Sunday, 27 February 2011

Ten Things the Small Press Can Do As Well (Or Better) Than the Professional Press, Part 1: Non-Grudging Acceptances

Let's start with one that any editor can do without spending one cent, penny or ruble, and without wasting more than a minute of their time.

First, though, a bit of theory that will be important for this blog series thingy as it goes on.  Apart from financial gain, why do writers give their work to publishers?  It seems to me that there are only a very few reasons to entrust someone with your story if they're not paying you a substantial amount of cash.  Anyone who writes, and anyone who edits, is probably overly familiar with these, and I've mentioned most of them in past posts, but let's quickly run through anyway:

- To build up a readership for when your novel / collection / one woman performance art stage show comes out.
- To be read at all by someone other than friends or family.
- To see your work appear officially in print / web page / podcast / sky-writing.
- To have your work critiqued.
- To have your work appreciated.

There are probably others that I can't be bothered to think about, but that'll do for now, especially since it's only that last one I'm talking about here.

So, in the interests of sounding vaguely scientific and knowledgeable, here's a hypothetical situation: a hypothetical author, who we'll call Hypothetical Author A, submits his hypothetical story "The Hypothenator", to a hypothetical editor, Hypothetical Editor Z, for his hypothetical magazine, The Hypothesisor.  It's Hypothetical Author A's first and only story, and he's laboured for seventeen hard years over it, until every syllable of every word is as damn near perfect as he can make them.  Hypothetical Author A waits and waits, and waits some more, and finally the reply comes back:

Hypothetical Author A,

The Hypothesisor would be willing to accept your story.


Hypothetical Editor Z.

Hey!  Great news!

But doesn't the phrasing leaves something to be desired?  In fact, the more Hypothetical Author A thinks about it, the more he wonders if Hypothetical Editor Z likes his story at all.  Perhaps he just had a gap that happened to match the word count of Hypothetical Author A's story.  That thought nags around and around in his head, until soon its all he can think about.  His life's labour, sold to an editor who couldn't care less about it!  Until finally, Hypothetical Author A goes and throws himself off a hypothetical cliff.

A tragic hypothetical tale indeed - and so easily avoided.  The irony is that Hypothetical Editor Z dug the hell out of "The Hypothetanator", he just didn't want to look like a big nerd by saying so.  Yet thanks to Hypothetical Author A's unexpected and splatty death, it's the last story he'll ever write.

This is an example of what I've come to think of as a grudging acceptance - and the fact that I've had enough of them to bother coming up with a name is a good indicator of how common they are.  While they may not be such a big deal in and of themselves, grudging acceptances do tend to unnecessarily sour the experience, and they're also a good indicator of an editor's wider attitude.  Any editor who can't manage a few extra words to tell you they liked your story is generally not one given to communication full-stop.

So, since these articles are supposed to be helpful, rather than just grumbly, here's my advice: if you're a Small Press editor and you like a story enough to accept it, why not say so?  At the very least, come up with a form acceptance e-mail that's positive rather than functional.  But really, is it so much work to go the extra mile to say something like, "I enjoyed your story, particularly the clever use of irony and detailed descriptions of ugly aliens."  By accepting a story, you're probably already making a writer's day ... but why not push the boat out that bit further and actually make their day?

And if you want to go yet a step further?   Well, giving authors a decent amount of space for their bio rather than confining them to a couple of lines is a good start - maybe even offering advice on how best to promote themselves.  Want to really push the hell out of that boat?  Why not briefly interview them about their stories, perhaps as a quick and easy way to bulk up your Internet presence?

Long story short: writers respond to a little praise and encouragement, not necessarily because we're a bunch of vainglorious egotists but because we spend most of our time working in a vacuum where it's bloody difficult to judge the merits of our own work.  It's nice to be told it doesn't suck, and nicer still when that message goes out to a crowd.  And from an editorial point of view, a happy writer is a writer who'll promote you, who'll submit again, and who'll send you their best work in the future, perhaps even over higher-paying markets.

Surely that's worth the effort of a few extra words?

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Ten Things the Small Press Can Do As Well (Or Better) Than the Professional Press: Introduction

This is something I've been thinking about for a while now, so bear with me here...

Around one in five of the stories I've submitted and / or had accepted over the last five years have been with professional or long-established semi-professional markets.  The rest I'd lump into what's generally known as the Small Press, or the Speciality Press as some prefer to call it.  Personally, I'm not sure if either name is entirely fair or helpful, since there are Small Press magazines with grander ambitions than many a professional publication and specialist publishers that are vastly more catholic and unadventurous than their mainstream counterparts - not to mention the fact that either term groups together markets that vary vastly in scope, quality and ambition.

There are many superb venues for fiction in the Small Press, and a number of magazines, anthologists and webzines I consider myself lucky to have been associated with.  But it's equally true that all the publications I've had particularly bad experiences with fell into that category, just as all the truly pleasant, hassle-free publications I've had came from my handful of sales to pro and established semi-pro markets.

It's this last fact that really set me thinking.  In theory, the crucial thing that separates the Small and Professional Press is cash.  But - in my experience anyway - the majority of things that Small Press markets tend to get wrong and the Professional Press gets right have little or nothing to do with money.  Time sure, effort definitely, but money not so much.  Not only that, I realised it was the same mistakes over and over again that were winding me up - enough so that a list started forming in my head.  And more and more over the last few years, that list has decided what markets I do or don't submit to.

