Writing to Sell – Notes from a Workshop

In April 2013, I attended a “Writing to Sell” workshop at the 52nd Natcon Convention in Canberra. This workshop focused on factors to think about when writing short-form fiction for the professional speculative fiction market. The following contains some of the tips I gleaned and, while most of them are familiar and self-explanatory (writer 101 stuff), there were a couple of pointers I hadn’t thought of so I thought I’d share.

Obviously, the usual rules apply. There is no one way to get published and no ‘formula’ per se to writing fiction (after all, if there was, everyone would be doing it). There is also hard work involved. Like any of the arts, writing is a skill that takes time and practice to master.

1) Your work should come across as professional (fail to do this and you won’t get a look in)

– Make sure your grammar and spelling are correct. This is basic.

– Make sure you format your manuscript correctly (e.g. double-spaced, 1-inch margins, page numbers with your story title and name, if required, and so on).

– Make sure you send the right file type. Most magazines tell you if they want .rtf or .doc or .docx and so on. If they can’t open your file, how are they going to accept your work?

– Write to the word count specified by the magazine. Magazines impose word counts because the size of each story affects how many stories can be included in a magazine in total and because there are budget ramifications for overlong stories. Mags that pay per word have to pay more for longer stories and, the more words a magazine has, the heavier it is and the more expensive it is to print. Also, some magazines have identified that, in this busy world, their readers prefer shorter tales and thus they may preference shorter works.

2) Pay attention to the magazine/market you are submitting to. Don’t send them stuff they don’t publish.

– Basically, you should read the magazine and the submission guidelines to get a feel for the type of stuff each mag is after. There is no point sending a high fantasy to a market which only publishes hard science fiction.

– Story sales are subject to fashion so it pays to be aware of, though not totally beholden to, current trends.

3) Your story should have something to say. It should resonate with the times.

– Stories should be ‘about’ something. I know this sounds very twee and ill-defined – a story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end, right? Well, technically, yes. But the good stories, the ones that are remembered for days or even years later, have a deeper meaning or underlying theme and something to say about the human condition. They shouldn’t, on the other hand, be too obvious and beat the reader over the head with ‘a message’. It’s a fine balance.

– Stories should also be somewhat relevant to the times. Yes, you can put rampant sexism and racism and violence and all manner of unsavoury or outmoded things in a story, but if these things are not presented through the filter of a modern sensibility (i.e. what is considered acceptable in modern society), you may have a tough sell.

– The story should ideally speak to a modern audience. It can be set in whatever time you like, but the best stories are those that present truths which resonate with modern readers.

4) Make your opening sing.

– The beginning should capture the reader. Remember, short story slush readers go through dozens of stories a week. If the beginning doesn’t capture them, they won’t read on to ‘get to the good parts’. They haven’t got the time and will often reject a story after only a sentence or two.

– It’s really important to start the story at the right moment. Avoid boring, domestic opening scenes. People don’t want to read about someone eating their breakfast (unless they are engaged in some ripping dialogue). They want to start with where it gets interesting.

– You also don’t want a story to start too late. You don’t want to have to rely on dialogue or a ‘flashback’ to ‘explain’ a scene or event that has already happened because then you are falling into the trap of relaying interesting info as dialogue or exposition. This is ‘telling’ and not ‘showing’ and your reader probably wants to experience the event at the same time as the characters do.

– You do not need to blow stuff up to make for an interesting opening. Just sayin’.

– You want ‘the inciting incident’ to occur very early on in a short story. You don’t have the same lead-in, introducing the characters time you might have for a novel (though it could be argued modern novels don’t really have this luxury anymore either).

– It’s useful to put your science fiction or fantasy element on the first page. People won’t usually want to read a load of very pedestrian stuff to get to the spaceships or angels or mystery or missing person or spies or whatever the cool thing in your story is.

– You want the reader to have sympathy and empathy for your character from the start. A good way to do this is to give the character an emotion or a problem. Boredom, anger and grief are bad emotions to open with because you usually need to understand the character somewhat to empathise with these and, given it is the start of the story, the reader doesn’t know the character yet. In the same way, there is no point starting off a story with the character undergoing violence or assault because you need to know a bit about them or at the very least the context or circumstances behind the violence in order to care about the character’s fate. It can be better to start off with emotions like fear or embarrassment or shame – things readers immediately engage with and understand from their own experiences.

5) The story should have decent pacing and be interesting the whole way through. It must be engaging enough to hold the reader’s attention. You want the reader to keep asking ‘what happens next?’

– Conflict is character. Stuff should happen to your character.

6) Your conclusion/ending should be strong and satisfactory.

– Stories need a satisfactory conclusion. That snappy opening and riveting plotline needs to go somewhere. It is sometimes useful to think about the ending early on so you can direct your plot in that direction.

– Do not try to be too clever or have a ‘twist’ at the end, unless the twist flows on organically from what you’ve already written.

