As I’ve mentioned before, writing short stories and novellas can be a great way to jumpstart your muse, refine your craft, build a readership and augment your writer resume.
But if you’re thinking about wading into the short fiction market, where should you start?
Finding General Calls for Submission
A google search is an obvious place to begin. Try searching ‘calls for submission’ and add something about your genre. You’ll likely find a lot of options, including some that pay professional rates (better than a penny a word), some that pay…less than professional rates (anything at all), some that are kind enough to at least throw you a bone (a complimentary author copy of the collection) and some that are, ahem, just for fun. Depending on your motives, any of these may be worthwhile.
There are also some great databases and email discussion loops out there focused solely on listing calls for submission for short fiction. Duotrope and Absolute Write have entries for all genres and all pay scales, and the Creative Writers Opportunities List on Yahoo! Groups is a reliable source of information that I’ve been subscribed to for years.
Special Focus: Calls for Submission in Romance and Erotic Romance
You’ll probably have the most success looking for places to query your short stories if you get to know your genre. My genre happens to be romance, and the hotter the better, so that’s where I’m most knowledgeable. I frequently scout sites such as the Erotica Readers Association. I also check out the individual pages for publishers I know to be in need of short fiction, such as Xcite Books, Total E-bound, and Dreamspinner Press.
And lucky for you, I also happen to collect calls for submission and share them with my Bad Girlz.
Here are a few that may interest you, all with deadlines in the next couple of months:
Dressed to Impress: Outfits for Special Occasions and Steamy Liaisons
Submission Deadline: November 1, 2012
The Baby Is A Secret!
Submission Deadline: November 15, 2012
How could he not know? After all, he’s the father of a child…but he doesn’t, because it’s been kept a secret from him—sometimes for years. Now it’s your chance to put your own twist on the ever-popular, ever-perplexing ‘secret baby story. We’re looking for short contemporary novellas, 20-25,000 words that will convince us that a baby really can be kept a secret!
Snow On The Roof
3,500 – 12,000 words, Male/Male pairing
Submission Deadline: November 19, 2012
“Just because there’s snow on the roof, doesn’t mean the fire’s gone out in the furnace.” There’s something to be said for maturity and experience, and in all of these relationships, at least one of the lovers is over forty. Whether it’s a May/December romance, a second chance at love, or finding a soul mate later in life, these stories prove that it’s never too late for love.
Editor’s Note: At least one of the couple must be age 40+.
Hopefully those get you thinking! From time to time, I’ll update you on additional opportunities in the genres of romance and erotic romance, but in the meantime, don’t let that keep you from hunting down your own.
Have you ever heard a writer described as tight? And I don’t mean cheap, as in they won’t flip for business cards or a pedicure. I mean tight, as in you couldn’t find a word in their manuscript that didn’t need to be there. I love this type of writer, maybe because I’m a straight to the point kinda gal. I love that they don’t waste an hour of my time with useless conversations about the weather or a five page description of every single item that was on the table in their dinner scene. I love that every word they write makes me want to read the next, instead of skimming down until I find the good stuff. This is the type of writer I strive to be, and I’ve spent a good bit of time trying to achieve it.
If you’re like me and write complex stories with multiple points of view and plot lines, writing a tight story is not only a desire but also a necessity. Trust me, I know. The first draft of my very first manuscript was 140,000 words (eek! I’m almost embarrassed to say that!) And after undergoing the painstaking task of trimming, and cutting, and hacking a little bit more, I vowed to learn how to write tight. So I thought I’d start a little series on the various techniques and tricks I’ve learned through the years, and hope that maybe I can save at least one person the same pain I once faced.
Today’s discussion will be on backstory.
The Art of Backstory
Everybody has backstory. It’s what shapes us into the people we are and gives us basis for the decisions we make. In writing, backstory is necessary when developing not only our characters, but also our plots. It defines the goals our characters set, gives believability to their motivations, and often explains their reactions to any given conflict. In the types of stories I write, backstory is almost always what my characters need to overcome first to defeat the problems they’re facing in the present.
However, in the same way that backstory is essential to developing a healthy story, it can also be the death of it if it’s not done right. Too much backstory can bog a reader down and slow the pace of a story. Not enough backstory can make it hard for your readers to relate to your characters. Here are the three things I am constantly reminding myself when introducing my characters’ backstory.