So, I thought, why not write this stuff up?  Every market has its guidelines for writers, but how often do writers talk about what they'd like to see from publishers?  Not so much.  More than that though, there are so many good, potentially excellent, markets shooting themselves in the feet over dumb mistakes, most of which they could fix quite easily.

I've narrowed my gripes down to a top ten, and over the next few weeks, months, years, decades or whatever, I'll see if I can't explain why they're so frustrating, and just how straightforward they'd be to sort out.  It's a Herculean labour, I admit, but it should keep me off the streets for a while at least.  And obviously, having never edited or published anything, I don't really know what I'm talking about, so comments telling me what a dumbass I am will be gratefully received.  (If they explain why I'm wrong, that'll be even better.)

Just to be completely clear: there are some superb non-professional markets out there, and this is in no way intended as an attack on the Small Press, let alone on any particular publications, individuals, or anything or anyone else.  I won't be naming any editors or magazines, good, bad or indifferent.  This is just me drawing some conclusions from whatever insight I've gained over the last few years, and making suggestions based on those conclusions that maybe, possibly, will be useful to someone somewhere.

Next post: Thing 1.

Unless something more interesting happens in the meantime.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Week Two of Novel Three, All Well

This has been a great week for exciting news that's too up in the air for me to talk about just yet.  So here instead is a quick post about how, two weeks into the new novel, I'm still on target for meeting my arbitrary and self-imposed deadline.

Which might not sound like too big a deal, but actually it would have been really easy to fall behind in this second week.  The goal - as with every week between now and the end of August - was three thousand words, which I know I can manage easily enough so long as things are reasonably quiet and hassle-free.  Unfortunately, the last seven days have been anything but, and travelling to sunny Hull for the weekend nearly lost me all of Friday night and most of today.

Luckily, I managed to get the better part of a thousand words down over the course of the two train journeys, an achievement I reckon should win me a couple of Booker prizes in itself.  I mean, you try to get a thousand words written when the train company's sold fifteen times as many tickets as there are seats and you and nine strangers are crammed into the toilet because it's the only place left to stand.  Fortunately, some kind lady let me rest my laptop on their offspring's head, said child was paralysed by fear of the crowd threatening to crush him at any moment and the lunatic balancing a laptop on his mop top, I managed to balance myself by jamming a foot into the loo - and from there it was fairly easy going.

Okay, I exaggerate.  Truth be told, the worst I had to contend with was an unexpected delay or two and an insane woman who spent most of the return journey slagging me off to her partner because I accidentally bumped her trying to get out of someone else's way in a horribly cramped carriage.  Heck, I even got a table both ways.

Still, I'm feeling quite proud of myself.  If I can keep up the requisite wordage over a busy week and a busier weekend then odds are good for me hitting my deadline.  At least, that's what I'm going to keep telling myself.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Jenny's Sick, In Need of Love

Hi there, person I may or may not know.  My, you're looking handsome / beautiful / androgynously attractive today.  Have you done something with your hair?  No?  Your teeth, maybe?  Well, whatever it is, trust me, it's working.

Anyway ... funny thing you should happen by.  You remember that story I had out in Lightspeed the month before last ... I think it was called something like Jenny's Sick?  You know, the one you really loved / quite enjoyed / barely tolerated?  Well, it just so happens that Lightspeed are having a reader's poll to pick the best story of their inaugural year.  So, since you happen to be passing by, why not head over to this here link and cast your vote?  Jenny's Sick is the one right at the bottom.  Which is kind of the new top, am I right?

Not that I'm suggesting you should vote for Jenny's Sick if it wasn't your favourite.  Or if, heavens forbid, you haven't read it.  That would be just plain wrong.  It's perfectly possible that you didn't enjoy my story at all.  Maybe you hated it.  Maybe it made you want to go out and garrote a badger.  And that's completely understandable.  In that case, obviously I wouldn't expect you to vote for my lovingly and time-consumingly manufactured tale just because I asked you nicely.

And I have asked nicely.  Haven't I?

All things considered, though, since you're here, and presumably with nothing better to be doing, wouldn't it kind of make sense to just click on that link and hurl your precious vote into the electric void?  I mean, ultimately, what does it matter if you thought Jenny's Sick's sucked like the world's biggest hoover?  We're talking about a few seconds of your life here.  More if you move really quickly.  We're all adults here.  Why not just do the reasonable thing?

But maybe you're not the reasonable type.  Heck, some people aren't.  There are people in the world who like to talk in cinemas, condone genocide and think boy bands are the future of modern music.  And those people are entitled to their opinions, just like everyone else.  So ... if you didn't enjoy Jenny's Sick ... and if you think seal-clubbing should be made an Olympic event ... then it's safe to say that no-one, let alone I, would criticise you in any shape or form for not voting for my delicately hand-crafted labour of love.

I did mention how nice your teeth are looking, right?

Not, you understand, that I'm just asking for my benefit.  Because if you not only vote for Jenny's Sick but also leave a comment as to why you liked it so goddamned much you'll be elligible for the $50 prize that Lightspeed are offering.  Fifty shiny, glistening, dollars ... just imagine them sitting in your moistened palm.  It's almost too good to be true.

Which might lead you to think I'd just made it up to get you to say nice things about my story.  I didn't.  Really.  Check it if you don't believe me.

Anyway, we could stand around here all day talking about how damn shiny your teeth are, but some of us have got polls to go vote in.  Personally, I'm going for Ted Kosmatka's brilliant In Fall.

Which isn't to say you should.