Revisiting the Short Story and Heinlein’s Five Rules of Writing

george brown college

The seventh class of my 12-week Creating Science Fiction course at George Brown College is all about short story writing. I’m by nature a progressive—and an itinerant explorer; so, I am updating materials for my students and sharing them with you.

PlayingTheShortGame-DougSmithOne resource I’m eager to introduce to my students is Canadian SF short story writer Douglas Smith’s recent guidebook, Playing the Short Game: How to Market & Sell Short Fiction. Smith’s guidebook is a Tardis-style smallish yet comprehensive guide on what it takes to be a successful short story writer from starting & finishing to marketing & publishing to leveraging & promotion.

Smith is an accomplished short story writer and marketer, who has always openly shared his treasures of acquired wisdom with others.  His stories have appeared in thirty countries and 25 languages. He’s won three awards and has three acclaimed collections—so far. For years, his Foreign Market List has helped writers—including me—sell their work all over the world. To date, I have sold short stories (mostly translated reprints) to markets in Greece, Poland, Romania, Israel, and Italy—thanks to his list.

Why Write Short?

coffee-doubleespressoI’m a petite five foot-three height and purposely wear flat shoes. I love short. I prefer my espresso pulled in short shots—or  ristretto—in my flat white. Described as bolder, fuller, with more body and less bitterness, the ristretto is like a burst of intense flavor with a lingering finish. Short is pretty cool.

Douglas Smith gives seven excellent reasons for writing short fiction, even if you are ultimately a novel writer, like me. Writing short stories:

 

  1. Helps you learn your craft in easy, short-term, bite-sized amounts and over a reasonable time for you to learn, apply, and relearn
  2. Helps you test the waters of literature, to discover what excites you, provokes you and what ultimately you NEED to express
  3. Builds your resume, again more easily and quickly than a novel, toward that ultimate novel; publishers of magazines and publishing houses are more likely to take your work seriously if you have a publishing history
  4. Helps you explore ideas for your novel, by “pinging” certain premises you may wish to explore in further detail or take elsewhere in a novel
  5. Helps you build a backlist of published stories, which you own, once rights have reverted back to you
  6. Helps you build a network in your writing community of publishing houses, editors, other writers and so forth as you submit and exchange through your works and letters (including all those rejections!). Eventually, a pleased editor/publisher may invite you to submit to a “Best of” anthology or provide a collection. This has happened to me several times.
  7. Helps you learn the publishing business (well, sort of, says Smith…). Through exposure to the business side of publishing, you will gain an appreciation of how the publishing world works.

Know What You’re Writing

Nina-computer-KraveA short story only has 7,000 or less words to get your tale across while a novel has over ten times that many words to do the same. It follows then that the short story format is a simpler one. This does not necessarily mean easier.

Novels provide a sense of change, growth and solutions to problems and conflicts. “The short story doesn’t have the luxury of depicting change; the closest it can come is awareness,” writes Shelley Lowenkopf in her 2007 article “Telling Tales” in The Portable Writer’s Conference: Your Guide to Getting Published by Quill Driver Books.

She goes on to describe the short story as a close-up to a novel’s landscape. The short story is, therefore, often more intense and powerful. A short story, more than a novel, has the power to transport, disturb and enlighten.

ElementsOfFiction-SceneStructure-BickhamRenowned short story authors like Edgar Allen Poe, Nathanial Hawthorne, and Somerset Maugham, emphasize the importance of striving for one effect when writing a short story: the single effect you wish to leave with the reader at the end. This is accomplished by selecting events or situations that build quickly into a combustible response. Even Alice Munro, who is known for cramming long timeframes into her short stories, frames time through a single event: a meal, family gathering, wedding or funeral, for instance.

Jack Bickham, in his book, Elements of Fiction Writing: Scene and Structure by Writer’s Digest Books (1993) writes that, “story length, author intention, traditional expectations of the audience, and all sorts of things may affect the form a story may take.” Choosing the appropriate length to tell your story relies on the complexity of your premise and theme.

Understanding the Short Story Format

Here are seven tips toward writing a compelling and memorable short story:

  1. Open in the middle of something happening (e.g., action/in a “scene”)
  2. Make your opening provocative (raise the stakes as high as you can)
  3. Write scenes and write sparingly (avoid describing the obvious—use description to show something odd, memorable, exotic)
  4. Have characters define themselves and their goals through what they do and observe (e.g., show more than tell)
  5. Define characters with dialogue (a great way to reveal while keeping a high pace)
  6. Withhold vital information for as long as possible
  7. Don’t explain the ending (cut down on the denouement; let the reader make those conclusions—a key in the short story format)

Selling Your Short Story

Smith’s guidebook provides several chapters of excellent advice in logical steps toward a successful career.

Here are just a few gems that I will be sharing with my students.