1. Know where your story begins.
This can be one of the hardest things for some writers to decide when plotting their manuscript, but here’s a hint: it’s almost never the same point that your characters’ stories begin. Confused?
Say you’re writing a romance in which your heroine has huge trust issues she must overcome before she and the hero can live their happily ever after together. The story of how she came to have those trust issues may have started long ago when her father left her mother for another woman, or even as soon as two months ago when she discovered her former boyfriend cheated on her. But that’s not where the plot of your story begins.
Remember, you’re cooking up a love story. Girl meets boy, girl and boy fall in love, girl and boy can’t seem to make it work, girl and boy find a way to overcome it and live happily ever after. Where does your story begin? When girl meets boy. Don’t start out with a bunch of explaining or background information and wait three chapters before she meets the hero. Stick to the main ingredients and add the backstory spices for flavor.
2. The reader doesn’t need to know everything you know up front.
In fact, I 100% believe it’s better if they don’t. You don’t want to hide things from the reader or excessively tease them, but not spilling your character’s dirty laundry up front can aid in building the tension and add intrigue. Make the reader want to read on and unravel these characters so they understand them. This takes practice and a lot of critiquing, but finding the right balance is essential.
One of my fellow badgirlz recently wrote a post in which she mentioned character sheets. This is a good place to store all the information you need to know to build your story, but that the reader doesn’t need to know to begin their journey. Work all the tiny details out there, not in the first chapter of your manuscript. Which leads me to my last point…
3. Drip, don’t drop.
Have you ever been really involved in a book and then get to a four or five page section that’s nothing but an information dump? It can be frustrating. I usually skim through these, which is bad because there very well might be information I need sitting there. Instead of dropping a ton of background information into a few pages – drip it in throughout the story.
Going back to our untrusting heroine… you don’t need five pages in the first chapter devoted to a detailed account of why her father left. Maybe instead you can start to show the uneasiness she feels toward her father. Maybe her father calls in the middle of a scene to set up a lunch but she hesitates because she doesn’t think he’ll show up. Without telling the reader exactly what happened twenty years ago, you’ve established she doesn’t trust easily and that there is tension between her and her father. Later on, once the story gets off the ground, you can add more detail in.
I’m sure there are a million other rules to follow in regards to backstory, but those are a few I keep tacked to my wall. What about you? Do you have any tricks of the trade you’ve picked up through the years on how to approach the art of backstory? I’m always on the lookout for more ideas!
There are a few different types of crazy. Some good (like wild & crazy), some bad (like serial killer crazy), and some comical (as in “You so crazy!”). Today I’m talking about the good kind of lunacy. I am NOT referring to the kind of crazy writer who stalks and assaults an agent. Our hearts go out to that agent and her family.
Today, I’m talking about the fun kind of wackadoodle nuttiness that we writers start to accept as “normal.” Not just because we need it, but in our writer world, this IS normal:
1) You talk about your character’s life goals and the obstacles in their way like they’re real people.
2) A bit of dialogue pops into your head and you find yourself either reenacting it out loud or running through it like a movie while you jot down the lines.
3) You are somewhere breath-taking/awe inspiring and after the two seconds you take to live in the moment, you think, “I need to use this in a book!” (The same goes for any one-liners you think up in convo or the funny, sad, and ironic instances in life.)
4) You have a gut wrenching incident, a time of grief, a run in with a psycho b*tch hose beast, or get your heart broken – after the moment passes you think, “Well, at least I can channel this emotion into my writing.”
Another writer could tell you they do any of the four things above and you’d nod in understanding. Say it to a Non-Writer Friend or Family member (NWFs) and they look at you like you grew antennae. Long, neon pink and green antennae. That wiggle.
NWFs don’t get it, they never will, and that’s okay. I will never understand a musician’s mind and how they rat-a-tat-tat an entire song out using a pencil, hard surface, and their brain. The whole playing a song by ear amazes me as well, but it’s cool because musicians are a little crazy too.
My theory is we’re all crazy for two reasons: #1, we’re well tapped into the creative process and our right brains. #2, we’re trying to break into a critical, tough, highly competitive and subjective business.
