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.
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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 Writer-Editor Relationship, Part 1: Editors Preparing Writers

 

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Spalting patterns on decaying log (photo by Nina Munteanu) 

As indie publishing soars into new heights and successes, writers are looking more and more to freelance editors to help them create works of merit that will stand out in the market. Whether this process is seamless and productive or fraught with difficulties relies on the relationship established between editor and writer—at the outset and throughout.

The writer-editor relationship—like any relationship—works best when communication between parties is transparent and clear. What ultimately drives misunderstanding—or its corollary, harmony—is “expectation” and how it is met. Clarifying expectations on both sides is paramount to creating a professional and productive relationship with few hitches.

Realizing Expectations

Indie authors often come to editors with unclear and, at times, unreasonable or unrealistic expectations on services. Many writers know very little about the kind of editing we do and the different levels of effort (time and associated fee) required. They do not understand the difference between “copy-editing” and “structural editing”, particularly as it pertains to their own work. In fact, many indie writers don’t even know what their MS requires. This is because of two things: 1) they can’t objectively assess their own work, particularly in relation to market needs; and 2) many authors have not sufficiently considered their “voice” or brand and matched it to a relevant target market. Both of these will influence how the writer comes into the relationship and the nature of their expectations.

It is best to be “up front” with everything, from understanding a writer’s work and market expectations to establishing your fees, your time, and the nature of your services. This is why a savvy editor will ask for a one to several page example of the author’s writing prior to offering their services and finalizing the nature of a potential relationship. Such an exchange may, in turn, include a sample of the editor’s work for the writer to assess. This exchange helps clarify the process for both parties.

A savvy editor will want to establish with the author the following things prior to taking him/her on as a client and embarking on the actual editing task:

  1. The nature of the writer’s work: a writer’s work should harmonize with the editor and achieve a good fit; e.g., I edit fiction and non-fiction; however, I do not edit horror, because I simply can’t relate to it and don’t care for it. More on this below.
  2. The author’s expectations and target market: this is key to establishing the kind of editing required for the author’s piece. Is it good enough to just copy-edit or will the piece require substantive edits to succeed in the identified market? This often requires open and frank communication between editor and author.
  3. Nature and time of submission: on which the schedule is based.
  4. Schedule and deadlines for deliverables: based on the editor’s realistic timing (including other work) and the nature of the editing job (to be established by some reliable means).
  5. Nature of communication: form and frequency; partly to ensure that the writer does not abuse the communication stream with a barrage of emails, e-chats, phone calls, etc.)
  6. Nature and cost of deliverables: e.g., use of track changes; inclusion of summary letter; follow up meetings, etc.
  7. Mutual agreement on fees, fee structure and payment details: what, how and when.
  8. Inclusion and nature of contract: this may include an NDS, if desired.

By clarifying these, you and the author create a new set of realistic agreed-upon expectations.

Fitting Writer with Editor

The right fit for editor and writer includes more than harmonizing genre, writing style, and content. The fit includes personality. A professional editor and colleague of mine recently shared on our list-serve about his experience as both a freelance and publishing house editor. The editor shared that a majority of writers responded to his edits with comments like, “finally, someone who just comes out and plainly tells me what’s wrong!” However, others complained: “why are you so mean?” The editor admitted to using humor liberally in his assessments and was described by one of his clients as “playfully harsh.” While the work of this editor is no doubt impeccable, the added humor may not be a good fit for some writers, particularly those who are not highly confident in their work.

Knowing your own brand of editing and being up front with it is part of achieving a good fit with a writer and can avoid huge headaches down the line for both of you.

Toward Honesty & Moral Integrity

I and some of my editing colleagues have run across several cases of indie writers who have come to us with “already edited works” that they believed only needed proofing or minor edits, but in fact called for substantive editing and story coaching to fulfill market requirements. The previous editor had either done a poor job of editing or the author had done a poor job of incorporating the edits. Either way, I was now in the position to inform this author, who had already spent several thousand dollars on edits, that his work required more than a “trim job off the top” to meet the standards demanded by the market.

My colleague suggested that it is unethical to copy-edit a manuscript that obviously requires structural editing or has serious “story” problems. I’m inclined to agree. The key lies in the expectations of the author and his/her intended market. This is where the editor’s knowledge of “matching work to market” becomes a critical part of the relationship with the author, whether you take him/her on as a client or not. I talked more about this in a previous article on Boldface, “The Moving Target of Indie Publishing: What Every Editor (and Writer) Needs to Know.” Honesty is best. Following the path of moral integrity may not put food on the table; but it will maintain your reputation as an editor of quality, which will keep the roof over your head.

Below is a mock email of a general response to a writer’s inquiry for help on their MS:

Dear Alice,

Thank you for your interest in my editing services. I am still taking on clients and would be happy to help you.