First of all, remember that you are not selling your story; you’re licensing a particular set of rights for someone to do something with that story. Before you do anything else, do your homework: know the rights you’re selling; and which ones to keep. Smith describes five major types of rights: media; language; geography (less and less relevant); occurrence; and time.

Eramosa River 3

Eramosa River, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Media rights include print rights, electronic rights and audio rights. Markets include magazines, anthologies and collections for short stories. Language and geography rights are pretty self-explanatory. Occurrence rights relate to whether the publisher is buying first or second and onward rights (otherwise known as reprints). Most publishers prefer to pay for the right to publish your work for the first time in that particular format (e.g., in print and in English, for instance). Having said that, I’ve had a lucrative history of selling reprints to some of my more popular short stories. I’ve furthered gone on to selling other rights, such as foreign language rights and audiobook and e-book rights. I’ve also sold two short story collections, one to an Italian publisher (coming out this year) and shorts in several anthologies. No movies yet… But I did have a serious discussion with a writer/producer on one of my shorts. Recall how many Philip K. Dick short stories have been adapted to movies (e.g., Total Recall, The Adjustment Bureau, Paycheck, Minority Report, and Blade Runner).

Heinlein’s Five Rules of Writing

Smith evokes SF writer Robert J Heinlein’s 5 rules of writing to succeed as a short story writer (as any kind of writer, actually). These are:

  1. You must write
  2. You must finish what you write
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order
  4. You must put the work on the market
  5. You must keep the work on the market until sold

I know… Number 3 sounds pretty suspicious, or arrogant at the very least. As Robert J. Sawyer concludes on his site in reference to the five rules, number 3 is open to reasonable interpretation. Of course, it must mean AFTER you’ve finished and edited the story with some level of confidence that you’re happy with it—never mind what other people think of it.

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webNina’s Bus-Terminal Model

In my writing guide The Fiction Writer, Chapter L (for “Long or Short?”), I talk about how I launched my own successful short story writing career. I’d been writing short stories for a few years without much success (I was getting interesting rejection letters, so I knew I was getting close); then I settled into a kind of model/routine. I call it The Bus Terminal Approach. As Smith attests—several times—it’s a numbers game. That’s how I played it. It starts with one story and relies on you not waiting until you write the next, and the next and the next. Here’s how it works:

  1. You list at least 3 markets that you’ve researched for Story A and send it to the first of the three
  2. You start right away writing Story B, send it to the first of 3 markets you’ve researched and listed for it
  3. When Story A rejection arrives, you do not revise but send it right away to the second market
  4. Same thing for Story B
  5. Write Story C and treat similarly

NaturalSelection-front-webRemember to keep track of what you send where and when and what happens to it. It can become a very confusing bus terminal otherwise, with someone ending up in Seattle when they are headed to Toronto! What happens with this approach is several things: you begin to treat the whole marketing/publishing process as a business (which it is) and because you have so many “buses” out there coming and going, the rejections don’t hurt quite as much and instead become part of the learning process, which they should be. You adopt a more business-like approach, which translates into your relationship with editors and publishers. A win-win situation results. Believe me; this works. Once I fell into this method, my sales increased by over 70%.

 

Several of my stories are currently available in a collection entitled Natural Selection by Pixl Press. You can read one of my short stories right on Amazing Stories: “Virtually Yours”.

My guidebook, The Fiction Writer, can be purchased in various online and onsite bookstores, including Amazon, Kobo, Chapters Online, Barnes & Noble, and several others even I don’t know about.

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent short story is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

The Introverted Writer: Using Radio to Sell Your Book

nina-coop-radio05Like most authors, I’m somewhat of an introvert. I don’t mind talking in front of people, but I don’t crave it and I often need a place to relax and recharge after. One thing I know I can do lots more of is talk about my books and the writing process on a more one-on-one mode. I think most authors do: How and why we write; what made us write that particular one; why it’s important; how it can help others.

Radio offers a much less intrusive and intimate way to reach out to the public. Talk shows, podcasts and online radio shows are popular among the mobile public who are often looking for an easy way to entertain as they travel. I’ve done many radio interviews and have found them very rewarding and successful in getting publicity for my books.

RadioGuestList.com (on BookMarketingTools.com) gives sound advice on how to get booked on talk shows to promote your book: “Radio DJ’s, talk show hosts, and podcast producers need to fill their air time.” They say. “If you can offer them credible, interesting discussion that keeps their audience tuned-in, you can likely get on the air to tell their audience about your book(s).”

RadioGuestList.com provides tips to help get you on the air about your book and I’ve provided several of them here:

  1. find shows interested in topics covered in your book: use Google, Twitter or BlogTalkRadio.com.
  2. choose an angle: offer story, topic and “how to” discussion topics. If you can “newsjack” onto a current trend or issue, even better!
  3. Write a short pitch that focuses on how the show’s audience can benefit from your interview. Offer to promote the show on your social media, which is a win-win for you and the station.
  4. Include vital contact information so they can find you easily. These can include email, phone number, Skype handle, bio and website.
  5. Provide potential focal points to discuss; you can even suggest questions, which all make the interview potentially easier to run.
  6. Offer and provide cover art, headshot, bio and related media that the show can use to promote your appearance. Include your social media accounts and website, etc. so they can add them. Let them know how you will promote the show too.

