Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Writing Tips Tuesday: The Power of Market Research by J.W. Alden

Welcome back for another Writing Tips Tuesday! Today I'd like to welcome a fellow short story writer, and someone I really look up to, Mr. J.W. Alden! This guy just keeps landing stories in markets that I desperately want to break into. Daily Science Fiction? He's been there. Unidentified Funny Objects? Yup. Fantasy Scroll? Darn Tootin. I mean, the guy's been published in Nature! I'm a scientist by day and I've worked with plenty of world renown researchers who've never managed to get a paper into Nature.

So, how does he do it? J.W has been gracious enough to stop by and share some tips on selling short fiction. In fact, he ended up with enough material that I'm breaking it into a two-parter. So be sure to come back next week for the second half!


The Power of Market Research for Short Fiction Writers

That is some finely manicured facial hair.
Selling short fiction is hard. Every time I sell a story, there's a small part of me that says, "How did I do that?" Sometimes it even feels like I must have tricked that editor into buying my story, somehow. Those of you who've been at this writing thing for a while are probably hearing your Anti-Insecurity Alarms going off on my behalf right now. ALERT: IMPOSTOR SYNDROME, right? Right. But the reason this particular flavor of Impostor Syndrome has legs is because sometimes you can trick an editor into buying your story. Well . . . kind of.

Trick is the wrong word, because it implies dishonesty. There's nothing dishonest about effective market research, which is what I'm really talking about. With the right approach to research, it's possible to discern the tastes of the editorial staff and write a story that connects with them by design. In my experience, most writers don't take this approach. Most writers finish a story, and then go looking for a market that fits. I do that too. Sometimes the story just comes first. But as often as I can, I try it the other way around: write the story with a particular market in mind. I don't have the longest list of publication credits in the world, but every pro-rates sale I've made so far, I wrote to market this way. My most recent sale to Nature I even stubbornly sent to a few other markets first because I didn't want to trim it down to meet their word count requirements, even though I wrote it with them in mind. After getting a couple of rejections, I realized the error of my ways and made the necessary cuts. Voila, it sold.
Does this mean you'll sell every story you write this way? Of course not. There are a lot of factors that determine whether or not an editor buys your story, many of which are out of your hands. But even if you don't make the sale, and now you have to shop that story around to markets you didn't have in mind when you wrote it, it still helps tremendously if you're familiar with which markets are buying what.

So, how do we do that? There's a ton of markets out there, from print magazines to online publications to anthologies. It's pretty much impossible to keep up with them all. Here's a few strategies that I fine helpful.

Find the Markets

The most useful tools for this first step are online listings like The Submission Grinder. The Grinder has a huge database of fiction markets. You can search with specific parameters such as genre, wordcount, and payrate. Better yet, it also serves as a submission tracker, so you can keep track of how long your stories have been out in the wild. Duotrope is another website with similar functionality, but they charge a fee. If the listings are all you're after (and you write SFF), you might also try Ralan.com, one of the oldest listings of SFF markets on the web. Using a service like these can help you build a list of markets that you think are worth aiming for. This will be your research list.

Another great way to find out about new markets is to join an online writing community. There are a lot of these out there, whether it's message boards, facebook groups, or subreddits. The first big writing community I joined was Absolute Write, which has a huge message board full of writers exchanging ideas and information, including market info. The community I spend most of my time in these days is Codex, an online writing group for "neo-pro" SFF writers like myself. You have to make at least one pro sale or graduate from a major workshop to join, but the discussion within has been invaluable.

Read the Markets

Surprising amounts of writers I've talked with don't bother reading markets before submitting. But there's no better way to get a feel for a market than by reading the stories they're buying. After a while, you start to notice little commonalities here and there. Susan McEditorpants tends to buy a lot of stories written in first person, while John P. Editsalot tends toward third person. That's the sort of thing I mean, though it's not always so obvious. Keep a notepad or word document to write down observations like these, and before you know it, you'll see patterns emerge. That's why it's important to read as much as you can. Bonus: reading a lot makes you a better writer!

Of course, there's a reason many writers don't do this. As I mentioned above, there's an overwhelming number of markets buying short fiction these days, thanks largely in part to the rise of electronic publishing. There's just not enough time in the day to read them all. So how do you manage all that content? Well, the first step is to resign yourself to the fact that you're not going to be able to read every issue of every magazine cover to cover. If you're like me, your first instinct is to try, especially if it's a magazine you're paying for. But you just won't have the time. The overall goal here is to read as many different publications as possible. For those released monthly, I tend to read about half of the issue before moving on to the next market, sometimes even less. If I'm trying to crack a particular market, or I just plain love what a certain publication publishes, I might read more. But for the most part, I try to keep it as manageable as possible. If I come to the realization that a market doesn't publish the sort of thing I write, I have no qualms with taking it off my reading list for good. And if I do end up submitting to a market that's not in my regular reading cycle, I'll still make a point to look at their most recent couple of issues before submitting, if possible.

Another potential speedbump is the subscription fees some of the big print markets charge. Not everyone can afford (or is willing) to pay for them all. If that's the case, take a trip to your local library. Many keep a magazine section, and you'd be surprised what you can find there. This is how I read magazines like Asimov's and Fantasy & Science Fiction growing up. Some publications are also willing to send writers a sample issue at a reduced price, and reading one is better than none. You can also sometimes get free or cheap issues at literary conventions, though this is hit or miss, obviously.


Seriously folks, there are some top level nuggets of wisdom in there.  Be sure to stop by next week for the exciting conclusion!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Writing Tips Tuesday: Boredom is Poopy by Amelia Gaylord

My daughter's knowledge is limited.

