Tuesday, 24 May 2016

In the land of the blind the one-eyed is king

You may recall that I recently thought that I’d received some fan mail, declarations of love even, only to discover that the floozy was spreading her messages far and wide, all whilst offering to make me wildly rich, but only if I could provide some upfront readies to oil the wheels of probate.  The brazen non-existent hussy.

Well, I now seem to have received some real fan mail.  He (I think it’s a he) didn’t declare his love or offer me a route to $9.5m for a modest downpayment, so I’m working on the basis that it’s genuine.  Instead, Lawson Castaldo (can I use that name? it’s very sci-fi) asked for advice on how to improve his writing.  And I thought I’d share my thoughts with you all.

Well, with a hit-rate of less than 1%, I’m not sure how valid any of my advice would be - a far better starting point would be the three articles linked here - but I’ll throw in a few thoughts of my own.  And, at the risk of being accused of mission-creep, I’ve majored on how to get sci-fi short stories published, and in so doing improve your writing.

‘Don’t get it right, get it written’
An old writerly cliché, only half-correct in that getting it right really helps, but the point is that writing is like using a muscle, the more you use it the better you get.  Just write stories.  Read them back to yourself.  Get them fit for purpose and get them out there.  Listen to any feedback your lucky enough to receive.

A lot of people get family and friends to read them, take them to writers’ groups.  Way too many cooks in my view.  If what you write reads well to you then get your babies to fly the nest and work on the next yarn.  Don’t be like the character in Camus’ The Plague who edited his life’s work down to one sentence (was it even one word in the end?).  Be productive.

For one thing, magazines and publishers may well sit on a story for six months, longer if it makes it further from slush pile to editor’s desk(top) - you need to have a dozen or so out there knocking on doors for you.  I’ve just done a quick count and I think I have about 21 stories currently in slush piles.

Know your market
The internet is brilliant.  If you don’t already know ralan.com, submissions grinder, Duotrope, check them out.  SFWA produce a list of qualifying markets.

Get to know the submissions pages of the publications you’re pitching to.  Follow the instructions - story length, format, what to include in the cover letter, what to put in the subject line of the email - to the letter.  Don’t give them a reason for an instant rejection.

…but don’t know your market too well
By which I mean - and I’ll risk the ire of editors here - don’t feel it necessary to read the magazines you send stories to - other than to support their very worthy enterprises.  The reason being that editors want some out-of-the-ordinary, extraordinary.  Feel tempted to replicate or imitate what’s gone before and your guaranteed not to be fresh or different.  I don’t want to reference myself against other stories.  If I’m in the dark as regards what’s out there then I’ll never be tempted to steer a story away or towards another’s tale.  Plus, remember, editors are maybe a year ahead in terms of what they’re reading versus what their readership is seeing.

As long as I’m not sending sci-fi to a fantasy market (You know how I tell?  The artwork.  If a website is all dragons and dwarf-tossing then it won’t get my William Gibson-esque near-future dystopia) then I’m happy not to be too well-versed in its recent output.

I recently heard Richard Hawley interviewed who said he wouldn’t listen to music when writing music as he ends up pastiching what he hears - I’m the same about writing.  In fact, I don’t think any sci-fi has ever informed my sci-fi, other than in a very peripheral, ‘mood-music’ kind of way.  I’m much more likely to take a story in a newspaper and play ‘what-if’ games with it.

For example, I was reading about automotive technology that can tell when a driver is having a heart attack, stop the car, and call the emergency services.  My mind drifted to what if the driver was an android - the car wouldn’t function at all - but didn’t know it.  Would he achieve self-knowledge through trips to the garage?  So I wrote that.

I find checking the anthology listings on submissions grinder particularly useful.  Some are vague as anything, but others can be bizarrely precise.  With luck I either have a story that fits or - and this is where it can really hit the sweet spot - a story can be twisted to fit in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen.  That story about the intelligent car and unaware robot?  When I saw Kazka’s requirements for their Bronies anthology the car became a pony and another sale was made.  I would never have written that story straight off.

Sounds odd, but stories cover sights and sounds but rarely smells.  Add a line or two about the scents, aromas and whiffs.  It’s to writing what Worcestershire sauce is to cooking.

Lastly, forget the money
In terms of return on investment you’d be better off walking the pavements looking for dropped change.  I don’t say this to put you off, but to free you from the pressure of either trying to write to a ‘formula’ that isn’t you or judging your writing fiscally.  I think I suffer from stories that are hard to pigeonhole, but I can’t bring myself to write overblown ‘Captain Zumera pushed his hovercar over the ridge and into the canyon, fingering the trigger of his blaster, looking for shellback ya-yas’-type spaceopera.  (Actually that didn’t sound too bad, even if I don’t understand half of what I typed).

Plus, when you do get paid it’s all the sweeter.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Meditations on editorial correspondence

I’ve been having a number of interesting communications from, even exchanges with, editors in the past couple of weeks.  Oh, and I also got rejection number 28 from Clarkesworld.  ‘Nuff said about that.

On the one hand, I have a story that’s made it through the slush pile to the editor-in-chief at Spark.  Which is nice.  And I’ve been exchanging messages with the courteous and efficient Matt Buscemi at Fuzzy Hedgehog, who even sends me a new proof when I ask for an extra hard return in my contribution to Beyond the Hedge volume 1.  (As an side, I do like the way that a search for it on amazon.co.uk takes me to a cardboard cat house.)

But most curious of all have been my exchanges with Carrie Cuinn at Lakeside Circus.