I’ve done several types of radio/podcast interview and they fall into three general camps: 1) those where I knew what the questions were going to be in advance; 2) those where I may have had an idea of topics to cover, and 3) those where I had no idea what we were going to talk about—except that it would involve my book in some way. In my opinion, the interviews that worked out the best were those in the last category.

Really!

The reason is that these interviews tended to be hosted by experienced and confident radio hosts and the interview was allowed to proceed organically, flowing like a real conversation—which made it more fun for me, the host and for the listening audience. These interviews often generated spontaneous laughter and travelled into surprising and crazy good places. I found that my voice relaxed as I just let the conversation flow and gave my confidence to the host—something the audience can also sense. A good interview is a little like doing a slow dance with a partner who is a good lead. Let your host lead and enjoy where it takes you. This doesn’t mean that you can’t nudge the topic into surprising new directions. That’s also part of the fun. They lead, you follow through, they pick up from that and so on.

Here are some tips for creating a great listening experience:

  1. Know your material; do the diligence of researching topics you may wish to discuss and have material with you if you feel comfortable consulting it (the material would need to be very accessible and you shouldn’t read long tracts of anything).
  2. Relax and enjoy the interview. Let the process flow naturally. It may take a turn you didn’t anticipate; just go with it. Let it be a conversation between host and guest; giving, receiving, learning, teaching.
  3. Don’t monopolize the discussion. The host often has something very interesting to add, which will journey into something interesting for the listeners. Give the host space to do that. Then bring in interesting answers.
  4. Be gracious and thank the host at the end. Let them—and your audience know—how much you enjoyed the experience.

RadioGuestList also wisely suggests that you (or your publicist) follow through with a quick email to thank the show’s producer and/or host. It’s also good to let them know how you will promote your interview and/or inform them when you do.

If the show went well you may wish to let them know that you’d love to do a repeat radiointerviewappearance. I have done that with several of my interview appearances with wonderful return visits.

For those of you conducting interviews—either for your book or an article you’re writing—I go over some dos and don’ts in Chapter I: Interviews & Other Weird Interactions of my fiction writing guide “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” They involve the four pillars of good journalism: thoroughness, accuracy, fairness, and transparency. Understanding what makes a good interviewer can help make you a better interviewee.

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

Write a Great Book Jacket Blurb

 

fullcoverwtitlesblurblowresA while ago I wrote about the importance of an effective—and accurately portrayed—book cover design for your book. To reprise, this includes not just the choice of cover image but the typology (how the title and name is designed) and overall design. The actual title is another important choice, which I talk about in another article. What remains is the back book jacket blurb—the description on the back cover of a print book and the description section for the book on Amazon (and other bookstores).

Author and digital marketing instructor Laurence O’Bryan discusses seven things every blurb should have in his article on “BooksGoSocial Book Marketing Blurb”. They include:

  1. A strong first sentence. You can insert a tag line, a short sentence from the front cover or a short exciting review quote. You can also state the most dramatic element of the book or what the reader will get, how they will benefit, from reading your book.
  2. In the second paragraph tell the reader who the main characters are, by name, what the circumstances of the book are and the location.
  3. Include the dramatic problem or dilemma of the plot early on. You can use key words such as: “however”, “but” or “until.”
  4. Hint at how the characters might overcome the dilemma.
  5. Indicate the tone and mood of the book. Tell the reader through pace and word choice what kind of story they will get. Is it a romance, a mystery, a thriller, a literary story, a fantasy or another popular genre?
  6. Keep all paragraphs short to make the description easy to read online.
  7. Mention what’s unique about your book and use a dramatic tone, if the book contains drama. A little hype goes a long way.
Cedar trunk base-LR

Cedar in Little Rouge woodland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

O’Bryan suggests looking at the 5 top books in your genre for length, layout, style and content tips. “Spend time getting this right, writes O’Bryan. “Test each version you create with people you trust who will be honest with you. A poor blurb or book description will seriously impact your book sales. Big publishers spend a lot of time on this, changing or inserting single words to create powerful descriptions.”

It’s worth spending time polishing your book jacket blurb to grab a reader. The cover and title makes them pick it up off the shelf (whether virtual or real); the back jacket blurb makes them buy it.