In your initial letter, you included a brief description of your story. It sounds intriguing and interesting. Science fiction is my passion (I’ve published nine SF books so far).

Before we proceed, I need a few things from you to ensure we are a good fit and to help me do the best I can for your project. First, can you please send me a short sample of your work (2-3 pages) and a very short summary. From this I’ll be able to confirm the kind of editing that best suits your project. For the kinds of editing/coaching services and associated fees please refer to this page on my website: xxxx.

Can you also answer the following questions?

1.     (If they haven’t included the genre or a short premise, I ask them for one).

2.     How do you intend to publish this book (traditional, indie, self-publish)?

3.     Who would you say is your intended audience and market?

4.     Is this book a stand alone or part of a trilogy or series?

5.     Is the book complete (first draft or more)? If not, how much is written?

Based on this, I will suggest the kind of editing (and coaching) required to best fit your needs. This may be one or a combination of the following: 1) an evaluation/assessment at $xx/page; 2) copy-editing (with some substantive editing) at $xx/page; or 3) story coaching at $xx/hour. As outlined on my webpage (xxxx), I provide digital commentary (line by line) in your manuscript (in Word through track changes) accompanied by a summary letter with recommendations. You can find examples of what I do on this page of my website: xxxx.

Once I’ve determined what services best suit your work and you are in agreement with the service and fees, I will draw up a contract for you and I to sign. The contract will stipulate a reasonable schedule that you and I can agree on for the process and deliverables.

Once the contract is signed by both of us, I would ask that you send me your material along with Paypal payment for the first half of the agreed total fee by the date marked in the contract.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best Wishes,

Nina

 

Nina MunteanuNina 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 & Writer Needs to Know

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Decaying cedar log (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. I’ve also self-published. As editor, I serve as the 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.  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 is anyone who is not a traditional publisher. For 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 and 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.

Table 1 (below) outlines the five major models of indie writing and publishing.

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 the publishing costs. House typically does not pay royalties but may provide complimentary copies and/or author’s rate for copies. Acceptance criteria may still apply to submissions. Distributor is typically the Ingram/Amazon model.
3. Small independent press

 

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

Author can write and publish as they please. Costs of publication are born solely by the writer(s), and royalties come straight from profit. No acceptance criteria apply. Distribution is typically the Ingram/Amazon model.
4. Service publisher

 

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

 

Author can write and publish as they please. All publication costs born by writer. Service will include copy editing, layout, cover design, printing, some distribution, and some promotion—all at cost (based on service package). Distribution is typically the Ingram/Amazon model.
5. Self-publishing

 

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

Author can write and publish as they please. Author uses à la carte style of self-publishing in which they do (or hire others to do) 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 distinguish 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 they need an editor when they don’t. (More on this in a future article.)

The availability of these models and their hybrid cousins has provided writers with a cornucopia of often confusing choices. In many cases, I find that writers are not even aware of which choice is best for them. Part of the reason is that writers carry forward ideas from the old model. 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, when 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.

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 to 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 a traditional publisher or just forgo and self-publish. An editor 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’s 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, style, and, ultimately, their brand. And, perhaps, this becomes one of the principle differences between traditional and indie publishing. While voice and style is predetermined to some extent by traditional publishing houses (hence, they employ their own editors to impose a style in some cases), it’s left to the author—and their 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’s a chaos of astonishing opportunity. It’s 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.

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’re submitting to a press with in-house editors; 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 when submitting to an indie publisher without submission criteria, the need for editing remains—particularly because many of these presses don’t 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 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’ve 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.
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Spalting patterns on decaying log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The take home: 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; and (3) promoting point #2 with consistency in style, tone, etc.

 

Nina MunteanuNina 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.

 

What Genre Are You Writing … And Marketing?

Our multiplex world of discerning consumers is getting used to having what they consume laid out clearly and categorized. Literature is no different. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, when Aristotle proclaimed in his Poetics that poetry could be categorized into many “species”, critics have endeavored to label art to help the “commoner” interpret it.

Defining Genre

The word “genre” comes from the French word for “kind” or “gender” and provides a loose set of criteria for a category of composition. People in the book industry often use it to categorize literature.

“Genre” is notoriously difficult to define. For instance, what kinds of literary form should properly be called genres? Poetry is generally thought of as a literary “mode”, being too broad and too varied to be called a “genre”. The various types and forms of poetry are more properly called genres, such as the epic or the lyric.

A genre can be defined either by the formal properties of the work, or by its subject matter. A poem can be called a sonnet if it is 14 lines long, or described as an elegy if it speaks of the death of a loved or admired person.