Craziness is how we cope. Sometimes we disintegrate into outright silliness as a means of survival. So, we talk to the people in our heads and talk to other writers about our people. We listen as they talk about their people. We have long conversations about people that only exist in our minds and on the page. We share the woes of rejection and the jubilation of requests, offers, and contracts – and flail over both. We melt down together when we don’t know where our careers are going. We celebrate and boogie at conferences because we need to enjoy the good times. We laugh over cocktails and make up bad titles for our books. We adopt British accents at coffee shops for no other reason than to sound British.
If I tried to go through this journey with a straight face, never giving in to the desire to make up a celebration dance or use a line of my dialogue on a stranger, I’d be lost. (True story: When a co-worker’s boss called, she asked, “He called? What does he want?!” I had to answer, “YOUR SOUL!” in my best Jeremy Clarkson voice.)
This biz is too stressful and busy and wonderful to keep it all together. I’m a lot happier if I bust a silly on a regular basis. I know the Badgirlz are content to discuss codpieces and the effective usage at a local tavern. What about you? How do you maintain sanity through comedy? Pull up a seat and tell me how your little bit of crazy keeps you sane.
— Elizabeth Michels (@southerntart) September 19, 2012
Inspired by Tuesday’s twitter conversation on pitching, I took the initiative and made a video of my pitch-in-progress for Moonlight and Magnolias.
I appreciate all comments and feedback, just not on my hair and makeup today. *g* Also it goes without saying (yet I’m saying it anyway) that I begin with introducing myself and chitchat because I’m annoyingly outgoing at conferences.
What I wonder is if anyone else (be they Bad Girlz or friends of the Bad Girlz) will post their pitch videos now… If you’re reading this and you’re pitching at a conference this year, I double-dog-dare you!
With the Moonlight and Magnolia conference right around the corner, I thought I would talk a little today about Pitching. I’m sure everyone who is pursuing a writing career knows what it is to Pitch, but let me give a short definition, just in case. Pitching is when you have a few moments with an agent or editor, to give them a quick description about your book. They will then and there decide if they would like to request a partial or on some occasions, the full manuscript, to review for possible representation.
This pitch usually happens when you’ve signed up to meet with them at a conference face to face. But pitching can actually take place anywhere, so you must be prepared. It could be at the cocktail lounge of the hotel. It could be in an elevator going up to your room. It could happen at the banquet dinner. But from what I’ve been told, it should never happen in a bathroom. Everyone deserves bathroom privacy. Plus, you don’t want it to go like this: The agent gets home after hearing a thousand pitches and gets your partial in her in-box. “Something about this writer rings a bell,” She says to herself, “I sort of remember her pitch, there was something about it that stunk.” (Get my point?) No bathroom pitching.
From my experience, it normally happens like this: You sit down at a small table across from the agent or editor, in a room with other small tables with other pitches going on at the same time. Don’t let the crowded room intimidate you. You’re not listening to them and they’re not listening to you. Just focus on your appointment with your agent. There is a brief introduction, and then you give them a line about your book to get them interested. That line is called a hook. A one liner that gets them hooked on your story and makes them want to hear more. Once you’ve given them the hook, you go into the important facts about your book. You introduce your hero and heroine. They will want to know your conflict. The main conflicts your characters are going to have to overcome to become the happily-ever-after power couple you have intended them to be.
Once you have quickly given them the important facts about your manuscript, it usually flows into a question and answer session. Be prepared for the agent or editor to ask you questions outside of the book. For example: What author do you feel your writing simulates? Or what publishing house do you feel your book would fit best? Do your homework and come prepared.
So you think you’re ready. You have your mind blowing hook, you’ve practiced the pitch over and over in your head and then the unimaginable happens: The disaster pitch. I’ve had this happen to me and I’m sure I’m not alone. I sat down across from an editor and I became so nervous that my body started to shake, including my voice and I forgot EVERYTHING. I forgot my hook that I’d practiced a thousand times. I even forgot my characters names. My beloved characters that I know better than I know myself. My mind was a complete blank. But don’t freak out. They are use to nerves getting the best of us. Be prepared for this to happen even if you think it could never happen to you. Take an index card, with all the information written down on it. This will pull you out of your brain blank, and get you through. They are used to the cards so don’t be embarrassed. Just don’t use up all of your quality time telling them how nervous you are. Keep the pitch about the book.