 

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

 

The Moving Target of Indie Publishing: What Every Editor (and Writer) Needs to Know

paris-03

The Seine, Paris (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I’m a writer and an editor. I’ve written and published novels, short stories and non-fiction books with traditional publishing houses and indie publishers, and I’ve self-published. As editor, I serve as in-house copy-editor for a publishing house in the United States and have acted as acquisition editor for several anthologies put out by a local indie publisher. I also coach novice writers to publication and edit in that capacity. So, you could say, I know the industry from many angles and perspectives. That’s been good for me, because this industry is a moving target and it’s good to triangulate on a moving object. The entire publishing industry is evolving and it’s a slippery evolution.

Even the words we use are slippery. Indie. Hybrid. Publisher.

Many people, like award-winning author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, when they use the terms indie-writer and indie-publishing include what some call self-publishing in their definitions of indie, “because so many [professional] writers who are not with traditional publishers have started their own presses. It’s not accurate to lump all writers who are not following the traditional route into the self-publishing basket any longer.” According to Rusch, an indie publisher, then, is anyone who is not a traditional publisher. For the sake of this article, I’ve adopted Rusch’s definition to provide the full range of expectations for editors working with writers in the indie field. I define a traditional publisher as an established and often larger publishing house or press that: 1) follows traditional submission criteria; 2) does not charge writers; 3) pays out royalties; and 4) employs in-house editors.

Indie writing and publishing can then be described in several ways depending on where the writer submits, by what mechanism and what model they use. All of these will affect a writer’s needs and perceptions for an editor and, in turn, an editor’s expectations as well.

I overview five major models of indie writing and publishing in Table 1, below.

Table 1: Types of Indie Writing / Publishing Models:
1. Small Independent Press

(not writer’s)

Author submits to a small press that does not require author to pay for publishing costs; house may pay small royalties; acceptance criteria limit submissions; there may or may not be formal distribution
2. Small Independent Press

(not writer’s)

Author submits to a small press that may require author to pay for part of publishing costs; house typically does not pay royalties but may provide complementary copies and/or author’s rate for copies; acceptance criteria may still apply to submissions; distributor tends to be Ingram/Amazon model
3. Small Independent Press

(writer as sole proprietor or part of a consortium; also called self-publishing by some)

Author can pretty well write and publish as she pleases; costs of publication are born solely by the writer(s) and royalties come straight from profit; no acceptance criteria apply; distribution typically Ingram/Amazon model
4. Service “Publisher”

(e.g., iUniverse, Friessen, etc.); this is self-publishing, even though the “publisher” name appears on the work

Author can pretty well write and publish as she pleases; all publication costs born by writer; service will include various services, including: copy-editing, layout, cover design, printing, some distribution, some promotion—all at cost (based on service package); distribution typically Ingram/Amazon model
5. Self-Publishing

(e.g., the publication is in the author’s name)

Author can pretty well write and publish as she pleases; author uses a la carte style of self-publishing in which she hires various experts—or herself does—the production of the work (e.g. editing, layout, cover, printing, distribution, and promotion).

Depending on which model an author uses for their work, their perceived need and actual need for an editor prior to submission and publication will be affected. I make the distinction between “perceived” and “actual” because, unfortunately, in many cases these diverge: an author may not think they need a certain kind of editing for their work when they do. The opposite is more rare: the author thinking she needs an editor when she doesn’t. I will talk more about this in a later article.

The availability of these models and their hybrid cousins has provided writers with a cornucopia of often confusing choices. In many cases, I am finding—particularly with my clients—that writers don’t even know which choice is best for them. Part of the reason for this is that writers carry forward ideas from the old model and create a misconception of expectation. Unfortunately, this often translates into misconceived ideas about and expectations of editors. That’s another article too.

For editors, it’s important to recognize these different models and what they, in turn, provide and expect from authors. A savvy editor translates into a savvy author. Your advice, if driven from a place of publishing industry knowledge, will be invaluable to authors seeking your services. And they will come to rely on this as much as, if not more than, your actual editing.

paris-15

Eiffel Tower, Paris (photo by Nina Munteanu)

By its very nature, indie publishing has given the freelance editor an opportunity to take on a new role—a service that agents used to and still do provide many traditionally-published authors: that of industry consultant. In the traditional model, an author would seek an agent who would then not only sell their work to a publisher but also provide advice on what to expect in the market as well as help with career-longevity choices (which include “branding”); questions many novice authors haven’t even considered, never mind answered sufficiently. Most indie authors will not engage an agent; but most will (should) hire an editor. So, instead of an agent, the freelance editor becomes the first stop in the publishing industry for an indie author. This has become one of my primary roles as editor and writing coach. And this is again because most writers, when they start out, do not know what direction they want to go—mainly because they aren’t familiar enough with what is available to them and the ramifications to their careers.

Here’s an example: one client, working on her first novel, wanted my advice on whether she should try with a traditional publisher or just forgo and self-publish. An editor, if possessing savvy knowledge of the industry and now knowing something of the author’s work and ambitions, can bring informed and constructive advice to the author.