Although genres are not precisely definable, genre considerations are one of the most important factors in determining what a person will see or read. Many genres have built-in audiences and corresponding publications that support them, such as magazines and websites. Some people think that books and movies that are difficult to categorize into a genre are likely to be less successful commercially. They’re probably right. And this is why we do it.

So, if you haven’t figured out what “genre” your writing falls under, start figuring it out now; your future publisher and marketer will want to know because they, in turn, have to tell their distributor and bookseller where to shelve the book. This is why you need to do this; the alternative is leaving it to Jack in the marketing department who may not have even read your book, but used the cover picture to figure it out. Yikes!

Genre Categories

Today’s Teacher provides the following list for genres in literature:

  • Biography/autobiography
  • Fantasy
  • Historical Fiction
  • Myths & Legends
  • Poetry
  • Science Fiction
  • Fairy Tales
  • Folk Tales
  • Mystery
  • Realistic Fiction
  • Non-Fiction
  • Short stories

They were pretty good in identifying the major genres but they missed Romance, Westerns, Horror, Erotica, Literary Fiction, Humor, and Young Adult (if you want to call that a genre). The point I’m making is that each person is bound to come up with a different list of genre categories. Go to five of your favorite bookstores (not just the chain stores, but the independent bookstores) and see for yourself how the professionals do it. It’s a miserable confusing mess. I’ve seen science fiction thrown in with fantasy and the whole category called “fantasy”. I’ve seen Diana Gabaldon’s historical time traveler series shelved under romance, mainstream and science fiction or fantasy depending on the bookstore. In truth, it’s all of these. Which brings us to cross-genre literature.

Crossing the Genre Lines

“Cross-genre”, also called “slipstream” or “interstitial fiction” or “fabulation”, is most commonly defined as fiction that crosses genre boundaries. Unless you’re Bruce Sterling, that is, who defines slipstream as:

A contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality. It is fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so. It does not aim to provoke a ‘sense of wonder’ or to systematically extrapolate in the manner of classic science fiction. Instead, this is a kind of writing that simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility. We could call this kind of fiction Novels of Postmodern Sensibility, but that looks pretty bad on a category rack, and requires an acronym besides; so for the sake of convenience and argument, we will call these books ‘slipstream.’

“…Simply makes you feel strange”? Although lots of writing may do that to me (of course, I’m strange already), I’m not sure that I would define “slipstream” as writing that “makes you feel strange”. This is because I don’t think you can pin it down; it’s too slippery a “creature”. However, I think that this form (or is it a movement?) is promising to be one of the most exciting things occurring in literature today.

Patrick Kelly, in Asimov’s Science Fiction, wrote:

Today, we have literally many dozens of writers in both mainstream and genre who are working from these influences and creating new forms of cross-pollination. The problem with talking about cross-genre is that it’s not a single movement–it’s a bunch of individual writers pursuing individual visions that tend to simply share some of the same diverse influences. So it’s difficult to pin down and say ‘this is what it is and what it isn’t.’ That’s what is exciting to me about it–that it is difficult to categorize. In a sense, that means it’s a complex, organic creature.

Some popular “cross-genre” mixes include:

  • Action comedy = action + comedy
  • Black comedy (tragicomedy) = tragedy + comedy
  • Comedy-drama (dramedy) = comedy + drama
  • Romantic comedy = romance + comedy
  • Science fiction Western = science fiction + western

A friend of mine who is part Cree writes “slipstream” or “cross-genre” works that are essentially unclassifiable. Although she is a great writer, she has yet to find a publisher. I know why; they don’t know how to market her books to the booksellers. Where do you put them on the bookshelf? What a conundrum for the publisher and bookseller alike.

But, things are changing and hopefully my friend will see the results of that change. The irony of “slipstream” defying categorization is that it may be the next bestseller.

“From the ‘Lord of the Rings’ box-office smashes in the theaters to adults reading ‘Harry Potter’ books on their commute, it seems that the fantasy genre has permeated the mainstream,” notes Alana Abott, with Thomson Gale (an e-research and educational publishing firm). “The publishing industry has noticed, and new books combining familiar mainstream forms such as historical fiction, romance, and chick-lit are beginning to see an influx of magic.” Cross-pollination is cool. Cross-genre is “in”.

What genre are you writing?

Steveston-boats

Steveston, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

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.

 

On the Successful Anatomy of a Short Story

2015-novel-short-story-market-WDSome time ago, I was invited by writer and editor Jennifer D. Foster to participate in an interview on how to create a successful short story. Jennifer knew my work as a short story writer and had heard me speak at the Editors Association of Canada. She also knew that I teach the short story form as part of my science fiction course at George Brown College.

Writer’s Digest had asked Jennifer to write two “writing tips” chapters in its highly popular “Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market” (34th Annual Edition, 2015). Years ago I got my start as an author using this helpful market guidebook. Not only did the guide provide hundreds of listings with submission guidelines and current contact information; the guide’s writing tips section was also very helpful. So, I was both pleased and thrilled to be inside the 2015 edition!

