Monday, September 27, 2010

Music Monday: Lizzy Ross

This weekend I had the distinctive pleasure of a quick road trip to Durham, NC to see Lizzy Ross perform. Lizzy just released a new album, Traces, in June. Her sound is technically alternative rock... but it's hard to categorize what I heard on Friday night. Her music is a delicious hybrid of folk, jazz, rock, and blues, with clever lyrics and riffs impossible to resist dancing to.

The venue was a private little gathering spot out in the country, and as the sun went down, tiki torches blazed and strings of tiny Christmas lights twinkled under the stage rafters. As the evening deepened, the music became more and more intoxicating, with the band effortlessly spinning out tracks from the new album like "Wedding Cake" (a fast-paced song with a playful sound but a serious subject) and "Cross the Cuyahoga" (an ambitious track that alternates between a driving beat and a lyrical chill-out chorus). More and more people got up to dance as the show went on, and it was remarkable how easy it was to get lost in the music with complete strangers - the sound just took us all over, and we gave in happily.

I was reminded a bit of KT Tunstall with some of her songs, and Norah Jones on others, but it was about the time Lizzy busted out a cover of Chocolate Jesus by Tom Waits that I knew she had her own style and sound. It's obvious she's worked hard to become as good as she is, and even though the show was a small one, she and her band played their hearts out. They finished up with a great couple of songs - the bluesy, dance-hall crowd pleaser "Bones" got the audience up on its feet and out on the dance floor, and Lizzy treated us to a solo version of the title track from her new album, a bittersweet, poignant song about remembering love and having the hope to try and claim it one more time.

I really enjoyed the show and would definitely go see Lizzy again. I bought a copy of her new album, Traces, and I've already been listening to it this weekend. I'd highly recommend if you're in the Durham, NC area sometime in the next couple of months trying to make it to one of her shows. You'll have a great time. Here's a video of her performing her song "Bones" at the Festival for the Eno in July.

Bones from Lizzy Ross on Vimeo.

Happy Monday! Hope the new music makes it a little easier today.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Your Short Fiction: Keep Your Chin Up!

We've had a productive week, haven't we?

You polished up your short fiction, found a market to fit the piece, sent it off with an awesome query letter and have logged all the info in your submissions tracking database. Now there's just one thing left to do...


Yeah, it's one of the hardest parts of the job. Your creations have flown the coop and are being reviewed by editors... so now you have to be patient and wait to hear back from the markets you've contacted. Usually it's a matter of weeks... but it can be months before you hear back. And I'll be honest... often, you don't hear back with good news.

But if you keep trying, if you believe in yourself and your talent, if you refuse to give up... you'll get there, eventually.

Remind yourself, when you receive a rejection, that this is a huge numbers game. The more rejections you get, the closer you are to getting published. After all, they can't all say no. Take the criticisms and suggestions offered and review them carefully. Remember, if they took the time to give you the pointers, that means your story impressed them in some way. Don't give up, try again.

And then one day, you'll open that email that says "we really liked this story, and we want to publish it in our upcoming issue". What a party there will be! I better be invited!

In the meantime... You can do this. I believe in you!

If you'd like to discuss more about getting short fiction published, feel free to comment. Have a fantastic weekend, my friend!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Your Short Fiction: Queries and Organization

You've polished your short story, searched through likely markets and found the one you think would work best for this particular piece. Now you're wondering how best to ask someone to read what you have to send.

Short and sweet is always best, in my opinion. Remember, editors get hundreds - if not thousands - of submissions a month. They don't need to know about your whole history. And you don't really have to tell them what the story's about, because they're going to find out anyway when they read it. Mention places you've been published, but stop when you get to five or six. Make sure to mention an award if you've been given one. Tell them a little about your current projects if you like. But seriously, keep the letter as short and to the point as possible. Here's a submission letter I sent to Apex magazine, so you can get the idea:
Good evening,

After reading through a few issues of Apex, I believe I've crafted a story that would fit well within your market. I'm excited for my work to run the Apex editors' gauntlet, and hope my work will be well received. Please see attached for my short horror piece, "Knights of the Road".

My short fiction has been published in Fissure magazine, Sinister Tales, A Cappella Zoo, Morpheus Tales, and moonShine Review. I've also finished the first draft of a horror novel, Blood in the Orchard, and am currently up to my elbows in the thorny process of editing that work. I'll be attending KillerCon in Las Vegas, NV this year and hope to find an agent for my book.

Thank you so much for your time, and especially for your consideration of my dark fiction.

Best Regards,

B. Miller
Remember, editors are just people. Treat them with respect, like they're another person on the other end of the connection instead of a faceless email, and don't be afraid of them.