The ramifications on how I handle and edit a story directly follows which route the author has decided to follow. This is every bit as relevant to an author publishing with a traditional publishing house, an indie press, or self-publishing. Style—whether it is that of a publishing house or the author’s brand—relies on consistent application of voice and tone. Just as publishing houses embrace different and unique styles, so do authors. In fact, if they are self-publishing, this is even more important.

The editor plays a crucial role in helping an author establish their “voice” and “style”, and ultimately their “brand.” And, perhaps, this becomes one of the principle differences between traditional and indie publishing. While voice and style is pre-determined to some extent by traditional publishing houses (hence they employ their own editors to impose a style in some cases), it is left to the author—and her freelance editor—to determine this in the indie scene. The structure of traditional publishing is both more orderly and more confining. Indie publishing—particularly self-publishing—is an infinite melting pot of creativity. Some view it as one big mess. In fact, it is a chaos of astonishing opportunity. It is a chance for intimate collaboration that demands mutual respect. Freelance editors are poised as both gatekeepers and enabling wizards of the indie world.

Table 2, below, describes a freelance editor’s focus in the five indie models I described in Table 1.

Table 2: Editing for Different Indie Models:
1. Small Independent Press

(with submission criteria similar to a traditional model)

Authors often think they don’t need a freelance editor if they are submitting to a press with in-house editor; this is incorrect. Those who have had their work edited prior to submission to a press—even a small press—will have a much higher chance of being accepted. The freelance editor’s job, then, will include attending to the style of the publishing house.
2. Small Independent Press

(without submission criteria)

While authors may not recognize the need for an editor in submitting to an indie publisher without submission criteria, the need for editing remains—particularly because many of these presses do not employ or have sufficiently qualified editors. Excellence in presentation and nurturing a strong author voice are the freelance editor’s responsibility.
3. Small Independent Press

(writer’s own press)

Given that the author has pretty well carte blanche on what to write and publish, a freelance editor’s role in recognizing, harmonizing with and helping to establish a genuine and strong author’s “voice” becomes most important.
4. Service “Publisher” Authors have misconceptions about service “publishers” and particularly their editors. I have had several clients come to me after recognizing that their works were not well represented by the provider’s in-house editor. Service “publisher” in-house editors do not represent a particular style, voice or brand (given that most are underpaid students and there is no style identity); the freelance editor role is as with #3.
5. Self-Publishing The same criteria exist here as for model #3.
paris-30

Paris street (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The take home is that freelance editors can flourish in the indie writing and publishing field by: 1) establishing their expertise in the industry and what it requires (taking on the role of consultant, which agents normally provide in the traditional model); 2) recognizing a need for strong authorial voices and helping to foster them; 3) promoting point #2 with consistency in style, tone, etc.

Hope this helps. Let me know.

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Swimming Against the Tide and Rising Up & Rising Above

cheryl-xavier

Cheryl Antao Xavier

“Her passion for giving voice to non-mainstream writers has inspired her to swim against the tide in these harsh economic times,” says Desi News (Issue 31; December 2014) of Cheryl Antao-Xavier, publisher of In Our Words, Inc. (IOWI) in Mississauga, Ontario.

I met Cheryl a few years ago at a writer’s event when she introduced herself during a break as I was helping myself to my third samosa. We’ve since collaborated on several projects. The most recent is a literary anthology on what it means to live in Canada and be a Canadian. The call for submissions has just recently been made, so if you’re interested in submitting, check out Cheryl’s website here: http://inourwords.ca/the-literary-connection-volume-ii.html

Born of Goan parents, Cheryl grew up in Bahrain and then Karachi, where books were a rare treat. Cheryl shares the story of her aunt who taught knitting to women in a banking family from whom she borrowed books—Enid Blyton, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Nancy Drew and comics—for her book-thirsty nieces, who “would devour the books in no time!” says Antao-Xavier.

Quality books were a luxury, even at the university she attended. Cheryl recalls how the Karachi University library had a “chained book” on display. John Stuart Mill’s book was required reading for students of economics but there was only one copy in the KU library. It sat on a wooden stand with a chain running through its spine under a librarian’s guard and you had to book time with the book and wait long hours for a few minutes to make hasty notes.

Cheryl Antao Xavier

Cheryl Antao Xavier

When Cheryl immigrated to Canada in 1988, she found “book heaven” in the second-hand bookstores and libraries. Reading and owning books became an obsession that has endured to this day.

Cheryl worked for several publishing houses before creating her own publishing house In Our Words Inc. (IOWI). IOWI publishes a good variety of works, including literary fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry and children’s stories from both emerging and established writers.

About the work IOWI publishes, Cheryl told Desi News, “I delight in new and fresh voices; language with imagery; twists on the conventional; historical backgrounds with the angst of displaced or marginalized people. For writers with emotional ties to a heritage radically different from the Canadian experience, writing is a cathartic process. There are writers who have lived through cataclysmic events, whose stories are fascinating chips in the mosaic of Canadian literature.”