As with previous editions, the 2015 edition contained—in addition to current market listings—articles on “Craft and Technique”, “Getting Published”, and “Marketing and Promotion”.

Below, I provide some excerpts of the 8-page chapter in the Craft & Technique Section, entitled “Anatomy of a Successful Short Story.” You can read the whole thing if you get your own copy of the guide, which is very decently priced. While it’s a year old, the advice remains as germane now as it was then. And many of the markets remain relevant too. You can also find the guide in most libraries, which tend to carry the entire Writer’s Digest series of market guides for writers.

Defining the Short Story

“Short stories are perhaps one of the best places for novice writers to start their careers,” wrote Foster in the opening to her article. “They’re not too long and complicated, and they offer the writer a chance to intimately explore a plot, a character, and a theme. Short stories also offer writers the opportunity to hone their craft and actually finish a piece of fiction—a great confidence booster!” Foster was quick to add that you shouldn’t be fooled by their short length compared with a novel—or their assumed simplicity: “Short stories are not necessarily any easier to write than novels or novellas.” I talk more about the significance of short story length  in a previous article on this blog: “Know What You’re Writing: Short Story or Long Story?”

Madison Davis at the University of Oklahoma suggested that short stories are “more concentrated … and notable for what they leave out.”

I mentioned that the short story is “a metaphoric event, a moment in time. It’s a single place—a crossroad—compared with the landscape of a novel. Short stories are more about awareness … and have the potential to be far more memorable and disturbing, with the power to enlighten.” Best-selling Canadian author Andrew Pyper suggested that, “a novel is the result of lengthy mulling, while a short story is the rising of an event out of the subconscious.”

Starting the short story in the middle of things “is crucial,” said Davis. “The reader must be thrown into the water immediately. There simply isn’t time or space to wind up.” Steve Woodward, associate editor of Graywolf Press in Minneapolis, Minnesota argued that good first lines are vital: “they can tell you everything you need to know in an instant. Find that right first line, even if it means cutting several pages to get to it, and build outward from there.”

Theme

The message—or theme—of the short story is its raison d’être. In How to Write Short Stories, 4th Edition, Sharon Sorenson wrote that, “if you have no message, you have no story.”

I concurred: “Every good story explores a theme. In a short story, it is a single theme told as a ‘statement’ rather than a novel’s ‘argument.’ It’s a ‘close-up’ rather than a novel’s landscape. All story elements reflect the theme.” Susan Hesemeier, instructor at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, added that the theme must be “limited to one subject or overall message rather than [the] multiple, interconnected themes [found] in a novel.” Margot Livesey, fiction editor of Emerson College’s Ploughshares magazine in Boston, Massachusetts summed it up eloquently: “theme is probably the hardest element to define, but we recognize its absence when we call something an anecdote.”

Conflict

According to author Louise Boggess, conflict “is the heartbeat of a story.” Conflict expresses internally or externally. Hesemeier wrote that in a short story, “there are fewer conflicts that lead to one climax; in a novel, a series of smaller conflicts and climaxes lead to or connect with a larger overall conflict and climax.”

Plot

Publisher Kevin Watson suggested that a great short story, much like a novel, “is presented to the reader in layers, delivered using setting, character, conflict, and dialogue.” At the center of those layers, said Watson, lay the plot, the theme, and the heart of everything that was presented.

Award-winning author Kevin Barry cited William Trevor: “a short story doesn’t need a plot, it just needs a point.” Toronto-based editor and author Andrew J. Borkaowski agreed: “it’s usually a matter of a single word, gesture, or incident and a handful of actions leading up to it.”

Character

Sorenson wrote that, “Believable, motivated characters make or break a story. If readers cannot understand or accept them, nothing else you do matters.” This is because the actions of your characters convey theme.

Novelist and writing instructor at Western University, Terence M. Green concurred. “Character is most important. Make the long chord of understanding and involvement with a character the goal. This is the emotional resonance, the epiphany that is the goal of the best long-lasting fiction.”

Setting

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river in Nova Scotia (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Characters and action should interact with the setting,” said Borkowski. She suggested that, “Setting is important as a conveyor of mood or atmosphere, and … has to be rendered succinctly, poetically almost.” Hesemeier added that, “Setting is usually limited to essentials that are necessary to describe the particular moment or that have symbolic significance for the reader’s understanding of the story.”

I further clarified: “A short story’s plot, setting, and character are often portrayed through strong metaphor, the short story writer’s major tool. Metaphor conveys so much more than the surface narrative might suggest; this is because metaphor by its very nature resonates with deeper truths, interpreted individually by members of a culture.”