Keep track of where you send each and every story. If you're using the submissions tracker on Duotrope's Digest, this is a no-brainer. It keeps all the information you need on hand. If you're not, that's okay, too. Make yourself a spreadsheet that includes AT LEAST these criteria:
  • Market name
  • Date sent
  • Story name
  • Market web address
  • Notes section 
You can add any kind of criteria you like, of course, from word count to story genre to email address of the editor you sent it to. You can also make your spreadsheet as detailed or as simple as you like. The thing to remember, though, is that you MUST check this sheet regularly, just to keep an eye on things. Don't be afraid to query on a story that's been out there for a long time. Duotrope normally lists the average response rating for a market, but even if you don't know that information, I would query after six months. Your query letter should be as short and sweet as your first one, if not more so. Here was mine to Dark Discoveries when they held on to my story, "Watched", for over seven months:
Good morning,

Just wanted to touch base with you on the status of my story, "Watched". I sent it out for your review on January 7th. I know things must be hectic for you, and I hope I'm not being a bother. Would you please let me know at your convenience where the story stands? Thank you so much for your time and consideration.

B. Miller
Be confident. You're a professional, remember? Not only do you have talent, but you have dedication and determination. You have every right to be corresponding with these editors and asking them to take a look at your work. You've been working hard, and you've got something to show for it.

All right, that's enough for the day. Get your letter together, make sure your ducks are in a row, and then do what you've been putting off for... how long now?

Hit send, my friend.  

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Your Short Fiction: Finding a Market

So now you have an edited, polished story you're ready to send out into the world.

Don't be freaked out. Remember, this is what you signed on for. You're a writer, remember? The hard part's over - the story's already written. Now you just need to find someone as enthusiastic about your fiction as you are.

One of the most user-friendly and useful tools I've found on the internet for finding fiction markets is Duotrope's Digest. Duotrope is free, and it offers an online organization tool for tracking your submissions. All you need to do is plug in what you want in their nifty search form, and you have literally dozens, if not hundreds, of markets to choose from for your short fiction.

So here's the question: how do you choose?

Take a look at the acceptance ratings, first. This can be found on the market's listing page on Duotrope. The lower the acceptance rating, the less likely your piece is to get placed. If you've never published anything before, try something with a high approval rating. Big markets like Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction or Weird Tales probably aren't going to publish a first-time writer. Be realistic in your goals; remember you have to get your chops before you can move up the ladder.

Narrow it down to a few markets. Now, visit their websites. Take a look at whether or not they accept simultaneous submissions - that's the practice of submitting your story to more than one market at a time. Many markets are okay with simsubs, but some aren't. Make sure your formatting matches what they require in their submissions guidelines. Also keep in mind how the market accepts submissions - not everyone accepts emailed stories. If you're not willing to shell out the postage, toner and paper, make sure to only research markets who accept electronic submissions.

Most importantly, take the time to get familiar with the type of material offered by the market you're researching. If they have PDF issues or excerpts available on their website, read them. Look on the shelves of your local bookstore for those small markets, if you can find them. Try to gauge if your work will be a good fit for the market, and if your fiction fits with the kind of publications this market is known for. Before you know it, you'll find a market to fit your work.

Now that you've selected a market to submit to, you're almost ready to send it out! Tomorrow we'll cover the short fiction query letter, plus keeping up with your submissions in the field. If you've got any questions or comments about finding a market for your work, feel free to comment!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Your Short Fiction: Polishing

The first step to getting your short stories published is to make sure they're a marketable product. Thousands of stories are submitted to markets on a monthly basis, so it's incredibly important that your work shine when it gets in the hands of a potential market editor.

First, check the spelling and grammar of your piece. Do NOT rely on your word processor's spelling/grammar checker to do this for you! If you type "Jenny was Eric's best fried in high school", the spell checker won't catch the misspell in the word "friend". But you can bet the market editor will catch it, and they WON'T be impressed. If you've looked the story over a hundred times or you're not comfortable with your level of skill in grammar, ask a friend or a writing partner to look over the story for you. A fresh pair of eyes will see mistakes you've overlooked.

Now that you're relatively sure everything's spelled and said correctly, go over your prose and look for passive words and phrases. "Ellen was singing" can easily become "Ellen sang". Also look for words like "that" and "had". Cut as many of these as you can. The same goes for words ending in -ly. KILL YOUR ADVERBS!! This will make your prose cleaner and tighter, and read faster. The vast majority of editors out there are looking for a quick read.