I recently whisked Cheryl off in Benny, my sentient ship, and settled her to a million dollar view in the aft deck as we circled the planet. I asked her about how she is managing with the industry doing virtual summersaults (as opposed to somersaults–well, it IS summer, eh?) these days. Here’s what went back and forth:

Nina: I was so intrigued by your story, I just have to start by asking you this: what’s your favourite book of all time and why?

Cheryl: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Read it umpteen times, saw both movie versions, have the Colin Firth series in my video collection. I looooove period fiction drama. Dickens, the Brontes, Hardy, to the more recent Forsythe Saga, Downton Abbey, etc. etc. My Dad had the full collection of Perry Mason and Zane Grey books. So of course I read them all. I love murder-mysteries from Agatha Christie to the present day forensic science stuff.

Nina: You have excellent taste! … What is your assessment of what is happening with print books vs ebooks vs audio books and such? Do you see one format winning over the other and how will that affect your own publishing model?

Cheryl: Print books should be around for as long as our generation who love holding a paper book survive. But ebooks are increasingly popular and have undeniable environmental merits. Publishing companies like mine have to do what you aptly call ‘virtual somersaults’ to stay current and cut costs to stay viable. Rather than publishing formats, what worries me more is poor quality books being published and the potential for declining readership in general. The tragedy of do-it-yourself print-on-demand software, freely available, is that anybody with passable tech skills can become a ‘published author.’ Books with flashy covers but no creative merit vie for reader attention and diminishing discretionary incomes. Also, media entertainment continues to steal leisure time.

Nina: Can you share some candid thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages for writers starting out in choosing the traditional publishing model vs alternative models such as indie or self-publishing.

Cheryl: The lines between traditional and indie/self-pub have blurred even more with the proliferation of print-on-demand options. Production costs have consequently plummeted. So the financial investment in an author/book has less of a risk. I would say, do your research. Make your manuscript super-strong, that means get it professionally edited, and then try the traditional route. Read publishers’ responses to your queries very carefully. It’s an opportunity to learn. If there are no takers, then research indie publishers and call, discuss contracts and options and make an informed decision. Make doubly sure that the traditional pre-production steps of editing, proofreading and professional design are not bypassed. Sometimes good content is smothered by verbosity and needs a good professional edit. Basic POD ‘template’ designs SCREAM amateur-DIY when they are set with no real imagination in big blocks of text, riddled with typos.

Nina: Do you see any specific roles for indie and/or self-publishing in helping to define artistic expression in Canada?

Cheryl: Definitely. The traditional big publishing houses can accept just so many manuscripts. So obviously they’ll go for the ones that are a sure bet. That’s where the diamonds in the rough can be missed out. Indie publishers who have the resources to work with authors to polish the content to its best possible advantage are ideally placed to bring new or even established voices to the mainstream.

Nina: What in your opinion is the major impact (both negative and positive) of the growing self-publishing model adopted by many writers over both traditional and indie publishing?

Cheryl: Occasionally I read and recommend self-published books for membership in a major professional writer’s organization. I also attend book launches and local literary events looking at books, particularly by self-published authors. The good thing is that these authors went that extra step to raise their voices in the literate world. They feel the satisfaction of being ‘published authors.’ The down side is that once something is in print, and particularly if it has not been professionally edited and designed, that book can end up being an embarrassment and a waste of time and money. Typos jump out at the reader and lower the credibility of the work and its creator. Ultimately, it comes down to what the writer wants to achieve by publishing. 

Nina: What major change do you foresee in the book industry and the readership that will affect us? How and why will that affect IOWI?

Cheryl: Everybody loves a good story, and finds it worth their while to read well-articulated text. So the successful writers will be the ones who manage to engage their readers no matter what the genre. The challenge is also for a good book to stand out from the proliferation of new titles vying for attention in virtual and brick-and-mortar stores. I see social media, forums like Goodreads, and book tours/festivals being key arbiters in what bookworms find and opt to read. IOWI will continue to offer an indie publishing option that stresses putting out a good book. Something that both author and publisher can be proud of.

Nina: Tell us about your current projects and why they excite you. 

Cheryl: IOWI is working on two anthologies currently, with a couple more in the planning stage. A Mississauga youth group is publishing their third anthology through IOWI. It is so exciting to see the writing and photography talent this group has attracted. We are so proud to be their publisher. IOWI has its own anthology The Literary Connection Volume II, with a theme of ‘My Canada’ due to be published by November this year. The call for submissions is already out and closes end-July. I am also working on pulling together a collection of plays by Canadian playwrights. It’s going to be awesome. My aim is to have writers meet with a professional writing coach, yourself Nina, to workshop their submissions into amazing work. I want these anthologies to be a credible contribution to CanLit.