Point of View

Foster wrote that for Borkowski, it was all about picking a side and sticking with it: “Once you start wanting to explore the inner lives of multiple characters, you’re on your way to something bigger than a short story.” Be mindful how many characters you provide agency and viewpoints to!

Woodward believed that once voice was established, everything else followed. Woodward preferred a solo voice in short story. “Stories are wonderful when concise and focused, often confined to a single narrative voice and to a single moment in time.”

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Winter in The Beach (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Andrew J. Borkowski suggested that an exceptional short story arose from the intensity of emotion that resonated with the reader: “A great short story leaves you feeling you’ve experienced ten times more than what’s actually described on the page.” I shared a similar view: “The best short story is an elegant thing. It draws you into a singular experience that resonates at a visceral level, like an arrow through the heart; no time to think—just feel. A bad short story misses the heart … and this is why writers who master the short story form are some of the very best authors in the world.”

Excerpted from “Anatomy of a Successful Short Story” by Jennifer D. Foster. In: “Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market” Writer’s Digest Books; 34th Edition (Rachel Randall, editor), 2015. 569 pp.

Available at: Amazon.comAmazon.ca, and Writer’s Digest Shop.

Douglas Smith’s “Playing the Short Game” is also valuable with great advice for those wishing to market their short stories.

Natural Selection, my short story collection published by Pixl Press in 2013 is 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.

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.

.

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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.

Walking the Tightrope Between Innocent and Cynical

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Jungfrau, Switzerland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The writer’s journey from the passion and vulnerability of innocence to the wisdom of experience can be a dark and twisted road. In fact, if you are a writer of any merit, I guarantee you that yours will be too. Think Dante in the forest…

YellowCreek1

Yellow Creek, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Let me tell you a story … It starts in the early 1990s. I was an eager young sprite entering the novel publishing world with my newly finished science fiction novel: “Escape from Utopia”. I’d published a few short stories and many articles by then. In addition, I’d published many scientific papers and reports. Confident and cocky, I was proud of my novel and eager to share it with the world. And I thought I knew my way through that dark forest…

I zealously sent the manuscript to a bazillion agents and editors. I was rewarded for my zealous efforts with a tidal wave of rejection letters. Mostly form letters (see my amusing account of the evolution of rejection letters in my fiction writing guidebook, The Fiction Writer) and an excerpt in a previous post here: “Rejection, Part 2: the Evolution of Rejection

Then it came: an enthusiastic letter from an agent (I can’t remember the name: Literary Bridge or something); they said my work had great promise and that with some help from an editing firm they would consider representing me if I had it edited and resubmitted.

They recommended Edit Ink.

Those of you in the know and with some history in the industry may recall the Edit Ink scandal of the 90s. In short, it was a bait-and-switch scam that Bill Appel and Denise Sterrs (of Edit Ink) and their associated literary agents ran for close to a decade. Edit Ink was a “book doctor” firm near Buffalo, New York. The State of New York eventually convicted Appel and Sterrs and associates for defrauding prospective writers of several million dollars.

I remember my heart swelling with gratitude and optimism. Finally, someone liked my book! I naively considered their recommendation. Soon after—within days—I got an invitational letter from the pro-active Edit Ink. I can’t remember the exact content, except that they assured me that only the most promising writers were recommended to them by this particular agent. I remember seriously considering their offer. Then I got two more letters, one from another agent who recommended Edit Ink and another invitational letter from Edit Ink. Alarm bells went off. I went from naively hopeful to cynically suspicious. I did some investigating (something I should have done initially); by then the buzz was already on the Internet on their questionable practices. The lawsuit by New York State had yet to happen.

The Science Fiction Writers Association (SFWA) runs a “writer Beware” page, where memorable cases are reviewed. It’s worthwhile perusing just for your general knowledge and edification.

Here’s what they said about Edit Ink:

Founded by the husband and wife team of Bill Appel and Denise Sterrs, Edit Ink was a New York State-based editing service that engaged in a kickback referral scheme with a wide network of literary agents. Here’s how the scheme worked.

  • Participating agents sent letters to writers who’d submitted manuscripts the agents didn’t want to represent, saying that the writer’s work showed “promise” but “wasn’t quite ready for publication.” A useful service was recommended: Edit Ink, which for a fee would polish the ms. to make it more salable. Once the ms. had been edited, the agent would then be glad to reconsider it.
  • The agent forwarded the writer’s name to Edit Ink, which sent off a solicitation letter claiming, among other things, that Edit Ink received referrals for only a “select few” manuscripts (false), and that most publishing houses insisted on receiving “professionally edited” work (falser).
  • If the writer took the bait and paid for an edit, the referring agent received a kickback of 15%.
  • Writers who resubmitted their edited manuscripts to referring agents, per the referring agents’ suggestions, were given the brushoff. Either the market had “changed in the interim”, or the agency was “no longer representing that genre.”