7) Make your world unique and original with well-defined rules and limitations (even if it is a magical world, there will be rules and limits to the magic system being used). Don’t just rehash the old.

– Put the story in an interesting setting. Good world-building is crucial, even in short stories. Make the setting unique, even if it is a new spin on an old or familiar setting.

– Doing some research can add great depth and uniqueness to a story. For example: you should brush up on your physics if writing about a planet of a certain size. What things are possible about its atmosphere? Can you really fly a big ship that close to that type of planet and so on? Not only does research improve world-building and believability for the reader, it can also gift the writer with issues and conundrums for the characters to solve or work around. These problems create drama, which in turn creates conflict (interior or exterior) and thus character and something for the reader to invest in.

8) You need good point of view (POV) control and the right POV. Which character/s are we following?

– The omniscient POV is making a comeback and is good for certain types of fiction, like fairy-tales, but you are often best going with a close third person POV (following one character at a time and knowing their experiences and thoughts intimately) or first person POV (though you need to know them and their voice and thoughts intimately to do this well). What it comes down to is the fact readers (including slush readers) want to be intimate with a character and know who they are following, whose story this is.

– Voice belongs to the character not the writer, even in close third person POV. What a scientist character might notice is different from what a tradesman character would and what a fashion designer character would. They notice different things. They speak differently. Describe differently. Focus on different things.

9) Describe perfectly, specifically and sparingly.

– When describing something, look for the perfect word. For example, if you want to know what ‘that thing on a staircase’ is, look up the right word for it and use it.

– Don’t use descriptions that are non-specific. Focus on the things you need to describe to get the feel you are after – you need the right specifics to convey the right images. A 1950s room might have smoke-stained curtains and frayed shagpile carpet – that’s a much more specific description than simply saying the room was dirty and had carpet.

– Don’t strive to be fancy. You can achieve the right feel using perfectly ordinary words. You do not need to rampage through the Thesaurus to find every variation for the word ‘angry’ or ‘said’.

– Don’t overdo metaphors, similes or adjectives. Keep them minimal.

– Don’t repeat or overuse any one word or description too much.

– Don’t over-describe where it is not needed. Too many pretty words can bog down the pace of a story. You need to particularly be aware of this in action scenes. People notice less when they are fleeing so this is not the time to write flowery descriptions of the portraits hanging on the hallway they are running down.

– Also be aware of what your character can actually see or sense. If it is pitch-black, you can’t accidentally write that the character is sitting on a blue chair. In situations like this, description will be more limited to what the character can hear and smell and touch. Rather than the blue chair, you could describe that the chair is light to pick up, or bolted to the floor or that it feels like wood or metal.

– Don’t forget to tell your story in your natural voice. Writer’s groups often teach you that you shouldn’t use words like ‘that’ and ‘was’ and, yes, you should certainly not overuse them, but don’t totally strip them out either while groping for ‘interesting verbs’ because this can make the work seem over-wrought and clunky.

10) Dialogue should reveal things about the character and advance the plot.

– Dialogue should seem naturalistic, but not redundant. For example: how would your character really react if told off or criticised by another character and so on? Would he be non-combative, defensive, dismissive?

– Whinging is, apparently, one of the worst offenses a character can commit in fiction. People hate whinging.

11) Info dumping – yes you can (very carefully).

– You are allowed to info-dump. It’s kind of expected in hard sci-fi (the readers want to know how the science works and so on) and at certain points in fantasy (e.g. when systems of magic and rules of magic are being explained). The main thing to remember is: make your info-dumps as short as possible (only insert them where your reader needs to know the info to understand the story) and only place them at the right moments (where the info works in with the natural flow of the story). Don’t do a big info-dump in the midst of a high-action scene, for example, because this will bog the action down in words and lose the tension. Also, don’t info-dump at the start of the story when you are trying to get the reader hooked with all the ‘awesome stuff that should be happening’.

At the end of the day, stories submitted for market often go through a number of slush readers and several editors as well before they are sold. A lot of eyes may read your words before a decision is made to publish your story. Rejection can be a matter of the individual taste of one or a number of those readers or because the magazine already has enough of ‘your kind of story’ in their mag and wants specific balance or because the story simply doesn’t suit ‘the feel’ of the mag.

Keep practicing and don’t give up.

Thanks for reading – Shauna O’Meara.

If you found my stuff useful and would like to leave a token donation for the time I took to write it, you can do so through the Paypal link opposite. All tips are most appreciated.

This blog post was written from notes taken down at a workshop run by Patty Jansen called “Writing to Sell” and also incorporates things I’ve learned from other workshops and discussions and my own writing experiences. Patty kindly let me blog about her workshop. Patty Jansen is a previous winner in the Writers of the Future contest and former CSIRO scientist who has sold short fiction to a number of SFWA-approved markets (e.g. Analog, Asimov’s and Redstone SF) and who also self-publishes her own novels and slush-reads for ASIM (Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine).

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