Then another pet project is The Red Bench Project, which seeks to promote reading and literacy at the family and community levels. We must encourage the habit of reading for enjoyment. Bringing authors and public together is part of this project.

Nina: What three pieces of advice do you have for a new writer wishing to get published?

Cheryl: Write every day. Then spend some time editing and rewriting past work. Learn to write well through courses, mentorship or self-study.

Read voraciously and discerningly. Keep clippings or books of your favourite writers handy. Before writing, read a selection from these writers. It influences your own voice and jumpstarts your creativity.

Botanical Beach tidal pools

Botanical Beach, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Be guided by your need to publish your super-amazing manuscript. Not by your need to see your name on a book. If the content is not up to par, that novelty morphs into the proverbial albatross that haunts a fledgling writing career. If you are a serious writer: DON’T PUBLISH TILL YOU ARE READY!

 

Nina: Great advice, Cheryl! Thanks so much for joining me here and I do promise to get you back on the ground… Don’t the Great Lakes look beautiful from 36,000 km?

Cheryl: Thank YOU for the ride, Nina. Be well.

.

.

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Playing the Short Game & Other Short Stories

The seventh class of my 12-week Creating Science Fiction course that I teach at George Brown College is all about short story writing. I’m by nature a progressive—and an itinerant explorer; so, I am updating materials for my students and sharing them with you. Embedded in this “sharing” I promise a very cool deal too; just keep reading

One resource I’m eager to introduce to my students is Canadian SF short story writer Douglas Smith’s recent guidebook, Playing the Short Game: How to Market & Sell Short Fiction. Smith’s guidebook is a Tardis-style smallish yet comprehensive guide on what it takes to be a successful short story writer from starting & finishing to marketing & publishing to leveraging & promotion.

Smith is an accomplished short story writer and marketer, who has alwaysPlayingtheShortGame openly shared his treasures of acquired wisdom with others. His stories have appeared in thirty countries and 25 languages. He’s won three awards and has three acclaimed collections—so far. For years, his Foreign Market List has helped writers—including me—sell their work all over the world. To date, I have sold short stories (mostly reprints) to markets in Greece, Poland, Romania, Israel, and Italy—thanks to his list.

Why Short Fiction?

Smith gives seven excellent reasons for writing short fiction, even if you are ultimately a novel writer, like me. Writing short stories:

  1. Helps you learn your craft in easy, short-term, bite-sized amounts and over a reasonable time for you to learn, apply, and relearn
  2. Helps you test the waters of literature, to discover what excites you, provokes you and what ultimately you NEED to express
  3. Builds your resume, again more easily and quickly than a novel, toward that ultimate novel; publishers of magazines and publishing houses are more likely to take your work seriously if you have a publishing history
  4. Helps you explore ideas for your novel, by “pinging” certain premises you may wish to explore in further detail or take elsewhere in a novel
  5. Helps you build a backlist of published stories, which you own, once rights have reverted back to you
  6. Helps you build a network in your writing community of publishing houses, editors, other writers and so forth as you submit and exchange through your works and letters (including all those rejections!). Eventually, a pleased editor/publisher may invite you to submit to a “Best of” anthology or provide a collection. This has happened to me several times.
  7. Helps you learn the publishing business (well, sort of, says Smith…). Through exposure to the business side of publishing, you will gain an appreciation of how the publishing world works.

Know What You’re Writing

A short story only has 7,000 or less words to get your tale across while a novel has over ten times that many words to do the same. It follows then that the short story format is a simpler one. This does not necessarily mean easier.

Novels provide a sense of change, growth and solutions to problems and conflicts. “The short story doesn’t have the luxury of depicting change; the closest it can come is awareness,” writes Shelley Lowenkopf in her 2007 article “Telling Tales” in The Portable Writer’s Conference: Your Guide to Getting Published by Quill Driver Books.

She goes on to describe the short story as a close-up to a novel’s landscape. The short story is, therefore, often more intense and powerful. A short story, more than a novel, has the power to transport, disturb and enlighten.

Renowned short story authors like Edgar Allen Poe, Nathanial Hawthorne, and Somerset Maugham, emphasize the importance of striving for one effect when writing a short story: the single effect you wish to leave with the reader at the end. This is accomplished by selecting events or situations that build quickly into a combustible response. Even Alice Munro, who is known for cramming long timeframes into her short stories, focuses framing time through a single event: a meal, family gathering, wedding or funeral, for instance.

Jack Bickham, in his book, Elements of Fiction Writing: Scene and Structure by Writer’s Digest Books (1993) writes that, “story length, author intention, traditional expectations of the audience, and all sorts of things may affect the form a story may take.” Choosing the appropriate length to tell your story relies on the complexity of your premise and theme.