You may recall that I sold a story, The Root Canals of Mars (which, I’ve just discovered, is also an ambient soundscape thing by Daniel Crommie), last May to Lakeside Circus.  My sole sale of 2015, as it turned out.  A modest $14, but it’s not the money, it’s the independent verification by somebody who doesn’t know me through anything other than my writing that it’s worth putting in print.

Well, immediately after signing and returning the contract to Carrie Cuinn, I stumbled across this blog posting regarding Lakeside Circus’ modus operandi.  It raised alarm bells with me.  Further Google searches have flagged tales such as this; although the fault doesn’t appear to be wholly on Ms Cuinn’s side, putting her name into a search engine does seem to elicit a disproportionate amount of chatter.

Well, following the signing of my story away for twelve months, what happened?  Precisely nothing.  Not a word.  Not even when, after six months, I sent an email querying Lakeside Circus’ plans for my story.  Silence.  Void.  Vacuum.

As April turned to May I thought Ms Cuinn may get in touch to clarify matters before the rights reverted to me.  But no.  Not a squeak.

So, a couple of days after the guillotine fell, I sent this email:


As you have chosen not to publish The Root Canals of Mars, the appropriate kill fee became payable earlier this week and the rights have now reverted to me.  Grateful if you could make payment to my PayPal account, as per this email address.

Regards,  Robert Bagnall

Clear and businesslike, I thought.  The reply, however, I found somewhat leftfield:

I did not choose not to publish this work.  Perhaps you've confused me with another publisher? 
Best,  Carrie Cuinn

Not, ‘really sorry, time ran out, I’ve been dealing with a long list of stories I want to publish but still love yours, can we talk about scheduling it for later in the year?’ or some such.  Instead, it’s ‘I don’t think you meant me’.  Does she think I’m complaining about a rejection rather than a decision not to publish something she’s bought the rights for?  Surely the reference to a ‘kill fee’ would make that clear.  So I reply:

You accepted it for Lakeside Circus on 16 March 2015, I returned the signed contract on 12 May 2015, and queried when you'll be publishing sometime around November 2015 (you didn't reply to my email).  You may wish to check your emails, but can forward you the contact (sic) if you can't find it.

Carrie replies:

I see the confusion. No, I did not decline to publish it. We had a break in publication for a while during which time we restructured (it was announced on social media and on the website). I still have every intention of publishing it, unless you want to withdraw it, which you're free to do since it has been more than 12 months. It's on my schedule for this summer, though, and I'd prefer to move forward with it if that's okay with you.
Carrie Cuinn

At this I sense a slight rat.  The contract pays a kill fee if Lakeside Circus does not run it within twelve months but, if I accept the invitation of withdrawal no kill fee is payable.  The kill fee is an even more modest $7, but there’s a principle at stake here.

To be clear, the confusion is entirely on your side.  No, I do not wish to withdraw the piece, as that nullifies the contractual kill fee.  However, the facts of the matter are that due to your actions or omissions the piece was not published in the year since I assigned the rights to you.  The idea that your publication was in hiatus somehow stops the clock is laughable.

What we will do now is that you will pay the contractual kill fee and, if you still wish to publish, you may offer a new contract, which I will consider.
Robert Bagnall

A reply pings back:

I'm not sure why you need to be rude, or misrepresent what I'm saying. If you do not wish to be published by Lakeside, that does not negate the fee due to you since it's been more than 12 months. The contract is clear, and nothing I've said contradicts that. However, since I never declined to publish it, but you said I had, I wanted to clear up that I was still willing to publish it.

I will process your payment, and take your work off our schedule.
Carrie Cuinn

Maybe I have been brusque:

Apologies if my response appeared rude; I was aiming for clarity given a year ago you 'loved' my story, after which you decline to respond to my request for an update, and then deny ever having been in contact.

And back again:

No, Mr. Bagnall, I did not "deny ever having been in contact", just like I did not decline to publish your story, I simply had not published it yet. You can look over my emails to see clearly I never said that.

Considering I wrote the contract to allow you the kill fee if you hadn't been published within a year - a deadline which had just (barely) passed - I'm not certain why you feel the need to be adversarial and repeatedly attribute things to me I've not said. It doesn't affect the fee one way or another, so it really is unnecessary. Please stop.
Carrie Cuinn

This is seriously odd.  So what if a deadline is ‘barely’ passed; it’s either passed or it hasn’t.  Maybe we’re arguing over ‘decline’.  Lakeside Circus accepted my piece and then failed - forgot? - to publish it.  I’m not using ‘decline’ in a particularly active sense here, but maybe that’s what’s confusing, just trying to be more polite than using 'failed'.  But I think she did pretty clearly deny previous contact…

Apologies for any confusion, but I was taking "I did not choose not to publish this work.  Perhaps you've confused me with another publisher?" at face value,
Robert Bagnall

Back and forth, back and forth...

Yes, I did not choose NOT to publish it. In other words, I did not decline to publish it, as I've said repeatedly.
Carrie Cuinn

‘Declined’ to publish?  ‘Failed’ to publish?  ‘Forgot’ to publish?  Whether Lakeside Circus ‘didn’t choose’ to publish or ‘chose not’ to publish the result is the same - they had the rights to publish until the calendar moved on twelve whole pages, but they didn’t.  I sense someone who’d rather debate the semantics than deal with the issue.

Hmm.  With or without the double negative, still reads like 'we've never spoken, you must have me mixed up with someone' to me.


To which she never replied.

Suffice to say that Matt Buscemi at Fuzzy Hedgehog has made payment on ‘Where do all the Accountants Come From?’, whereas Carrie Cuinn at Lakeside Circus?  Still waiting…