Don't get me wrong, for a 7 month old, Amelia's a freakin' genius. She's crawling like crazy, she loves clapping her hands, and she knows that our dog is pretty much the coolest being in the world. That's pretty darn good. 

But at this point, the finer points of character development, plot structure, and believable dialog escape her. 

"So," you might ask, "what does Amelia know about writing?" 

She knows something very important, something we all need to keep in mind.

She knows that the worst thing you can do as a writer is bore your audience. 

Like a good game of peek-a-boo, you can shock your audience. Like our dog when he's playing tug-of-war, you can scare your audience (it's the growling, it scares her). Like a new rattle, you can thrill your audience.

But don't you dare bore your audience. Ever. Amelia is not a fussy child. She really only cries when she's hungry, poopy, or bored. 

Did you catch that? To Amelia, being bored is about the equivalent to sitting in your own feces. Unacceptable.

"Is that smell your plot or your diaper?"

Amelia's not real clear on HOW we, as writers, are supposed to avoid boring our audience so I'll offer my tips:

1. Fewer words is better: If you can tell your 1,000 word story using 750 words without detriment to quality, jump on that rocking horse every time. Especially for short fiction. For example, you need to describe your characters, right? But, you also need to remember that your audience has an imagination and a good idea of what a human looks like. Given that, keep it short and sweet.  

2. Avoid oxbows: A good story often has several sub-plots, running like a braided stream toward the conclusion sea. Oxbows form when a stream twists and turns too much for it's own good. A little chunk of the river is cut off and left behind. Likewise, if your story has too many twists and turns for its own good, there's the chance that a sub-plot will get cut off from the rest of the rest of the story. Sub-plots can be tricky to handle. Keep track of them. Make sure they're all still flowing toward the sea. Don't let any wander off. Avoid oxbows.

That main channel is your plot. The little side channels are your sub-plots. The U-shpaed pond is an oxbow that's been cut off. You don't want those.

3. Don't waste words: This tip is tied to the first about keeping it brief but different in that it's more about quality than quantity. We writers need to make every word count. If it's not crucial for moving the story forward it doesn't belong in the story. When reading something by a really good author, you know they wouldn't have mentioned that bag of marbles the main character tucked into their rook sack unless it was important. And sure enough, fifteen chapters later we realize those marbles are actually a child's memories (or something like that). Good authors don't waste words.

I'm sure there are more but it's time for a fresh diaper, a bottle, and bed. 

What was that? Oh, yeah, I meant for the baby. Sure I did. Right.

Unmitigated cuteness: Amelia eating her Easter lamb.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Writing Tips Tuesday: Tips for Tips by Margo Berendsen

Welcome back to another Writing Tips Tuesday! We are lucky enough to be joined by one of my favorite writing bloggers around, Margo Berendsen! Her blog is veritable treasure trove of tips for everything writing. I highly recommend that you pay a visit.

Today, Margo shares her tips on using tips. So basically, we have a top tip treasure trover treating you with tips about tips here on Writing Tips Tuesday. What more could you possibly want?

Ever since I discovered writing blogs in 2010, I’ve been keeping a Writing Tips page, a long list of links to posts that have taught me (or reminded me) of some worthy writing tips or advice.  After a while my list got long enough I organized it into categories like Starting a Story, Setting, Characters, etc. Then as I got further along in my writing process I added categories like Critique Partners and Pitching and Querying.
Margo and her daughter
I figured that compiling this list of links might be of benefit to other writers who wanted to look at, say, “story structure” from several points of view. The list has also benefited me because when I’m stuck on something like a plot point, I can get a fresh perspective on plot by revisiting a few links.

Sometimes it’s easy to incorporate a writing tip right away into your work in progress, but other times you have to let it sort of percolate in your subconscious for a while… and sometimes you need to be reminded of it.  When I got feedback from several agents that my first pages needed more characterization, I revisited some of those posts and they helped me brainstorm some new ideas.

In the process of revisiting those posts for tips on characterization, I turned what I was relearning into writing checklists. Each day I re-read a post on characterization (or a chapter from a writing book) and took notes. A couple weeks later I had a checklist that I posted as “38 ways to check for character life signs”, with links to my sources.

A few months later I did the same thing for all the posts on plot and came up with “21 ways to make your plot more compelling”, and then “17 tips for starting a story”. I figured I’d continue with a checklist for setting, another one for dialogue, and then one on editing, but I never did finish those. (Maybe someday). I ran my work-in-progress through those three checklists and made notes on how my story was answering each question or not answering it – with ideas on how I could fix the gap.

After revisions and feedback from critique partners, I started querying the story again and got more requests and rejections, and more feedback from agents on different things this time. Recently I revisited my old checklists and realized that no checklist can capture everything you need. A checklist can help you pinpoint a few things than can help with voice, but it can’t give you a unique writer’s voice or give your characters their unique voices. Some of those things just take time and rewrites, fresh new ideas, free writing exercises, inspiration from books you’re reading and from life itself.

Everyone’s writing process has some similarities, some differences, and some unique aspects. I love reading other writers’ tips, what worked for them (and what didn’t). If they don’t fit me where I am currently in my process, they may help me get unstuck further down the road. What a long road the writing journey is, but no journey has been more fascinating.


I love getting a glimpse into another writer's process. What could be better to help you examine your own?

Please check back next week for a very special WTT from my 7-month old daughter, Amelia!

Interested in contributing to WTT? We'd love to have you. Just shoot me an email at adamgaylordwritesgmailcom.

We've got a lot more great tips coming up so stay tuned!