Understanding the Short Story Format

Here are seven tips toward writing a compelling and memorable short story:

  1. Open in the middle of something happening (e.g., action/in a “scene”)
  2. Make your opening provocative (raise the stakes as high as you can)
  3. Write scenes and write sparingly (avoid describing the obvious—use description to show something odd, memorable, exotic)
  4. Have characters define themselves and their goals through what they do and observe (e.g., show more than tell)
  5. Define characters with dialogue (a great way to reveal while keeping a high pace)
  6. Withhold vital information for as long as possible
  7. Don’t explain the ending (cut down on the denouement; let the reader make those conclusions—a key in the short story format)

Selling Your Short Story

Smith’s guidebook provides several chapters of excellent advice in logical steps toward a successful career.

Here are just a few gems that I will be sharing with my students.

First of all, remember that you are not selling your story; you’re licensing a particular set of rights for someone to do something with that story. Before you do anything else, do your homework: know the rights you’re selling; and which ones to keep. Smith describes five major types of rights: media; language; geography (less and less relevant); occurrence; and time.

Media rights include print rights, electronic rights and audio rights. Markets include magazines, anthologies and collections for short stories. Language and geography rights are pretty self-explanatory. Occurrence rights relate to whether the publisher is buying first or second and onward rights (otherwise known as reprints). Most publishers prefer to pay for the right to publish your work for the first time in that particular format (e.g., in print and in English, for instance). Having said that, I’ve had a lucrative history of selling reprints to some of my more popular short stories. I’ve furthered gone on to selling other rights, such as foreign language rights and audiobook and e-book rights. I’ve also sold two short story collections, one to an Italian publisher (coming out this year) and shorts in several anthologies. No movies yet… But I did have a serious discussion with a writer/producer on one of my shorts. Recall how many Philip K. Dick short stories have been adapted to movies (e.g., Total Recall, The Adjustment Bureau, Paycheck, Minority Report, and Blade Runner).

Heinlein’s Five Rules of Writing

Smith invokes SF writer Robert J Heinlein’s 5 rules of writing to succeed as a short story writer (as any kind of writer, actually). These are:

  1. You must write
  2. You must finish what you write
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order
  4. You must put the work on the market
  5. You must keep the work on the market until sold

I know… Number 3 sounds pretty suspicious, or arrogant at the very least. As Robert J. Sawyer concludes on his site in reference to the five rules, number 3 is open to reasonable interpretation. Of course, it must mean AFTER you’ve finished and edited the story with some level of confidence that you’re happy with it—never mind what other people think of it.

Nina’s Bus-Terminal Model

In my writing guide The Fiction Writer, Chapter L (for “Long or Short?”), I talk about how I launched my own successful short story writing career. I’d been writing short stories for a few years without much success (I was getting interesting rejection letters, so I knew I was getting close); then I settled into a kind of model/routine. I call it The Bus Terminal Approach. As Smith attests—several times—it’s a numbers game. That’s how I played it. It starts with one story and relies on you not waiting until you write the next, and the next and the next. Here’s how it works:

  1. You list at least 3 markets that you’ve researched for Story A and send it to the first of the three
  2. You start right away writing Story B, send it to the first of 3 markets you’ve researched and listed for it
  3. When Story A rejection arrives, you do not revise but send it right away to the second market
  4. Same thing for Story B
  5. Write Story C and treat similarly

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webRemember to keep track of what you send where and when and what happens to it. It can become a very confusing bus terminal otherwise, with someone ending up in Seattle when they are headed to Toronto! What happens with this approach is several things: you begin to treat the whole marketing/publishing process as a business (which it is) and because you have so many “buses” out there coming and going, the rejections don’t hurt quite as much and instead become part of the learning process, which they should be. You adopt a more business-like approach, which translates into your relationship with editors and publishers. A win-win situation results. Believe me; this works. Once I fell into this method, my sales increased by over 70%.

I mentioned a cool deal in the beginning. Here it is: you can purchase Smith’s e-guidebook, along with several other excellent writing guides on the Write Stuff StoryBundle as a promotional bundle. Here’s the Write Stuff StoryBundle Site. The offer runs until June 4th 2015.

My own guidebook, The Fiction Writer, can be purchased in various online and onsite bookstores, including Amazon, Kobo, Chapters Online, Barnes & Noble, and several others even I don’t know about.

Natural Selection, my short story collection published by Pixl Press in 2013 is also available at several bookstores.NaturalSelection-frontHR

Written with flare and a conscience…Munteanu shines a light on human evolution and how the choices we do or don’t make today, may impact our planet and future generations.”—J.P. McLean, author of The Gift Legacy

“Nina Munteanu is a gifted writer. Each story surprises and delights.”—Allan Stanleigh, co-author of USNA and The Caretakers

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Nina Talks to EAC About the Changing Face of Publishing

In January 2014, I gave a talk to the Editor’s Association of Canada (EAC) on the changing face of publishing and what it means for editors and writers. Editors learned about self-publishing and indie publishing, publishing myths, and where to find new editing opportunities.

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.