Now take a look at the story as a whole. Is there a beginning, middle, and end? Can you summarize what happens in a few succinct sentences? Are your characters believable?

Once you've completed these steps, it's time to format your piece. Most markets call for "standard formatting", which (loosely) consists of these rules:

  • Double-spaced text
  • 12 pt. Courier or Times New Roman (stick with the TNR; courier is usually accepted more in overseas markets)
  • The title, centered and bolded, just before the story begins
  • Numbered pages on the bottom right-hand corner of every page except page 1
  • A small header at the right hand top of each page except page 1 that says your last name and the name of the story
  • Indented continual paragraphs
  • Your name and contact info (mailing address, email address, phone # if you want to include it) at the top left corner of page 1
  • Word count at the top right corner of page 

I usually compose in standard formatting to save time later. Remember, not every market uses these rules, so make sure you check the submission guidelines for the market before you send it off. We'll go over more on that tomorrow.

Once you've completed these steps, print your story out and read it one last time. Give yourself a fresh "lens" to read through - try to imagine your ideal reader for this piece as you read. Pick a friend, a colleague, or someone else you'd like to share your genius with. Try to read it from their perspective. What do you think they would think of your words?

Okay. That's enough for today. Polish, polish, polish... now take a deep breath and a few steps back. We'll find a home for that perfect short piece tomorrow. If you've got any other polishing tips you'd like to share, please feel free! We learn new things every day. 

Monday, September 20, 2010

Your Short Fiction!

Let's talk about those unpublished short stories you have.

You know, the ones in that file. The ones you haven't sent out? Yeah, THOSE stories. I have a question for you. Why haven't you sent them out?

Don't look at me like that. I Seriously! Some of those are really good. You know they are. And if you send them out, circulate them around, you never know, someone might pick one up and publish it.

What's that? So what? So what?! Here's what: the more short stories you have published, the more credits you have. The more credits you have, the more likely an agent, editor or publisher is to give you the time of day. Plus, some markets submit really good stories for awards... and if you've won a short fiction award, you're all the more attractive to a potential connection that's a few rungs higher up the industry ladder... know what I mean?

I understand you're nervous about it. But don't be! Remember, the only thing they can say is "no". And you have to start getting rejected if you're ever going to get accepted, remember? So let me go over some things with you this week to help you along the way of getting some of your short fiction published. We'll talk about polishing and formatting, finding markets to publish your work, cover letters, keeping yourself organized and dealing with rejection. Any other aspects of short fiction publishing you'd like to discuss? Just let me know in the comments today.

I've missed you guys and am so happy to be back at the helm of my blog. Full speed ahead, the week's laid about before us in a sparkling swath of possibility!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Three... Two... One... Novel Away!

I sent the files for Blood in the Orchard to the agent on Friday of last week.

Whooo! I'm happy it's out, and it's in good hands. Of course, I'm nervous, but I've developed a knack for forgetting about work that's out in circulation. I don't think I'll be obsessing about the fate of my MS for the whole 2-3 months the agent will take to get back to me.

He asked for the first four chapters, an excerpt starring the monster/creature of the book, and a full synopsis. I'd never done a synopsis for a novel before and had no idea how difficult it could be! I finally just went through the book, chapter by chapter, and hit all the high points in the synopsis (following the agent's advice from the panel I posted about last week).

The synopsis is definitely a tool I'll use directly after finishing the first draft of the next novel. Right away I could see huge pieces of the story I could carve out and still leave most everything relatively intact. One of the only sticking points the agent had about my book is how long it was. The finished first draft was 124k, and in editing I'd dropped it down to 119k... but he said that as a first time novelist I really need to be shooting for 100k or less. The reason, he said, is strictly economic... once the book surpasses 100k words, the printing prices jump. Which makes for a more expensive book at the end of the whole process... and in the end, a less attractive book for your potential reader. If no one knows your name, they're much less likely to spend $25-$29 for your 115k-word novel than they would $17-$21 for your 90k-word novel. So I need to find some fat to trim... and once I really buckled down on the synopsis, I found a few places I could cut. Mainly, any time I had a hard time figuring out how to explain a particular scene, I asked myself how important it was to the story, or if it was just writing for the sake of expressing my voice. Often it was the latter of the two.

So now I'm in the final edits of the MS, changing up a few things so I can have a polished copy if the agent wants to read the rest of it. And my baby is in someone else's hands... all I can do is send it out there with the best of my heart, and hope it won't come back too banged up.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Queries and Book Proposals

Last week at KillerCon I attended a great panel called "Writing Queries and Book Proposals that Sell!". It was an hour-long, interactive talk from an established horror agent, and it was by far one of the most informative panels I sat in on. I knew this was something YOU'D be interested in, dear reader, so I took good notes for you and am here to report back on the info I collected.