Edit Ink charged $5 per page–exorbitant at the time even for a qualified editorial service, which Edit Ink very definitely was not. Its staff mostly consisted of recent college graduates with no publishing experience, working long hours for minimum wage. The typical Edit Ink edit was slipshod and superficial, consisting mainly of basic copy editing suggestions, and omitting the kind of in-depth analysis of plot, theme, character, and structure that might make a professional edit worthwhile.

At its height, dozens of literary agencies participated in the scheme. Edit Ink even set up its own bogus agencies and publishers to funnel more manuscripts its way. It’s estimated that the company made in excess of $5 million.

Mounting complaints from writers, and efforts by writers’ advocacy groups, at last spurred New York State to take action. In January 1998 the NYS Attorney General announced a lawsuit against Edit Ink for deceptive business practices, false advertising, and fraud.

Throughout the appeals process, Edit Ink continued to operate. Many questionable agents continued to refer manuscripts, and Aardvark Literary Agents (one of Edit Ink’s original bogus agencies) was taken over by co-defendant Kelley Culmer so it could go on functioning as a conduit for Edit Ink referrals. Business was dwindling, however–in part as a result of media attention, but largely because of spreading word in the then relatively new environment of the Internet. Once the appeal was denied, the thrill was gone. In August 1999, Appel and Sterrs closed Edit Ink’s doors for good.

Shades of Edit Ink

Edit Ink is by no means unique in the publishing industry. “Book doctors”, associated kick-back agents and subsidy publishers are, in fact, on the rise. This is not surprising, in view of the current rise in self-publishing and associated models. The industry is currently inundated with a range of publishing models from straight printing-only firms to full service publishing houses and anything in-between.

Author Victoria Strauss on her blog “Writer Beware” shares this story:

Over the past couple of days, I’ve heard from several writers who queried agents at Objective Entertainment, a relatively new literary agency with a strong track record and experienced staff, and received the following response:

Dear [name retracted], 

Thank you so much for contacting us at Objective Entertainment. We have reviewed your material and we would like to refer you to one of our Publishers who we trust and believe will be able to serve you best. In order to do this I need your permission and the following information so they can either contact you via Phone or Email. The following information we need is if you would like to receive their newsletter and special offers. I think this is an amazing opportunity for you. 

Please reply with the information we asked so that we can get you that one step closer to getting your work published! 

Best 

Tracey Ravenelle
Objective Entertainment

When the writers, eager to know the name of the publisher, requested more information, they received this response from Ms. Ravenelle:

We work with Iuniverse and AuthorHouse. Iuniverse has the number 5 book this week on the NY Times Best Seller List!

The writers then asked why Objective was recommending a self-publishing service. As of this writing, only one has received a response, which Ms. Strauss reproduced below exactly as it was sent to her:

Because we believe they would be the most beneficial for you at this point in time. Then you would come back to us after the sales starting racking up and we go major! This is the best way for an author to get their work out their. One of their books is number 5 on this weeks upcoming NY Times Best Seller list. So we believe they can help our potential future clients immensely.

EEK… aside from their atrocious grammar, Objective made some questionable recommendations. The major one being that of referring rejected clients to a self-publishing service (of course, they got a fee for referring clients to the house).

Vanity and Subsidy Publishers

SFWA shares another story:

Thousands of writers worldwide entered into contracts with Commonwealth Publications of Canada, a vanity publisher founded in 1995 by fee-charging literary agent Donald Phelan. Phelan worked with a number of other fee-charging agents who, in exchange for a kickback, recommended Commonwealth’s vanity contracts to their clients. Phelan also advertised for manuscripts in magazines such as Writer’s Digest and Writer’s Journal. (Writers take note: this is just one example of why you shouldn’t trust the classified ads in writers’ magazines.)

Commonwealth, which identified itself as a “subsidy” publisher (the implication being that the writer was contributing only a portion of the cost) typically charged $4,500 for publication, with a promised print run of 10,000. Its glossy promotional material promised all kinds of support to its authors: editing, proofreading, marketing, international distribution. But few of these services were actually delivered–and there were many other problems. Publication dates were delayed. Authors didn’t receive the number of books they were promised. The quality of finished books was poor. Books never showed up in bookstores. Royalties from books supposedly sold were never paid.

Fee-Charging Agents

SWFA shares this recent story:

On January 7, 2010, UK literary agent/film producer Robin Price appeared in court, accused of stealing more than half a million pounds from clients.

Price is alleged to have encouraged authors to pay exaggerated literary fees and invest in non-existent film deals, and has been charged with six counts of theft, most committed over the course of several years.

Even successful established writers were taken in by this one.

