home page for links to all the posts in this series.

What if you can’t go to Clarion?

You can capture pieces of the Clarion experience without going to Clarion—pieces that will let you step up your writing game just as much as going to Clarion would.

Acceptances and rejections for Clarion are going out about now, so the writer blogs and twitter feeds are full of excitement and dismay.  Those who get to go to Clarion are in for a wonderful, magical experience. But what if you can’t go? What if you got rejected—or didn’t even apply, because of a lack of time or money or confidence? You can capture pieces of the Clarion experience, without going to Clarion—pieces that will let you step up your writing game, perhaps as much as going to Clarion would.

Of course, you can’t really recreate Clarion at home. You can’t duplicate the community of fellow writers working together on the common goal of improving everyone’s skills. You can’t recreate the network of pro writers who’ll take an interest in your career because they’ve gotten to know you as a person. And you probably can’t recreate the time and space—six weeks with no obligations but to write and critique. Given all that, you can still do a lot.

So, with the proviso that I’m just a writer who attended Clarion ten years ago and has continued writing since then, I’m putting up a series of posts on “Clarion at home.” (Be aware that I tend to over-think and over-plan this sort of thing. A minimalist version of this would probably be just as good, and might be better.)

Here’s what I’m expecting to post over the next few days. (I’ll links here as I get the posts up. I may also edit the list if I make changes.)

  1. Planning: Pick your six weeks—and a book on writing
  2. Writing: Write a story a week
  3. Reading: Read many mediocre and a few great stories
  4. Critiquing: Compare your critiques to others
  5. Expertise: How to become an expert fiction writer
  6. Summation: What about getting critiques?

I’d be particularly interested in hearing from other folks who’ve attended Clarion and have some thoughts on how you can capture a bit of the Clarion experience for home use. I’ll approve pingbacks and trackbacks for this post, so if you write something about recreating Clarion at home, I’ll link back to your post.

[Update 2011-03-28: I’ve gathered the links above together on a “Clarion at Home” page.]