The agent stressed that one of the most important things a writer can do is RESEARCH the person they're querying. Agents are listed out there on websites all over the place (two that immediately spring to mind are and, and they're not shy about what they want and don't want. Most of them list on their profile what they're looking for, how they accept submissions, and basic guidelines for submitting. A writer who sends out blindly is going to do nothing but irritate the agents they send to and eventually give themselves a bad name. Customize your query to each individual agent before sending it out. DO NOT, under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES imaginable, send out one query to a crapload of agents at one time. They WILL notice the mass email and delete it immediately without even opening it (yes, the agent running the panel said this himself).

I think the thing to remember here is that agents are people just like us. They're not machines, they're not some data monster that eats pages and spits out rejections. Treat them with respect and professionalism, and you'll get the same in return. I found this out on a first-hand basis when I had my pitch on Friday. After we sat down and got into our conversation, I forgot I was talking to an agent (well... mostly). We just talked like regular people discussing a book. Which is what, if I'd given myself some perspective, all I could've expected in the first place. Pitches are not some test you have to pass! They're a professional conversation with a person who may or may not be interested in what you have to say.

When you create your pitch, try to remember that terminology such as "this book is Harry Potter meets Twilight!" doesn't really impress anyone in the publishing industry, and is really used more in film terminology and movie pitching. Give the agent 3-4 short, well-written sentences about your book. This is NOT a synopsis - we'll get to that later. This is just enough to get someone interested in hearing more about the concept.

Before I started all this research on the pitch, I didn't know what the difference between a pitch, a query, and a proposal was. What I've learned is this: a pitch is a face-to-face meeting with an agent or publisher where you immediately have an in to try to sell your book. A query is a one-page letter (or email) sent to an agent or publisher in attempt to interest them in a book proposal. And a proposal is a lot of things rolled up into one:

  • A short blurb about the book's overall story. Don't go over five sentences. Make it tight and short, with little sentences like punchy jabs. Don't get into huge detail here; you're only trying to get them to read on and see what the actual story is like.
  • About the author. Include works you've had published that fit within your genre from major markets. Let the agent know what you've been working on, but don't inundate them with dozens of names of minor markets. They need to know if you've gotten an award for your fiction, not that your cousin Danny has published four of your stories on the printing press in your garage. Tell just a little about the publication credits you've received, but don't go overboard.
  • Synopsis. This is, plain and simple, an outline of your story set into paragraph form. Give the high points of the story, remembering the Red Queen's advice to Alice the entire time: "Start at the beginning, and when you get to the end, STOP." The synopsis must have a clear, recognizable arc, and make sense from start to finish. This is like a map you draw after you finish the book, including all the turning points in the story. DO NOT leave out the end. The agent will want to know you're capable of wrapping up a story with a satisfying ending. Leaving them with a cliffhanger will do nothing but turn them off.
  • Partial. This is the first fifty pages, first four chapters, or first 10,000 words of your novel. DO NOT send more than this. An agent can tell immediately if what you've sent is too long. If you're right in the middle of a scene, take it to a logical stopping point and cut it off. The important thing to remember about those first fifty pages is that you MUST have introduced your main characters by the time your reader/agent gets to the end of them. If you haven't, you're probably not going to have a very successful novel on your hands. Be extra-careful of typos and grammar snafus in these pages. Make sure it's as polished as it can possibly be. 
  • Marketing info. This is potentially dangerous territory, so tread softly where you go. Don't make a lot of outrageous claims about how many copies your book is going to sell. That's for the bean counters in the publishing agencies to tally up. Do, however, include a list of other books similar to yours in the same market segment; books which have done reasonably well in the marketplace, or books the agent or his firm have published. 

Networking is essential. You have to have a good rapport with agents and publishers to get ANYWHERE nowadays. Remember, there are over 300,000 books published a year in America alone. You stand a much better chance of getting yours published if you have some contacts in the business. How can you network? You can go to a convention like I did... or if there's not one in your area or it's out of your price range, try finding agents on social networks like LinkedIn or Facebook, or checking out some of the message boards on the publishing websites you're interested in. Listen to conversations, and insert yourself into threads as you see fit. Before you know it, people will know who you are. 

One more tip from our panel agent: if you're at a loss on finding agents or editors, check the acknowledgement sections of the books you're emulating. Most authors will list their agents and editors in the acknowledgement page, and this is a great jumping off point for you to do more research on a person that may be able to help you on your way to getting published!