Writer Brian Knight, who suffered a book doctor agent scam, shares this advice: “New writers need to know that these people are still out there, spewing false promises … patting us on the back with one hand and picking our pockets with the other.” He advises new writers to research every individual and business with which they intend to do business.

Reign in your excitement and enthusiasm. Breathe. Then do the research. “Google.com is your friend,” says Knight. “There are other online resources available to writers. In this era of the information super-highway, it has never been easier to arm yourself against the scumbags and swindlers who make their living off the trusting and naive.” Knight also suggests, www.duotrope.com.

A great site to check out anyone in the writing and publishing industry is “Preditors and Editors” (intentionally misspelled). A site I have come to rely on for excellent market advice is www.ralan.com.

The writer’s journey is a hero’s journey, fraught with obstacles, dangerous distractions, and great disappointments (see Christopher Vogel’s excellent book The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers for more). But it is a path illuminated by a beacon of passionate expression, great sharing and exquisite victory. Choose your hero archetype carefully: choose magician.

We are the shamans, the myth-makers of our community and society. The artist / writer carries her archetypal message through story to her tribe, her community, her society and her world. It is both fulfilling and a great responsibility.

After the Edit Ink debacle, I picked myself up—a little wiser and a little more careful—and went on to find a traditional publishing house who published my first and second novels. Escape from Utopia became Angel of Chaos published by Dragon Moon Press (Part 1 of the Darwin’s Paradox duology), and I went on to publish seven more novels through traditional, indie, and self-publishing models: a historical fantasy, an SF adventure trilogy, two romantic SF novels, a short story collection (Natural Selection) and two text books on writing.

I haven’t looked back since… except to write this article, that is.

 

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.

Who’s Your Audience and Why Should You Care?

 

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Winter in The Beach (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The artistic process, whether painting or prose, is admittedly the child of self-expression. The long-standing image of the cloistered artist in her studio — hunched over her writing desk or standing before her canvas to create from the depths of her soul — is surely a truism. Artists create from the heart; we dive deep inside our often tortured souls and closeted past to draw out the universal metaphors that speak to humanity and share—

Ay, there’s the rub. For to share is to have a dialogue and to have a meaningful dialogue is to demonstrate consideration of the other. Somewhere in that journey that began with self, others entered. It is, in fact, something of a paradox and a conundrum for many artists. One that has challenged the artistic community for centuries. It is also why many artists have relied on agents, benefactors, and advocates to effectively communicate, target — and even interpret — their often abstruse “message” to their appropriate audiences.

Purists will tell you that a true artist need not consider her audience; because her self-expression naturally finds relevance with the culture and zeitgeist from which she writes through universally understood metaphor: her story is their story.

But is that enough?

I suppose it finally comes back to whether you are interested in sharing. I don’t know any published authors who don’t wish their books to sell. Every storyteller needs an audience to connect with and engage. That is ultimately what good storytelling does: engage, connect, rouse emotions and evoke empathic feelings. Make an impact.

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Photo N. Munteanu

Does identifying and targeting a specific audience result in more satisfied readers and ultimately better sales? Of course it does. The more you—and whoever is helping you market your work—know about your audience, the more likely you are going to attract them to your book, convince them to buy it and ultimately connect with them. That’s the irony of art: it is a treasure that is created out of the depths of solitude but ultimately brought into the light and shared with the world. For your art to have impact, you must know and understand your world.

Knowing your audience will affect every aspect of your book project. It will help determine:

  • What your story is about and how you write it (from language, voice or personality, narrative style, tone or mood/attitude, characters, setting and theme)
  • What genre it lies under
  • the look and tone of the cover and blurb
  • all aspects of promotion

For instance, who are your intended readers? To what age group to they belong? What culture and sub-culture? What gender(s)? What education and intellectual capacity? Economic status? What regions? What political leanings? Prejudices and beliefs? What knowledge-base?

To know your audience is to know your story better.

 

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.

 

 

Rejection, Part 2: The Evolution of Rejection

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Pebbles on Hirtle Beach, NS (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Enduring and surviving rejection is part of every writer’s successful career. Rejection letters can be part of a writer’s toolkit to success. This comes from objectively perceiving them as opportunities in a long process of relationship-building and the business of writing and publishing.

Writers often witness an evolution in rejection letters as they learn more about their craft and about their markets. The ability to recognize the evolutionary steps can be useful in determining your next move in that particular market.

Below I describe one sequence of a manuscript’s evolutionary path. These don’t necessarily follow a chronological path for any particular manuscript; nor am I suggesting that your personal writer’s path will follow this particular pattern. Take these for what they may represent to you for any particular manuscript’s journey to success.