Don’t panic if you give the disaster pitch. Even my demoralizing pitch got me a request for a partial. They need us as much as we need them. They want to find the next big thing as much as we want to give it to them.
It’s good to learn a little about each of the agents and editors that are going to be at the conference. You may get the chance to pitch to a couple you weren’t planning, so study them all. Of course, you can find out whatever you need to know on the internet. You can also Google pitches, and watch one live. Our very own Elizabeth Michels has won a video pitch contest, so look her up. She’s great.
If you’ll be pitching at M&M or some other conference in the future, good luck and don’t freak out. You can do it. Let me know how things go. I would love to hear about it.
Remember to Dream Big!
When I first sat down at the kitchen table with a crazy idea for a story and my laptop I had no idea what I was getting into. Does any writer? Seeking publication is a pretty nutty thing to do with your life after all. I can remember hearing stories when I was only 20,000 words into that first manuscript about how long it takes to get published. I also remember thinking, not for me. I’ll be different. I’ll finish my first manuscript, send out one query letter and become wildly successful…that was four long years ago.
In those early days I was looking at writing as a get rich quick scheme. [Insert laughter here.] Truthfully, when I started writing my first manuscript I just wanted to pay off my car. I was a stay at home mom and needed the extra income to help my family make ends meet. I thought I could put a story together, throw it out into the world on submission and the money would start rolling in. They would even option my book for a movie! I would be famous! This plan had worked well for a small handful of writers in the world, why not me? I don’t think I’m alone in the lies I told myself. All writers do it, thinking you’ll write one manuscript and hit it big, win the first contest you enter, sign with an agent from your first pitch. I admit my delusion on this subject lasted into my second manuscript—before I rewrote it and then rearranged it 3 times. At some point along the way I fell in love with the writing of these characters, seeing the plots come together and the publishing industry as a whole. I wanted this to be my career, my life and I wanted it all right now. Enough with the waiting game!
It wasn’t until a family get-together much later and a talk with my brother that my view changed. He’d just finished reading Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. He told me about the rule of 10,000 hours. Basically, according to the study in this book, it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert on any given topic in life, 10,000 hours to rise above the pack and reach success. So, of course, being the OCD girl that I am, I immediately sat down with a calculator. Where was I? How far did I have to go to reach the point of success? How many more hours would I put in before some fabulous NY publisher would track me down and demand I publish my amazing stories? But, calculators tell no lies…I discovered if I write like it’s my job or 40 hours per week, I’d hit 10,000 hours after 4.8 years.
It struck me that this endeavor I’d started with the thought that I would be an overnight success was actually more like going back to college.
I also found some comfort in the fact that when put into those terms, I was a junior in this college scenario. This meant one day I would graduate. One day I would get a job that paid real money! I would have readers and books! Digital books, paper books, whatever, but books nonetheless! Real books! I still keep this definition in the back of my mind and pull it out when I’m anxious for the phone to ring and the next step to finally happen. You see, I’m a senior now. I signed with my fabulous Agent, Michelle Grajkowski, in May. And, I’m waiting for the phone to ring all over again, only this time with the news I’ve worked so hard to get for 4 years now. I want to hear those words that are so sacred, I’m afraid to even type them here in print. I want to graduate to publication; but while I wait, my stomach clinching at every ring of my cell phone and blinking red light of my email, I’m writing. So, my advice is this: never stop writing. Never stop learning. Keep going and you’ll hit your graduation day. Just write your story! Then write another one. And still another. And another…
How many hours have you been writing? What year are you in within this college of writer life? I’d love to chat with you about your journey.
XX – E. Michels
Back a few years ago, a teacher friend of mine told me a story that she would tell to her gifted and talented fifth graders. It went something like this:
Once upon a time there was a little boy named Jack. Jack was the smartest boy in his class. When the teacher would give him an assignment, he would make sure to do it exactly the way she wanted it, and when he turned it in, she would always give him the highest grade.
As Jack grew up, his teachers continued to praise him for being so smart and such a hard worker. In high school, in college, in graduate school, it was always the same.
When he graduated, the most powerful people in the world recruited him to help them solve all of their problems. They gave him an amazing lab, full of anything he could ever need to make the most amazing discoveries. They told him, “Go! Create!”
He looked around the room uneasily. He took one of the beakers off the shelf and asked the people, “Which kind of beaker would you like me to use? The round one or the straight one? What color do you want my solution to be? Do you want me to use this chemical or that one?”
One by one, the people waiting for him to make his discovery dropped their heads. And one by one, they walked away.
The moral of the story is that trying to please everyone gets you a long way as a kid, but in the end, you’ll never make something all your own that way. You have to believe in what you want to do. And you have to know what you want to do in the first place.
Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a series of writing workshops on a variety of topics. While I enjoyed it very much, a lot of the questions from beginning writers in the audience rubbed me the wrong way. There questions about, “How many subplots should I have?”, and “How long should my chapters be?”, and “How many points of view should I use?”, and “Should I explain my villain’s motivation from his POV?”
As our very own Sydney Carroll pointed out the other day, there are rules to writing, and they’re worth following. But in the end, the answer to a lot of beginner writer questions is: whatever is right for your story.
The best advice I could give my younger self is the same advice I would give a lot of the writers in that seminar: Write your story with whatever color crayon you want.
So, I got a request this week for a partial. YAY!!!! (Cue the applause!) I won’t say who it was from, but I will say that it was based on a synopsis I submitted to an agent a little while ago that was requested off a pitch contest I entered (THANK YOU, Darcy Drake!!) Today I am on cloud nine, but maybe not for the reason you think.
It’s an awesome feeling isn’t it? Getting a request? It’s even better when you’ve made it through a round or two of reviews and are still holding on. But this particular request was even better than that for me. It put a smile on my face wider than the Rio Grande, because this particular request came with something I value more than a shot at getting signed – priceless feedback from an agent.
You ever get a form rejection back, sigh, and say, “If they would just give me a clue as to what’s wrong with it, I could fix it.”? Imagine that instead of that form you got a request, and inside that request the agent clearly pointed out the challenges of the characters and plot you created (priceless feedback #1), and also laid it on the line that if the execution of the story didn’t do this, the book would be a very hard sell (priceless feedback #2).
This is where I was this morning when I opened my email. For some writers, receiving a request like this would send the butterflies of self-doubt rampant through their stomach and their veins until they become sick worrying that their story isn’t strong enough. Others might not even care because…hey, I got a request! But for me, this is a test – one I’ve been waiting for a long time for. This is my moment of truth.
Ask anyone of my critique partners and they will tell you two things about me. 1) I’m a straight shooter and 2) I don’t pick the easy path. I like a challenge. I like taking characters whom you might initially write off due to their past actions and redeeming them. I like finding the gray area between black and white, because there usually is one and too often it’s not seen. I’ll admit it’s not an easy thing to do; I’ve found myself banging my head onto a table on more than a few occasions. But it’s the kind of book I write. It’s my everlasting theme. It’s what drives me to keep putting words down onto pages.
So when I opened this email today, I was not only extremely grateful this agent had been so open and honest with me, I was proud that through my synopsis, this agent had recognized the exact points and struggles that lead me to write this story in the first place. This agent “got” what I was trying to do, and now the only question left to answer is — did I effectively pull it off?
I won’t lie – it makes me very nervous. Since I’ve started writing I’ve known that the types of stories I gravitate toward aren’t easy to write and have worried that they would be a harder sell. I’ve struggled in writing my queries, knowing that every single word I put down has to say exactly what I mean because I only have so many lines to point out that the most interesting part of a character is also the worst thing they’ve ever done and convince an agent that they are still likeable.
It is difficult. Sometimes when I’ve had a dry run on queries or submissions I wonder if maybe I could find an easier path and write stories that aren’t so challenging. And then I get an email like the one I received today and it gives me hope again. Maybe this partial won’t lead anywhere. Maybe that book won’t ever get published, or even the book I’m writing now which I know will face the same challenges. But at least I know that I’m not crazy. I’m onto something, here. And maybe, just maybe, I can pull it off. Imagine the payoff at the end when I do.