  • Lowest form: the form-letter, with no name or signature—you get no information from this except that they’re probably swamped with submissions. File the letter and try them again with another story; you can even play a game of it to see how many submissions it takes to get “recognized”. Meantime send the rejected story elsewhere.
  • Next lowest form: Personalized form letter with your name on it and a name and signature on it. Congratulations! You are now a person. And you will likely be remembered when you submit another story here.
  • Higher on the Evolutionary Path: a form letter that includes a personalized note about your work and why it was rejected (often with an added comment about the story or your writing). You have made a mark. Try them again!
  • Even Higher on the Evolutionary Path: a personalized letter that explains why your story was rejected—this says as much about the editor as it does about how they felt about your story; that they are taking the time to write to you and give you suggests means you are worth their valuable time. You have an opportunity to begin a relationship with this editor. Play fair.
  • Highest on the Path: a personalized, perhaps even handwritten, note that specifies why they rejected your piece with suggestions for revision (and resubmission) or invitation to submit another piece. Congratulations! This is the beginning of a relationship. Revise and resubmit.

What Rejection Letters Look Like 

As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve received a lot of rejection letters in the many years of my writing career. They’ve ranged from the short card form letter with no signature to the handwritten, per-sonalized letter with inviting comments.

Zeotrope-rejectionRejection letters will vary as much as the magazine and book market varies. The larger, busier companies that receive many more submissions over a given time period are more likely to go with the form letter. I’ve heard some agents and edit-ors go this route simply because it is safer for them. One magazine editor lamented to me not long ago that after she had provided a writer whose work she’d rejected with sev-eral paragraphs of explanation, the said writer had responded with an irascible diatribe of her skills as an editor.

Take heart: receiving a form letter like the one above from Zoetrope is very common, particularly from a large publisher. And take it for what it is, a letter that gives you very little infor-mation other than they rejected your story. File the letter and send the story elsewhere. challening destiny-rejection

Some publishers and agents use a checklist, which can provide you with very good feedback (see example below from Challenging Destiny for my short story, Arc of Time which found a home in several places after this rejection).

The next letter that rejected my short story Angel of Chaos (which later turned into Butterfly in Peking) provided enough insight to why they didn’t choose it that I could have gone one of two ways: 1) I could have left the story as it was and submitted elsewhere; or 2) I could have emailed them with a suggestion that I’d be willing to revise if they would reconsider a revision according to their specifications. I’ve done this in the past and published. This time I decided not to because I liked the story the way it was. space & time rejection

One magazine I submitted to gives your story to two independent readers whose comments they include along with their rejection or acceptance. This is great feedback for you! What I found frus-tratingly amusing was that the accolades of the reviewers didn’t guarantee the acceptance of my story. While my story Arc of Time generated very positive comments from both reviewers, the magazine still decided against publishing and the rejection letter gave no reason (see reviewer’s comments below):

Reviewer #1:I love the way this story is set up, switching back and forth from the different points of view. The “trippiness” is very appealing and works well with the modern/fantastical contrast.”

Reviewer #2:This was an intriguing and extraordinary clever story. I didn’t have a clue about the jape at the end until I got to the last page. And then it unfolded beautifully. The theological tie-ins were smart and fun and showed either some Mormon extrapolative thought or extreme knowledge of Biblical lore.” talebones rejection

You’d have thought, eh? But they rejected anyway. Below is an example of a form letter with a handwritten comment added along with signature and an invite to try them again. When this happens, by all means, try them again!

Make Rejection Work for You

One way to see your way through rejection is to find ways to distance yourself from your story once you’ve sent it off and to see the whole process of submission-rejection-acceptance as a business. The very best way to do this is to submit lots of stories and to keep submitting them. With novels, this is a little harder to do but you can certainly be working on the next one once you’ve submitted the first.

When I was writing short stories, I kept a list of what and where I sub-mitted, along with the most important item: where to submit NEXT. At any given time, I made sure that I had at least x-number of submissions out there and each story had a designated place to go if it returned. As soon as a story came back from magazine A, I simply re-packaged it and sent it to magazine B. The critical part of the list was to have a contingency for each story: the next place where I would send the story once it returned. I was planning on the story being rejected with the hope that it would be accepted; that way, a rejection became part of a story’s journey rather than a final comment.

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webI ran my submissions like a bus terminal. A story was in and out so fast it never had a chance to cool off. And, since I had five other pieces out there, I could do this with little emotion. I was running a fast-paced “story depot”, after all. All my stories had to be out there as soon as possible; if they were sitting in the terminal, they were doing nothing for me. Now, ask me if this worked. D*** right! Soon after adopting this process, I started selling. I think several things were happening and galvanizing into sales: publishers were getting to know me; I got more and more familiar with the market and my professionalism paid off.

 

This article is an excerpt from Chapter R of The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire, 2009).

 

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.