So thank you again, Unnamed Agent, for taking a chance and making a request. Thank you for your knowledgeable eyes into the world of publishing, and for your honesty and time — two things I know are hard for a busy agent to give. And thank you most of all for teaching an unpublished author like me that there is something sweeter than receiving a request – it’s validation that with the proper execution, I just might be on the right track!
Remember The Rules? It was a really popular relationship book giving advice like “never call a man first,” “don’t accept a date for Saturday after Wednesday,” and other things that made perfect sense to some and seemed like a fifties throwback to others. I have no personal experience with The Rules, as I was invested in the Tireless Pursuit of Douchebags Method™ at the time, but I know there were many who found love by following them—or so claimed the self-help franchise, anyway.
Finding love and writing fiction are two of the most personal activities out there, so claiming there are rules to either one is bound to create as much controversy. Like any personal endeavor, what works for some may not for others, and vice versa. Are writing rules like love and you’ll just know when they feel right? Will you succeed in publishing by the hand of fate? God, I hope not. I’m working too damn hard for that! But how do you know which rules to follow and which ones to break? This is the first entry in a series detailing the possibilities and pitfalls of rule-breaking in writing. For today’s introduction, I’ve broken them down into groups.
Group 1: Grammar, Syntax, and Overall Mechanics of Writing
Ignoring these and expecting to get “the call” from an editor or agent is like expecting the natural progression of a 3 am text to include a romantic brunch with engagement ring popped into the mimosa. To/too, misplaced apostrophes, and missing commas aren’t just topics of internet snark, they’re code for “not ready to submit.” But what if you think grammar and punctuation are for sheep? You, however, are the next Jack Kerouac, or James Joyce reincarnated. You are an artist. You have a concept. If that’s how you feel, it’s best to also show how unique you are by hand writing your query letter on scented paper—and don’t forget to add a spoonful of glitter before sealing that baby up! Let me know how it goes.
Group 2: Craft
I’d put these in the category of Proceed With Caution—successfully breaking these rules equates to finding a long-term relationship at a frat party. It’s been done before, but it’s not advisable for rookies. POV is a big one here. One writer’s idea of multiple characters’ perspectives might be an editor’s idea of head-hopping, or just downright confusing to a reader. Dialogue is here too. To tag or not to tag, adverbs, and dialect are all shaky ground for newbies. In other words, “Yuh gotta know whatcha doin’ or yuh’ll have a big ole’ rehd hawt mess, y’all!” Sydney exclaimed heartily.
Group 3: Story Structure and Genre
This, in my opinion, is a serious no-no. This is the writing equivalent of cheating on your spouse—not cool, dude. Not cool. If your story has no climax, or satisfying resolution to the major plot thread (even in a long-term series, some major plot point should be resolved at the end of each book), it’s not a story, it’s journaling. I’ve been guilty of this myself (the writing part, not the cheating part, just to clarify a bit). Another aspect is the expectations of the genre. If you’re violating those expectations, you’re cheating on your reader. Imagine paying nine dollars to go see the latest blockbuster movie, and Bruce Willis or Denzel Washington is racing toward the nuclear warhead with the timer ticking down to seconds and as he’s fighting the bad guys, the clock flashes three, two, one and then big explosion and fade to black…. Yeah, probably a lot of shit’s going to get hurled at the screen.
Group 4: The Tropes
Everyone finds love differently—and hopefully, we enjoy the journey! I like to think these are the rules that are meant to be broken, or at least played with. Otherwise, we’d all be reading and writing the same stories over and over again. A romance where the virginal heroine is taught the ways of love by the hero who’s been around the block so many times he’s worn a groove into the sidewalk? How about writing it the other way around? I’d read it. The tropes are there because they work, but play them too straight and you’ll have a boring story full of clichés at worst, or something that feels done before, at best.
Of course, following all of these rules is no guarantee of success. We all could probably come up with a bestseller or two that break every single one of them–the literary equivalent of screwing a stranger in a bathroom stall at a Nickelback concert and finding a soul mate in the process, if you’re keeping track of the relationship references. There’s no surefire recipe to publication any more than there is to finding love, but we put so much of ourselves into our writing, so why settle? Go in with open eyes and work at it to create the story that is the one—that will land you the agent, the editor, and the readers of your dreams!